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.