Monday, 2 March 2015

There is no such thing as reason

Not an easy argument to make but I’m up for it. Clearly there is such a thing as reason, but how useful is it for changing another guy’s mind? Not at all useful seems to be a common experience so the version I’m concerned with is the useless one from Oxford dictionaries.

The power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically:

Nope, reason is much more like a unicorn - easy to define but locating one in the wild is a tad difficult. As for forming judgements logically...

…the faculty of judgment is a special talent which cannot be taught, but must be practised. This is what constitutes our so-called mother-wit, the absence of which cannot be remedied by any schooling. For although the teacher may offer, and as it were graft into a narrow understanding, plenty of rules borrowed of others, the faculty of using them rightly must belong to the pupil himself, and without that talent no precept that may be given is safe from abuse.
Immanuel Kant - Critique of Pure Reason

Firstly the easy part – beliefs on which we base our reasoning. Beliefs are fixed for us by parents, family life, religion, nationality, culture, politics, education, friends, colleagues, career, authorities, advertising, propaganda, gossip, health, age and lifestyle with a long etcetera to follow.

We may rebel against our parent's beliefs, but only because we’ve found a better source. Young people are good at that but they usually grow out of it unless they opt for politics.

What we refer to as reason in is almost always the art of defending belief, general disposition or some less overt standpoint. Belief is vitally important to what we are or hope to become. Or perhaps I should say that it is vitally important to what we are required to be socially.

Well worth defending then.

The verbal dexterities we employ are often grossly over-dignified by calling them reasons rather than causes or excuses. A touch of spurious dignity hardly ever works anyway because the other chap always insists on looking at things irrationally.

And really - that can’t be right can it? The other chap can’t always be wrong. Not every single time surely?

Yet if I’d been a Guardian-reading member of the chattering classes I’d probably be a politically correct prig with a profound belief in sentimental drivel - social, political, economic, environmental. A scary thought but comforting too. We are what we are. Not out of choice but it’s curiously satisfying all the same and therein lies the problem. We are what we are – reason cannot change that.

Secondly the old part – philosophy.

Truth lives, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.
William James – Pragmatism

Reasoning is a search for whatever idea leads to few surprises – James’ credit system. It’s why we have consensus, our collective way of keeping surprises to a minimum. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them. Reason is rarely the best way to see off those challenges though. That’s why it isn’t popular.

Alternatives to consensus are a neutral detachment, scepticism or flat disagreement. I’ll ignore disagreement because that is usually an alternative consensus. Detachment and scepticism are more interesting. For convenience I’ll bundle them together as scepticism. The subject to too vast for a single post so economies have to be made.

So thirdly we have scepticism which tends to yield fewer surprises than consensus, especially for complex issues such as societies, cultures, economics, politics, religion, the arts, the environment, history, human psychology, health, diet, sport and so on. Oh – and blogging. There are no golden rules though. As ever it is a matter of selecting the best option.

Selecting – that’s a better word than reason too. Scepticism is not so much a matter of reasoning as a veto on ideas which seem unlikely to yield fewer surprises than standing back until the fog clears – if it ever does.

It’s an animal faculty. Sniffing the winds of change, listening, weighing the risks, bringing experience to bear, allowing others to make the first step across the swamp or throw the first spear at the big hairy thing.

We have to use the word reason because it is so deeply embedded in our language, but it is not a great idea to be deceived by it. Sceptical detachment is a better guide. Even flippancy is often better, especially when it comes to making fun of ludicrously obvious narratives dreamed up by political airheads.

As an aside, there are loads of those around these days aren’t there – political airheads? At least that’s the detached view hem hem.

We don’t think, understand, and form judgements logically, we select. Or we stand back and watch. Perhaps reason is best viewed as a spectator sport.


Demetrius said...

When rhetoric collides with reason, too often it is reason that loses. That is because the rhetoric is claimed to be a higher form of reason. This is the language of the spinners and spouters.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - it almost always loses, especially when sentiment is involved.