"Romance Me, You Reasonable Man!"

Understanding the role of reason, in humanism and life.

Posted Apr 22, 2012

As any lawyer knows, in determining whether a defendant has acted negligently, courts will usually consider an accident from the standpoint of an “ordinary reasonable man” (or, in modern times, the more gender-neutral “ordinary reasonable person”). Did the defendant operate his motor vehicle as an ordinary reasonable man, similarly situated, would have? If so, then he was not negligent.

The hypothetical “ordinary reasonable man” is sometimes the subject of joking among lawyers, since such a personality, someone who is reasonable in all situations, is not only an impossibility, but undesirable as well. “Consider for a moment what it would be like to be married to this mythical reasonable man,” my torts professor once mused.

Indeed, we rarely think of dispassionate reason when we ponder matters of attraction. Both sexes know that reason is not what usually drives desire, even if an intellectual connection might often be a factor. Few men have fallen asleep into dreams of Angelina Jolie saying, “Romance me, you reasonable man!”

Reason is an important concept, of course, critical to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, certainly foundational to the secular worldview. This is why the secular community's event on the National Mall was called the Reason Rally, and why secular groups often include "reason" in their names (i.e., the United Coalition of Reason and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science).

All of this emphasis on reason, however, has sometimes resulted in seculars being seen as akin to the hypothetical “ordinary reasonable man.” Viewed as overly intellectual, head-only rationalists, seculars are even accused, laughably, of "worshipping science."

With this in mind, a recent article by Michael Werner, a longtime humanist activist and former president of the American Humanist Association, is particularly pertinent. In this insightful piece appearing in the March-April issue of The Humanist, Werner explains how reason, while central to the humanist worldview, should be understood in appropriate context. The article is a valuable read not just for religionists wishing to better understand secularity, but also for seculars who might struggle to comprehend some of the broad humanist concepts beyond empiricism.

Humans, though capable of rational thinking, are not lifeless computers, but animals that have been shaped by genetics and culture to act and think in certain ways that are not always dictated by reason. Without retreating an inch from a naturalistic and nontheistic worldview, Werner explains that there are important aspects of the human experience that cannot be subjected to empirical validation. “There is no way I can prove I love my wife, suffer shame, or experience ecstasy,” he explains, pointing out that life sometimes involves actions other than the pursuit of verifiable knowledge.

Some hard-core rationalists might cringe at the thought of any acknowledgement of non-rational value, but Werner shows that such a reaction would be unjustified. Surely the scientific method is the key to attaining truth and knowledge, but the importance of truth-seeking is not diminished by an acknowledgement of the obvious: that humans do many things other than seek knowledge. This fact certainly does not legitimize supernaturalism; it simply recognizes human actions and brain functions beyond reasoning, without giving any weight to mysticism and superstition.

Theism makes the mistake of assuming that truth can be attained and explained via supernaturalism. The humanist rejects such notions, but nonetheless still appreciates art, beauty, emotion, and other impulses and experiences. Though such phenomena have little to do with rationalism, Werner calls them “the deepest dimensions of what it means to be human.”

These non-reason-based tendencies are not all good. They include love and creativity, but they also include inclinations to violence, tribal instincts, sexism, and anxiety and panic, to name just a few of our less admirable characteristics. Ironically, via reason and science we can now understand that such tendencies are part of the human experience mainly because they had survival value as our ancestors struggled for existence through a chain of evolution for thousands of millennia. Without such inclinations, the human animal as we know it would not exist. This allows us to better understand our impulsive, emotional, passionate, reflexive, unreasonable, and irrational selves, which can help us shape sensible values that work in the real world.

Thus, by recognizing that reason is not everything, we can better appreciate how vitally important it is. Werner calls attention to Socrates, who suggested that our inner lives are akin to a chariot pulled by the twin horses of emotion and appetite, which are in turn controlled by the rider, reason. If we locked the horses of emotion and appetite in stalls, never to be set free, we would be but inanimate machines, assessing the world around us in cold and impersonal terms. When we let the horses out, hopefully guided by the rider, we inevitably get taken on a journey that will result in many thrills, joys, and agonies. Welcome to the human family.


Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, the new book from David Niose, will be released by Palgrave Macmillan in July. It can be pre-ordered here.

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