An Insult to Reason
To disparagingly call reason a candle in the dark vastness of the universe as I did in a recent post might seem a bit dismissive. Perhaps there was a touch of overstatement there. It may not be quite that feeble but the difference between a candle and a searchlight in virtually infinite space might not count for much.
My problem is, though, that Western culture does tend to display what Karl Popper calls an ‘irrational faith in reason’. That we, who
are its inheritors, do so is a value judgement not an objective assessment. This is what I wanted to call into question.
The earlier bald statement could be seen as an example of the dogmatism I distrust so much. So, I thought I’d better unpack my thinking now with a touch more humility.
Reason is not perfect
From 1904, for a period of about three years, Laura Clifford Barney recorded her conversations with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. This record was published as Some Answered Questions. It covers a wealth of fascinating topics including a discussion of how we acquire knowledge. On page 297 he is recorded as saying:
the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.
Of course, our modern methodology involves using reason alongside systematically explored experience. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá questions the reliability of sense data as well (same page).
. . . the principal method of gaining knowledge is through the senses; [philosophers] (a term he used at this point in a way that would include scientists) consider it supreme, although it is imperfect, for it commits errors. For example, the greatest of the senses is the power of sight. The sight sees the mirage as water, and it sees images reflected in mirrors as real and existent; large bodies which are distant appear to be small, and a whirling point appears as a circle. The sight believes the earth to be motionless and sees the sun in motion, and in many similar cases it makes mistakes. Therefore, we cannot trust it.
We may well feel, reading this, that quoting what was said in someone’s “tired moments” (page xvii) more than 100 years ago, no matter how wise and spiritual the insights might be, is about as helpful in the 21st Century as a furcoat in the Sahara.
I think instead that what he said is more relevant than ever and I am not alone. Much has been written on the same issue since, and some of it very recently at that, and it’s coming from much the same position. Highly regarded thinkers, whose lives have been dedicated to puzzling over precisely these problems, are among those espousing this point of view.
Reviewing Some Recent Thinking
I’ll be looking very briefly at what Jurgen Habermas, Ken Wilber and Jonathan Haidt have said about the limits of reason and dangers of an uncritical acceptance of the supposedly scientific approach.
Before I talk about Habermas I have a confession to make. I don’t read German and I have struggled with English translations of his work. I’ll be relying instead on secondary sources, mainly Michael Pusey‘s excellent book, and will be slightly simplifying the discussion there for present purposes.
Pusey explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.
Ken Wilber in ‘The Marriage of Sense and Soul‘ does not shrink from using a more expressive and subjective language when he makes his case. Again I will be highly selective in my treatment here in order to keep it short as well as relatively straightforward. The book, though, is brilliant and needs to be read from cover to cover more than once.
He says (page 56):
Put bluntly, the I and the WE were colonialised by the IT. The Good and the Beautiful were overtaken by a growth in monological Truth . . . . Full of itself and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism, the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness.
For monological substitute ‘monochrome’ or ‘tunnel-visioned’ if it helps.
He advocates a broader sense of what empiricism is (page 152-3):
. . . there is sensory empiricism, . . . mental empiricism . . . , and spiritual empiricism. In other words, there is evidence seen by the eye of the flesh, evidence seen by the eye of the mind, . . . and evidence seen by the eye of contemplation.
Interestingly this brings us back to ‘Some Answered Questions,’ the point from which we started:
Know then: that which is in the hands of people, that which they believe, is liable to error. For, in proving or disproving a thing, if a proof is brought forward which is taken from the evidence of our senses, this method, as has become evident, is not perfect; if the proofs are intellectual, the same is true; or if they are traditional, such proofs also are not perfect. Therefore, there is no standard in the hands of people upon which we can rely.
But the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable. This is through the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to man, and this is the condition in which certainty can alone be attained.
Whether you accept that spiritual insight is the only approach we can rely on or whether you feel it is one of several ways of knowing that complement one another, what is clear is that the spiritual method is not to be discounted and the method of reason is not to be enshrined.
The Last Word (for now)
I’ll give the last word on the limitations of reason to Jonathan Haidt from his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.’ He draws upon the analogy used in the ancient traditions of the East, which see reason as the rider on the back of a huge elephant consisting of all the other forces inside us (page 17):
. . . the rider is an advisor or servant: not king, president or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. . . . The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, the visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.
And he goes on to analyse why and in what ways.
In my view, what is true for an individual is also true by analogy of a society. It’s time we as a collective dethroned reason and learned to work with the elephant and reason together. The price of failing to do so could be very high indeed.