Sentimental Rationality: tribalism offers safety in belief. Philosophy log #3

Just drop your coins over there in the basket and you will be safe from fear and worry.

The ascension of Brett Kavanaugh is a triumph of tribalism. Tribalism is a real danger, as pointed out by Will Folks , editor of FITSNEWS, who wrote the following in a  column entitled the “All In Problem”, that Americans were “falling by the millions into reflexive, regurgitative, rhetorical thought patterns because they lack the inclination (or usually the time) to figure out exactly what is going on.”

That is the question. What, EXACTLY, is going on? Rigid tribal beliefs are built on unconscious assumptions that need to be reality-tested, because they masquerade as common sense. In 1880, William James gave a talk on the feeling of rationality. He called it “The Sentiment of Rationality” He said it is the feeling of going from a state of perplexity to a feeling of reasoned comprehension. Belonging to a modern tribe of believers removes the burden of perplexity. Most of us do not wish to go further once the itch of doubt has been scratched.

Modern techno-tribes have formed around media and social media outlets, but also include cults and religions of all shapes and sizes. Try having a conversation with followers of Infowars, MSNBC or FOX. I remember, I think, the good Senator Al Franken once used the term “dittoheads” to suggest that conversation wasn’t really necessary since they largely parrot their source.  The global telecommunication infrastructure has enabled tribal social groupings to become parallel universes, with members of the distinct tribes holding incompatible views of the universe living side by side with one another.

None of that should really matter in a free society where diversity of opinion is the lifeblood of democracy. Our history has always been a crazy quilt of beliefs and practices. What matters is that the sphere of public discourse, where issues concerning the condition and future of our republic, should be the open forum where reason prevails over tribal opinions. Otherwise we have descended downward to mob rule. Let’s take a look at basic economics, as a for instance. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both promised during the 2016 Presidential campaign to “protect” Americans against foreign imports. Tribalism, meet xenophobia. Immigration takes away jobs? Tear up the trade agreements? Having won the election, the tariff and protectionist proclivities of the Trump administration appease the President’s America First base. But will these policies help or harm us? In an article in a recent issue of New Scientist (September 22-28, 2018) entitled “It’s the economy, stupid!”, psychologist Peter Boyer states, “it’s as if the human mind is designed to misunderstand mass-market economies.” Professor Boyer lists a few underlying economic assumptions that most people believe, but are mistaken, according to economists:

  1. Importing from other nations makes our own poorer.
  2. We should be suspicious of the profit motive.
  3. Prices can be controlled with government regulation.
  4. Wealth is a fixed-size pie–the poor get poorer when the rich get richer

It is not the purpose of this blog to debate the truth or falsity of these assertions. For now, let’s assume with economists that they are false. The point is to illustrate plainly that demagoguery can easily exploit these popular misconceptions to stir up and expand their power base. A Bernie Sanders style politician can use #2,3, and #4 to appeal to the 40,000,000 workers earning less than $12 an hour.  That’s a lot of voters. We have already seen how effectively Mr Trump was able to capitalize on the feeling that China was “ripping us off” when it comes to our trade imbalance with that country.

Professor Boyer, of Washington University, explains that these misconceptions have grown up from millennia of humans participating in cooperative economic games at a local tribal level, from which our innate intuitions about economics derive. “Folk” economics, he calls it. But many of these intuitions no longer apply to a globally interconnected economy. The tribal sentiment of rationality, namely, the common sense of our forefathers needs to keep pace with the refined rationality of science coupled with the give and take of philosophical dialogue. Economic science has advanced beyond the barter economy between tribes. Most human minds get it wrong. In fact, most human minds also misunderstand space and time.

The anger of the tribes needs to be tempered by the voices of reason. Philosophy. The philosophical chops displayed by a Socrates, a Bertrand Russell, or even a John Dewey can dredge up  hidden assumptions so we can examine them and dissolve the ones that don’t deserve the light of day. They can make a clearing in the dense forest. And maybe a flashlight in the darkness of night.  

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