Reason and human nature

All human beings are rational beings.

All human beings are emotional and intuitive beings.

All human beings are moral beings.

robert-weber-the-dawn-of-reason-new-yorker-cartoonWhen someone says he is above reason, I believe that the person is either unaware of his thinking processes or has a hidden agenda.   A person completely without the ability to think rationally would be unable to function in the world.

When someone says he is unemotional, I believe that the person is either unaware of his feelings and desires or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without feelings or desires would have nothing with which to reason about.

When someone says he is morally neutral, I believe that the person either is unaware of the moral nature or his beliefs, or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without morals would be a dangerous psychopath.

Experience is subjective.  Facts are real.

Everyone experiences life in a unique way which never can be fully communicated to others, although great artists come close.  In that sense, and that sense alone, we each live in our own separate reality.

At the same time, there is the reality of facts, whose existence is not dependent on our beliefs and which are the same for everyone.  Our knowledge of facts will always be partial, tentative and subject to correction, but it behooves us to understand them as best we can, because they will catch up with us if we don’t.

As someone once said, it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

I wrote this post as a generic response to my acquaintances who tell me that my thinking is superficial because of my belief in reason.   Of course I do not believe that there is a rational philosophical or scientific system that, once  you understand it, explains everything.  What I do believe in is the reality check.   If my ideas don’t make sense, or if my ideas are contrary to the facts,  I should stop believing in them.

Does this make sense to you?  What have I got wrong?  What have I left out?

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9 Responses to “Reason and human nature”

  1. tiffany267 Says:

    Great post- the only thing I don’t get is your sudden change of pace “Of course I do not believe that there is a rational philosophical or scientific system that, once you understand it, explains everything.” Reason itself explains everything, at least contextually. Within the context of our limited access to particular facts, reason allows us to understand the world. Reason is the means by which we understand that lightning is an electric discharge, the means by which we understand that the earth orbits the sun, the means by which we understand how we cure polio, even the means by which we understand our own thoughts, convictions, and opinions.

    Thanks for defending reason – it has become a bit unpopular to do so, and it’s refreshing when someone does.


  2. Mark Adams Says:

    Your thinking is not superfical. Your comments are generally true. Exceptions exist so that coments as…”ALL human beings are rational ,emotional, intuitive and moral.” are difficult to justify when those in power act otherwise for their gain rather than the well being of the many. Those above-the law in government who go to war over oil and those above the law in commerce, who pay slave wages (because it is illegal to pay less), have none of those ‘Four Traits.’

    Those who are mentally ill or under the influence act in a manner inconsistent with your Fabulous Four Traits as well. Some are just plain selfish and don’t give a damn about those who are different.

    Those just described fit into your category of people who are (with or without declaring it) : “I am above reason”, ” I am unemotional”,I am morally neutral.” They are living in their own small world outside the influences of society until they break the law.

    You use the term, “dangerous psychopath”, I wish I had a better understanding of mental illness. I encounter people every day I suspect are seriously mentally ill, yet they have few resources to help. I assume one day they could act in a way to injure themself or others. Someone may be one bounced check or one run in with the law to push him over the edge. Who knows?

    It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality. This is why we have laws. It is legal to have an abortion, to speak out against injustice, to have same sex marriage, to read the Koran, to take a morning-after birth pill, to vote if you are a poor,non-Chrsitian or a minority, and do any number of things which send fanatics off the deep end. Laws are also in place to protect our freedom to act within the law.

    ‘Red People” and “Blue People” more and more do not get along as many people ignore increasingly uncomfortable facts. Yet we do agree to follow the law. But what of those I mentioned in paragraph one who are ‘above the law’?


  3. EthnicKonflict Says:

    To the people like Mark Adams: Thank you for handing me this giant cake that I intend to eat! So, basicaly, what you are saying, Mark, is that things are very complex and that you do not understand them very well.

    Well, I understand them perfectly, and I think tiffany267 understands them as well. There actually *is* a rational or scientific system that once you understand it explains everything. We refer to this as Science. In fact, if you disagree with science, you are almost certainly wrong. If you happen to be another scientist with compelling data, I’m all ears. But you aren’t, and it would take a mental invalid not to understand that science is true.

    Who are you to say that you know more than the people in charge of Science? The Scientists? These people gave you a home, a living, everything you have. It is disloyal and unpatriotic to say that you do not trust Science.


