An anatomy of reason

An anatomy of reason

The starting point for this post is the belief that the highest quality of which the human being is capable is that of pure reason. ‘Thinking’ is an essential and unique human trait but the application of reason is what allows thoughts to be assessed for their wisdom, rank stupidity or any strata in between.

In an age of democracy and equality one of the most dangerous ideas around is ‘my idea is as good as yours’ when palpably and objectively that cannot be the case. There is a hierarchy of thought that reflects the point of origination of that thought; for example, a thought starting in prejudice will always bear the mark of that prejudice. Equally, a thought originating in wisdom will ever contain a flake of that wisdom.

Thoughts can begin from any mental state, and by this I do not mean a neurotic or psychotic influence; by mental state I am referencing the ever changing emotional and intellectual landscape that we are each subject to during an average day. There may be a gender bias as to the source of thought but this essay accepts unilaterally that we’re all equally capable of emotion and logic although there may be a non-gender bias to one or the other.

It is very easy to be critical (there is much to be critical of) but it is much harder to be positive and constructive. There is an excellent practice of quietly thinking of someone of whom you are deeply critical and then only objectively considering their good points. This invariably results in a lessening of the criticism and the establishment of some genuine compassion for what is often a shared human condition.

In the anatomy of reason then it may be proposed that:

1                 reason presupposes positivity and constructiveness

2                 reason presupposes compassion

Reason is necessarily well-informed: how can it be reasonable to reject or ignore facts or scientific insight and discovery; that is the way of the ignoramus. The 20th century saw an explosion of scientific and technological inquiry and achievement and it has given much to what we take for granted in the 21st century. The development of the supercomputer opened up the previously untestable world of iterative mathematics and gave us fractals and an insight into the amazing mathematics of evolution. The invention of the Internet has opened up humanity to instant communication and the whole gamut of the world of ideas and in so doing has identified and clarified thinking that is both inhuman and destructive, such as the savage trade in sexual slavery or the heinous practice of female genital mutilation. Knowledge IS power, and the freely available knowledge of the Internet is slowly (and I hope surely) destroying millennia of archaic ignorance and totalitarian belief, although not without its remaining exponents of each.

The third, fourth and fifth aspects of reason then encompass ‘education’ in one form or another:

3                 reason presupposes well-informed opinion

4                 reason presupposes free and necessary access to knowledge

5                 reason also requires a good deal of work or effort

One effect of this abundance of information and knowledge is to force those who place their faith in Bronze Age religious beliefs into the self-created prison of ‘fundamentalism’. Be it Christian, Moslem or whatever the true nature of religious faith is epitomised by the fundamentalism to be found at the basic foundation of that ‘faith’ and its necessary concomitant of ignoring or rejecting new knowledge. It is this tendency that makes religion’s claim to ‘peace’ so laughable. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and Christopher Krzeminski’s ‘What are you without God?’ demonstrate that there are two basic approaches to knowledge acquisition: the first is the ‘route of faith’ and the second is the ‘route of reason’ and they are completely and totally mutually exclusive.

I have essayed elsewhere in this blog (Faith and Reason) that despite religion’s attempts to claim reason for their beliefs, ultimately they have to descend to the flyswatter of ‘faith’ because in their distorted ignorant values ‘faith’ trumps ‘reason’.

Religious critics of Richard Dawkins accuse him of being ‘shrill’, but I ask anyone to read ‘The God Delusion’ and defy you to discover this so-called shrillness. He is clearly impassioned about his criticism of all things religious but he never descends into the sort of name-calling and obnoxious behaviour so evident in the writings of believers. (Twitter is a marvellous forum for seeing the intellectual precedents of theists and atheists alike and it is abundantly evident that it is the former who frequently indulge in irreligious behaviour: they obviously feel threatened by the rationality of atheism). The evidence indicates that religion cannot bear the searchlight of logic and evidence-based thinking, and this is very often reflected in a clear inability to express their thoughts grammatically and with accepted norms of spelling.

The sixth/seventh aspects of the anatomy of reason are necessarily essentially anti-theistic:

6                 faith-based forms of knowledge acquisition are inimical to reason

7                 reason-based knowledge acquisition of necessity includes evidence and logic

But there is more, much more to reason than evidence and logic, important though they are. There is the whole area of creativity and its relationship with the stillness of mind. As a first observation it is fairly clear that an agitated mind will have some difficulty in accessing logic, let alone creativity and mental ‘centeredness or equanimity’. When I worked as an architect – a profession I loved – the bit I enjoyed most was design (the old something from nothing trick – goddit God?). The prelude to design is getting to know the brief backwards, the site like the back of your hand, and the town planning restrictions and requirements firmly in mind. Often I would be worrying a particular aspect and coming up with all sorts of solutions, but not that particular one that shouts ‘this is THE answer’.

