The “Limits of Reason” Meme

A number of papers have turned up in the scientific literature lately concerning innate aspects of human mental processes that can impair our ability to discover truth, such as this one by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Not unpredictably, the human mental processes described in these papers have been conflated with “reason,” spawning a meme about the limits thereof. A representative artifact of the phenomena recently appeared in Newsweek, entitled “Limits of Reason.” Expect more of the same. No matter that there are obvious differences between “reason” defined as a systematic method for discovering truth and “reason” defined as a mental process specific to human beings, the notion that there are “limits to reason” is so seductive that many people are unlikely to notice. For example, blind religious faith becomes more justifiable if “reason” is useless. Moral biases of every stripe can be fobbed off as “legitimate” if the power of “reason” to challenge them is denied. The “Age of Reason” itself can be dismissed with a hand wave as an effort in futility.

Well, memes eventually run their course, and I doubt this one will be any different. Meanwhile, I will continue to favor reason as the most effective, albeit occasionally flawed, means of discovering truth. So far no one has come up with anything that is demonstrably better.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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