Is Reason always reasonable?

“In the Beginning was the Word”. This was translated from the Greek, in which the word ‘logos’ was used, as it means word. It has given us the word logical. And it also means Reason.
          Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. The three things that define Unitarian thought. I am fine with freedom and tolerance, but have always had a question mark in my head over the word ‘reason’. Maybe because “Be reasonable” is often used to push an agenda, and spoiled much childhood fun - adults insisting for example that exuberant games must be ended before someone got hurt; but mostly because the only times I have experienced anything that could be called spiritual, its basis was not in any sort of reason, but it still felt genuine.
          Reason was thought up as a concept way back in time, the Ancient Greeks had a lot to say about it; then it was then set aside for centuries until it was revived to drag our predecessors out of the Middle Ages, when blind belief and superstition had held sway. It then became the cornerstone of scientific enquiry, about which I could say much, but will try to resist.
          But is Reason necessary or even useful to the modern spiritual seeker? Let’s think about what it is.
          The technical definition of Reason in philosophy is “the faculty or process of drawing logical inferences”. It is based on logic, but is not quite the same thing. One explanation goes:
          “When we reason, we come to believe something.
          We believe that thing on the basis of some other thought or thoughts
          We take those other thoughts to provide reasons for believing this thing.
          This should be contrasted with arbitrary thoughts, or intuition.”
          I am interested to see the word ‘believe’ in the first three of these statements, as we tend to assume that if something has been reasoned out properly, the conclusion is nothing to do with belief.
          For a piece of reasoning to be good reasoning, it is only necessary that the following be true: “If the reasons were true, the conclusion would more likely be true than not.”
          This is all good, if possibly confusing, stuff. But it is vital to realise, when considering Reason, that it is possible to end up with rubbish, if you start off with rubbish. The philosopher, René Descartes, who died in 1650 at the age of 54, said that animals cannot reason, that this was a feature that made humans special above all ‘the beasts’. It is possible that my dog does not reason, that she is only using logical deduction, not quite the same thing, when she raises her paw in the hopes of a treat. But Descartes moved on with his reasoned argument, and somehow concluded that animals feel no pain, that they are automata whose screams are just a reaction to air rushing in through an opened throat. So we need to be careful.
          Reason is not the same thing as associative thinking. An example of this is “Oh, look, there are dark clouds gathering, it is going to rain.” It is also not the same thing as logic. Many people think reason is the same thing as formal deductive logic, but it is not. Logic, a tool of reason, is concerned with the validity of arguments, with the right relationship between premise and conclusion. It is not concerned with the truth or merit of the conclusion. Reason, in contrast, “also involves selecting and assessing evidence, creating and testing hypotheses, weighing competing arguments, evaluating means and ends, developing and applying mental shortcuts, and so on.” All this requires the use of judgement, so cannot be delegated to a computer, so reason is still probably unique to humanity. Judgement can be faulty- we can all think of examples of this human failing.
          Even logic doesn’t always do what we hope. For example;
          All birds have feathers - Woodpeckers are birds

Therefore, woodpeckers have feathers sounds fine as a piece of logical deduction, and in this case, it’s true. But are we certain that all birds have feathers? Many birds hatch naked, there have been fossils found of featherless birds, and a disease called Psittacine beak and feather disease can make a bird lose their feathers. There are also five species of kiwi, a New Zealand flightless bird, that have only vestigial feathers. So you get out information only as reliable as the information you put in.
          Inductive reasoning only ever yields probabilistic truths, and doesn’t work so well when there are multiple variables. Look at YouTube films of a double pendulum to see how unpredictable movement can be, and then imagine a situation with multiple variables, like human society. It is very difficult to use reason as a predictive tool then.
          But I want to come on to my own problem with the use of reason as a way of discussing the spiritual. Because it simply can’t work. We don’t have any original premise from which to reason. For example, “Does God exist?” – No-one will reason this from a neutral basis of fact. Which fact would they use? The Bible says God exists, so it is very reasonable for the Bible-believing Jew or Christian to reason therefore that God does exist. But I don’t believe the bible is the literal truth, so that’s no good as a starting point for me. On the other hand, if I am a total atheist, the bible is no use either, because believing it is not the word of god does not prove there is no god. Maybe God wrote something else, the Quran, for example, or didn’t go in for writing at all. No, an atheist has to take as their premise, “there is unlikely to be a god for X Y or Z reason, therefore there is no God”. Or, “the Big Bang is enough explanation, so God isn’t necessary”. Both the believer and unbeliever will start from the end and look for the starting premise that gives their desired result.
          I see a version of this in the ‘sceptics’ who don’t believe homeopathic medicine works. (These people are not sceptics, another word for doubter: they have no doubt at all, they are certain they are right.) For those of you who don’t know, I am a doctor and have been practising homeopathy for about 30 years, and have seen many excellent results. But those who don’t want to believe it start with the premise “this can’t possibly work”, because of the high dilution of the remedies, and reason quite quickly to “So it doesn’t work”. They say there is no research to demonstrate its effectiveness, but are totally uninterested in reading the reams of evidence that do exist. Their reason tells them it can’t be true, that it can’t work, and I find myself muttering, like Galileo in front of the Inquisition, “but it does”.
          There is a wonderful bit of video online which demonstrates very clearly how careful we must be with our use of reason, or even logic. A young American man for some reason wants to prove the Earth is flat, and tells us that we can do the same for $3.99, and a plane ticket. You buy a small spirit level, and then get on your plane. Once at 30,000 feet, when the plane has levelled off, you put your spirit level on something flat, with one end towards the cockpit. You check that the bubble is in the middle – then you watch it all the way, and lo and behold, it stays in the middle until after the descent to your airport is announced. This, he reasons, is because, as the earth is flat, the pilot has not had to lower the nose of the plane to go down around the corner that would be there if the earth was round.
          It is easy to laugh at this poor youth’s ignorance of gravity, tangents, aeronautics, and everything else. But are we always so sure that we are starting from a good premise when we start our reasoning? I don’t think we can have a ‘get out of jail’ card that says ‘but that’s just not possible’, or ‘but everyone knows that’s the case’ and still say we are using reason. The materialistic scientific world have given themselves at least one ‘get out of jail free’ card – everything is totally explicable if we can have just one miracle – matter and energy are constant, always, except just that one time which we call the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy popped into being from absolutely nowhere.
          If we follow the modern materialistic paradigm, we will have to reason like the scientists that nothing ‘para’ normal can possibly exist. Which in my opinion is just as serious a crime as blind faith in something unproven.
          There is enough ‘reason’ out there in our damaged world that inside these walls I think it is allowable to let it go and decide that for even an hour we are just going to think that maybe there is something bigger than we understand going on. Something that drives us to do and think good, helps us to hope in bleak times, and celebrate in the good ones, and gives more meaning to our voices than just a shriek of air over our vocal chords.

Madeline Stringer
Dublin Unitarian Church


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