Come, let us reason together

Is there any book you wish all incoming freshmen at Harvard would read?
Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong” advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom. Her book would reinforce my encouragement of Harvard’s accomplished and successful freshmen to embrace risk and even failure.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard in N.Y.T.’s By the Book


The ability of humans to reason is Promethean. Some praise it as our gift from the Enlightenment and are sure it can better man and society. Others curse it as the trickster that lead to the cold-hearted blindness and hubris of the death camps. Some are sure the dignity of human beings lies in our ability to reason and others are sure it is nothing more than a tool of imperialism, empire and chauvinism. Reasoning has had a rough work-over by the philosophers as well. Hume’s problem of inference, for many people who care about such things, remains a terminal blow to the edifice of scientific method.

We are living in a Faustian age when engineering and science are serving as the repositories of our ultimate allegiance. We trust them to uncover the truth, reveal what is really real. As the mighty continue to fall and the public turns ever more against its current gods of corporate science and engineering another potential threat to our dignity makes its appearance. With the fall of the corporate, military-industrial complex’s research labs may come the witch hunts that fail to separate the (scientific) method from the (corporate) madness. We have already looked at threats to human dignity arising from the ecological crises when we examined the current circumstance of overshoot. Now we are going to start taking a look at this thing we call reason. If we are to successfully preserve what is valuable through the coming collapse, and I believe our advances in understanding reasoning is certainly worth preserving, it helps to define it carefully. Further, it is my contention that when defined well, reasoning carries with it its own defense of human dignity. There is grandeur in this view of mind, in this view of the inner world … as I hope to demonstrate over the next cycle of posts.

Wisdom entails seeing through delusions, seeing you were wrong about something. It is an astonishing experience to admit to being fully mistaken, completely wrong about a set of ideas that you had previously held dear. The spectrum of what we can be wrong about runs from the trivial to the very things we have dedicated our lives to. Consider the not uncommon case of someone who lives a religious life for 70 years and then comes to doubt its truth. This is an example of the extreme version of seeing through a delusion. The impact on the personality is shattering; life changes after that point, never to return again to the state of comfortable, easy belief. It is what some call an initiation.

That the deepest beliefs of a ‘self’ can be destroyed by another part of one’s ‘self’ opens a rich compost heap of fertile questions about just what this ‘self’ actually is.

What we are interested in here are valid cognitions; tools to separate truth from falsehood. Valid cognitions correspond to the environment; they capture an element of what is real about the external or internal worlds we find ourselves a part of. Valid cognitions are thoughts, concepts, and sets of ideas that have some degree of correspondence with the external or internal environment.

What is it that empowers us to see through our delusions? A whole host of psychological factors play into the details of just when and how such an undoing of delusions unfolds in any individual’s life but I am going to suggest that at its core all these experiences share a type of reasoning as their defining characteristic. The weight of evidence against the delusional set of beliefs grows, as it must since they are out of touch with what is real. Eventually we enter the realm where a choice must be made between cognitive dissonance, snapping and liberation. We are talking about changing the mind and like fire, it can harm or heal.

Removing mystification from the reasoning process clears the deck for our understanding one of the most profound yet taken for granted aspects of human experience. The existential core of our deepest questing after what is really real and truly true leads directly to a confrontation with a psychic power beyond our ability to manipulate – that which makes the real seem real. We have now come to the cornerstone of my philosophy; that which makes what seems real to me, to seem real to me, is the god within before whom I bow. It can be challenging to communicate clearly the felt sense that accompanies my understanding of this point. Though I just used theological language words are fundamentally inadequate. The philosophy of epistemology comes close as it studies how we know what we know but this too typically falls shy of the felt sense that accompanies the insights. It is why this blog site includes a poetics section.

There is a functional type of reality-sense operating in our sensory field of awareness (we know a hallucination to be a hallucination) and in our cognitive operations and classifications that cleanly divides the world between that which is real and that which is imagination. This reality-sense operates at multiple scales; there is not one monolithic, capital ‘T’ truth. So we have a sense for what is real at the atomic level of analysis, or molecular, cellular, that of ecosystems and so on. The reality-sense runs like a thread through our every conscious experience. It provides the contrast by which we recognize when we are dreaming. It provides the contrast by which we classify reality separately from illusion.

These two characteristics of reasoning are the proper context to appreciate the study of reason about to be undertaken. The first is that it can lead a person to change their mind, a most amazing thing (is this not what is being sought on a quest for enlightenment?) Second is that it is not a process that answers to our whims and fancies. We cannot make ourselves believe something we “know” to be fake and often we are powerless to maintain our most cherished beliefs in light of the evidence of our experiences however much we may want to, or even feel the need to in order to maintain our very sense of identity. It brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s observation about science advancing only as the old guards of the previous generation die out. The paradigm change he describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is all about us culturally changing our minds about what is real.

Now I think we can better appreciate the role of reason as it is more commonly understood. This ‘sense’ that separates for us what we will consider really real from what we will consider false is the engine of wisdom-building. We feed it with our curiosity. As curious creatures we try this and that, observe this and that and use the process to feed data into this reality-sense. We are driven to seek out what it needs to know to perform its vital role in our continual survival. We are fashioned in such a way that concerns about properly understanding our environments are vital. The aborigine on the walkabout and the scientist in their research lab are both gathering data within this type of process.

This newly acquired data does not exist in isolation. The data either confirms or disconfirms sets of ideas or beliefs the aborigine or scientist had before the event which provided new data occurred. These prior beliefs play a key role in the model of reasoning we will be exploring. It could be that we have a number of conflicting opinions about the truth of a matter without a justifiable preference for one or the other. This is not a lack of a prior belief but a special case where the prior beliefs contain the maximum possible entropy.

A funny feature of this reality-sense is that it has a reading on everything, even subjects we actually know little about. It is never the case of a blank slate confronting data since we always bring our current understanding with us. The role of data then is one of strengthening or weakening our previously acquired beliefs. Imagine a set of pans on a balance beam. On one side there is the weight of prior experience, study, thought, theory and data while on the other side the pan holds the new data to be assessed. There is a chance that even when the new data does not fit the prior set of ideas its weight will be sufficient to tip the scales. When the scales shift a new set of ideas are sensed as more true, we have changed our minds.

This is what Darwin did with his theory of evolution by natural selection; a gathering of evidence shifted the scales. Eventually it shifted the culture into the secular worldview we now live in where the need to appeal to a creator no longer enjoys the intellectual support it once did. This is also what the climate scientists’ warnings about climate change are doing right now alongside the whole host of ecologically educated producers of evidence for the ongoing eco-crises. There is value in working to share the truth as we understand it and letting the collective balance beams do their thing.

There is not a human alive who has not experienced being mistaken, believing something that is just not so. This universal experience opens the possibility that other beliefs being held with equal assurance may one day turn out to be equally delusional. In our heart of hearts we know this; it is a universal human experience. Humans can easily make vocal noises insisting they know something is absolutely true or absolutely false but since all assertions rely on a whole host of supporting ideas and we have seen where such ideas could be wrong, these claims to possess absolute knowledge are dishonest. They are dishonest both in what humans subjectively experience around the sense of what is really real and objectively in claiming a result reasoning is incapable of arriving at.

The key to thinking clearly about reasoning while giving proper weight to the characteristics just outlined is to frame our understanding within the ideas of probability. In a circumstance where absolute knowledge remains inaccessible (if not incoherent) the field is open to continual refinements of what can be considered to be most probably really real and most probably truly true. With probability we can have degrees of belief running between 0 and 100. I can be 80% sure the Declaration of Independence under glass in Washington D.C. is the original document and maybe 99.9% sure that if I drop my pen right now it will fall to the floor. Why not 100% sure in this later case? Maybe there will be an explosion nearby the moment I drop my pen and its trajectory gets blasted sideways or a cosmic gravity wave from a sudden inflationary black hole alters the surrounding space-time or maybe even my mischievous friends tied a very thin thread to my pen so when I drop it they can laugh with glee as I stare at it, astonished. The point is: with the idea that complex human understanding entails degrees of belief the absolute false of 0 and the absolute truth of 100 are traded for a wealth of possibilities. Importantly it also provides an effective means by which people can persuade one another about what is real and what is not.

Learning to speak in terms of what is most probable could renew the moribund national conversation. Learning to habitually frame our debates in such contexts could return dignity and respect to our interactions. Regardless of the probability of probability impacting social norms, individuals can benefit from adding this tool to their cognitive tool belt. A transparent, coherent and complete model of such a core constituent of our makeup as reasoning promotes a certain peace of mind and an easier acceptance of the human condition. It also fine tunes our B.S. detectors.

There is another point. The ethical question of our time comes couched in terms of probability: What is the most probable future facing humankind? The corollary is also couched in terms of probability: What can we do today that has the greatest chance of making tomorrow better?

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