Monday, August 11, 2008

Editorial: How to make reason more reasonable by New Scientist

Editorial: How to make reason more reasonable

  • 23 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

WRITING these words in a pavement cafe in Brussels, capital of that rationalist and cosmopolitan project known as the European Union, all seems well with the world. A band is playing. The church at the end of the square is filled with tourists. The passing cyclists look content and healthy. You could experience similar scenes in similar squares in Boston, London, Paris or Tokyo. The streets are calm, the smell of progress towards democratically agreed political, social and cultural goals is in the air. It's hard to see what could be wrong.

Yet it seems that a number of forces are rising up to attack the rationalist thinking that has produced this way of life. New Scientist's own concern in 2005 was - and is - typical: "After two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under threat." That is how the magazine introduced a special issue on fundamentalism (8 October 2005, p 39), continuing: "Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason, intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular inquiry is the best way to understand the world."

Whether the attackers are religious fundamentalists, faith-based terrorists or practitioners of pseudoscience, the discussion feels like a cowboy movie, as Daniel Hind suggests in his book The Threat to Reason (see New Scientist, 19 January, p 46). You either cheer the sheriff, or get behind the outlaws.

But is it so simple? As A. C. Grayling outlines on page 42, the main principles of Enlightenment thinking are that humans are rational, and that we should accept beliefs on the basis of reason, not authority, tradition or the church. Central to this is the idea that the universe is a rational system, wholly accessible to detached, logical enquiry. This magazine stands firmly behind the idea that such enquiry is indeed the best tool we have to understand the physical world. But instead of accepting the polarised "good vs evil" terms in which the reason debate is increasingly framed, this special report has invited thinkers from all areas of public life to look more carefully at people's concerns.

The aim is to understand not just the rise in religious fundamentalism, but phenomena such as the rising popularity of pseudoscience, the falling number of western children who choose to study hard science, and the high number of people who doubt human input in climate change.
Might part of the problem be that reason itself does not always live up to the claims on the label? Might there be legitimate grounds for being sceptical about reason's scope and for arguing for its reform?

Might reason not always live up to the claims made for it?

The first problem our contributors have identified is not with reason itself, but with its abuse. Sociologist David Miller argues on page 46 that

governments and big corporations have hijacked the language and methods of reason and science in their PR and advertising to subvert the ability of people to judge for themselves - an end directly opposed to the Enlightenment values we supposedly hold dear.
Environmental activist and former US vice-president Al Gore takes a similar line in his book Assault on Reason (reviewed on 21 July 2007, p 46), in which he argues that propaganda and advertising are a major threat to reason and therefore to democracy.

The feeling that western, "rational" societies are inescapably entwined with these anti-rational and anti-democratic forces lies behind many critiques of the Enlightenment enterprise - from within these societies and from outside them. Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky argues on page 46 that although we may think of western society as enlightened and free, we are restricted in what we can think and say. In practice, power is with industry and the military, and values are determined by corporations and brands, not individuals and ideals.

The second unifying theme among our contributors, including philosopher Mary Midgley on page 50, is the

concern that science and reason are increasingly seen as providing not just scientific, technical and military fixes, but answers to everything that matters in the world. This alienates people, Midgley warns, because it leaves no room for morality, art, imperfection and all of the things that make us human. Is it really surprising that so many turn to pseudoscience?

As Archbishop Rowan Williams argues on page 44, scientific reasoning is essential but isn't sufficient to guide our moral lives. It can never furnish us with absolute conviction about, say, the value of a human being and the necessity of opposing torture or racial discrimination. Our sense of human rights must be unconditional, based on values that we will not surrender, no matter what.

Artist Keith Tyson sees reason as central in our thinking: in fact, his art is based on keeping the rational and the creative in a productive tension (see "4: Reason versus creativity and intuition"). When reason is allowed to sideline the emotional and intuitive forces that shape the arts, we lose something important. Meanwhile, bioethicist Tom Shakespeare is concerned with the qualities that make us human.

A properly rational society, he says on page 48, might advocate a world in which all disability, or old age for that matter, was eliminated, and it would use medical science to that end.
But he would not have been chosen to live in such a world - and he would not choose it.


our current version of reason brings with it major political and cultural baggage, and leaves out much of what makes life both human and humane.
Some of our contributors bring a third charge:
that even on its own terms, reason must own up to some serious limitations. On page 45, neuroscientist Chris Frith explains how even when we think we are being reasonable, we aren't. Our decisions are based on gut instinct, then justified post hoc - and they are made better when we don't consciously think about them.
Researchers are also starting to realise that individual judgements they had long categorised as emotional and irrational may actually be beneficial when seen in the context of a group.

