Monday, November 12, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature,
history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE UNREASON OF PURE REASON
For a number of years now, I have been familiar with a certain sort of popular polemic and handbook, which presumes to set the world straight by preaching the virtues of pure reason.
Many moons ago I read Madsen Pirie’s The Book of the Fallacy - A Handbook for Intellectual Subversives (1985) and later his How to Win Every Argument – The Use and Abuse of Logic (2007). I read Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic (2003). More recently, there was Joe Bennett’s Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works (2012), which I got to review for the New Zealand Listener, and which is a cruder, jokier, newspaper-column-style once-over-lightly of the type of thing Pirie and Whyte had already done.
Though different in style, all these books have the same basic technique and outlook. What they say is that, if everybody knew how to reason properly, there would be no confusion and no differences in the world. Reason and logic would wipe away all fallacious beliefs and set us on those sunny uplands in which human beings would be liberated by the power of the human mind alone.
All the books I have named organize themselves as exposes of specific forms of false argument. Fallacies. Emotive language. Appeals to God or to the greater social good. Undistributed middles. Post hoc ego propter hoc. Argumentum ad hominem. Argumentum ad insulam. Non sequiturs. Circular argument. Terms mis-defined. Stereotyping. Begging the question. And so forth.
The assumption lurking behind all of them is that, if only these nasty misuses of logic and avoidances of reason were eliminated, humanity would agree on one irrefutable, measurable and objective standard or truth, ruled entirely by Reason.
And at this point I rebel.
Certainly reason is (like imagination) a great human faculty. It is also worthwhile to teach people how reason can by misused or by-passed, and how fallacious arguments are constructed.
But to enthrone Reason as a guiding principle – or value - in itself is pure nonsense. Reason is a technique and a process. It is not a value.
The authors of all the books I have mentioned would probably gag at my next statement, but I have to make it anyway.
Reason always comes after belief, and always builds on belief.
If the word “belief’ upsets you because of its religious connotations, you may substitute the word “assumption”.
I can think of dozens of reasons and logical arguments to support my beliefs that all human races should be treated with equal dignity; that slavery is a great evil; and that it is wrong to exploit people. But all my reasons will in effect be rationalisations of something which I already believe. I have to believe in the worth of human beings in the first place before my reason gets to work on the case.
If I were a racist or slave-trader, my very same logical reasoning faculty would handily give me reasons to support a quite different set of beliefs.
All this is simply a roundabout way of saying that reason and logic are only as good as their premises. (To avoid this truism, some logicians prefer to talk of “axioms” when they begin to reason out and justify what they already believe.)
I recall a famous folk-tale of (I think) a French king centuries ago, sitting in judgement on some pauper wretch accused of stealing food.
“But your majesty”, said the accused, “I have to live.”
To which the king is said to have replied “I see no reason for that.”
And of course in terms of logic and reason, there is no way of definitively proving that anybody has the right to live, unless we already believe in (or assume, or consider axiomatic) the value of human life in the first place. Those who do not believe in this value can use their reason and logic to construct all manner of logical and intellectually-satisfying means to exploit, enslave or destroy people. I’m sure the chap who installed Zyklon-B fumigation for Auschwitz was a chap who used his reason and deployed the very best scientific knowledge. A pity his assumptions and premises were so inhumane.
None of what I’m saying here denies the need for reasoning and good logic. You want to solve a mathematical problem, tabulate statistics, construct a building that doesn’t fall over, prescribe drugs and medical treatments that don’t kill people? Of course you have to use logic and reason, and know the pitfalls of the misuse of these things.
You want to talk about values, attitudes, and the priorities we should have in running human societies? Logic and reason are a very useful part of the process when ways and means are being discussed, but they can never of themselves define the parameters of morality. Even for agnostics and atheists, it is belief (assumptions; axioms) which does that.
You will note, by the way, that the very existence of the word “rationalisation”, which I have already used in this rant, indicates that most people are fully aware of the distinction I am making. Basically, a “rationalisation” means a use of reason of which we disapprove.
“Why shouldn’t I knock things off from the company? Everybody else is doing it.”
Reason is being used in this statement. In fact is it exactly the same reason that sociologists use when they define morality solely in terms of what is socially acceptable. But seen in a blunt statement like this, we understand at once that this is reason in the service of self-justification for something dodgy, and we slap on the label “rationalisation”.
We are acknowledging that belief, attitude and assumptions come before reason.
Off-the-issue footnote: There is another reason for me to be mildly sceptical of pop handbooks purporting to preach reason. They very quickly segue into sneer-fests. Certainly the mentality of the reductionist schoolboy, who cannot see the value in anything because he has “logically” disproved it, haunts Joe Bennett’s Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works. Interestingly, too, the writings of Madsen Pirie lead him to endorse monetarism, untrammelled free-market capitalism and competition as the ordering principle of society. All these things are perfectly reasonable and logical – if you do not begin with the assumption (= belief) that society should be organised to serve the interest of all its members, not just those who know how to play the competition game.