At the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival earlier this year, award-winning English novelist Joanna Kavenna, renowned public intellectual Rory Sutherland, and pioneering philosopher Rebecca Roache met to debate the limits of reason. The three thinkers discussed the ambiguous line between reason, truth, and well-being in a wide-ranging conversation replete with ideas from ancient Greek philosophy to contemporary neuroscience. Charlie Barnett explores the debate and suggests that reason is useless by itself, and in the hands of the wrong person, its application can have disastrous impacts.
Note: ‘Reason’ is used in the Enlightenment sense of analyzing a situation logically and rationally instead of falling back on tradition, dogma and authority. ‘Rationality’ is used interchangeably with ‘reason’ as is often done so in everyday use.
Reason, seemingly straightforward, is a concept fraught with difficulty. We are often told to favour the rational approach over the emotional one, tending to relegate the latter to secondary status in decision making. From political slogans like ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’, to Martin Luther King’s call for America’s laws, in a time of horrifying racism, to be ‘rational and proportionate’, we like to think that the triumph of rationality will create a better society for all.
The Ancient Greek ruler Pericles (495-429BC), heralded as one of the Great Athenian rulers, was revered for his use of reasoned argument over bluster and bravado, both in his speeches and the substance of his policy. He argued against the expansion of the Athenian empire through violence and launched small military manoeuvres to limit the loss of life. When Athens had a surplus of wealth, he commissioned temples, theatre and art, promoted rationality and beauty, and profoundly shaped Athenian culture. The renowned journalist and author Robert Greene, in his masterful book, ‘The Laws of Human Nature’, described Perciles vision of rationality as ‘our ideal’.
Similarly, we know what is not reasonable. When Putin launched his brutal invasion of Ukraine, Peter Hitchens, a journalist well-known for his condemnation of the West’s treatment of Russia after the Fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, was quick to identify him as a ‘man who’s lost his reason’ and ‘whose actions can now no longer be predicted on any basis’.
We seem to be confident in distinguishing the rational from the irrational; the reasonable from the unreasonable. In the philosophy sections of many bookstores, reams of books are dedicated to telling us how we can become more rational individuals. From ‘How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic’ (Madsen Pirie), to Logic for the Left (Ben Burgis), and Rationality (Steven Pinker), the debate, for many over what rationality is, is mostly over. It is just a question of educating the masses and making sure that we apply it consistently.
But reason is not so straightforward. This much was true in a remarkable exchange between Professor Tommy Curry and Professor Massimo Pigliucci at Howthelightgetin June 2022. The subject under discussion was cosmopolitanism: the belief that citizenship should be extended to all human beings by virtue of their rationality. Pigliucci was forthright in his contention that a ‘true’ cosmopolitan could never be a fascist or a Nazi. And if they had justifications for why they were, these justifications must be wrong. Someone could never reasonably say, ‘I’m a cosmopolitan, therefore I’m entitled to kill people that don’t look like me’.
Curry disagreed. Thinkers had done precisely what Pigliucci claimed to be impossible. Josiah Royce, an esteemed pragmatist philosopher, introduced the idea of cosmopolitanism in the early 20th century as a justification to enslave millions of African-Americans. Moreover, whilst Kant believed that pure reason ought to be placed on a pedestal, he published texts defending the superiority of whites over non-whites. And equally, whilst David Hume published the much lauded ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, in which he dissected and elucidated some of the core tenets of human reason; and whose work is still widely studied today; said of black people, ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes…to be naturally inferior to the whites’.
Pigliucci naturally had a response up his sleeve. Such instances are examples of post-rationalisation - namely, attempting to use reason - in a faulty way - to justify terrible actions and statements.
Curry was far from convinced. In our time these acts don’t fit with what we think reason is, or a reasonable person would do. But in the 18th and 19th century, leaders in many of the premier institutions of philosophy around Europe — those who would have reflected on what ‘reason’ was most — reasoned to the very same racial bigotry of Kant and Hume.
If we accept that the application of rationality from leading philosophers in the 18th and 19th century was mistaken, what’s to stop us thinking the same now?
Whilst we might say that they were all wrong and we are right now, Curry touched on two pertinent observations:
First, we haven’t arrived at an objective concept of reason. Reason is a consequence of shifting contexts and perspectives. We may look back, as Peter Singer argues, on ourselves in 100 years and see practices like animal slaughter and failing to give to charity, as equivalent to racism and murder. If we accept that the application of rationality from leading philosophers in the 18th and 19th century was mistaken, what’s to stop us thinking the same now?
Secondly, no matter how seemingly immersed in the study of rationality one is, most reasoning is simply the post-rationalisation of pre-existing bias. Many now accept that Jonathan Haidt established this fact beyond any doubt in ‘The Righteous Mind’. Carol Gilligan was further instrumental in demonstrating how holding up the rational side of reasoning as a means for truth, detached from emotion, has created negative cultural biases of the stoic male and the caring female that psychologists have post-rationalised today.
All this is not to say that reason is never useful, or that it ought to be jettisoned. Rather that the line between reason, truth and well-being is ambiguous.
These were just some of the questions that were debated in the most recent HowTheLightGetsIn Festival in ‘Taking Leave of Reason’ between award-winning English novelist Joanna Kavenna, renowned public intellectual Rory Sutherland, and pioneering philosopher Rebecca Roache.
