The perils of "reason"

By Razib Khan | August 12, 2012 1:38 am

In my post below in regards to Sam Harris’ recent interactions on the web I reasserted by suspicion of reason. This naturally elicited curiosity, or hostility, from some. I’ve talked about this before, but the illustration to the left gets at my primary issue. When individuals are reasoning alone they often have a high degree of uncertainty as to their conclusions. But when individuals are reasoning together they seem to converge very rapidly and with great confidence upon a particular position. What’s going on here? In the second case it isn’t reason at all, but our natural human predisposition toward group conformity. There’s a huge psychological literature on this, so I won’t belabor the point. When people brandish “reason” and “rationality” explicitly I’m somewhat skeptical. If rational conclusions are so plain and self-evident why are we even asserting the primacy of reason? If something really is so clearly reasonable you usually don’t go around trumpeting how reasonable it is.

Another pitfall of reason is that it lulls use into the delusion that we have a transparent understanding of our own motivations and logic, as well as the motivation and logic of others. In my post below I explicitly stated that I disagreed with Harris on the substance of much of what he asserted and assumes in the first paragraph, but multiple people simply imputed to me his views as if they were mine! Even though I declaimed this position very early on, they simply could not generate an coherent framework where I did not agree with either them or Harris. There were only two options conceivable for them which the “reason” engine could operate upon. As I clearly did not agree with them (or so they thought), they simply injected in the axioms which would be appropriate for Sam Harris into my own box, and then began firing the appropriate propositions.

Here we have the problem that reasonable arguments and the self-evident truth of rationality is often only clear among people who already agree on everything of substance. People who agree can confidently assert the rationality and reasonableness of their arguments to those who have the exactly same perspective. So, for example, you have educated people like William F. Buckley, Jr. explaining that there is more evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address (corrected). This was eminently reasonable to the circles which Buckley moved in. After all, Christ did rise from the dead, everyone knows that!  Well, not really. Buckley’s son, Christopher, who is not a believer, has explained that his father had a genuinely difficult time imagining the perspective of those who did not share his beliefs on this matter.

This is not to say that reason and rationality are not without utility. These are humanity’s great cognitive jewels. But great tools can be used to various ends, and true reason and rationality are very difficult. Mathematics for example is undoubtedly true rationality, with crisp and precise inferences being derivable. But most other intellectual structures are not so clearly self-evident as mathematics. Verbal logic and reasoning are riddled with the pitfalls of cognitive bias. Because most people share the same systematic biases it is very difficult for groups of individuals engaging in self-reinforcing masturbatory ‘rationality’ discourses to perhaps step back and wonder about their motivated reasoning. Unfortunately it may be that reason emerged as a human faculty to win arguments, not resolve truth. If this is true we are much more lawyers than mathematicians in our discourse. Does this seem plausible to you? Unfortunately it does seem plausible to me.

Where does this leave us? I think we need to be skeptical of reasoned arguments. This doesn’t lead me down the path of intellectual nihilism. Reason is which leads us to truth is possible. But it may be that this is a very specialized usage of reason, which requires special conditions. ’tis far easier to seem clever than be correct.

MORE ABOUT: Philosophy

Comments (13)

  1. In the real world (meaning pretty much everything except Physics and Mathematics) there are too many unknowns – in inputs, outputs, and feedback loops – to rely on reason alone.

  2. Rob Graham

    If you want to read an interesting take on the limits of reason I recommend John Ralston Saul.

    Basically, as I understand it, he compares the human thought processes to an atom. That is something in a stable configuration of traits held together by a tension of opposites. He categorizes these traits as common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason. These traits have to balance one another.

    Reason, according to Mr. Saul, has become separated from the other traits and so lacks the balance that these other traits can give it. Reason without these traits, especially memory and ethics in my opinion, is linear and unfortunately, exclusive. It tends to reject facts that ‘don’t fit in.’ This leads it, and us, to trample on things that might not be reasonable, but are good and necessary.

    Highly recommended reads. Especially the trilogy of Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion and On Equilibrium.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the thoughts it generated.

  3. Anthony Glaser

    My definition of a ‘reasonable’ person basically comes down to science. To me you are committed to being reasonable if you hold that:

    1. Anything is possible.
    2. Some things are more likely than others.
    3. The scientific method is the ‘best tool ever devised’ to figure out the relative probabilities.

    If you’re true to those three things, everything else is just a conversation. Big disagreements just mean more research is needed. So I’m willing to say that religions in general are fundamentally irrational, but I don’t think that’s a very controversial assertion. It would be nice though, if people could stop trying to rationalize their faiths. Ideologies can be even more frustrating because the faith is entirely disguised as reason.

  4. dave chamberlin

    That graph is a beautiful thing. It is the thousand word picture. We can talk ourselves silly about the delusions of crowds and not get our point across to those who follow popular beliefs but that graph simply but accurately lays it out there.

  5. Siod

    I think anyone familiar with programming knows their best and most considered reasoning has many, many flaws. For that reason, it’s important to throw your reasoning against reality and see what sticks. But I think the problem you’re referring to has more to do with tribes that are too skeptical of contrarian thought — in some cases going so far as to taboo it. If the tribe is important to you, then you probably don’t want to risk lowered status or exile by confronting the tribe with conflicting reasoning even when you know it to be correct. But thankfully I don’t think this is a necessary feature of humanity.

    LessWrong, for example, goes meta and recognizes the propensity for group think and social biases among tribes and then tries to mitigate them by welcoming contrarianism (and just by recognizing humanities flaws). The sciences also do this with status incentives to be correct and contrarian; e.g showing that the tribe is wrong can be a boon to your career and legacy, and importantly there is a way to “show”.

    Also, when you interact with tribes while optimizing for truth rather than status, I think you begin to understand the heuristic with which they operate. I.e., “an individual is more likely to be wrong than the tribe with which I agree with on most other issues.” When you apply this heuristic in practice you realize you often can’t see where the other person is wrong and so you make assumptions. E.g., this person is like that other person or tribe that we confronted and argued against, so they must be wrong at this prerequisite logical juncture preceding where they are now; let’s attack that. Or failing that, let’s simply ridicule them or throw our emotions at them.

    And this all really sucks because you can’t simply try and get to the truth with people, you have to be persuasive. And why should anyone need to be persuasive when the truth should be able to stand on its own, but that’s ignoring the reality and living in the should-reality.

    All that being said, I think the really interesting proposition is that maybe tabooing or exiling contrarians is a good thing. Tribes create contrarians, and with enough contrarians you have a new tribe. By doing that you create variation and conflict or competition within our motivational landscape. One tribe will look for truth in the supernatural while the other will look for it in the sciences. Or one tribe will look for truth in more orthodox physics while another will look for it in string theory. Maybe it all serves to improve our societies.

  6. Karl Zimmerman

    I’d say “reason” as we understand it, encompasses two different mental processes.

    The first is essentially solitary, pre-linguistic, yet conscious problem solving. Think of, for example, attempting to put something large you bought at Home Depot into your compact car. Although a highly organized person may attempt to measure the item and then the internal dimensions of the car, the average person will engage in trial-and-error experimentation in order to figure out how to fit the item properly. They may have an internal monologue going on at he time, but it’s not essential to the process, which an aphasic, or a chimpanzee, can figure out.

    The second is, as noted, a social, linguistic process to convince peers that our point of view is correct. This appears to be pretty much unique to humans.

    I think many realms of human knowledge, particularly in the sciences and in areas with practical applications, draw on both areas in roughly equal measure. Think about how when you are in the midst of research, internal monologue often vanishes entirely, as you become engrossed in the problem-solving module. The data-gathering envelops you, and the social – and to a lesser degree, linguistic – elements of consciousness recede.

    One thing Razib’s post has me wondering is this is part of the reason people with Aspergers (or at least, low EQ) are attracted to scientific fields so heavily. People with low EQ often miss the implicit subtext of things, instead taking statements at face value. So they are told by society to “search for the truth” and they take this literally. In addition, they are also generally less concerned with the opinions of others, or at least, less able to modulate their own behavior subconsciously to conform to group norms, meaning they might be more likely to be “objective,” or at least seek out areas of knowledge where objectivity is more favored.

    More generally, imperfect human reasoning was probably less of an issue in the past than today. When most humans were living in small societies which were culturally and intellectually homogeneous, there was a great deal more unanimity on the underlying precepts, and a much narrower field of discourse. If everyone in a society can agree on an underlying assumption regarding equality, for example, debates about resource allocation become far easier. This suggests that pluralism and democracy are essentially incompatible, but this isn’t a radical idea – I took a political theory class in college focusing on this very question.

  7. This post is bookmarked for life.

    Also, most of the times I don’t say anything because I think I might be engaging in what you correctly described “self-reinforcing masturbatory ‘rationality’ discourses” or “self-congratulatory back-slapping” in another post. Ironic that I have to ‘prove’ you point why agreeing with it, because despite not having the same exact views about things, I share a very similar systematic bias towards approaching ideas.

    By the way, I think this applies to Sam Harris as well and PZ Myers and myself. What I have tried to introspect and try to curb is the reaction “I just don’t get how you don’t see things my way” which mostly everyone including Sam Harris has tends to do. He often concludes that since some public intellectual is not obviously stupid or ignorant, and *still* disagrees with him, then they must be ‘intellectually dishonest’ about a specific matter. I think we all have this bias and some have it more than others but I think acute awareness of it might be the best remedy.

