Saturday, September 15, 2012

If Reason Were All

If reason were all, reason
would not exist—the will
to reason accounts for it;
it's not reason that chooses
to live; the seed doesn't swell
in its husk by reason, but loves
itself, obeys light which is
its own thought and argues the leaf
in secret; love articulates
the choice of life in fact; life
chooses life because it is
alive; what lives didn't begin dead,
nor sun's fire commence in ember.

- Wendell Berry

But towards the end, Dawkins rallied, and described how he wanted a post-religion ethics worked out without reference to tradition, authority or revelation. Uninfluenced by these things, people could get together and discuss from first principles what sort of morals were needed to ensure a good society.

This idea is of course completely impossible. It has never happened in history. It could never happen and it never will. Everyone grows up inside some tradition, under some authority and given some revelation – those are three things that every parent provides for their children, and which children will always find, even if they have to create it. When a rationalist tell his daughter not to trust authority, she believes him because he's her father and she loves him.

And if we make believe a little more, and imagine that there should ever be a community of adults all in their separate ways entirely liberated from tradition, authority and revelation, how could they possibly reason together about morality? What stories would they have in common? What language would they have?

Of course Dawkins's idea is attractive; of course we know what it means so long as we don't stop to think about it. But it is not actually true. It is an imaginary story whose truth is assumed because it seems to make morality possible. In the hard and narrow sense of myth, it is a myth just like Adam and Eve. We can play with it, and make use of it. But it is quite as "religious" as the rival stories it is meant to displace. That is inevitable. Religion is not something imposed on us by priests any more than economics is imposed on us by bankers. Both grow out of the nature of human societies.

It is an attractive idea at first glance, probably because there's usually a large, question-begging assumption accompanying it; namely, that "reason" is synonymous with our personal rationalizations. Reason is fantastic for figuring out the most effective way for you to get from point A to point B; its track record isn't quite as good when it comes to analyzing the foundation underneath points A and B or discovering why you even want to move between them to begin with.


  1. I think both positions are overstated. We must try to work out post-traditional ethics, even if we can't do it perfectly, because it is the right thing to do. Reason determined ethics is not religion. In fact, religions always coopt it and claim they invented it to appear more attractive to people.

  2. I find this difficult to articulate as clearly as I'd like, but I feel like there's an important distinction with a difference between arguing that even traditions and authorities should be subject to reasoned criticism, and fetishizing reason as the solution to every disagreement or conflict.

  3. I'm saying that appealing to reason is the right thing to do, even when it fails to impress. Back-up plan: Use it to outwit the unreasonable.

  4. Or maybe I'm trying to draw a distinction between being reasonable, which is always a good idea, and making an idol out of Reason. That way lies a society of Sheldon Coopers.

  5. Who resembles my college room mate - there are worse fates.
    But I just assumed you meant that the expectations of those advocating reason were idealistic, optimistic, and doomed - which is probably true.

  6. It depends. Like we've both said here, all we can do is attempt to be reasonable as much as possible. But we all proceed from axiomatic assumptions that aren't always rationally chosen or understood. Changing that to bring all mental processes under conscious control, as some modern-day Jacobins like to dream about, would require a complete reengineering of human nature itself, especially of psychology.