What is Reason? Talk

It has been a trying few months as I had major shoulder surgery in June and was unable to use my right arm and hand for at least four months. I fell behind on some things such as editing and uploading audio and video from past lectures. I hope to catch up on some of that over the semester break. In the meantime, here is the video on “What is Reason?” from my May 3, 2019 talk at the Sixth Annual Aquinas Leadership International Congress. I hope you will like, subscribe, and share.

Reason and Proper Function: A Response to Alvin Plantinga

My new book, published by Public Philosophy Press, Reason and Proper Function: A Response to Alvin Plantinga, has been released. The book may be ordered on Amazon or from any book retailer. Here is a blurb from the back of the book.

Philosopher, Edmund Gettier, famously challenged the sufficiency of the justified true belief (JTB) formulation of knowledge with his 1963 paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”. The “Gettier problem” has been a potential source of skepticism for many students of philosophy. Alvin Plantinga, seeking in part to address the fallout from the challenge Gettier poses to contemporary epistemology, proposes that there is an error with the way we have been envisioning what knowledge is.

Plantinga, in his three-volume set on Warrant, argues that justification is not necessary for knowledge. Instead, what he offers is warrant, where a true belief becomes knowledge by virtue of its being formed by cognitive faculties functioning properly in an appropriate environment and according to a good design plan. Plantinga’s new formulation of knowledge does not avoid skepticism.

Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton, in this small volume, provides critical analysis of the element of “proper function” in Plantinga’s reformulation of the definition of knowledge. She argues that reason in itself, as the laws of thought, cannot malfunction, nor can our cognitive faculties, or our use of reason. She argues that we should retain the original JTB account of knowledge with an added “carefulness criterion” to address some legitimate concerns raised by the Gettier problem.


Reason In Its Use: Part 1 Formative

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

The audio recording may be found here.

In my last episode, I spoke about reason in itself as the laws of thought. These laws are non-fallible first principles. They make thought possible. The next few episodes will describe how we use, fail to use, or misuse reason – the laws of thought. While the laws of thought are non-fallible, our application of those laws is highly fallible and is why we need to be educated in the science and art of right thinking.

Education in this area comes first by identifying what thinking is. It is self-evident that we think, and it is self-evident that there are laws of thought. But what counts as thought and what is not thought? We need to identify the nature of thinking and distinguish it from non-thinking, which, you can see, already involves us in the application of the law of identity. The first use of reason is to form concepts, judgments, and arguments, which are the forms of all thought.

Aristotle, in his logical works, describes the three acts of the understanding, what I call the three acts of the mind. The three acts of the understanding, or mind, will be one of four uses of reason that we will describe over the next few episodes.

The first act of the understanding Aristotle calls apprehension. Apprehension is conception, the first unit of thought. Our first use of reason is to form concepts. Concepts grasp the essential nature of a thing and express it with a word, term, or symbol. Concepts are in the mind and are expressed to others with a word. To “grasp” a concept is an activity of the mind whereby we strive to understand what a thing is. We can identify essential features of a thing and accidental features of a thing. Concepts are about being, properties, states, relations, or activities of being. Concepts do not exist outside the mind of a thinker.

Being has a nature, concepts abstract from being its essential features. Concepts identify, words name what we identify. For example, scientists discover aspects of the world that were previously unknown and name them as when Madam Curie discovered a new element and named it “Polonium.” The word used is conventional, she named the element after her homeland. But the reality she discovered is objective and the concept which the word “Polonium” grasps is the element Polonium that exists outside our minds in reality. We can understand the same reality by understanding what Polonium is – by grasping its nature.

We evaluate concepts in terms of meaning. Concepts are either meaningful or, they may lack meaning (for us). That is to say, we can grasp concepts more or less. Our understanding of a thing can always grow. We can continually deepen in understanding a concept.

We have attempted to identify what concepts are. When we identify something, we can also show what it is not. Concepts are logically paired. For example, concept and non-concept is a pair. Being and non-being. Dog and non-dog. God and non-God. Non-Concept would be all that is not a concept. We use the law of identity to identify and distinguish.

Concepts are often confused with other human activities. Concepts are not: percepts, images, feelings, or orderly behavior. Much more could be said about concepts, but perhaps we can leave it for a logic class to pick up?

Once we understand concepts, the most fundamental unit of thought, the second and third acts of the mind make sense. The second act of the understanding Aristotle calls judging. In forming judgments two concepts are joined together by “is” or “is not” (what is called affirmation or negation). For example, “the marker is on the table,” “the argument is sound,” and “the good is knowledge,” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false because they are making claims about reality. True or false is an application of the law of excluded middle. Something cannot be both true and non-true (false) in the same respect and at the same time. Truth is how the world is, it grasps reality.