The stage was set and the question posed to Sutherland: Should we abandon reason?
No, he argued, but reason is highly overrated. Most breakthroughs happen by chance, experimentation without any good reason, or simply by noticing things. The creation of the microwave arose when Percy Spencer’s chocolate bar in 1945 melted from radiation that he was experimenting on. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin from a left over Petri-dish that he was about to discard in the 19th century. And as Einstein wrote, most scientific discoveries came through leaps of consciousness, not the application of reason.
More ideas can be post-rationalised than pre-rationalised Sutherland contended, in a way flipping Pigliucci’s argument on its head. It may be the case that we live in a better era and Pigliucci’s post-rationalisation for this would be cosmopolitanism and other ideas that have led to this point. Indeed, Sutherland made a similar proposition to Steven Pinker about the Enlightenment in his exchange with him at the Spectator.
The Ancient Persians, before going to battle, used to debate the merits of a conquest sober, and then later, drunk. If in both debates they ended up agreeing, they would go to battle.
Reason, Sutherland argued, is mainly an evolved strategy to win argument, and as Dan Sperber demonstrated, most animals are fine without it. We need a balance between reason and instinct and we are too set on the former and not the latter. Sutherland punctuated his final remarks succinctly: The Ancient Persians, before going to battle, used to debate the merits of a conquest sober, and then later, drunk. If in both debates they ended up agreeing, they would go to battle.
Kavenna was sympathetic to this view. Irrationality is found at the heart of any rational system. Drawing expertly on the work of Gödel, the famous logician said that within any reasonable mathematical system there will always be a true statement that cannot be proved. Imagine though, if someone trying to claim in cout, ‘my statement is true, but it cannot be proven’. Similarly, self-reference may pathologically affect any system of logic in philosophy as non-realist philosopher Hilary Lawson has suggested. She finalised her remarks with an open question: If you were in 1944, where the world had gone mad and irrational, would it be rational to scream your head off?
Roache took a subtly different line from Kavenna. Philosophers more or less agree on logic and rules of inference. But all philosophers must proceed from premises that themselves cannot be justified by reason and logic alone. These premises -- like a commitment to equality and fairness -- are established through wisdom and intuition. As Hume stated, ‘reason is, and ought only be, the slave of the passions’. Intuition is therefore of vital importance.
Roache conceded that some intuitions lead us astray and have been tainted by racism and other terrible prejudices. In fact, Jonathan Jenkin Ichikawa and Edouard Machery have shown that for decades, philosophers in mainstream institutions have scandalously prioritised (without realising) intuitions that many women and people from East Asian backgrounds do not share. Peter Singer has further shown that most moral intuitions are simply reflections of evolutionary prejudices that we maintain to this day.
But crucially, as Roache argued, we cannot simply do away with all intuitions. Even Peter Singer and Jonathan Jenkin Ichikawa have to rely on intuition at some point. The former on the intuition that evolutionary prejudice is irrelevant in the study of morality and the latter that preferencing intuitions of one ethnic group over the other is unfair. Instead of doing abandoning intuition, we should discern the good ones from the bad. The work of Michael Huemer has been seminary on this.
Sutherland was quick to agree, flipping a famous argument on its head. Polarisation in politics, many argue, is because of too much emotion and not enough reason. But not so claimed Sutherland. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, ‘those who appeal to the head rather than the heart…are necessarily men of violence. Reason is a tool that we evolved to win arguments, not create a more peaceful world. Reason is often coercive continued Kavenna, and much in the vain of Curry, is frequently a tool used by the powerful to eliminate other groups of people.
Sutherland may also have known that Chesterton famously argued that the ‘madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason’. The pioneering work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been conclusive. It is impossible to reason in the absence of emotion. For instance, ‘Elliot-type’ patients are those that have shown damage in certain aspects of their prefrontal cortex. Fascinatingly, their knowledge and powers of logic and reason remain intact, yet they lack effective emotion.
Such patients are often entirely incapable of completing the most basic tasks, like deciding whether to go to a party or what food they buy at a store. Fundamentally, as Roache would say, they lack a starting point of intuition from which to make inferences and thus cannot know what to value in front of them. As she concluded, a psychopath can reason well morally according to a rigid set of rules. But when confronted with novel moral dilemmas, in which emotion and intuition must play are role, they are hopeless.
In the words of Richard Dawkins, ‘by all means. Let’s be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains drop out’.
In sum, reason is useless by itself and in the hands of the wrong person, its application can have disastrous impacts. Furthermore, it can in no way be said to be objective. No one in any sense has ‘cracked’ how to reason or inference about knowledge, morality, or epistemology correctly. And we are no closer to establishing an objective bed rock of knowledge. We should be open minded to other forms of reason, emotion and wisdom without being reckless. In the words of Richard Dawkins, ‘by all means. Let’s be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains drop out’.
How do we ‘reason better’? We cannot just appeal to common inferential rules as these differ, and their application can lead to radically divergent conclusions. Instead, through a mixture of happy experiment as Sutherland would say, the training of our emotion through experience and practice (Aristotle in Nichomachean ethics) and a rigorous analysis over the tools we use; we may begin to shed light on such a question.