1) The Reason for Reason
Most of what will follow in this essay is fairly obvious and straight forward. Where this disagrees from the norm will be in subtle details. There are two points to this essay. One would be to explain the purpose of reason to someone who was sceptical of it. The second will become clear when subtle points made in this essay is used to defend later ones.
What is reason?
We all talk about reason, seeing reason, using reason, being rational, what exactly is it and why are we doing it?
Sometimes when we use a word or concept so much we can take it for granted and forget where it came from. When this happens, we might want to take a step back and try to imagine how we would explain it to someone who had not come across it before, or remember how we first came across it ourselves.
To me, reason is the method by which we settle disputes over the truth.
This dispute needn't be between two people. Perhaps you yourself have found yourself with two beliefs that contradict themselves. Perhaps you are entertaining a position that contradicts a belief of yours in order to test this belief against possible objections.
When we come across two positions that contradict each other, only one of them can be right. How do we choose which one? This is where the methods of reason come into play.
From here, there are two approaches to take.
One would be to build positive arguments in favour of your position.
Perhaps you can show that your position logically follows from beliefs that your opponent holds.
Another possibility is to show problems in your opponents argument. Perhaps their position contradict other beliefs of theirs, or perhaps you
It is possible an argument will be a clear cut, undisputable, absolute proof.
In reality, especially with more complex arguments, the difference won't be so clear cut and we will have to settle by noting that one position faces more problems than the other or that one position has a stronger case in it's favour.
Ways to criticise and defend a position
There appear to be two main ways to criticise a position, both of which are coupled with a corresponding method of justification.
The first one involves a use of logic.
You can use logic to criticise a position by showing a contradiction in your opponent's position. It might be that their position contradicts another one of their beliefs, or maybe the position itself involves an internal contradiction.
The corresponding positive argument is logical inference, where you show that your opponent denies your position they contradict one of their beliefs in the process, so they must choose between accepting your position or giving up this belief of theirs.
I write more about logic in another essay.
The other way to criticise an opponents belief involves observation.
If we are debating the existence of a mythical creature then the observation might be of the creature. We might criticise an observation by claiming that they saw something else and mistook a different animal for the mythical creature, maybe back this up with reasons why they might've made this error, e.g. they weren't wearing their glasses.
On the other hand, we could make a positive argument by showing someone this creature with their own eyes, so they observe it for themselves.
The type of observation will vary with the question.
For instance, questioning the tautology "all bachelors are married" involves questioning the meanings of the words involved. We could settle a dispute on the meanings of words by observing how other people use them, or observe how we ourselves tend to use them in particular contexts.
A mind experiment can be an observation in this way, as it observes how we naturally apply the concepts we are looking at.
So why reason?
It's not that reason in general needs justifying - after all, the demand for justification is itself an action of reason. It's that reason can be applied in various ways, each way for a different purpose, so particular applications might need justifying.
That's why it is worth recognising the purpose of reason, so we can recognise when we are mis-using it.
If we were to dispute whether cows exist then we could settle the question by observing the physical object of the cow.
If, on the other hand, the dispute was over the existence of there being a prime number between 3 and 6, trying to observe a physical object would be completely the wrong way to go about it - you would have to seriously misunderstand the question at hand to try and solve it through that method.
This example is obvious and is not a mistake that we are likely to make in real life, but it shows the kind of mistake that can be made and might make us wonder if there are more subtle examples that we might have missed.
One of the key points of the essays that follow will be to take account for a factor that many of us seem to forget - that reason is done for a purpose and when this is forgotten the rules of reason can be mis-applied, sometimes dogmatically.
Another key point is that reason is something we do, so if we say that someone's belief is irrational then we are making claims about how the person has treated that belief rather than the content of that belief. So to claim that theism is irrational already sounds a bit strange as the rationality is being judged by the content of the belief, rather than how the person in question came to this belief.