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Who Started the War on Reason Anyway?

Steven Poole calls the numerous books purporting to show that humans are not reasoning creatures a “scientised version of original sin”

British journalist and broadcaster Steven Poole, author of Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas, offers some thoughts on the background to the current tendency to denigrate human reasoning ability:

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear. (2016)

Steven Poole, “Not so foolish” at Aeon

He calls it a “scientised version of original sin” but one accompanied not by sermons but by bureaucratic attempts to mold behavior. As he goes on to show, the underlying assumptions about human behavior are often wrong or questionable.

Just recently, it came out that researchers were baffled by the tendency around the globe to return lost wallets rather than pocket the money. When the behavior contradicts the theory, the behavior seems at least doubtful, if not clearly wrong.

Before you go: If thoughts were data, machines could write Human experience is what makes sense of the written word. Steven Poole argues that the fact that creativity does not follow computational rules may well be a ceiling for machine writing. And it is not made of glass.

The lost wallet returns—and experts are baffled Social scientists struggle for explanations as to why people turned out to be more honest than theory led them to expect


An atheist argues against reason (Michael Egnor) And thinks it is the reasonable thing to do

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Who Started the War on Reason Anyway?