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Archbishop explores 'reason' in New Scientist

Saturday 26th July 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams explores the concept of 'reason' as part of a feature '7 reasons why people hate reason' in the latest issue of New Scientist magazine.

In the article, 'Reason stands against values and morals', the Archbishop discusses the role of reason through the ages.

The article text can be found below:

Until the early Middle Ages, being "reasonable" was primarily a matter of being aware of where you belonged in the cosmos. Today Reason has come to be seen as something exercised by an individual. But the convictions about human worth that lead, for example, to unconditional opposition to torture have more in common with that pre-modern "rationality" than the current kind.

In the pre-modern view, as a human being you were capable, unlike other creatures, of knowing who you were. You knew that you were given the task of using your freedom of choice to act coherently, in accordance with the whole flow of the universe or, more simply, the creative will of God.

To have the ability to shape your life in a certain way, rather than being governed by a system of instinct – impulse and reaction, in other words – was to have a share in the "rationale" of reality itself. Being reasonable was like singing in tune (an analogy the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome loved to use) with who you were and what the universe was like.

It was as early as the 12th century that this view was challenged by people such as the famous philosopher Peter Abelard who wanted to be clearer about reason's function in telling you what was or was not a good argument. This instrumental view of reason, as the ability to draw sensible conclusions from what was in front of your eyes instead of just reacting blindly, had been a smallish area of its meaning. As enquiry progressed, it steadily colonised the whole territory.

From the 16th century, reason came to be seen as opposed to tradition and authority. Faced with the expectation of believing something just because a particular sort of person said so, the reasonable person was now the one who asked: "What are the arguments for this?" Reason became a tool for protesting against the violence of arbitrary authority, and the great minds of the Enlightenment were confident that they were on the side of equality and universality: being reasonable was the heritage of each human person. Inherited habit and belief would always, they were sure, stand in the way of people growing into this universal heritage.

And thus in the early days of the French Revolution, the new regime tried to replace the traditional days of the week and months of the year with a new, "rational" calendar – an extreme of opposition between Reason and tradition. In assuming that the essence of being human was to be found in the capacity to argue your way to the truth, independently of any legacy from history or community, this Reason created a highly artificial model of humanity, more or less at odds with how most human beings actually lived.

The result was not an age of unprecedented equality and universal communication but a different sort of violence: by "real" human beings against the unreasonable remainder. There was a constant risk of slipping into the conclusion – plausible on the grounds of some sorts of Enlightenment thinking – that the unreasonable human being didn't count.

Revolutionary America and France lost no sleep over slavery. Humanity had to wait for another, more traditional sort of rationality, based on a vision of what human beings were in the eyes of God and in the frame of the cosmos, to see the slaves finally emancipated.

As defined by the Enlightenment, rationality could be a tool, not for protest, but for conformity to the agenda of those who saw themselves as fully qualified rational human beings, at the expense of the rest. Even gentle, wise Darwin could use language suggesting that some humans were less "developed", nearer their primate cousins, than others. That language was gleefully exploited by ideologues of empire and racial domination.

These are not grounds for overturning the entire legacy of Enlightenment, but for pausing before we assume that instrumental Reason will answer all the questions about how to shape a moral and humane world. Absolute convictions about human worth, those which prescribe unconditional opposition to experiments on non-consenting subjects, or to racial discrimination, are not simply generated by instrumental Reason. They have more in common with the pre-modern "rationality" of recognising oneself and one's fellow humans as standing together in a common relation with a certain kind of "order", a way things "just are" in the universe.

This recognition of commonality is at the simplest level what makes language possible. Instead of indulging in a pointless stand-off between Reason and conviction, perhaps we should ask how the meaning of reason can recover some resonance with those skills of self-knowledge and coherent or consistent choice which once belonged to the word. 

Article taken from New Scientist, 26 July 2008.

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