A historical and cognitive guide to why rational thinking fails to persuade.
From the beginning philosophers have quarreled over rationalism and empiricism, building between thinkers a wall that, as far as I know, has never been breached. Empiricists trust experience above all else. When an idea falls outside the realm of their experience, they reject it because it falls outside the realm of their experience. To the rationalist this sounds suspiciously circular. They prefer to establish rules and principles and when experience contradicts their rules, they find it suspicuous. Why? Because it breaks their rules.
As a consequence we find ourselves trapped in circles that spin in opposite directions.
Too often rational thinkers think of empirical thinkers as irrational. In fact, they may simply be non-rational, which doesn’t make their thinking wrong. (Their conclusions, perhaps, but not their thinking.)
Those who try to embrace both quickly discover that the two never fit comfortably together. Like your drunk uncle and anal aunt forced to share the same hotel room. Sooner or later conflict arises. We can patch the differences over, but the patch is temporary.
The trap empiricists fall into (and I am an empiricist) is to believe that their experiences are shared by everyone else in the world, when, in fact, they aren’t. What seems to them to be common sense, is little more than a select set of experiences (or, more specifically, memories of those experiences filtered through an increasingly narrow set of expectations based on previous experiences that undermine the accuracy of their memories).
What we lack too often is empathy, the ability to imagine and embrace a world of experiences and beliefs foreign to our own. By empathy I mean more than the stereotypical emotional empathy (I feel your pain, sweetie), but and intellectual and emotional willingness to view the world through the eyes of others I don’t normally agree or associate with. Far more demanding than formulating arguments, empathy requires us to understand and address the ideas and arguments that compel those who disagree with us.
Admittedly, I can’t listen to Trump or Sean Hannity without getting angry. I can, however, discuss and listen to other conservatives who offer me an insight into the minds of people who follow Trump and Hannity. It doesn’t matter whether or not their followers would offer me the same courtesy.
We won’t always be successful, but at least we made the attempt.