The Fall semester is spinning up, although for me the summer semester never spun down. I’ve chaired a search committee, concluded my summer class, been part of the massive return to our renovated building, and have been attending meetings and advising. This, not surprisingly, has had an impact on my blogging. As such, I’ll just be able to ramble for a short bit today.
Writing about the evolution of irrationality got me thinking about the value of reason. Since I am a philosopher and make a living by teaching people to reason, it is natural that I would regard reason as valuable. However, it is well worth inquiring into the matter.
As I mentioned in my post on the evolution of irrationality, I tell my students that people often use fallacies and poor reasoning because they are effective means of persuasion. So, if you want to get someone to believe something or buy a product, then using a fallacy or rhetorical tool will generally be more effective than taking the effort to craft a well reasoned argument. To put it crudely, syllogisms do not sell beer and modus ponens never got a politician elected.
However, reason is useful even in regards to persuasion. After all, even if a person is employing fallacies and rhetoric to sway others, she would benefit from reasoning about what methods to employ to reach her ends. As such, reason has value even for those who might claim that the power to persuade is greater.
Also, while poor reasoning might serve as an effective means of persuasion, it serves poorly as a means of sorting out exactly what people should be persuaded to believe. Methods of persuasion serve good ideas as readily as bad ideas. They also serve the true and effectively as the false.
While people can persuade others to accept bad or false ideas, persuasion does not alter the nature of those ideas from bad to good or from false to true. Obviously enough, people who go through life on the basis of false and bad ideas are likely to run afoul because of these beliefs. This points to another use of reason.
While poor reasoning can be an effective tool of persuasion and hence desirable to some, people also have to consider that they will be on the receiving end of such persuasion. As such, to avoid being duped, deluded or misled they will need to use reason to pierce through the poor reasoning and avoid being taken in by it. Of course, while those who rely on persuasion no doubt value reason as a defense against their fellows, they would prefer that others were lacking in it.