Be Reasonable, eh?

What is reason? No, really! Forget about the etymology (distantly from Latin and a proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to reason’) which just chases its own tail. Forget, as well, the OED account which, after dragging my own dusty copy with its attendant magnifying glass off a lower shelf, similarly seems to relish the game of circular definition: using the term being defined as part of the definition.

What about inference? When you boil it down, is reason merely a species of inference -the act of coming to a conclusion using evidence? And does the conclusion have to be correct before you can say you have used reason? In other words, have you only used reason if you get it right -the answer defines the method? Suppose you chose the wrong evidence, or processed the same evidence but came to a different conclusion than another rational person?

You can see how confusing it can be. If only the correctness of the action determines whether or not reason was used, then is a plant which gradually turns its leaves to face the light, actually reasoning?

Hold on, you say, the choice should involve -what?- deliberation? That to be accepted as having used reason, should require that there be alternatives from which an appropriate choice has been made? A decision? Well then, what about, say, sheep who prefer certain types of grass over similarly nutritious, but perhaps different tasting varieties? Are they using reason by choosing the one over the other? Does having preferences, suggest reason?

And are we so possessed of hubris that we unconsciously assume we are the pinnacle -the gold standard against which everything else must be compared? That we, Homo arrogans, judge the worth of a thing by how closely it copies us? How much of our Weltanschauung it shares -or can only humans have one of those, too?

A person could get lost in tautologies. I thought I had discovered a way out of the labyrinth in an article in Aeon written by Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7). Even the title suggests an answer doesn’t it?

As Smith writes in his first paragraph, ‘when pushed to account for its [reason’s] origins, thinkers who champion reason’s human-exclusivity are forced to lean on supernaturalism, while those who contend that reason is a fundamentally natural property have then to concede that ‘lower’ lifeforms are capable of exercising it… Most philosophers and scientists who see reason as some sort of inferential ability involving abstract representations will allow that experiments with ‘higher’ animals can yield evidence of some low-level reason-like faculty… But researchers almost always draw the lower limit for such ability in a way that excludes species whose behaviour is not observably similar to ours. The search for reason beyond the bounds of the human species always ends up as a search for beings that remind us of ourselves. But what if reason is not so much an inferential ability, as simply the power to do the right thing in the right circumstances? Furthermore, what if this power flows automatically, from simply being the sort of creature one is?’

A sheep, after all, is a sheep. They need to find grass, not parse their baas or memorize the times-table; you learn to do what you need to do. And if you’re good at it you survive -shouldn’t that count for something?

One might even consider the wisdom of Girolamo Rorario (a 16th century diplomat): ‘human deliberation – the period of hesitancy when we survey our various options and eventually select what appears to be the best of them – far from being an advantage over other beings, is in fact a mark of our inferiority. Animals and plants do not hesitate. They cut right to the chase and, to the extent that they do not examine alternative options in order to choose among them, they are in a sense incapable of being wrong.’ Of course this doesn’t mean if they get eaten, they’ve deliberated incorrectly because ‘this cannot be because they failed in their deliberation, since they do not deliberate. And still they seem to be doing just fine for themselves, pursuing their species-specific ends.’

Okay, I realize that may be a push too far. And yet, how about this: ‘Potentially, it’s not just living beings that fall under the scope of this alternative interpretation of reason as the power to move directly to action, rather than the power of making the correct inference. For everything in nature also just does what it does, simply and without deliberation, by virtue of the fact that everything in nature is bound by the same physical laws.’ Is that a reductio ad absurdum?

It seems to me that Smith is beginning to tear at the envelope. ‘Nature itself is a rational order, on this alternative view, both as a whole and in any of its subdomains. Reason is everywhere, with human reason being only an instantiation or reflection, within a very tiny subdomain, of the universal reason that informs the natural world. The regularities of the motions of the heavens (to speak with the ancients) or the laws governing the orbits of the planets (to speak with the moderns) are not there in place of reason. Rather, these regularities or laws are the reflection ‘out there’ in the world of what human thought is ‘in here’ inside our minds.’ That’s very clever, actually, although it is sitting rather close to the cathedral, don’t you think? I’m not much of a First Cause kind of guy, I’m afraid.

So then, are machines -computers, say- rational? Of course, I don’t mean ‘self aware’ or in some sense conscious, or anything -just that ‘For most of us, to say that a computer is rational is… simply to say that it is following down the right pathways for reasons that are predetermined in the program it is running.’ And if so, it’s pretty hard to disavow the rationality of sheep, then -or even the program that tells a plant to turn towards the sun to soak up more photons for its chloroplasts…

I’m still confused, though. I wonder whether all of this argumentation is just the kind of clever rhetoric that surfaces after a few beers in a college dorm -merely an enticement into an endless labyrinth from which one can escape only after an encounter with the Minotaur hiding inside somewhere.

In fact, I wonder whether if it’s even reasonable



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