So my question is ‘What is Reason?’ Here is another possible definition of Reason, which I didn’t list yesterday,
- Reason is that Faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses
I do like this one, which is from Objectivism, and I think it gets close - but it still isn’t quite it, isn’t quite a satisfying answer to my question of ‘What is Reason?’. There are lots of definitions out there, lots of claims for what Reason is, what it does, how to use it, or the need to use it, or its mystical or computational characteristics – there are even sub-specializations of Reason in ‘speculative’ and ‘analytic’ reason. No doubt useful stuff, but I’m far less interested in their claims of what Reason is, than what it is Reason does for you – all of these definitions seems to leave some things out of their descriptions of Reason… one of which is You.
Not just what you do with Reason; have you asked yourself… what is it you do when you are using your ‘faculty’ of Reason? Do you have the sensation that you’ve plopped a couple logical statements into the ol’ mental microwave to do a slow cook or quick defrost? For something that is supposed to be a process, a faculty, a capacity, a defining characteristic of being Human – its descriptions sure consist of some hazy, even gloopy definitional structures… how can they be so all over the map? And the results of reasoning – how can this vital aspect of humanity, produce results which are so often easily mistaken, off, close, uncertain, or dead on correct, though perhaps with an annoying whiff of ‘maybe…’ floating around the edges?
How does a ‘faculty’, ‘capacity’ (and so on…) develop over time in some cultures, and not so much in others? What if it was an opposable thumb we were talking about (it’s certainly as important), how would we react if some cultures had it, and some didn’t? Or if it appeared, disappeared and then reappeared again over the centuries? Or within a space of time from parent to child, such as those cases of human beings growing up without human parents, in the wild – when they are captured, their defining human attribute of Reason is found to be very little like what many so casually take to be the defining human attribute.
How does it disappear, at least in a recognizable form, in those raised without it? What are the reasons that explain that sort of randomness? The way you hear some people talk, Reason is a patented program installed as original equipment by the manufacturer (who or whatever that might mean) which has clearly defined rules of use and engagement. While in a sense that might be true, in a far more important sense, it obviously isn’t.
I don’t know about you, but my suspicion is that it isn’t a faculty, or capacity or any other kind of thing at all. Actually, I think it is probably a mistake to think of Reason as a thing at all, rather it is some thing which you do – and of those last two words, the emphasis should be on the word You. There is experience, curiosity and you – and it also relies upon something within you, which isn’t going to be organically found within either cellular structures or in some equivalent of spontaneously generated biological program code.
The Moon was up there last night as usual, but something unusual was going to happen to it, and late though it was, millions of people across the world were going to stay up late to see it, or were going to wake up early in order to gaze at it, the full lunar eclipse. I wonder what they were thinking as they gazed at the moon being eclipsed. Will their thoughts be similar to what people thought looking upon an eclipse 40,000 years ago? I sort of doubt it. But why they are gazing at it, the reason why… I’m willing to bet that that is probably very similar to our ancestor’s reasons. The conclusions they reached from the process no doubt are wildly different, but the reasons for gazing, I’m betting were very similar.
In at least one respect I think it will be the same, each person will gaze at it, and feel varying shades of curiosity and wonder while doing so, and there in, I think, lay the seeds of what we are pleased to call Reason. We all have the same starting point, but what led to the Western way of Reasoning was and is unique, and involved many different people wondering in eventually common ways, which slowly began to influence each other.
Aristotle said “All men by nature desire to know”, and the truth of this is easily observable in any normal infant, we want to know, we want to put two and two together, the world and the words not yet there to describe it… they dangle out there as the first five notes of “Shave and a hair cut, two bits!” cause the last two to tantalize us if they don’t quickly follow… it’s agony (just ask Roger Rabbit)!
It’s a commonplace observation to say that civilization sprung from the crossroads of tribes of early humans… but I’d still like to know why? Aristotle defined Humans as Political Animals, he said that human beings are by nature political animals, who naturally want to live together, that "the common advantage also brings them together insofar as they each attain the noble life. This is above all the end for all both in common and separately." Why this is so, is the Reason why this is so, and the reason why reason is so varied, and why it comes and goes so easily.
