July 27, 2008

Reasons Why People Hate Reason

This week's issue of New Scientist includes a special section entitled "7 Reasons Why People Hate Reason", plus a couple of other interesting articles.

I urge you to read the special section in it's entirety. It contains articles by nine distinguished figures – linguist Noam Chomsky, neuroscientist Chris Frith, philosopher A.C. Grayling, philosopher Mary Midgeley, sociologist David Miller, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, bioethicist Tom Shakespeare, artist Keith Tyson, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, together with an editorial overview of their contributions that gives the raison d'etre for the articles:

Writing these words in a pavement cafe in Brussels, capital of that rationalist and cosmopolitan project known as the European Union, all seems well with the world. A band is playing. The church at the end of the square is filled with tourists. The passing cyclists look content and healthy. You could experience similar scenes in similar squares in Boston, London, Paris or Tokyo. The streets are calm, the smell of progress towards democratically agreed political, social and cultural goals is in the air. It's hard to see what could be wrong.

Yet it seems that a number of forces are rising up to attack the rationalist thinking that has produced this way of life.

The editorial mentions Al Gore's book "Assault on Reason", in which he argues that propaganda and advertising are a major threat to reason and therefore to democracy, and argues that:

Governments and big corporations have hijacked the language and methods of reason and science in their PR and advertising to subvert the ability of people to judge for themselves – an end directly opposed to the Enlightenment values we supposedly hold dear.

Another unifying theme is:

The concern that science and reason are increasingly seen as providing not just scientific, technical and military fixes, but answers to everything that matters in the world. This alienates people because it leaves no room for morality, art, imperfection and all of the things that make us human. Is it really surprising that so many turn to pseudoscience?

A third theme is that reason has it's own limitations:

Our decisions are based on gut instinct, then justified post hoc – and they are made better when we don't consciously think about them. Individual judgements they have long been categorised as emotional and irrational may actually be beneficial when seen in the context of a group.

The editorial concludes that:

The rationalist world view has been incredibly successful, transforming human life vastly for the better. But one big misunderstanding about the Enlightenment is that it is a finished thing, that all the west needs do is convert the rest of the world to its merits. In contrast, the Enlightenment that Immanuel Kant described in his seminal essay was an ongoing process. Asking what's wrong with reason and seeking to improve it falls squarely within that Enlightenment tradition of trusting our inquiry over received wisdom.

You may be asking yourself what the relevance of all this philosophising is to the debate about climate change and the global food crisis? Here is how Roger Penrose sees it:

Most scientists say that the climate is changing and it's changing for quite clear reasons – because we are pumping in all this carbon dioxide, for one. There's no puzzle, we can see it happening, and we can see why it's happening. But a few don't agree. True, sometimes the small minority turns out to be right. But it doesn't mean you should do what the small minority say. The majority is a majority for good reasons.

To me, Reason is essential for human discourse and all forms of enquiry, whether legal or scientific or mathematical. It is absolutely central. But we have to be reasonable about it.

P.S. The online version of New Scientist only allows subscribers to see the full version of most articles. The links above may only show the first couple of paragraphs if you're not a paid subscriber.

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