Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Being Reasonable

Looking up from his newspaper, my grand old man looked at me and asked will it not be a paradox to call ourselves a society of reasonable people. He wasn’t so much as expecting me to answer it as he was thinking aloud. I wasn’t entire sure what the statement meant. He went back to his newspaper after that and we haven’t talked of the topic again. I pondered over the question a few times in the following days, but couldn’t figure out the essence of it. It made itself clear to me a few days back when I was reading a book on Hitler. The author in the initial few chapters prods the reader to comprehend how a relatively modern and civilized society like Germany would not only allow but also in some cases enthusiastically participate in one of the worst kind of genocide the world has ever seen. I am usually apprehensive of such questions, as they invariable are used to find excuses for despicable acts. But what I realized was that there will always be an answer to such questions. There will always be a reason or in some case lame excuses, whatever you call them. They will be discovered and sometimes invented and dished out with fancy analysis for public consumption. It made me realize the compulsive need of the modern human to rationalize his actions and behavior. We are obligated to reason, the absence of which makes us uncomfortable. There in lies the paradox my grand old man talked about, having a reason but not always being reasonable.

Common sense may dictate that reasons come before an action or an idea, but that always isn’t true. Many a times we act and form ideas instinctively, based on experiences or prejudices, and then retrospectively form reasons to support our ideas. This retrospective reasoning is far too common than we realize. Have we not met people who are the first to form opinions but when approached with a countervailing idea will start manufacturing reasons right there in front of you. To be fair I have done it too. My manager had once asked me why I did a particular job in the manner I did. The real reason was I only knew one way of doing it. But I gave him the good reason, which was a complex mesh of some related and some unrelated things. Not entirely convinced he was, but sufficiently confused to leave the matter at that. Not only are we uncomfortable for not having a reason, we are also very sensitive to being corrected. So the exercise of making up reasons don’t stop, we just can’t accept that we were wrong in the first place. There seems nothing wrong with people who stick to their opinions firmly, but the flaw with retrospective reasoning is that they are derived from the conclusion and not the other way round. In such cases no other conclusion is logically possible. It restricts the ideas and opinions to pre-formed conclusion, based primarily on intuition. It is like me reviewing a Shah Rukh Khan movie, my verdict even before it is released: it is useless, don’t bother.

Reasoning, people will tell you, should be based on facts. This is true but only partly. Reasoning has to be done based on complete facts. Reasoning based on incomplete facts is equally flawed and in some cases more dangerous. One may pick and choose facts and events from history to form an opinion, while completely ignoring facts which counter or are inconsistent with my preferred opinion. Is it not the tool of most of our demagogue leaders of past and present. The use of rhetoric with carefully chosen facts to support a particular position has been a potent weapon in the hands of politicians around the world. So when one reasons with facts, one also has to make sure he has enough if not all the facts in place.

I was told in one of the soft skill lectures not to have assumptions, and then went on to read a book which asked can we have a day without assuming things. Like assuming that the sun will rise from the east tomorrow. This is surely taking the argument to absurd level but still it does impress upon us that assumptions can be made based on enough anecdotal or scientific evidence. Assumption is required and in some cases essential to move ahead. But an assumption cannot be your only reason for forming an opinion it has to be backed up by some fact or evidence. We find people around us all the time for whom their assumption and perceptions form the basis of their world view. Some of the worst forms of racism where based on assumptions of God’s choices and perceived dangers from the other race.

Karl Marx had said years ago that “Reason has always existed, but not always in reasonable form”. Looking at how much we have learned from our past mistakes, I think that his words will be true for many years to come.


mac said...

Do reasons always matter.. Sometimes, there is a reason we are not seeking a reason to do something.

Anonymous said...

Nice article - very thought provoking. I kind of agree with what MAC says here. Does reason always matter. Looking at the word 'reason' - We can interpret it differently. I.E when we say, there is a reason for whatever happens, we have to take a look at two components of the universe here - MAN and NATURE. Whatever happens in nature, right from the creation of stars and planets to higher order of mammals has a reason. In other words, there is an explanation for all that in different forms of science - be it asrtonomy or physilogy or paleontology.

But the same statement does not hold good for Man. Brain is a complex organ co-ordinating with many nerves, nerve endings and neurons. It is dictated by god-knows-what algorithms and it churns out hundreds of decisions based on past experiences and responses to stimuli. The more complex the brain structure (read more evolved the organism), even more convoluted is the algorithm. Thus reason is the last thing I would expect from human beings.

