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The Carletonian

A Critique of pure reason

<min Franklin, our oft remembered founding father was once on a boat ride along the Atlantic Coast. He was standing out on the deck, smelling the sea breeze when another aroma wafted into his whiffing nostrils. It was the smell of roasting fish. The crew of the boat had caught some fish off the side and were grilling them up for lunch. Franklin’s mouth began to water.

The problem was that Franklin had recently decided to become a vegetarian. No meat, no fish, no nothing. He stood there on the deck, smelling the delicious odors of the cooking fish, and using every ounce of his willpower to keep from asking for a piece.

Then something miraculous happened. A crew member caught another fish, a big one, and sliced open its belly to prepare it for cooking. Inside the belly of the fish were a number of smaller fish.

“Aha,” thought Franklin, “if these fish eat each other, then I can certainly be justified in eating fish this one time.” He joined the crew, who happily offered him some fish which he wolfed down with the utmost satisfaction.

“The best part about being a reasonable man,” Franklin wrote in his journal that night, “is that one can come up with a reason to do absolutely anything.”

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?

This thought experiment was used in a study by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He wanted to see what reasons people used for the long-standing taboo on incest. Many people pointed out the genetic dangers of inbreeding, only to be reminded that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control. Many people argued it would destroy their relationship, even though the story clearly states they felt closer afterward.

Eventually most participants in the study ended up saying something to the effect of “I can’t explain why. It’s just wrong.”

Haidt concluded that most of the “reasons” people came up with about why incest was bad were created after-the-fact to rationally justify their instinctually negative emotional response. These reasons often had little to do with the person’s initial revulsion at the mention of incest. Their feelings would probably be much better phrased: “The idea of sleeping with my brother/sister disgusts me,” although there is likely a healthy dose of “my culture says it’s wrong” in there too.

Emotional responses and rational justifications happen in different parts of the brain. However, when we explain our actions and thoughts to others, we almost always use the language of rational thought, even if the cause is emotional. This process of spontaneous creation of rational justifications for gut feelings is called ‘confabulation.’

In 1991, Timothy Wilson performed a study on jam, the tastier cousin of jelly. Consumer Reports had released a list of 24 jams ranked in order of quality by a panel of “jam experts.” Wilson wanted to see how well regular people were able to evaluate the quality of jam, so he took the jams that rank 1, 5, 9, 13, 19 and 24, put them in unmarked jars, and gave them to his participants to rank in order. On average, the average people ranked the jams in the same order as the experts.

However, Wilson performed the experiment again, only this time he had the participants explain the reasoning for their rankings on a sheet of paper. This time, the participants got it way wrong. Sometimes having the lowest ranked jam listed highest. What happened, Wilson surmised, was that the process of coming up with rational reasons for why one jam was better than another confused the instinctual, emotional response to each jam which was much more likely to be accurate. The participants confabulated reasons why certain jams might be better than others, and ended up convincing themselves that their initial gut reactions were wrong. This experiment led Malcolm Gladwell to theorize in “Blink” that an ‘expert’ is someone who has the experience and vocabulary to explain their emotional reactions in rational terms.

Ibn Arabi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, contended that the purpose of reason was for man to be able to mark the distinctions between God and everything else, so as to not commit the sin of taking something that is not-God to be God. However, it was the purpose of the ‘imagination,’ or non-rational thought, to unveil the ways in which man and God were the same.

We still live in a post-Enlightenment world. We believe that all that is worth explaining can be explained through reason and logic. I believe that there is much that can be explained through reason, but also am aware of its limits and flaws. As Ben Franklin teaches us, just because there is a reason to do something doesn’t mean it should be done. Often, we know much more about things before we open our mouths to explain how we know it.

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