Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the information provided by our senses to give us knowledge of reality. It is the means to accurately perceive and therefore operate within the world around us. Sanity is universally regarded as ‘being in touch with reality’, and rational (or reasonable) behaviour is the hallmark of all effective human interactions. So why is Reason constantly under attack from mainstream ideas? Why are mystical ideas so prevalent today? Welcome to the Matrix!
Why is Reason so vitally important?
Let’s begin this discussion by reminding ourselves why we should consider reason as our exclusive guide to knowledge and therefore action. Let’s look at why Reason should be elevated to its rightful place at the top of our list of values.
1. Because reality is an objective absolute
What does objective mean? It means separate from and independent of any consciousness. It means that things are what they are irrespective of anyone’s thoughts, beliefs, wishes, whims, hopes, fears, claims or assertions.
Imagine you are driving to your place of work, you know that the route is what it is. You know that you must drive along a specific defined road and that you cannot head off on a whim to take an imagined short cut just because you desire or wish to evade the traffic in your path.
While crossing a busy street you know that without due care and attention in order to choose your timing, you risk being hit and injured. Those moving vehicles exist objectively independent of your consciousness and your intention. You cannot think them away or wish them away. But you do have the ability to perceive them, and to avoid them and safely cross the road to the extent that you correctly identify them and anticipate their speed and trajectory accurately – using the faculty of reason. Every day you move through reality upon the implicit assumption that reality is objective and consistent. You would soon be dead if you didn’t!
It is no accident that in prosecuting a crime in the Law Courts that the use of evidence to prove a case rests upon the axiom that “A is A”, or “things are what they are”; the gun is the gun, the finger prints are the finger prints, the evidence is what it is, and reality is an objective absolute. The concept of proof could not exist without implicit acceptance of the axiom A is A, and its corollary the law of identity.
Lastly, It is impossible to logically argue against reality being objective without contradicting one’s self and using objective means to make your point. To start with, the speaker would be assuming the listener is separate and independent from himself, not a creation of his/her imagination, and therefore objective. She would also have to use the objective method of language to communicate the argument. To argue agaist objective reality is as logically coherent as hanging from a safety rope over a deep canyon while arguing against its existence. If you make any point, you intend your statement to be what it is and to mean what it means and not the opposite. So you have implicitly accepted the law of identity, the corollary of the axiom A is A.
2. Because our minds work using reason
Conceptualisation, the uniquely human form of consciousness, functions using reason. The method is logic and the process is thinking. Our mental operating system, if you will, functions using Reason. It’s the way we figure things out – finding jobs, partners, choosing where to live etc. Because there are no contradictions in reality – things cannot be hot and cold at the same time, a surface cannot be rough and smooth at the same time, you cannot set off in two different directions at once, etc. – there must similarly be no contradictions in our thinking for it to correlate with reality, and therefore for us to identify it correctly. If a contradiction appears in our thinking it is an indication of error. Mental function would be impossible without reason and therefore our ability to live and deal with reality would be catastrophically compromised.
3. Scientific method rests on reason
It is worth reminding ourselves that every comfort and technology we use in our daily lives rests upon the correct identification of reality – our cars, our smart phones, our computers, fridge-freezers and airplanes. All of these things exist as a result of discovering more and more about reality and manipulating matter according to the rules of how reality consistently works. This requires strict adherence to reason and logic.
What is the scientific method? In essence it is this: Observe reality, and ask a question about how something works. Then propose a hypothesis to explain the observation and answer the question. Next, design an experiment to test this hypothesis against reality, to check if the theory is correct, that it correlates with reality. Then by observing the results of the experiment, verify the truth or untruth of the hypothesis. In this way knowledge of reality is accumulated and the answer to one question provides knowledge upon which to base further exploration, and more and more accumulation of knowledge.
So what’s the problem?
If it is so obvious that reason is essential why am I hammering the point? Well the reason is that in spite of the observable truth that we normally (dependent upon a functional up-bringing) begin our lives operating on the assumption that reality is an objective absolute and using reason to identify it, as we grow up into our surrounding culture we are influenced by irrationality all around us. This is the essence of what I refer to as the Matrix. The relentless and ubiquitous anti-reason ideas that ultimately undermine human effectiveness and cause suffering.
Environmental corruption of the mind
Ideally all humans beings would consistently demonstrate rational behaviour to each other as well as to children in the best interests of everyone and society as a whole. However this is not the case, as we all know. Our culture bombards us with catchphrases, thoughts and ideas which undermine our adherence to reason.
I do not mean that emotions should be discounted. The idea that logic displaces or negates emotions and compromises the human experience is false. For a full discussion of the nature of emotions Check out the post ‘The nature of emotions’.
A guide to living
Everyone has a philosophy whether or not they have even heard of the word. A philosophy is a guide to living. It is a collection of beliefs (thoughts) about reality that make up what I refer to as our mental operating system. In order to walk out of the door, every human being needs a fundamental map of reality, a grasp of the way things are and therefore a means of functioning (living).
