Some Uses and Misuses of Reason

When can the use of reason lead to better lives and societies, and when can it undermine them?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


Thinking point: The Australian Attorney General, George Brandis has just declared that arguments for climate change are irrational and that those who assert it should take a lesson from Voltaire …


Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.


1.  Islands of Reason and the deep blue sea between


When the sun rises each morning we may say the reason is that the earth on its elliptical orbit spins so that one point faces that star. Or we may say that the Sun God has mounted his chariot. Or we may say, after Ptolemy and the Christian elders until a few centuries ago, that the sun is moving around the earth. Take your pick. They have all seemed good reasons from reasonable men in their time. Our acceptance of what passes for reasoned argument has a great deal to do with the company we keep. Perhaps for most people, the word of accepted authority is the ultimate parameter on where those reasoned arguments may venture.

“No man is an island”, John Donne told us 500 years ago. He had reason to believe that. In John Donne’s world of Jacobean England, when they thought about it most men and women still saw themselves as instruments of a divine spirit, dumb computer terminals as it were, destined to execute the will of an unseen god (Bouton 1991). Yet that was also the beginning of an age when others, cautiously at first, turned to different principles and explanations for action, patterns of order in nature which they called science and on which they brought to bear their faculties of reason.

John Donne himself was an extraordinarily capable man, a poet, courtier, diplomat, and eventually Dean of St Pauls Cathedral in London. Could it not seem a paradox then that he was one of God’s dumb computer terminals, somehow separated from the ‘Age of Reason’ or ‘Age of Enlightenment’ which saw its first expression in Europe through re-translation and reinterpretation of the Christian Bible itself, then through new, systematic observations in astronomy, medicine and physics. This was also when worldwide navigation forced insular Europeans to confront entirely different civilizations, and when thinkers, economists and philosophers began to make explicit and question the very foundations of the social contract between the rulers and the ruled. Not least, it was when exceptionally systematic minds turned Nature against itself by creating a technology of precision engineering and self-powered machines. Or does this question about John Donne’s mind reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reason in human thinking?

Could it not rather be that “reason” is not some iconic discovery of an historical period, but rather is a set of tools available to all human beings, and perhaps in more restricted ways to other animals? If so, then we would have to ask a) what precisely these tools of reason are; b) whether their use is common or uncommon; c) whether their use is a matter of choice, or involuntary; d) if choices are made, when are the tools of reason put aside, or at least some selection of them; e) what alternatives humans have to the exercise of reason, and when these alternatives are engaged.

Answers to the preceding questions have been posed in many treatises, and answered with elaborate arguments. This is a short essay, and the treatment here will be quite discursive rather than systematic.

Let us begin with the observation that maybe all of us have accused others of being irrational. This usually means that a second party is acting in ways for which we can see no clear motivation, or which seem contrary to the interests of the actor. In other words, accusations of irrationality may amount to no more than a communication failure between actors. Of course, the problem may also be that you are factoring in variables and relationships which the other person is not aware of, or which they discount as unimportant. This is quite different from saying that a person is incapable of reasoning at all.

It is improbable that any infant incapable of reasoning at some level could survive to adulthood. That is, if the word “reason” implies a person drawing practical conclusions at some survival level of sophistication from their inner experience and outer observations, then it is something which we can all do. The methods by which individuals achieve this may or may not be clear to them or us, but as social creatures we will evaluate the public outcomes.

In certain contexts we may assess the application of reason in terms of, say, the laws of Boolean logic, but it is not self-evident that this kind of logic is the only path to reasonable outcomes, especially for individuals. Many choices are based on “instinct”, “the smell test”, whether it “seems right”. These so-called instinctual choices seem to draw on subconscious assessments which might sometimes be quite reliable, although they are also notoriously influenced by prejudice and fashion. It can be exasperating for those given to explicit logical argument to be faced with implacable opposition from someone blithely confident of their “instinct”. The reverse also applies. The implication seems to be that at least in social and political life, we have to find a reasonable way, apart from coercion, to deal with others who are not amenable to our problem solving strategies.

Even when issues which require a reasoned response are approached consciously and deliberatively, the unavoidable boundaries of that reasoning may be beyond the ability of a person to manage. The reality is that societies pose such complex problems that we delegate many decisions to others who specialize in a particular field. We may accept pre-packaged solutions formulated by others to even the most personal dilemmas, and for even very fundamental questions such as “the meaning of life”. In other words a vast amount of decision making is based on trust, particularly trust in authority.

Trust in authority itself may become a moral criterion and boundary for reasoned argument amongst those who depend upon it excessively, such as members of the disciplined services, religious fundamentalists, and many people of a conservative mindset. Where public trust is almost absent – and there are such societies – social and political interaction is much less efficient.

Most humans can reason well enough to find their way to an available food supply when they are hungry, whether it is the fridge downstairs, or an edible plant in the forest. Most humans, but not all, can reason well enough to maintain non-lethal relationships over an extended period with the people around them, even under trying circumstances. This almost certainly implies calculated adjustments and concessions on their part. Many humans, but by no means all, can reason well enough to maintain the complex behaviours which make possible obtaining and holding down jobs in an advanced post-industrial society. Only some humans acquire the skills to consciously reason within the contexts of various scientific models and formal systems of mathematics. Few humans, if any, can offer a personally formulated, complete, non-magical rationale for why, or even how we exist at all as a species.

It seems then that we always apply the tools of reason to restricted frames of reference or islands of circumstance. We are not necessarily consistent in the way we apply those same tools to different islands of circumstance, either publicly or privately, either simultaneously or over time. That is, our behaviours are often contradictory and our thoughts confused. At some deep philosophical level, it is not even obvious that we are the same person at all times. Occasionally a person’s fragmented mental state becomes a clinical issue, but many philosophers since ancient times, East and West, have also noted that for everyone “I”, ego, is not a single or stable entity (see Thor May 1994 for a more detailed discussion), and of course Plutarch’s ancient “ship of Theseus” paradox raises the dilemma of whether we are the same individual, reasoned to be singularly culpable, at 20 years of age and at 60 when every cell in our body is regularly replaced.

It could be said that customs, laws and institutions try to impose a consistency on our reasoning, hence our behaviours, but we are also thankful that these crude external attempts at imposed consistency on our persons often fail. When private reasoning is forbidden to govern our public behaviours, then we feel we are in the grip of tyranny.


2. Reason and Consciousness


Is reasoning always conscious? Think of a dog crossing a busy road. Somehow this animal from observation and experience is understanding vectors which change at high speed, and is able to manage the very difficult mathematical calculation of when and where its own muscles can propel it safely across the road. At a conscious level, hardly any of us could manage that calculation in the time available. Many of us could not bring the calculation to consciousness with any competence at all (but do we and the dog have some super-clever heuristic to substitute for it? – See Gerd Gigerenzer (2014) on Risk Literacy). Lacking this conscious facility, is our faculty of reason therefore deficient? My own sense is that there is not a yes/no answer to this paradox, but rather that humans have a graduated scale of abilities to bring subconscious problems to conscious awareness and thus consciously reasoned manipulation.

Consciousness is a kind of sand-box wherein alternative solutions can be modelled. However, we do not seem to deliberate about subconscious decisions in the same controlled, experimental ways, or at least not directly. Above all, the sandbox of consciousness is uniquely accessible to social tools which enable us to seek the input of other human beings before decisions are arrived at. Sometimes that external input is extremely complex and requires prior study itself.

Interestingly, the limited mental work space of personal consciousness often means that for advanced analysis the well educated amongst us now project complex issues into external mediums such as writing, bit by bit, then reconsider and reassemble them there over time, and only later reintegrate them in coherent ways into our thinking. The increasing tools available for such externalized access for content to reason about has surely had a profound impact on the advancement of scientific and technical revolutions.

Further, it seems that different people have different capacities to bring different kinds of problems to consciousness. For example, some brilliant design engineers might have trouble constructing this essay, while I would certainly struggle with their use of mathematics.

To discuss the origins of reason in human behaviour is to venture into the growth, organization and translation to action of human thinking itself. This is an immensely complicated challenge, beyond anything we can attempt here, yet it is perilous to ignore these cognitive processes if we are not to arrive at elaborate theories which lack genuine explanatory power (scholarly history is full of such dead ends).

Within the context of explaining language generation (cognitive linguistics) I once spent several years trying to understand the systematic nature of human thought. It was doctoral research which I ultimately put aside as hopelessly ambitious. However, even my aborted attempt at plumbing the processes of cognition armed me with enough insight to wield a light sabre, slashing (for my own satisfaction only!) through the confusion of much contemporary research, publication and socio-political argument in this field. For example, the closed echo chambers of theoretical Rationalist models in science nowadays excite my enduring scepticism. Pertinent examples would all be too complex to knit into this little essay. Anyone interested might follow it up through the incomplete Generative Oscillation Model (Thor May 1994). One pattern which did become clear in this linguistic exploration of the mind was that a great deal of cognitive activity, like so much else in nature, is an emergent phenomenon.

