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Rationality and Human Behavior

Written by Donald CalneAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Donald Calne

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On Sale: February 10, 2010
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49330-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

It has long been a central conviction of western humanistic thought that reason is the most godlike of human traits, and that it makes us unique among animals. Yet if reason directs what we do, why is human behavior so often violent, irrational and disastrous?

In Within Reason, leading neurologist Donald B. Calne investigates the phenomenon of rationality from an astonishingly wide array of scientific, sociological, and philosophical perspectives--and shows that although reason evolved as a crucial tool for human survival, it is an aspect of mind and brain which has no inherent moral or spiritual qualities and one whose relationship to our thoughts and actions may not be as central as we want to believe. Learned, lucid, and always illuminating, Within Reason brings together the latest developments in the science of mind with some of the most enduring questions of Western thought.

Excerpt

Introduction

When I was young, I was taught that education was important because without it we would be doomed to stupid behavior and opinions based upon prejudice. Educated people, I was told, were able to make wise decisions and to distinguish between right and wrong because they had the power of reason available to them. I grew up during the Second World War, and one of my most vivid childhood memories was a kaleidoscope of movie images shown in British schools in 1946, depicting the Nazi death camps. I was puzzled, for I had been led to believe that these atrocities were the irrational work of barbarians whose evil stemmed from ignorance. Yet I was also taught that Germany was distinguished by a history of outstanding reason, expressed in philosophy, music, poetry, science, and technology. If what I had been told about wisdom coming from education was true, how was it possible that Germany, the home of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Leibniz, and Kant, could become a nation driven by hatred and complicit in the worst crimes against humanity that the world had ever seen? The conflict remained with me and gradually matured into a series of questions. Does reason direct what we do? If we think more, do we behave better? In short, could the nightmare of the Second World War have been avoided if the leaders of National Socialism had acquired, in some miraculous way, a sudden capacity for more reason?

Sadly, the facts do not support this. The intellectuals of Germany were among the first to embrace National Socialism. Wagner and Nietzsche blazed the trail in the nineteenth century, and by 1933 large numbers of university faculty were ready to champion National Socialist ideology. Other representatives of the educated classes, the lawyers and the physicians, and even more practical leaders, the industrialists, joined the throng. Many Europeans outside Germany looked on with approval. In some respects Hitler was expressing a widespread and influential sentiment that permeated the thinking of European intellectuals. The National Socialist movement was not conceived by ignorant people; its roots lay in the intelligentsia. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that if the leaders of National Socialism had achieved a dramatic increase in their capacity for reasoning in 1939, their regime would simply have pursued its policies with a more intelligent war machine; the goals would not have changed. National aggrandizement, territorial expansion, and institutionalized racism would have continued with more efficient weapons. The management of the "final solution of the Jewish question" was entirely dependent upon the ability to harness a product of reason -- modern technology -- to the problem of mass transportation, the safe manufacture and containment of Zyklon B, and the engineering of incinerators that could be fueled by the continuous ignition of melting human tissues.

Yet there was a paradox: vital resources were committed to the "final solution" though this diversion of manpower and material weakened the war effort. The German armies were in full retreat on all fronts. How can one make sense of this subversion of effort? The assembly of historical facts seems to amount to a grotesque concoction of reason with unreason. These events of my childhood kindled a deep personal curiosity about why people do things. The curiosity stayed with me, and as the war receded, my questions took a more general form. Have people all over the world been so irrational throughout history, and if so, why? I was assuming a natural tendency for us to be rational, but where is the evidence for this? I rephrased the questions into a more approachable form: What do we know about reason and the way we use it?

To pursue my curiosity, I began to look for information. Where possible, I have taken the position of a neurologist, because I happen to be a neurologist, but also because neurology gives a close-up view of some of nature's harshest but most illuminating experiments -- injuries that damage different parts of the brain. Strokes, tumors, and trauma may isolate and destroy one particular mental capacity, leaving everything else intact. Nature's disasters can thus help to explain how the brain works and shed some light on the instrument that stands at the center of the intellect: human reason.

I have taken to heart Francis Bacon's dictum that "truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion". Where evidence is indefinite, I have tried to find the most probable position, recognizing that it may ultimately prove to be wrong. My exploration has led me to a conclusion that was somewhat unexpected. Reason is a biological product -- a tool whose power is inherently and substantially restricted. It has improved how we do things; it has not changed why we do things. Reason has generated knowledge enabling us to fly around the world in less than two days. Yet we still travel for the same purposes that drove our ancient ancestors -- commerce, conquest, religion, romance, curiosity, or escape from overcrowding, poverty, and persecution.

To deny that reason has a role in setting our goals seems, at first, rather odd. A personal decision to go on a diet or take more exercise appears to be based upon reason. The same might be said for a government decision to raise taxes or sign a trade treaty. But reason is only contributing to the "how" portion of these decisions; the more fundamental "why" element, for all of these examples, is driven by instinctive self-preservation, emotional needs, and cultural attitudes. We are usually reluctant to admit the extent to which these forces govern our behavior, and accordingly we often recruit reason to explain and justify our actions. The transparency of our efforts is revealed by the term we have coined for covering up this irrational behavior: rationalization.