What are judgments not? Judgments are not statements about our feelings, sensations, or personal preference, what we might call matters of taste. For example: “Chocolate is better than vanilla” is a matter of taste, it is not a claim that is either true or false. And yet, it looks like a judgment. Even a claim such as “the wall is blue” could be a matter of perception. Perhaps I am color blind. Philosophical claims are judgments about reality, something that all minds could potentially grasp if they wanted to. Often, they are highly contested judgments. Statements such as “matter is eternal” or “God is good” are claims that require further support. This takes us to the third and most complex unit of thought.

The third act of the understanding Aristotle calls demonstration. The third act of the mind is performed through argument. Arguments are meant to give rational justification for our judgments. Where judgments are meant to be truth claims, arguments are meant to deliver knowledge. Knowledge is objective and permanent. Arguments “tie down” a true belief.

Arguments use premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (also a judgment). For example, Premise: All men are mortal; Premise: Socrates is a man; Conclusion: Socrates is mortal. There is a force to arguments. They are compelling, though they may not persuade people. We have to respond to an argument. In addition, if we do not rely upon the force of reason, through argument, then we will resort to using emotion as a force, or we will resort to physical force to get our way. Force is a reality. As rational beings we must consider whether we want to use the force of reason or non-reason. Here is where the ethics of belief come in. As W.K. Clifford has said: “It is wrong always and everywhere for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The evidence needed is by means of reason.

Arguments are evaluated in terms of validity (which has to do with the form of an argument) and, soundness (which has to do with the form and content of an argument). Logic is the discipline for testing arguments. Since we have been contrasting what something iswith what it is not, we can ask, what isan argument not? Arguments are not mere disagreements with others. Arguments are not verbal battles. Arguments are not about tone of voice.

I have been talking about the formative use of reason, forming concepts, judgments, and arguments, the forms of all thought. This is what thinking is. What is thinking not? Thinking is not the same as intelligence, communication, orderly activity, feelings, or perception. We can say that concepts, judgments, and arguments are activities of a thinker, they are reasoning. Anything other than this is something other than reasoning.

We can reason badly. We can fail to form a concept well and we and use words without understanding fully. To correct this, we can ask one another “you used this word, what do you mean?” You used this word “freedom” what do you mean by “freedom?” And we can strive together to find its essential nature much like what Socrates spent his life doing. We can make false judgments, we can rationalize. To correct this, we can ask one another for evidence or proof for our judgment claims. Perhaps someone says to me “freedom is the highest good.” I can ask them to show me why I should believe this. I am asking for proof through an argument. We can also give each other pseudo-arguments, or informal fallacies. We can give invalid or unsound arguments. The possibility of error stresses our need to learn to identify what thinking is and the science and art of right thinking. We all use reason to form concepts, make judgments, and present arguments. We cannot help but do so. But we do so more or less well. We can become more conscious of how well we are thinking, and more consistent in thinking well.

To conclude: Concepts, judgments, and arguments are one way that we use reason, the laws of thought. There are a few other ways that humans use reason. We will explore the second way: “Reason is used to give meaning” in the next episode.


Reason in Itself: A Definition

I have started a podcast series on the topic of reason. Below is a transcript of the episode  “Reason in Itself: A Definition.”

You can listen to the series here.

Listen to this episode here.


Welcome to my series on Reason. Today I will be talking about reason in itself or a definition of reason. I’d like to read a quote to you from Aristotle’s Metaphysics book four:

“Let this, then, suffice to show that the most indisputable of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true… But on the other hand there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate. This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false …”

In this quote, Aristotle is reflecting upon the most certain of all beliefs – that contradictory statements cannot both be true. Here he is reflecting upon the nature of reason itself.

As a student and teacher of philosophy, I have been thinking about the nature and definition of reason for about 25 years. I am in the process of writing a paper for a conference in May on the topic of “Reason and its Other,” or what reason is and what it is not. I have a longer-term book project in the works on the subject as well. I think the topic is important because of the loss of reason in our day as is evidenced in contemporary political clashes, which I call public discourse disasters. Public discourse is a shared exchange of reasons. When we lack an understanding of what reason is, we will necessarily be lacking in our exchanges with one another. When we cannot or do not use reason to persuade, we will resort to emotional appeals and or the use of force to get what we want.

Discourse assumes the exchange of reasons. Reasons assume Reason. But what is reason? It is one of those things that we know what it is until we are asked that question. What is reason in itself? How would you define reason? What is its essential nature?

Reason in itself is the laws of thought as first described by Aristotle in Book IV of his Metaphysics. There are three laws of thought. The first law is the law of identity, which states: ais a. “A” stands for any a being or state, relation, property, or activity of a being. This includes imaginary being. Rock is rock, red is red, cold is cold, unicorn is unicorn, human is human. Or, as my Mom always says: “it is what it is.”

