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Unexamined world
The merits of rational thinking

By Ebrahim Harandi
August 15, 2001
The Iranian

Like most people in countries, which have come to be known as the "Third World", we as a nation seem to have a cultural inclination towards irrational and mythical explanations. This is partly true of every human being, as our nervous system has evolved in a way, which makes it susceptible to acts of wizardry, intrigue and fascination, regardless of the logical rate of probability of such actions.

Of course this is a welcomed evolutionary development, without which human societies would forever be deprived of much of what we cherish i.e. love, art, faith, affection and mutual interaction and attraction. However, it is precisely because of this susceptibility which is known as human fallibility that man has also recognized the need for the establishment of customs and practices as well as institutions for social organization and order, based on the rule of law and logic, in order to tame the insatiable wishful beast within every individual and to keep their irrational and unattainable whims and wishes in check. Such institutions, which make up the social system as a whole, are deemed to operate on logical and rational grounds.

Although superstition is not monopolized by any one particular nation, the main difference between societies such as the U.S. or Western European countries and a country like Afghanestan is that in the case of the latter the system is also based on mythical and ultimately irrational belief. This would not have been an issue prior to the age of reason as most cultural values were of similar nature all over the world. However, at an age when logic reigns in an ever-shrinking world, propagation of irrational thought is regarded as superstition and backwardness. Some commentators have even gone as far as claiming that whereas people in the west live with nature with the perceived ability to manipulate and transform the material world, others still leave in nature with pre-historic mentality and little or no awareness of human potentials as agents of change.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it is clear that the Third World is left with no option but to follow the current global norms and fall in line with what is currently perceived as the way forward. This in my view is inevitable regardless of our personal and cultural preferences. The question is how to formulate a policy of gradual rationalization of social behaviours without alienating the competing forces in society. The issue is fundamentally a political one and has to be debated at the highest level in every society. Once an answer is found, it should be translated into practical policies, which can then be put into practice through the education system.

However in the absence of such a process, there is also a bypass through which effective actions could be taken with relative ease. This bypass is the media and the way in which they can highlight social issues and developments. Admittedly you need to have a free press to accomplish such a task but given that we live in the age of the Internet, it should not be too difficult -- at least for the cyber media -- to embark on such forbidden adventures.

As far as we are concerned, the traditional reverence for the mystical experiences in our history has probably got something to do with the way in which we still devalue logical thinking and rational explanations. Without wanting to offend anyone's sense of national pride, I strongly believe that most of us have a cultural propensity towards dwelling on irrational and unexplainable issues. Like their predecessors throughout history, some of our writers take pride in the fact that their work is inaccessible and not easily understood by the masses. A lot of the current debates in our literary journals both at home and abroad are non-issues or at best quasi ones much in vogue with our mystery-seeking temperaments. This is at a time when in some parts of the world soundness of argument and clarity of expression is regarded as great virtues and clear thinkers and writers are awarded prestigious prizes for the crystallization of their thought in an easily understandable language.

A good example of such issues is the current debate on postmodernism both at home and abroad. I fail to see the relevance of this issue to our lives and our country, but I am well aware that those aspects of the postmodernists' perspective, which contain sceptical criticism of modernist's ideas, appeal to our perceived sense of inferiority and apparent inaptitude. Post modernism as a self-evaluation of the modern age and its achievements is an inherent feature of modernity and does not apply to societies such as ours in any shape or form. Yet as it questions the merits of rational thinking, it immediately becomes an attractive subject matter for people in myth-inclined cultures that are well versed with mystical notions and general theories, that allow doing away with detailed examination of the world and its phenomena.

In my view people of the pen (Ahle ghalam) in societies such as ours ought to be constantly conscious of the fact that the forces of mystery and history are always at work to maintain the status quo and to prevent us from developing an inquiring attitude, which is the motor force of social change. Let us not forget that throughout our history rational analysis and logical thinking had been frowned upon and denounced as undesirable Greek activities and a, "Platonic vice". One of Khaghani's poems about Aveccenna; a great Iranian scientist whose books were being taught as basic texts on medical courses in some European universities up to recent times, sums up our historical attitude towards thinking and systematic problem solvers. Khaghani writes:

If you wish to reach the Mount Sinai
Don't ever get close to Aveccenna

By mentioning the Mount Sinai, Khaghani is referring to the common human desire to want to move up in the world towards perfection, which in his view is only attainable through stifling reason and enabling emotional experiences and religious belief to thrive. In this perspective, reason misguides, logic deviates and rationality leads to digression from the path of righteousness.

Of course it is worth noting that Khaghani belonged to a different ear with its different but coherent set of values. He was a child of his time and therefore it is unfair to evaluate his work in light of our current understanding of the world. The point I am trying to make here is that although the time has moved on, our perspectives have not. Our culture still dissuades its subscribers from questioning. It discourages analytical thinking and devalues serious and meaningful involvement in scientific enquiries. The media can and should take an active interest in highlighting this issue and doing their bits to redress the balance.

The culture of the our literary media is one of name and fame rather that rhyme and reason and until there is a sea change in attitude and editorial policies, such media as inadvertent reflectors of cultural maladies and crises would only follow rather than lead opinions.

We ought to worry about the qualification culture and the instrumental use of academic endeavours in our country. We should reflect on the lack of public's interest in science and our indifference towards it. Why is it that we are happy to fund the jet set showbiz pundits and the self-claimed literati to travel from one country to another in the name of literature but when it comes to scientific personalities we fail to name any?

As a nation with one of the richest ancient scrabble culture in the world, we should reflect on our current stand in the global arena as the first step towards negotiating the lengthy and perilous process of forging an identity. As a prelude to this process we should praise rationality and value science and a scientific approach to problems as in Aristotle's words; "An unexamined world is not worth living in."

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Ebrahim Harandi

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