The rest of this chapter outlines some of the hopes for reason and some of the disappointments. In chapter 2 I develop a working definition of "reason." I deliberately avoid concentrating on any one aspect of reasoning, such as the psychological process of making decisions. If I pursued a narrow area in depth, I would thwart my attempt to view the whole picture of reason's place in human life, so in subsequent chapters I have included a wide range of topics, taking each "to only one decimal place" to keep the totality of rational behavior in perspective.

Since reason and language are so closely linked, I devote chapter 3 to delving into linguistics and the evidence that under exceptional circumstances neurological disease can separate reason from language. In chapter 4 I trace the development of social organization, for there is now a body of evidence suggesting that intelligence evolved from the need for individuals to cooperate in order to survive. In chapters 5 through 11, I follow the role of reason in the creation and maintenance of our most hallowed institutions: morality, commerce, government, religion, art, and science. In the remaining chapters I look at how reason operates in the human brain and mind.

Reason, like instinct and emotion, has evolved to facilitate the attainment of biological goals. Curiously, we have often found it easy to use reason in a harmful way. Chekhov's prophetic words, written a century ago, have a contemporary ring: "Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he's been given. But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life's become extinct, the climate's ruined, and the land grows poorer and uglier every day."

We proclaim that the disastrous events of the two world wars will not be repeated, but the same forces that led to those tragedies persist today, barely beneath the surface. Contemporary examples are, unfortunately, abundant: the death of 30 million Chinese as a result of political mismanagement committed under the ironic slogan of "The Great Leap Forward," the killing fields in Cambodia, the slaughter of Kurds in Iraq, the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, and the tribal massacres in Rwanda. The list is long and continues to grow.

The evidence compels the conclusion that in spite of our capacity for reason, we remain tied to the motivation provided by our biological drives and cultural attitudes. In these circumstances I argue a humanist position informed, even guided, by recognition of the limits of reason. To place reason in perspective, we should take it down from the pedestal upon which expectations of supremacy have placed it. When we do this, we find that in many ways reason is like language, for both are highly complex instruments developed for biological purposes. They help us to achieve what we want, without having any real impact on why we decide what we want. Both operate unobtrusively; we take both for granted.






Hope and Disappointment

In the past, reason has been given the status of an independent, external and ultimate authority, with the ability to confer wisdom and goodness. Like a deity, reason was conceived as all-powerful. The ascent of reason began when the ancient Greeks surveyed the universe and attempted to sort out the confusion of ideas that had accumulated over previously known history. The Greeks were not the first to pay attention to reason, but they used it more extensively than anyone had before, raising rational discourse to an exalted status. Sophocles caught the spirit of his times in a single line: "Reason is god's crowning gift to man". Aristotle echoed this view a century later: "For man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and most pleasant, since reason more than anything else is man". In Rome, Cicero proclaimed that "reason is the ruler and queen of all things". Similar views were forming in India, and in China Confucius was on the same track.

This early optimism proved to be transient. After a few centuries of achievement, the first age of reason went into a prolonged decline in Europe. Knowledge became a product generated from a priori principles; it was divorced from observation, but it carried the authority of unquestionable certainty. Intellectual innovation in the West slowed down for over fifteen hundred years, although in the East reason was burgeoning. The Islamic world made notable advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and architecture. Akbar the Great, Moghul emperor of India from 1560 to 1605, declared, "The superiority of man rests on the jewel of reason".

Commerce and the Reformation weakened the traditional power of the church and the monarchies in Europe, and the great minds of the Renaissance broke through the mental barriers imposed over the Middle Ages. In England, Shakespeare planted reason firmly in the thoughts of Hamlet:

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason,
To rust in us unused.
(Act IV, sc. 4)


Once released in Europe, reason leapt forward. It drove science, art, and literature; during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the surge of intellectual innovation and critical inquiry gave a distinctive name to the epoch, the Enlightenment. The tone was set by the "stern pursuit of accurate knowledge based on evidence, logic, and probability in preference to the colourful confusion of myth and legend that had satisfied a less critical age". In science, reason demanded linkage between observation and theory, and this gave a new order to the world. In the words of Isaac Newton: "Science consists in discovering the frame and operations of Nature, and reducing them, as far as may be, to general rules and laws -- establishing these rules by observations and experiments, and thence deducing the causes and effects of things." Experiments were designed to test hypotheses; if the hypotheses could not be disproved, they were incorporated into the growing body of knowledge and applied -- to engineering, architecture, medicine, and back into science. Émile Borel depicted the excitement of a people testing a tool of immense power: "The real inspiration of this splendid epic, the conquest of the world by man, is the faith in human reason, the conviction that the world is not ruled by blind gods or laws of chance, but by rational laws."

