Check Yourself before you wreck yourself
I have been accused of many things over the years, and usually have a ready riposte waiting anxiously in the wings. However, there is one charge I find particularly vexing. It is – “You are being too rational!”. It almost never fails to have me at a complete loss for words. Generally, due to being struck by apoplexy by the shock to my system! My current strategy has been to resort to a paroxysm of laughter, but I am still lacking an adequate comeback.
How am I supposed to respond to that charge? Is “too rational” intended as an insult? If so, I must be somewhat obtuse, because I can’t see my failing. Does it mean I am making too much sense? Or maybe I am being too reasonable? Unfortunately, it is neither, that being only an indulgence in wishful thinking. In fact, the implication seems to be, that I am being “unreasonable” by taking reason or logic too far. That suggestion if serious, stops me dead in my tracks. For reason is my only means of discussing or resolving anything. If I can’t appeal to reason in a conversation, what is my interlocutor advising I invoke? Authority? Emotions? My bare fists?
Authority over people is neither something I possess or desire. If authority has no connection with reason, then it is simply the power to impose your will on others. What kind of fool willingly subjugates his mind to someone else, and takes his thoughts and ideas on a dripfeed (ie. IV tube) ? Certainly not this one!
As for emotions, they are inherently personal, and therefore purely subjective. Would you decide on the flavour of an ice cream cone based on someone else’s taste preferences and not your own? I think not. Aren’t your thoughts, ideas and beliefs a thousand times more important than ice cream? I certainly hope so!
Then, there is the avenue of force. If someone doesn’t agree with me, why not beat him into submission? Only because I refuse to descend to operating on the sub-human level. Anyone who includes force in their operating manual is not a human but an animal. I should hasten to add that if I did have to revert to my “jungle origins” and use force, I wouldn’t fare too well. Chalk up another good reason why the thought sends shivers down my spine!
Thus, in the absence of reason, I have good cause to be speechless. There simply is no other way for me to communicate with others, given I will not deign to resort to authority, emotion or force. My only option is to end the conversation. So, is there a problem with the growing number of people who think things can be too rational and logical? Putting aside the fact that I would get awfully lonely, the danger is that everyone is not prepared to end things by simply quitting talking. Without a doubt, decisions and actions will still be made, but on the basis of authority, emotion and force. Think that’s not such a big deal? Try substituting Fascist Nazi government for authority; a demagogue named Hitler for emotion; and the SS and Gestapo for force. It’s a pretty safe bet you think the Holocaust was a “big deal”.
Of course now I will be accused of “extremism” – which apparently means taking things to ridiculous extremes. People who level this charge are prone to seeing events like the Holocaust as isolated incidents. They are of course mistaken, having left their history books where they left their minds. Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields”, Chairman Mao’s “Cultural” Revolution and every other unspeakable evil in the history of humanity, was a direct result of man abdicating reason and replacing it with authority, emotion and force. The implications of this immoral philosophy are as real for people today, as they were for the 6 million Jews in my “extreme” example. Consider ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; Pauline Hanson’s popularity in Australia; and the massacres of women and children with machetes in Algeria. What critics consider as “taking things to ridiculous extremes” is simply the logical extension and consistent application of the same principle.
The consequences of the denigration of reason are patently clear. But what of the cause? Where has the perception that reason is flawed and potentially corrupt come from? There are numerous sources, which would encompass much of history, religion and philosophy. People have been chipping away at this singular attribute of human beings for about as long as they have explicitly known about it. My intention is to focus on just one cause though, which despite being a ubiquitous error, is easy to correct.
The error I am referring to is the widespread misconception which equates reason and logic with the conclusions drawn from ostensibly using them. In other words, if the conclusions are flawed and untenable, then necessarily, the method used for arriving at them is also flawed. This is a result of failing to understand that reason is a method; a tool for identifying and integrating information, and nothing more than that. It is no more “reasonable” to blame the faculty of reason for faulty conclusions, than it is to admonish your textbook for failing your exam! Yet, this is what most people do. And, once you tarnish and dent the reputation of a tool or instrument, it becomes an easy scapegoat for everyone to pin their deficiencies on.
The above exposition leads to the obvious inquiry – “If reason is not the source of the erroneous conclusion, what is ?” The answer is the premise. A premise is a proposition or statement upon which reasoning is based. The easiest way to demonstrate how this occurs is through the archetypal form of reasoning developed by Aristotle – the logical syllogism.
