The Reasonableness of Reason


I’ve just splashed out a fiver on a hardcore philosophy book ‘The Reasonableness of Reason’. Second hand mind you, austerity reigns. But absolute austerity is probably slightly unreasonable.

It is, by all accounts, an exhaustive investigation of whether following reason is better than scepticism or belief. My current bedtime read Philosophy Now carries an admirable review by Professor Raymond S. Pfeiffer of what I’ve bought, which I précis here:

Naturalists argue that there are some general goals that almost all humans in all societies have in common, such as obtaining safety, food, love, meaning, and an understanding of the world. In fact, no one has suggested possible alternatives.

Naturalists further argue that human goals are best achieved by a group of standards, rules and methods referred to as ‘the theory of middle-sized physical objects’. This theory is the idea that there is a world inhabited by everyday objects that behave in the kind of way they seem to behave in our experience of them.

The naturalistic claim is simply that a preponderance of evidence reveals that using the claims, methods, standards and rules of the theory of middle-sized physical objects (a.k.a. using reason) is the best way to fulfil human goals.

This process – which is the use of reason and the scientific method – has produced the best confirmed and most useful thinking about reality, and continues to do so.

Others may choose a different process to understand the world, such as basing some of their beliefs on faith. But history has shown that such an approach often goes wrong in some way, and that, when corrected, it is usually corrected by the use of reason and the scientific method.

Furthermore, sceptics, who suspend belief in reason and seek to follow the customs of the culture in which they live, use the very same theses, methods and rules of thought as the theory of middle-sized physical objects, and so use the tools of reason anyway.

Hauptli (the Author) concludes that “If we seek optimum goal-fulfillment, the use of reason will promote this best in the long run.” So although there is no certain proof of the advantage of using reason, it provides a better option than any known alternative.

How very reasonable. I have a feeling I could have saved myself that fiver.


This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.