Emergence is a process whereby cause and effect merge in both directions and new outcomes arise which cannot be traced transparently to a single origin. For example, on a macro level, oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere co-evolved with the evolution of plant life. It makes little sense to say that either plant life or the atmospheric presence of oxygen is the “reason” that the other occurred (Varela et. al. 1991). In most societies, including those of the West, traditions of reasoning, either popular or scientific, are simply unequipped at present to handle a concept like emergence in sophisticated ways, regardless of its importance.  Few debates are framed in terms of emergence, although sometimes we do recognize a “chicken and egg” paradox.


3. Utopia revisited – the people we will always have


Utopian dreams have been formulated in every recorded age of human history. People invented the wheel to save labour, invented the story form to preserve wisdom, and invented religion to explain the inexplicable. Yet neither the wheel, nor stories, nor religion have equipped them to create societies which preserve wealth, health and happiness for all participants in sustainable ways.

Innumerable social models have been planned with extensive inputs of reasoned argument, all with the objective of making possible sustainable ideal societies (being whatever was considered ideal in the particular age of the proposal). They have either remained dinner table proposals, or when tried in the real world, generated unpredicted distortions, failure, disappointment, or sometimes mass extinction. Why? Well, regardless of persuasion, propaganda, sermons, slogans, and all the rest, none of them have substantially remade the psychologies of the kaleidoscope of characters who constitute any population. They have however proved wonderful vehicles of deceit and disguise for psychopaths in pursuit of power.

While individuals vary, in the aggregate of social behaviours by whole populations over time, fine words are simply not matched by fine deeds. In every known society, the same kinds of scoundrels (and a few brave souls) have clawed their way up the greasy pole to power. The same kinds of individuals have stood aside from the struggle, the same kinds of policemen have policed, the same more or less competent sloggers have fashioned some kind of career, and the same mass of losers has drifted to the bottom of the pile. The details of this process of social distribution have been a little different, but within a generation or two the outlines have always been predictable. No reasoned or well-intentioned arguments have ever wholly changed it. So what is to be done?

Has social engineering entirely failed then? No, not entirely. In civilizations which have survived, by design or accident, over several centuries, institutions and laws have always evolved (for better or for worse). Such institutions and laws have shaped the expectations of their subject populations so that the underlying zoos of psychological types, while not altered in their primary design, have developed behavioural habits to channel or sublimate  their inner wishes. This is not a small thing. Such cultural habits form the boundaries within which people reason. For most individuals, those boundaries of reason are rarely transcended except under extreme conditions such as war.

The takeaway lesson for those who wish to rule, and those who wish to reform is that they need to influence the boundaries of reasoning for very large numbers of people.

The most primitive way to influence the boundaries of reasoning  is through fear, notably violence or at least intimidation. This is the path most commonly chosen, even to this day, by wannabe rulers and sometime managers. Its technical name is fascism. Where naked violence is constrained, the fall-back tool for those who crave power and wish to manage public reasoning is deceit (which takes many forms).

The tools available for well-intentioned reformers to influence public reasoning are usually projected through education, promoting a spirit of enquiry, open access to information, evidence based science, and generally “making it easy to be good” with carefully planned regulations and incentives.


4. Sisyphus and the fragility of good works


Once, briefly, I was a law student, where a wise elder advised that civilization was about people learning to agree to disagree. Since the survival of lawyers depends upon persuading people to disagree often but non-violently, the elder’s idea seemed especially congenial at the time. Nowadays I am a teacher with foolishly grander ambitions. As a teacher I seek to extend the boundaries within which my students can reason, to clarify the patterns in nature and society which they may wish to reason about, and to remind them of the many formal and informal tools available for reasoning well.

Unlike the powerful, it does not disturb me if those students can reason their arguments to positions which confront my own beliefs. What does disturb me is that so many of them lack the curiosity to fully equip their minds. But even sadder is the realization after a lifetime of teaching that each new generation will arrive mostly oblivious of and indifferent to what their parents, let alone the accumulated wisdom of the culture, has managed to assemble as a guide to a worthwhile life in a benign society. The glories and disastrous choices of fallen civilizations are for them at best a television spectacular. They risk repeating the same mistakes by wielding the invincible arrogance of unchallenged lives.

