Monday, March 02, 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.

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9 comments:

Eddie Morston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Drew said...

We don’t think, understand, and form judgements logically, we select. Or we stand back and watch

Can't go with that. (a) may be true of some people all the time, and (b) may be true of all people some of the time; but (c) is not true of all people, all of the time

Clearly there is such a thing as reason, but how useful is it for changing another guy’s mind?

If it's clearly a 'thing', what's a useful definition?

Actually, some people (I hope including thee and me) are open to having our minds changed by reason and, perhaps even more importantly, by empirical evidence - even if life's too short to go around re-assessing past judgements all the time

accepted, the brain takes a lot of shortcuts, assumptions and approximations, mostly for very valid time-saving reasons, mostly quite successfully: although once in a while we stand to get the trade-off wrong (as between spped and accuracy) and trip up, maybe even very badly indeed

(many computational algorithms do the same)

one suspects that some degree of 'shortcut' is 100% necessary for the business of life (which leads us on to all manner of interesting psychological, sociological, philosophical, neuro-scientific and even physiological lines of enquiry)

but one wants to keep in reserve at all times the ability - and willingness - to question, revisit, be skeptical, revert to first principles, hear the other fellow out etc etc

(my kids were brought up to say, whenever they hear something far-fetched, spoken by whatever 'authority' and in particular from the meejah and those who use the meejah - "do we believe this?")

A K Haart said...

Nick – I ignored responses to the physical world to limit the length of the post, but I take your point because for many of us that’s a decider in changing our minds.

Your comment about shortcuts is a good point – I think we have to make them and that’s partly why building experience is such a long job.

If I respond to an assertion such as your comment, I think I’m selecting rather than reasoning – ie taking a shortcut. I’m selecting words, phrases and meanings from a repertoire in order to defend the post. It would be impossible without the shortcuts.

To my mind the idea of reasoning leaves out our repertoire of responses which always has some input, usually the only input as far as I can see. Plus numerous other social pressures and cues of course.

Reasoning seems to imply processing without contributory input, leaving out decades of experience which is the real master of the situation.

Nick Drew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Drew said...

we can agree that the laboured so-called a priori 'reasoning' which (e.g.) Plato and Descartes reckon is happening, probably isn't (most of the time)

but at the same time, I do indeed consider I have genuinely, laboriously reasoned my way through some of the problems I've encountered over the years - and not just maths problems - even if my approach to many more challenges has, for better or worse, been rather instinctual / based on experience / doing-what-I-did-last-time / doing-what-we-always-do-in-this-situation: sometimes there is no point in reinventing the wheel)

e.g. I have worked out (devised? created?) military & business strategies in a lengthy, systematic, contemplative way, starting with a blank sheet of paper, onto which go all manner of initial inputs (from experience, study, precedents, suggestions-received, brainstorm-type thoughts etc etc), then stewed upon, partly according to various analytic / processing / organising / collating / synthesising principles, partly awaiting 'inspiration'

and I freely acknowledge the exact processes by which this proceeds may be erratic / subconscious / Freudian / obscure, and not as formally deductive or Sherlock-Holmseian as the term 'reasoning' might suggest (though they are, I would argue, 'rational' for all that)

(I have had lengthy exchanges with Sackers around this theme)

I like to think some of the results have been moderately original - whilst acknowledging that there's nothing new under the sun, in much the same way that even a 'new tune' often has influences (listen to what any song-writer will say, when they are being honest)

also, can I say that just as some people are inclined to think that artisitic capabilities or creativity or leadership are 'innate' and can't be taught, and maybe in the same vein that reasoning "the faculty of judgment is a special talent which cannot be taught" (your quote from Kant), so I'd reply that not only can it be practised (Kant again) but that it can be encouraged / stimulated / urged / illustrated by example / studied / made into more of a regular habit than it would be in the absence of encouragement etc

I have given classes in becoming more creative in business (also classes in leadership, for soldiers) in this spirit

sometimes with meagre results! - because some people are resolutely non-leaders, and some are completely incapable of creativity

but others can, at the very least, improve a bit; and some can improve a lot, to the point of becoming fully-fledged

(personally I always thought "I couldn't draw" until I encountered a classmate at the age of 12, whose fearless willingness to essay really sophisticated emulations of DC Comics-type drawings was so inspiring I decided I must be able to do it too)

this is a long-winded way of saying - I reckon one can attempt to teach reasoning etc, & encourage its better practice ...

but without doubt one will have mixed success!

A K Haart said...

Nick - I don't think we are all that far apart. It seems to be a common experience in blogging where similar ideas emerge from different experiences.

I agree there seems to be such a thing as creativity, even intellectual creativity. Quite common in blogging I'd say. I'm not quite sure what it is though - attitude is part of it.

It's like an inner eye. We can't have a second inner eye to see how the first one works because then we'd need a third...

Sackerson said...

JD comments (via EM to Sackerson):

That's another big subject so here are my inadequate thoughts on 'Reason'-

I have sort of touched on the subject here-
http://www.nourishingobscurity.com/2011/06/the-dream-of-reason/

Reason is a Western idea and is derived from the Trivium (logic, rhetoric, grammar) which is the lower group of the Seven Liberal Arts, the higher being the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy)

The study of language was considered to be of lesser importance than the study of number. If you can speak more than one language you quickly realise that words are an inadequate means of conveying your thoughts and ideas from person to person. That is why I don't understand instruction manuals for computers etc; logical deduction is no substitute for intuitive leaps of understanding - well, that's my excuse anyway :)

David Bohm, in his book "Wholeness And The Implicate Order", begins by trying to understand the difference between Western and Eastern modes of thought which difference is reflected in the languages as well as the philosophies prevalent in the West and the East. Hence the statement above, 'reason is a western idea' not necessarily shared with the rest of the world.
http://www.gci.org.uk/Documents/DavidBohm-WholenessAndTheImplicateOrder.pdf

Like Bohm's book, my thoughts are 'a work in progress' :)

A K Haart said...

Sackers/JD - mine are a work in progress too. Language is too flexible and too easily corrupted yet it can work very well where transparency is valued.

qalqal said...

'Reason is the illusion of reality.'

Sufl Inayat Khan.