As a matter of fact, even animals, whom a few minutes back, I would have happily included as part of nature are sometimes closer to humans when it comes to reason. There is a reason why a Lion would hunt and kill a Wildbeest in Kalahaari. But why do Dogs kill Cats? We all know that Cat is not part of a Dog's diet. But then, as far as that activity goes, they do it just for the heck of it. Maybe it derives pleasure out of hunting a cat. Or maybe it is just that it inherited some of its hunting instincts from its ancestors and is not finding any other activities where it can put these instincts to use.

Coming back to man, and I am not sure how true I am in making this statement - 'Man's actions are dictated by a single reason - Benefit to himself/herself' . As you had mentioned in your article, man would try to base his decisions on facts but only those facts are conveniently used which suit him/her. It is more like economics - everyone has a utility curve - be it basket of goods or 'Basket of Deeds' and it is the payoff that matters. The payoff may be risk (to life, health, wealth of self/others)instead of money. So my point here is man with his comlpex brain would conveniently assume things, use those facts which suit him the most and thus maximise his benefits or lets say happiness. So can we say happiness is the reason for everythng, the UNIVERSAL REASON - maybe maybe not.

But again, how does all this matter in the larger scheme of things. Man himself will be extinct at some point of time and at that point of time billions or trillions of pages of human history or mass murders or for that matter acts of nature like volcanic eruptions and tsunamis won't matter.

A mother's love for her child, in any life form, be it Humans or Cows or Tigers or Pigs or for that matter even crocodiles, is the only animal activity I still find is unadulterated by reason.

PG said...

Dichotomy of etymology?

Reason and reasonable both arise out of the same word root, but alas, their meanings differ.

Reason works on the premise of causality. It is a mental faculty, and according to some authors like Taleb, a faulty one at that. Reason assumes that the cause produced the effect but we fail to factor in that there are chances that the most prized logic might suffer from data insufficiency, or in other words, incorrect or incomplete causality.

Being reasonable doesn't exactly allude to a person with reason. In modern connotation, as well as dictionaries it refers to a person who is sane/ moderate/ fair/ rational; essentially someone whose thoughts and hence actions transcends narrow confines (of dogma, causality etc) and allows space for something which might have got missed or misunderstood.

For e.g. a SRK fan like me might accuse you of bad taste or, if I am charitable enough, bad prejudice. Reasons for such an assumption galore- 20+ years, billions of fans etc etc. Since, I am one of them there is enough reason for me to hold on to this view. If, however, I am reasonable, I would allow for your aesthetic sensibilities. (I run the risk of diluting my logic with an example from cinema/ art where individual aesthetic is a given, but I used it as a semantic example of connotation)

PS: Grand old man: Dad or hubby?

PG said...

Just realised that my P.S. above turned out creepy since I didn't sign it.


Nehal said...

quite an interesting thought provoking read Pavitra… how we(humans and animals) reason things is indeed very strange and subjective in nature…

And what I comprehend from your blog is the need to find the answer for the basic question "how does the human brain work or reason things/actions ?". And this is something which is still largely unknown to mankind even with all the technology advancement, research work and intelligence we posses in the 21st century. In his comment, PV too seems to be rightly hinting at the brain being at the core of how all world species reason.

A few other interesting /comments/questions to find/answer on the way are:
1) Some of the decisions the brain makes spontaneously or instinctively. In such cases how does it reason out so quickly or does it reason out at all ? I feel retrospective reasoning would majorly come in play in such situations.

2) In other cases we take time to think, evaluate options and reason out before making decisions. How does the brain decide when to go for point 1 or point 2. And as you state, we need to base our reasoning on 'complete' facts. But then the next question is how does the brain know that the facts that it has or will have is actually "complete" and there is nothing more required/needed ? In this case it assumes it has all the info required to reason. And since different people have different knowledge levels they reason differently.

3) For thoughts around assumptions, another fundamental question to be asked first is 'why and when do we assume things" ? Infact you have answered it in your blog as 'not having enough anecdotal or scientific evidence'.

It is all the play of our tiny but complex brains :-). And also since this will still take many years to figure out, both you and Karl Marx are right on the money about the 'unknown' prevailing for many years to come :-)