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Posted by on May 3, 2007 in reason | 10 comments

Why reason isn’t just another form of thought-control

In the last post I made a well-known philosophical distinction – between trying to influence people’s beliefs by means of rational persuasion and reason, and trying to shape their beliefs by means of purely causal mechanisms (which range from brainwashing and hypnotism to peer pressure – I’ll give more examples in a later post).

Some post-modern and other thinkers will insist, of course, that this distinction is a bogus one. According to them, “reason” is a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms (for of course there is really no truth for it to be sensitive to). Reason is, in reality, just another form of power – of thought control. It is essentially as coercive and/or manipulative as any other mechanism.

But this is to overlook the fact that while a rational argument can, in a sense, “force” a conclusion on you, the “force” involved is normative, not causal. Let me explain…

Causal determination determines what will happen. For example, given the causal power of these rails to direct this train, the train will go to Oxford. Normative determination, on the other hand, determines not what will happen, but what ought to. It is an entirely distinct type of determination.

A rational argument shows you what you ought to believe if you want to give your beliefs the best chance of being true. Take this valid deductive argument:

All men smell
John is a man
Therefore, John smells.

To recognise that this argument is valid is just to recognize that if you believe that all men smell, and that John is a man, then you ought to believe that John smells. But of course this argument doesn’t causally compel you to accept that conclusion even if you do accept the premises. You’re entirely free to be irrational.

This isn’t to deny that rational arguments have causal power. Of course they do. A good argument can have the power to change history (consider the wonderful arguments of Galileo, or the campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce). But when rational arguments have the causal power to shape people’s thinking, they typically have it as a result of their having normative power. People change their opinions precisely because they recognize the normative force of the argument.

[Notice, by the way, that we can easily demonstrate that a rational argument doesn’t have normative power simply in virtue of its having the causal power to shape people’s thinking (though critics who fail to understand the difference between normative and causal determination or “force” will obviously miss this point). The obvious counter-example is fallacious argument. A fallacious argument lacks any normative power. But notice that, if the fallacy is seductive, it will still have considerable causal power to shape belief.]

So rational arguments have causal powers. But that is not to say that rational argument is in reality just another purely causal mechanism alongside e.g. brainwashing and peer pressure.

I have stressed how rational argument differs from purely causal mechanisms for influencing belief. First, in the previous post, I explained how rational argument is truth-sensitive, while purely causal mechanisms are typically not. Now I have added the point that, rational arguments, while also possessing causal power to shape belief, typically have this power in virtue of their normative power. The kind of “determination” a rational argument “imposes” on us is, in the first instance, normative, not causal.

Indeed, as I also pointed out in the previous post, when you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms – peer pressure, emotional manipulation, repetition, and so on – you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order – as mere things.

So to sum up, we have seen that, when it comes to shaping belief, rational argument differs from taking the purely causal route in at least three important ways:

(i) it is truth-sensitive (whereas purely causal mechanisms typically are not)
(ii) while rational arguments can be causally powerful, their causal power typically derives from their normative power – which is a distinct, non-causal form of “power”.
(iii) Rational argument allows for an important form of freedom – a freedom that the purely causal mechanisms actually strip from us.

Next time a “post-modern” etc. insists that reason is just another form of manipulative power or thought-control, you might try pointing these differences out…


  1. Stephen,Well put.In Louis Pojman’s introductory anthology to philosophy, he includes this anecdote:”In the 1990’s a professor, call him D, from the English department at a major university, gave a talk on political biases in university curriculum, arguing that curricula are oppressive to women and minorities. After the speech, a philosopher came up to D and pointed out that he, D, had contradicted himself in his speech. The English professor responded, saying, ‘So, what’s wrong with that? Look young man, I’m sure you know more logic than I do, but I know more about logic than you do! I know that it’s a phallologocentric instrument for the oppression of minorities.”I wonder who D might be (Derrida, perhaps?).

  2. “Reason is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of the senses… Reason in language–oh, what an old deceptive female she is!”-The Twilight of the IdolsPS. “Those English philosophers … profoundly stupid.”- The Genealogy of MoralsPPS.”Will to truth”, philosopher’s prejudice, infatuation with logic, blah blah blah – (BGE);)

  3. Regarding D: His actual claim is that logic is ONLY “a phallologocentric instrument for the oppression of minorities”. However in that case anyone using logic is a phallologocentric oppressor of minorities – anyone, say, like D himself . He had to have used logic to come to that conclusion.D’s behaviour is like adolescent graffiti-scrawling.

  4. I agree, but I’d phrase this bit differently: “when you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision”.Sounds like doxastic voluntarism to me. I’d say that when you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s ability to make a rational decision – which is to say that you respect them as being rational rather than merely malleable.(Minor quibble though.)

  5. Hi TomI want to keep “freedom”. Yes, I am thinking Kant – freedom and respect for persons.However, there is then an issue about free will and physical determinism, which I guess is what you are worrying about? I.e. if we are physically determined, then we don’t have free will, but then we cannot make free rational judgements and decisions. That your worry?If so, well, you may be right, depending on what we mean by “free”. There may still be a sense, I think, in which rational persuasion allows for a KIND of freedom that the purely causal mechanisms strip from us. This kind of freedom might be compatible with e.g. physical determinism. So I’m not sure I have to give up “freedom”.And in fact, given that rational argument does not causally determine what you believe, rational argument (I can still maintain) does allow for a kind of freedom that purely causal mechanisms take from us. It’s just that maybe something else – physical determinism, then takes even that freedom free us. But maybe it doesn’t. It’s an interesting question….

  6. Hi StephenThe free will issue is in the neighbourhood, but my point was narrower (and I think it can be made without needing any position on FW): that we don’t voluntarily choose our own beliefs, but rather we find ourselves compelled to them (whether by logic or evidence or slick presentation or force of habit).I can’t, for instance, just decide to believe that Hamburg is the capital of France or that god exists or that voting BNP would make the country better.Where I suppose there is room for making a choice is in deciding whether to critically examine arguments for and against some belief. In that case, one chooses to direct as much of the belief-causing process as one can through the filter of rationality.Now I think about it, this decision itself could be made on rational or non-rational grounds. Which suggests that using rational argument to promote rationality will only work if it’s preaching to the (partly) converted. Otherwise, we’d have to use non-rational means to persuade someone. That’s tricky…

  7. Ah right. Yes you cannot choose what to believe (except by hiring a hypnotists etc.)Mind you, the point about different senses of “freedom” may still apply. Yes, there’s a sense in which we are never free to believe what we want. But then there’s also a sense in which we are free to believe what we (no one’s brainwashed us, or threatened us with torture or imprisonment). Not sure I am not still entitled to “free”.Your last point is interesting but bear in mind that to allow someone the space to think rationally and make their own judgement is not yet to say that the belief they end up with must be rationally justified. What matters, from my perspective is that they have been allowed to subject it to critical scrutiny.There is a problem about saying everything belief must be rationally justified, for how do you justify reliance on rationality in a non-circular way?But I am not saying that every belief must be rationally justified. I am suggesting all beliefs should be open to rational, critical scrutiny.Notice that even the belief that beliefs should be open to critical scrutiny can be open to critical scrutiny – no circularity there….Of course, it may be I cannot ultimately rationally justify the idea that we ought to be rational in any non-circular way. However, even a religious nutter does not entirely eschew reason. In fact they rely on it constantly. The just veto it when it comes a very restricted domain of beliefs – religious beliefs. In which case, they are the “partially converted”. There may well be enough common ground between us for me to show them that, rationally speaking, given what we both agree on, they should accept that their religious beliefs should be subject to rational scrutiny too.

  8. Interesting post. Some unstructured musing.There is that remark of Hume’s about the philosophy of Berkeley that although he could find no fault in the argument, ‘yet it does not convince’. The rationale for causality that he himself offered seems trifling in comparison to its place in scientific reasoning. In moral questions there is an even greater difficulty. What is normative for you, for me may be sheer folly. Are all forms of moral persuasion only in reality indoctrination because even though I may agree that your reasons are good or that we share a belief in some moral system there is not a fundamental reason for the preference of one system over another. We lack those ultimate grounds. Is it culturally safe to restrict the rational to the apodeictic? What of poetry? It is notable that when Plato discusses things that are difficult in the dialogues he first asks whether the poets had anything to say about them. Sidebar: was that perhaps irony given his views on poetry in ‘The Republic’. Anyway what I’m coming at is that there is knowledge by connaturality and that we achieve a position not only by being persuaded of it but also by being it. “But in all such matters that which appears to the good man (to be good) is thought to be really so. If this is correct, as it seems to be, and excellence and the good man as such are the measure of each thing,…. “(Nich.Ethics X.5.15pass.) The young male philosopher may be astonished at women’s grasp of a world of causality and rationality in a single symbolic act. What you really are is what you spontaneously do. That is Sophia for you!

  9. Reasoning, called Inference in Indian philosophy, is one of the means of establishing a truth. It is aptly recognized by Nyaya that inference is to employed when direct observation is not feasible or is inclusive even.An example from the Nyaya Sutra.1. That hill is fiery [proposition to be proved]2. Because it has smoke [grounds of inference]3. All things that have smoke are fiery [for example heart]4. That hill too has smoke.5. Therefore that hill is fieryAn Aristotelian fundamentalist may balk at this syllogism. He would use first three or last three statements only. But this five part syllogism is deductive as well as inductive. Statement 3 is an universal observation. Statement 4 links the smoke and fire.Even by the farthest stretch of imagination, this example cannot be taken as case of indoctrination. Dogma will arise due to the following reasons:1. If smoke is sought to be inferred from a fiery object.2. If absence of smoke is taken to mean absence of fire.3. If the observer is not able to establish presence of smoke, because it may be mist. Indoctrination can be imposed by the defective inferential process like this:Book of Exodus is trueBecause it is word of godWhatever is word of God is true, for example GenesisExodus too is word of GodThere Exodus is true.This is defective because:God is not an empirically established truth.Exodus is true only if Genesis is true, but truth of Genesis is not established. Even if God does exist it is not established that his word is invariably true. So truth of Exodus, and by implication, that of Bible is not established beyond a “reasonable” doubt. If this example is used ad nauseum it is case of indoctrinationR. C. Sharmarcscwc@yahoo,co,in

  10. I will elaborate further. Consider:John is a manAll men are mortalsSo, John is mortal.It is clear that ALL men have not been observed to be moral. What if just one man is found to be “immortal”? But first, you will havr to be immortal to observe such an immortal man. Immortality still cannot be established even if you you and your subject live for zilion. You can die before he “dies” years and your experiment comes to a nought. But the subject could still after another trillion years.There immortality is impossible to establish. But mortality is known to be a fact by empirical observations. Let us restate our reason.1. John is a mortal2.Because John is a man [this is the ground. His man-ness is the gound of his mortality]3. All men have been found to be mortal [example Plato etc]4. john too is a man5. Therefore John is mortal.The difficulty of establishing the immortality is by-passed. The inference now is based on the present status of knowledge. It can be revised as and when an immortal man is found.R C

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