Friday, March 2, 2012

The Power of Human Reason

“Experience is the best teacher.” We’ve all heard that, and said it too. We believe it. What we have seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, handled with our own hands is more real to us than anything we merely “dream up” in our minds. We are children of the Enlightenment, thoroughly modern men and women, believers in the power of empirical research, informal as well as formal. Reasonable (and reasoning) people are more reliable, we believe, than those who rely on intuition or on the authority of others. And it works!

Or does it? That may depend upon a number of factors: the power of the intellect doing the reasoning, the reliability and comprehensiveness of the information it has at its disposal, the sensitivity of its organs of sense, the biases it brings to the operation of its reason, and much more. In other words, there are variables, and the quality of the variables makes reasoning a variable, and sometimes downright unreliable, exercise.

My first automobile, a 1949 Chevrolet, developed a problem. When it was “asked” to accelerate above a certain speed, or go up a hill, the engine began to sputter and the car lost speed. After some experimentation I found that the problem was a failing gas pump. I stored that information away, changed the fuel pump, and I was on my way.

A few months later, while on a trip, the car began to stall out at about 40 miles per hour. I pulled into a filling station and suggested to the mechanic on duty that the fuel pump must be failing. The symptom was very similar to the previous problem. He lifted the hood and had me accelerate the engine. Ah, there was a pinhole in the upper radiator hose that, when the pressure built up at higher speeds sent a stream of water onto the distributor causing it to short out at higher speeds. New radiator hose and I was on my way.

Some years later, my 1952 Mercury developed the same symptom, stalling out at about 40 miles per hour. I took it to a mechanic and told him what I had learned in the previous two experiences. He said he thought he knew the problem. That particular car had a fault in the distributor so that when the engine speeded up and the distributor turned – as it was designed to do – a wire that circled the distributor shaft was drawn around the shaft. Eventually the insulation wore off and the wire shorted out against the distributor shaft. New wire, and I was on my way.

In 1960 when my new Ford developed the same problem I had it figured out. Same auto maker – same problem – a wire touching the distributor shaft. No, I was informed; that problem had been solved by redesigning the distributor. In this case it was a matter of a cracked distributor cap. New cap, and I was on my way.

In each case I was doing all that a child of the Enlightenment could be expected to do. I carefully observed and “recorded” my experiences and applied those experiences to similar situations. I formulated an hypothesis based on previous experience and current circumstances. But still I got it wrong 100% of the time. I haven’t lost faith in the power of human reasoning but my faith in it has been tempered by those – and by many subsequent – experiences.

And it should be. Human reason alone is insufficient to provide us with the guidance we need to navigate our world with relative success. In future essays I want to talk about other things that should supplement our reasoning skills; things like trust (faith), cooperation, humility, and providence.

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