Evaluate the Strengths and Weaknesses of Reason as a Way of Knowing

There are four main ways of knowing – reason, perception, language and emotion. However each one of them have their own strengths and weaknesses and only by knowing them will we be able to better use these ways of knowing to gain knowledge. This essay will seek to examine the strengths and weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing. Reason is often seen as one of the most powerful ways of knowing – for it ‘seems to give us certainty’ (Lagemaat, 112). Reason uses logic to form arguments and conclusions.

A benefit of reason using logic in reason is that it allows us access to innate or a priori knowledge – knowledge we cannot access any other way. One definition of A priori knowledge is innate knowledge that is not derived from experience but rather, are universal rules that we apply. (Cahn,Eckert,Buckley). There are several different forms that reason takes but these are mainly inductive and deductive reasoning – which will be discussed later in the essay. A major strength of reason as a way of knowing is that the information we gather from using it is certain.

This is a great strength because we are provided with a strong prediction model that we can build knowledge upon, thus providing us with information that we can believe to be true. We look to how this is applied in an area of knowledge the natural sciences. Take for instance the concept of neutralization reactions in Chemistry. In theory we know that a base would react with an acid to produce salt and water – a hypothesis that, up till this point, has been proven to be true – to form a salt and water. If we are presented with the following argument:

All bases react with acids to form salt and water. Unknown sample X reacted with an acid and formed salt and water. We can conclude that unknown sample X is a base. We used deductive reasoning to arrive at the conclusion above. Deductive reasoning provides us with a conclusion that is absolutely certain. The way deduction works is that we go from general premises to a specific conclusion (Langemaat, 234). Like the example above, so far we have seen that all acid-base reactions produce water and salt thus we believe sample X is a base as well.

At this point in time, there is no dispute against the law of the acid-base reaction and this will remain a law of chemistry. This certainty reason provides is an extremely important strength as this shows that reason allows us to create strong foundations that can be expanded upon. However with this certainty that reason brings, it has its weaknesses too. The first weakness of reason as a way of knowing is that it is limited. While we realise that unknown sample X is a base, this is all we know of it.

This is where the weakness of deductive reason lies, it provides us with an extremely certain conclusion so that we can build upon our foundations that have been set but at the same time, we are limiting our knowledge to just this small scope. Also, the certainty of the conclusion depends on the truth of the premises. How can we prove that these premises are true? We believe that the premises are true because they have not been renounced as of yet. However if they were in fact wrong, our conclusion would be false as well resulting in a completely false argument.

From this we can see that while reason can provide us with very certain conclusions, it limits us to building knowledge upon a specific foundation and the truth of the conclusion is based on the truth of the premises. The next strength of reason helps us generate laws to explain abstract concepts and gain this knowledge in areas that our senses cannot reach. This is a very important strength of reason as it shows how detached reason is from the empirical and sense perception. We look to the natural sciences once again – the concept of temporary dipole attraction between diatomic molecules.

If we have the following argument: I, Br and Cl form temporary dipoles I, Br and Cl are group VII halogens Therefore, all halogens form temporary dipoles. This example shows how definitions and laws in the natural sciences are formed and how we use reason to do so. The example above uses induction, a method of reason that involves going from the specific to generate a general conclusion. This is how laws of the abstract are formed in science – we are unable to use sense perception or empirical knowledge, since we cannot see dipoles, to formulate these laws, we use reason to arrive at these conclusions.

However, this is where the weakness of reason comes in as well. The problem with using induction is that these conclusions could have been arrived at in an incorrect way. The fact that these conclusions drawn are that of something abstract, how do we prove for sure that it is not another variable that affects it? Furthermore, what happens when in the future, when something that is not a halogen is discovered to form a temporary dipole. What happens to our definition of what can form temporary dipoles then? This is the weakness of reason in the natural sciences.

Many times, Science applies inductive reasoning and even if a hypothesis is subject to uncountable experiments and stands irrefutable at this present time, it might not be true in the future. Since the natural sciences are a combination of the math and empirical, we cannot solely rely on our a priori knowledge. Science’s discoveries are often based on observations and this flout’s the rules of rationalism. When our senses are involved, our ability to reason might be compromised and lead to false premises and thus false conclusions.

However, this is where experimentation comes in to prove as far as we can the extent of scientific truth and discovery. Therefore when it comes to the natural sciences, reasoning has its strengths in clearly defining and classifying various concepts that are senses cannot reach. However, reason falls short in the test of time, where we do not know what future results might yield as well as the possibility of mixing our senses into our premises, leading to false concepts to begin with.

Thus, we can conclude that reason is limited in science by time and the extent of knowledge we already have. Even though reason might follow a logical flow, one may still arrive at false conclusions due to problems in our web of coherence. This is a major weakness of reason as we jump to hasty conclusions and cause us to make fallacious statements. For example, in the area of knowledge of the human sciences, analysts have been trying to identify patterns in human behaviour and events. Take for instance in a certain country, crime rates reach an all time high.

Analysts would be looking for the factor that caused this and if at the exact same time there was a decrease in abortions, they might form this argument Crime rates increased Abortion rates decreased Therefore the decrease in abortions caused the increase in crime rates. This is an example of a fallacy called ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ where (wikipedia). This fallacy occurs when we assume that event A is the cause of event B just because B comes after A. The example above is guilty of committing this fallacy of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ as it quickly concludes based on two events that happened at the same time.

The analyst may argue that he used logic to reason out this relation but in actual fact there might have been many other factors that contributed to this increase in crime and violence. This example illustrates the weakness of reason as even though this is a sound argument, its premises are not the cause of each other and thus the argument is invalid. To conclude, we can see that reason has a significant role in many of the areas of knowledge but also presents many shortcomings, especially when experience and other factors come in. We are empirical creatures and it is difficult to always think rationally and logically.

As Thomas Aquinas once said, ‘Most men seem to live according to sense rather than reason. ’ Perhaps this then is the major weakness of reason as a way of knowing – it cannot exist alone but needs to coexist with the other ways of knowing. Works Cited Cahn, Steven M. , Maureen Eckert, and Robert Buckley. Knowledge and Reality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004. Print. Alchin, Nicholas. Theory of Knowledge. London: John Murray, 2003. Print. Lagemaat, Richard Van De. Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

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