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Philosophy professor stands to reason at book talk

By Jason Wong
On April 12, 2012

The UConn Co-op hosted a book talk by Dr. Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at UConn, about his book "In Praise of Reason" Wednesday afternoon. According to Lynch, the book defends two claims about reason: the first that democracy relies on debate, i.e. the free exchange of ideas, and the second that there are certain principles of rationalities that are superior to others, e.g. the scientific method.

Lynch began the talk with a thought experiment, asking the audience: "Would you force people to convert to your political thinking if given the ability to do so?" The point of the thought experiment was to demonstrate that most people have an inborn sense of basic principles of reason. Those principles affect what people think and how they make decisions.

He provided a statistic that roughly 60-75 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution and that only 14 percent of those self-reported that this belief was based on evidence. From this, it seems feasible that reasons come second to more arbitrary things like faith. If that's the case, Lynch asked then wouldn't the thought experiment from before be justified?

Lynch cited two sources of skepticism regarding the role of reason in human behavior. The first was the idea that reason is not efficacious to decision making. That is to say, emotions are the primary force behind our decisions, and rationalization is what occurs after the fact. Lynch posited that this line of thinking was "overstated," as well as being self-defeating and self-undermining. The second is the idea that reason not only gives way to emotion, but also to faith. That is to say, at the end of the day, basic principles are taken on faith.

He then gave a real life example of a controversy regarding the historical and scientific contents of Texan textbooks. "The true conflict is essentially this," Lynch said. "Which principles of knowing things are best? ...The reason we care about these disagreements is because they affect policy. We need a way to choose the superior principles of reason, what constitutes rationality."

Following this statement, Lynch read briefly from a passage at the end of Chapter One of his book; a quote by Michael Oakeshott, a conservative British philosopher of the 20th century. In it, Oakeshott condemned a political opponent of his as "The Rationalist," a man who was "an enemy of authority, tradition..." Lynch then stated that he was proud to fit the description that Oakeshott gave.

After his reading, Lynch took questions from the audience. He emphasized that reason and emotion aren't mutually exclusive. He said that to argue for a method of knowing, one had to appeal to something besides the truth. The principles he considered superior were so because they are democratic in that they don't place all knowledge in the hands of a privileged few.

Bret Gaulin, an 8th-semester political science major said, "He did a good job explaining what his book is about. It ties in to his other books, and is a good continuation of the exploration of truth in them."


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