Friday, July 18, 2014

Why reason is undervalued and overrated

Tao sign on mosaic

It seems a strange paradox that reason is used constantly in our lives but at the same time it is not used enough. Many people pride themselves on their reasoning and analytical skills, but it takes a simple remark to throw them off kilter and make them burst into angry flames. Reason is put on a pedestal, be it the Age of Reason or scientific thinking, and yet people overlook what makes them fully human or spiritual beings.

To make things clear from the onset, I am a strong supporter of reason and think it is overall not practiced enough. In my daily life, I have to use analytical skills whether at work, for shopping or any other endeavor that entails decision-making or weighing the pros and cons of a situation. And so it should be.

Imagine if we did not control our behavior or temper it with the edge of reason. To begin with, we would blurt out what we think (honesty is a relatively good thing but purely impulsive behavior is not) to our colleagues, or mates or even people standing next to us on the bus. It is our reason showing us the possible consequences of our actions that makes us keep our corrosive emotions in check.

The fact is our emotions are based on a number of complex interactions and reactions, and we might accidentally say what we do not mean and spoil a relationship or opportunity because of it. Words then may become double-edged swords that cut both ways. In contrast, our reason is not as short-sighted, but sees things from a healthy distance and with composure.

If we were always led by emotions, we would go bankrupt since we would buy the first thing we see and would never be able to save up any money. It takes restraint and discipline fueled by the reach of reason not to fall into temptations (to which one could easily include those of sexual nature as well, which may exchange momentary pleasure for a life of regret).

Reason is also a useful tool in conflicts and communication. Generally, the person who has reason on their side is right and will prove the other person wrong. An argument or debate is won not by how loud you can shout or how much you can insult the other person but by the strength of the reasons presented. 

Nonetheless, it is frustrating when you are in the right, but the other person fails or refuses to see it that way and insists on their own perception or way of “thinking.” Those people seem blind and impervious to the words of reason.

Looking at modern society, we may notice a general lack of reason and even common sense. People believe in all sorts of wacky theories, (intelligent design being one of them), and such belief systems can eventually undermine progress for a society or country. Decisions will be made not on the basis of what is needed and best for the times, but rather on superstitions or erroneous beliefs. In this sense, reason is undervalued and underrepresented in current society.

But reason is also overrated. There are cases where people profess to reason and end up demonstrating worrisome behavior. It is interesting that apostles of reason can show you all the benefits and beauties of logical thinking and the next moment flare up in anger over insignificant issues. Even those who should know better will fall into the trap of irrational behavior.

If we look at scientists, they may be brilliant in their work, but there are many who also have irrational traits, such as vanity or even worse, narrow-minded views (sure nobody's perfect but they tend to believe their reasons and evidence make them superior). By not accepting flaws or (purposely?) overlooking crucial evidence to the contrary, even a scientist can become something of a bigot in certain circumstances.

For instance, I applaud that more and more renowned scientists have come out in support of alien existence, something that used to be a quack theory (though I am not so sure about alleged abductions). Scientists modest enough to accept that they are or may be in the wrong or that there is always room for doubt are true scientists in my books.

Indeed reason is not all there is. Even Descartes who was a strong proponent of reason did leave some gaps of reasonable doubt in his philosophy. In this way, I believe that reason is overrated because we expect reason with science as its outspoken collaborator to give us all the answers. In due time, this will happen, the reason supporters tell us. But it seems that reason in its narrow meaning is trying to forcefully edge out our emotions and spirituality, making us also bland and predictable. We then become indistinguishable from computing machines.

There are many decisions that should not rely on reason alone. Say, if you decide on a partner. You can weigh your pros and cons as much as you like, but if there is no chemistry, no emotional connection or attachment with the other person, this relationship, looking so good on paper, will fail in epic ways.

There are indeed moments and situations where analysis will stagnate us and where we simply need to listen to what is known as our intuition. Supporters of reason often mock or at least diminish the relevance of intuition. But my most successful decisions have come about because I followed wacky instincts of mine and made choices that would not cross the mind of a reasonable person. I have a number of “superstitious” beliefs that I have come to embrace despite and even against reason.

Perhaps reason is the grounding effect, the mooring of our thoughts and behaviors. But we also need to lift the anchor now and then if we want to move or find new shores. In other words, reason is undoubtedly beneficial but merely on its own it is rather limited. We need to balance things out and know when it is right to follow our analytical ways and when we ought to listen to those pesky feelings.

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