Patience, getting there.
What do you normally think of when you gaze at the moon? What's different about that during an eclipse? Think of what it must have been like for our ancestors, prior to civilization being established, or imagine if all cultures were to be suddenly wiped out through some disaster or another, I'll bet that the Moon would be at the root of why Reason would be rediscovered, and so why civilization itself will be rediscovered and rebuilt, once again. The Moon is that inescapably strange and ever changing, ever moving object in the night sky that inevitably draws peoples gaze to it. It is a, probably the original source, of wonder, and there is something in that, that draws people together, and surely did so even before language; pointing, watching, grunting, as it would for future cavemen (or as it does for our present MTV cavemen); and after developing language it surely would be one of the original sources to spawn stories, stories to be honed in discussion and continued to grow in wonder.
However, the Moon was up there all the 200,000 or so years before the lights clicked on for us around 40,000 years ago. What else happened?
Here’s a question, did those early humans, pre-language (developed anyway) humans, did they Reason? I’m betting they did. The trail I’m finding Reason leaving… is hugely affected by, but not dependent upon, language. In fact, from my observations, our lower and initial concepts are not formed with words, but with impressions, sensations, sequences, and their time attendant emotions (I’ve gone into this in some depth in previous posts, ‘Aha!’, ‘What are words for’ and ‘Spiritual Economics’ – I’ll link them up later). Those primitive concepts, and I think they do qualify as concepts, are what underlay all our years of learning as an infant, years spent staring so amazedly at our Parents faces; rubbing, touching, kissing, listening to their sounds, seeing and feeling their reactions. Those early wordless concepts, by virtue of being the first in our minds, are the foundation for all that comes afterwards (and I think a key to the nature and power of Poetry as well, but that’s another post… brevity, brevity, brevity…heh).
The Distinctive Human Attribute
Reason is not our distinctive attribute as human beings; it is the expression of our distinctive attribute. Curiosity isn’t our distinctive attribute either; ask any Cat you may know. Our distinctive attribute, is our ability to form and recall deep and organized conceptual structures within our minds. That is what made us different from the other primates, we could learn deeply, remember and pass it on – while our primate cousins could manage to tie a few sounds and motions to actions and feelings from their daily lives, we could integrate far deeper connections into those first primitive concepts and aspirations.
That made us clever, and dangerous, primates, but it wasn't enough. I don’t think we actually became Human in the way we recognize today, until that deep and organized conceptual structure, in response to and recognition of Reality began to be hierarchically formed, ordered and passed on in a stylized way. Not so much the content, though without that all else would of course be literally meaningless, but the Method, the method of guiding our curiosity to reflect between the inner world and the outer world. With that discovery, we began the process of stylizing our curiosity into something approaching what today we would recognize as being Reason.
Reason is the learned control of our Wonder, of our desire to know, it is the stylized form of curiosity.
I wonder Why.
I wonder why, and Reason is the answering of that, it is the handmaiden of our sense of Wonder. As Reason is based in wonder, it is alive and active within us. On the other hand, as our reasons become based in other reasons and not wonder, it tends to lose that lifeblood of wonder as well – ask any public school student if you doubt me.
That all men desire to know, is true, but that desire, like others, can be dulled or even retarded. It can be also perverted. A person can cease to desire to know, and instead desire to satisfy, to conclude, to hear those last two notes, no matter whether they are the right ones, as long as the sequence is ended, they’ll be satisfied, and stilled.
Reason, as we know it in the West, is different than Reason in other cultures, it is possible for it to be different because there is not a set faculty of Reason within our minds – there is only a tradition of it, a training of curiosity common to a culture, something that is passed down from parent to child, reinforced by the family, the society, the culture, it’s stories & myths, through the generations and centuries.
How that should be shaped, and how to determine what is reasonable to Reason with, we'll begin to get to in the next post.