  4. philebersole Says:

    Dear tiffany267:

    Science is indeed an enormously powerful and valuable tool for understanding the world. The great thing about science is that it is an open-ended and (perhaps) never-ending process. Scientific understanding of meteorology, astronomy, medicine and human cognition may be very different in 50 years from what it is now.

    What I was trying to do in my comment was to distinguish between science as the continuing quest for knowledge, always subject to modification as our knowledge improves, and “scientism,” which is faith in closed, purportedly rational philosophical systems which purport to explain things for once and for all.

    Platonism, Hegelianism, the Marxism-Leninism of the old Soviet Union and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism are examples of philosophies that claim to be based on reason, but are not subject to modification based on new knowledge. I can understand people attacking reason if that’s what they think I think reason is.

    For me, commitment to reason requires a realistic modesty about what I know and what it is possible for me to know.


    • EthnicKonflict Says:

      Dear Philip Ebersole:

      Perhaps you are right about this “scientism”. I do not see a connection between Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which to me seems more like ego-worship than anything else, and the scientific enterprise. And eugenics was a clear overstepping of the boundaries of human knowledge. The anthropology backing these agendas usually made preposterous inferences about genetic history in order to assert a racist mythology. (Although China has a functional eugenics program right now.)

      But I suppose it is possible to do what you say. Science must be completely accessible to everyone. However, by its very nature, science assumes uncertainty. Generally, scientists will not make bold claims, which in fact I believe can hurt their reputations outside of the scientific community. It would be nice if people spoke up for them, I guess. That’s really what I meant to do.

      I certainly think the scientists at Monsanto are overconfident in their abilities. Listening to them can give someone the heebie jeebies.

      But I am worried that many people in this world fear uncertainty, rather than embracing it. And they cling to anyone who can promise them security and success. Well, why can’t the people who actually know what they are doing promise them these things? Why not attempt to become populist? Why does demagoguery lie outside the purview of science and its sympathizers?


  5. philebersole Says:

    Dear Mark Adams:

    Maybe I should have written that all “normal” human beings have these four traits. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio described a person who suffered damage to the part of the brain that enabled him to experience emotion. This left him with the rational part of the mind as his only tool for coping with the world, and this was a grave handicap. It is not possible to reason out every decision in life. Reason is a tool to be kept in reserve for the important things.

    Experimental psychology indicates that higher animals and human infants possess a sense of empathy, a sense of gratitude and a sense of equity or fairness. These traits provide a basis for building rational ethical systems, but such systems mean nothing to people who lack these traits.

    I think people in governments who commit crimes against humanity are seldom completely lacking in moral intuition. I think that instead their moral intuitions are overridden by ambition, fear and what Bertrand Russell called herd instinct, and by false rationalizations of their emotions.


  6. philebersole Says:

    Dear EthnicKonflict:

    Scientific knowledge has given us many blessings. But a great deal of harm has been done in the name of science by people who were overconfident about their knowledge and reasoning power.

    Examples are the eugenics movement, the so-called scientific racism of Hitler, the so-called scientific socialism of Lenin and Stalin, brain surgery on the mentally ill, over-prescription of psychiatric drugs, the “neo-liberal” economic theory.

    A statement is not necessarily true because the person saying it wears a white lab coat and has a Ph.D. in some scientific discipline. We still need the reality check, which for me is the essence of reason.

    P.S. Mark Adams can speak for himself, but I don’t see the relevance of your comment to his comment.


  7. philebersole Says:

    For me, respect for the scientific quest is only one part of the life of reason.

    I believe in learning from science, but I also believe in learning from literature, art, philosophy, and the example of wise and good individuals I happen to know.

    In everyday life, I try to make decisions based on fact, and to learn from experience. I try to make my political opinions consistent with the facts, and I consider opposing political arguments. When I feel frustrated or resentful, I consider the possibility that I am making myself unhappy over something that doesn’t really matter.

    I don’t claim that all my beliefs are based on fact and logic. I believe I have free will, even though I can’t define free will and can’t say what would count as arguments for or against free will. I revere goodness and wisdom, even though I can’t produce a non-circular definition of goodness and wisdom. But even though I can’t claim these beliefs are based on fact and logic, I do claim that they are not contradictory to fact and logic.

    All this probably makes me seem like a nobler and more well-grounded person than I actually am. People who know me well may be smiling at this discussion.


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