What Happens When We Reason

Ever since a miniscule number of ancient Greeks became fascinated by the human ability to reason, one of them even going so far, in his immoderate enthusiasm, as to declare that “Man is a rational animal,” human beings have been bedevilled by this so-called defining ability of ours. According to this widely-held belief, reasoning is a skill that permits its practitioners to discover the truth and, moreover, to distinguish truth from falsehood at all times and in all situations. But the fact that reason is not the unerring and objective path to enlightenment which many people have taken it for is shown whenever two or more intelligent, educated, and seemingly rational persons hold very different, and sometimes contradictory, opinions about the same subject. How can we account for this discrepancy when, if reason is indeed a purely objective and dispassionate method or standard by which the truth can be discovered, established, and propagated, there is such a wide variety of inconsistent or contradictory ideas, theories, and assertions that are held to be true by different individuals, all or many of whom claim to be the skilled, devoted, and experienced practitioners of the principles of reason?

All learning involves the growth of neurons, or neural connections, in the brain. What distinguishes the human brain from other animals’ brains or neurological systems is the large quantity and variety of neural growth that can take place during an individual’s lifetime. But not all of this growth is useful, since not all of the things that we learn or believe are true. For example, the study of alchemy produces many new neural connections that don’t exist in the brain of someone who is ignorant of this occult study; but as we now know, the fundamental tenet of alchemy, that common metals can be transformed into gold, is wrong.

Since reasoning is merely a form of neural growth, what this means is that when someone declares that something is logically true and that all reasonable people should agree with it,[1] one is saying that the neural connections that exist in one’s brain, and lead one to make this particular declaration, also exist, or should exist, in the brain of every other person who claims to be a reasonable person. Stated in this way, we can see why there are so many disagreements about the truth, and why even those who profess to be the faithful disciples of reason nevertheless sometimes believe things that are very different from, and even contradictory to, each other.

People who spend much time together come to resemble each other in many ways, and not only in the things they believe or hold to be true. This includes the way they speak, the expressions they use, their likes and dislikes, and the way they dress and groom themselves. If a group of people agree to follow certain rules of behaviour, such as the rules of logical reasoning, then they may agree that certain new facts about the world can be deduced from things which they already know about the world. But like the rules of any game, which games are all arbitrary human constructions that usually have little or nothing to do with the world we live in, we can legitimately ask whether the rules of logic are also made-up human constructions, or whether, as logicians and philosophers steadfastly maintain, they correspond to reality, and therefore they constitute a sure or an infallible method for discovering important new truths about reality.

All people have had the experience of believing something that they later realize is wrong. A common example is when, after repeatedly observing a certain model of behaviour, we believe that a particular event will take place in the future. Some examples are that we, or a team or individual we admire, will win a contest, prize, award, job, game, or match, that we will gain widespread recognition for something that we have accomplished, that a person we admire or desire will behave in a favourable, helpful, or receptive way towards us, or that we will become rich or famous and will be remembered long after our deaths. All human lives are marked by these kinds of disappointments, some more so than others. This is what we mean when we say that our beliefs, fancies, dreams, and cherished ideas collide with the cold, hard reality of life. People differ in the extent to which they allow themselves to indulge in the fantasy world of their private beliefs which don’t correspond to the shared or overlapping reality that comprises the human world in which we live. Those who do so more often than others are called dreamers.

But how do such mistaken ideas and beliefs arise? And why are they so common? There are times when the neurological growth that leads us to believe something occurs involuntarily, while at other times it occurs only after a strenuous effort on our part, such as the many individuals who have read Marx’s Das Kapital and come to believe in the glorious communist vision of a workers’ paradise, which is to be achieved through violent revolution, in order to overthrow the existing social order, as a prelude to creating a classless society; or the many people who have wasted their time studying certain subjects such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, or economics. But whether it is passive or active, neither of these different kinds of neural growth is a sure sign of anything.

When people reason, they are attempting to make a part of their brain grow in certain ways. Often this involves the imitation of the thoughts or cerebral processes of others whom they admire. Just as learning a language involves imitating the sounds that other people make and making them in the same kinds of sequences, as well as in the same situations, they hear others making them, learning to reason also involves imitating the things done by others, namely, starting from certain premises about some particular aspect of the world and reaching conclusions derived from those premises by following the rules of logic. Once these neurological pathways are formed in one’s brain, they allow the person to go easily from one idea to another – from the idea or image of a triangle to the idea that the sum of its three angles always equals 180 degrees, from the idea of adding two groups of three objects together and getting the sum of six objects, from the idea of a lottery to the image of oneself winning the grand prize, from the idea of psychoanalytic treatment to the idea of an unrepressed, happy individual who was formerly neurotic or repressed, from the idea of communism to the image of a classless, egalitarian worker’s paradise, from the idea of free trade to the image of plenty for everyone, or from the idea of a laissez-faire economic system to the vision of a society of free, industrious, happy, and prosperous individuals.

However, the growth or existence of these kinds of acquired neural pathways is no guarantee of their truth. Just as a path that is well-trodden becomes easier to walk on than ground where there are no paths, such as in a dense jungle, the existence of certain neural connections in our brains makes it easy for us to go from one idea or image to another. The strength of these connections explains why we hold our beliefs with such conviction, but this does not mean that they are necessarily right. It is only after these private neurological growths are compared with reality and found to agree with it that they are generally accepted as being true, in which case they may be imitated or repeated by many people all over the world. However, it is obvious that a large number of people can believe something that is false, and, conversely, that few or no people may believe, or know about, something that is true. This was the fundamental insight of science – that it is not enough merely to reason or believe something about the world, for one must always check the result of one’s reasoning with reality before one can declare that it is true.

What people call reasoning is in reality nothing more than the growth of certain neural pathways in one’s brain. When these connections are strongly developed, they allow the person to go easily from one idea to another, which often deludes one into thinking that these ideas are necessarily or logically connected together, or that these neural connections must therefore also exist in other people’s brains.[2] This is what we mean when we say that something is obvious, self-evident, or necessarily true. We would be less likely to speak and behave dogmatically if more people understood this fact – the important but frequently overlooked fact that merely because something seems obvious or certain to us is no guarantee of its truth.

[1] As I have stated elsewhere, the common desire to prove to others logically, or beyond the shadow of a doubt, that something is true is merely another example of what I have called the Law of Coercion – the innate human desire to make others imitate the models we have observed, which includes wanting to make others believe the things that we believe.

[2] Those who are familiar with philosophical matters will see that my discussion is a variation of David Hume’s assertion that what we call causation is nothing more than the constant contiguity of two distinct ideas that succeed one another in time. So, for example, when we release something in the Earth’s vicinity and it falls downwards, we say, imitating Isaac Newton, that it is the Earth’s gravitational attraction that causes the object to fall towards its centre, even though the force of gravity is completely invisible and can only be known by the effects it has on objects.