The Illusion of Reason


Shit happens. Everyone knows that, and that it's inevitable ? it's pretty much impossible to live a full life and not have shit happen to you at some point. And when shit happens, most people immediately try to look for a reason in it all. Not cause, but reason ? as the cause is often clear, but lacks the inherent meaning of a reason ? and often when no easy reason presents itself, people resort to ridiculous conclusions such as "It was God's will" when what they really should do is say "There was no reason".

First of all it's important to realize the difference between 'cause' and 'reason'. Cause is the agent that set something else into motion; cancer, for instance, is (some times) caused by gamma radiation on living tissue. Cause, however, lacks inherent meaning ? there is no conscious choice or design implied by simple causality. This is where reason comes into the picture; if a bully beats you up at school, the cause of injury is his fist coming into contact with your face at high velocity, whereas the bully's reason for doing so is to get at your lunch money or quell some personal feeling of inadequacy. Cause answers the question What?, whereas reason answers the question Why?.

So then, whenever shit happens, people instinctively look for reason. It appears we are pre-programmed to seek the answer to the question of "Why?". Most of the time this is good and fair and the answers are simple ? the reason for a person getting fired, for instance, might be budget cuts or inadequate performance from the person in question ? but yet often we find our quest for reason difficult. What's the reason behind someone dying of cancer or getting hit by a car? It's easy to see what caused these things, but it doesn't answer why.

People who think about this tend to commit an illicit fallacy ? they come to the conclusion that 'I cannot find the reason behind this event, hence the reason must be beyond my understanding'. This may sound rational at first, but isn't. This fallacy is caused by the assumption that reason exists for all events, when in reality they only exist for some events. This fallacy tends to be coupled with a particular, very common anthropomorphication of nature, which after some more frotzing leads people to conclusions like "I'm being punished", "It's a trial", or the ultimate catch-all: "God works in mysterious ways".

One can only speculate about why people seek these reasons to begin with. My personal theory is that people need somewhere to place the blame when something goes wrong ? someone to be angry at, some person or phenomenon towards which to direct our anger and sadness caused by the event. Quite often among religious people, the blame ends up being placed on God; and since the Lord certainly can't be blamed for anything at all, being infinitely wise and just, the whole need for placing guilt gets rationalized away and people somehow can get on with their lives.

This need for placing blame is itself rooted in something else, more universal; humanity's fear of meaninglessness. Ever since the early days of man, people have sought reason in events, trying to find some reason for justifying every single occurance in the universe ? all because they fear the inherent meaninglessness of things. For indeed, if things can happen without reason, without meaning, then it might mean that one's own existence is unjustified ? existential crisis. Why we feel this need to justify everything with reason is unknown; indeed, we've now managed to return to the question being argued two paragraphs ago, albeit at a "deeper" level.

The conclusion one should come to is simple: there is no reason. Things happen without reason, and all existence is inherently meaningless. There is no cosmic reason that meticulously plans and justifies every single event in the universe, or indeed even a single event. Cause is plenty, but reason is scarce; it is only among intelligent beings such as humans that a concept like reason can exist. There is no destiny to fulfill, no divine task to be carried out. Life is, ultimately, completely pointless from a cosmic viewpoint (although humans can come up with reason in themselves; that, however, is a different issue).

What caused you to write this and what is the reason behind writing this?

Good one, this. I like it. If you can extend it into book form, I'm sure it'd make a bestseller.

I think you've already answered the question about "why we feel this need to justify everything ..."
The answer is to give our lives meaning. We don't want to think that we could be driving down the road and be decapitated by a coal truck for no reason! We want to feel like our lives and , even our deaths, will have some meaning. To someone. Anyone.

And I agree, this is a good one. I enjoyed reading it. It made some things about cause and reason very clear to me.

It isn't very hard seing why people looks for the reason something happened. If it was a bad thing, they want to know the reason for it so that they can try to avoid it happening again. If it was a good thing, they want to know how they can get it to happen again. It's basicly down to selective evolution; if you find the reason for something you have a greater chance of survival.

What I do wonder is why anyone religious would blame god for anything bad happening. I mean, that's hardly good advertising.
"Why do the sun rise? - Because it's god's will." makes sense.
"Why are the seas flooding and destroying everything? - Because it's god's will." is bound to make people pissed.
Of course, they would say that it's god's will because everyone have been naughty or something, but even so...

And I agree that there's no cosmic reason. There's only chaos. And quantum. Lot's of quantum. Whatever that really is.

[It isn't very hard seing why people looks for the reason something happened. If it was a bad thing, they want to know the reason for it so that they can try to avoid it happening again.]

That's cause, not reason. Something can be avoided simply by knowing its cause. Reason is irrelevant as far as that's concerned.

[That's cause, not reason. Something can be avoided simply by knowing its cause. Reason is irrelevant as far as that's concerned.]

