Tag Archives: thoughts

I am sorry, but what do you mean by reason here?

What is ‘reason’?  In the biggest part of contexts it seems to me that the words reason or reasonable are used to mean something like what sounds intuitive to me.  So when someone expresses a belief that seems right, we say that’s reasonable.  But what we mean is really, what seems intuitively right.  The problem here is that being intuitive and being reasonable are two entirely different things.

Something is intuitive when it fits easily with other things that we believe.  When a new argument or piece of information fits coherently and easily into our other beliefs, then it feels familiar.  Psychological studies find that beliefs that are familiar seem true.  We regularly confuse truth and familiarity in intuitive thinking.  If someone says something that we have heard before, we are likely to believe it simply because we’ve heard it before.  Interestingly this is true even if no new evidence is presented.  (This explains why certain ideologically driven news sources intentionally repeat slogans or ideas over and over.  The more familiar it sounds, the more true it sounds.  No arguments need to be given.  Just repeat the slogan over and over and it will have the right effect.)

Rationality is an entirely different faculty.  Presenting and evaluating arguments for a certain view while making the appropriate distinctions is a slow and difficult task.  It takes mental work to slowly sift through the claims, the evidence, etc.  This process is usually rather unpleasant and it takes a long time.  Conclusions reached in this way are measured and subject to revision.

Thinking rationally is often so painful, that we (all of us, you included, dear reader) usually depend upon intuitive judgements rather than on the slow and laborious task of thinking a thing through.  But it is important to note here that when we reach conclusions in this way we know only that they are intuitive that is, they seem right given the other things that we believe.  Being intuitive is often good enough for most daily tasks, but it is very different from claiming that a belief has been researched and examined in the slow and critical process of reasoning.

Calling intuitive beliefs rational has at least one major negative side effect:  it makes everyone who disagrees with you irrational by default.  If the only things that are reasonable (as I use the word) are things that are intuitive (to me), then no one can disagree with me without becoming unreasonable.  This is dangerous to our intellectual lives because we don’t take unreasonable people seriously.  This way of thinking will tend to cause us to ignore our critics and opposing points of view because who wants to take the time to think hard about what irrational people say?  That is why it is important to note that these beliefs are merely intuitive, not necessarily rational.