Reason is the capacity for cognition, understanding, and the formation of judgments based upon logic or simply as the ability to think logically.1 Reasoning is the capacity or function of a conceptual system to process information and ideas according to an objectively consistent set of instructions. A valid reason is the output of this process. A central characteristic of reasoning, as opposed to other forms of thinking, is that it is based upon a coherent set of objective rules that govern the processing of information or ideas.
Reasoning can be contrasted with cognitive processes governed by a subjective set of rules. Subjective sets of rules are based upon or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.2 Subjective rules are dependent on the specific experience of the subject, the individual. A subject is a person or circumstance giving rise to a specified feeling, response, or action. Thus it is specific to that instance. In contrary objective means not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts, or not dependent on the specific subject for existence or actually.3
Whereas the term reasoning refers to a purely conceptual process, the term rationality is the embodiment of this process within some phenomena. Rational means based on or in accordance with reason.4 Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons for believing, of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action, or the design of something according to an objective set of instructions.5
To illustrate how reason and rationality relate one might think about the so-called Age of Reason. An age in European history that developed during the mid-1600s largely as a product of the new found knowledge deriving from the scientific revolution. This knowledge was based on a relatively objective set of rules, those of mathematics and scientific inquiry, that can be tested by anyone.6 Based upon this new knowledge European countries developed a whole new set of rational institutions, institutions that are based upon an objective set of instructions such as a constitution or modern legal code. These rules are publicly available for everyone to question and they are thought to derive from a coherent and objective body of knowledge.
This may be contrasted with the previous political regime that was based on a more subjective set of rules. The previous institutions of the Middle Ages were based largely upon the rules of an absolute monarchy and aristocracy which are largely subjective interpretations. Equally, the moral code of a religion is often based largely on the subjective revelation of an individual or few individuals. Again this could be contrasted to a moral code based upon reason, as were developed during the Enlightenment such as utilitarianism, that provides a set of rules that are designed to enable the maximum utility for the maximum number of people, which is a logical reason to their foundation and makes them rational institutions.7
Reason and Faith
Faith and reason are both sources of authority upon which beliefs can be founded. Reason commonly is understood as the principles for a methodological inquiry, it involves some kind of algorithmic process whereby the end product is generated, this process can then be demonstrated. Once demonstrated, a proposition or claim is ordinarily understood to be justified as true or authoritative. Faith, on the other hand, involves a stance toward some claim that is not, at least presently, demonstrable by reason. Thus faith is a kind of attitude of trust or assent. As such, it is ordinarily understood to involve an act of will or a commitment on the part of the believer. Religious faith involves a belief that makes some kind of implicit, or explicit, reference to a transcendent source.8
Reason and Intuition
Equally, one can contrast reasoning with knowledge or thinking based on intuition and tradition. Trying to validate a concept based on intuition is largely a closed self-referential process. “Why do you believe such and such? Because I feel it is right! Why do you feel it is right? Because it feels right!” With intuition, the insight is subjective and not generalizable in the way that a conclusion drawn through a process of logical reasoning is. The same is true of tradition, with tradition as a foundation for knowledge and practice something is true or justified because it has stood the test of time. However, this conservative logic is a self-reinforcing loop because as long as people are conservative whatever existed in the past will be perpetuated and become more valid without any reason for being so except people’s belief in tradition. This logic is not referring to anything outside of itself for validation, and thus it is subjective. Truth cannot be its own validation.
Subjective concepts are relative only to a particular context or environment. For example, the knowledge of many traditional cultures around the world is specific to those cultures. Their knowledge of how to catch fish or why the sky is blue is only applicable or maintainable within their physical or socio-cultural environment. While other cultures have other technical and spiritual beliefs that differ due to their development within a different context.
To generate new knowledge, to gain greater insight that is relevant within a broader environment it is necessary to bring disparate insights, opinions or perspectives together and in some way resolve their contradictions and differences to reach a deeper understanding. The process of doing this is called an argument. An argument is a process whereby divergent ideas or opinions are brought into contact and interact with the intent of inferring a conclusive single global outcome. Arguments can take two basic forms, fights or debates, depending on whether they are based on force or the process of reasoning.
Fighting is a form of argumentation that involves the usage of physical force. The use of force can remove all opposition to some kind of subjective concept or opinion through a variety of forms such as physically destroying the dissenters, repression or some form of exclusion so that one side of the argument is not able to be developed or heard. However, this will only temporally resolve the issue; it has not been overcome by creating a synthesis, the same flaws in one side’s argument remain. The result is essentially going round in circles, using fear, intimidation, and violence to remove dissent and perpetuating the limits in one side’s logic.