This raises the question of what we even mean by "reasonable". And

researchers are also having trouble with the meaning of "scientific". Science, in the sense of carrying out experiments to test hypotheses, is the best tool we have for understanding the physical world. But that doesn't make it perfect. In fact, the philosophical basis of science is looking increasingly shaky as branches of maths, physics and even biology head into areas that we can't see how to test.

On page 49, mathematician Roger Penrose points out that many insights in science and maths are reached without following the "proper" rules. And Midgley criticises attempts to force all empirical inquiry into a black-and-white "rational" framework, such as when behaviourists stripped subjectivity from the study of psychology. Across biology, scientists are struggling with big concepts such as life, consciousness and free will, which they are finding impossible to define, let alone to split up into smaller components as the traditional reductionist approach to science requires.

Can we do better? The rationalist world view has been incredibly successful, transforming human life vastly for the better. But one big misunderstanding about the Enlightenment is that it is a finished thing, that all the west need do is convert the rest of the world to its merits. In contrast, the Enlightenment that Immanuel Kant described in his seminal essay was an ongoing process. Asking what's wrong with reason and seeking to improve it falls squarely within that Enlightenment tradition of trusting our inquiry over received wisdom.

One central Enlightenment idea was the separation of the human intellect from nature - the notion of a detached observer who manipulates and experiments on the world around him. This is not shared by non-western philosophies, and some argue that rethinking this separation might offer one way forward. After all, 18th-century thinkers applied core Enlightenment concepts such as freedom and equality only to "reasonable" men - that is, white men of a certain class. We have now extended these rights to poor white men, women and other races. Could we extend them again?

As far back as 1992, Gore argued in Earth in the Balance (see New Scientist, 1 August 1992, p 38) that to avert environmental crisis, the rights and freedoms granted to ever-wider groups of people must now be applied to future generations and to nature. Feminist and biologist Donna Haraway (New Scientist, 18 June, p 50) thinks we should extend those values to include other life forms - and even non-life - and maybe even the Earth.

As for science itself, we may need to come up with a definition based on comparing the evidence for rival theories rather than black-and-white falsification. As Lee Smolin discusses in the online version of this special, logicians are already devising techniques that can take into account context and uncertainty.

Meanwhile the political theorist George Lakoff argues in The Political Mind (reviewed New Scientist, 31 May, p 48) that

in a world of complex and life-or-death decisions on issues ranging from climate change to cloning, making informed and democratic judgements will require moving beyond reductionism to a realistic understanding of how individuals and societies make decisions - emotion, intuition and all.
It's a process Lakoff calls a "21st-century Enlightenment" and it feeds into another core Enlightenment value, democracy.

The toughest challenge may be distancing science from the vested interests of governments and corporations, or at least ensuring that voters understand how various groups are trying to manipulate their decisions. Miller's key ingredients for science that works for, not against, Enlightenment values are transparency, stronger ethical standards and increased public funding.

All this sounds daunting. But to judge by the arguments of our contributors and others, much is at stake if we don't open reason up to debate and change. Larger and larger sections of society will be unable to give informed consent for the actions officials take in their name; there will be no chance of reining in corporate power - even if we want to; and important aspects of being human will continue to be marginalised, probably to the detriment of science itself.

We risk never learning that some of the expectations of reason are just, well, unreasonable.

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

From issue 2666 of New Scientist magazine, 23 July 2008, page 51-53


Lee Smolin on negotiating diversity

Mary Midgley on reason and scepticism

Tom Shakespeare on a world based on reason

Peter Singer on science and morality


Donna Haraway on human exceptionalism (18 June 2008)

Robert Matthews on defining science (7 May 2008)

David Malone on addiction to certainty (4 August 2007)

Dan Hind on the true threats to reason (19 January 2008)


The Assault on Reason by Al Gore (18 July 2007)

Earth in the Balance by Al Gore (1 August 1992)

Doubt is their Product by David Michaels (11 June 2008)

The Political Mind by George Lakoff (28 May 2008)

Articles by Tom Shakespeare, Keith Tyson and Noam Chomsky as told to Mike Holderness, Liz Else and Ivan Semeniuk. Reason special edited by Liz Else, Mike Holderness and Jo Marchant.

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