This dilemma is not new. The Sisyphus of Greek legend was condemned for eternity to push a boulder to a mountaintop, whereupon it would roll to the bottom again. One venerable solution was to force the unwashed to memorize a holy book, wherein fixed answers to all life’s problems were enshrined. Well, that idea was trialled for a couple of thousand years with unimpressive results. Now the bureaucrat priests of mass education try the same trick in a somewhat more diffuse way with their curriculums and exams, but on the whole with equally unimpressive results. We are waiting to see if mass self-inoculation with random wisdom and mischief via the boundless databases of Google leads to a brave new world.   


5. Learning to love stupidity and cage mischief


I can rarely teach a fool to be wise, regardless of age. Heaven knows, I have tried for decades, using every trick and argument and source of information my wit could muster. More likely, I am thought to be a fool by the fool, so we go our separate foolish ways. Sometimes, years later our paths cross again when it can happen that the fool has acquired my version of wisdom in the school of hard knocks, or I have acquired his version of foolishness. Earlier in this essay I mentioned a law professor who advised his neophytes that agreeing to disagree was the highest form of civilization. Well we need lawyers as far as they help us to live without mutually assured destruction.

We also need engineers though. Suppose you are the mayor of a city of a million people, and you are either going to have that bridge built or you are not. The fools who disagree with you can either be shot, or be pacified by some concession which the city engineer thinks is stupid. Nowadays I would negotiate the concession, even if I agreed with the engineer in private. The fools and I will all have to live in this same city forever. Hell, even my children might turn out to be fools too. This is what is called civil society. The frames of reasoning within which civil societies are constructed would drive any pure bred rationalist to drink and machine guns. In the end though, the fools and I get to survive in something like peaceful streets, which seems like a very reasonable outcome.



Reading List


Birmingham, John (April 22, 2014) "Reassuring lies don't belong in climate debate". Brisbane Times online @

Bloom, Paul (Feb 19, 2014) "The War on Reason - Scientists and philosophers argue that human beings are little more than puppets of their biochemistry. Here's why they're wrong". [recommended] The Atlantic, online @

Bouton, Charles (1991) Neurolinguistics : Historical & Theoretical Perspectives. (U.Melbourne library Ba 153.6 BOUT) NY:Plenum Press

Catholic Encyclopedia (n.d.) “Reason”.  Catholic Encyclopedia website, online @  

Cox, Lisa (April 18, 2014) "Climate change proponents using 'mediaeval' tactics: George Brandis". Sydney Morning Herald, online @   

Donne, John (2014) Wikipedia biography, online @

Gigerenzer, Gerd (2014) Risk Savvy – How to Make Good Decisions. pub. Viking Adult. Amazon link @ . Also a nice review on Farnam Street blog @

Gittins, Ross (April 19, 2014) "Modern economists are clever with numbers but way out of tune". Sydney Morning Herald, online @

Kant, Immanuel (1788) “The Critique of Practical Reason”.  iTunes ebook available @ ; pdf download @

Kant, Immanuel (1781) “The Critique of Pure Reason”. Gutenberg ebook download @ ;  pdf download @  

Lockett, Mike (n.d.) "The Blind Men and the Elephant". [parable retold by Dr. Mike Lockett], The Storyteller Online website, online @   

May, Thor (1998-2014) “The Agnostic’s Survival Manual”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ ; also a pdf version @

May, Thor (1994) “Generative Oscillation – A Cognitive Model for the Emergence of Language”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ ; pdf version also available @

May, Thor (1987) “Super Culture and the Ghost in the Machine”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ . Also, pdf version available online @

Mitchell, Melanie (2011) Complexity: A Guided Tour. OUP. e-book also available online @

Plutach (1st Century A.D.) “The Ship of Theseus”. [a philosophical paradox], Wikipedia online @

Reason Foundation (2014) [Libertarian think tank mostly concerned with American domestic political policy]. Reason Foundation website, online @    

Reasons to Believe (2014) “Where Science and Faith Converge”. [Evangelical Christian website] Reasons to Believe online @

Saul, John Ralston (1993) Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. available online @   

The Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research (n.d.) "Gross National Happiness". Government of Bhutan institute site, online

Varela J, E Thompson & E Rosch (1991) The Embodied Mind : Cognitive Science and Human Experience [strongly recommended reading. U.Melbourne library Ba 153.4 VARE] Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Also available in e-book format @

Wikipedia (2014) "Voltaire". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) Kant's "Critique of Practical Reason". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) “Reason”. Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2014) "Gross National Happiness". Wikipedia online @



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


academic repository: at   

discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at  


Some Uses and Misuses of Reason (c) Thor May 2014



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