The Age of Reason

“I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.” ~ Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

 

The 18th century saw the rise of the Age of Enlightenment. The great thinkers of the era brought with them the idea that reason stood as the key to knowledge, and ultimately greater truths. Psychology had much earlier roots in history, but the ideas of those such as John Locke and George Berkeley, among others, contributed to the form we recognize today. The schools of Empiricism and Rationalism both contribute to this idea that truth is the destination, and reason is the path to get there. This mindset, however, is being challenged.

 

An article in the New York Times discusses emerging theory that reasoning is merely a tool, evolved by humans to help win arguments. Now, I realize that this is a gross simplification of the theory. To better grasp the concepts being discussed it may help to read the article, or the original research paper, found here.

 

Suffice it to say, this theory appeals to me. The idea that reason is simply there for winning arguments instead of personal betterment is a tough pill to swallow. However, from a cognitive psychology standpoint, this theory makes sense. Debate is, in a sense, a human analogue to two wild bucks crashing horns; the winner comes off feeling superior, the loser slinks back into the darkness. Truth is, there is a lot more at stake than just winning or losing. In terms of arguments, often times cognitive dissonance comes into play.

 

Cognitive dissonance, in the briefest sense of the term, is a bad feeling one gets when how we perceive the world does not match up with reality. PsychCentral has an interesting look into this phenomenon. Basically, when presented with something that causes dissonance, either our perceptions change, or we justify our current ones. With regards to this new theory, reasoning can be seen as a means of dealing with new information; giving us the tools to either assimilate or reject ideas. So, for example, when a friend comes up to me and describes the latest Harry Potter movie as “the greatest movie ever made,” the dissonance caused by this idea can be reasoned away. Perhaps, I’ll reason that my friend is right, assimilating his position as my own. Or, more likely, I will think he’s a little nutters and try to “reason” with him a little. In either case, it will be interesting to see where this theory leads.