The second law of thought is the law of non-contradiction, which states: not both aand non-ain the same respect and at the same time. Rock is not non-rock. Red is not non-red. Cold is not non-cold. Unicorn is not non-unicorn, and human is not non-human. Some people object to the law of non-contradiction on the basis of some things being in a state of processes such as a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, or a man going through the process of balding. But at any moment in the process of change, that being is what it is at that given moment. That is why we add “at the same time.” A man is not both balding and non-balding at the same time. He is “balding-1” at time-1 and “balding-2” at time-2.

The third law is the law of excluded middle, which states: either aor non-a. Rock or non-rock, red or non-red, cold or non-cold, unicorn or non-unicorn, human or non-human. Some have resisted the law of excluded middle with the objection that this is “binary” thinking. Things are not so clear cut. Things are not black or white. We have to consider the many shades of grey. There may be legitimate questions to raise with binary thinking, but this is not where binary thinking is located. Instead, the laws of thought are “unitary” thinking – identifying one thing and distinguishing it from all else. The law of excluded middle does not state that things are either black or white. Instead, they are black or non-black, white or non-white, any shade of grey or non-shade of grey.

The laws of thought are not a human invention just as any other law is not a human invention. Aristotle may have written these laws down, but they are laws – an aspect of reality – that are discovered. These laws are first principles and are assumed any time we think. We automatically use them and cannot not use them. But don’t take it from me, try it out yourself. Try to think without identifying any object of your thought.

The laws cannot be proven but are the basis for any further proof. Do we prove the laws of physics? Or are they assumed in all that is physical? In MetaphysicsIV, Aristotle attempts a negative proof for the law of non-contradiction. I wrote about it in my book Retrieving Knowledgeif you want to read more on the negative proof. The laws of thought are not fallible, but our application of them is highly fallible. Our use of reason is fallible. This is why we must be taught to think well.

The laws of thought are foundational for logic, which is the science (or knowledge) and art (or technique) of right thinking. So, there is a knowledge of how to think and a technique for thinking right, and we must be taught. Are we being taught how to think right? Logic is the foundation for critical thinking, our use of reason.

Reason in itself (the laws of thought) is not the same as reasoning or the use of reason. In addition, the laws of thought must be distinguished from the faculty of rationality, or reason in us. I hope to explain more about how we use reason and how reason is a part of human nature in future episodes.

My theory is that if we can understand what reason is and what it is not, we will become more conscious of our loose use of the word “reason” and we will become more consistent in defining reason aright. Here is a challenge for the week: note the many ways people use the word “reason” but mean something other than the laws of thought. Drop me a line if you find examples, and I will incorporate them in future epis0des.

I put the question to my Facebook community “what are your questions about reason?” Some of the responses I got were: “What is reason’s relationship to faith?”; “Is reason affected by the fall of humankind?”; “How is “reason” related to reasons, rationalizations, and human reason?”; and “How is reason related to metaphysics and one’s worldview?” These are all good questions. I hope that this episode clarifies one of these questions: “How is “reason” related to reasons, rationalizations, and human reason?” I have begun to distinguish between reason in itself and our use of reason, which includes reasons and rationalizations. Additionally, I have distinguished between reason in itself and our faculty of rationality (or human reason). I will attempt to address the remaining questions in the future and incorporate them into my paper for the conference in May.



The “Principle” of Clarity

The Principle of Clarity begins with the statement that “some things are clear.” What is clear is clear to reason. Reason in itself is the laws of thought. Can one prove that some things are clear? Can one prove the laws of thought? Or are these first principles that allow for thought and proof?

The laws of thought are self-attesting, self-evident, and are what make thought possible. As such, the laws of thought cannot be proven, but are the necessary conditions for all proof. Aristotle says these laws are first principles and the most basic of all. He could not prove the laws but considered that a person might attempt to raise objections to the laws. I wrote about Aristotle’s negative proof for the laws of thought in my upcoming book Retrieving Knowledge. An excerpt of the negative proof may be found here. Self-evident first principles cannot be proven. However, to deny the laws of thought is to deny the possibility of significant speech since speech communicates thought. Are the laws of thought clear? If anything is clear, then ‘a’ is ‘a’ is clear.

Similar to Aristotle’s negative proof for the laws of thought, one can offer a negative proof for the Principle of Clarity. The contradiction of “some things are clear” is “nothing is clear.” Both statements cannot be true, and both cannot be false, by the law of non-contradiction. It is clear that either one or the other statement must be true. What are the implications of saying “nothing is clear”?

If nothing is clear, then no distinction is clear. The distinctions between a and non-a, being and non-Being, God and non-God, Good and non-good are not clear. If basic distinctions are not clear, then no distinctions are clear. If we cannot make distinctions then thought becomes impossible, and we lose significant speech. Loss of significant speech is a result of the loss of logical meaning. Loss of meaning at the most basic level is nihilism. Nihilism cannot be consistently held, nor can it be lived. One must affirm that some things are clear or they must give up integrity.


Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