For effective living this collection of beliefs should correlate exactly with reality. People have no choice about whether or not they have a philosophy. Their only choice is whether it is held consciously or not, whether they chose it consciously or not, and whether it is true or not.
Subconscious operating system
This collection of thoughts, or philosophy, is hard-written into our subconscious mind as beliefs, generalisations, conclusions and convictions. They are most often not considered on a conscious level, yet they exert total control over our choices, our decisions and our behaviour. In short they run our lives. They are just like ‘windows’ or ‘OS X’ on a computer, they make up our operating system and serve as the basic framework and context for all our mental functioning. The key point about this mental operating system is that it is not fixed, just like a computer operating system it can be up-graded. It is ultimately programmable by the conscious mind. The problem is that usually it is programmed by the unconscious adoption of ideas from the surrounding social group or culture, and it resists upgrading. In this way false philosophical ideas can be downloaded by cultural osmosis, and often carried to the grave.
This automatic download by cultural osmosis would have served as a survival strategy in our past, since belonging to the group evidenced by a corresponding set of beliefs would have been critical to survival. But these days, as in many other respects, things have changed, and we must adapt if we are to survive and evolve.
The philosophical context of stories
Every story told has a philosophical context. It would be impossible to tell a story without one. In order to really ‘get into’ a story, whether film, play or book, one has to ‘try on’ the philosophical context like trying on a jacket. It must be downloaded into our mental equivalent of computer RAM, at least for the duration of the story. To the extent that it accords with ones existing personal philosophy, we relate to the story. To the extent that it challenges existing assumptions, it may appear unsettling.
Generally speaking over a period of years and in a cumulative sense, stories leave their mark on the viewer/listener/reader who ultimately leaves the theatre or puts down the book, and remains wearing the jacket of that philosophy. Ideas and assumptions about the nature of things will have been unconsciously taken on board. Beliefs and generalisations accumulate into what is collectively considered knowledge without conscious consideration, and given the status of truth – things that everyone just knows. A portion of it may indeed be true, but in the absence of scrutiny untruth slips in.
Of course, stories are not the only means by which we are influenced in our thinking. Teachers, elders, parents, and social hearsay all play a part in disseminating and perpetuating the cultural norms that constitute this predominant cultural philosophy.
These days the world is in conflict. On a political level the struggle is between Captitalism and Socialism, or more abstractly Individualism versus Collectivism. On the ethical level the root of this struggle is between Egoism and Altruism. This means the idea that man has the right to exist for his own sake versus the idea that his sole purpose and justification for existence is service to others. But beneath the political and ethical conflict the root is more fundamental and is the clash between Reason and Mysticism.
Today in politics Collectivist ideas are rife and arguably dominant. In terms of ethics Altruism dominates without any questioning. And at the fundamental level underneath it all Mysticism dominates.
Mysticism is the antithesis of reason because it requires faith in order to accept it. Faith is believing things without evidence or proof, without demonstration or rational explanation. This is anti-reason. The acceptance of mysticism as truth is the ubiquitous corruption of the operating system of the mind. Mysticism is the claim to knowledge from some other non-existent reality. It is knowledge by revelation, feeling or knowing. It is the presentation of ideas that by definition cannot be verified by human senses. You or I have no possible way to evaluate their validity or their truth. The priest (or mystic) must mediate between humans and any alleged deity or source of so-called ‘knowledge’, because we cannot directly know god or what ever else is claimed. By definition, mysticism implies an un-knowable reality that is not a fixed absolute but subject to the wishes and desires of the individual. The notion that we create our own reality with our thoughts is the latest version of mystic/subjectivist thought. By definition mysticism does not correlate with reality. It is anti-reason. It is make believe. It is un-truth.
Mysticism is a form of subjectivism, which is the idea that reality is not an objective absolute, but is shaped by thought and consciousness (the primacy of consciousness). The tragedy here is that there is a grain of truth in the notion that we create our life experience with thought. The mistake lies in the loss of adherence to the fact that reality exists as an objective absolute. Thought is necessarily the first cause of action. It is thought that figures things out. Thought creates with imagination – the ability to conceive of something that does not yet exist. It is thought that can determine a course of action. But it is action that rearranges matter to create material things. No amount of thinking or wishing will alter the facts of reality. It is here that the confusion exists. Thoughts can affect only our experience of reali
Disincentive to think
False philosophical ideas are those that do not correspond with reality, which means they are not true. They are like a flat tyre on the vehicle of the mind. They compromise its functionality and render thinking futile.
The inevitable result of subjectivism is to conclude (if subconsciously) that reality is un-knowable. If it is not a fixed absolute, and if anyone’s thoughts and wishes and whims can shape it, then by definition it is not knowable. Bingo! The incentive to think and to work out reality’s consistent patterns and laws is undermined. If one accepts the validity that there is some mystic claim to knowledge from another dimension, or in the ‘word of God’, then one has implicitly accepted that reality is ultimately rendered unknowable.
The enemy of peace and prosperity
Further more mysticism is the partner of force and coercion. When reason is abandoned along with reference to objective reality, life becomes a battle of whims, a competition of competing ‘realities’ in which those with the biggest guns win. Might then becomes right and misery and suffering are the norm. Only by reference to reason and objective reality can men negotiate and trade in peace to mutual benefit and the creation of prosperity.