    Anybody who doubts Razib’s thesis here that we are for the most part involved in motivated reasoning rather than reasoning that is devoid of contamination, should simply ask oneself this question: On any issue of substance that you know you have an extremely clear and uncomplicated opinion on, ask yourself, what amount of cognitive energy have you spent trying to disprove/counter that opinion. The answer for most of us on most things will be not even a fraction of the time we spend reinforcing those already held views by reading what you already believe is true and ‘hanging out’ with people who hold your views.

    Kind of a sick admission, but we are really deeply prone to being lawyers first rather than mathematicians. However, that doesn’t leave open room for a new kind of thinking or tool, this is what we have, the best we got, and if we remain committed to the scientific method, then everything else, including false clarity will be slowly eliminated as we worth towards the truth.

  8. Julian Penrod

    Among other things, Lincoln did not “give” the Emancipation Proclamation, he signed it! They claim Lincoln “gave” the Gettysburg Address, but find any real proof that he did. References on aged paper that could have been produced any time in the past century and a half? Prove that any proof Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address or signed the Emancipation Proclamation is absolutely uncontrovertible.
    And, frankly, anyone who necessarily has a large amount of uncertainty on something they derived themselves can indicate they simply engaged in sloppy thinking. Newton had no qualms about his development of physics or the calculus, he checked with no one to firm his certainty.
    To whatever extent a certain societally trained group of individuals may have uncertainty about conclusions they derive themselves, it can be said this is part of the motivation for the “team” method in corporations, to make the gullible, particularly chosen for their positions at hiring, can be made murderously “certain” of the group “conclusion”. The “group” conclusion in corporate teams, incidentally, coming from “golden boys” of the corporation, surreptitiously inserted into the group to make them think the way the corporation wants them to think.
    This does tend, however, to hew very much in the direction I have been pushing for months, that “science” has done exactly nothing to actually verify that all the claims it makes, or even its ability to make valid claims, are legitimate. But all I get when I mention that is attacked. Part of the elitism disease of this society, that, even if you make a perfectly provable statement, if you don’t have the contacts or influence to get published or listened to, huge swaths will “conclude” you to be wrong out of hand, but, if you have “the right people” behind you, if you say the sky is pink, you will automatically have hordes of supporters.

  9. Newton had no qualms about his development of physics or the calculus

    this is stupid. newton was an exceptional man. many idiots have no qualms. they remain idiots.

  10. Newton had no qualms about his development of physics or the calculus, he checked with no one to firm his certainty.

    In addition to the above point, I would like to ask you Julian if you have tried to scrutinize the evidence for the comment you made to the same level that you made for lincoln’s Gettysburg speech? We don’t know about Newton’s qualms and we don’t know who he checked with to firm his certainty. His mathematics was new (although not entirely new, as it existed in different forms in parts of the world) and his Physics was at best approximately right, and at worst wrong (QM+GR) Even if he was completely certain about the validity of his formulations, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that his certainty would be completely unjustified (given what he didn’t and couldn’t know about the nature of reality at that time)

  11. Newton’s hostility to other scientists has actually been said to have held back the field. Newton also spent a lot of time looking for secret messages in the Bible. Just because Newton did something doesn’t make it a good idea.

  12. Dan H

    This is an excellent post.

    As Kanazawa has pointed out, smart people can get into trouble by believing in very foolish things.

    (1) Blank slatism, no racial or gender differences
    (2) Marxism/Communism specifically and redistributionism generally being wealth-building

    Each of (1) and (2) has an unending mountain of evidence that the proposition is false. But smart people are really adept at explaining away and rationalizing any challenge to the outcome they want.

    I think the ability of smart people to escape religion is a great hazard because most secular substitutes are worse.

    People generally need a belief system, and most people act fundamentalist about something. If someone lacks conventional religious belief, they are apt to follow the tenets of modern leftism religiously, and the tenets of modern leftism are about fixing society.

    Things that challenge (1) and (2) are literally attacks on the religion of leftists because such challenges show the utopian ideal is not actually achievable as they conceive it.

    People of religious faith are (in my opinion) often a much steadier hand at the helm of leadership because they placidly believe that any injustices and unfairnesses will be made right by God in the hereafter.

    As the twentieth century showed, leftists who religiously deny (1) and (2) can kill a hundred million or so to further their aims because they are driven by religious zeal without the many moral constraints brought by religion.

    It is to Razib’s great credit that he has not fallen for leftist religious fundamentalism like so many atheists.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar