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Is Reason My God 4: On Reason As An Authority

Even though this post is “part 4″ of a reply to the same commentator, it can be understood without reading prior installments.  If you would like to catch up with prior installments nonetheless, here are parts 1, 2, and 3.

In reply to this post, Grant writes:

Appealing to the authority of reason is the same as appealing to the authority of a God, same psychological dependence, just a different rationalisation.

This is simply false.  You cannot denounce the authority of reason with the accusation of “rationalization.”  Why not?  Because by definition, a rationalization is an attempt to justify what one wants to believes is true through the employment of illegitimate or insufficient reasons which deep down one is aware are illegitimate or insufficient reasons.  In order for there to be “rationalizations” there must be a contrast between genuine reasons and false reasons.  To accuse those who appeal to the authority of reason of rationalizing is to accuse them of using false reasons and on the grounds of their using false reasons to judge them poorly.  But to claim to have exposed someone when they use false reasons is to assume an epistemic (or moral) standard that says we must justify our beliefs and actions only with good reasons. In other words, the charge against someone that they do something wrong when they rationalize assumes that they have violated a requirement to give good reasons.

So, by attacking “rationalization” you assume the demand that we behave and believe for good reasons.  And what does it mean to “appeal to the authority of reason?”  All appealing to the authority of reason means is to say that my beliefs or actions are justified to the extent that I have reasons for them.  You demand of me an account for my belief and why I am so sure of it.  In reply, I appeal to the authority of reason when I give you the reasons that demonstrate the estimated 80% probability of the belief.  I admit that there is an estimated 20% likelihood the belief may be false.  On reason’s authority I believe with 80% certainty.  In accordance with reason’s authority, I take precautions wherever the 20% uncertainty may give me specific reasons to be careful about overconfidence.

In all of these matters, my reason is a necessary and inescapable authority.  It judges likelihoods and unlikelihoods for me and it would be irrational to apportion my belief but consistently with its judgments.  I have no good reason to believe out of proportion with my reasons for believing.  In fact, even when I judge that I do not have enough reason to believe something completely and must only tentatively believe it, it is my reason which tells me I may only believe to a certain extent while keeping open the possibility of the contrary.

No matter how you’d like to spin it, in every argument you make, in every inference you draw within your own head, and in every action of everyday, you utterly depend upon the authority of reason.  Even when you think yourself especially clever and that you have inferred why you should not trust in reason, you have used your reason to do so.  Only you have reasoned in a muddled way and equated certain specific, bad ways of reasoning with “reason itself” illicitly.  But if you just think it through you’ll realize that the authority of reason itself cannot be refuted by the discovery of normal cognitive errors, ethical failures, or hasty overreaches of imaginative, creative reason that can make up and believe in all sorts of crazy ideas.  We can demonstrate that our minds often think irrationally in many ways.  But we can only do this because, and insofar as, we are primarily rational and recognize that standards of logic and evidence exist and are normative.  If we could not recognize these things objectively, we could not even talk about cognitive errors or rationalization or any other mistaken form of reasoning.  Our awareness of our frequent mistakes is itself preconditioned by and is itself therefore proof of, both our ability to reason properly and to reason’s ideal authority.

The alleged authority of “God” cannot hold a candle to the authority of reason.  We cannot escape reason, it is the authority in every judgment and decision we make and every truth claim we assent to.  Sometimes we use it badly of course.  But our ability to know we use it badly is dependent on reason’s correct operation within us.  We are constituted by our reason insofar as we only emerge as thinking beings through our reasoning and have no prior nor independent existence apart from these operations which we are.  We do not just psychologically depend on reason as we would a person or an idea, etc.  Our psychology as humans depends in a constitutional way on reason.

Whereas “God” is a particular idea which can be easily dispensed with and it would not paralyze our ability to make judgments at all.  I will be able to set my alarm clock with whether or not there is a god or gods.  I cannot set my alarm clock without depending on the authority of my reason.  The atheist can reject belief in all gods and get on with life.  The religious cannot reject reason at all.  She can only reason from badly by using baseless premises such that this or that text or person is a source of unique authority that need not be checked by reason.  From there even the religious must reason.

There is no comparable “must” for believing in a god or gods.  And unlike the alleged claims of a god or gods, reasons are confirmable.  You give me a reason for doing something I can assess it or reject it.  You tell me a god says I should do it and I have no way to assess whether you are right or wrong and so can simply reject the notion as unjustified and of no concern.  If you give me a real reason, I cannot simply jettison it.

So, in all these ways, reason is not just another “god” to depend on in that acknowledging “gods’ authority” is just accepting the arbitrary guesses of you or your religious tradition or some other uninformed human source claiming to have special knowledge inaccessible and unassessable by reason.  Accepting reason’s authority is on the other hand to commit yourself only to that authority which speaks with necessity.

And to speak of our “dependency” on reason as though it were a flaw is entirely backwards.  It’s like being suspicious of humans who are dependent on air.  It’s a wholly different kind of dependency than, say, a dependency on cocaine.  Reason is like air, God is like cocaine.

And finally, Grant’s last paragraph:

Do we really need to prove that we’re right?

To the extent we want to make truth claims or influence other people’s attitudes and behavior, you’re damned straight we really need to prove that we’re right.  It’s called intellectual responsibility.  What’s that?  We cannot ever be 100% certain about most things?  That’s fine.  We need to be as certain as possible, abandon (or at least mistrust and not rely upon) unsupported beliefs, and even be frank about whatever degrees of uncertainty remain even for our most certain beliefs.  Our reasoning will never be perfect.  That fact is not a license for ever letting it be sloppy.

Or are we agreeing that this seems to work, but we’d throw out reason tomorrow for the myriad of cases that it doesn’t ‘work’? Could you really?

No, you can’t really.  You cannot throw out reason for cases in which particular cognitive operations of reason fail to live up to standards of reason and evidence.  For one thing to do anything for some reason is still to reason.  You would be “throwing out reason” for a reason—which is a practical contradiction.  You would be reasoning in your supposed “throwing out” reasoning.  Finally, the only way to throw out reason is to destroy the portions of your brain that do cognitive processing.  It’s to make yourself a vegetable.  And what reason would we have to do this?  Supposedly because sometimes people reason badly?  That’s like saying, “I got a 60 on my math test so this whole reasoning thing is not working out.  I know what would improve the situation—I’ll give myself brain damage!”  That’s even worse reasoning than anything I must have done on that math test.

In short, the fact that humans sometimes reason badly serves as evidence that we need to devote more energy, training, and discipline to being rational—certainly not less.

Your Thoughts?