Good Bye Reason?

Tibor R. Machan

“Every one of us has our perceptions filtered by the thousands of stories and assumptions and rituals that constitute our culture. Every one of us has held beliefs that seemed self-evidently accurate but were actually contingent elements of the time and place that produced us. This is true not just of the people reading this article, but of every person, in every era, who has been capable of perceiving anything at all. You can stretch those perceptions, expose yourself to new worldviews, learn new things, but you’ll always be embedded in a cultural matrix….”

This passage comes from the managing editor of Reason Magazine, which I helped launch back in 1970 and which set out to be a corrective to our society’s widespread embrace of various versions of subjectivism and relativism. The passage exemplifies just such a viewpoint, whereby no one is capable of objectivity and everyone is caught in some set of preconceptions.

The aspiration at Reason had been to further the cause of using our reasoning powers so as to avoid being caught in the traps of prejudice, hasty generalization, bias, preconception, and the like, all of them foes of getting it right about the world. Indeed, some had argued even back then that prejudice is inevitable, we are all afflicted by it no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. Racists were particularly fond of this line of thinking since it would have served them well had it been sound. Who can help but be prejudiced? No one, just as the passage above indicates.

Of course, there is that famous problem with such an outlook of being hoisted on its own petard. After all, if we are all “embedded in a cultural matrix” no matter how carefully we consider evidence, argument, facts, etc., then the passage itself would be no more than a declaration of the author’s own prejudice about, well, prejudice!

Of course, there is a great deal of prejudicial thinking afoot everywhere since human beings aren’t automatically careful in how they see the world. Many do permit their tastes, preferences, biases, wishes, and the like to dictate how they will understand the world, including–and some would argue, especially–themselves. That is supposedly one reason for getting a decent education, studying logic and scientific methods, and getting a clear head before undertaking difficult, challenging tasks. That is why those who care about the outcome of their investigations try hard to overcome powerful emotions that might intrude, including their hopes and agonies.

No one in his right mind can claim that it is easy to be objective, to overcome all the likely obstacles to thinking clearly. All those devices in the sciences, natural or social, by which one tries to secure a reliable, dependable picture of the world, are designed to stave off the evident enough threat of tainted judgments. And not all of us succeed, that is for sure.

However, some do, which is fortunate for us all since otherwise one couldn’t have any confidence in any of the work done in the fields that attempt to understand the world. The claim that it is all hopeless is, of course, an ancient one. It is advanced at various levels of sophistication. Perhaps the most impressive skeptical view comes to us from the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant who didn’t so much hold that we are all biased, all the time, but that whether we are or are not isn’t something we can ascertain. We might be right but we will never be able to tell since in order to tell, we would need to overcome the kind of obstacles listed in the paragraph from Reason Magazine. And that is impossible.

Kant was mistaken, however, mainly because he held the odd view that the human mind instead of being an instrument for coming to know things is, in fact, a source of interference. That is like saying that the spoon we use to eat our soup is an obstacle to proper eating, not a means to it. Or that our eyes are not organs that enable us to see but ones that stand in the way of pure seeing.

The discussion will, no doubt, go on as long as there are people around to think of ways to make the case pro or con. However, I am sad that one effort to put in a solid, unyielding defense of our capacity to think objectively, namely Reason Magazine, now seems to be managed by someone who finds the effort futile.