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Philosopher Argues, Human Reason Is Inferior to Animal Reactions

Smith offers to resolve the problem of human exceptionality by dethroning reason

Justin E. H. Smith, professor of philosophy at Concordia University and author of Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, thinks it makes no sense that humans should be the only reasoning creatures. And he offers a solution to the philosophical dilemma the idea presents to naturalism (nature is all there is):

Reason is exceedingly rare, a hapax legomenon of nature, and yet this rarity has led to a bind: when pushed to account for its origins, thinkers who champion reason’s human-exclusivity are forced to lean on supernaturalism, while those who contend that reason is a fundamentally natural property have then to concede that ‘lower’ lifeforms are capable of exercising it. The question is – how?

Justin E H Smith, “If reason exists without deliberation, it cannot be uniquely human” at Aeon

Smith offers to resolve the problem by dethroning reason. He argues that human reason is a mark of intellectual inferiority compared to animal cognition. For support, he reaches back to the work of a 16th-century diplomat Girolamo Rorario ( 1485–1556) That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Men (1647). Rorario, he believes, thought that reason is “not so much an inferential ability, as simply the power to do the right thing in the right circumstances.” And what follows?

Rorario’s core idea is that human deliberation – the period of hesitancy when we survey our various options and eventually select what appears to be the best of them – far from being an advantage over other beings, is in fact a mark of our inferiority. Animals and plants do not hesitate. They cut right to the chase and, to the extent that they do not examine alternative options in order to choose among them, they are in a sense incapable of being wrong.

This is not to say that they are never foiled, that gazelles always take a path in fleeing the lion that assures their escape, or that vines always creep in the direction that will give them the most sunlight. It is just that, when they are foiled, this cannot be because they failed in their deliberation, since they do not deliberate. And still they seem to be doing just fine for themselves, pursuing their species-specific ends. Justin E H Smith, “If reason exists without deliberation, it cannot be uniquely human” at Aeon

Most readers will notice that these life forms don’t deliberate because they can’t, not because it wouldn’t do them any good. For the same reasons, humans do not become airborne unassisted, whether or not flight from danger would do us any good.

Life forms are, in one sense, information in motion. They react to their environments in many ways. An amoeba is smarter than your computer; even bacteria are purpose-driven, and plants have nervous systems and communicate. But none of these life forms need consciousness or reason in order to seek to stay alive. The logical conclusion is that reason exists to serve purposes other than merely staying alive.

Smith’s argument that reason is inferior is, of course, unusually bold. Many dubious claims in the literature on animal mind (self-awareness in fish, cats recognizing their names as an identity as opposed to a signal, and apes making a moral choice for generosity or displaying spiritual awareness) turn on one thing: a philosophical need to efface the uniqueness of the human experience of reason and free will. But most authors, less bold than he, prefer to claim that these life forms really do reason as humans do.

Smith, by contrast, admits honestly that these life forms do not reason—and that the best way to support his naturalist view is to see unreason is better than reason. He is unusually frank in explaining why he finds that an attractive (or even tenable) idea:

In answering the where question of reason in this maximally broad way, we are able to preserve the naturalism that philosophy and cognitive science insist upon today, while dispensing with the human-exclusivity of reason. And all the better, since faith in the strange idea that reason appears exactly once in nature, in one particular species and nowhere else, seems, on reflection, to be itself a vestige of pre-scientific supernaturalism.

He hopes that artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life (a “statistical near-certainty”) will help us “give up the idea of rationality as nature’s last remaining exception.”

But what if philosophy and cognitive science are so wrong in this matter that they are leading Smith and the rest of us into absurdities? Asked by Mind Matters News for comment, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor pointed out that the dilemma arises from the conflict between evidence and naturalist atheism (nature is all there is, often called “materialism”) and that it wouldn’t otherwise exist:

He’s wrong, and wrong in a particularly arrogant atheist way. It is “irrational” to have no life elsewhere in the universe only if you believe that man arose via unintelligent statistical processes–physical laws, etc. …

It is completely rational that we’re alone if you assume that we are created by a Creator with His own purposes. We may be special because we are created in His image.

It’s a consistent error with atheists. They find an incongruity in nature that is due, at the root, to their own stupid metaphysics, and their response is to disavow, not their own rational error, but reason itself.

Smith is essentially saying: “The universe doesn’t behave as my atheist perspective implies. Therefore, I reject reason (but not my atheist perspective.)

If anything, Smith’s approach points to the breadth and depth of the naturalist’s dilemma today.

See also: The real reason why only human beings speak. (Michael Egnor) Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly

Do big brains matter to human intelligence? We don’t know. Brain research readily dissolves into confusion at that point.

Tales of an invented god: The most important characteristic of an AI cult is that its gods (Godbots?) will be created by the AI developers and not the other way around


Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug Another approach to dethroning reason is to claim that everything is conscious, a surprisingly popular view among naturalists.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Philosopher Argues, Human Reason Is Inferior to Animal Reactions