The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

Join / Donate

All Forums > Science and Skepticism >

Science and Skepticism

Aug 3 2008
New Scientist: What's wrong with reason?

A series of essays in the latest issue of the British magazine New Scientist (see ... eason.html) consider the question “What’s Wrong with Reason?” It was reasonable of the editors to offer critics of reason a chance to voice their concerns, as the magazine often takes the side of science in its conflicts with religious fundamentalists and pseudo-scientific frauds. It also makes sense, as they point out, for even advocates of the use of reason to be aware of its limitations and weakneses.

As someone who drives a car with an ``In Reason We Trust” license plate, I wanted a chance to make some comments as well.

First, my favorite thing about all of these essays is one thing they have in common aside from their common theme “What’s Wrong with Reason?” They are written by different sorts of people – clergy, scientists, artists, etc. – but none of them simply writes “Look in your heart and you’ll know that reason is wrong.” Instead, they point out that if one depends solely (or blindly) on reason then certain undesirable consequences follow… In other words, they all agreed that the best tool to use to criticize reason is reason itself. This, in a way, is a ringing endorsement of the power and usefulness of reason.

Again, this is quite reasonable. When Kurt Gödel (see here) proved mathematically in 1931 that there exist sensible mathematical questions which cannot be answered by mathematics, he demonstrated both the power and limitations of reason. Reason, of which mathematics is a subset, is powerful enough to prove conclusively that there are questions which are beyond its reach. Many of the essayists touch on this in one way or another, though they may not realize that reason recognizes this weakness in itself, but I would not want to overemphasize the importance of this fact. A hammer may not be able to do everything, but if your goal is to drive a nail into a piece of wood it is the right tool for the job. In the same way, if you’re trying to figure out what is going on in the world – whether it is a physical law or whether a certain historical figure visited a certain place or what is causing a new disease – there is no better tool to use than reason. Similarly, if you know what you would like to achieve and are trying to figure out how to make it happen, I would say that reason is an unbeatable tool.

But, how do you know what it is you want? At the heart of it, you need to start with certain wishes and tastes that are not derived from reason. (This, again, is clear from the mathematical example where one has to start with certain axioms before reason gets you anywhere.) My own tastes, from my appreciation of dark chocolate to my dislike of violence, are not derived from reason. They were either innate or taught to me by my parents and early experiences. Of course, once you’ve got these, reason is what you want to use to act on these wishes, but I readily admit that you can’t get these starting points from reason alone. This is why I was not particularly impressed by Tom Shakespeare’s New Scientist essay in which he worries about a world based entirely on reason which he foresees as a bureaucratic nightmare without any appreciation for human happiness. I am interested in human happiness, and I think most people are. Reason alone does not assign a value to human happiness, but if we value it, then we can make use of reason to achieve it for as many people as possible.

Certainly, reason can be misused as well. Those with a particular agenda may try to sway the opinion of others by resorting to reasoned arguments. Sometimes, they are either knowingly or mistakenly making illegal leaps of logic in these arguments, but this is not a weakness of logic itself. We should all be able to think clearly enough to evaluate those arguments. If they are not valid, we should point out the errors. If they are valid, then it would be unreasonable to reject their conclusions simply because we did not agree with them before.

As far as I can tell, the biggest problem associated with reason in the world today is not that people are using it to mislead, or that people are claiming that it is more powerful than it is, but that it continues to be under attack from those who dislike the valid conclusions that it leads us to. When evidence and reason come in conflict with the political or religious beliefs, too often it is reason and not the beliefs that are criticized. That there are questions outside of the realm of reason does not justify ignoring it in those cases where it really does provide a clear answer. Unfortunately, these essays are likely to be used to support exactly this sort of unreasonable dogmatism.

Aug 4 2008
What people HATE about reason!

I see that the title in the New Scientist is not just "what's wrong with reason", but "things people hate about reason"! Seems a bit extreme considering that most of the "criticisms" are more like polite remarks pointing out some minor weaknesses.

Dec 18 2008
Re: New Scientist: What's wrong with reason?

i allso notice in a ot of the posts and publications used by those that espond faith over reeason actualy use resason even if in a twisted way to prove their point, take for example the eye used to prove god evists as the creator by creationists, eg. if you see a cammera you obviously look for the maker the eye is like a camera lense so there must be a maker for it, this is in a way reason, its just flawed reason, many ppl also use flawed reason on the side of evolution, normaly because they fail to understand just what evolution is, easy wqay to exprese evolution as it works even in todays world is the way diseases mutsate, there are 3 versions of hepatitise, 5 versions of aids virus, and these only changed and evolved in the last 30-50 years, thats astonishingly quick evolution and proof of it in our liftime.

Return to Science and Skepticism Forum
Return to Discussion Home

Webmaster: Alex Kasman 2016