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An End to an Age of Reason That Never Began

Garrett Fisher
April 23, 2020

“The Age of Reason” was originally a book by Thomas Paine, written around the year 1800, which was a leap from strict religiosity to a hybrid form of deism, roughly halfway to the Theory of Evolution. Since then, the term has been thrown around to mean more than just the title of the book; rather, it embodies the spirit of progress that our society has undertaken for the past few centuries, as we grow by leaps and bounds in scientific knowledge and technological achievement. It is implied that the product of that achievement is a graduation from views, behaviors, and practices that derive from ignorance.

At its first glance, the concept of reason deriving from knowledge assumes that humanity’s backward practices are due to simple ignorance. By being incapable of knowing how a better way of governance, medicine, and society could be undertaken, we would be doomed to barbaric practices. By merely furnishing education of a new approach, it is assumed that humanity will adopt progress, abandon backward practices, and embrace civility and modernism wholeheartedly. It is as though we, the reader, could have been a Neanderthal equally as much a citizen of the modern world, the difference being possession of knowledge.

That is half of reality.

Optimism toward knowledge-based human progress fails to recognize that humans are, by their nature, emotional beings first, and rational beings second. Some may view this as a surprise, as it grates against common perception, though all one has to do is think about a conflict with neighbors, family, coworkers, or to watch politics and quickly conclude that we are, in fact, just apes undertaking varying gradations of stupidity.

Collective emotional knowledge is lacking in our society. The ethos of my first book, “The Human Theory of Everything,” was that the key to understanding what makes our world tick would be to look into the mind and its associated origins, for our economy, society, and collective existence as a species is literally embodied in the blueprint and functioning of the brain. While great strides have been made, psychology is roughly a century old, first having spent its time concerned with pathology. We spend little time as a society understanding motivation.

A simple way to drive this point home is to ask: where do emotions come from? Most of the population would be stumped at the question, as though it was philosophical in nature. After thinking of any length, our natural intuition is to default to a statement not too different from the age old “I think, therefore I am,” which is basically a way of saying “Who cares? They are my feelings and that’s that.” While that is the sentience of our existence emotionally, it does nothing to get ahead of where they originate, much less untangle their impact on the processing and acceptance of data.

To cut some corners on the matter, emotions originate beneath our layer of consciousness; they are not a product of our prefrontal cortex, where reasoning and advanced decisions are made. The prefrontal cortex (the part where we are aware of our thinking) is often the last to know what is going on. That means that we feel first and think second. The result is that the origin of those feelings is even more important, precisely because it is mysterious.

Many speak of the “Reptilian” brain, as though our emotions are hardcoded into our DNA, from billions of years ago when we were lizards outrunning something for our survival. I find the determination incorrect and not helpful, as it is basically reductionist that emotions are a) survival only b) inaccurate c) to be suppressed and d) it oddly goes back to the original concept when asking someone where emotions come from, and if left to intuition, the answer is that they comprise the nature of one’s being and ultimately are not to be questioned.

The Reptilian concept assumes that all emotion is a matter of survival mechanisms. That can be the case for those with certain experiences in life which legitimately tune fight or flight responses to fire excessively, though the Reptilian concept does not answer every other emotion in the book. Did a prehistoric lizard weep with joy at the sight of her eggs hatching? I doubt it.

Beneath our consciousness layer, we can find emotion, natural language, cultural values, socialization, and a host of deeply held beliefs. This data is not accessible in the same way as memory or logic, proven by the fact that language learned after the completion of childhood development cannot ever be a “native” language; it can only be secondary, deeply impaired compared to a native speaker.

This same unconscious substratum of our minds produces our emotional reactions, good and bad, which has been proven is a physiological chemical experience in our bodies. We feel fear first, then we consciously go looking for the reason why and decide what to do about it. It is well known that rage explodes first, logic second. Often, logic and emotion are at war with each other, with one or the other winning depending on the situation. While I use superlatives, every gradation of positive and negative emotional response works in the same way, although some tend to be less impactful.

Circling back to my concept of human progress based on knowledge alone, the idea discounts the existence of emotion. Since our values, beliefs, language, and culture are stored in the areas of the brain that are processed outside of our consciousness and before our consciousness is even aware of it, then we must reckon with the emotions of humans with regard to acceptance of knowledge and elimination of backward practices.

