The decline of reason

Rational thinking is the tool of the intellectual's trade. And yet, argues Roy Harris, academics and universities have abandoned reason in pursuit of a more commercial credo

May 15, 2008

One of the foundational premises of the Western universitas was that teachers and students were bonded by that faculty of rational inquiry that made knowledge accessible - in principle - to all.

This belief goes back ultimately to the egalitarian Greek definition of man as the "rational animal". Thus when Martin Amis in 2002 applied the word "misologist" (meaning "hater of reason") to the champions of militant Islam, he was accusing them of the most serious charge that Western academia can bring against any individual or movement.

It is a charge that invites reflection on how well European and American universities rate today when judged as defenders of reason. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

I know one person who thought that Amis had invented the word himself, on the pattern of "misanthropist", "misogamist" and "misogynist". But it has ancient and impeccable Greek etymological credentials. The word "misologia", as far as one can tell, was first committed to writing by Plato and perhaps even coined by him.

In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, Socrates says that misology and misanthropy arise from the same source. Misanthropy comes from putting one's faith in people who turn out to be unreliable. Misology comes from relying on arguments that turn out to be unsound. In both cases, the eventual result is a pessimistic refusal to believe that anyone or any argument can be trusted.

What Socrates was criticising was not a hatred of reason as such, but reluctance to engage in debate. For debate, according to Socrates, is the royal road to truth and wisdom. The circumstances of this dialogue are particularly moving; for here Socrates is under sentence of death and the inquiry concerns what human beings can believe about the immortality of the soul.

Nowadays the notion of misology seems to be extended to those who are supposedly impervious to reasoning, and accusations of this order serve a meaner purpose. They are rampant in all forms of public and academic conflict. They can be levelled against any opponent who refuses to accept your basic premises. (Bloggs's argument is dismissed as "irrational"; what Bloggs claims "does not make sense", and so on.) The more bitter the dispute, the more likely it becomes that the antagonists will eventually tax each other with crimes against reason. Current political confrontations thrive on it.

A writer who wields this weapon to great effect is Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion is a remarkable book in many ways, not least in its attempt to transform the protracted academic sneer into an art form. But it could hardly have been written 50 or 100 years ago, because the rhetoric was not yet in place that allows Dawkins to assume that all those who adhere to the tenets of one or other of the orthodox religions must have something radically wrong with their reasoning processes. As soon as you see the word "delusion" in the title, you already know what the bottom line of the argument will be: religious believers are either opposed to or incapable of grasping the truths of reason. Dawkins relies heavily on equating "reason" with "science". That equation was first stated publicly in its crudest form by Alfred North Whitehead in a presidential address to the British Association in 1916. "Science is essentially logical," proclaimed Whitehead.

The trouble is that Dawkins's opponents also thrive on the same misological rhetoric. How - the creationist asks - could the marvellous architecture of the cosmos that science reveals ever have come into existence without the creative intelligence of an architect? No watch without a watchmaker.

Anyone who knows anything about the intellectual history of the Western tradition will know that we have been here before. The question of reason and belief was taken seriously in the Middle Ages. At least since Anselm and Aquinas, theologians have been marshalling "rational" arguments in favour of the existence of God. These arguments, in roughly equal measure, comfort believers and fail to impress so-called rationalists. I am not going to rehearse the quarrel here. It is familiar - or should be - to all first-year students of philosophy. So what is new?

What is new, I think, is that since the Middle Ages the universities have failed in their duty to confront a basic problem about reason that Aristotle (all credit to him for raising the issue) bequeathed to them. To give them their due, they tried hard at the beginning of the 20th century, but the result was the invention of a discipline called "mathematical logic" (it was the word "mathematical" that reassured the general public. Surely mathematicians are reasonable people?).

Mathematical logic, championed by such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, and still going strong today, turned out - unfortunately - to be no use to man or beast. It produced a series of arcane formulae for manipulating algebraic symbols linking premise to conclusion. But it yielded no understanding of what Aristotle wanted to understand: what it is that human beings do when they reason.

Lewis Wolpert pulled the rug from under "science is reason" in his book Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. There he pointed out that very few of those human beings who believe that the Earth goes round the Sun as a "scientific fact" would be able to explain "rationally" why that belief merits credence. The mathematics of the explanation is quite complex. But although lay members of the public cannot cope with the "proof" themselves, they trust that (some) "scientists" can. In short, appealing to "science" is nowadays for most people no less a matter of faith than belief in a divinity. All governments claim to have taken the latest "scientific advice". None (in living memory) claims to have asked for divine guidance on the problems such as bird flu or mad cow disease. The facile appeal to "science" lets them off the rational hook.

After "mathematical logic", the universities abandoned the struggle. They allowed the word "rational" to degenerate into a feeble synonym for "reasonable". "Reasonable" in turn was allowed to mean "able to give reasons". And the problem with that - as any fool can see - is that any fool can find reasons for foolishness. But it suited the programme of university expansion down to the ground. Any new subject was allowed to produce the unique rationale for its own existence. In other words, in the interests of their own prosperity, the universities have developed and promoted a rhetoric in which the concept of "reason" goes into free fall.

The long-term result of this devaluation in higher education is that rationality itself is undermined. There are so many competing rationalities that the university is left presiding over a chaos of claims that lack any common "rational" ground for devoting resources to their pursuit.

That is the intellectual morass (some would call it "postmodernism") in which the universities have landed themselves today. "Reason", which should be emblazoned on every motto and coat of arms in higher education, has become a dirty word. It means "why our lot should get as much money as yours". After all, it stands to reason.

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