So I would sleep on it – not necessarily literally but often so – it might mean attending to some other matter entirely, or just mentally surrendering the matter. Then, and this happened many times, upon returning to the design issue – maybe a day or so later –  a ‘that’s it’ solution would just present itself, apparently out of the blue. Now it is important to realise that without the spade work first of getting the parameters of the design firmly in mind the creative act of ‘design’ just wouldn’t happen. The reality is that the solution to a problem always lies within the statement of the problem; get the statement right and the solution will of necessity follow eventually, a little practise of patience may just be necessary.

So the eighth/ninth/tenth components of the anatomy of reason may be stated as:

8                 reason requires that the groundwork to any issue/problem be fully complete

9                 creativity as an aspect of reason may need a little patience

10              mental activity may need to be surrendered, if only temporarily

Finally there is the need for reflection or meditation. What is clear from the above is that a still mind somewhere along the way is crucial to the exercise of reason. A useful analogy is a pond: throw a stone into a still pond and you can see the ripples expand and rebound; throw a stone into an agitated pond and the ripples become difficult to distinguish from the general melee.  For reason to operate fully a still mind is essential.

I am, and have been for many years, a member of a Practical philosophy group – with which I have many points of disagreement, but mutual respect eases differences – and one of the practices we adopt on our retreats is formal reflection. We take a sentence of philosophic intent and allow it to reflect in the mind; an important rule of reflection is not to get caught by any single thought that might arise (and many do), but to acknowledge each aperçu and then let it go. This process of mental surrender seems to be all important to the practice and in this manner always something new appears. It is a truly creative practice.

Another practice of creativity is ‘brainstorming’, the essence of which is not to limit any idea that arises but to throw it into the ring of ideas just to see how it lands and what may arise. In business I believe it is also known as ‘blue sky thinking’ but the point is that creativity cannot be limited by any particular mind set. It has to be ‘thinking out of the box’ to use another overworked piece of commercial new-think, or thinking without restrictive limit.

But speaking as a sometime meditator of more than 30 years, what really brings the mind to stillness is mantra meditation. Mantra = ‘mind instrument’, and it is an effective way of delving deeply into the turmoil of the mind to reach levels of relative stillness (and some claim absolute stillness, but I’m not so sure). Certainly, there is a strong feeling of elation and even ecstasy when these deeper levels of the mind are reached, but it does take devoted practise.

Meditation needs to be discriminated from a religious practice – although many religions extol the virtue of meditation – you will only find ‘God’ if you believe that is what the practice meditation is for. My experience suggests that the real function of meditation is to plumb the mental depths to a substantial point of conscious rest and from there to open back up to the world and its demands with a mind that is refreshed and willing to see things ‘as if for the first time’. Equally important is the surrender of any idea or (especially) belief that may arise.

So, the 11th+ components of reason may be stated as follows:

11              at some stage the exercise of reason requires a still mind

12              reflection as a particular practice is an effective way of stilling the mind

13              meditation can bring the mind to that stillness which is the tipping point of creativity and insight

And so there we have it: one possible map of the nature and practice of reason, which has been argued to be the apogee of humanity and the human spirit. Reason encompasses study, education, auto-didacticism, work, effort and the application of logic, and important as they are it is access to the real stillness of mind that allows reason free-rein and original insight and creativity.

So here are the complete components of the anatomy of reason elucidated in the above essay:

1                 reason presupposes positivity and a constructive attitude of mind

2                 reason presupposes an open mind or compassion

3                 reason presupposes well-informed and educated opinion

4                 reason presupposes free and necessary access to knowledge (=science)

5                 reason also requires a good deal of work or effort

6                 faith-based forms of knowledge acquisition are inimical to reason

7                 reason-based knowledge acquisition of necessity includes testable evidence and logic

8                 reason requires that the groundwork to any issue/problem be fully completed

9                 creativity as an aspect of reason may need a little patience

10              mental activity may need to be temporarily surrendered

11              at some stage the exercise of reason requires a still mind

12              reflection as a particular practice is an effective way of stilling the mind

13              meditation can bring the mind to that stillness which is the tipping point of true creativity and insight

Nothing is written in stone and the above is only a personal view. I invite any reader to propose additional anatomical aspects so that the fledgling essay may find its flight feathers and soar.

And if you have been, thanks for reading.

 

Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter

 

 

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2 comments
  1. ecblade said:

    I will take more time to reflect, but initially my thought is this: reason can be applied at whatever stage of access to information is available to you. For example: perhaps I don’t have s complete knowledge of germ theory, but that does not prevent my ability to use reason, as far as the information I have. My conclusions may not be wholly accurate, but they may be reasonable considering my knowledge base. Hence it is important to encourage true learning, encourage thought and experimentation, and remember always that there is more to know. Thanks so much for this! As always. ..♥

  2. Thank you for your considered response Jessica, and my take on reason is only one view which is why comments are so helpful. I suppose my main goal was to highlight the need for reflection in a quiet mind owing to the ineffectuality of an agitated mind,so it makes me very happy that you’ll take more time to reflect. ❤ 🙂

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