Reason is a tool.
Truth is a result.
Never conflate the two.
Assuming that reason leads to truth or better decisions is like assuming a hammer leads to a piece of fine furniture, or a paintbrush leads to a work of art, or a piano leads to a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Under very specific and highly disciplined circumstances those tools CAN lead to those results, but the reality is that they almost never do.
Means and the ends are very different types of things. Never assume a result based on the means.
Reason is for persuading, convincing, arguing, winning. Questions like “about what?” or “for what purpose?” are as relevant to understanding reason as “to hit what?” or “to build what?” are to understanding a hammer, i.e., not at all.
Politics is nothing if not the use of reason for winning. Truth is secondary, if it matters at all. What matters more than anything is whether the ideas or the candidate resonate with the audience.
If you think reason is for finding truth or leads to better decision making then consider the following masters of reason:
Adolf Hitler was possibly the greatest reasoner the world has ever seen. He persuaded millions of people to follow him, he convinced them that genocide was beneficial to their cause.
Charles Manson used reason to convince his followers to commit grotesque murders.
Jim Jones used reason to convince his followers to commit mass murder/suicide in Jonestown.
Where’s the truth in any of that? Where’s the improved decision making?
Reason is for persuading, convincing, winning, getting results. Period.
The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences devoted an entire issue to this finding (in April of 2011; Volume 34, Issue 02). A web site by the authors of the centerpiece article explains that “the idea that the role of reasoning is to critically examine our beliefs so as to discard wron-headed ones and thus create more reliable beliefs – knowledge – [that] in turn is supposed to help us make better decisions”…
… is hard to reconcile with a wealth of evidence amassed by modern psychology. Tversky and Kahneman (and many others) have demonstrated the failures of reasoning in decision making. Johnson-Laird and Evans (and, again, many others) have shown how fallible reasoning can be. Others have shown that sometimes reasoning too much can make us worse off: it can unduly increase self-confidence, allow us to maintain erroneous beliefs, create distorted, polarized beliefs and enable us to violate our own moral intuitions by finding handy excuses.
When people reason alone, there is often nothing to hold their confirmation bias in check. This might lead to distortions of their beliefs. As mentioned above, this is very much the case. When people reason alone, they are prone to all sorts of biases. For instance, because they only find arguments supporting what they already believe in, they will tend to become even more persuaded that they are right or will develop stronger, more polarized attitudes.
When reasoning is used to make decisions, it will do what it is supposed to do, namely, find arguments. As a result, instead of always pointing towards a better choice, reasoning will usually lead us to a decision that is easy to justify. Psychologists have shown that many a weird decision can be explained by this factor: people decide to do something because they can easily justify it rather than because it is right.
A summary by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, emphasis added:
“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Truth and accuracy were beside the point.
Indeed, Mr. Sperber, a member of the Jean-Nicod research institute in Paris, first developed a version of the theory in 2000 to explain why evolution did not make the manifold flaws in reasoning go the way of the prehensile tail and the four-legged stride. Looking at a large body of psychological research, Mr. Sperber wanted to figure out why people persisted in picking out evidence that supported their views and ignored the rest — what is known as confirmation bias — leading them to hold on to a belief doggedly in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
Other scholars have previously argued that reasoning and irrationality are both products of evolution. But they usually assume that the purpose of reasoning is to help an individual arrive at the truth, and that irrationality is a kink in that process, a sort of mental myopia. Gary F. Marcus, for example, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind,” says distortions in reasoning are unintended side effects of blind evolution. They are a result of the way that the brain, a Rube Goldberg mental contraption, processes memory. People are more likely to remember items they are familiar with, like their own beliefs, rather than those of others.
What is revolutionary about argumentative theory is that it presumes that since reason has a different purpose — to win over an opposing group — flawed reasoning is an adaptation in itself, useful for bolstering debating skills.
Mr. Mercier, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that attempts to rid people of biases have failed because reasoning does exactly what it is supposed to do: help win an argument.
“People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,” he said, “as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that.”
Mercier and Sperber offer an evolution-based explanation for why reason works the way it does:
Communication is hugely important for humans, and there is good reason to believe that this has been the case throughout our evolution, as different types of collaborative—and therefore communicative—activities already played a big role in our ancestors’ lives (hunting, collecting, raising children, etc.). However, for communication to be possible, listeners have to have ways to discriminate reliable, trustworthy information from potentially dangerous information—otherwise speakers would be wont to abuse them through lies and deception. Listeners must have mechanisms of epistemic vigilance. One way listeners and speakers can improve the reliability of communication is through arguments. The speaker gives a reason to accept a given conclusion. The listener can then evaluate this reason to decide whether she should accept the conclusion. In both cases, they have used reasoning—to find and evaluate a reason respectively. If reasoning does its job properly, communication has been improved: a true conclusion is more likely to be supported by good arguments, and therefore accepted, thereby making both the speaker—who managed to convince the listener—and the listener—who acquired a potentially valuable piece of information—better off.
We value truth. We think it is important; so important that we invented the scientific method and the peer review process of the scientific community to thwart the tendency of reason to lead us away from truth. Those processes act as a mental ju jitsu move that turns the biases that are built-in to reasoning to work in our favor. The fact that we’re very good at seeing the speck in each other’s eye (or reasoning) while at the same time being blind to the log in our own is turned to our mutual advantage IF we all work together cooperatively.
Indeed, the journal findings corroborate this. The web site summary describes the very specific and highly disciplined circumstances through which reason CAN be used to pursue truth:
If reasoning evolved so we can argue with others, then reasoning should yield better results in groups than alone. Short answer: it does. When the performance of groups and lone individuals in reasoning tasks is compared, groups fare much better—sometimes dramatically so. Not only do groups have a better performance than the average individual, but they often perform as well, or even better, than the best group member (again, in reasoning tasks, this is not true across the board).
The real purpose of reason is capture in this quote from Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change by Jonah Goldberg:
What Hitler got from Italian Fascism – and as indicated above from the French and Russian revolutions – was the importance of having an idea that would arouse the masses. The particular content of the idea was decidedly secondary. The ultimate utility of ideas is not their intrinsic truth but the extent to which they make a desired action possible. (p.55)