While some might look at human reason as a given, it has been one of the most difficult endeavors of humanity. It took the West over 2,000 years for its slow and unsure infusion of the concepts of objective reason, critical thinking, and self-awareness. Germinating gradually through a plethora of traditions, religious practices, customs, beliefs, authorities, lies, self-deceptions, inherent reptilian impulses, and socially entrenched interests, all interconnected in an entangled mess, the discovery of reason had to be a slow dance of adjustments, readjustments, and ever-slow improvements, often with serious retracements. Then, about 700 years ago, the sprouts were starting to emerge, culturally and economically. The West galloped ahead of the Rest of the world.
The respect for nonpartisan, objective reason led to individualism, to the concepts of liberty, rule of law, legal equality, disinterested differentiation between right and wrong, virtues and sins, social compassion, etc. Indeed, there was no book handed down by God that convinced people about the right distinction between virtues and vices. There was no concept of natural rights implanted in people’s minds, only local ideas of particular rights. What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason. Society and individuals adjusted, slowly and subtly. The concept of reason came to be reflected in concepts of justice, community, politics, and education; and hence of the institutions associated with them.
Reason is the organizing principle that enables an accumulation of intellectual and financial capital, within the individual and within societies.
The concept of reason germinated and survived not just because it was accepted by philosophers but because it permeated, organically, the habits and worldviews of the larger society, of people who otherwise lacked any interest in philosophy. Had this not happened, the would-be philosophers would have lacked the ecosystem that nurtures reason. Without this, their education would have been slow, hesitant, imbalanced, and grossly lacking in self-confidence and wisdom.
What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason.
Reason chiselled in its image the organization of physical space, architecture, music, literature, and the working of institutions. It provided a vocabulary of images, experiences, and ideas that enabled the learning of rational concepts through osmosis — not only through mere words but also through every day, every moment living.
Reason cannot be imposed
But despite hundreds of years of the West’s interactions with the Rest, the concept of reason has failed to gain a foothold there. Perhaps, slowly and subtly, over many generations — perhaps over centuries or even millennia — the Rest will go through a change in philosophy and ethics that will effect a change in social organization, architecture, music, and art. Perhaps these cultures will change their attitude to quiet contemplation from one based on escapism. But even before all this can happen, they must get rid of basic irrational beliefs and evolve social habits — and everything surrounding them — compatible with reason. This is a very gradual, painful process.
While the Rest has copied technology and other fruits of western creativity, alas, it cannot copy the Western culture without comprehending the concept of reason. There are today many new cities in the Rest that are copies of western cities, built in the hope that creativity would somehow sprout from this top-down means. This hasn’t worked.
“Thank you” and “please,” while omnipresent in the West, are hardly to be heard in most of the Rest. One should not expect to hear them in simple transactions, and one is unlikely to hear them even when going out of one’s way to help other people. The custom of gratitude looks simple in the West, but it took centuries to acquire.
In the Rest, charity is almost always about building more temples and mosques and funding religious indoctrination — among Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims. This is done from the desire for a better afterlife for oneself, not to help fellow human beings. There is almost no counterpart of western missionaries in the Rest.
What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg.
Simple courtesies of driving, giving way and not cutting the other vehicle off, are hard to find outside the West. Those who want to end constant honking and avoidable pollution — even in wealthy neighborhoods — are asking for the impossible. In India, I fought for years against the custom of burning the contents of garbage bins and organic material — the biggest source of localized pollution in most Indian cities and something that can be handled without any cost. Then I gave up.
What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg. As one hacks away the tip of the iceberg, one eventually realizes that he is against a mammoth irrational cultural apparatus.
Irrationality has very slippery hands. It does not allow for the accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. No wonder large parts of the Rest, even if they haven’t had any war in recent memory, look like slums, as if they had recently been bombed.
If one hasn’t lost himself in multiculturalism, one comes to an insight, through the process of reasoning, that it is hard to change other people and virtually impossible to change cultures. Centuries ago, English colonizers understood how difficult it is to change a culture and the individuals living in it. They mostly engaged in trade and missionary activities. Both had a significant possibility of making the societies in the Rest more rational, and hence more ethical. They knew that any change would happen only slowly, from the bottom up. Indeed, whatever figment of liberty and reason one sees outside the West was usually initiated by missionary education.
Some missionaries even realized that if they must change the culture, they must remove children from their parents, because the belief systems and worldviews the kids were getting infused with — those very small, imperceptible things that happen at home — preempted them from becoming rational beings. This was a heartless thing to do, but it does show the experience that people who were doing the job at the front were facing.
Then all went wrong. The Rest today is in crisis. And so is the West.
Degradation in the West
Political correctness became a part of the West. Wealth made people intellectually lazy. They — across the spectrum of political beliefs — came to believe in top-down methodology: the US government believed in bombs and drones, the removal of dictators and the imposition of Western institutions on alien societies; and anti-statist libertarians believed in removing governments or reducing their size.
Western governments degenerated, having become increasingly populated by professional politicians and professional bureaucrats. Meanwhile, everyone eventually got the right to vote. At first, only experienced, successful people were invited to work for the government and only successful people or landowners had the right to vote — this had its many problems but it was better than what we have today.
Simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come.
