Here's one of the greatest ever Wendell Berry couplets:
"The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empiracally or experimentally be proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by a fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out."
That's from Wendell's 2002 essay "Two Minds," in Citizenship Papers, which is an old favorite of mine, a catechism of sorts for understanding a most basic dilemma: why have we humans, with all our intelligence, made our living on this planet so stupidly?
We're so smart, and yet we're not. How is that we are able to put the entirety of humanity's accumulated knowledge in our pocket while enslaving most everyone and everything around us to the point of exhaustion and extinction?
A lot of smart people are working in the field of artificial intelligence and I'll admit it's cool how machines can solve problems faster than we humans could ever hope to.
But as usual, our conversation about artificial intelligence -- and to the extent that we're having one, about our intelligence generally -- is too shallow. In all cases, we start with the assumption that we are, in fact, intelligent. But this Berry essay put me in mind of Mary Shelley, and her Frankenstein masterpiece. What we're able to do in a lab is nothing short of miraculous, but what we do outside the four well marked corners of any controlled setting is almost always hubristic.
This tension is playing out for all to see in the AI space. Alongside AI developers, whose programming, for example, now helps pathologists make more accurate tissue diagnoses, ethicists and philosophers are sounding caution bells because machine learning, even in its infancy, has brought us a surveillance state in China, rigged elections here at home and algorithmically derived racist sentencing.
We are taught, from the very beginning and every day thereafter, that intelligence and rationality are the same thing. We live in a cult of empircism: if something can't be "proven," it can't be verified. And if it can't be verified, it can't be true. Thus we are brought up to believe that facts and data equal truth, are what matter most of all, and that the path of progress follows the straight and narrow road of fact accumulation. We are so indoctrinated that it shows up even in interpersonal arguments. Like tiny court cases, each side marshals their evidence to demonstrate the "truth" of their grievance and the "injustice" of their suffering.
So dependent are we on this way of thinking that when presented with facts that aren't facts, like fake news, alternative facts, or outright lies, we are paralyzed to respond. Facts have come to mean something less than what we thought, though we still cling to the Rational like a bible. What matters about facts now is very little. Declare something true and move on. In this I must say I've finally found something that Wendell Berry and Donald Trump both believe: facts are overrated.
Corporations have always known this, and my generation grew up knowing to doubt everything that companies proclaim. Politicians, until recently, were forced to play the game more adroitly, relying on shaded language and effective "messaging," — both versions of fact-bending.
The late 20-teens taught us that we are being played for suckers worse than we thought.
We thought the Rational Mind was in charge of our government. We thought the Rational Mind would respond to the science of climate change. We thought the Rational Mind would revile corruption. We thought the Rational Mind would never allow the barbarism of putting refugee children in cages.
We're so smart, and yet we're not.
Our error is one of misplaced expectations. Rationality is not the enemy. The Rational Mind, as Berry puts it, "has been performing impressively within the narrowly drawn boundaries of what it provably knows..."
That qualifier is the part that is never ever, ever, centered. But it unlocks the whole problem.
The statement "...within the boundaries of what it provably knows" means you can't argue the math in your calculus class. The math is the math and it is perfectly "true." But it also means, more significantly, that it's only true within boundaries -- within a laboratory setting. Calculus is a map, but it's an extremely partial map. It's not a map of the world. Step out of that class and the math, while no less true, doesn't explain much.
We've been hoodwinked into thinking that all the world's a math problem. Our achievements in business, in government, in science, in education, are magnificent and praiseworthy and even awesome and all are blooms off the rose of the Rational Mind. But this way of doing and thinking and explaining -- this epistemology, is failing us. It's mistaking a flashlight beam for the dawn.
Rational thought and its bounteous crop --- the informed decision, the well-argued claim, the journal article, academic theory, business plan, financial statement, government report -- provides the justification and purpose for every policy, budget decision and legislative act, every jury award, investment and ruling, every standard, curricula and trade agreement. It appears the Rational Mind is behind EVERYTHING our human institutions do.
But there's another way of knowing -- a way that doesn't rely on facts or data or provable information. In this essay, Wendell calls this other way the Sympathetic Mind.
The Sympathetic Mind is not opposed to reason. What it opposes is exclusion. Exclusion is what allows the Rational Mind to "close" its logic, to solve problems in the lab (science and tech) or on paper (neoclassical economics). It is why we have the nonsensical concept of "externalities" — the discarding of anything and everything unhelpful to the problem solver. The Sympathetic Mind is inclined not to externalize but to internalize. It refuses to leave anything out -- hard as that is, messy as that is, painful as that can be. It strains against dismemberment. "Its impulse" Berry writes, "is toward wholeness." Under its watch, we struggle for inclusivity.
The Rational Mind "has gone into business on its own," says Wendell. Its separability is both the dominant fiction and master superstition of the modern age. Unforgivably, it does not admit its exclusivity, nor its complicity in the immiseration of so much life on earth. Our climate crisis and pending economic crisis owe to the failure of the Rational Mind -- which generates knowledge (derived exclusively) to abet power, to make money and to disavow, always, the damage it wreaks.
For decades, centuries even, Americans have been wholly snookered by the Rationalist Enterprise -- the damage part having repeatedly been externalized or (of course), rationalized. And it remains the single greatest problem we face, not just because Frankensteinian artificial intelligences will soon be walking among us, but because of our terrible confusion over race and gender inequity, immigrant and refugee rights, mega-corporate power consolidation and so many other social and political problems that confound the Rational Mind's need for "proof."
Our problems require a way of thinking and acting that doesn't parcel people and other beings into functions and uses; that doesn't evadingly point to the future to justify every impoverishment of the present or destruction of things from the past; that strives to see other people and things and places in their wholeness because many things that are hard to understand can only be known this way, if they can be known at all.
Damage has always been part of the Rationalist program, and the country may be finally waking up to that fact. I'm writing this one day after Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucuses and positioned himself and his comprehensive reform platform as the candidate to beat in the 2020 Democratic primary. The Sanders campaign, and those who have stepped boldly forward to endorse it, know that the change we need has to confront the climate problem and the inequality problem and the racism problem and the xenophobia problem and the poverty problem. People will want to argue that this holistic approach is too hard, too big, and therefore irrational. But once again, that is the Rational Mind reflexively applying lessons from what IT understands (calculus) to what it doesn't (life, health, mercy). And anyhow the Rational Mind, ever in need of certainty, ever in need of control, is always in doubt. It breeds its own skepticism, its limitations the more disappointing because of the insatiability of its appetite.
Can AI be developed for the sake of Team Human? Can the United States introduce socialist concepts into its economy and government without grinding itself to shreds? Can sympathetic respect for limits, both natural and human, begin to inform how we might live anew in our country in the years ahead?
My faith is not in Rationality which is ill-equipped to give us the tools we need now -- like hospitality, kindness, forbearance, and love. What should be more and more obvious to everyone is that our obligation to ourselves can no longer be isolated from our obligation to everything else.
My faith is in Sympathy -- what Berry calls felt knowledge which can be both well-reasoned AND inclusive. Ultimately, Wendell says, our response to the world must be loving beyond knowing. "The safe competence of human work extends no farther, ever, than our ability to think and love at the same time."