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A Reason for Reason

“…still I look to find a reason to believe…”

                                               Rod Stewart

Recently Mercier and Sperber have reported on the role of reason in human cognition, social behavior, and formulation of epistemological capital. In an evolutionary-developmental (evo-devo) neuroscientific light, this comports well with a bio-psychosocial model of both individual and cultural cognitive capability. As a species (and like many other species) we tend to augment our existing capabilities and skills, and compensate for those we lack. In this way, the ability to reason may afford particular cognitive capacities that facilitates our social interactions, and compensates for the limitations and restrictions imposed by a single point of view. Sort of a combination of “there’s power in numbers” and “two heads are better than one” approach to social cognition. I’m fond of referring to the late George Bugliarello’s concept of BioSoMa, as an interesting model to depict the engagement of social interaction and use of tools (e.g.- machination) in response to our biological abilities and limitations. As Mercier and Sperber note, it seems that reasoning is based upon a set of fundamental cognitive constructs and intuitions, and provides a mechanism with which to navigate through the nuances of an issue. But the human ability to reason is not reason to expect a lack of bias in the ways of thought and action; but rather, quite the opposite – reason provides a way to approach a situation and/or problem by engaging our subjective cognitive and emotional perspective in comparison (and perhaps contest) with the ideas of others. And frequently, it’s a case of “let the best biases win”.

This supports what I have referred to as Anselm’s Paradox; simply put, we believe in order to understand (rather than to understand things in order to form beliefs about them). The root of the paradox lies in our process of rationalization: we engage reason to sidestep the influence of beliefs, yet we are wedded to fundamental beliefs (including that of our powers of reason) that shape the way we reason. What’s more, our reasoning is often subject to emotional influence, and thus reasoning processes tend to be “skewed” by resonance or dissonance to emotionally-valent ideas or beliefs, and this may provide some relative survival benefit. Having opinions and knowing our likes and dislikes (based upon experience, or in some cases what we’ve been told and/or tutored) can serve to guide the ways we intuit situations and make what we feel to be  “rational” decisions about what we hold and value to be good or bad. So, such emotional flavoring of cognitive processes seems to be inherent to the ways that we rationalize, and employ reasoning to work through problems and situation. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio asserts that in many cases a “…reduction in emotion may constitute an…irrational behavior”. Indeed, as Christian Smith has claimed, we are moral believing animals, and our moral cognitions, regard, and actions are based upon and predicated by our beliefs – including a belief in our capacity for, and the solidity of reason. Yet, reasoning by its nature as an individual and group process may often advance biases that can both initiate and be used to justify aggression against those who do not share – or are the object of – our particular biases. As so well stated by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, “…it’s called reason and man needs it – and it alone – to be more beastly than any beast.”

Thus, it is critical that we develop a fuller and more finely-grained knowledge of the mechanisms, expression and influence of reason (see for example, Jan Verplaetse et al, (eds.) The Moral Brain). Such insight to the ways we perceive, recall and relate to experience, establish expectations, and generate notions of good and bad and right and wrong, all influence our moral cognitions and decision-making, and can be regarded as the focus and palette of neuroethics (at least in the so-called “first tradition”, as “neuromorality”). But, here too, let us exercise prudence – while neuroscience and neuroethics may be seen as a critical and pragmatic approach to sharpen both the lens and mirror with which we view our capabilities and limitations, we must ensure that the methods we use – both to conduct such science and in its utilization as a social force – are rigorous and sound. Robin Horton has posited that science and traditional beliefs represent forms of theoretical thinking; the scientific orientation differing only when embraced as (and in) an open culture that is aware of its own limitations, and the presence and influence of other constructs and concepts (see for example,  Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science)   .

And perhaps, this supports, as Mercier and Sperber suggest, the role and value of reason, and takes us back to the concept of BioSoMa. The most current instantiation of the tools we engage to enable and embellish our biology, social interactions, and ability to understand and control the world at-large is science and technology; and like any tool, these too reflect “builders’ bias” in the way they are developed and employed. Despite certain Pollyannaish claims to the contrary, science – including neuroscience – is based upon and articulates a set of beliefs, and is neither a value-free nor an unbiased culture. Its saving grace, however, is its methodology, which when scrupulously applied and adhered to, dictates and enables particular controls for bias, and other threats to validity and reliability. Most importantly, (good) science is dialectical and presents reasoned perspectives precisely with the aim of incurring arguments that function in the iterative refinement of ideas and concepts (viz.- “facts” ) toward the achievement of (at least temporary) truths. So a neuroscientific understanding of reason that comports with an evolutionary bio-psychosocial view could be important to gain insights to human cognition, emotions, and actions – including those that have moral relevance and influence. But let’s be reasonable and frame any such approaches as theoretical and speculative, bear in mind the role of beliefs and emotions upon the reasoning process, and also recognize the moral, legal and social power that can be derived from our ability to reason.

See also: A Reason for Reason at the Wilson Quarterly

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