Eilert Sundt lecture 2017: The Resilience of reason
How pessimistic are we allowed to be about the nature and the exercise of reason? Professor Pascal Engel will talk about the conditions of reason’s resistance, including in the public domain, in his lecture.
Pascal Engel. Photo: Private
Pascal Engel is director of studies at Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and a professor at the University of Geneva.
The sovereignty of reason is a thing of the past. Enlightenment ideals have died out and reason has been accused of being responsible for all the evils of our times. Not only its association with science and technology and its consequences for human life have put reason on trial during the last century, but its very existence has become doubtful.
The dogma of a universal and truth driven reason has been denounced, and its dark side revealed
For several decades a large amount of research in cognitive psychology and in behavioral economy has revealed the extent to which humans make persistent simple mistakes in reasoning and in the exercise of the faculties which were traditionally associated to reason. Research on emotions has reinforced the suspicion that the rational parts of our minds are permanently controlled by forces that reason cannot dominate.
Facts, it is said, won’t change our minds.
It has been claimed that the human mind has not evolved to be rational, but to engage in arguments, which are not governed by facts and logic, but systematically biased in order to satisfy our interests.
The dogma of a universal and truth driven reason has been denounced, and its dark side revealed. Not only we are “in two minds” - one analytic and logical, the other emotional and intuitive - but the latter dominates the former. These bad news seemed to have been confirmed by a number of developments in public life. Our minds can neither resist the flow of information nor escape from the grip of fake news and biased reasoning. Facts, it is said, won’t change our minds.
The aim of this lecture is to evaluate how pessimistic we are allowed to be about the nature and the exercise of reason.
Is it so clear that the exercise of reason is limited to reasoning?
First, is it so clear that the body of empirical research purporting to show how deeply irrational our minds are is conclusive? The methodology and presuppositions of this research is not free of problematic assumptions, and has to be questioned.
Second is it so clear that natural reasoning is driven and shaped by processes which owe more to dialectics and eristic than to logic and truth?
Third, is it so clear that the exercise of reason is limited to reasoning? Much of the psychological research is based on simple oppositions, such as reason vs intuition or reason vs emotion, slow and fast thinking, which are not so evident.
A wider conception of reason, both in the theoretical and in the practical domain, may not deliver the same results as those which are supposed to wreck the so-called dogma of universal reason.
Fifth, to what extent can we accept the adaptationist argument, according to which evolution has not made us rational, and according to which we are better off when we do not follow the rules of reason?
One can agree that the territory reserved to reason is not as great than it used to be thought, without agreeing that it amounts to nothing. Both descriptively and normatively reason has the capacity of being resilient, and the conditions of reason’s resistance, including in the public domain, can be outlined.