Monday, May 27, 2013

The Pitfalls of Reason

Two weeks ago, I shared a situation that had bogged me down. Focus on self had blinded me from alternatives. Amazing things began to unfold once I exercised "the way of will" and focused on God "instead" of the morass. Once God opened my eyes to see beyond my nose, new options arose. The Holy Spirit softened hearts and led us to a resting place from which we began afresh. In a clash of unbending wills, I see how the way of will and the way of the reason each played a part. In this situation, the persons involved aimed for a noble outcome (helping others). Selfish motives, rash thinking, and haste kept them from consulting more experienced guides. Once the will was set, the reason kicked in and justified deceit, betrayed trust, and led them into broken relationships. These consequences could have been avoided had the will chosen to seek wiser counsel than their own.

The reason operates on two fronts: (a) the logical playing fields of mathematical truth and (b) the real world of accepting or rejecting competing ideas. Some frivolous ideas are not even worth our time (dog versus cat, over or under orientation of toilet paper, back or middle squeezer of toothpaste, etc.)—or are they? Trying to apply mathematical reason to a sticky situation is as ridiculous as Sheldon's flow chart for a friendship algorithm on Big Bang Theory. The social arena fails to play by the rules of logic. Reason also overlooks sticky consequences to justify what the will desires. Charlotte Mason gives several poster children for reason run amuck: Macbeth, Cain, Richard III, etc. "Well-reasoned arguments are brought into play for a wrong course as for a right.... It is only when [the will] chooses to think about some course or plan, as Eve standing before the apples, that reason comes into play."

You might think that scientists are the most reasonable people in the world for their livelihood depends upon logic. One of the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA thinks otherwise. He explains in his personal account of the journey to a Nobel peace prize, "Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles." Parents in the autism world will appreciate his description of skeptics, "Many were cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses.... In contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid."

Dr. Watson is quite candid about his own moral failings. Laziness and carelessness in the lab in the form of an explosion drove away any interest in biochemistry. He headed to Copenhagen on someone's dime to spend a year doing research with a renowned biochemist and return home with enough knowledge to map out the structure of viruses. Indifference to the biochemist's work and poor communication between the two drove Watson to work with a virologist. Clearly violating the terms of his fellowship made him a bit uneasy at first. Yet, three months into his stay, reason told Watson to fudge plans for the following year. His purpose shifted from working with the biochemist to working in the stimulating environment of Copenhagen. Reason helped him feel justified about his shiftiness because his boss trained another biochemist back in the states.

At first, Watson felt guilty about avoiding the biochemist who must have some concerns about his frequent absences. His conscience cleared up when he learned of the biochemist's divorce. Reason reassured him that the poor man would not be able to focus on science anyway. Watson was doing him a favor by not asking to be taught nucleic-acid biochemistry. Deceiving the fellowship electors was morally superior to forcing the divorced man to talk about biochemistry. In fact, reason congratulated him on doing great work: he had collected enough experimental data on bacterial-viruses to take a break for the rest of the year. Reason assured him that he could publish a paper and still look productive. He left the bitter cold of Copenhagen and spent April and May in sunny Naples. The poor biochemist was healing his broken heart doing work at a zoological station in Naples anyway. To ease a twinge of guilt, reason suggested that Watson could still look busy doing work on the embryos of marine animals and quietly study genetics on the side. His request for permission to join the biochemist in nature was rewarded with a cheery letter and a two-hundred-dollar check to cover travel expenses. Watson concluded, "It made me feel slightly dishonest as I set off for the sun."

Watson's story illustrates the relationship between will (the ruler) and reason (the servant). The scientist had no desire to learn biochemistry. His will chose to continue studying virology instead. Then, reason stepped in and justified why he should continue deceiving the fellowship electors. In retrospect, as Watson wrote his account, reason cooed that the trip to Naples led him to a researcher who did fire his enthusiasm for biochemistry and eventually lead his prize-winning research. His lies led to a noble outcome (pun intended).

Moreover, our sanitized version of scientific research leads us to believe that reason and objectivity manage to push out ambition, pride, deceit, etc. Reading a subjective and literary account of how research really happens reveals the truth of the matter. Even the most logical, reason-loving people on the planet make morally flawed decisions. This is why I chose a literary approach to science.

There is no single point upon which two persons may reason,––food, dress, games, education, politics, religion,––but the two may take opposite sides, and each will bring forward infallible proofs which must convince the other were it not that he too is already convinced by stronger proofs to strengthen his own argument. Every character in history or fiction supports this thesis; and probably we cannot give a better training in right reasoning than by letting children work out the arguments in favour of this or that conclusion. ~ Charlotte Mason


Jeanne said...

I'm reading this book right now as well. Love the annotations! I'm keen to read more about Rosalind now too.

walking said...

Which edition? I am reading the Norton Critical edition. OOP but free on Paperbackswap! :D

The Winding Ascent said...

Wow, this coincides perfectly with my quest for essays on abortion for AO Year 12. It segues into the thoughts of those who defend abortion. Floored.

walking said...

Seeing that I had no idea where "the way of the reason": was going to take me and this blog post did not hit me until I made it to the third chapter of The Double Helix, then I can safely say it must be a whisper from God. God is so awesome like that, especially since Watson seems to be an atheist by all appearances!

Susan said...

I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of another post on the same topic by another of my favourite bloggers, Jen at Conversion Diary. If you're curious, you can read it at

Oh, and I totally agree with your conclusion. In order to truly understand what someone is trying to say, one needs to understand and relate to the person talking/writing. Very tough to do when reading a factual text versus the literary one.