The Value and Limits of Reason

In this post I will share the notes I made when hearing Iain McGilchrist speak about the value and limits of reason on 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. For a background to the content of this post, see my previous two posts relating to this course and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

Iain McGilchrist described this talk as ‘a series of soundbites’ and I expect this is how these notes will come across. My note-taking can be lacking in both accuracy and coherence, and as such, I stress that these notes are mine. They are a record of what I heard, what I noted as significant for me (and by no means everything that Iain said), and necessarily reflect how I interpreted what I heard. I want to stress that any errors are very definitely mine. Please feel free to challenge or correct me in the comments.

A bit of background

Iain has written about reason before. There is a section in The Master and His Emissary devoted to a discussion of ‘Reason Versus Rationality’ (p.64), where Iain argues that there are different kinds of reasoning and that although linear, sequential argument is better executed by the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is better at deduction and less explicit reasoning (p.65).

Rationality involves a causative linear way of thinking in a limited environment. Reason seeks a global, holistic understanding which only makes sense in the round.

This discussion about reason and rationality in Iain’s book invited a response from author Kenan Malik, who in 2013, wrote an article critical of Iain’s arguments – to which Iain wrote a robust response. This discussion/debate was not referred to on the Field & Field course, but it is probably worth reiterating before sharing my notes that at the beginning of The Master and His Emissary, Iain makes it clear that he is not demonising reason.

I hope, however, it will be obvious from what I say that I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. The exact opposite is the case. Both are seriously under threat in our age, though I believe from diametrically opposed factions. (The Master and His Emissary, p.6)

Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. (The Master and His Emissary, p.7)

And a quote from Blaise Pascal

There are two equally dangerous extremes – to shut reason out, and not to let nothing in. 

The Value of Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

As Whitehead and Russell pointed out it is important to think logically. A widespread problem is that science fails to question its methods, so reason keeps us from complacency, but reason should also question its own methods.

Reason is a consistency tool, but it has to start from something. It starts from axioms (axiom comes from the Greek word axia, meaning values). Reason can’t make people see what you can see; it can only lead them closer.

As David Hume famously wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature (p.415),  “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool which we should control. It is our servant, but not our master. McGilchrist writes on p. 203 of The Master and His Emissary:

He [Hume] did not mean that unbridled passion should rule our judgments, but that the rational workings of the left hemisphere (though he could not have known that that was what they were) should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere (though he equally could not have recognised it as such).

Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have a different take on the value of reason, which they propose in their ‘argumentative theory’ is not principally to improve knowledge and make better decisions, but rather to win arguments. They believe that we do not seek truth, but rather arguments that support our views; we are, after all, competitive animals. For a more in depth discussion of this, see, for example, this post ‘Is reasoning built for winning arguments, rather than finding truth?

Some Problems with Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

G K Chesterton is quoted as saying: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”. Make of that what you will. My interpretation is that reason alone is not helpful. The full quote might help:

“If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

In this section of his talk, Iain alerted us to some of the potential limits of reason.

  • Reason prioritises the system over reference to reality, which can lead to a false premise, e.g. as in the porcupine is a monkey syllogism (see p. 192 in The Master and His Emissary for further discussion of this).
      1. Major premise: all monkeys climb trees;
      2. Minor premise: the porcupine is a monkey;
      3. Implied conclusion: the porcupine climbs trees.
  • We judge many things on the basis of experience rather than reason, e.g. love. There are an infinity of such experiences that surpass reason.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

  • There are an infinite number of truths that we can’t get to with reason (I recently wrote a post that included reference to Julian Baggini’s book – A Short History of Truth, and I have heard Iain talk about truth before). Some things do come with linearity, e.g. rational people formulate goals and take the most direct route to achieving these goals, but some things can’t be pursued or willed. Happiness, for example, is a by-product that comes from forgetting yourself; it can’t be pursued. Sleep and appetite can’t be willed. Wisdom, humility, courage, love, faith, admiration, sympathy (and more) similarly can’t be linearly pursued. Understanding cannot be given, imposed or transmitted.
  • Similarly, morals cannot be derived from reason alone. Moral values are not something we can work out rationally. They are not utilitarian. They come from within (see the work of David Hume and p.86 of The Master and His Emissary). Morals are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world.
  • Reason involves distancing ourselves from the natural world, but taking things out of context (abstraction) can be a mistake. John Dewey warned against the neglect of context. “I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context”  (see The Philosophical Fallacy – and p.144 The Mater and His Emissary). Things change as context changes. The response to this is often to categorise things on the basis of a single feature, but we need overlapping contexts. It is the left hemisphere that categorises things on the basis of a single feature. The right hemisphere looks for general similarity. For the left hemisphere there is a need to focus attention narrowly and be precise, but serendipity plays a big part in determining what can be predicted, and the more precise and reduced something is, e.g. language, the less useful it is. Being too precise means losing the overall picture, just as a map has precision, but this does not reflect life and all that we cannot quantify, such as beauty, anger, hunger. Some values cannot be measured and being precise can be less helpful than being imprecise, and even entirely irrelevant.

