WHERE does reason lie in the pantheon of human facilities? Some place it at the pinnacle, the defining ability. But since the supposed victory of reason over superstition during the Enlightenment the idea of reason itself has come under attack. So, here we are in a post-truth, alternative fact world where reason has taken leave of its senses.
And yet is remains true that, as A. C. Grayling pointed out in his recent talk during Salisbury Festival and in more depth in his book The Age of Genius there really was a time when chemistry was separated from alchemy, religion ceded to science and reason overcame superstition. Grayling’s point is not that alchemy, religion and superstition disappeared but that they became marginal at least in the sense of understanding the natural world.
So it seems ridiculous to downgrade reason altogether and a new book by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber called The Enigma of Reason promises to place reason in its proper evolutionary place. What they try to do is topple reason from its exalted position as a kind of human superpower. The traditional view of solitary reasoning is actually ‘biased and lazy, whereas argumentation is efficient’. And while what they call ‘inquisitive reasoning’ is traditionally seen as being primary their ‘interactive’ approach should really take pride of place. According to the authors reason is not a transcendent superpower epitomised by Aristotelian logic – an aberration in their view – but a facility that evolved ‘as a response to the problems encountered in social interaction rather than in solitary thinking’; and it is Socratic reasoning that should be seen as reasoning par excellence.
Over the years I have taken the view that normative ethical theories like utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics – as well as concepts like altruism – far from being the foundation of ethics, grew out of the common morality and sensibility that humans feel for one another. Many evolutionary psychologists, for example, believe that altruism evolved. This natural morality became intensified and codified into normative theories but these were only useful in so far as they helped to clarify problems and contradictions emerging in common morality. Reason, however, seems to have escaped this analysis and I have to admit that I have always seen logic as a transcendent human ability. This book places logic in the same role as normative ethical theories – it becomes more of a heuristic device to solve problems.
The authors are not pessimistic about reasoning as an ‘interactive’ or social activity. Indeed, they say that: “When the overriding concern of people who disagree is to get things right, argumentation should not only make them change their minds, it should make them change their minds for the best.”
And yet I can’t help thinking in my solitary way that the authors attenuate reason and logic too much. The Laws of Thought, as Bertrand Russell called them in The Problems of Philosophy, are quite beautiful in their simplicity and universality. The law of identity – whatever is, is; the law of contradiction – nothing can both be and not be; and the law of the excluded middle – everything must either be or not be, are, as Russell says, known to us a priori and cannot be proved by experience. So, while I agree that reason gains more traction as a social activity, it retains a special place in human pantheon of capabilities beyond evolutionary practicality.