Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff (among others) confirmed (in The Political Mind) what we all have long known: People are not particularly “rational” in the old, Enlightenment sense of the word. We aren’t primarily persuaded by good arguments, but rather by good narratives, swayed more effectively by appeals to emotion than by appeals to reason.

Many of us are familiar with the frustrating futility of mobilizing a well-informed and well-reasoned argument in public discourse, only to have it crash impotently against the shoals of blind and inflexible ideology. We are not engaged in a rational national debate, but rather in a national competition of narratives.

This perspective defines a set of guiding principles for those committed to reason, humility, and humanity:

1) That we engage in this competition of narratives very consciously and strategically;

2) that one cornerstone of that strategy be the recognition that it is a competition of narratives, not sound bites, and that therefore sound bites should be used to invoke larger narratives rather than to reinforce the ritual of superficial political jousting;

3) that we should always anchor policy arguments in larger, consistent and coherent narratives, and make every policy debate an instance in that larger competition of narratives;

4) that our overarching narrative should be that we are the champions of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity);

5) that we use well-informed and well-reasoned arguments not just (or even primarily) for their own sake, but also as a constant reinforcement of the narrative that we are champions of reason and humanity;

6) that we strive to be, and to appear to be, the reasonable people of goodwill in every interaction, refraining as much as possible from ad hominem attacks and angry rants, avoiding the exploitation of trivialities, and instead arguing our positions calmly and reasonably and compellingly, not just through logical, empirical argumentation, but also through emotionally compelling metaphors and analogies and real life stories;

7) that we emphasize the importance of how we think rather than what we think, of procedures and attitudes rather than substantive conclusions, because the former is the algorithm that determines the latter –cultivating greater commitment to reason and compassion in the determination of specific policy positions should be our core agenda; and

8) that we suggest in every argument that none of us has all the answers, that oneself (the reasonable person of goodwill speaking or writing in that moment) might be wrong on some or all matters, and that what we most need as a people is for as many of us as possible, of all ideological inclinations, to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

I’ve discussed various aspects of this in various other essays, ranging from the examination of the dynamics of our cognitive landscape (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix) to the importance of “walking the walk” (see. e.g., The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, and The Politics of Kindness) to what I call “meta-messaging,” which is the communication and dissemination of the underlying narrative of reason and humanity (see. e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few).

The underlying narrative of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity) generates more specific narratives by answering the question “what does reason, inspired by and leavened by imagination and empathy, applied to evidence reliably derived, suggest are the best policies for humanity?” That question doesn’t eliminate debate, but rather frames it, and those who want to argue positions that don’t purport to answer it can be directly challenged by the narrative itself.

(It’s possible to narrow the underlying narrative for particular audiences, if one element of it seems to unpalatable to that audience, particularly changing “humanity” to “the American national/public interest.” And it’s generally recommended to frame the narrative in different ways for different audiences, down to choosing the vocabulary that most resonates with that audience.)

As a result, there are many economic, constitutional/legal, moral, and other social systemic components and sub-components to this underlying narrative. There is, in fact, an entire corpus of economic, constitutional and legal, moral, and other social systemic arguments that are generated by the underlying narrative, each of which must be converted into narratives of their own, using compelling metaphors and analogies, and emotionally evocative real life stories, but always referring back to the well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, not so much for their own inherent persuasive value, but more for their value as a constant signification of being reasonable people, members of a movement defined by reason in service to humanity.

The opposing narrative, which frames itself in terms of “Christian values” or “Liberty” or “Patriotism” (or, to be fair, some parallel left-wing ideological reductions) is, in the frame of our narrative, “irrationality in service to inhumanity” (by definition, since that which opposes “reason in service to humanity” is its opposite). Most often, it relies on some stagnant, historically produced dogma, degrading those that are vital parts of our institutional framework in one way or another (e.g., Judeo-Christian morality, constitutional law, and fundamental economic principles) into false idols that undermine both the reason and the humanity of adherents (e.g., fundamentalist religious bigotry and brutality, “constitutional idolatry” and ideologically skewed and dogmatic interpretation, and selection of a preferred archaic economist whose doctrine rationalizes the preferred ideological convictions).

