Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends.

The study of social phenomena is saddled with a level of complexity that has no obvious parallel in the natural sciences.

If anything, many would say, we don’t have enough reason. This is certainly the view of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have been at the forefront of a newly invigorated assault on religion as the poster child of unevolved, dangerous nonsense. Here is Dawkins:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to ‘organized religion’. My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either.3

And here is Harris:

We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal” or they will unmake our world.4

If we listen carefully however, we can soon see that the New Atheists’ real target isn’t actually religion, but irrationality. Harris continues:

A few minutes spent wandering the graveyard of bad ideas suggests that such conceptual revolutions are possible. Consider the case of alchemy: it fascinated human beings for over a thousand years, and yet anyone who seriously claims to be a practicing alchemist today will have disqualified himself for most positions of responsibility in our society. Faith-based religion must suffer the same slide into obsolescence. What is the alternative to religion as we know it? As it turns out, this is the wrong question to ask. Chemistry was not an “alternative” to alchemy; it was a wholesale exchange of ignorance at its most rococo for genuine knowledge.5

Similarly, Dawkins continues:

As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly-held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical china teapot orbiting the Sun.6

What the New Atheists are claiming is that the only real knowledge is that which is properly obtained through evidence, by which they mean scientific method. Superstition, faith in things unseen, hunches and gut feelings, unproven assertions, none of these things count as knowledge. Scientific method is the one true path, as it were.

This may seem eminently sensible, and to a large extent it is. I am not arguing in favour of superstition or against the value of scientific method. It does seem curiously dogmatic that scientific method should be put forward as the only true way, a question taken up with characteristic wit and insight by Terry Eagleton7, but my concern here is in what scientific method is not good at or leaves out that may be of value.

The main activity of scientific method is the production of theory. By this we mean the sort of generalist, context-independent ‘laws’ that explain and predict things. Good scientists who apply this method are sceptical — a theory is only ‘true’ to the extent that it succeeds in explaining and predicting phenomena. It is quite possible that a newer, better theory may come along and replace that which went before, and indeed a good scientist would be overjoyed if his or her theory were to suffer this fate. Thomas Kuhn has described in admirable detail this kind of ‘puzzle solving’ process involved in scientific research and how eventually such incremental work destabilises the current ‘paradigm’ and leads to ‘revolutionary’ change.8 This is the system working, and it has accounted for several centuries of spectacular discoveries in the natural sciences leading to so many of our cherished material advances.

So far, so good. But there are two problems.

The first is that, as we have already seen with virtuoso performances, there are some things worth knowing that the generalist, context-independent approach favoured by scientific method misses. This is a method that deliberately sets out precisely to banish context, whereas we have seen that some kinds of knowledge cannot exist without it. This would be fine if it weren’t for the rationalist insistence that such knowledge therefore simply doesn’t count.

This may be unproblematic as far as the natural sciences are concerned (though not everyone shares this view), but I agree with Flyvbjerg that it is an untenable stance for the social sciences.9 Human beings generally simply don’t work in the same way as objects. If I drop a rock and feather in a vacuum chamber to see if they fall at the same speed, neither is likely to complain or contact the research ethics committee. Rocks and feathers don’t know they are being observed. Rocks and feathers don’t talk back. The study of social phenomena is saddled with a level of complexity that has no obvious parallel in the natural sciences. There is therefore little sense in the social sciences proceeding by trying to emulate the methodology of the natural sciences. The widely-held perception of social science as ‘soft’ or otherwise impotent happens largely because this is precisely often how it does proceed. As Flyvbjerg argues, we need to rethink how to do social science so that it actually matters.

The inability to see and value some kinds of knowledge is one problem with rationalism. The second problem is a moral one. Ultimately, the process of scientific advancement I have described is underwritten by an idea that everything ‘out there’ is knowable, and that one day, however distant, we can discover it all. Everything between now and then is a matter of Progress. This is a motivating idea, but it is one that is entirely unsupported by evidence, especially the kind of evidence on which scientific method insists. Progress is rather a powerful myth — an article of faith, to put it another way. Eagleton criticises Dawkins on this point at some length:

“The whole wave,” [Dawkins] rhapsodizes in the manner of some excited TV sports commentator, “keeps moving.” Most people in the twenty-first century, he adds, oozing moral complacency at every word, are “way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s”. On this reading of history, Dawkins himself will look pretty troglodytic a century or so from now.

It is true that we have become in some ways more sensitive to the afflictions of others, as well as more self-consciously humanitarian and a lot more likely to feel some moral responsibility for strangers. These advances are greatly to be prized. But it is the grossest prejudice to list them without dwelling upon the Holocaust and two world wars. Dawkins does in fact mention the Second World War, but only to point out that the casualty rate was higher than that of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—another glowing token of our chronological ascent to saintliness. He also alludes to Hitler—a severe “reversal,” he candidly confesses—but remarks that his crimes would not have been considered particularly foul in the age of Caligula or Genghis Khan.

So Hitler, too, is a symptom of moral progress. Even Goebbels might have found himself hard put to swallow that.10

John Gray, perhaps the most notable scholar on the myth of Progress, puts the phenomenon Eagleton describes more succinctly:

In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result, Darwin’s teaching has been stood on its head, and Christianity’s cardinal error — that humans are different from all other animals — has been given a new lease on life.11

What makes Progress a moral problem, though? It’s because the idea that history is ‘going somewhere‘ — that it has a telos — introduces an idea of good. It is good that we make progress. Why? Because it takes us one step closer to the fully enlightened utopia. Conversely, that which retards progress (e.g. irrational things like religion) must be bad. Good and bad are moral ideas, and this is a problem, because morality is one of the things scientific method can’t see.* In fact, though this approach continually exhorts us to be ‘objective’ and ‘value-neutral’, we find that moral content creeps in nonetheless, it just isn’t declared as such. I have already discussed elsewhere the consequences that undeclared or otherwise disguised moral frameworks can have on lived experience, such as when economic thinking is applied to social policy.

In sum, though reason is an indispensable tool in the human toolkit, it is far from the only one that matters. By relying on it too much — particularly when we insist that only empirical, positively testable knowledge is real knowledge — we strip the world around us of much of its richness and complexity and begin to make ourselves blind. This has been going on for some time and is a significant factor in our present directionless unease. To begin to remedy this, we will need to talk about the recovery of knowledge based in emotion, narrative and imagination, not to mention the need to reinstate ethics in public culture, but that is a discussion we can save for another time. ◾


* Certain neuroscientists (Sam Harris included) may have something to say about that, but we can give proper credence to their fond imaginings when they are able to produce the kind of evidence that meets their own standards.


1 T Judt, Ill Fares the Land, 2010, Penguin Press, New York.

2 J Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, Allen Lane, London, p. 28

3 R Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain, 2003, Houghton Mifflin, New York, p. 117

4 S Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, 2004, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, p. 14

5 ibid.

6 Dawkins, op. cit.

7 T Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009, Yale University Press, London.

8 T Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

9 B Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, 2001, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

10 Eagleton, op. cit, p. 85–86

11 J Gray, Straw Dogs, 2003, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 4

Tags: , , , , , , , ,