Eons ago, as a college freshman, I ran afoul of 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes. Considered the father of modern, rational thinking, Descartes is famous for his “cogito argument.” In Latin that’s “Cogito, ergo sum” translated as “I think, therefore I am.”
The first thing I learned about Descartes was that his writing was so convoluted, he lost me on page one and had me almost in tears by page three. Luckily, I took careful notes in class. I passed, not by understanding anything Descartes said, but by repeating what my professor said about him. (I suspect I’m not the only college freshman who ever did that.)
For thirty years I got along just fine without understanding Descartes. Then came Meadville Lombard Theological School. In first-year theology there he was again. This time I vowed I would “get” Descartes or die trying. I spent hours reading and rereading each page–and discovered that Descartes, the supposed father of modern reason, was actually full of logical mistakes and baseless assumptions.
He was, after all, a product of his time–as are we. He was a devout Catholic at a time of great intellectual growth. Brilliant though he was, his religion still shaped the way he saw things.
In his most famous treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy, he wrote that he would only analyze those things he knew he could prove. Anything else, he said, he would toss out. So he started by asking: was there really anything he could be certain of? His answer was yes. He definitely existed. He might be deluded about everything else. But even asking that question proved he was there, which was the basis of his cogito argument. I know I exist because I am aware. I may only think I’m thinking. But even if I only think I’m thinking, he wrote, “I am a thing that thinks.”
But, he asked, can I trust what I think I’m thinking about? Are things around me real? Or are they just products of my own imagination? To answer that question, he sat in front of his fireplace with a ball of wax in his hand. As the ball of wax grew warm, he wrote, it took on shapes so subtle and complex, he could not possibly think them up all by himself. Going through life, maybe we lift something that turns out to be heavier or lighter than we expect. Life is full of things that surprise us, or that we couldn’t dream up by ourselves. So–not only do I exist, but things around me exist as well. They have to. There’s more going on than just my lone imagination can produce.
So far, so good. But what if I’m deluded, what if things are different from what I think they are? What, he asked, if I’m mistaken in the most important thing I think–that God exists? Or almost as bad, what if God isn’t good, but an evil being that put me here just to trick me? What if there’s no God at all, he asked, what if the world is just put here by some demon, for evil, demonic purposes?
I realized–that was where the supreme rationalist, Rene Descartes, went off the rails. If we read old philosophers carefully, we notice things they cannot not think: things they assume without proof, without even realizing they’re assuming something.
Descartes himself said, time and again, “perception is deception.” Human perception is flawed, he knew that. But he didn’t apply that to his own basic assumptions, shaped by the time and culture in which he lived. In the seventeenth century, it was inconceivable that the world could exist without being created by some supernatural being. If not God, then something else, maybe even a demon. He had no notion of the periodic table of elements. There was no way for him to imagine that the cosmos–and even human beings–could exist as a product of the ways those elements behaved, with no participation by any supernatural being.
He follows that with another mistake, holding that ball wax in his hand. We know the ball of wax is real, he says. And no matter how he might shape that wax, we know it’s still wax. Therefore, he says, there is an idea–of “wax”—you might call it “wax-ness”—that’s more than just what it looks like or what the shape is.
That brings him to the “proof” most crucial to him–that God exists. The idea of wax has an existence of its own. It’s how we understand the wax. Therefore, because we have an idea–an understanding–of God, God has to exist as well. God’s perfection is so far beyond us, we couldn’t possibly think of it ourselves. God must have put the idea there. Therefore, he says, I exist, the world exists, God exists.
He also uses a second “proof,” though he doesn’t spend much time on it. A thing cannot just cause itself to exist. Something caused the world. “As everyone knows,” he writes—a silly “proof” on its face when you stop to think about it—a cause is always greater than its effect. The world has to be caused by something greater than the world–therefore–the world had to be created by God.
Looking back four hundred years, we now see these arguments are full of logical fallacies. I’ll just name a couple. The first is called a false analogy. The changes in warm wax don’t apply at all to other materials: say wood–or brick–or God. We eventually learned that wax’s behavior derives from the chemicals that make up the wax. It has nothing to do with any “idea” of wax or wax-ness.
Another mistake is a non sequitor logical fallacy: that thoughts about perfection can only exist because a perfect God must have put them in our heads. There is no connection between human notions of perfection and the physical laws that govern the knowable universe. That’s just a couple of Descartes’ boo-boos. There are plenty more.
Yet in his day, Descartes was seen as the supreme master of reason. And still is, by people who don’t go to the trouble to understand his logic. One point we need to take from this is that reason–by itself–is pretty useless. Reason alone, as an abstract–will leave you in the weeds every time. It has to be anchored in hard evidence.
Descartes‘ “proof” of God’s existence is technically called: the Ontological Argument. Ontology is the philosophical study of being itself. Descartes’ version is–if there’s an idea of God in our brains, it has to mean God exists.
Descartes also uses that second “proof,” called the Cosmological Argument. Cosmology is the study of the origin of the universe. The Cosmological Argument runs this way: the world exists, therefore something must have created it. The only thing powerful enough to create the world–is God. One problem with the Cosmological Argument is that it assumes only a single option: the universe could only get here if it got created by something bigger. That’s sometimes called a black/white logical fallacy. It doesn’t take into account other possibilities–say, that the universe and our own bodies could develop due to of the physical behavior of matter itself.
Those arguments were old even in Descartes’ time. He may have gotten them from the great Medieval thinker, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Thomas Aquinas used them both, along with a third “proof” for the existence of God: the Teleological Argument. Teleology is the study of the purpose of things. It was also proven inaccurate, hundreds of years later.
