The Place of Reason

That fast artificer of reason, David Hume, said “reason is perfectly inert”. By this, he was focusing on the nature of action, given to morality:

Morals excite passion, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.

His argument stems from his overarching inquiry which states the obvious but important claim that “reason is the discovery of truth of falsehood”. Many who defend reason pronounce some sort of dominion on its extensions, proclaiming that no one with a sense of reason could say that condoms are the cause and not the cure for the proliferation of AIDS in Africa. No “reasonable” person would say that we should arrest 25 year old bloggers for insulting religious leaders.

The world in my opinion is filled with many assaults on coherent rationality: one which has raised itself up on its feet of evidence and stands strong with its wall of sensibility. But when we defend reason, we must be careful about what we mean.

By reason we do not mean some high-standard of maintenance with regards to autonomous liberty and propitious actions toward others. This is the desirable life of liberty I would want for all people’s, but it is not the sole dominion or elaboration of reason. Reason is perfectly inert in that it is nothing but a distinction of truth from falsity, a sifting of lies to uncoil strands of conglomerate reality to a fine, woven tapestry we can call the present.

There are many definitions of “reason” but I am mainly focused on the notion of it as sifter of truth. We should be weary of saying reasonable people are not religious; or reasonable people would not endorse blasphemy as a crime. There is no reason other than pure arrogance to suggest that there can be no coherent, logical reasoning for people to believe and for people to endorse blasphemy. This is not the same as highlighting the fact that there is not a single good reason to proclaim the existence of a deity, or that offense occurs constantly and it is simply society pre-judging the hypersensitivity of the faithful.

But what is this distinction?

One rests in our actions and physical wantings; the other rests in the purely abstract, intellectual side. This does not mean the one does not infer the other. Indeed, Julian Baggini, in his excellent Making Sense, highlights that many people would have a knee-jerk reaction to so-called “Frankenstein” foods – many regard “not natural” as “wrong”. This is a very physical response and one that elucidates many of their reactions.

However, once one carefully sifts through ones reasoning behind the reactions, we can highlight that these reactions are unfounded in terms of evidence and logic. We can, through extensive layering of reason, see that natural does not necessarily mean good, nor its corollary, that “not natural” means bad. For the former, Jared Diamond highlights, in his Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs & Steel that plants are not there to be eaten by animals; they have various defenses, like poisons and thorns, to prevent such rabid self-destruction. Yet, no one would claim that poisons or thorns are “not natural”. That does not make ones poisoned bloodstream or a child’s bleeding arm “good” because it happened naturally. (Similarly, it is unnatural to wear clothes, glasses, take asthma inhalers, injections, and use every form of medical technology which saves countless lives everyday. Taken to its logical conclusion, people would not allow their soon-to-be-child to be saved in the very likely event that the birth process would be complicated – given that parturition is poorly designed in women’s bodies. Of course many Jehovah’s Witnesses allow a similar horror to occur when they refuse blood transfusions which could easily save their child’s life. At least, we can say for them they are staying true to their illogical philosophy).

Thus, when we lay out and carefully look at the things which are “natural” and “not-natural” we can come to the conclusion that our emotions are unfounded. This informs many things: the status of non-whites and their contact in the world, the place of women, nudity, violence and other such abstentions of expression from the previous century. Many, from past eras (and some still today) would react quite physically – not in pleasurable way, like myself – to seeing beautiful women displayed in their wonderful glory on billboards and magazines. Yet, our informed opinion on the human form, post-Enlightenment, has helped to change that. Of course, things like religion maintain a fixed, unhealthy obsession with this mortal coil and its springing into action with the joy of sex.

What I am attempting to stress is that the two dominions, of action, physicality and the phenomenal world along with the internal, intellectual and abstract domain inform one another. They cross like beams of sunlight through a broken ceiling and our thoughts are the tiny dust-particles flitting in-between each, finally landing on the floor and stabilising. I am stressing this warning that when we mention reason, that precious tiny fragile thing, it does not mean we have dominion over it. We who uphold reason – or like to think we do – would be those who tear the wings off fairies and claim that this tiny creature loves us.

Yet it is not the complete dismissal of rationality either when it enters the domains of morality. Hume’s quotation might misinform, since by definition ethics is in the shadow of the archway of rationality. It borders it and groans beneath the weight of constant usage. Reason, as with freedom of speech, has limits but one that is created with the same tools. The basis for Hume’s portrayal, or rather the extension of it, is to inform us on what is and what ought to be. How do we judge whether abortion should be legal or illegal? We would use arguments based on reason, evidence and logic. But does that make abortion right or wrong? This would be something reason can not inform on, it seems, since reason only attempts, by Hume’s definition, to “discover truth from falsehood”. Hume also stressed that good and evil are simply matters of feeling and run down a different tributary to reason.

But, down the patchwork of human thought, with rationality informing us on truth and lies then feelings telling us what is good and evil, there is no reason why they would not cross. As I highlighted above, reason can inform the passions and thus dissolve them into platitudinous patchworks from which to raise the feet of evidence one step further toward truth. When we defend reason we must be careful of its peremptory arrogation beneath the wings of our dominion. It must be allowed to be free or it will cease to tell us truth from lies, and tell us instead what we want to hear.

We who are not believers, defend science and maintain the highest defense of reason we can, must not be arrogant to think we have sole usage of this precious commodity. Let all partake and claim usage of reason – it is the conclusions which we will judge according to the same rules.


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