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book review

Heath ha

Joseph Heath is amiable enough, for a Vulcan. In a rare personal digression in his new book, Enlightenment 2.0, the author and University of Toronto philosopher admits to having been called "Mr. Spock" as a child, and you can see why his classmates might have got the impression. As wry and lively as his writing is, his defence of reason is so staunch and implacable, it's almost otherworldly.

The character of Spock was a product of the 1960s, a time when the very idea of reason was being reassessed by a world still traumatized by the Second World War. Enlightenment thinking had hoped that rational tools like technology and the state would help to elevate mankind, but instead those very tools enabled a mechanized, bureaucratized slaughter of tens of millions. Unsurprisingly enough, reason started looking like a dispassionate, green-blooded, vaguely sinister entity.

And so the counterculture of the Sixties took a left-turn from reason, producing experimental schools that rejected traditional instruction, social movements that valorized intuition over logic, and Star Trek's parable of Kirk and Spock: the impulsive Lothario and the cool logician, the wrestling halves of the human spirit.

This ongoing tussle between reason and intuition is Heath's preoccupation in Enlightenment 2.0, a worthwhile, if meandering, argument about why irrationality surrounds us more than ever. If Kirk and Spock embodied reason and intuition working hand-in-hand towards a common goal, today we find them pitted against each other on the fields of politics and commerce. Intuitive appeals have proven famously effective at selling people on bad ideas, from ignoring climate change to electing mayors who probably shouldn't be mayors.

Heath's enemy in this book isn't conservatism, whose values of incremental progress and respect for tradition he seems to quite admire. Instead, he takes issue with the way intuition has been glorified an an inherent good. "What has happened to conservatism in recent years, particularly in its American variants, is that it has become a defense not of tradition against reason, but of intuition against reason," he writes.

Of course, this is Stephen Colbert 101, and Heath takes the satirist's forceful advocacy of thinking with one's gut as a starting point. What Enlightenment 2.0 brings is a methodical explanation of how and why gut-thinking works.

Being reasonable is not nearly as natural as we think it is. Our brains, Heath writes, happen to be very good at some things, like matching patterns and identifying our team against the other team, but we perform rational tasks like considering hypotheticals or following complicated arguments are only as a last resort.

Without forcing ourselves to be reasonable, humans fall victim to a familiar set of cognitive biases, which feel reasonable, but are not. To name a few, our intuitive minds are irrationally optimistic, self-serving, short-sighted, terrified of loss, prone to see patterns where none exist, and mostly inclined to confirm our own suspicions.

At this point, Heath's book seems ready to join the growing body of "dumber than you think" literature, a genre which takes such delight in pointing out how irrational humans really are that it seems a wonder any of us survived adolescence without licking a light socket. But he's driving towards an argument here.

Since we're not built for reason, Heath writes, rational thought requires social "scaffolding" to prop it up. Just like mathematical thought requires external tools like a pencil and paper, reason too needs assistance from outside the human brain. Language frames our thoughts, schools make us sit still, and the state puts a wedge between us and instincts like tribalism and personal vengeance. Where it comes to thinking reasonably, he argues, we're almost entirely dependent on our environment.

That environment is getting worse and worse. Just as natural selection chooses the most effective organisms, our evolving culture has seen the forces of media, advertising and politics gradually select the best ways to exploit our cognitive biases, and target just the right intuitions to pander to.

And, for Heath, this intuition-first environment is a problem, since the very definition of social progress lies in "finding new ways of resolving the collective action problems that our tribal instincts fail to address." Heath doesn't quite say so, but his is essentially an anti-anti-government argument. The state exists for a reason, and reason benefits from the state. It's a virtuous circle that's threatening to unravel.

Heath is a thoughtful and sometimes cuttingly funny guide. The book is most engaging where he turns his attention to philosophy and history of reason itself, which unfortunately arrives piecemeal. Reading Enlightenment 2.0 feels a bit like arriving in a professor's lecture in the third week of a course, and being left to piece together what we missed.

The book also suffers from an uneven pace, dwelling at great length on the physiology and psychology of the brain, then rushing through its political consequences. At one point, Heath manages to diagnose and prescribe a balm for America's race problem in three pages, flat. He issues a cranky dismissal of social media as an enemy of rational thought, an argument as over-simplified as the tweets he deplores. Most frustratingly, he skimps on the history of how American conservatism, that great enigma of our times, arrived at the proudly irrational place that it did.

What readers do get, however, is an eclectic but genuinely helpful series of explanatory segments, along the way. These range from an excellent explication of the subprime mortgage crisis, to an illumination of Trudeau the Elder's nationalism policy, to an extensive and highly enjoyable thrashing of the children's show The Magic School Bus as a misleading "collective hippie fantasy" about how education ought to work. Heath constructs a convincing defence of traditional pedagogy and a theory of conspiracy theorists. He's all over the place; the reader has to sit back and trust that a big picture will emerge.

Thankfully, one does. Few of Heath's broader points will come as a shock to anyone who's been paying attention. But his book's value is in the way it builds a framework for understanding of why citizens make choices the way they do, and the dead-ends of letting intuition rule. Reasoning is a pain in the ass, but to hold ourselves to a lesser standard would be highly illogical.