Reason: A Goddess with Feet of Clay

In the wake of the French revolution in the 1790s emerged a new religion, the Cult of Reason. This new faith was dedicated to the de-Christianizination of Europe and in churches all over France a new goddess was enthroned. Sensibly the new high-priests shied away from objectifying Reason by setting up statues of it, instead women, often young and scantily clad, were sat on newly erected altars whilst holding torches symbolizing enlightenment. Reason was to shine its guiding and liberating light throughout the world and bring eternal peace, freedom and universal brotherhood – well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Of all the Ways of Knowing, Reason is often assumed to be the most powerful and objective tool for generating pure knowledge and absolute truth. It is therefore worth exploring the foundations and justifications for these claims.

Rationalism, the belief in Reason as the supreme source of and justification for knowledge, is based on the idea that all knowledge claims stand or fall by virtue whether they can withstand the razor-sharp examination of the rational mind. Why this should be so has to be accepted as an undeniable truth, for Rationalism has no choice but to find its justification within itself since it does not accept the authority of any other source of knowledge. Knowledge claims, we are told, must not only be based on well-supported evidence and they must also be logically coherent. Logical coherence, it is claimed, is based on universally accepted and objective rules which guide the potential knower towards incontrovertible truths. If only it were so, the purest form of rational thought is deductive reason which proceeds from accepted premises inexorably towards an unarguable conclusion. This may work well in most areas of Mathematics for example, where syllogisms generally use numbers, letters or symbols but the moment you begin to replace them with language based premises all sorts of cracks begin to appear. It is for example perfectly possible to arrive at completely nonsensical conclusions using immaculate logic or to produce ‘knowledge’ already assumed in the premises. Logic is a very effective tool for demonstrating the force of what you already believe but it is hopeless at generating genuinely new ideas; this is because it has to begin with unprovable assumptions from which flow concepts already present within them. But do not take my word for it, Bertrand Russell surely one of the most highly regarded advocates of Reason admitted that “deduction has turned out to be much less powerful than was formerly supposed; it does not give new knowledge, except as to new forms of words for stating truths in some sense already known.” Every deductive argument suffers from the fatal flaw that in the end it will always be dependent on an act of faith, either in its assumed premises or in its possible conclusions.

The assumed authority of Reason in Western Thought has of course many causes, some I would like to contend are largely psychological rather than purely philosophical. Logic appeals to the way our brains operate, consciously or sub-consciously we are constantly trying to find meaning and coherence in our experiences, and Reason provides us with the tools for doing so. We must find reasons for and in everything. Logic also serves to achieve one often over-looked expression of our survival instinct, having to have the last word. Rational arguments give us the illusion of expressing great truths when in fact their main purpose is to overcome our opponents whose arguments generally are no less logical than our own. Logic is the most powerful servant of Rhetoric. We trust Reason also because we abhor uncertainty, it gives us the illusion of standing on solid ground.  Reason is also as shot-through with biases as any other Way of Knowing. We often reject arguments not because their logic is faulty but because they undermine our sense of certainty in our own beliefs. The perpetrators of the terrible acts in Paris last month did not lack a rationale, but their logic lead them to entirely different conclusions from the majority. In the face of such barbarism logic is entirely impotent for although we may find their reasons unpalatable, they use logic to justify their actions, just as much as we do.

Logic is therefore,  very much ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ Either the rules of logic are not as fixed as some imagine them to be, or we seem to be notoriously incompetent at applying them. Either way, Reason seems to promise more than it can deliver. This is not to say that Reason should be abandonned altogether, but one should simply be honest about its limitations and imperfections. It does remain an essential companion to the other Ways of Knowing but one would do well to heed the wise words of Blaise Pascal, “There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude Reason and to admit nothing but Reason.”  By all means let us behave and think rationally, but let’s not be blinded by Reason’s cold and emotionally empty promise of a brave new world.

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