One may wonder how we have made progress based on knowledge if we are ultimately emotional beings. All one has to do is reflect on the slowness of adopting hygiene, human rights, environmental stewardship, and other elements of progress to understand where emotion fits into the picture. Many discoveries that could have been adopted sooner languished until society was ready, which is a nod to the fact that some people simply never come around emotionally and are eliminated through natural aging, allowing certain generations to take on distinct characteristics as their values swing within an identifiable range.

We also must remember that the genetic composition of a human alive now does not differ in a meaningful way from medieval times. What does differ is a change in collective values, knowledge, and a differing kind of childhood (resulting in different cumulative health and mental impacts). Otherwise, we are the same genetic composition as brutes from a few centuries ago that did not wash their hands after defecating before dinner.

The reason I construct this entire argument is to shed light on the profound emotional nature of our existence as humans. When progress does function well, we can often lose sight of the fact that the only difference between our modern society and backward practices a few generations ago is information and choice, both of which can be reversed. Society has regularly burned its books, torn up its progress, and reverted to prior practices, in demonstrations of emotion over logic, while knowledge of a better way was ignored.

It is no mystery that the current polarization in the American political process is a degradation of progress. For a variety of reasons, many of them technological and societal, we are undergoing a period of rapid, though not always positive, change as humanity is interconnected, albeit with opaque mechanisms for which data is distributed. Profit incentives of social media companies cement technological practices that result in providing information that is narrow and reinforcing of existing views, resulting in polarity and extremism.

To those that wish for a better world, this is a scary thing to watch, and there are howls of exasperation, almost as if we wonder how this could all happen. The point of this article is to revise expectations as we have not enjoyed unbridled progress on a linear or exponential basis in human history, owing to the emotional nature of human beings.

What particularly disturbs me is that policy discussions have run aground of their original intent. It appears that positions that certain groups desire have long ago lost sight of the original policy goal and its effect. With a constant “othering” process taking place, where another group is ostracized no longer because it does not agree with a certain position, but rather because it is merely “them,” a collective emotionally fueled herd mentality has taken over.

What is interesting in these situations is how often the original debate has conflated so much over time that positions reverse. Remember how the Tea Party was borne out of anger at government spending? Ten years later and the largest deficits in history are met with the shrug of the shoulders by the same group. In the case of leftist universities forming a mob and ousting administrators at the slightest misspoken word, an older professor from the 60s noted, “Who would have thought the left would have become the thought police?” In varying spans of time, the same group has inverted its position, while not thinking it has done so. This is a classic case of emotion as a primary driver, with logic lacking.

We are at an interesting point where I feel progress is being torn up. It does not have to be measured in how much our current world looks like the post-WWII order that we are accustomed to, but rather a trend to place ideology over facts, and devotion over progress. An unpleasantly large size of the population discounts the scientific process, preferring belief and emotion, even in the face of physical danger from doing so.

My personal perspective is that, if these things continue, we are going to go through some periods worse than we have already been experiencing. Many have referred to the Nazi era as a template. I don’t personally think we are heading down the same exact path that will result in death camps and a world war, though I do note how devotion to ideology over fact is a similar hallmark. One of the first things the Nazis did was purge the intelligentsia, where established and knowledgeable experts were viewed as a threat to a sanctioned ideology.

What is the point? Prior to the “age of reason” that rose after WWI and WWII were over, cemented positions were often resolved through conflict. Instead of progressing with knowledge, humans blindly and stupidly engaged in a dumbfounding amount of wars, many of which could have been stopped with a slight increase in intelligence. The concept of the rights of an individual human were still works in progress, allowing exploitation and oppression of freedom without the outrage that we are accustomed to now. Lynchings, pogroms, mobs, riots, book burning, ostracization of religious groups, genocide, slavery, censorship….oh the list goes on in our recent (and sometimes current) history where entrenched positions clash in an act of violence, with the dominant group (however that comes about) getting their way. Only in the last 75 years have things changed where we paused in that recurring practice of ideological bloodletting. I contend nuclear weapons, NATO, and the European Union have a lot to do with it, as the powers of the developed world could no longer openly go to war without risk of global catastrophe or a coalition attack from 30 countries to enforce mutual security.

We are still the same emotional apes we were centuries ago, and we are the same people where the world went to war twice in the last century. It is not abnormal in the course of human history to resolve ideological difference through oppression of freedom and violence; in fact, it’s the norm with the exception for many during our lifetimes. The path we as a society in the developed world are taking now, while dangerous, is by no means new or novel; it just shocks a reasoning individual when evaluating how unnecessarily it is in light of the progress we have made. “The Age of Reason” is not over, as I am not certain it ever really fully began.