By Jon Cogburn
Nearly everyone, and certainly everyone reading this, has had the following experience. You are having a pretty good conversation and suddenly your interlocutor says or does something of (in your opinion) such astonishing unreason that from that point onwards you are precluded from taking them seriously. If the variety of unreason on display is relatively novel and not in the moment threatening, you might continue the conversation in the spirit of instantiating Vonnegut's Martian anthropologist. What the hell is going on here? Or you might try to change and refocus the discussion towards common ground. On the other hand, if the variety of unreason on display is boring or threatening, and the person won't move on, you begin desperately plotting escape. William S. Burroughs' old advice to look bores in the eye and think "I hate you. I love you. I hate you. I love you. . ." ad infinitum was supposed to help in exactly these cases, but it doesn't really, as I'm sure people not awed by his celebrity found out themselves when being subjected to his own loudest drunk at the bar routine. In fact, it works much better to look at your watch, feign surprise, and interrupt that you have to go talk to the departmental administrative assistant. Though, obviously, don't try this trick if the departmental administrative assistant is your unserious interlocutor.
- When, in the first year of graduate school some of us were together studying for an epistemology (George Pappas and/or Marshall Swain) exam, one of the male members of our cohort suddenly piped up. "Do you guys believe in witches?" What? What? "You may not know this about me, but I'm a witch." In part because of how especially jarring this was in the middle of an epistemology study session, from that point on, most of the people in our cohort just didn't take the witch seriously. How can one be so eloquent on the distinction between science and pseudo-science yet enthusiastically embrace the latter?
- When, an ex-girlfriend's father started mocking a Charlie Patton CD I was playing. Among other things the girlfriend's father asking me if Patton was even singing in English. Moreover, the mocker taught music in an inner city college. Fine if you don't like 1920s blues music. Fine if you teach music and don't like 1920s blues music. But teaching music and so assiduously making fun of 1920s blues music renders you unserious.
- More recently, when someone justifies voting for Trump by trying to convince you that Clinton is worse. This sometimes involves the kind of fake news that competent adults can see through, such as supposed pedophilia rings or a history of political murder and satanic eating practices in Clinton's inner circle. Sometimes this involves massive exaggeration of real things such as the Clintons' tendency to be financial bounders, their (entirely justified) secretiveness and paranoia, or the fact that she stuck with her husband despite his awfulness. To the non-serious Trump voters these have to get exaggerated just to the point where there is a moral equivalence between Hillary's problems and Trump's own corruption, venality, and incompetence. While this kind of thing is more understandable than the fake newsers, it's still the mark of an unserious person.
- When someone tells you the Bible is literally true because it says in the Bible that the Bible is literally true. Nope. If you find that reasoning at all compelling, you are not a serious human being.
- When you find out that an adult still likes Ayn Rand as a novelist or philosopher. You can't take them seriously anymore.
- When (true story) you find out that your ex-girlfriend still likes (and did during the entirety of your year and a half relationship) Ayn Rand. At this point you no longer take yourself seriously anymore. What kind of self absorbed jerk misses something like that? Or was she preternaturally skilled at covering it up because she knew you would not take her seriously once you found out? No, you yourself are just fundamentally unserious.
The last one is important, because people who are self-aware will at various times in their lives be forced to aim the response at themselves, determining that they themselves are unserious. And this leads to a dilemma. A person is either self-aware or not. People who are not self aware are not serious people. People who are self aware realize that they are not serious people. "Realize" is a success verb. Therefore people who are self aware are also not serious people. Therefore no one is a serious person.
Slightly complicating this is the fact that self aware people are also aware of the fact that they can be overly censorious with respect to the appellation "unserious." British sports fans? Unserious. Gum chewers? Leg bouncers? Not serious human beings. This might seem to undermine our dilemma. Perhaps the self aware person is being overly censorious with respect to determining that she herself is unserious? But then some people might still be serious. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work, because being overly censorious is also a paradigm mark of the unserious person. So all we've done is replace our dilemma with a trilemma.
At this point it probably behooves us to get closer to determining exactly what is at issue when we determine that someone is unserious. I think that what we're doing is taking them out of what Sellarsians call "the space of reasons." When things are functioning normally, we paradigmatically understand human behavior in terms of what rational people do based on their beliefs and desires. While philosophers ("internalists" about reason) tend to think of rationality here as merely encompassing the kind of reasoning about how to efficiently realize desires, given background beliefs, most (serious) people tend to think that part of rationality's remit is to correctly assess the normative states of the world, including the desirability or not of various goals. In any case, to determine that someone is unserious is to prescind from understanding and predicting their behavior in terms of intentional psychology. The "reasons" they act are just causes of behavior, causes that lead them to be systematically disordered with respect to reasons in the normative sense. When we ask why an adult continues to be a fan of Atlas Shrugged we are not eliciting a defense of that novel, but rather an etiology of that novel's fans.
But if everyone is unserious it then follows that intentional explanation is always besides the point. Humans are really just congeries of particles bouncing around in the void, and we can forget all the stuff about autonomously using reason to determine what should be done and said.
When I'm at my most Calvanist, I sometimes think that this is the case. We're all just these pathetic, depraved creatures and Heidegger was right when he said that only a God can save us. But be that as it may, I don't think our trilemma entails this. For when we determine that someone is a non-serious person, we are almost always in the grips of whatever heuristic bias causes us to overgeneralize in the face of perceived danger. We have to abandon intentional psychology in light of others and our own non-seriousness, but these episodes, no matter how periodic, rarely extend to every facet of our behavior. Someone can vote irrationally yet order nearly every other aspect of their lives in accordance with the good, the true, and the beautiful. But when we see evidence of irrationality in others the threat that it is indicative of systematic rot leads us be defensive and pre-emptively take that person out of the space of reasons.
This hypocrisy and modularity is a good thing in terms of allowing us to live with one another. Imagine if Trump voters were constrained to be as venal and stupid in every other aspect of their lives? It would be apocalyptic. But, on the other hand, hypocrisy and modularity are not all good, since a certain ideal of a unification of one's beliefs, desires, and projects is also normative for us. That is, we wouldn't feel the need to appeal to narrative structures in making sense of our own lives were it not the case that our own lives were so distressingly modular. There is something disturbing about the person who is able to rein in their awfulness at the borders of whatever it takes to rationalize voting for Trump. If that's really possible, in what sense is are we really dealing with one person any more? To the extent that we are, we have to conclude that the one person is not a serious one.
Is quadrolemma a word? In any case, I'm going to get back to obsessively reading Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion. If that makes you think that I'm an unserious person, so be it.