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The Advantage of Reason

Note well that the entire previous section or two said very little indeed about the role that reason played in the development of the answers to the big questions that are, after all, the subject of this chapter. That is because it was not much of a factor for most of the last million years or so - genetic and memetic co-evolution was the powerful driver for turning monkeys living in the moment into philosophers that are capable of reasoning and value reasoning and can develop systems of reasoning. Such reason as there was was very primitive - a seeking of and naming of primary causes in an inferential associative chain that we lacked the means to systematically analyze.

Lest you think that this is not true, recall the previous observation that induction does not necessarily lead to truths. This is especially true when analyzing observations: ``correlation is not causality''. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, not a well-reasoned argument. Just because things are correlated does not mean that one is the cause of the other, yet sometimes, of course, it does! In fact, correlations of one sort or another, in the form of systematic observations revealing systematic situational behavior, is the only thing that our human brains have had to work with while working out things like physics, chemistry, biology, and so on.

Let's see, we have correlation, we infer causality. How do we find reason in all of this? Reason is deductive. Without it, on the other hand, how do we make progress organizing our causal hypotheses? Somehow we need both, but they belong in different realms - one a realm of conditional certainty (which isn't certainty at all, as we will see) and the other a real of at best probability (note, not certainty either). Hmmm, a bit of a bootstrapping problem - how can you invent reason - without the help of reason? Through induction?

Fortunately, our brains had help.

The underlying mechanism of evolution provides its own sort of ``reason'' as it picks out solutions that ``work'' (survive) from the sea of ones that ``don't work'', but the function that it optimizes isn't ``truth'' per se but ``superorganismal fitness'' - survival of the social group (and possibly the individual) associated with a given set of memes. There are obvious places where the two are congruent - pretty much all of natural science, for example, where a superior mastery of science and engineering and reasoned warfare has provided overwhelming superorganismal advantages - and equally obvious places where the two are not, as distinct social groups are organized around completely different and conflicting religions that cannot all be ``truth'' and that seem to convey about the same degree of survival advantage.

It is only in the very recent past that reason (in the form of formal philosophy, mathematics, and science) has emerged as a significant factor in the co-evolution of memetic superorganisms. It literally could not emerge until the human brain and human language had co-developed to the point where the language could semantically encode formal reasoning processes, and it did not emerge until a written language had been invented that was capable of precisely preserving symbolically encoded statements for timescales spanning generations1.25$^,$1.26 .

The very earliest symbolic philosophers immediately noticed that the results of the system that they developed were relevant to the needs of both individuals and the superorganism of which they were members. Doubtless they extended and formalized verbal reasoning processes that had proven fruitful even before being symbolically encoded, but the ability to symbolically encode the arguments and ``save'' them for incremental analysis permitted much longer chains of reasoning to be carried out than one could hold in one's mind alone.

Much of this development was conducted in a sort of memetic competition with the prevailing religious superorganism, which already had developed answers to many of the same questions that were now being systematically addressed with memetic tools that were more powerful than language and cultural mythology alone. Two interesting things occurred almost immediately in the context of this competition. First of all, philosophers armed with symbolic reasoning attempted to tackle once again questions of all sizes, from everyday questions concerning the best way to build things to the super-ultimate why (SUW) question - the why of existence itself, the why of Deity if you consider Deity to be the reason for existence, the limit of the infinite chain of why questions that underlie any analysis of cause1.27.

Second, the very act of asking what could be the cause of Deity and the reopening of many questions that already had memetically prescribed answers within a politico-religious system triggered the defenses of the superorganism that had co-evolved along with the entity itself. These defenses (which will be discussed in detail) can be thought of as very similar to the system of antibodies and immune cells that exist in most organisms - they differentiate between genetic ``self'' and genetic ``other'' and act to preserve the one while terminating the other with extreme prejudice. This is not a reasoned process - it cannot be, as a considerable portion of this work is devoted to making clear.

As it happens, though, reason has proven to be too useful to be eliminated by the allergic reaction of the prevailing religion of any given superorganism, however fervently and passionately that reaction has been pursued. Superorganisms where reason was successfully suppressed in favor of a politico-religious meme set have gradually failed when confronted with similar superorganisms where reason was treated more liberally in a process that continues to this very day. Over the course of time, the progress of reason has advanced so rapidly that it has overtaken the ability of various superorganisms to absorb the changes and retain social identity, leading to strong internal conflicts within those superorganismal cultures. This too is a major focus of this book.

Before we get there, though, we need to examine reason itself, and try to understand just what sort of beast it is, where it came from, how it has been formulated historically at its deepest levels and where that formulation is or isn't technically correct. We need to understand the Laws of Thought as one of the original codifications of the reasoning process. Ultimately we need to understand the essential role played by axioms in constructing systems of reason that are capable of ``explaining'' anything at all and the strict limitations that a need for axioms places on the conclusions of the process. Since we are talking about knowledge derived from abstract symbolic processes, all of this needs to be done in the context of what it means to ``know'' anything at all.

Great fun, actually. We therefore leave the questions behind for a moment and look instead at the ways we might rationally try to find some answers.

next up previous contents
Next: The Laws of Thought Up: Wanted: Answers to some Previous: Big Questions, Big Answers   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17