Not necessarily. Look at Bob. He walks over an old bridge. The bridge breaks and Bob falls a long way and hurts himself. The cause of this is that Bob walked over the old bridge which couldn't hold his weight. But why did the accident take place? Because Bob didn't read the warning placard by the side of the bridge before he walked over it. If he finds this out, then maybe he will be more careful concerning warning signs. Could he avoided the accident by knowing that old bridges that can't hold his weight breaks? Not really.

I can't remember the name of this particular fallacy, but basically, the lack of action cannot cause another action. Bob not reading a warning placard cannot cause anything else, simply because it did not occur. Also, there is no inherent meaning, thus it is not a "why". In fact, it is a "why", but only because of the vagueness of the English language. The fact that Bob did not read the sign is not a reason in the sense that it has meaning, rather it is an abstraction inherent in the way we express ourselves.

[...the lack of action cannot cause another action.]

But surely, I didn't say that it was the cause? I said it was the reason. I thought the whole thing was that 'reason' wasn't 'cause'. Of course, a dictionary doesn't really tell you any difference between them, in the same why a dictionary doesn't say 'why' is different from 'why'. But whatever...

Let me try again, then. I will prove by exclusion that Bob not reading the sign cannot be the reason he fell through the bridge.

* Bob will follow all instructions
* If something has direct causality, reason is also transferrable

A = Bob reads the sign
B = Bob falls through the bridge

A -> -B (If Bob reads the sign, he does not fall through the bridge)

We are trying to find:
-A -> B (If Bob didn't read the sign, he falls through the bridge)

There is however only one corollary that can be derived from the premise above, namely:

B -> -A (If Bob falls through the bridge, he did not read the sign)

Given the above premise, this is the one and only conclusion we can come to. As you can see, it is not what we wanted. Hence, given our premise, Bob not reading the sign cannot be neither cause nor reason for him falling.

Ok, you have now proved that not reading the sign can't be the whole reason. Can be a part of the reason though. But let's leave Bob, and his badly bruised body, and try another example; this time one of yours.

[if a bully beats you up at school, the cause of injury is his fist coming into contact with your face at high velocity, whereas the bully's reason for doing so is to get at your lunch money or quell some personal feeling of inadequacy.]

Now, if you understood his reason for hitting you, you can understand that he might do it again and avoid him. But if you only understood the cause of you getting hurt, the only thing you would know next time was to duck when a fist comes at you. Then of course, there's the case when you don't understand neither cause nor reason for this, but damn well stay away from him anyway. But, as I said, "Not necessarily." about it being cause and not reason. Could be both, neither or only one of them, depending on whatever case it happens to be. And Bob's your uncle.

Actually you don't need to know his reasons in order to avoid him. All you need to know is establish a pattern; if a bully beats you up every day, chances are good he will tomorrow too, and you'll know to avoid him. I'll concede on the point that knowing the reason behind something makes it easier to predict and establish a pattern, but it is in no way required.

Anyway, I don't believe this to be the primary reason why people seek reason in things. I think it has more to do with the feeling of helplessness invariably brought on by the realization that existence is meaningless.

Fair enough.

Vi har pratat om det f�rut, och jag gillar den h�r texten speciellt. Jag har noterat att det tycks vara en autonom reaktion hos m�nniskan att reagera socialt p� alla omst�ndigheter, och inte bara de som �r f�rorsakade av en medveten akt�r. Detta skulle jag vilja f�rklara evolution�rt, ty de yttre stimuli som leder till de specifika signalsubstanser i hj�rnan som antingen ger en f�rnimmelse av ilska, tacksamhet eller dylika k�nslor f�rekommer s�v�l inom som utanf�r sociala sammanhang, medan det bara �r inom dessa som reaktionerna visat sig f�rdelaktiga. M�nniskans tendens att sedan reagera likadant till omst�ndigheter som saknar akt�r har inte visat sig of�rdelaktigt och s�ledes inte selekterats bort. Det har helt enkelt att g�ra med naturens och m�nniskans ofullkomlighet.

Kanske har det till och med varit f�rdelaktigt f�r m�nniskan att anta ett v�sen bakom egentligen omedvetna omst�ndigheter eftersom detta skapar ett hopp �ven i de mest hoppl�sa situationer, och de som hoppar har alltid en st�rre chans att �verleva �n de som stannar och inser sin f�rmodade chansl�shet. Ta bara de som hoppade ut ur det brinnande World Trade Center, ett hoppets hopp, och i naturen en selektionsprocess d�r de som stannar brinner upp och de som hoppar d� och d� �verlever.

T�nker man efter i sann materialistisk anda inser man hur mycket man inte beh�ver vara tacksam f�r, och hur litet man egentligen beh�ver vara f�rbannad �ver. D�rmed inte sagt att man inte kan vara glad eller ledsen p� grund av att yttre omst�ndigheter... Vi f�r inte gl�mma att m�nniskan inte uppfattar eller upplever verkligheten som den �r beskaffad, utan som det visat sig mest f�rdelaktigt f�r oss att uppfatta och uppleva den. Kanske �r vi till naturen, innan vi via f�rnuftet inser motsatsen, idealister. Tankarna �r m�nga, svaren f�. Bra skrivet hur som helst. :)

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