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Making Sense of Reason

How can one account for and justify the use of reason within a secular framework?  Some might suggest that this question is meaningless.  For example, the "What happened before the beginning of time?" question is meaningless because "before" is an indicator of a point in time (temporal), so without time, "before" has no meaning in that context and makes the question meaningless.  Just as "before" can only be understood within the context of time, "account for" and "justify" can only be understood within the context of reason.  Others might suggest that to justify something requires reason; therefore, we are using reason to justify itself.  This can either be viewed as something that is self-evident or as a fallacy of circular reasoning—largely depending on one's existing world view.  Here philosophy demonstrates to be a more useful tool to the biased philosopher rather than to the truth seeker.  It is important to note that meaninglessness, self-evidence, and circularity are possible philosophical answers to what is an ultimately a poorly worded question.  What we want is a scientific answer to the real question: What is the origin of reason and can we trust it?

The Origin of Reason

Reason is not a "thing" that exists outside somewhere in (or outside) the universe; it is an ability dependent upon a brain capable of such a process.  It is clearly an evolved ability, fueled by emotion and favored by natural selection. The higher-order neural processing of humanity, today, was far less developed in our ancient ancestors and non-existent in our ancestors if you go back far enough (Richards, 1989).  Neuroscience pinpoints the areas of the brain where these higher order processes (i.e., reasoning; Pinker, 1999) primarily take place, and by studying the brains of primates, other mammals, and more primitive life forms, we find demonstrable evidence for the evolution of reason.  

The Foundation of Reason

Our primal brain functions are based on emotion—and this emotionally-based functioning continues today to be a significant part of our brain function (Pinker, 1999).  As biological organisms, we are compelled to a state of homeostasis—negative feelings cause us to take actions to mitigate those feelings.  Conversely, we are compelled to actions and behaviors that result in positive feelings.  But we are creatures of both emotion and reason, and it is this emotional neural processing that serves as the foundation for our reason by associating outcomes of the reasoning process with feeling-based (affective) states.  For example, our raw, primal emotions may tell us to grab that delicious looking piece of cake from that woman's hand and eat it (the cake, not the woman's hand) because it would taste good (again, the cake and not the hand).  Thanks to our ability to foresee possible future consequences of our actions and behaviors, our reason tells us that taking the cake would result in us ending up in the red on the balance sheet of positive feelings, that is, having the cake (and eating it, too) would result in a predictably lower level of well-being.

The Development of Reason in Our Species

According to the theory of natural selection, mutations can either be adaptive or maladaptive.  These mutations result in the different genetic makeup of a cell (genotypes) which result in different observable traits or characteristics of the organism (phenotypes).  In other words, the ability of our ancestors to reason better did not happen by magic or by "chance" (selection is the opposite of chance)—it is a product of natural selection.  Imagine early hominids just starting to use higher-order processing. Those who use reason effectively manage to stay alive and pass on their genes at a higher rate than those who could not reason.  Today, we are the result of countless ancestors who out reasoned the competition or at the very least, were not out reasoned by the competition to the point of not having or seizing the opportunity to procreate.  It is clear that reason is an evolutionarily adaptive function. 

The Secular Justification for Reason

While we can look to evolution and natural selection as having hundreds of thousands of years of evidence justifying our general use of reason, we can better justify our use and the high value we put on reason simply because it works.  That is, the repeated use of good reasoning leads to outcomes that increase our well-being.  Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, giving a reason to justify our use of reason seems wrong.  No matter what reason we give (even"God did it"), it is still a reason.  While there may be no escape from this, we can justify our use of reason not through reasoning but through our actions.  Living a life based on reason leads to greater well-being, and that's good enough for me.

Action Items

Be prepared when you are confronted with challenges to your own secular justification of reason. Don't fall for word games or get sucked into a trap designed to make you doubt the usefulness and validity of reason. If you remember just one thing, remember this: reason works.

Pinker, S. (1999). How the Mind Works. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 882(1), 119–127. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1999.tb08538.x
Richards, R. J. (1989). Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. University of Chicago Press.

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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