reason

At a first glance, the idea of reason as mankind’s savior seems wholly justified. After all, the Enlightenment, along with its deep belief in science and logic, has brought many improvements to our lives and knowledge of the world.

Consequently, the last few centuries have seen an explosion of ideologies — political, philosophical and other — all claiming reason as their cornerstone and ultimate starting point. 

However, a problem gradually started to emerge. Conclusions, albeit all nominally derived through the very same faculty —  reason, weren’t matching up. 

Politics is rife with this examples of left-wing and right-wing self-proclaimed followers of reason who could never sit down and agree even if their life depended on it. 

The idea of reason as applied in maths might seem a foolproof way to reach the Truth. Yet, in human affairs the results have only occasionally lived up to the original high expectations.

As a result, I have been questioning the wisdom of putting reason on such a high pedestal that reasonable has become synonymous with right. This post represents an attempt at explaining why.

***

I have been thinking about this post for quite some time, but I first wanted to collect my thoughts before writing anything down. In the past few weeks, however, I have been exposed to some interesting ideas on the topic which finally nudged me into sharing.

Let’s start at the place discussed in the last section, namely ideologies and cults of reason. 

Starting with Plato’s philosopher kings and culminating with modern technocrats, organizing society according to reason is not a new idea. And a priori, it seems promising indeed — the real world, as everything in the universe, should conform to the laws of logic and thus we can use them safely in perfecting our earthly experience.

So, how are we to reconcile the apparent conflicts of contradicting philosophies such as, to take one example among many, central planning socialists and reason-committed capitalists

Of course, one answer is the preferred one of both sides, namely: the other side are wrong and unreasonable. A priori, that could well be true. But there are times when the differences persist even after all evidence has been presented. Sometimes, it’s the starting assumptions, values and preferences that determine the final destination rather than a reasoned critique of the various possibilities.

Already, that’s a problem. If two reason-loving and logic-respecting parties can reach opposing conclusions just by virtue of difference in taste or preference, then we are forced to admit that oftentimes reason leads us to a place long ago predetermined by a-rational factors and nothing more.

Of course, one can start delving deeper into tastes and preferences, deconstructing and criticizing them. But one cannot bootstrap this whole process by reason alone. There have to be some fundamental values which serve to enable any rational criticism of all other values. 

In the end, it seems that it is not reason one meets at the beginning of reasoning. Rather, it is something like emotions, faith, will or chance — all of which carry hardly the same logical credibility.

But, going back to the initial example, there are other possibilities. Maybe both central planners and rabid capitalists are right about some things and wrong about others. Maybe each side rightly sees a part of reality and then hastily generalizes its conclusions to the whole of reality.

In some sense, pointing out the fallings on humans is not in itself an attack on reason. At least not reason in the abstract. Yet, we, humans, are not gods and we can never practice anything but our own human form of reason — the form so exalted ever since the Enlightenment began. (perfect reason, even if it works, will forever stay inaccessible to us)

Put differently, when talking of reason, we must accept our biases, shortfalls and imperfections. We must be willing to admit that we are not omniscient and our generalizations might turn out wrong. And we must recognize that nature doesn’t always promise us to be regular or easy to comprehend.

Let’s unpack this last paragraph.

Firstly, let’s take the topic of imperfect knowledge. Now, clearly each man and each woman are only ever present at one place at a time and thus only ever see a small slice of the world’s events. (and see it imperfectly) This fact does not necessarily have to be a severe limitation as long as nature is good to us and repeats itself along regular patterns. But that is not always so…

The result is therefore a mix of observation, hidden regularity hypotheses, and generalizations which then hopefully obeys the laws of logic. And it’s not like we could always and explicitly state our assumptions, let alone reasonably justify them. In fact, the best we can do is usually along the lines “well, it works”.

This line of reasoning can be extended further. Even if we started enumerating assumption after assumption, meticulously putting nature into language, we have no guarantee that we would ultimately achieve a true description of reality. 

For one, the world might well require infinite assumptions. For another, some of these assumptions might well be beyond our cognitive ability to state and comprehend. And finally, it’s unclear (at least to me) whether words are not too fuzzy and thus useless for the task of drawing any meaningful distinctions. (and conversely, whether a rigid logic would be expressive enough to describe the world as it is)

In short, the world might defy our rationalistic optimism. It might be that at high resolution, the world is full of incomprehensible complexity as opposed to the humanly preferable and graspable simplicity.

***

I recently began reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s an impressive book full of densely packed philosophical ideas. But for the purposes of this post, I only need to talk about the introduction. And I need to do it mostly because, coincidentally, Chesterton too makes a great case against a blind reliance on reason.

Firstly, Chesterton explains well how reason makes one susceptible to oversimplifying the world for the sake of an ideology. He gives many examples which can conveniently be described, in the language of Popper, as unfalsifiable hypotheses. In other words, ideas which cannot reasonably be escaped or disproved.

In the book, Chesterton discusses the example of solipsism, i.e. the belief that the external world is really a fragment of one’s imagination. He also talks about materialistic determinism, no doubt because of the influence Marxist thought had at the time. But one can easily think of other philosophies and worldviews too, including any good old conspiracy theory.

The unifying point of all such beliefs is that they stand compatible with everything one can do to try and disprove them. One cannot really reason him/herself out of a conspiracy theory just like one cannot prove free will to the committed determinist.

