Why too much logic leads to irrationality: Justin E. H. Smith

The Parisian-American philosopher Justin E. H. Smith speaks about the history of irrationality, and why it’s always been reason’s “twin.” He argues that attempts to impose the victory of reason always lead to explosions of irrationality, whether in our individual lives or at the level of society.

The philosopher argues humans are hardly rational in his book, Irrationality

Philosopher Justin E. H. Smith says irrationality is 'reason's twin,' and has been equally vital to human development. (Submitted by Princeton University Press)

*Originally published on October 22, 2019.

Roughly half of the anarchist punks I knew in my adolescence are now sincere unironic Trump supporters.- Justin E. H. Smith

Justin E. H. Smith couldn't figure out what had happened to his contemporaries. People he once knew as fellow anti-authoritarians in the mosh pit had turned into fans of what he sees as an authoritarian movement in the U.S.

"I thought, 'How is that possible as the endpoint of an orientation towards life that started as a total expression of freedom?'" Smith told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"But then I realized in fact this happens quite often in history. There's often but one small step from rejection of law to submission to authoritarianism."

Smith — a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris — sees the current U.S. presidency as part of a worldwide explosion of 'unreason.'

He partly blames the internet for this, but also speculates on a general law — that irrationality bursts out wherever humans try to push their powers of reason too far.

Hippasus of Metapontum is credited with the discovery of irrational numbers. Legend has it he was killed because he revealed how to construct a dodecahedron inside a sphere. (Wikipedia )

"If we were not possessed of such a strong will to believe that our technological discoveries and our conceptual progress might have the power to chase irrationality, uncertainty, and disorder from our lives, then we would likely be far better positioned to avoid the violent recoil that always seems to follow upon our greatest innovations," writes Smith in a new book called Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason.

Keeping 'irrational' numbers hidden

Smith brings up a legendary tale of Hippasus, a mathematician murdered by his comrades. Supposedly, his fellow mathematicians were trying to keep secret the existence of 'irrational' numbers. They feared the implication that the world itself was irrational and did not conform to the rules of divinely-ordained logic.

"There's no self-help takeaway except maybe: don't venerate reason so much that you go and kill someone," remarked Smith.

Smith sees examples of violent recoil against logic throughout history, leading him to argue that our species might well deserve to be labelled "the irrational animal."

Flat-earth theory, anti-vaccination beliefs, and climate-change denial represent a human thirst for unreason that never goes away for long. At best, it may be channelled into imaginative works and rituals.

However, Smith also warns that attempting to fence off our irrational side may be just as misguided as trying to defeat it permanently. Nor can we hope to always know when to follow a supposedly rational authority and when to reject it.

"Like it or not, our acceptance of the official account of how infection works, and of how vaccination helps to prevent it while also not causing other problems," he writes, "is in the end a matter of trust."

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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