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The Fear of Reason

In defense of rational argument.

“I just want to point out,” declared the student at the far end of the seminar table, “that when Maimonides offers a proof of God’s existence, he is not saying that he has really proved it. What he’s saying is: This works for me, and if it works for you, great.” I was teaching a graduate seminar on The Guide of the Perplexed at a fine American university, and I was pleased to see my students warming to my insistence that the old masterpiece is still alive, and one of the most formidable obstacles ever erected against a thoughtless existence. We returned repeatedly to the question of what medievals can teach moderns about the indispensability of a worldview, and about the proper methods for justifying one. But the young man’s comment about the subjectivism of Maimonides’s proof—anyway the least interesting part of the book--startled me. It was so American and so wrong. After explaining why it was not just historically correct, but also philosophically respectable, to conclude from the text that its author really could have believed that a proof was possible, I proposed that we quit the twelfth century and put a little pressure on the talismanic words “and if it works for you, great.” I began a discussion of the shortcomings of pragmatism, which allowed me to launch into a withering—and of course intellectually devastating—analysis of the ideas of Richard Rorty and their poisonous impact upon thinking in America. My students offered surprisingly little resistance; but then they had signed up for a winter of rationalism and religion--this countercultural band was not ashamed of its interest in the idea of truth. Yet the Rortyan shrug was still there in the young man’s comment, and so I asked him for his opinion about reason. He said that it frightened him and discouraged him. The problem with reason, he explained, was that it claimed to settle matters once and for all, and that this was arrogant, and that it left him with nothing more to say. Rationalism made him feel excluded and late. I replied that he had it backward. It is not reason, but unreason, that shuts things down. You cannot argue against an emotion, but you can argue against an argument. That is why we were still contending with Maimonides, and why he was still contending with Aristotle. A reasoned discussion is always open and a reasoned intervention is always timely. Unreason is more arrogant, more impatient, more cruel, than reason. Since reason is general, it is inclusive. Reason, I said, is strict but fragile, forever hounded, forever distracted, the minority cause, provisional, fair, curious, fallible, public—not tyrannical but heroic, in its lonely insurrection against the happy and popular hegemony of passions and interests. I told my students about Maimonides’s life, the persecution, the tragedy, the depression, the paranoia, so that they would see the creatureliness of the rationalist, and honor his confidence in the mind as a human triumph. Reason is even poignant.

history of our time is written, it will be a sorry chronicle of knocks on reason. You would think we have too much of it. These days the work of delegitimation is done largely in the holy name of intuition. Psychologists and economists (and their journalistic secretaries) keep discovering that people are not usually rational, and they cannot contain their excitement. We often do not know the reasons for our beliefs and we often do not deliberate logically before our actions: careers and reputations are made out of this breaking news. But then the mean is elevated into the norm. That is the scandal. Since we rely so little on reason, we ought to emancipate ourselves from the summons to reason, and be content with the management and the manipulation of our intuitive nature (as if that, too, will not require the services of reason). The most recent instance of the intuitionist complacency is the “argumentative theory of reason,” propounded by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, according to which reasoning is not a “means to improve knowledge and make better decisions,” but a callow technique for winning arguments, which is an evolutionary gain. Reasoning has “evolved and persisted mainly because it makes human communication more effective and advantageous.” It is “a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels.” (The sentence sings.) Its arguments are just intuitions opportunistically advanced. And bad reasoning fulfills the evolutionary purpose as well as good reasoning, if it gets us ahead. The notorious preference for facts and concepts that vindicate prior beliefs and expectations--the “confirmation bias”--is not “a flaw of reasoning” but “a feature of reasoning,” as the reasoning mind is essentially sophistic--a kind of unconscious and unscrupulous attorney.

 platitudes of pragmatism, intuitionism, and biologism missing from this thrilling new theory? But Mercier and Sperber do not wish to be known as enemies of reason. They concede that “people are quite capable of reasoning in an unbiased manner, at least when they are evaluating arguments rather than producing them, and when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate.” Well, yes. And they admit that “reasoning is responsible for some of the greatest achievements of human thought in the epistemic and moral domains.” Well, yes. But those achievements, they add, are “all collective.” The individual, by contrast, is a rational nullity, a helpless slave of his positions, without critical resources of his own, abjectly incapable (except in “freakish” cases) of thinking objectively about a view that he has “produced.” This is the psychologist’s version of Obama’s demon of partisanship; and I wonder whether a democracy can hold such a pessimistic view of the citizen and still believe in meaningful debate. American political discussion certainly cannot vouch for the social theory of reason. Other people are not always an improving influence. Mercier and Sperber’s reader may be forgiven for feeling suddenly lighter, and absolved of the burdens of rational reflection. They have dissociated arguing from thinking, and reasoning from reason. They have confused the impediments to reason with the fate of reason. It was against this confusion that Maimonides composed his majestic tribute to the striving human intellect. “Certainty should not come to you by accident,” he generously told his student in his book. Reason may be, as we like to say, aspirational; so aspire.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the July 14, 2011 issue of the magazine.