When Reasoning Fails

In a previous journal entry here, I criticized Alan Moore, a writer for whom I once had unparalleled respect, for demeaning and betraying his genius by writing a particularly sick and insulting form of pornography. By his own admission in public interviews, Mr. Moore is not writing porn for the honest pornographic reason of trying to encourage sexual titillation in his audience: he says he wants to elevate pornography to the standard of art, and render it acceptable and normal. In other words, he is crusading for moral retardation. In the same way a mental retard cannot perform the basic functions of ratiocination as his peers, a moral retard is once who cannot form or act on basic moral distinctions of helpful or harmful, kind or cruel, wholesome or perverse.

When I described the inarticulate, passionate, pro-pornography, pro-perversion reactions that clogged by comments boxes as “religious”, this exasperated one reader, who took me to task. He was not as articulate as he might have been, or perhaps my comprehension was limited by some blind spot peculiar to me, since I could not discover what his beef with me was even after several exchanges.

My guess is that he thought I was being overbroad. Naturally I was using the word “religious” to mean that the partisans of perversion, the pervertarians, are zealots with whom reasoning is impossible: the moral superiority involved in not making judgments and in not exercising any self-control in the area of sexual impulses is an article of faith with them, sacred, and beyond criticism. Their way of speaking is like a crusade.  They wrap themselves in the flag when they talk, or, at least, copies of HUSTLER. Occasionally they will have something they consider off limits, such as rape or pederasty, but for the most part criticism of pornography applauding such acts they can utter only with embarrassed and unenthusiastic qualifications. 

Well, I have come across a phrase that has a similar meaning to what I called “religious”, but with no implications of supernaturalism. John Derbyshire, calls it a “Zone of Commitment.” (see http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ODVlNGY4OTMwNmRkYzBjNTVjMWVmNTM3NGM5YjBmNzY=).

He defines it as an area where evidence counts for nothing and logic is suspended.

” You’re getting along fine in a sensible discussion with someone at about the same mental level as yourself, then suddenly you wander into one of his zones of commitment, and it’s off to the races. “Surely you don’t believe that?” “I most certainly do. Look…” “Oh, come on!…” Etc., etc.

“I hit this recently after quoting, in a column in another place, Jon Entine’s observation, in his 2000 book Taboo, that “All of the thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races [were] of West African descent.” I then got into a long and wearisome series of email exchanges with a reader who wanted to argue the point. He didn’t precisely want to deny it — it’s not easy to deny — he just wanted to engage in infinitely fine logic-splitting about the definitions of “West African” and “descent” — really just struggling, visibly struggling, to find some way, any way, that he would not have to accept the fact as stated. I stared in wonder at his prose as it got more and more desperately convoluted, thinking to myself: E pur si muove. Plainly I had trespassed in one of this fellow’s zones of commitment.”

It seems to me that there are two ways to create a Zone of Commitment. One we might call positive, and the other negative

A positive zone of commitment is one where evidence and logic is suspended because the price for consulting the evidence is too high. While this concept should give any good rationalist cause to bristle, we see it in real life every day. A real life example that impressed me deeply was a neighbor and friend whose husband was absent for an unexplained period, and all her family members urged her to believe that the man was cheating on her, and to get a divorce. Each of the family members themselves had divorced at least once, and it was a part of their unquestioned assumptions.

She could have consulted the evidence: hired a detective to follow him, questioned him with sharp suspicion when he came home, and in general acted in a fashion that would break up the marriage anyway. The price of gathering evidence about the husband’s alleged faithlessness would be to instill so deep a mutual suspicion in the family that it could not recover. Instead, her patience was rewarded: it turned out the husband had been fired from his job and loved his wife too deeply to tell her, and so was trying to cover up the fact.

When you ask a woman to marry you, you are not a scientist performing a laboratory experiment on her to discover whether you and she will be happy together. You are not even a lawyer attempting to force testimony from a hostile witness. There is no way to tell beforehand whether the marriage will fail, and if you are not so deeply in love as to challenge all the worlds of heaven and hell, all fear and all futures to mortal combat for the mere chance of spending your life together, if it is even a question for you at all, then you are no true lover.

