The causes that give rise to reason

The claim that the rational or scientific part of man is an effect of a deeper cause or causes is a very old claim with many variations. Chesterton quipped that “reason is based on faith”, Alisdair Macintyre has convinced many that philosophical discourse is at least in large part an emanation of non-philosophical forces, Aristotle posited a separate cognitive power and virtue (nous) as a foundation of rational discourse, and the following claim from the official summary of Shermer’s Believing Brain ought to sound familiar:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

William James gives a related account which is ultimately the complete contrary of Shermer’s:

[I]f we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.

James’s emphasis on the word knows crystallizes the problem of speaking about this level from which reason arises. Does James mean that it actually knows, that is, it grasps the truth of things? Or is he merely speaking of the conviction that we have of the truth, quite apart from seeing any truth at all?  The two states are as contrary as wisdom and fanaticism. The quick answer that both arise from the level that causes reason is more facile than illuminating- and it is probably impossible to uphold this, since it is hard to see how a voice that spoke both wisdom and folly could be said to speak wisdom at all. Another quick answer is that we can and should subsume or critique the level that causes reason under a rational critique. Such a desire is an obvious contradiction, which only succeeds by positing some standard (science! confirmation!) that is separate from the ocean of causes giving rise to reason. The simplest answer – that reason is nothing other than the systematization of fundamentally irrational causes, also fails to account for experience.

%d bloggers like this: