Monday, 21 September 2015

Reason and Contradiction

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

“Beginning to think is beginning to
be undermined.”  –Albert Camus.

What is reason? Like an axe in our hands, we use it, we don't contemplate it. But we do know that we use it to make sense of things. We do know that we (puzzlingly) apply it to a variety of seemingly disconnected fields: science, ethics, and art, among others. And then, perhaps most importantly, we know that reason is a conscious activity.

One of the most important characteristics of our consciousness is that it kicks in where contradiction arises. Imagine a pendulum, swinging, swinging, swinging. So little contradiction does this present that, rather than producing consciousness, people use pendulums to induce hypnosis. But let the pendulum suddenly drop, and we quickly jump forward to examine what has happened to it -- for then it has contradicted our expectations. 

Things like this happen all the time, in many different ways. A shadow passes over my table in a restaurant. I feel a sudden pain under my foot. Or there is a strange taste in my coffee. These all contradict what I expect – and immediately I want to know: What is it? Why? Where did this come from?


Instinctively, we think of reason as a constructive enterprise. We use it to build houses, design computers, plan conferences, or construct theories. Yet when we examine it more closely, it seems that all such activities are in some way rooted in some kind of contradiction – or perhaps rather, in setting contradictions aside:

We build a house because we don't have a roof over our heads. We design a computer because we lack the power of thought. We call a conference because we need to connect. Or we construct a new theory because the old one won't work. Jean van Heijenoort, the historian of mathematical logic, wrote, “The ordinary notion of consistency involves that of contradiction, which again involves negation.” To put it simply, reason is the innate sense of contradiction. Call it our sixth sense.

This is not a new idea. Bernard Bosanquet suggested that reason kicks in where we have two competing explanations for the same thing in our minds. In fact no less a luminary than Immanuel Kant considered that reason is the power of synthesizing into unity (from disunity, we presume) the concepts which are provided by the intellect. By way of example, Galileo reconciled the sub-lunar and the supra-lunar worlds. James Maxwell united electricity and magnetism. And Albert Einstein melded space and time.

Many would object. The truth is in our first guess, they would say: namely, that reason is a constructive enterprise. In fact reason, they remind us, is a magnificent builder of things, both abstract and real: quantum theory, for instance, or the Golden Gate bridge. And yet, even the things which we construct may be viewed as reverse processes, launched from needs and contradictions.

Take the simple example of a house. A house is needed. Therefore a roof is needed – and walls and foundations. We know then that we cannot purchase a roof as a roof. But this contradicts our need – for a roof. The best we can do is timbers and tiles. But tiles must be secured. Now we need nails. And so on. In fact the best of minds know how to anticipate all contradiction. Thus through the application of reason, we solve a great complex of needs, then paradoxically claim that we have “constructed” something.

In fact the entire scientific enterprise, according to Karl Popper, is an exercise in what he called falsification. Reason may reveal that a theory is wrong, but it can never prove that it is right

More broadly. Wherever contradiction melts away, there we find that the holistic qualities of life emerge, which we so greatly value and desire: among them love, beauty, and grace. But apply reason to them, and they disappear. In fact, even the scientific quest is described as a search for beauty. We are able to appreciate the “beauty” of simple equations because they are about reduction and reconciliation – just as we desire any kind of simplicity, simplification, even simplistic-ness. “You can recognize truth,” wrote Richard Feynman, “by its beauty and simplicity.”

What then is reason? We may now summarise it like this: reason “flags” contradictions. Wherever we find a contradiction – or perhaps rather, wherever there arises a contradiction for me (sight, smell, touch, and all), reason pays attention. In this way, reason helps us to create a world without contradiction – a conceptual arrangement of the world which is “one”.

Stay with this idea. It further helps us to resolve the age old conflict between reason and passion:

Long has it been debated whether reason is our most basic driving force, or passion. It is reason, wrote John Locke. It is passion, countered David Hume. Which, then, is it to be? We know from recent empirical advances that it is our conceptual arrangement of the world which feeds our visceral (“gut”) feelings. That is, when my view of the world is held up against the world itself – specifically, where I encounter novelty, discrepancy, or interruption in the world around me – this leads to motivation. Even a dog, when faced with food which it does not expect to see in its bowl, is visibly affected.

In sum, what reason does is to modify our conceptual arrangement of the world. Our conceptual arrangement of the world, in turn, produces passion, whenever it contradicts the world. In this way, reason and passion are both masters and slaves. Reason does not directly control our passions, yet we may trace our passions back to reason.

Simply put: reason in, passion out.


  1. Reason has two functions: seeking truth and weighing expediency;
    if we can’t tell if it’ll rain, we’ll carry an umbrella as a precaution.

  2. What I recognize is that reason persists in simplifying things. Whenever a contradiction occurs, our mind knows that it enhances complexity and should be dissolved.

  3. Thank you, Chengde and Youngjin, for your insightful comments. I appreciate your solicitude (are such words legal on PI) ... ?

  4. Reason is like our glue to justify our descriptions; descriptions are connected with emotions. I wonder whether one comes first or next.(?) Culture influences reason as well; I think that if human being might have similarities in reason it is properly the experience when a description doesn't any longer affirm the idea one had of a description, and then encounters conflict, for reason has left you without description. This is change. Change is frightening, so we use reason as a tool to keep things static. However reason in itself shouldn't be that limited, the question is why human being tends to use reason in serving justification? As you mention Popper Thomas, are we not in contradiction with the principle of reason?

  5. I'm sceptical about the assumption that contradiction is something to be detected and avoided... it seems to me that in many areas - including philosophy - it is exactly where we find contradiction that we find meaning.

    I don't know how this fits with Chengde's and Tessa's intuitions, but I suspect we have here something of a jigsaw still...

    1. One who is sceptical, Martin, is one who questions or doubts something. That is, they think they see a contradiction. Your comment would seem to serve as proof of the thesis. If my thesis were false, presumably you would not have responded here.

      Something I failed to mention in my post, which Tessa may be hinting at, is that if reason is based on “flagging contradiction”, then it cannot build something from the ground up. It always has to work within a system which is born of contradiction.

  6. Er... I 'questions or doubt' the assumption that contradiction is something to be detected and avoided... !