Discerning what we can change from what we cannot
There is a famous quote by Theologian Rheinhold Neibuhr that goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Although as an atheist I take issue with this statement being in the form of a prayer, it eloquently encapsulates the essence of the challenge facing humanity – that of discerning between what we have control over and what we do not, what we can change and what we cannot. Our personal philosophy is something we all have control over, and given that our mind runs our life, it serves us to ensure that our minds operating system is fully in tune with reality. It serves us to think! Updates or complete revisions need to be programmed in by conscious thought. This means our minds must function upon assumptions that accord with objective reality – or else we suffer.
What’s the solution? – Rational Thinking
The good news is that the solution is entirely within our grasp, it is very simple, but not easy. It begins with questioning all assumptions and checking all premises. This means finding out what we think about various issues, questioning generalisations, conclusions and premises that underpin our choices and decision-making. But the key is to use reason in this process – to think rationally and logically and ensure that all our thinking correlates with reality. Using our capacity to think we can consciously revisit all of our convictions and consciously choose philosophical ideas that accord with reality, that are true. We must learn to think in a more conscious and deliberate manner than perhaps we are used to. Thinking is the essence of becoming more conscious.
Fill the empty space
When we think things through there are consciously chosen convictions and understandings filed away in our subconscious minds. This means there are no unanswered questions needing to be answered. Human beings are uncomfortable with unanswered questions and we all seek to answer them in some way or other. This is when ready packaged answers presented in popular culture can easily fill the space and alleviate any potential anxiety.
When there are considered answers in place, there is no empty space to fill. Then, the different philosophical context presented in any story or news broadcast can be seen and understood for what it is. A greater awareness is enjoyed at this point. It doesn’t mean that a film cannot be enjoyed, it just means that you don’t leave the cinema still wearing the jacket of a package deal of philosophical ideas.
Objectivism is the philosophy created by Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) perhaps the greatest mind of last century. As a writer she observed that the philosophical context for the stories she wanted to tell did not yet exist, so she created the philosophy in order to tell her stories. Picking up the ball from Aristotle (367 BC–347 BC) the previous and first pioneer of reason in ancient Greece, she developed his ideas into Objectivism – a philosophy for living on earth.
In order to make best sense of he world we live in I thoroughly recommend checking out Objectivism and the work of Ayn Rand (her novels as well as the non fiction listed below). Given that reason is the key to ensuring our thinking corresponds to reality, the ideas presented in Rands philosophy are extremely powerful. They should of course be fuel for one’s own thought – as indeed all ideas should be. There is no substitute for doing one’s own thinking. As Nathaniel Branden said “To accept Objectivism on faith would be worse than a contradiction in terms.”
But what exactly is thinking?
Thinking is not feeling, its not worrying, its not reflecting or re-living something in your mind. Thinking is purposeful and requires a proactive effort to initiate – it is volitional. Thinking is exercising the faculty of Reason using the method of logic. I explore the nature of efficient thinking in another post, but briefly it must …
- Be purpose driven with a structure of purpose and sub-purposes.
- Involve asking questions and answering them either with current knowledge, or by finding out that which we need to know.
- Be based upon clearly defined concepts (using genus and differentia)
- Involve the use of principles as well as making reference to concrete examples.
- It must relate principles and abstractions to the facts of reality from which they are derived.
- Integrate all acquired information into a non-contradictory sum of knowledge.
- Check any conclusions drawn against the facts of reality.
- Build on verified conclusions by asking further questions.
Reason is man’s best friend, you would have a hard time arguing the contrary. Most people who consistently attempt to disregard reason in their lives are institutionalised. Thinking rationally and effectively is the process of using reason – logic is the method. Any departure from reason in our thinking results in a disconnection from reality and therefore human suffering.
The main challenge for us today is to distinguish between what is knowledge and what is not, what is real and what is not. A clear line must be drawn around things we do not yet understand, and they must be kept in a mental box marked “Un-known at this time”. It’s ok to not know stuff, and we are always finding out more about our reality. Danger creeps in when the boundaries become blurred and invention in the form of mysticism is substituted for enquiry.
Thinking through our beliefs and questioning assumptions is the shield that protects us from unwittingly downloading false premises and thus making important life decisions based upon incorrect information. Objectivism is a great place to start in the conscious re-evaluation of our convictions.
It is important to remind our selves that reality is a firm absolute. There is what we know and can claim as knowledge, and there are things that are as yet unknown, and then there is mysticism. The trick is to keep a clear mind on the difference between these three.
I am indebted to Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. Their thoughts and ideas have greatly influenced me and consequently the contents of this website.
Please comment below and joint the conversation.
Nigel Howitt; May 2017
Useful Web Sites: For your reference:
Recommended Ayn Rand Non fiction: (These are affiliate links, I get a few pence if you buy one)
- For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
- The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism
- Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
- The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature
- Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
- Philosophy: Who Needs It
- The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought