Monday, 11 August 2008

Be Reasonable

Photo: a drop of water on a CD

A recent edition of New Scientist (26 July 2008) carried a feature entitled What's Wrong With Reason? in which 7 commentators outlined the limits of reason as a tool for finding truth. There is a trap with this sort of article, that people may use the fact that some learned people point out the limits of reason as an excuse for believing all manner of quite unreasonable things. That being said, the article does ask important questions - questions which seem almost blasphemous to many in our science and reason besotted culture.

The two commentators who most interested me were the great linguist Noam Chomsky, and Chris Frith, a neuroscientist, who point out that neurologically, no-one understands reason anyway. Some interesting experiments (such as this one) show that far from making "reasoned" decisions about even such simple matters as what car we are to buy or what we are to eat for breakfast, the overwhelming bulk of our thinking occurs unconsciously and reason exists as a post hoc justifier: that is, that after the complex and hidden systems of our brains have made their choices, reason is employed afterward to make up a story to tell ourselves about why the decision was made. As the Anglican Church tears itself apart into camps all making "reasoned" cases for their own points of view, this observation should give us pause for thought.

Since the enlightenment, reason has become the overwhelming paradigm of thought in the West; with the rise of the scientific method, reason alone has become the standard by which everything is judged. When I went to theological college in the 1970s even Christian theology had been shoe-horned into the scientific method; text were examined as cultural and historic artifacts and we responded to them objectively, writing essays that were reasonable and tried, as far as possible to conform to the scientific method. The effect of the texts on our faith was never discussed. Such subjective responses to the material were discouraged as an interference in the the critical examination of the material. It's no wonder so many of us foundered in our faith at St. John's College. It's no wonder so few of us learned to preach; instead we learned to write essays which we then read to our congregations with fairly predictable results.

It's not reason per se that is the problem but rather the exaltation of reason as the only touchstone of truth. One of my favourite books is John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West in which Saul examines how our Western culture has become besotted with reason, and reason devoid of any other corrective considerations has been employed to the point where, in the name of reason, extremely unreasonable things are done. On his title page he says,

Reason is a narrow system
swollen into an ideology

With time and power it has
become a dogma, devoid of
direction and disguised as
disinterested inquiry.

Like most religions, reason
presents itself as the solution
to the problems it has created.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Kelvin
Its tempting to comment on your posts - and I will not always resist that temptation! (In this case my comment would not at all disagree with you but build out from what you say). However ...

You write so beautifully, and set out catalysts more than ideas (!!), so I just want to say, keep writing!

Anonymous said...

... love is the only solution of any kind... and it is beyond reason...

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is true that Love is a solution. But don't you think that a statement like this is just as limited as making reason the answer to all problems? There are some things where "love" is an inappropriate response to the question - a piece of integral calculus for example. Perhaps an approach to truth which doesn't opt for one aspect or other is what is required? Love and reason? Love and reason and ...?

Anonymous said...

I really like the age of reason. It has given us anesthetics, penicillin, the knowledge of the importance of clean water and decent public sewage systems.

I don’t like the “narrowness” of superstition, magic, pogroms, witch burning and the inquisition. Three cheers for the age of reason.

The only way we are able to begin to contemplate the mystical is that we bring reason to bear upon it. To not appreciate the benefits of reason is, well, unreasonable.

VenDr said...

Of course you are absolutely right about the penicillin and the sanitation and the electric milk frothers. But the age of reason also delivered the first world war, the atomic bomb and our current ecological crisis. Argument is divided about the extent to which it was responsible for the holocaust and other twentieth century expressions of reason running rampant and devoid of other moderating factors.

As John Ralston Saul points out, the danger is not in reason itself, but in the elevation of reason to the only test of truth, and the abandonment of other ways of perceiving truth.

The worst possible response to the excesses of reason is to run the equal and opposite error: trying to abandon reason altogether.

Anonymous said...

So far as stuffing up mankind is concerned the post enlightenment only does it in a more effective and sophisticated way.

Reason helps us to embrace the important paradgim shifts we need to make. We need reason to help us here so that everything doesn't get flushed down the toilet of rumour, anecdotal evidence, superstition, magic and ... 'we are right because we have the biggest guns'

Nothing in the human experience should be elevated to the position of a god including 'reason' but with what, and how do we find our way among those ideas that could very quickly produce a world full of majic potions and snake oil?

Many great scientific discoveries have been made on the urging of dreams, intuitions, hunches, feelings etc ... but the results of these discoveries have always been judged using human reason. On what other basis would we make these judgements.

VenDr said...

I have no argument at all about the use of reason, as I think I have said several times already, in the main post and in the comments. It's the use of reason ALONE which causes the problems. Or perhaps the claim that we are using reason alone - usually a sure sign of self delusion.

Given the premises it starts from, Naziism is a perfectly reasonable social ideology. The "Final Solution" is an example of the application of reason and reason alone to these starting premises. To combat the untruths of the premises requires not reason, but the unproveable intuition that all human beings are of equal worth. To prevent me from ethnically cleansing my neighbouring village requires me to take the entirely unreasonable (by which I mean not derived from reason)stance of seeing, some time before I pull the trigger, the villagers as people with feelings and aspirations very much like my own - as somehow united with me. It requires me to make the unreasonable leap of insight that in harming them I am harming myself.

As you so rightly point out, most (perhaps all?) the truly great scientific discoveries (as opposed to the detail twiddling which comprises most merely technological advances) have a non rational element. Einstein says that his life's work was essentially the working out of a dream he had in adolescence; reason's role was not discovery so much as post hoc ordering - trying to make sense of the non rational leap. Perhaps this is the real role of reason. And to examine the politics of scientific discourse for more than 5 minutes shows that the party spirit, the orthodoxies and heresies, the rivalries and political correctness we are used to in decision making processes of the church are also present in the decision making of these "reasonable" people.

But as to the methods we use to make our decisions. I'm afraid that the really important decisions of my life, and I suspect of most other people's have been made not on the basis of reason, but on hunches, intuitions, feelings,desires, passions,aversions,phobias,prejudices, traditions, suggestibility..... Reason is the storyteller who comes along afterward when I and others ask "why did you do that"
The laboratory data does tend to show that most people work this way most of the time.

August 14, 2008 1:04 PM

Anonymous said...

I think that reason should be used in a balanced and integrated way and I am sure you agree e.g. If I dream about my next great creative endeavour ( a fifty ton sky hook to hang on the nearest cloud) and don't use reason, nothing will be hung.

If I bring reasoning ALONE to bear on nazi final solution senarios to solve or justify my actions then I am as you have rightly said deluded.
I read that there were 13 PhD's on the final solution committee in Germany that finalised the plans - a gang of well educated thugs no less.