People often claim that they’re appealing to reason in argumentation, but the way they reason frequently reveals more about them than the truth.
Put another way, an argument often says more about your inward passions, sensibilities, and imaginative world than what’s actually going on in the external world (a.k.a “reality”).
Put yet another way, you think you’re Socrates when you’re actually Don Quixote tilting at contingent windmills. What you take to be your lithe and biting snake of reason is actually a rope of fantasy.
As the Hindus put it, you’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.
So reason, it might be argued, is more akin to poetry than a tool for getting at the truth of matters. It’s a framing gesture; a way of aspect seeing; a way of locating your tribe (those who agree with you). It’s not (usually) a device for actually getting at the objective truth of things–or at least, if it achieves this, it does so by chance or only intermittently.
The physicist Stephen Hawking thinks we’re doing pretty good if we can arrive at what he calls “model dependent realism.” In other words, where our models match what seems to be going on in the world around us, and they work for our purposes, that’s about as close to “the ultimate truth” as we’re ever likely to get.
So reason is a form of play.
In deconstructing a person’s claim to reason, therefore, it’s thought provoking to think about the actual play that is at work; to ask a simple question: Why did this or that person start her argument where she did and stop it where she did?
Let’s use the example of epidural injections into the spine: is it moral for a woman to get these sorts of injections to dodge pain in childbirth?
A liberal might start her reflection on this by eliminating some distinctions, which seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do: What’s the moral difference between using a condom during sex, using a sugar substitute while drinking coffee, and getting an epidural during childbirth? In each case, the body’s natural agendas and inclinations are being hijacked by technology to avoid an unwanted outcome (pregnancy, weight gain, pain).
This seems like a reasonable line of appeal–if you’re okay with the first two, you should be okay with the third–but it also leads to a liberal conclusion: epidurals are morally no worse than deploying sugar substitutes.
But how might a conservative argue?
Let’s take, for instance, the medieval religious conservative, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). How might he have reasoned about epidurals?
He probably would have started his reasoning with the Bible–and a rhetorical question: Do you suppose, after reading Genesis 3 (God’s curse on Eve and her female descendants after she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is pain in childbirth), that God would approve of women avoiding His divine curse?
Seven hundred years after Aquinas’ death, I think he would have been shocked–shocked!–to learn of the subversion of God’s natural law by contemporary women–a natural law explicitly spelled out in Genesis as divine punishment. Women are supposed to suffer in childbirth–Aquinas would say. It’s natural. It’s just. They’re sinners. It reminds them of the consequences of sin.
In addition to the biblical argument, Aquinas might have also offered the following syllogism: If God had wanted women’s pelvises to be broader to let babies with big heads come out easier, he would have made them that way. God didn’t make them that way. Therefore, God wants women to experience pain in childbirth.
Again, perfectly logical. In a syllogism, if the two premises are true, the conclusion is certain.
And, again, how convenient. A conservative uses reason to reach (surprise!) a conservative conclusion.
So this is why I say that much of what passes for reason is desire. The desire to start and the desire to stop.