The more we succeed in framing our national political ideological debate as a debate between these two narratives, the more we will attract people with the weakest current ideological convictions, because, all other things being equal, more people are likely to be attracted to (that is, wish to be identified with) the narrative of “reason in service to humanity” than the narrative of “irrationality in service to inhumanity.”

I will begin working, at least from time to time, on composing and compiling a series of essays which systematically develops the component narratives of “reason in service to humanity.” Much of the corpus of work on this blog already, haphazardly, serves that purpose, and perhaps the project will include linking to previous posts in new ones that focus more specifically on this aspect of my project.

(There have been several great “meta-messagers” of history. Ben Franklin and Charles Dickens come to mind as two prominent examples of people who intentionally created and published parables and other literary works for this purpose, to move the zeitgeist, to cultivate a cognitive and emotional orientation. The power of their work is widely recognized, but it was the power of individuals working on their own, to make their own marginal contribution. Imagine the power of an organized effort focused on precisely this modality, producing, compiling, and disseminating messages in a coordinated way to cultivate a commitment to reason in service to humanity. It has been tried before, many times, but never, to my knowledge, with quite the same explicit political focus as I am recommending now.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The title refers to two things: 1) that which people mistake for sacred truth and fortify against any critical analysis or countervailing evidence; and 2) that which is critical analysis, or, more broadly, proven procedures and disciplines in service to the immutable and inarticulable underlying coherence of our existence. I’ll distinguish between them by putting the first (but not the second) in quotation marks.

The first consists of sacred scrolls (religious documents and philosophical tomes that state or legitimate the preferred dogma) and secular sages (those pundits or scholars who give voice to the preferred dogma). The quality of the substance of the dogma is not the defining characteristic, but rather the mere fact that it is an inflexible false certainty, an opinion held not via any real analysis on the part of the holder, but rather accepted as given truth. It is an error found across the political and religious spectrum, and is more prevalent than its absence. Humans are defined more by adherence to false “sacred truths” than to true ones.

The second meaning consists of processes forged in skepticism, in service to wonder, informed by humility, unclouded by malice. It is not comprised of articulable conclusions, but rather of processes and disciplines by which to arrive at them, and by the most basic premises which give those processes and disciplines meaning.

Even so, there are “true” sacred truths that can be put into words, though, paradoxically, the first one is that there aren’t: “The Tao of which we speak is not the eternal Tao.” We don’t know as much as we think we do or pretend to, and that which we reduce to words is something less than the absolute truth.

A second sacred truth is that we are parts of a whole, that “no man is an island entire of itself,” that we are comprised of smaller systems and comprise larger ones. This is one of the few substantive sacred truths, a recognition of coherence and systemicness to ourselves and our context, because without it, the disciplines which provide windows onto that coherence have no meaning. It is basically the realization that there is a coherent and comprehensible reality within which we are working, even if none of our understandings of it are ever complete and final.

Not all sacred truths belong to the left hemisphere of the brain; not all are based on reason and the procedures derived from it. Empathy, for instance, a sense of interconnectedness, is a sacred truth, an emotional rather than rational understanding of the systemicness and coherence described above.

But emotionally based factual certainties are false “sacred truths,” not true ones. People who bend facts to their preferences, or select from legitimately disputed facts or theories according to their emotional predilictions (imbuing their preferred conclusion with a degree of certainty incommensurate with its actual conclusiveness), are engaging in the folly of adhering to “sacred truths,” rather than the wisdom of being guided by sacred truths.

This is one of the fundamental challenges we face as humanity, as a people, as individuals: To admit to the degree of uncertainty that wise humility demands, and adhere to the disciplines and emotional foundations that well serve a wise and compassionate people.

(This is the most recent in a series of essays on this topic that can be found in the fifth box, titled “Dogmatic Ideology and its Avoidance,” at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)