Friday, May 20, 2011

We Can't (Always) Be Reasonable

Human Reason

“Come, now, let us reason together,” says HaShem
—Isaiah 1:18, The Tanach (Jewish Bible)

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it
in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the
Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives
itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its
will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason
that you love yourself?”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées No. 277 (1670)

“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1788)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: No. 43 from “Los Capricos”: Etching and aquatint, 1796-98. “Reason is the natural order of things; but imagination is the organ of meaning,” C.S. Lewis said. 
Image Credit: Francisco de Goya [1746–1828]: Produced 1796–98
Source: Wikipedia

In the long and storied Western tradition, when two people get in a lively discussion or debate of strongly opposing views, one might say to the other, "Let's be reasonable." What that person is doing, besides suggesting that the opposing argument is not reasonable, is calling attention to the power of reason over emotion. The idea of using reason in argument dates to at least the ancient Israelites during the Bronze Age, and then onward to the Greeks and Romans during the Greco-Roman period in history.

After essentially laying dormant for centuries, it was then slowly and critically formed into a sharp implement by the Europeans during the Renaissance, with such thinkers as Petrarch, Erasmus and Montaigne; and during the Age of Enlightenment by Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal and Galileo. Many figures led the way to the modern use of reason in argument. Immanual Kant comes to mind as one of the leading lights of pure reason and of modern philosophy. Now, few besides a madman would argue against the use of reason. It is among civilization's greatest cognitive discoveries. marshaling ideas and facts toward a coherent argument.

Even so, we are far from the ideal. Today, we might say or think we use reasonable ideas and call to the powers of reason. But it's not so much about the search for truth as about winning arguments. Persuading others to our side. Scoring points. And using facts and information that "prove" the point we are trying to make. Such explains what scientists call confirmation bias. We ignore facts that go against our position, and accept those that confirm it. Or to put it another way, we assign more weight or validity to arguments that agree with our position or thinking on a matter.

There might be a reason why humans act that way. In a Newsweek article, The Limits of Reason (Aug 5, 2010), Sharon Begley writes:
The reason we succumb to confirmation bias, why we are blind to counterexamples, and why we fall short of Cartesian logic in so many other ways is that these lapses have a purpose: they help us “devise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people,” says psychologist Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania. Failures of logic, he and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber of the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris propose, are in fact effective ploys to win arguments. That puts poor reasoning in a completely different light.

Arguing, after all, is less about seeking truth than about overcoming opposing views.
So, there we have it. Few persons think in a Cartesian way with mathematical logic and pure reason. Which gets back to the point of reason as a tool to use when needed. Because arguments are put forth to convince and persuade others, cherry-picking facts and figures, ignoring others, the use of reason today is not so much a search for truth. It is reason in pursuit of being right, of proving a point. We see it all the time among politicians and TV pundits.

No one is listening to the opposing side. The time is spent shouting the other person down. And preparing a counter-attack. It's a war of words. And it can be very nasty at times with flying invectives, railing accusations, and cutting criticism. In such cases, reason is but a poor relative, talked about but never invited to the party.

And although reason has its limitations, it has its place. The lack of its presence allows others to take its place. If there is no real search for truth or meaning, then we are inexorably moving to pure pragmatism: "whatever works is likely true." Yet, that has its limitations, as some are finding out. On a grander scale of humanity and for its long-term betterment, such reasoning, or lack thereof, will eventually fail and fail us in a miserable way, bringing with it misery to untold many.

The reasons are the ones that have always been with us. There is no accountability to a higher authority, or to some universal standard, or to a universal morality. Equally important, and this argument is hard for logicians to understand, humans need mystery.

For many, it's about winning at any cost. But there is more to life than winning.


  1. The alternative to reason is faith. Hitler's faith in the need to eliminate Jewish genes led to unspeakable horror. So did Mao's faith in the need to end the equality casued by education, which led to the Cultural Revolution. Who knows where the faith of Iran's mullahs will lead?

  2. Prof Jochnowitz: Your point is well taken. Faith can lead to disastrous consequences. But so can reason, if one reasons a way to such a decision, based on confirmation bias.


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