Everyone has feelings and opinions, reasoned arguments – what are call debates – though, expose these to a process for finding common ground and consensus without resorting to violence. This illustrates the linkage between reason and democracy. Democracy is designed to create the space for debate without resorting to violence in order to find resolutions to disparate opinions. This is in contrast to authoritarian systems that use the former method, of fear, intimidation, and violence, for removing dissent. Just as reason is a delicate and fragile balancing act, true democracy is likewise. Debates involve members with divergent opinions or perspectives communicating a reason or set of reasons for their opinion with the implicit or explicit aim of persuading others that an action or idea is valid.9
This form of collective reasoning may also be called a dialect. The dialectical method is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned argument.10 The term dialectic is not synonymous with the term debate. While in theory debaters are not necessarily emotionally invested in their point of view, in practice debaters frequently display an emotional commitment that may cloud rational judgment. Debates are won through a combination of persuading the opponent, proving one’s argument correct, or proving the opponent’s argument incorrect. Debates do not necessarily require promptly identifying a clear winner or loser; however clear winners are frequently determined by either a judge, jury, or by group consensus. The term dialectics is also not synonymous with the term rhetoric, a method or art of discourse that seeks to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience.11
With reason we are are trying to take what is unknown, or has a number of possible explanations and creating a consensus on what is known, what we call knowledge. In this way trying to develop an integrated picture or explanation for events and in order to do that, we have to recognize disparate knowledge, opinions, and information. Dialectic discourse is one process for doing this as it tries to develop knowledge by synthesizing divergence perspectives.
The development of the process of reason requires an open space. Within an individual, this is essentially an acceptance of not knowing, the possibility of a number of plausible explanations and a process of balanced inquiry. Within an organization or society, this requires some form of open public place for communications where diverse opinions and perspectives are encouraged or at least tolerated. The Greece forum being a classical example of this or the rise of public spaces that came about with the modern era and particularly the Age of Enlightenment.
Reasoning essentially means letting go of what we know and developing a system for generating knowledge based on a coherent and objective set of rules. As such uncertainty plays an important part in this process, in fact, is has to be the initial condition. If we already know everything there is no point in reasoning. If we want to generate new knowledge we have to be open to uncertainty and not knowing, one has to suspend judgment and “knowing” until we have performed this process of inquiry. As the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce stated it “upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already inclined to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.”
Because reason is a process that gives some form of objective validation to a statement or way of being, people often desire the end product – that is the objective validation of reason – without conducting the process properly or wholly. Reasoning is a process, processes create, transform or change things in some way. Thus we can not know, or should not know what the outcome to the process of reasoning will be. If we already know the answer, then the process of reasoning is simply a process of looking for validation to the answer that we already have. If we want to use reasoning to create new knowledge, then we can not already know what it is we are looking for. Reason is an open and dynamic form of conceptual system. To reason is to be open to a number of outcomes; it is to conduct an inquiry without knowing what the end result will be.
A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning in the construction of an argument. A fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is. Some fallacies are committed intentionally to manipulate or persuade by deception, while others are committed unintentionally due to carelessness or ignorance.12
Most of what we think we know is a product of our local environment. People typically adopt the information and knowledge presented to them by their culture with little questioning. People’s opinions typically fit in with their environment, and this has many advantages regarding reduction in cognitive workload and reducing social friction. Thus there is always a tension between this open-ended process of reasoning and the existing status quo, of what already exists within our environment, the desire to not diverge from the pre-existing establishment. The desire for conformity is a primary way that we manipulate the process of reasoning. We limit the set of possible outcomes to those that we desire before engaging in the process. Confirmation bias is a good example of this; we are simply using the process of reasoning to confirm a certain class of outcomes that we already know and thus endorse our preconceptions.
People often use data to support a particular argument by only selecting the particular data, or a particular aspect of it, that will result in the desired outcome. The use of data to simply confirm one’s preconceptions is a very common act. This is particularly attractive because it looks highly objective, both the data and the process of reasoning may be valid but still the process has been manipulated to create a certain result, due to the constraints and limitations on the input to the process. Knowledge can not be established by incorporating it as part of the question – this is called begging the question – in such a case we are simply engaged in a process of maintaining the status quo and using the process of reasoning to do so. This is a highly prevalent phenomenon in our world, particularly in domains where there are deep vested interests, such as politics, business and many areas of everyday life.
Egoism and Reasoning
Reason displaces our subjective interest as being at the center of the world and replaces it with some objective rules defined by our environment. Thus displacing the subject as the central reference point, to becoming merely a part of a larger system. This is most clearly illustrated with the Copernican Revolution at the beginning of the modern era. Which, through observation rather than dogma, displaced humans and planet Earth from the center of the universe. Through careful observation of our broader environment and the rules that govern it we now understand that we are not at the center of the Universe.
Reasoning is a commitment to creating justifiable knowledge. True reasoning is a delicate and sensitive balancing process. It requires that one as an individual, community or society adhere to some objective set of rules. The rise of reasoning during the modern era has made everything open to inquiry through thinking, within modern rational societies everything is seen to be subject to reason. A society or individual governed by reason is one that continuously challenges and tests its most firmly held assumptions. To think and reason is to be on an open-ended journey where anything is open to question, proven or disproven, and if disproven has to be let go. This dynamic open-ended journey is one of the characteristics of the modern era, being one of the hallmarks that distinguish it from previous more traditional societies based on subjective insight. Relative to traditional societies modern societies are highly dynamic. Like science, modern societies are on an open-ended journey, and part of being a modern society is to leave behind the comforts of certainty based upon tradition.