Reason: What Is It And Why We Need It

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Epistemology, Metaphysics
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What is reason?  What does it mean to be rational or irrational?

Like any muscle, the brain and knowledge can atrophy without use.  More specifically to this case, past lessons learned by intellectual giants — Aristotle (the father of reason’s method), Aquinas (assisted the rebirth of reason), and our founding fathers (who applied reason in forming a country) — have not been taught to new generations; therefore, reason has been forgotten and has become a word which is tied more closely to a feeling or an emotion than to a conceptual understanding of the word.  The vast majority of people do not understand precisely what reason is and why it’s important.  These answers can be reached while studying the branch of philosophy called epistemology — the study knowledge.

Knowledge, if it is to have any meaning, is our grasp and understanding of facts about reality.  So while metaphysics is a branch of philosophy, which studies reality, epistemology is a study of our ability to discover and know reality.  We are able to interact with reality using our senses; eyes to see that which exists, ears to hear it, nose to smell it, tongue to taste it, and skin to touch it.  We have a direct perception of reality, but now what do we do with it?  We know that an object is, but we do not yet know what it is.

Unlike animals, which appear to simply perceive and react, we have the ability to process that information on a conceptual level to determine what that object is and choose our actions.  Our ability to integrate that information into the entire context of what we already know is the nature of our mental faculty.  Reason is that mental faculty, which takes precepts, and identifies and integrates that material. 

Given the nature of reason, we do not and cannot automatically know anything about realty — we are not born with instincts — we must learn.  We are not nor can we be automatically correct either — there is a correct method of coming to correct conclusions and eliminating errors in our thinking.  That correct method is logic, which is the art of non-contradictory identification (of facts about reality).

A contradiction is a thing which is described to have at least two attributes which cannot coexist.  Written mathematically, a thing which is A and non-A at the same time in the same respect — e.g., a leaf which is all green and all red at the same time.  Red is non-green and green is non-red, so the leaf is green and non-green, as well as red and non-red, at the same time (the same respect being color) — that’s impossible.

The law of non-contradiction is a corollary of the law of identity, which simply states a thing is itself.  Written mathematically, A is A.  If A is A, then A cannot be B unless B is a subset of A — meaning, A includes B — otherwise, it would be a contradiction.  For example, a particular leaf is a certain type of entity with certain attributes; it will have a shape, color, texture, and many other attributes that represent the facts about that leaf.  When you select a different leaf, it will have many similarities, but it will have differences too.  All the characteristics of one leaf cannot be the same as another leaf — something must be different because each leaf has its own identity.  When you select, say a refrigerator instead of a leaf, there will be very few similarities and many differences.  The law of identity simply focuses on the entities existence — we know that it exists — which posses certain attributes and they will not contradict — that is the answer to what it is.

Logic, being the art of non-contradictory identification, means it’s the proper application of the law of identity, which means the proper identification of what the facts about reality are.  Any contradiction reached in a process of thinking is the same as admitting an error, which means an improper identification of the facts about reality, since contradictions do not exist.

Given all of the above, we can define more precisely what our terms mean.  Reason is that mental faculty, which takes precepts, and correctly identifies and integrates that material through the correct application of the law of identity — the term correct, which was implicit, is now made explicit.  To be rational is the act of using reason.  Non-reason is the attempt to use your mental faculty other than that of reason, which  is attempts to identify and integrate material though any means other than using precepts and the correct application of the law of identity.  To be Irrational is the act of using non-reason.

Now that we know what reason is, why is it important?  In short, it is our only means to knowledge. Knowledge, if you remember, is our grasp and understanding of facts about reality.  (It is implicit and understood that they are correct grasps of reality).  You can claim to grasp and understand, but that does not mean you do.  Without the use of reason, understanding of facts of reality is impossible. 

To put this to the test, let’s suppose we flip a coin; how will you determine if it lands heads or tails?  You will use your senses to perceive the coin and apply the law of identity to limit the outcome to one solution — either it landed heads or tails, but not both at the same time.  Now let’s use this example, but suppose you can’t use your senses.  Can you grasp the facts of reality to determine an outcome – no, you cannot.  You could guess, but how would you validate your guess without the use of reason (in this case, without your senses)?  Now let’s suppose, instead of not using your senses, you improperly apply the law of identity; so it landed heads and you see heads, but you think tails instead.  Again, you did not arrive at the proper understanding of the facts of reality — you made an error somewhere in your thinking.

You may be asking, so what?  Why are any of these simple things important?  Well, the answer is simple: this process is as true for complex things as it is for simple things — the parts cannot contradict the whole.  Reason is our means to understand simple or complex facts about reality.  Once you grasp a firm, complete, precise understanding of what reason is and why it’s important, then you can continue to discover facts about reality in more complex branches of philosophy, such as ethics (the study of how man should act) or politics (the study of how man should act in a social context).  Just remember though, contradictions do not exist.

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