On Discourse On Method
by Rene Descartes

The famous "I think, therefore I am" treatise. Descartes worked hard to prove that everything he believed was true. He accepted only the most perspicuous axioms and applied stringent logic in forming conclusions.

In order to advance his proofs beyond the purely metaphysical, Descartes needed to affirm that God exists. There's a good summary of his arguments in the lecture notes from a course at UC Davis. Unfortunately, these arguments are notably less supportable than his others, and come early in his presentation; they therefore erode the bedrock below many of his metaphysical proofs. Many of his arguments read, "since God exists, X must be true, because he wouldn't have it otherwise". A cop out.

He must have sense this, as he used such arguments only when no other was available, so much of his work remains indubitable. But all this metaphysics is beside the point for me; Descartes' conclusions are less interesting than his method. He laid out the ground rules for rationality, a state that the mass of modern men cannot consistently achieve.

Rational Thought

Reading these "Age of Science" authors always gets me thinking about how rational thinking came about. What happened around A.D. 1700. that caused the explosion of modern-type thought that led inexorably to the industrial age and our current information age? The theory that most convinces me is that the development of the printing press circa A.D. 1400 formed the first large literate population by A.D. 1500, which by A.D. 1600 was generating modern thinkers. In other words, literacy begat rational thought.

There's a thinker, David Olson, who's refined this theory. He says preliteracy humans used more mnemonic thought patterns; with no way to write things down, memory ability was surpassingly important, with stories being the primary mode of intellectual discourse. With the coming of literacy, the focus moved to linear chains of thoughts, and the argumentative essay. So far, so good: humanity advances to higher and better ways of thinking over time. Natch.

Then came television. Suddenly sound bites are de rigueur, an ethos that pervades every part of our mental lives. Even prose, the flagship of rationality, has been absorbed by the forces of the irrational, with whole bookstore sections on pyramid power and political bombast. We're sinking into the primordial prerational oceans of mental evolution.

What comes next? Internet proponents point to hyperliteracy, a hypertext thinking style that that merges the 30-second ad spot with interactive reading. Although it's the inevitable destiny of the TV generation, it doesn't please me. I think the Web can be the medium for something more meaningful.

Most persuasive essays today still don't follow the dicta that Descartes laid out hundreds of years ago. He built a vehicle of watertight rational argument, and we're still using leaky prose. His approach to rational argument is similar to the programmers' intellectual control, a technique sloppily followed even in a field where correctness really matters.

It's analogous to the development of literacy. Literacy existed for ages before Gutenberg's technology made it widespread. Today's prose and programs are still developed using text editors, tools for arranging linear thoughts, with little or no support for the specialized bookkeeping and presentation requirements of intellectual control. Until the printing press of intellectual control appears, only the naturally talented able to achieve consistent rationality. Until consistent rationality spreads the way literacy has, we'll be stuck in the Dark Ages of rational thought.

I'm sure that the computer somehow enables such a printing press, now it's just a matter of execution. A new kind of editor, with Web presentation naturally, to make the ramified intertwined logic of complex rational argument apparent even to inveterate couch potatos.

The Limits Of Language

Discussion of language being fuzzy and rationality needing clear terms.

Fuzzy Logic

Discussion of real world issues needing fuzzy logic to allow application of logic chains to uncertainties.
Substantive changes:
    Sep 6, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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