Reason, Reasoning, & Unreasonableness

People are reasoning creatures, which is to say we use a process of reasoning, of thinking things through and reaching conclusions, skilled or not, reliable or shaky, for coming to decisions on which to act.

But being a reasoning creature does not always mean being reasonable.

The Enlightenment ideal of Reason just doesn’t seem to reflect the ways in which people often think, as a century of psychological literature shows.

It’s not that people can’t reason, just that most of us don’t do it very well, and many of us rely on “gut feelings” as a shortcut to action, which can often get people into a lot of trouble, themselves or others depending on the consequences of their actions.

Reasoning well is a skill set that must be learned and practiced to do it reliably and effectively, particularly the sort of reasoning used in scientific thinking, hardly exclusive to the sciences but requiring some effort and not easy to sustain indefinitely — It’s a very high-energy mental state.

Scientific thinking isn’t beyond most people — we use it whenever we scrutinize our options, figuring out and solving our problems in a useful manner. But we often don’t do it rigorously, skillfully, and the notion of the completely consistent critical thinker is simply not well-supported by the data… I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a convenient fiction.

We all like to think of ourselves as being the rational, objective, unbiased ones, but come those matters on which we are passionate, strongly opinionated, in which our personal prejudices and (often mistaken) prior beliefs hold sway, we are often less than objective, less than fair-minded, less rational than we might be otherwise.

Even as rationalists, skeptics, freethinkers, atheists and nonbelievers of other sorts, we can be blinded by our conceits. Vigilance and rigorous self-examination are needed.

It’s situations like this in which we can commit fallacies, deceive ourselves, and skew our understanding that we must be especially vigilant, use due care in our thinking, and closely examine our arguments for specious reasoning. If we don’t, those we argue with will happily point out the deficiencies in our arguments.

We must strive to know as many of our own biases as we can, and employ what means we can to offset them when they may come into play. Not an easy task, save for the most skilled and practiced thinkers.

Does this mean that we should throw out Reason altogether as useless and fatally flawed, that anything goes?

Of course not. We don’t need to throw the newly hatched larva out with the proverbial bathwater.

We need reason, we need reasoning, and we need to do it well, to carry out our agendas, meet our goals, and attain our objectives effectively and reliably.

But we must do so without sacralizing the ideal, without elevating it too highly, for even it is imperfect.

We must seek to improve our reasoning skills asymptotically toward perfectibility while mistrusting perfection itself.

Why should we not do better what we already as a species sometimes do best?

Reasoning well is important, more than those of an anti-intellectual bent are willing to accept, but it’s only one tool-kit among others that we can use to attain reliable knowledge, along with introspection, sensory experience, and our memories, this last absolutely crucial for retaining data of non-simultaneous phenomena for processing.

These are important, despite their fallibility, and these along with our ability to associate ideas and recognize patterns, are essential for making any sense of the world.

And if reason can sometimes mislead us when based on fallacies or mistaken data, we are not likely to fix problems it gets us into with the even more mistaken application of unreason.

It’s been said that even in a functioning democracy — and by that I mean any form of governance by elected representatives, with or without a constitutional guarantee of civil liberties, rights, and responsibilities to a given nation’s citizen electorate, no matter what you call it — 300 million people cannot possibly have a meaningful discussion.

I disagree.

I think that it’s not a fundamental inability for that many people to engage in productive discussion. The educational and technological means to enable it exist.

I think that with the right skills in argumentation and a good understanding of its conceptual foundations, available to anyone willing to learn, 300 million people, or however many, can have a meaningful dialogue.

The problem, I think, lies in ideological polarization and fervent partisanship, on both the Right and Left. The problem is not an inability, but an unwillingness to discuss things reasonably, to admit to errors in one’s own position.

Political, religious, and economic doctrines and our ideological commitments can blind even the sanest of us.

Even now there exist poisonous, stupid, dogmatic ideologies that let people kill others with a clear conscience, in thinking that they serve their God, their country, the Almighty Dollar, or some other higher cause.

Dogmatic thinking can blind us to flaws in our reasoning, make us cherry-pick our facts, and cause us to ignore or disregard our own concern for the truth of a matter — hobbling our capacity to be honest with ourselves and others.

The more “right” we consider our own views, the less likely we are to subject them to testing and public examination by others — why test what is certain? — and the more we compromise our objectivity for the subjective truths of our own (often less well-founded than we think) opinions.

To argue against reason with reason is inconsistent, and to argue against reason without it puts one out of the playing field altogether.

I’ll close this with a quotation attributed to Bertrand Russell, succinct and to the point:

“One’s certainty varies inversely with one’s knowledge.”

Well said, 3rd Earl Russell, well said.

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