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More on reason

Reason, I suppose, is the ability to form reliable judgements about the world and what we should do. As such, it involves a great many things:

  1. Perceptiveness with regard to the world around us and our own states (pleased, regretful or whatnot).
  2. The ability to notice similarities and differences, and what things go together and don't go together.
  3. Memory.
  4. The ability to apply appropriate concepts that summarize the results of the foregoing: that is, to recognize things for what they are.
  5. The ability to use those concepts appropriately to draw reliable inferences.
  6. The ability to adjust the foregoing in response to problems and events.

If you lack any of those things, you're not going to be reasonable.

What strikes me when it's all laid out like that is how inexact and dependent a thing reason is. On the first point, for example, you don't normally---and often can't---demonstrate a perception. It would be a perceptive clod indeed who knows what a clod he is, and then (of course) he wouldn't be a clod at all. He'd be Socrates. To pick another example, the ability to apply the right concepts and recognize things for what they are (point 4) depends very much on the tradition that formed one's way of looking at things, and therefore on personal histories, chance connections, accepted social authorities, and the like.

People try to avoid recognizing the pervasive softness of reason by picking some part of it, like formal logic or idealized scientific method, calling it the whole, and saying that everything else is personal opinion. That can't work, though, since if you take that view most factual propositions become personal opinion. Confidence in scientific findings, for example, depends on confidence in those who propound them, and on the myriad investigators on whom those propounding them rely. That's obviously a matter of social authority, of treating some people rather than others as worthy of reliance. Social authority, though, isn't determined by formal logic or running a scientific test. It can always be misplaced, manipulated, or simply in error for any of the reasons anyone can be in error.