Home > Uncategorized > Reason, argument, and sovereignty

Reason, argument, and sovereignty

After reading a truly terrible book nominally on evolutionary psychology (“Why Beautiful People have more Daughters”), I thought about the conversation I’d had about it with a friend who insisted that the “logic was ironclad” which confused me a little bit. In my view, the author(s) had cherry-picked examples throughout history that supported their arguments without any attempt at contextualization or any real understanding of the relationships of correlation and causation. Furthermore, while burning a straw man of the “social sciences model” which was derided as environmental determinism*, the author(s) deployed some of the worst arguments and analogies I’d ever seen while completely suspending agency & context of any situation so they could groundlessly posit about why Muslims are suicide bombers (and/or vice versa). And given that our other friends who had studied biology and psychology also derided the book as really poor science (and noted that in science classes a “101 fundamental” is that science can not definitively prove everything, experimental results are hard to replicate unless variables are tightly controlled, so the idea that the concepts of evolution could be extrapolated to explain every walk of life is just laughable), I was rather surprised to hear our rather bright friend, in law school no less, praise the “logic” of the book. It was at this point that I realized how shaky legal arguments are. Those who watched Jon Stewart face off with John Yoo over torture noted that Yoo could merely throw out precedents against specific objections and move on, obscuring the real heart of his written arguments for torture. You only need a precedent, regardless of context, and a convincing story to make a winnable legal argument.

Looking at religion and the way it treats other truths is also instructive. For example, fundamentalists in America are furious over the Harry Potter books, because to them *magic is real* and therefore those books promote an idea opposed to their very existence. While we see their argument as inane and silly (because magic isn’t real), they see magic as a real danger.  And because most religions recognize only one truth (God’s truth), while post-modern intellectuals generally recognize that there are competing truths, for the fundamentalists there is no valid way to argue against these notions, or even reinterpret the scripture, without descending into heresy.

In this vein, I found Malcolm Gladwell’s review of “Why?” by Charles Tilly, very interesting in considering why we believe the things we believe, how we change our minds, and what makes a good argument. Tilly suggests that there are four kinds of explanations: conventions (“Don’t stick your finger in the lightsocket!”), stories (“Once, a friend of mine stuck his finger in the lightsocket and died”), codes (“It is illegal/a sin against God to stick your finger in the lightsocket”), and finally, technical accounts (“If you stick your finger in the lightsocket, 10,000 volts will flood through your body, stopping your heart”).

Thinking about why and how we create the codes or legal frameworks in intriguing when juxtaposed with an understanding of the authority that recognizes it, and where that comes from. After reading Giorgio Agamben, I become both proud of America’s founding fathers for their recognition of democratic authority, and alarmed at the religious-industrial right’s undermining of that authority with fear and suspension of our civil rights. Anyway, this post is long enough. Check out the review for a quick read, and Giorgio Agamben if you want something to really sink your teeth into.

*My first day of first class in Sociology as a brand-new college freshman 17 years ago, I recall hearing my very authoritative professor announcing that the “nature vs. nurture”  debate was no more, as the discipline recognized both influences on human behavior- which was confirmed by my SOC 101 textbook. There is no “nurture” or environmental determinism arguments, nor has there been for decades.
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