Values 2: Human reason is reactive

Previously I wrote about Nietzsche’s assertion that philosophers must create values, and a distinction between scholars, scientists and philosophers was made. The focus now shifts to the faculty of reason and its contrast with another mode of thinking.

Reason can be understood as man’s ability to think according to precise rules. Logic is one such set of rules: by using axioms and inference rules, we are able to generate vast arrays of valid statements. For instance, we can attempt to prove mathematical truths, or we can work out how to place furniture in a room, or the quickest way of carrying out five different errands in an afternoon.

Two essential functions of reason are finding solutions and validating solutions. In finding solutions, sometimes we apply reason as a search process, that is, we work through a number of combinations until we find one that works, or until we give up. By deduction we can reduce the size of the search space, and sometimes deduction will lead to a result without any search being necessary at all. In validating solutions, we might obtain the proposed solution from anywhere, possibly from outside reason itself, and then, again it is sometimes a search process: we may attempt to find contradictions that invalidate the proposed solution, and we do not always find them immediately. This would be validation by absence of contradictions, but we might also validate a solution affirmatively by using it in a problem. For instance, we can verify that 7 is the square root of 49 by computing 7*7, and it would be useless to verify it by testing that 7*7 does not equal any of the values 1,2,3…48,50,51,52… infinity.

Reasoning is a slow, tedious process, and it can only consider so many possible solutions in a given amount of time. But it is reliable, and the results of different pieces of reasoning can often be composed to yield a larger, consistent result. But it is clear that our minds have other ways of functioning as well, with other strengths and weaknesses. In particular, it seems that reasoning is essentially a reactive process. It reacts to a given problem with given constraints and rules of inference. But it seems to be unable to create. Creativity appears to always come from extralogical, extra-reasonable places. Creativity in the spontaneous sense of a child drawing a picture with crayons, or a novelist writing a book, or an orator using a particularly persuasive combination of words that captures a fleeting feeling, or a commuter taking a different route home from work, out of curiosity. The distinction is not always clear-cut: a decision like choosing the colour of a wallpaper could be done both using “principles” with which one reasons logically, or using a spur of the moment feeling about what is good. It is clear, though, that the two can interact very productively: often a complex mental activity needs a dialogue between reason and extra-reason, and not just in the sense that extra-reason produces a suggestion that reason validates. This seems to be the danger with excessive reliance on rationality and scientific skepticism, then – it risks shutting out the essential extralogical factor and reducing decision making to searching, or from another viewpoint, it risks invalidating the most powerful search heuristic of all.

It seems as if there is a parallel, of sorts, with modern democracy in this distinction. Democracy at the national level, too, is a reactive form of decision making today. It is true that groups of a small or moderate size sometimes can create things collectively, and when they do, it seems to be the case that the form of the group enables individuals to take turns in influencing the group and being responsible towards it: the individuals make serial contributions that layer on top of each other to form the collective contribution. But voters in a national democracy do not have a format that allows this process to take place across the entire group, and the scale is too great. Those who create proposals are smaller subgroups or elites, and the voters are reduced to playing one of the roles that reason can play: affirm or reject proposals. In fact, not even this, since they are typically not asked to affirm every proposal – they are able to stage a revolution if their discontent becomes tremendously large, and otherwise they only have the ability to voice rejection every four years or so. (The exceptional case where very large groups can create something collectively would be when they share a common sentiment very well, for instance in the event of a national crisis.)

The seat of creativity is ultimately in the individual, and not in the collective. When democracies create agendas, goals, projects and proposals, they are not acting democratically, but channeling individual elements within.

Category: Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , , , 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Values 2: Human reason is reactive”

  1. Monomorphic - Values 3: The case of Apple and Google

    […] contrast, products developed by Google are to a larger extent designed and developed through deductive reasoning. Famously, Marissa Mayer has declared that Google’s user interfaces are engineered for […]

  2. Monomorphic - The struggle over consciousness

    […] I draw or tune I play on the piano is for the most part not a product of conscious reflection. (Some earlier, unfinished thoughts on the limitations of reason here.) These productions are given to me, just as associations, feelings or moods are given to me – […]


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