Any evidentiary or logical means of trying to tell beforehand, such as by “shacking up” with her and fornicating like weasels to test her bedsmanship skills, as if reproduction were no more than an entertainment to be judged by its artistry, such things are a deadly insult to her, and a degradation. (It is an article of faith among modern intellectuals that demeaning women liberates them, the women, from the pinched straightjacket of Victorian morality—this concept is too foolish to merit a rebuttal in the space I have here. Let us merely note that the Victorian Age was one where a woman was monarch.)

Even a woman of the planet Vulcan should, for very logical reasons, prefer a mate who was irrationally in love with her, rather than rationally. The rational basis for selecting a mate depends on something, looks, poise, personality, which are contingent. There is no reason to believe that, once past the bloom of her child-bearing years, the logical he-Vulcan will not see in the younger She-Vulcans a potential trophy wife who has more of whatever quality attracted him to you in the first place. If he likes your looks, what keeps him from seeking a better looking woman when looks fade? If he likes your intelligence, what keeps him from seeking a smarter woman? If his love is built on anything, anything at all, that is open to logic and evidence, what prevents him from unplugging your life support after you fall into a coma, once you are no longer able to fulfill any wifely duties?

But if you marry a man utterly and irrationally in love with you, he will stay by your hospital bed reading his journals to your unconscious body, because maybe he read somewhere that sometimes something like that helps. If his friends show him the statistical evidence of coma recovery, he simply will not look. The evidence is not useful to him.

If, dear brides, the second lover seems ridiculous to you, and the first lover, the one who means to dump you for a trophy wife once you get wrinkled seems reasonable, then all I can say is, you have departed from the Zone of Commitment of the human race. You are not really a member of our species, and don’t let the door hit you in the bustle on the way out.

There is a second type of Zone of Commitment. This one is negative. It concerns any controversy where the two sides cannot find any unbiased and nonpartisan common ground. There is simply no overlap of evidence, no agreed upon rules of logic or procedure to allow a reasoned discussion of issues to take place.

What creates a “Negative Zones of Commitment”?  Some might be found naturally. People who believe or do not believe in ghosts, for example, usually have far stronger opinions and far less evidence than those who believe or do not believe that Lemmings suicide by jumping into the sea. By its very nature, since ghosts are invisible and furtive, definitively saying whether such things exist or not is not something empirical science is good at. A truly logical person would venture no opinion on the topic: but nearly everyone has a very strong opinion.

But the important thing about Negative Zones of Commitment in the modern day, is that the utter lack of honesty that characterizes modern intellectuals, allows them to create “Negative Zones” artificially. A debate between Left and Right, say, 75 years ago, would have had certain basics on which all parties agreed: the need to have religion in society to have freedom, for example, or the need for national defense. Now that common ground is battle ground, and even the basic facts reported by one side are thought to be partisan: one does not believe certain facts, or talk a certain way, without this being a sign of conversion to one party or the other.

Once the common ground is in dispute, one has no choice. Logic and evidence are no longer open to solve the dispute, because one side or the other refuses to stipulate the facts, refuses to seat the expert witnesses.

One of the clearest examples I have seen in my own limited experience was the notion of political correctness. At one time, when the movement was gaining control of campuses and press, the partisans of the Left admitted and gloried in the name: they were being Politically Correct and were proud of it. Now, even using the term will elicit a vehement and hostile reaction from the Left: they insist either that there is no such thing, or that it is just as much a product of the Right as the Left, and that tradition-loving Rightwingers spend their time and energy inventing new and meaningless euphemisms to change the language and break with the past. The whole point of Political Correctness is to redefine a word to mean the opposite of what it really means, so that rational debate on the topic is meaningless. If one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another man ‘freedom fighter’, if, in other words, the laws and usages of war have no reality, morality no innate meaning, then no debate on terrorism is even remotely possible. By saying the Right are Politically Correct as well, the term is rendered meaningless: no debate on the merits of PC newspeak, even whether it exists at all or not, is possible.

When you enter an area where no debate is possible, you must take a leap of faith. Either you believe the evidence one side says is expert testimony; or you think that side are liars. Global Warming is an example of an issue where the debate is nigh-impossible, due to the partisanship of one side.

Notice I said one side, not both sides.

What alarms me is that, in the same way it takes only one side in a war to start a war, it takes only one side in a debate to destroy the common ground, and render both sides—even the one that originally had honest evidence and ages of tradition to back it— nothing more than negative “Zones of Commitment.”