Last month, Steven Poole wrote a long form essay on the problems of “reason” and assuming human beings are not reasonable at Aeon. It’s aim is the chorus of research on cognitive bias and identity protection, which has illustrated that an Enlightenment notion of pure reason is not a human norm, and thus, to use Aristotle’s terminology, cannot a be telos of what it is to be human. Poole’s most significant point is that overly formalized versions of “reason” do not actually do the work people seem to think it does. I would suggest everyone reads the essay, but the basic point is that there are hueristics which do not meet economic or formalized logical definitions of reason but make perfect sense within a framework of motivated exposure to qualiative information. In short, it is “reasonable enough” to function in a framework of situated instead of “pure” rationality.
Poole’s point is illuminating, but we can see some problems. One) despite our Enlightenment and post Enlightenment rhetoric, we do not have a set of cultural shared prepositions for what constitutes reason as a cetagory. It is logic? Logics, however, are sets of formalizations. Is it economic rationality? That definition of rationality is circular (people do things because it satisifies desires and we know this because they do it). Is it any number of differing kinds of intelligences? What is it just thinking scientifically? That opens up a entirely more problematic can of worms as the demarcation problem remains highly unsettled. Two) IF we limit ourselves to the most coherent notion “reason=logics”, then one is dealing with formalization. Formalization is incredibly useful, but it cannot, by definition, deal with qualia.
The lament over the lost of pure reason is at one level profound, and another level problematic. Situated “rationality” does not mean the threshold of pure science or pure logic. It is neither pure reason. This brings me back to Max Weber–instead of the recent attempt to continuously lament human’s lack of reasoning–we should got to a taxonomy of types of reason before some kind of Ur-form. Weber devided reason up into instrumental reason, value reason, affectual reason, and conventional reason. Weber’s heirarchy here should not concern us, but see that he recognized that in effect people are reasonable in context of either a goal or an identity. This means that reasoning to meta-identity positions is bound to problematic.
Yet, as Dan Kahan’s work on cultural cognition and the work on cognitive biases play into each other: identity maintaince can lead to “irrational” and sub-optimal results, but this not irrational or even a-rational. It is a situated rationality, and one that makes sense because identity and ideology matter. Social beings maintain themselves this way, and attempts to be highly paternalistic on this (as Pole points out) are often actually just as given to cognitive bias.
This leads us to a set of hard questions: In addition to the structural constrains of funding, the recent discussions of failure of peer-review in scientific research, etc. For example, a lot of motivated rejection of scientific findings such as “climate change” or “evolution” do not correlate with general literacy in science. It is a value-reason motivated rejection in conflict with what appears to be strong scientific fact.
This means that “reason” is not the objective, singular ground of safety most assume. In fact, it is just as contested. It has to be: qualia does matter.