Have you ever felt like you hurt a friend?
Not about a silly disagreement or a difference of opinion.
I’m talking about the big issues of rationality versus belief and whether or not “essences” exist.
The kind of debates where a rational, skeptic, scientist or even atheistic nonstrologist (whatever you want to call us) has to draw the line?
Well, unfortunately, I have had that feeling.
And it sucks.
Worse … it hurts.
And one of the reasons it sucks so bad and hurts so bad is that the well-being of the entire planet is at stake.
And those prattling out unsubstantiated beliefs and claims for which no evidence exists really are the saboteur.
The question is …
What Do You Do When Your Call For Rationality
Sounds Worse Than The Enemy?
Go on and admit it.
You’ve winced when listening to Sam Harris take someone to task on his podcast.
Heck, I think he’s winced too. And more than a few “housekeeping” segments either explain somewhat apologetically for last week’s tone or warn of “ethical intolerances” yet to come.
And the truth is that I’m deeply influenced by Harris, and I think rightly so.
Before that, James Randi, Penne Jillette, Michael Shermer.
In fact, I’m referring a fair bit to Michael Shermer’s recent book Skeptic in this video on my new YouTube channel (click here to subscribe):
I’ve seen both Harris and Shermer take Deepak Chopra down on a video, and although I agree with them 100% (not that what they’re standing for requires anyone’s agreement), it still sometimes feels …
And we cannot deny that, as the Defenders of Reason, we sometimes really do sound like fanatics.
Yes, we really do earn the criticism that we sometimes seem just like the fundamentalists we decry.
But Wait! There’s A Catch!
Although I think we do need to look this problem squarely in the eye and take responsibility for these moments when they happen (as most of us do) …
We don’t need to apologize and the burden really doesn’t fall on the very human foible of being fed up.
No, the burden falls on the extent to which a person is acting as a good citizen of planet earth.
Why Stubbornly Supporting Good Ideas And
Ousting The Bad Is An Ethical Duty
Some ideas are better than others. Far too many ideas are worse than bad. They’re just downright dangerous.
And yet …
… so many of us are willing to let those dangerous ideas float by.
I think this is unethical and we can relate it to sneezing on strangers while you have the flu.
In provocative and carefully argued book Better Never To Have Been, David Benatar talks about “hypothetical consent.”
He’s discussing it in the context of anti-natalism and whether or not it is a good idea to bring new humans into the world (he claims it is not).
Referring to the mathematics of suffering, Benatar says that harms will always outweigh pleasure. I think he establishes his claim with compelling enough evidence to agree.
(Okay … maybe there are some worthy rebuttals, but broken down to numbers, the conclusion really feels like checkmate and deserves a “Bravo!” when it comes to clear philosophical writing.)
When it comes to the matter of suffering, Benatar says that one would never sneeze on a stranger when one has the flu, and yet …
… we have babies all the time, ensuring beyond all doubt that these unwitting creatures will face flu after flu for the entirety of their lives. (Not to mention other ailments.)
Why Bad Ideas Infect And Reproduce Faster Than Viruses
When it comes to the dissertation I wrote for my Humanities Ph.D. on friendship, I basically argued that most friendships are deeply unethical at their core.
Because just as we assume the “hypothetical consent” of the unborn child to bring that person into the world …
… we often do and say things to our friends based on the assumption that we have their consent to do so.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth!
And when we allow our friends to spread bad ideas, we are essentially enabling the reproduction of viruses. They assume our consent and by not speaking up, we give it.
That is a very dangerous thing.
Thought-Viruses Can Kill!
By not putting our foot down in the presence of ideas that cannot be substantiated by evidence, we are being anything but a good friend. Even if true friendship takes place at the cost of a friendship, the price must be paid for the larger good of humanity.
To turn a blind eye to even the smallest denial of reason is never trivial. It is in fact the core of the problem because billions of blind eyes are turning away from these transgressions every single day.
I may be taking things to the extreme in the dramatic way I’m writing about this, but in my years as a student and practitioner of marketing for the good of humanity, I think it’s worth it.
In fact, I wish guys like Gary Halbert and other legendary copywriters had used their chops to sell reason-based self-improvement as I am hoping to do in a sustainable way.
But alas …
It’s hard work and there probably isn’t big money in it.
What Science Can Teach Us About Being A Good Friend
I want to close with three reasons why being a fanatic about good ideas is okay and perhaps sometimes necessary. I believe these reasons connect to a solid argument for why standing up for rationality also amounts to being a good friend, both to individuals and all people on planet earth.
1. We really do need to take a stand for science, even if it means positioning ourselves against the people we love
The truth is that if we don’t speak out against suspect ideas in our closest friends, we rob them of the opportunity to explore a position that we can demonstrate and validate really is better.
Yes, we might step on toes in the process. And that friend might well disappear as part of the process.
But failure to point out the obvious value of a body of sciences that correct themselves independent of any particular individual is a failure to be a truly good friend.
To be silent also robs you of the opportunity to make a scientific test. You fail to validate the integrity of the friendship by avoiding a clash of ideas.
The cost is that you need to be willing to hear out the friend and give the evidence they provide (should they have any) its due.
Otherwise, you can consult Aristotle’s The Nichomachean Ethics and ponder whether your friendship belongs to the categories of pleasure, utility or the murkier friendship of virtue.
2. Fanaticism isn’t fundamentalism and can be tempered by ethical intolerance
The claim that Defenders of Reason are really just fundamentalists with a different story to tell profoundly misunderstands reason, science and a whole host of easily defensible propositions.
Why do people deny or fail to understand the great clarity of these great ideas?
It’s difficult to say, but we know that people have been wrestling with the question since long before Plato wrote The Republic.
People like Richard Dawkins and David Benatar haven’t been shy about proposing “types” of people that harken back to some of the divisions and categories for people described in that book.
And there’s no doubt something scary about the idea that some brains come out of the womb less equipped than others to perceive the obvious. Nurture, chance and a whole host of other factors play their part as well.
But barring brain trauma and other disorders, all people can perceive the truth. They do so every day, even if they deny it.
Each of us needs to find our own way to respond to science denial, but as Sam Harris demonstrates, we really can forewarn or pick up an explanation later for our more … vibrant explanations of the core values we pick up along what Shermer calls the “royal road to reality” in Skeptic.
3. As Shermer says in Skeptic, in order to be against something (like irrationality), we need to be for something.
What does it mean to be “for” something?
Sitting back in the corner with your hands in your arm pits?
Watching all the other crabs in the bucket pulling each other down?
Here’s where, for all the criticism the guy gets, a bit of Nietzsche can be instructive. Not just the say Yes! to life stuff.
Also to the “happy science” of sounding out bad ideas through which flourishing can and will take place.
But sit back in the corner and take your lashes?
That’s as sure a path to atrophy as any.
Good Ideas Need Warriors Of The Mind
You’ve got a mind. Just one of billions, but truly the most important mind under the sun.
If you use it. And stand up for all the rest.
We need you. In more ways than any one of us can express.