It is in this very phenomenon that Chesterton sees many of the dangers of reason. Reason can trap us in a system of thought which is impossible to reasonably escape. (and which at the same time carries high authority and propels us to act in the world)

The way out, per Chesterton, is to basically appeal to the complexity of the world. In other words, the real world is too complicated to fit nicely within the bounds of a simple idea, a conspiracy theory or an ideology.

Ultimately, we must adopt richer rather than simpler and blander explanations. One can fancy believing that their spouse and everything else is imaginary, but one is better off believing the conceptually much richer explanation of an objective world existing independently of any one’s imagination.

(note that the usual way of resolving similar disputes, a la Occam’s razor, proceeds in a similar vein by opting for the simplest of explanations to the exclusion of all others; in both cases, it is worth asking why simplicity or complexity should have anything to do with the final truth about the world)

Overall, Chesterton argues that over reliance on reason easily dooms one to the fate of the solipsist — having rational reasons for a belief while being able to explain away any possible counterargument. Perhaps that is why there is so much disagreement in politics, philosophy and even in science. (e.g. entertaining exposition of a major disagreement in economics)

***

Recently, I also discovered a great podcast called “Mixed Mental Arts”.

To my great pleasure, I found that the question of rationality is one of the central topics of discussion. 

Now, I already mentioned that human reason, and not reason in the abstract, is all we have access to; that the Enlightenment’s belief in reason was ultimately one in the  human ability to reason.

In some sense, this is the starting point for one of the most important modern discussions about rationality. Namely, do we even have it in the first place.

Now, it might seem absurd to ask such a question in the face of science. However, it is precisely science which has cast doubt on our ability to reason.

As the MMA podcast is quick to remind us, there is a good reason to believe that our thinking is mostly made up of rationalizations for various a-rational biases. In other words, we choose based on emotions and only later make up a story why (interested?). If that sounds like a strange idea, consider how often people actually change their beliefs after facing a knockdown argument to their position. Precisely…

Thanks to the podcast I was introduced to a great example in support of the above position, known for short as intuitionism. The example is the case of Elliot from Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”

So, what is so special about Elliot? Well, for one thing he has suffered brain damage to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. As a result, Elliot’s ability to link emotion and reason has been severely inhibited.

Perfect, right? No more stupid emotional biases to get in the way. Elliot’s life must have improved, no doubt!

Well, no.

(incidentally, this whole series of reasoning could well have passed as absolutely rational if told in a different context as long as one buys the common idea of the separation of reason and emotion!)

In reality, what happened was that Elliot’s ability to make wise decisions was severely hampered. Without access to emotional data, Elliot was forced to make even the most mundane decisions on rational grounds. Imagine choosing an ice-cream flavor to share with your date completely based on reason alone, without the slightest appeal to your tastes! 

Needless to say, Elliot’s life got worse as a result of his brain injury. It turns out that a measured hack to the head is not the secret to hyper rationality. Albeit being phrased in a religious language, Mark 10:9 seems apt:

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Phrased more directly, putting reason and emotion asunder does not improve our ability to reason. Human reason depends crucially on emotional inputs.

But if emotions play such a huge role in our rationality, a scary question arises: do we merely rationalize our emotions whenever we try to construct an argument? Is motivate reasoning all there is to human reasoning at all? Is it merely by emotion that we end up choosing one assumption over another on which to ground our belief system?

***

In conclusion, I would like to go back to Chesterton and introduce him to the MMA podcast. Not just for the sake of amusement, but also to explore a serious point on the important question of human rationality, namely:

If reason is significantly influenced and driven by emotion and if it often ends up oversimplifying the world, then are we justified in trusting it blindly when looking for the truth?

Now, reason might well be a good tool to have under our belt (for why would we have evolved it otherwise?), but it’s far from the godlike ability that it is often presented as. One shouldn’t forget that propaganda is only propaganda because one knows  and prefers the opposing facts better.

So, having a reason is not automatically a good reason to do something; and having no reason is not automatically a reason not to. Sometimes, the relevant facts about the world can be hard to put into words. This is why we can resist adopting a well-reasoned view until we finally discover somebody else articulating a good counter-argument and feeling relieved that our position has finally become “justified” at last. (when, in truth, it has always been; it was human reason, not reality, that was at fault)

In the end, this is probably the take home message. Reasons, even the best of them, are not  and probably should not be calls to actions. It might be awkward to refuse to do something without a reason, but sometimes it’s simply the wise thing to do. 

As Chesterton suggests, reason is dangerous precisely because it convinces us that the reasons we have in our head justify all sorts of actions. In the name of fitting the world into the bounds of a well-reasoned ideology, we feel emboldened and justified to act.

And that’s precisely the problem. We are rightly skeptical of emotional outbursts and impulsive decisions because we know the disasters that then follow. 

But if the reasons we use to justify our actions are little more than a word-veil for our emotions, why do we never doubt reason itself?

After all, in the hands of emotion-driven intelligent people, motivated and unchecked reason can lead the whole world astray. (and that is why many today are rightly losing faith in academia; there might not be a strong and coherent verbal reason why yet; but that matters little — humans are surprisingly wise!)

***

In brief, the conclusion is this:

It’s not like reason can do no right.

But it’s also not like it can do no wrong.

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