As Edmund Burke said: ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’ and ‘A clear idea is another name for a little idea’. Similarly from Rabindranath Tagore:

  • Finally, there is always a truth in the opposite of something. The left and right hemispheres both contribute to logic, but the right hemisphere makes a better contribution to deduction and the left hemisphere to induction. The right hemisphere is better at testing reality, but the left hemisphere gets swayed by what it already knows.

Iain ended this talk with reference to The Monty Hall Paradox to illustrate the point that the correct choice in this game is so counterintuitive it can seem absurd, but is nevertheless demonstrably true. The Prisoner’s Dilemma presents a similar paradox (see p.145 The Master and His Emissary). I took this to mean that adopting a right hemisphere perspective on the world and recognising that reason can have both value and limitations can seem counterintuitive.

Reference

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

 

OLDSMOOC Week 2

Week 2  focused on the relationship between context and learning design. It was introduced by Rose Luckin, and facilitated by Joshua Underwood, Yishay Mor and Katerina Avramides.

OLDSMOOC Facilitation

My hat goes off to the facilitators. A number of things stand out for me:

  • their superb daily summaries, without which, given that I am simply ‘observing’ this MOOC, I would not have been able to follow. It would be interesting to have a discussion about 1) their strategies for summarizing from such the hugely diverse resources generated by the MOOC – I’m sure we could learn a lot from them 2) the wisdom of going down the provision of daily summaries route in a MOOC… which leads to my next point
  • the hours of work they have put in. Josh Underwood highlighted a post by a Chris Basson  – saying he was exhausted – but I thought Josh himself looked exhausted in the Tuesday Google Hangout. I have noted that the design of the course (like many other MOOCs and online courses) doesn’t allow for any days off. There is something programmed for 7 days of the week, although the weekend activities are lumped together. I wonder if this pattern of expecting people to participate in what is effectively CPD work in their own time is the best way forward for quality learning
  • their subject knowledge and expertise
  • their openness to new ideas, different ways of working and even criticism. They have not sanitized the summaries and talk freely of the challenges they face in the Google Hangouts. Very impressive.

Week 2 content

Questions for the week were

  • What is learner context?  How to characterise it
  • How do learners’ contexts affect the ways they interpret and enact learning designs?
  • How can we use context in learning design?
  • How can we personalise designs to individual learner’s needs and contexts?

Participants were asked to use scenarios , personas , forcemaps and the Ecology of Resources  to consider how the designer’s context impacts on the learner’s context and how we can sensitize ourselves to important aspects of context. Do any of these methods provide new insights into learner design? Evidently Josh did not use personas, but did use the Ecology of Resources Framework in designing Week 2 for OLDS MOOC, but Yishay did use force-maps, personas and scenarios. How does the fact that in a MOOC it’s difficult to anticipate who the audience might be, impact on this?

Cloudworks

Concerns about Cloudworks continue, although committed participants appear to have found ways of managing. The platform is thought to be very hard to navigate and a participant in the Google Hangout commented that ‘Cloudworks as a structure is falling over’.

From the facilitator perspective, Cloudworks is thought to be an excellent platform for sharing resources as OERs and for commenting on these resources (assuming you can find them), but has limitations and in this MOOC is definitely being stretched to a scale which hasn’t been used before.

One participant feels that Cloudworks is not sufficiently social. She can’t see people helping each other enough or feel a stream of conversation. She finds it a lonely place in need of some social glue. Some think this might be due to discussion being too distributed across the web. It was suggested that we approach the MOOC in the same way as attending a big conference, i.e. be selective about what to attend and who to connect with. And it was nice to see that one participant who appeared to feel isolated in Week 1 and was finding it difficult to form a team , seems to have made connections in Week 2

Some other interesting outcomes

  • A different approach to scenario creation – by Penny Bentley  (Click on the link to see the Slide Presentation) – But I did note that she has copyrighted her slides and this has made me wonder about the copyright implications of all the work that is being done in this MOOC.
  • Great thoughts about context by George Hobson –  In particular he writes – ‘There is a lot that we take for granted in schools. Context is one of them”. I wonder if this is true – or is it simply that after many years of teaching, context is integral to everything we do. Does that necessarily mean we take it for granted.
  • Finally I noted that David Jennings – whose original design intention interested me –  has had to change tack due to life circumstances overtaking him – see David Jennings Review of Week 2  –  I wonder how many other people this has happened to. I suspect that those who have a project that is directly related to their daily work will find it easier to see this course through to the end.

Week 3   is already half way through. Led by Gráinne Conole and co-facilitated by Rebecca Galley it is intended to introduce a range of representations that will help participant to conceptualise, share and critique their initial designs.