113 - On The Independence Of Reason - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You asked the question with such seeming innocence, “Does reason exist as an independent thing?” I wonder if you know how important this question is. That we have arrived at the crux of what we have been discussing and the implications of the answer are far-reaching. Well, I need not build up your expectations for a grand answer too quickly. Let me rather start constructing the framework more modestly from the ground up.
To ask whether reason exists independently is to question whether it depends on the person or on the situation. In other words, will two people looking at the same situation come to the same well-reasoned conclusions? Will one person looking at two situations at different times come to the same conclusions both times? Does it matter who applies reason, what is the context, and what are the consequences of a decision?
Another way to ask the question is this. Assume we had before us a person of perfect wisdom, whose ability to apply the reason of their well-ordered mind was reliably demonstrated, Socrates say. Could Socrates tell us the reasoned answer to every situation, for every person, every time? And assuming we have no trouble believing this to be the case, now ask yourself the question, “Would Aristotle agree in every case with Socrates?”
If two wise persons do not agree every time in every detail, is it the fault of the wise persons, or the fault of the situations they are discussing, or the fault of reason itself? So is the wise person not truly wise, in that their thinking has not attained true reason at least in part? Are some situations simply amenable to unvarying answers? Or is reason an entirely independent thing that gives us a consistent answer regardless of who applies it?
Having reflected on these questions, it seems to me on first glance that the teachings of philosophy and law suggest different answers to the question. The philosophy of human thought has been a story of evolution, with ideas being proposed, debated, and refined by successive generations. If nothing else, our understanding of the physical world has advanced significantly, relegating early scientific theories to quaint historical footnotes. And our understanding of the workings of the mind is also far advanced, though there remains much we cannot explain. This suggests a progression towards more perfect reason, rather than simply describing its operation.
But philosophers are not shy about suggesting their ideas are not just correct directionally, but also absolutely. You will no doubt recall how many times have I given you instruction by exhortation rather than entreaty. Did you understand me all this time to be making mere suggestions for your improvement rather than commandments on how to live a good life? No, although they may disagree vehemently with one another, individual philosophers have not been shy about saying that they have found basic truths that apply in all circumstances.
Is this yet another paradox for which philosophy is famous? Not necessarily, Deuteros. Although it is certainly possible that two sure-minded philosophers are both wrong, it is equally possible that they are both right. “Now you are confusing me. How can you resolve a paradox with another paradox?” I am not trying to be clever here. Consider that when two philosophers appear to disagree, they are often starting from different premises or describing alternative cases. Much of what frustrates me about philosophical debates is that they devolve into petty disagreements about the meaning of words. Words have meaning, but if your case hinges on the definition of one word and mine depends on another, then it is more likely we are doing little more than talking past each other and missing the underlying truth.
I think this also explains the approach taken by the law. I said earlier that law and philosophy seem to supply different answers. In philosophers you will find many who say “I have found the answer, and it is this.” In law you will hear rather “Reasonable minds can disagree.” People think lawyers are not humble, but in this case I have to concede that the lawyers’ approach is the more modest one. But I give no profession a free pass, and for the moment I want you to consider that the statements of both philosophy and law are wrong.
Philosophy is wrong insofar as it suggests there is but one answer. Take the hard science of math, which is built upon firm logical ground. Math is full of equivalents. These are terms or statements that represent a certain value and may be substituted for one another. Why should something so complex as human affairs permit only a single, unvarying answer? Could there be many solutions to a problem, all equally correct? It is not so much that my answer is right and your answer is wrong, so much as perhaps both answers are right because they are equivalent. If the purpose of philosophy is to help people lead good lives, then should not the answers offered up be as varied as the people they are supposed to aid?
As appealing as this line of thought is, Deuteros, we should be careful in pursuing it too far. For you are but a single step away from saying reason is relative. That it depends not only on the situation, but on the person, and thus must be entirely subjective. If a solution works for a person, then it works. This person finds relief in reading, that person in shopping, another in drinking – they are each happy and who are we to say they are wrong? But this means there is no fundamental reason, just pragmatism applied to wishful thinking. I say it is a step too far to conclude all answers are valid just because there may be more than one valid answer.
So do the lawyers have the better take? When they say “reasonable minds can disagree,” they do not mean that any interpretation is valid, but that there may be more than one reasonable interpretation. An objective judge or jury can still audit the chain of thought and see which conclusions reasonably follow. If philosophers are criticized for assuming one answer applies to all situations, lawyers make another mistake: they assume one situation can permit many answers.
The fact that reasonable minds can differ is not because there are multiple interpretations of the same facts, but that the same situation has multiple facts in play. So Lawyer A strings together a line of facts that support Conjecture A, and Lawyer B pulls a related but different set of facts from the same situational soup and finds the ingredients for Conjecture B. They are both being reasonable in constructing their logical arguments. But they are not arguing different conclusions from the same facts, rather different conclusions from different facts.
“I am now thoroughly confused,” you say. “You have told me philosophers are wrong for saying that a single solution applies in all cases, and lawyers are wrong in saying reason can be applied differently to the same facts. How does this help answer the question of whether reason exists independently, which I am now rather regretting asking you?” Do not despair, my dear Deuteros. The conclusion of my argument is near at hand, as is the conclusion of today’s letter.
What squabbling philosophers and squabbling lawyers have in common when they disagree is that they are arguing different cases (always assuming they are dealing honestly). Socrates and Aristotle would come to the same conclusion if they were presented with the same facts in the same way. The reason is, in my view, that reason is not subjective. It only seems so because it is always interpreted by us as individuals. This person may have a harder time letting go of possessions because of their upbringing, the habits and vices they inculcate, and the friends they surround themselves with. That person may find it all too easy to scorn public opinion because they never found public favor, and so placed little value on it.
Just as the situations we each face inevitably differ, we each have a unique history that creates the personal conditions we bring to each situation. Virtue is found in neither the person nor their situation, but in their application of reason to their situation. And this reason, I posit, never changes. A wise person’s reasoned judgment must come to the same conclusion when presented with the same facts. When everything appears relative, it is only the observer that changes, and not the fundamental forces that apply to our actions.
Hence, I conclude that reason does exist independently and absolutely. It is our individuality that tricks us into wanting to give reason a sliding scale of application. Apply your judgment to every situation by listening to reason and not emotion, and you will not be so easily led astray.