Those who came to run public policy in the West were increasingly removed from real life. They went from Ivy League universities to safe jobs in the government, and their experience precluded them from understanding the complexity and volatility of real life. But real life, at the fronts, is the only source from which one learns wisdom and integrity. Even when they weren’t crooks or just seeking an easy life, those who went to work for the government were simpletons with simplistic ideas.
Not understanding how wealth is created and how creativity works, simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come; impose the institutions of the West and all will change for the better in the Rest; send people to universities and creativity will blossom; enforce democracy and equality of rights will develop. Such thinking invariably did no good, and significant harm.
Three major Western institutions — public education, the nation state, and democracy — were increasingly imposed on the peoples of the Rest. Once imposed, these institutions mutated into something completely different from their original intention, as they adjusted to the inherent irrationality of their new locations.
Public education in the Rest has absolutely nothing to do with developing the concept of critical thinking and objective reasoning, education’s prime purpose. Lacking the concept of reason, the student is unable to integrate new knowledge into a “whole,” but absorbs it as particular beliefs, dogmas, and alleged facts, through rote learning. Such education is sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions. In an irrational culture questioning is seen as a challenge to teacher’s authority. Because I was constantly ordered around, I gained no experience of amicable negotiation with others. I still cannot negotiate for myself, for the moment I do, a cloudy complex of shame and guilt hits me. Even when one learns to recognize these problems, they can take decades to remedy.
After almost 150 years of implementing Western-style education, Japan, among the most successful countries in the Rest, still specializes in the creation of human robots, with horrendous social consequences. Singapore is not very different, and its government is struggling to understand why it cannot engender creativity in one of the world’s richest countries. People who don’t know individual, critical reason just cannot see its importance.
The situation is much worse elsewhere. India today produces more so-called PhDs and engineers than any other country. Most of them are completely unemployable, for they are seeking only a degree, their colleges are seeking only money, and their teachers have no clue about what they are supposedly teaching. Bad habits are all these students learn. In front of me is a bunch of MBA examination papers that a relative is taking me through. In one, a student has misspelled “financial” everywhere it appears in his Financial Accounting paper. These lucky students end up driving taxis or working as manual laborers, and they feel very frustrated. They thought their degrees would change their lives.
Education becomes sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions.
But the harm is much wider and deeper. Their minds are now burdened by many more beliefs — for even correct principles accepted as beliefs are in fact mere beliefs — than they would have been burdened with, had they none of this fake education. The burden has made them more immune to imbibing the concept of reason. With so many beliefs, the last thing they want to do is to think, except to regurgitate and exchange slogans and soundbites, all for comfort. If they thought, they would destabilize themselves mentally.
The nation-state has been another major problem for the Rest. This institution, as originally conceived in the West, was about values that people held. It was not necessarily about political boundaries. In the Rest, which lacks the concept of reason and hence the concept of values, the nation state has mutated into an aggressive tribal concept, based merely on the existence, or idolatry, of political boundaries, flags, and anthems. Ask these people what their nation believes and stands for, and you should expect parroted empty words, if they actually comprehend the question.
While the nation-state is in no way a nimble institution in the West — for it is now run by professional bureaucrats who have no real-life experience and demagogues voted into power by people who have no understanding of public policy — it is something that rapidly ossified in the irrational and hence tyrannical societies of other regions. Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Thai, and Cambodian armies are ready to enter a war for nothing more than inches of worthless land. And they don’t know how to negotiate and end what are in fact trivial issues. Africa and the Middle East have the same problem. While there is open discussion in the US about its wars, in India there no discussion whatsoever about its boundary disputes.
In the Rest, democracy boasts of virtually no success, despite a widely accepted claim to the contrary. The only success stories happened in states that were not democratic: China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Voting by those who are irrational, superstitious, dogmatic, and tribal has meant constant troubles in Africa, central Asia, and southeast Asia. The Middle East is in flames. Not too long ago, people were very romantic about the democratic revolution called the Arab Spring. But democracy has politicized their masses, and what masses always want is free stuff, bread and circuses. Liberty is not their passion. Now the Arab Spring has matured in Libya and Syria, which are blowing up, spreading their problems to Europe. Blame this on the imposition of democracy, an alien institution in the Rest.
One might ask how people in the Rest — in whatever form — still exist in anything like a stable society. Violence, except in some Confucian cultures, is an essential part of “negotiations” in the Rest, where stability is found through a kind of ceasefire agreement. Wherever a pecking order changes or needs to be reestablished, violence erupts, until a ceasefire situation can be created. A death in a family almost invariably results in fights between siblings. This does not mean that people kill and rape as a habit. But remove them from the strict institutional and social structures that keep them sane, civilized, and well behaved, and you must expect violence to erupt systemically.
This is the sad reality of life, in the Rest. The West must accept the blame for very simplistically imposing Western institutions on societies that cannot bear them. You cannot just remove their tyrants, enforce western institutions, and hope that progress will happen. The solution is to let them find their tyrants, allowing them to get the institutions their values create — nothing more, and nothing less. This is the only hope for relative peace, both for them and for the West. If you want to help, do what missionaries and traders did: infuse reason into these societies, from the bottom up. But today the West must worry more about the rapid erosion of its own foundations of reason, a process fraught with a sense of entitlement and victimhood, and hence with a slow mutation of Western institutions. It will be easy to lose reason, but very hard to get it back, for there is no reason why reason should win.