In Praise of Reason

In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy

Michael P. Lynch
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    In Praise of Reason
    Book Description:

    Why does reason matter, if (as many people seem to think) in the end everything comes down to blind faith or gut instinct? Why not just go with what you believe even if it contradicts the evidence? Why bother with rational explanation when name-calling, manipulation, and force are so much more effective in our current cultural and political landscape? Michael Lynch's In Praise of Reason offers a spirited defense of reason and rationality in an era of widespread skepticism--when, for example, people reject scientific evidence about such matters as evolution, climate change, and vaccines when it doesn't jibe with their beliefs and opinions.In recent years, skepticism about the practical value of reason has emerged even within the scientific academy. Many philosophers and psychologists claim that the reasons we give for our most deeply held views are often little more than rationalizations of our prior convictions. In Praise of Reason gives us a counterargument. Although skeptical questions about reason have a deep and interesting history, they can be answered. In particular, appeals to scientific principles of rationality are part of the essential common currency of any civil democratic society. The idea that everything is arbitrary--that reason has no more weight than blind faith--undermines a key principle of a civil society: that we owe our fellow citizens explanations for what we do. Reason matters--not just for the noble ideal of truth, but for the everyday world in which we live.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30113-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Hope and Reason
    (pp. 1-10)

    One of the best-selling books of the last decade advises its readers that “AIDS is one of the greatest hoaxes” ever pulled on Americans.¹ Some people continue to think that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Others, including some leading American politicians and news commentators, believe that global warming is a myth. And many more than that—perhaps most Americans, in fact—believe that creationism should be taught in secondary school science classrooms alongside the theory of natural selection.

    Some who believe these things may do so because they sincerely believe that the scientific evidence supports their position. But for most...

  5. 2 Neither Slave nor Master: Reason and Emotion
    (pp. 11-40)

    In the fall of 2007, researchers from Princeton announced some apparently disturbing results: a split-second glance at two candidates’ faces is often enough to predict who will win an election.¹ In previous work, Alexander Todorov and his colleagues had provided convincing evidence that people judge the competence of an unfamiliar face within a tenth of a second. That alone is something: it shows that people make such judgments prior to consciously reflecting on them. But in the later study, Todorov and Charles Ballew decided to look into how such judgments might correlate with election results.

    In one experiment, the scientists...

  6. 3 ʺNothing but Dreams and Smokeʺ
    (pp. 41-60)

    It is one of the little ironies of history that skepticism is rarely more popular than with true believers. The theological disputes at the heart of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation are a case in point. People were killing each other over who had the best method to access religious truth. Protestants claimed the best method was personal meditation on scripture; Catholics retorted that it was obedience to clergy and tradition. During the course of this dispute, the rediscovered writings of an obscure ancient Roman writer, Sextus Empiricus, dropped like a bomb.¹

    Sextus’sOutlines of Pyrrhonismhardly has “literary fame” written...

  7. 4 Reasons End: Tradition and Common Sense
    (pp. 61-78)

    Reasons give out. From this the ancient skeptics concluded that we should stop believing. We moderns and postmoderns have been more sanguine. We are more inclined, with Wittgenstein, to shrug it off, to accept that “this game is played” and just keep on trucking. This appeals to our sense of ourselves as practical and realistic, and suggests that the right “answer” to skepticism is just to acknowledge the groundlessness of our believing, roll up our sleeves, and go on from there.

    But go where exactly? If justification does come to an end, what fills the void? One answer goes like...

  8. 5 The ʺSacred Tradition of Humanityʺ
    (pp. 79-118)

    The nineteenth-century British mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford is often portrayed as a poster-boy for reason. That doesn’t really do the man justice; but it is true in its way. Before his death at the age of thirty-four, Clifford anticipated aspects of Einstein’s theory of relativity, invented an algebra later named for him, married the novelist Lucy Clifford, wrote a book of children’s stories, and even survived a shipwreck off the Italian coast.¹ But today he is mostly remembered, if at all, for a single essay, “The Ethics of Belief,” an impassioned, if rather severe, defense of the importance...

  9. 6 Truth and the Pathos of Distance
    (pp. 119-136)

    A ubiquitous picture of the academy divides it into “two cultures,” to use C. P. Snow’s familiar phrase. One culture, the sciences, is in the business of acquiring objective knowledge, of telling us the truth about the world. The other culture, the arts and humanities, is in the business of doing, well, something else. Just what else is hard to say—broadening the imagination, analyzing concepts, transforming our sense of difference. These answers all have merit; but despite that merit and their air of gravitas, the traditional picture of the two cultures has had the effect of making the humanities...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 137-140)

    Human beings have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. From the obvious fact that everything, including reason, has its limits, we are tempted toward skepticism about reason and its relevance to our lives. I have argued that this is a mistake, in two ways.

    One way in which it is a mistake is philosophical. Philosophers have overblown the capacities of reason—both in celebrating its alleged role as ruler of the passions, and in its ability to justify itself. But we can give up these faulty assumptions about reason without giving up on the value of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 141-162)
  12. Index
    (pp. 163-166)