My point is, we can look back at any great old philosopher: Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kant, and from their own viewpoint, their reasoning was impeccable. Looking at them a few hundred years later, though, their conclusions, all too often, are demonstrably wrong.
Reason—logical analysis—is a useful tool. It can beautiful, and even a lot of fun. But it is, as we see with Descartes, a highly imperfect tool. Reason is a product of the way the human brain works, and the brain itself is a complex, imperfect tool. Even the most brilliant person’s “logical conclusions” are rooted in subconscious emotional processes and cultural assumptions—often without that person even realizing that they’re assuming something without foundation. Descartes’ automatic assumption, that the universe had to have been created by some kind of supreme being, is a perfect example.
Yet through the centuries, European (“Western”) culture has exalted reason and the “Western intellectual tradition.” My first dose of Descartes’ philosophy was as part of required study in “The Intellectual Tradition of the West,” as my university course catalogue phrased it.
Academia and sociologists have come to realize this. In this century, university curricula de-emphasized Western intellectual assumptions to make more room for wisdom from other cultures. They also came to understand that the very assumption of Western intellectual superiority, including the unquestioning exaltation of “reason” as a thing-in-itself (as opposed to a highly imperfect practice, to be used with care and humility) was a product of patriarchalism and White supremacy culture, more than a rational stance.
Naturally, that has not set well with some people, particularly patriarchal White males. This is understandable. Privilege does not give up without a fight. That includes privilege rooted in cultural European (and Euro-American) assumptions of racial and gender superiority.
Which brings us to Todd Eklof, The Gadfly Papers, the so-called Fifth Principle Project, and the so-called UU Multiracial Unity Action Council. They exalt the “Western intellectual tradition” and “reason.” Even as they have done so, their statements have been a child’s garden of White fragility, logical fallacies, and out-and-out falsehood. They have made themselves a textbook litany of the flaws inherent in assumptions of Western cultural superiority.
As I have documented elsewhere, Todd Eklof’s book, The Gadfly Papers, is a compendium of false logic, sloppy research, and plain dishonesty. The pearl clutching over criticism of it says a great deal more about the pearl-clutchers than about the book itself.
Likewise, statements from the UUMUAC such as their founder’s claim that “White privilege is not real and is in fact a form of anti-White racism;” and “The word ‘multicultural’ means ‘anti-White’” simply cannot be taken seriously.
Finally, the Fifth Principle Project claims devotion to “the right of conscience and use of the democratic process.” Yet at Unitarian Universalist General Assembly after General Assembly, they repeatedly complain that democratic votes they do not win are “dogmatic” and “oppressive.”
When the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association censured Todd Eklof for his actions, their censure letter noted that “We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore that fact and logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.”
Whether Eklof was really interested in “robust and reasoned debate” is, in my view, open to question. The dishonesty in the book, not to mention Eklof’s actions since writing it, suggest that he was interested in self-promotion and avoiding accountability, more than promoting honest conversation. At the same time, it shows that the UUMA Board was going out of their way to be conciliatory in the letter—while still standing behind the ethical principles that Eklof had violated.
Meanwhile, Eklof and his adherents made real hay out of the “fact and logic” sentence, taking it out of context to proclaim that “the UUMA (and by extension, the whole UUA) are against facts! They’re against logic! They’re against reason!”
Of course, the letter’s cautionary note about “facts and logic” are exactly correct. Even great thinkers, working in good faith, can draw the wrong conclusions from what seem to be obvious facts, using what seems to be exemplary reason. As did Descartes in his faulty conclusions about the ball of wax he was holding.
How much worse does it become when a person isn’t even trying to be accurate? Or worse yet, if that person is using a mask of reason to hide the fact that their “reasoning” is emotional, illogical, and dishonest. As Eklof does when he quotes the ideals of “freedom, reason, and tolerance” proclaimed by Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur—without bothering to find out what Wilbur actually had to say about those ideals. And in fact, without even bothering to find out Wilbur’s actual name. (He repeatedly misstates the name of Unitarian Universalism’s foremost historian by referring to him “Earl Wilbur Morse.”) (Click here for more context.)
Or when, in The Gadfly Papers, Eklof cherry picks quotes from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to make it sound as though Bonilla-Silva’s opinion is the opposite of what Bonilla-Silva actually says! And these are just two examples. There are many more.
In my view, such statements are not made by a person genuinely committed to “facts,” “logic,” or “reason.” Rather, they’re what you get from someone so single-mindedly bound up in his own cultural privilege and comfort, he ignores non congenial realities, even when they’re right in front of him.
Back in my high school days, I was inordinately fond of Victorian poet Rudyard Kipling. That was before I learned about Kipling’s imperialism and racism. In 1899 Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” about the sacrifices of bringing Western civilization to the “dusky” races of the world. Civilizing the rest of the world was difficult and unrewarding, Kipling wrote, but necessary. The world would be a better place once Europeans (and Euro-Americans) had “civilized” the rest of humanity. If we neglected our “White man’s burden,” people of non-European descent would just remain “half devil and half child.”
The poem perfectly expresses the shadow side of the “Western intellectual tradition.” It’s not that there is no good in the Western intellectual tradition. But if we blind ourselves to that shadow side, we also continue the racism, patriarchalism, and imperialism that tradition also contains.
The way Eklof and his adherents exalt “reason and logic,” while neglecting to practice the real thing, perfectly illustrate of the problem that comes with such a naive view. And their impact on marginalized identities has illustrated of the harm it causes.