Why doesn’t reasoning (with people) work?

The question that has been tormenting me (I do not exaggerate) for the last several years can be put in various forms. I know I have phrased it many different ways for myself, depending on my fluctuating levels of self-awareness, generosity, kindness, exasperation, etc.

  • Why don’t evidence and reasoning persuade them (or us)?
  • Why are they (or those morons, or we) so impervious to logic?
  • What is wrong inside our (or their) heads?

People who are heavily invested in verbal intelligence—that is, in the use of words and logic for understanding realities around us, and in the idea that understanding should govern willing and doing—face this question most acutely. For us, “argument” signifies a normal, collaborative pattern of verbal processing whereby we move from premises and evidence to conclusions. We don’t understand or respect people for whom “argument” signifies something else, such as emotional, unpleasant, and intractable disagreement. What is wrong with those people? And then “those people’ includes ourselves, what is wrong with us?

Yesterday I read an entry by the philosopher and writer James K. A. Smith in Christian Century’s renewed “How My Mind Has Changed” series. For me, it is one of the most profound personal essays I have read. He narrates the process of his own coming to terms, over the course of many years, with the question that has been bothering me. I commend his essay to you. If you are interested in this question, you should read what he says. It bears the helpfully verbose title “I’m a Philosopher: We Can’t Think Our Way Out of This Mess: I’m Throwing in My Lot with the Poets and Painters, the Novelists and Songwriters.” I read it quickly and intend to reread it slowly, and probably more than once. I am hoping that it will help me finally stop arguing (in either sense) with people who seem to me to be stupid or perverse or both, and to think better of them, and to remember that I myself am also not some kind of infallible and unemotional reasoning machine.

This morning I read Luke’s version of the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4–15). Here is what strikes me this morning from this parable.

By way of setting, this parable follows Luke’s introduction (8:1–3) to his account of Jesus’s travels with his followers (the twelve men and three sponsoring women) through cities and villages. He travels in order to proclaim and spread the good news of the Kingdom of God. He has a verbal message. He wants people to know and understand something, and to will and do things in line with that knowledge and understanding.

Now, Luke’s readers already know, when they begin to read this account of Jesus’s efforts, that the results were—how to say it?—mixed. When Jesus Christ brought good news, and supported it with evidence, and reasoned with people about how they should receive it, some were persuaded and followed him. Others were not persuaded and killed him. This we know. So in Luke, as in Mark and in Matthew, when we begin (well, in Luke it’s a re-beginning) to read about Jesus’s presentation of evidence and logic to various audiences, we are also given a story that explains the mixed results.

This is the Parable of the Sower. This is the story from which this blog takes its title (verba sparsa = words sown).

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to seeing in this story the answer to the question that has been bothering me. I guess I’m slow.

But Jesus’s twelve man-followers—and maybe also his three women-sponsors, or maybe not?—were also slow. So Jesus gives them a story, and then he also gives them an explanation of the story.

If you don’t know it, or don’t remember it well, you should go read it (in translation or in the original Greek).

Lining up the explanation with the story, the thing that is startling is that Jesus treats the reasoned, verbal message (logos) as seed (sporos). The people to whom the message is presented are the ground on which the seed is sowed. The fate of the seed depends on the quality of the ground and factors in the environment.

In the story, birds might eat the seed. In the explanation: maybe people aren’t persuaded by your evidence and reasoning because the devil snatched it out of their brain.

In the story, the seed might not grow because it fell on rocks and there was no moisture to cause it to germinate. In the explanation, people might listen to you and seem to get it and start willing and acting accordingly, but then adverse circumstances make them give up.

In the story, the seed might fall among thorns and be choked out by the thorns. In the explanation, worry or wealth or pleasures might choke out the message and keep it from having its effect.

In the story, the seed might fall on good ground and grow and bear a lot of fruit. In the explanation, the reasoned message might be heard by some with a good a noble heart (en kardia kalē kai agathē). These are the people who will “get it” (grasp it and hold on to it, katechousin). They will bear fruit through their patient endurance (en hypomonē).

The sower of seed does not stop to argue with the birds and the rocks and the thorns. The ground is what it is. Most people will not grasp the message. In most people it will not bear any fruit. The sower goes on his way, sowing the seed, telling his story. Some hear it and rejoice and bear much good fruit.

I don’t know what to make of this story, this way of dealing with (or actually not dealing with) people who just don’t get it. I cannot write it off. I have to take it seriously, give it its moment, its never-ending moment, because it is the prefatory explanation, in the one book that is my first and last guide, of the fate of what is to me the most important of all logoi, all reasoned governing accounts. But it feels like a profoundly pessimistic answer to my question, and I do not want to take it as the only answer.

It is not the only answer. From within the Bible, other stories of seeds and plants come back to me. Without looking them up: a vineyard in Isaiah; in 1 Corinthians, seeds not just scatter-sown but planted and watered and tended until they grow; in the gospels, a tree cursed to death for its fruitlessness, but also another tree manured one more time and given one more season to bear fruit or not. And beyond the Bible, minds steeped in the Bible can tell us other, better stories (Jamie Smith’s testimony, for example.)

And really even in the Parable of the Sower it’s not true that the soil is what it is, and that’s that. In part, this parable is an extended narration by Jesus of his exhortation, “Take heed how you hear.” The story is warning the ground not to be rocky, dry, or thorny. You don’t warn someone for whom you hold out no hope.

But Jesus’s story tells us also at least this: It’s all well and good to dream of an abstract realm where evidence feeds into logic which unfailingly produces belief and motivates appropriate action, but you and I don’t live in that realm. Where we live, a logos is a just a sporos, and a bird or a devil can swoop in and steal it, or money or pleasure can choke it, or we can get it, and then, when our circumstances change a little, we can lose it. Or it can grow, and bear much fruit.

2 thoughts on “Why doesn’t reasoning (with people) work?

  1. Right on target, James! The parable, it seems to me, is at least reminding us that God’s Word to us – though his gift entirely – also requires our acceptance, our willingness to receive the gift, if it is going to be alive and effective in us. Revelation is always a dialogue.
    Brian D.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thomas Merton in his book “Faith and Violence” refers to Hannah Arendt’s book “Truth and Politics” In which “she concludes that the plain impracticality of truth tends to make lying much more interesting for men of action since lying is a form of political action, while telling the truth is not. More and more frequently we observe that the distortion of truth in favor of policy is regarded as political ‘realism.’ In other words, fact becomes ancillary to political will. Nor, in this ironic analysis, is rationality at all necessary to politics. Irrationality may prove much more realistic and effective in manipulating opinion and getting things done. . . . But in addition to the sheer volume of information there is the even more portentous fact of falsification and misinformation by which those in power are often completely intent not only on misleading others but even on convincing themselves that their own lies are ‘historical truth’.”


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