Startling advances in understanding how the physical world worked were accompanied by social upheavals.  In political philosophy, Baruch Spinoza asserted that the purpose of the state was "to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a free reason; that they may not waste their strength in hatred, anger and guile, nor act unfairly toward one another". New political ideas erupted to produce reforms that rocked the foundations of traditional dynasties. Monarchies were replaced by democracies and the Industrial Revolution fueled the turmoil. The face of European society was transformed. As a result of these changes, faith in reason reached its zenith toward the end of the nineteenth century. For the Victorians, anything was possible. Time and again reason "worked," so for many it became a new god, possessed of great powers and intrinsic virtue. The most direct expression of reason was science, which seemed invincible. Science and reason together would rid the world of poverty, disease, and ignorance; they would vanquish prejudice and superstition; they would lead to a coherent explanation for everything under -- and beyond -- the sun.

The hopes were not fulfilled. In the twentieth century, two devastating world wars, numerous small wars, and recurrent economic instability sapped confidence and optimism. The pendulum began to swing against reason and now the opposition is coalescing. The recoil from reason takes on the aspect of a surreal motion picture. The growing strength of cults, religious fundamentalism, and political extremism reflects this disenchantment. Unreason flourishes with the rise and increasing popular authority of clairvoyants, spiritualists, astrologers, faith healers, devotees of alternative medicine, and new age extraterrestrial communicators. These exponents of unreason are irrational because they reject, deny, or misinterpret relevant information that is available through observation. Widespread anti-intellectual forces denounce science as a regressive influence driving imperialism and militarism -- even sexism and racism. A new and fashionable view holds that science is a subjective, culturally determined ideology with nothing "real" behind it. The letter of invitation to the Nobel Conference XXV, held in 1989, warns: "As we study our world today, there is an uneasy feeling that we have come to the end of science, that science, as a unified, universal, objective endeavor, is over." The problem is not confined to science; there is a fragmentation of public support for all academic activity. Governments have lost interest in the university and its potential. The Chinese Cultural Revolution showed how easily political forces can exploit anti-intellectual sentiments into a massive popular movement capable of destroying art, science, and medicine. The onslaught against reason in China was all the more alarming because it achieved such sweeping success in a nation whose historical roots are steeped in art, science, and medicine -- whose people were pioneers of reason.

Why have so many turned against reason? There are several explanations, but among the foremost must be failure of the quixotic hopes vested in it. Reason was misrepresented as an all-powerful, divine force, with its own supreme mission. In fact, it has no aim and no inherent goodness. Reason is simply and solely a tool, without any legitimate claim to moral content. It is a biological product fashioned for us by the process of evolution, to help us survive in an inhospitable and unpredictable physical environment. It is also a tool to enable us to compete with other animals that are larger, faster, and stronger, with longer claws and more powerful jaws.

These may seem hostile allegations -- that reason is, by its nature, always constrained to provide a service rather than set a policy -- but I do not intend to slight or defame reason. Indeed, my strongest argument is that we must make every effort to exercise and preserve the faculty of reason. This task has become a challenge because reason has been discredited by exaggerated claims and false hopes. Those who oppose reason have no difficulty in pointing to its failures, but these failures have all stemmed from misguided expectations. The hopes sprang from natural, if reckless, optimism -- without critical thought about the nature of reason and without recognizing the need to clarify what reason can and cannot do.

The record needs to be set straight. To this end we can start by asking what reason is, where it came from, and what it does. As we begin to examine reason, we soon feel the breadth of its influence in our lives. A microscope, concentrating on one small area, does not have an adequate field of vision. A wide-angle lens must be used to gain perspective. We need to survey an extensive array of human endeavors in order to discern the full extent of reason's presence in human life. The evidence I cite will inescapably be far-ranging but not, I hope, flawed on that account.

As the book's chapter titles indicate, my survey is indeed broad -- some might argue too broad to say anything new or significant. But my purpose will have been served if, in the course of this book, the reader comes to accept its central, all-important, though perhaps deeply counterintuitive argument: that the mental faculty of reason is a real, specifiable, and indispensable human capability active in most domains of human existence but that it cannot assign or control the purposes to which it is put. I look at a wide assortment of human endeavors to show both rationality's functioning within each domain and simultaneously to note its inability to supply the purpose of the power it confers. My conclusion is easily stated but difficult to put into practice. I argue both that human reason must be vigorously defended against the growing forces of unreason in the contemporary world and, simultaneously, that the reliance upon it to supply the content of human motivation must be given up. Only such double awareness of the human faculty of reason can prevent the disenchantments and resentments that inevitably result from misplaced hope.
Donald Calne

About Donald Calne

Donald Calne - Within Reason
Donald B. Calne is director of the Neurodegenerative Disorders Center at Vancouver Hospital and professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.
Praise

Praise

"A brilliant dissection of reason and its essential limitations--a neurologist's Critique of Reason."--Oliver Sacks

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