I have just been reminded that Brian Cox and Robin’s Ince’s Christmas Compendium of Reason is returning on 23 November: "Expect another exhilarating collision of science, music, comedy, wonder and chaos!" I have nothing against Cox and Ince: they are excellent communicators, and I thoroughly enjoy their radio programs, but the advert for this event sparked a conversation which may be worth sharing.
What comes under the heading of 'reason' here? If you can include not only science but also music, comedy, wonder and chaos, I suspect that the only thing which is being excluded from consideration is religion - which is odd, because religion is the activity through which the human race seeks to understand its place in the universe, and this is a topic which Brian Cox repeatedly returns to. But let's put that suspicion to one side and look at our focus on and fascination with reason.
Reason is simply a tool for manipulating data. Whether it gives you anything useful depends entirely on the data it is manipulating: in computing we know this as 'GIGO' - garbage in, garbage out. In the modern world, when you are trying to understand material reality, what else can you use? Nobody is actually trying to explain thunder as the sound of Thor's hammer any more - if they ever did.
Celebrating reason as a tool for understanding the material world is a bit like economists celebrating their use of arithmetic - after all, you can't work out whether the economy is growing or shrinking if you can't add up correctly. Of course economists use arithmetic to arrive at the numbers they need - what else are they going to use? Of course science uses reason - what else can it use?
Some people are bound to say that we have to use reason because the alternative is superstition and religion, but that is to misunderstand the actual role of superstition and religion in our lives, but that needs to be the subject of another article. Suffice it to say that I have never met anyone who believed in religion - any religion - because it explained the diversity of life we see in the world today.
Stage magicians commonly use misdirection to fool their audience: when they tell you to concentrate on this object or activity, you can be reasonably sure that the real action is taking place elsewhere. In a similar way, it seems to me that people who tell us to focus on reason are often wanting to direct our attention away from the real issue.
Reason has been used to support slavery, apartheid, eugenics and infanticide. Please, don't ask me to celebrate the fact that you are using reason - explain to me what you are using reason to achieve. Are you using reason to make the world a better place, or are you using it to justify your behaviour and protect your advantages?
I don't believe that Cox and Ince have any sinister motives: I think they are sharing things they enjoy, and feel that 'reason' is just a handy word to use. But other people are trying to persuade us that science (and economics and business) must be directed by reason, and that questions of morality and justice are matters for individuals, not scientific policy makers: this is following the tradition of using reason to ruin our environment and destroy vast ecosystems so that a few people can become fantastically wealthy. Reason is a vitally important tool, but, like all tools, the important question is how we decide to use it.
[See also Reason.]