Examine the following example :
All Men are mortal. (major premise)
Socrates is a man. (minor premise)
Thus, Socrates is mortal. (logical conclusion. ie the syllogism)
Both premises contain predicates – declarations that something is true. The syllogism is the logical conclusion following from the two premises. There is no need to go into logic here, it will suffice to understand that logic is the system of rules governing reasoning. If we neglect formal notation, we could write the above example as : A=B; C=A; therefore C=B. Almost everybody understands both forms are perfectly logical.
Now consider the slightly altered example :
All men are dogs.
Socrates is a man.
Thus, Socrates is a dog.
Obviously, the conclusion is ridiculous. However, it is still “strictly” logical. Limiting reason to the context of the argument, the conclusion is both logical and rational. The source of the error is not the method (reason) used to arrive at the conclusion, but the first premise. Associating the words rational and logical with conclusions, rather than the method used to arrive at them, is the source of the misconception. The solution? To remember that reason is a tool of knowledge, and to “Check Your Premises”.
One also has to be precise with language, so that we can identify the problem. Obscurity, is the cloak which every naked emperor of mysticism or muscle, hides behind. Before we throw our mind’s overboard, or shackle them to mystics and thugs, we need to make sure we know exactly what we are talking about. Disingenuous charlatans disparagingly refer to this as “playing semantics”. The fact that a word which refers to the meaning of language has been perverted into a pejorative term, is evidence of their insidious attack on rigour and accuracy.
What is logical and rational in one specific context, is not necessarily so in every other. Within the context of a particular syllogistic argument alone, the conclusion is logical and rational. However, in the full context of what we know about reality, it may be illogical and irrational. Men and dogs are different entities, and we know a man cannot be a dog. The essential difference one needs to remember is that false conclusions can only ever be “logical” or “rational” in the limited context of an argument where the premises are accepted as true without evaluation. In real life (the full context), the premises of any argument should always be subject to scrutiny. That they rarely are, is not the fault of your mind’s rational faculty. More likely, is the probability that you had it chained up in the backyard. In this case, you need to free your mind from its shackles, and have confidence in its ability. It is also possible, that in the past, the culprit may have been ignorance. However, if you make the same mistake again, your memory will be implicated as an accomplice. Hence, I reiterate what needs to become your personal maxim – “Check the premises”.
You must realise now that reason is not a flawed faculty. However, this is not to say that “reasoning” can’t be flawed. There is a right and a wrong way to reason, just as there is a right and a wrong way to use any tool. (eg. a buzzsaw). Logic, or the art of non-contradictory identification, provides the correct rules for reasoning. Follow them. To expect reason to deliver without following the rules of logic, is about as intelligent as jumping into your car and automatically expecting to arrive at your destination, whilst blissfully ignoring your map and all the road signs!
As the proverb says – “A poor workman blames his tools.” We all recognise that the tools are not the problem in this instance. That we don’t similarly realise that the faculty of reason is a tool and not a guarantor of arriving at the truth, is mostly due to those who have deliberately identified reason with mistaken conclusions that are actually the result of false premises. This does not constitute a problem with reason’s validity as a method, but instead proves its reliability. Flawed premises result in flawed conclusions. Valid premises result in valid conclusions. Your rational faculty does not deceive you either way. It can not! Consequently, even when errors are made, reason provides the means of correcting them. What did you think this essay has been appealing to in you, apart from your rational faculty?
Reason is the only valid, objective instrument for acquiring knowledge and grasping truth. Without it, man lives in contradiction to the facts of reality, and can have no common basis with which to deal with other men. Abdicate reason and you mortgage your integrity, and put truth up for sale to your most emotional whim, or the most intimidating thug. As for dealing with other people, you will quickly realise anything is possible. Principles and rights will exit stage left. Gangsters or the frenzied caprice of the mob will be left to run the show.
Man is considered the – “Rational Animal”. Wipe out reason and you are left with just animal. If you were ever puzzled why primates don’t use language, you will have your answer in your new world. When you find yourself at the mercy of the ape with the biggest stick, the futility of speech will dawn on you. Unfortunately, like the Jew, the Russian peasant and the Chinese artist before you, your epiphany will be short-lived. You have been warned. Take heed.