The Reason Delusion: The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

Invoking reason in support of an argument is like banging on the table.[i]

Those who invoke ‘reason’ are essentially asserting that ‘if you ‘reason’ in the right way, then you’ll agree with them; if you don’t agree with them, that ‘proves’ that you haven’t ‘reasoned’ in the right way.’

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is claimed to have ushered in the ‘age of reason’. And to give credit where it’s due, it did bring some relief to the plight of many people. It also fed the appetite for revolution against the authority of self-appointed political and religious rulers. But there was a dark side of the Enlightenment which remains to this day.

There were essentially two broad philosophical camps in this ‘new’ way of ‘thinking’. The first claimed that knowledge could be attained when reason is applied to our experiences in life as they are processed through our physical senses. In philosophical-speak, this was called ‘empiricism’. Basically it means that we make it up as we go along.

The other camp claimed that the application of ‘reason’ alone was sufficient to acquire knowledge, because knowledge was an innate attribute of human beings. But unlike Buddhism, for example, they could not explain the precise mental technique to be applied in order to access this knowledge, other than the application of ‘reason,’ of course. These were called the ‘rationalists’.


Along with the Enlightenment there was a parallel ‘philosophy’ developing across the sea in England, also claimed to be rooted in the application of reason. It was championed by that most pernicious of philosophers, a certain Jeremy Bentham. Bentham claimed to have made the revolutionary ‘discovery’ that human beings prefer pleasure to pain. So he devised a ‘philosophy’ centered on maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. This became known as Utilitarianism.

Immanuel Kant – the Hybrid Philosophy

Immanuel Kant, probably one of the few philosophers the average person could identify if asked to name a philosopher, blended these various camps to create a hybrid philosophy. Essentially he claimed that ‘practical reason’ makes known to human beings a ‘moral law’ which, when violated, ‘makes even the boldest sinner tremble.’ But he couldn’t identify what this ‘moral law’ was. So he simply asserted that it was ‘presented to us for our obedience.’ But that did not mean that we shouldn’t also seek pleasure and avoid pain. We only need to curtail our appetite for pleasure when it offends the ‘moral law’. That’s what ‘practical reason’ tells us.

The Reason Delusion

Now all these philosophers got so ‘puffed up with vanity’[ii] at their new discoveries that we could be forgiven for wondering whether they had invented some brand new way of thinking – by applying ‘reason’. Kant even discovered two distinct kinds of ‘reason’ – ‘pure reason’ and ‘practical reason’.

‘Reason’ thus became the new religion. Instead of invoking the authority of the divine or royal blood to impose their will and beliefs on others, the new ‘rationalists’ invoke their superior ability to ‘reason’. ‘Reason’ is the rhetorical weapon wielded to belittle those who disagree with them.

But the fact is, ‘reason’ on its own account tells us nothing.

The Human Brain

The human brain comprises three broad faculties, each made up of neurological networks – instinct, morality and reason.

Humans share most of the primitive instincts possessed by animals, such as the instincts for reproduction, survival and security. But they also have a number of peculiarly human instincts, such as the instinct to understand how the world works. This latter instinct improves the human ability to service the more primitive carnal instincts. For example, knowing how to cast iron helped humans to hunt better, and to better dispose of perceived threats.

Pleasure and Pain

All these human instincts are activated by the prospect of pleasure, or the fear of pain. And that’s where ‘reason’ comes in. When some or other instinct dangles before ‘reason’ the promise of pleasure, or the risk of pain, ‘reason’ springs into action. It devises ways to maximize pleasure, and eliminate, so far as possible, the risk of suffering pain.

Animals do the same, of course. But here is the difference. Once animals have satisfied the urge for pleasure or eliminated a perceived threat, they move on. Not humans. With their enhanced capacity to ‘reason’, they devise all manner of mischief to service their insatiable appetite for pleasure, and to eliminate even the remotest threat to their survival, security, or indulgence in pleasure.

‘Reason’ in the service of primitive human instinct has caused human beings to inflict the most unspeakable atrocities, degradations and humiliations upon their fellow human beings, mostly without a hint of remorse. It accounts for war, betrayal, slavery, poverty, starvation, genocide, child abuse, greed, deceit, murder. In short, it accounts for everything we call evil. And we find it everywhere, from the playground to the corridors of power; and especially in the corridors of power.

The Moral Network

But there is hope. And that hope comes in the form of a moral network within the human brain. The moral network acts as a restraint on instinct by appealing for an audience with ‘reason’. If granted a hearing, the moral network counsels ‘reason’ to resist over-indulging the demands of our primitive instincts. It can even counsel suppressing primitive instinct entirely by renouncing pleasure and courting pain. But that’s for the saints.

For the rest of us, activating the neurological moral network on a sufficiently wide scale is the only real hope for the future. But it will require a supreme effort, because catering to the demands of our primitive instincts has become a twisted kind of ‘virtue’.

Modern Context

There are encouraging signs, however. There are signs that people are beginning to see through the fog of deception. They are beginning to recognize that ‘reason’ is not the preserve of a select few. And they are beginning to realize that ‘reason’ is not some ‘supernatural’ force that can elevate human beings to new heights of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘civilization’. They are becoming wise to the ‘reason delusion’.

What is really happening is that the neurological moral network is awakening in many people. And that awakening directly challenges the cozy alliance between ‘reason’ and instinct. The internal struggle within each of us to escape from bondage to our primitive instincts is also playing out in the political and economic arena as a struggle by the people to escape from bondage to political and corporate servitude.

In every sense, it is becoming a battle between good and evil. Perhaps it is even nearing the final battle. The outcome will determine the future of humanity. But we should be in no doubt that the forces of ‘reason’ in service to primitive instinct will stop at nothing to get their way. The dark side of the Enlightenment has served them well, and they intend to hang on to it at any cost.

Now this may all sound very apocalyptic. But we should not underestimate the ‘irrationality’ of ‘reason’ in the service of primitive instinct. Neither should we underestimate the rage of a neurological moral network that has been deceived, abused and violated for too long.

The battle lines have been drawn. The first skirmishes are under way. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Either way, it’s going to get very ugly.


Copyright © Joseph BH McMillan 2016 All Rights Reserved.


[i] Adapted from the jurist Alf Ross on ‘justice’.

[ii] A description of scientists by Albert Schweitzer.

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