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Reason and its Limits A Letter to Resurgence.

There are many values in our society that are hidden from view by being taken for granted. One way they are hidden is by people believing (as John Seymour does in his article in your July–August issue) that reason-alone can lead to bad actions, when in fact these actions come from bad values. It is not reason-alone that leads to a justification of an action, but reason-alone applied to values. As a mathematician I am used to working with reason-alone in my professional life, but I always begin with clearly stated initial assumptions. I know that reason-alone can never tell us to take any action; it can only say that we should take certain actions if we want to achieve certain ends, or if we hold certain views of life. Indeed, I am not sure that there is such an entity as reason-alone; there is only reason applied to certain things. Even in mathematics interest in a result (and even understanding of it) is certainly not a matter of reason-alone.

John Seymour says "Reason-alone is not what made me go in for organic farming. I could get far richer if I turned to chemical farming." This sounds as if he thinks that reason-alone would lead him to farm chemically. But the most that reason-alone could actually tell him is "If I want to get rich by farming, I should use chemical methods, not organic ones." The error he attributes to reason-alone is in reality due to the hidden assumption that getting rich is of major importance. He also says "Reason-alone would probably tell me to cram hens into wire cages. I could make a lot of money and give it to the RSPCA." The hidden assumption here is probably the idea of achieving "the greatest good for the greatest number", and so it is acceptable to harm some creatures in order to benefit more of them (I think this can sometimes be true, but always needs looking at carefully).

It is also a misunderstanding to say that "Reason-alone has made man believe there is no God." A correct understanding would at most say "If we believe the commonly-held everyday conception of the universe, or the scientific view of the universe, then there is no God." (I don't myself think that reason-alone does say this, though perhaps it might.) If faith, or personal experience, leads someone to conclude that there is a God, it makes good sense, even by the light of reason-alone, to conclude that the commonly-held everyday conception of the universe and the scientific view of the universe are not correct.

Resurgence, November–December 1979
© Daniel Cohen

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