When William Drummond said ‘He that will not reason is a bigot; he that cannot reason is a fool; and he that dares not reason is a slave’, he aptly underlined the importance of reason in a person’s life. Reason is the thinking, the justification or the explanation behind a thought or a belief in a person’s mind. If the word “reason” is removed from the dictionary the very existence of facts will lose all its verifications. Behind every thought every action of a human there better be a reason or the person may be considered a mad man. Reason can help us in many ways to acquire new knowledge.
As every action or important decision has pro and cons, strengths and weaknesses so does reason as a way of knowing. We can go very deep and consider different aspects of reason and their role in helping or complicating the way we acquire the new knowledge in hand. When a child goes to school and learns science he uses logic or reason to understand the different laws of physics and other sciences. For example when I learnt about the theory of conservation of momentum, it was somewhat difficult for me to understand how momentum remains constant.
But when we conducted experiments with two pendulums, we perceived what we had read and then calculated the momentum at the beginning and the end of the experiment. Then the theory made more sense and became ingrained in my mind. Reason helps us in many ways and if we try and base our new knowledge on it, it sorts out a lot of our queries. When a person thinks and reasons everything it is easier to gain knowledge. Language, perception and intuition are great ways of knowing, but reason has always been given a higher place by philosophers. Rene Descartes a famous rationalist stated ‘Cogito ergo sum’ which mean ‘I think therefore I am’.
He did not say, ‘I feel or see and therefore I am’. The universe too has been understood only because scientists reasoned it out. I feel that reason has a lot of strengths but the weaknesses arise due to the way we reason. Often people use some very vague means to reason such as “Ad Ignorantiam”, when a person tries to justify that there were people on the planet before the big bang who were for far more superior to us scientifically. He supports this seemingly illogical fact by saying that this is true as there is no proof that this was not the case.
Some other weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing would be hasty generalizations in which people assume things without proper knowledge and data. Ad hominem would be when you do not judge the argument but instead you end up attacking or supporting the person. As children we heard the story of the boy who cried wolf which is based on this weakness of reasoning. Even when the wolf actually arrived, people ignored the boy’s call for help because they based their judgment on the fact that the boy was a liar rather than trying to ferret out facts logically.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy when a person may tend to reason and may just confuse the correlation. Levitt and Dubner analyzed the drop in crime rate in US in their book ‘Freakonomics’. When crime rate unexpectedly fell in 2000s, the experts came up with the logical theories of roaring economy of 1990s or the gun control laws. But nobody could draw the correlation that it was because abortion was legalized in 1973 which allowed unmarried, teenaged and drug addicted mothers to legally abort what would have grown up to be a whole generation of criminals.
This illustrates quite clearly that we jump to obvious explanations and that constitutes a weakness of reason. Some types of reasoning such as deductive, inductive and informal help us to an extent in our day-to-day lives. Deductive reasoning helps us to think and figure out facts from general to particular. My neighbor insists that his cat Meg attacks only when she is scared because this is the general behavior of all cats. All kids of the block know that they needn’t be scared of her, as long as they quietly pass by, without scaring her.
Such deductive reasoning preserves truth but then it can gain strength only if the premises involved are true. Most cats behave in a certain manner but what if Meg is not like ‘most cats’? Herein, lies the weakness. Then there is inductive reasoning which follows knowledge from particular to general. As I have tried and tested in the past that bananas are good for my health so I presume that bananas are good for all. This type of reasoning helps us to gain new knowledge in some other different ways. But inductive reasoning sometimes leads us to wrong generalizations as I realized after feeding my roommate with bananas regularly.
Sudden deterioration in his health led to a hurried check-up which revealed that he was a diabetic and bananas were actually bad for his health. / When I went for a summer course to Harvard the first few kids I met were snobbish and made fun of my accent. When I had made up my mind about American kids being unfriendly, I met a few more who later became my best buddies. Sometimes the way we reason out our perceptions can go wrong and this becomes the weakness of reason and thus an impediment in gaining new knowledge.
There can be some good generalizations also if we make them using the correct method. If we feel that we have to generalize something like tigers are not born man-eaters then first we should study enough examples in different setups and so on. The majority of weaknesses of reason arise in informal reasoning. Some other fallacies or weaknesses of reason would be special pleading when a person tries to make himself an exception and not follow the set rules that he expects others to follow. This is something we are all very good at.
One of our school leaders is very strict when it comes to reporting when we fail to do our homework and yet she wriggles out of the routine work on the bases of having debates to prepare or other duties to perform. A rule should be a rule for all at all times and only then will reason function at its best as a way of knowing. In the area of art and literature one has to acknowledge the supremacy of emotion rather than reason. As Coleridge rightly said that in order to appreciate poetry it was imperative to ‘suspend our disbelief’.
False analogy is something, which is used by many great poets and writers; a lot of poems compare love or life to things that may not make sense if you reason them out. One famous prayer has a line that thanks God for the music that lifts us to heaven in one breath. Now if you started reasoning then there is no music that can physically lift us to heaven. In Indian movies it is quite common to see all characters sing beautifully or the hero to bash up a whole gang of muscled goons.
If we apply only logic and perception we would never enjoy these movies because all people are not great singers and one man however skilled cannot singlehandedly wipe out an army of villains. Nevertheless we are avid fans of such cinema because emotions are more in effect here. In the area of human sciences, reason becomes subordinated to perception and observation. Psychology is a study of humans who can be unpredictable and their behavior can defy logic. At school we have an ace debater, who has set records in that he never ever comes back without the first prize.
So when the most prestigious debate contest was organized in the city it was the logical and universal decision to send him to participate. But quite inexplicably he panicked and bungled. The fact that so much faith was reposed in him should have given him confidence but it paradoxically caused a fall in confidence. One area of knowledge seems to be almost synonymous with reason and that is Mathematics which is often termed as “the science of rigorous proof”. The terms like ‘given’, ‘to prove’ and ‘hence proved’-all seem to indicate that logic and perception are the two indispensable ways of knowing in Math.
According to G. K. Chesterton “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. ” This indicates that intuitive feelings and reason cannot be segregated in our attempts to gain knowledge. In analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing, we do not realize that its major strength is that even in this study we will present our views after we reason them out. So reason is after all very important. Due to emotions like ignorance or misguided pride, logic and reason sometimes may get clouded but reason ultimately prevails.