Lure of unreason

The philosopher Thomas Aquinas found that the pursuit of wisdom, through reason, is the most perfect, sublime and profitable of all human pursuits. As did Voltaire, Paine and Aristotle, who all maintained that happiness, from the use of reason, is the ultimate goal of life. For many such great thinkers, reason is the greatest good to which humans can aspire. The trouble is, many of us are notoriously good at abandoning it.

Reason is a faculty that separates us from all other living things. It is basically a cause, explanation or justification for an action or event. But as a powerful tool it's demanding. Like many power tools, it’s difficult to use well too. And we’re not up to the necessary mental exercise.

We often fall short of being reasonable for many reasons. Sometimes we’re beaten by emotion. Sometimes we fall prey to logical fallacies. Sometimes figuring out pros and cons seem trivial. Sometimes we just don’t want to be. But mainly because many of us aren’t as good at it as we might wish. Even when the ability exists, some are just not inclined to use reason well, or especially often, or to the determination shown. Therefore, when it comes down to the things that count — whether to marry someone, have kids, or commit to a political ideology – most of us don’t bother counting.

Humans are, by nature, characterised by reasoning above all else. And yet, much of impressive thinking has been used to debunk its role. Because emotion seems sexy – it’s cool, exciting, juicy and heart-thumping. Whereas reason, by definition, is unsexy – it’s boring, dry, head-pounding and number-crunching. So a rejection of reason seems reasonable. Consider how rare it is for someone caught in the grip of strong emotion to be overcome by a fit of reason, but how often it goes the other way. Even trying to be reasonable can trick us into emotion, usually negative and troublesome ones. And when faced with difficult situations, in which reason alone may be unhelpful, we shift gears into yelling, crying and so on. Strong emotion can be wonderful, especially when it involves love. But it can be terribly horrible, when it calls for hatred, fear or violence.

Even the most rational of humans aren’t strangers to unreason. Pythagoras sacrificed a bull to Apollo just after inventing his geometry theorem. Isaac Newton tried to explain the predictions in the Book of Daniel despite discovering gravity. Blaise Pascal gave up mathematics to pursue religion after founding the Probability Theory. He even famously said, ‘the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.’ As did the English poet Henry Aldrich, who in his ‘Reasons for Drinking’ said, ‘sometimes we make up our minds first, and find reasons only later.’ When reason and unreason clash, people sometimes choose the unreason to be stubborn, to disagree, or just because.

People don’t just want to abandon reason; they’re not up to the task either. Let’s take the Game theory of mathematical economics. Founded by John Nash – the subject of the film The Beautiful Mind – it assumes that people seek to maximise their positive outcomes. However, we don't often see logic-based maximisation of outcomes in practice. We turn to bounded rationality instead of true rationality. A finding put forward by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Herbert Simon. Which means the capacity of the human mind to formulate and solve complex problems is very small compared to the size of the problems whose solution is required for objective rational behaviour in the real world.

Reasoning is also bounded by practical constraints. Which means, when it comes to evaluating outcomes in real-life situations, people are more likely to pay attention to the basic distinction of ‘satisfactory or unsatisfactory’ rather than to go for the perfect maximisation of Game theory. And so emerged the term ‘satisficing’ – a hybrid of satisfying and sufficing. Instead of obtaining perfection, people are likely to sample their opinions and choose one that is satisfactory because it suffices. Which is why people looking for a new car, or a house, or even a mate, nearly always stop looking after finding something or someone who meets certain simple, realistic requirements.

Perhaps abandoning reason may be a kind of strategy - an unconscious one played out by evolution. As Simon found, our mind is indeed capable of solving many of the problems posed by the real world, not simply because the world is big and the mind is small, but because the mind did not develop as a calculator designed to solve logical problems. It evolved for a limited purpose; to maximise our evolutionary success. This is its most important, natural function, not reason. And as the evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides found, it is not adapted to solve rarified problems of logic. There’s nothing in the biological specification for brain building that calls for a device capable of high-powered reasoning, solve abstract problems, or provide a clear picture of the outside world beyond what's needed to enable its possessors to thrive and reproduce. Our rationality is bounded not merely by our inherent limitations as small creatures in a large universe. It is bounded more so by what our brains were constructed - that is, evolved - to do.

Reason may seem like a complicated logical analysis. But as David Barash puts in The Survival Game, at it's heart it's simply a means to an end. Which is perhaps why animals often act more reasonably than humans. As a means to an end, reason is only a guide to achieving potential outcomes. Sort of like a road map. And like any map, it can only tell us how to get to somewhere, not where to go.


SAKS said...

Interesting read....

Jake said...

I don't like to swear, but that was fucking brilliant! Exceptional and beautiful explanation of a complex subject that is relevant to *everyone*. You talented boy you! *proud to be your friend* - Jake ^_^

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