“[…] some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.”
— Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri
What is reason?
One could perhaps say that answering this question itself falls within the purview of reason. But I would simply define reason as the capacity of our minds to decide or assess what makes the most sense, or seems most reasonable, all things considered.
This seems well in line with other definitions of reason. For instance, Google defines reason as “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically”, and Merriam-Webster gives the following definitions:
a (1) : the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking[,] especially in orderly rational ways […] (2) : proper exercise of the mind […]
These definitions all seem to raise the further question of what terms like “logically”, “orderly rational ways”, and “proper” then mean in this context.
Indeed, one may accuse all these definitions of being circular, as they merely seem to deflect the burden of defining reason by referring to some other notion that ultimately just appears synonymous with, and hence does not reductively define, reason. This would also seem to apply to the definition I gave above: “the ability to decide or assess what seems most reasonable all things considered”. For what does it mean for something to “seem most reasonable”?
Yet the open-endedness of this definition does not, I submit, render it useless or empty by any means, any more than defining science in open-ended terms such as “the attempt to discover what is true about the world” renders this definition useless or empty.
Reason: The Core Value of Universities and the Enlightenment
At the level of ideals, working out what seems most reasonable all things considered is arguably the core goal of both the Enlightenment and of universities. For instance, ideally, universities are not committed to a particular ethical view (say, utilitarianism or deontology), nor to a particular view of what is true about the world (say, string theory or loop quantum gravity, or indeed physicalism in general).
Rather, universities seem to have a more fundamental and less preconceived commitment, at least in the ideal, which is to find out which particular views, if any, that seem the most plausible in the first place. This means that all views can be questioned, and that one has to provide reasons if one wants one’s view to be considered plausible.
And it is important to note in this context that “plausible” is a broader term than “probable”, in that the latter pertains only to matters of truth, whereas the former covers this and more. That is, plausibility can also be assigned to views, for instance ethical views, that we do not view as strictly true, yet which we find plausible nonetheless (as in: they seem agreeable or reasonable to us).
For this very reason, it would also be problematic to view the fundamental role of universities to (only) be the uncovering of what is true, as such a commitment may assume too much in many important and disputed academic discussions, such as those about ethics and epistemology, where the question of whether there indeed are truths in the first place, and in what sense, is among the central questions that are to be examined by reason. Yet in this case too, the core commitment remains: a commitment to being reasonable. To try to assess and follow what seems most reasonable all things considered.
This is arguably also the core value of the Enlightenment. At least that seems to be what Immanuel Kant argued for in his essay “What Is Enlightenment“, in which he further argued that free inquiry — i.e. the freedom to publicly exercise our capacity for reason — is the only prerequisite for enlightenment:
This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom—and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.
And the view that reason should be our core commitment and guide of course dates much further back historically than the Enlightenment. Among the earliest and most prominent advocates of this view was Aristotle, who viewed a life lived in accordance with reason as the highest good.
Yet who is to say that what we find most plausible or reasonable is something we will necessarily be able to converge upon? This question itself can be considered an open one for reasoned inquiry to examine and settle. Kant, for instance, believed that we would all be able to agree if we reasoned correctly, and hence that reason is universal and accessible to all of us.
And interestingly, if one wants to make a universally compelling case against this view of Kant’s, it seems that one has to assume at least some degree of the universality that Kant claimed to exist. And hence it seems difficult, not to say impossible, to make such a case, and to deny that at least some aspects of reason are universal.
Being Reasonable: The Only Reasonable Starting Point?
One can even argue that it is impossible to make a case against reason in general. For as Steven Pinker notes:
As soon as we are having this conversation, as long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something, you are already committed to reason. We are not engaged in a fist fight, we are not bribing each other to believe something. We are trying to provide reasons. We are trying to persuade, to convince. As long as you are doing that in the first place — you are not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head, or bribing them to believe something — you have lost any argument you have against reason; you have already signed on to reason, whether you like it or not. So the fact that we are having this conversation shows that we are committed to reason. That is the starting point.
Indeed, it seems that any effort to make a case against reason would have to rest on the very thing it attempts to question, namely our capacity to assess and justify the merits of our claims. Thus, almost by definition, it seems impossible to identify a reasonable alternative to the endeavor of reason.
Some might argue that reason requires us to have faith in reason in the first place, and hence that reason is ultimately no more reasonable or defensible than is faith in anything whatsoever. Yet this is not the case.
First, we should be clear that faith and reason, as commonly conceived, are polar opposites. Reason seeks justification for our beliefs, whereas faith — holding beliefs without justification — represents the very negation of this search. Second, unlike faith, reason is not in fact committed to accepting any particular claim from the outset: everything can in principle be doubted and scrutinized, including the very soundness of reason itself, even if such doubt ultimately proves incoherent and untenable.
What, then, can ultimately justify any claim?
It Seems Reasonable: The Bedrock Foundation of Reasonable Beliefs
The idea that reason demands justification for any given belief may seem problematic, as it gives rise to the so-called Münchhausen trilemma: what can ultimately justify our beliefs — a circular chain of justifications, an infinite chain, or a finite chain (or web) with brute facts at bottom? Supposedly, none of these options are appealing. Yet I disagree.
For I see nothing problematic about having a brute observation, or reason, at bottom of our chain of justification, which I would indeed argue is exactly what constitutes, and all that ever could constitute, the rock bottom justification for any reasonable belief. Specifically, that it just seems reasonable.
Many discussions go wrong here by conflating 1) ungrounded assumptions and 2) brute observations, which are by no means the same. For there is clearly a difference between believing that a car just drove by you based on the brute observation (i.e. a conscious sensation of) that a car just drove by you, and then merely assuming, without grounding in any reason or observation, that a car just drove by you.
Or consider another example: the fundamental constants in our physical equations. We ultimately have no deeper justification for the values of these constants than brute observation. Yet this clearly does not render our knowledge of these values merely assumed, much less arbitrarily or unjustifiably chosen. This is not to say that our observations of these values are infallible; future measurements may well yield slightly different, more precise values. Yet they are not arbitrary or unjustified.
The idea that brute observation cannot constitute a reasonable justification for a belief is, along with the idea that brute assumptions and brute observations are the same, a deeply misguided one, in my view. And this is not only true, I contend, of factual matters, but of all matters of reason, including ethics and epistemology, whether we deem these fields strictly factual or not. For instance, my own ethical view, according to which suffering is disvaluable and ought to be reduced, does not, on my account, rest on a mere assumption. Rather, it rests on a brute observation of the undeniable intrinsic disvalue of the conscious states we call suffering. I have no deeper justification than this, nor is a deeper one required or even possible.
Deniers of Reason
If reason is the only reasonable starting point, why, then, do so many seem to challenge and reject it? There are a few things to say in response to this. First, those who criticize and argue against reason are not really, as I have argued above, criticizing reason, at least not in the general sense I have defined it here (since to criticize reason is to engage in it). Rather, they are, at most, criticizing a particular conception of reason, and that can, of course, be perfectly reasonable (I myself would criticize prevalent conceptions of reason as being much too narrow).
Second, there are indeed those who do not criticize reason, and who indeed do reject it, at least in some respects. These are people who refuse to join the conversation Steven Pinker referred to above; people who refuse to provide reasons, and who instead engage in forceful methods, such as silencing or extorting others, violently or otherwise. Examples include people who believe in some political ideology or religion, and who choose to suppress, or indeed kill, those who express views that challenge their own. Yet such actions do not pose a reasonable or compelling challenge to reason, nor can they be considered a reasonable alternative to the endeavor of reason.
As for why people choose to engage in such actions and refuse to engage in reason, one can also say a few things. First of all, the ability to engage in reason seems to require a great deal of learning and discipline, and not all of us are fortunate enough to have received the schooling and discipline required. And even then, even when we do have these things, engaging in reason is still an active choice that we can fail to make.
That is, doing what we find most reasonable is not an automatic, reflexive process, but rather a deliberate volitional one. It is clearly possible, for example, to act against one’s own better judgment. To go with seductive impulse and temptation — e.g. for sex, a cigarette, or social status — rather than what seems most reasonable, even to ourselves in the moment of weakness.
Reason Broadly and Developmentally Construed
The conception of reason I have outlined here is, it should be noted, not a narrow one. It is not committed to any particular ontological position, nor is it purely cerebral, as in restricted to merely weighing verbal or mathematical arguments. Instead, it is open to questioning everything, and takes input from all sources.
Nor would I be tempted to argue that we humans have some single, immutable faculty of reason that is infallible. Quite the contrary. Our assessments of what seems most reasonable in various domains rests on a wide variety of faculties and experiences, virtually none of which are purely innate. Indeed, these faculties, as well as our range of experience, can be continually expanded and developed as we learn more, both individually and collectively.
In this way, reason, as I conceive of it, is not only extremely broad but also extremely open-ended. It is not static, but rather self-regulating and self-updating, as when we realize that our thinking is tendentious and biased in many ways, and that our motives might not be what we (would like to) think they are. In this way, our capacity for reasoning has taught itself that it should be self-skeptical.
Yet this by no means gives way to pure skepticism. After all, our discovery of these tendencies is itself a testament to the power of our capacity to reason. Rather than completely undermine our trust in this capacity, discoveries of this kind simultaneously show both the enormous weakness and strength of our minds: how wrong we can be when we are not careful to try to be reasonable, and how much better informed we can become if we are. Such facts do not comprise a case against employing our capacity to reason, but rather a case for even more, even more careful employments of this capacity of ours.
Conclusion: A Call for Reason
As noted above, the endeavor of reason is not one that we pursue automatically. It takes a deliberate choice. In order to be able to assess and decide what seems most reasonable all things considered, one must first make an active effort to learn as much as one can about the nature of the world, and then consider the implications carefully.
What I have argued here is that there is no reasonable alternative to doing this; not that there is no possible alternative. For one can surely suspend reason and embrace blind faith, as many religious people do, or embrace incoherent and self-refuting claims about reality, as many postmodernists do. Or one can go with whatever seems most pleasurable in the moment rather than what seems most reasonable all things considered, as we all do all too often. Yet one cannot reasonably choose such a suspension of reason.
In sum, I would join Aristotle in viewing reason, broadly construed, as our highest calling. Following what seems most reasonable all things considered seems the best choice before us.