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Are Reasons Complete Nonsense? A Three-Minute Course

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Except for Increasing Likelihood of Compliance, Bolstering Optimism, Offering Reassurance and Entertainment Value, Reasons Are a Useless Ego-Mind Exercise

How quickly come the reasons for approving what we like!
—Jane Austin

There is always a multitude of reasons both in favor of doing a thing and against doing it. The art of debate lies in presenting them; the art of life lies in neglecting ninety-nine hundredths of them.
—Mark Rutherford

A powerful, life-changing exchange took place during a break at a growth seminar several decades ago. This one happened to spot the trainer walking across the common area used for obtaining water, coffee and tea. Without hesitation, and having been troubled over some reason offered during the last group session, this one approached the short stout male trainer and asked if we could speak for a minute. Remember him stopping on a dime, pivoting in my direction and saying, “Sure. Shoot!”

This response was a little surprising, yet still in keeping with the direct style of the speaker and the training. Remember him looking directly into my eyes in my recounting how a reason mentioned during the last session neither sat well nor did I agree with it. He listened intently without interrupting. The exchange went something like this:

“Okay, then, got it. So what would count for you as a really ‘good reason,’ one you could really get behind and agree with?”

Losing my composure for a moment, in the face of this query, he waited patiently. After musing on the question for a few moments, remember responding with, “Well if it was more along the lines of what’s reasonable and workable, then that would make sense to me.”

He quickly responded, “That’s it!”

Here was one of those moments of being speechless. What was there to say to this?

Continuing without missing a beat, he said with a hint of a smile, “What I like to do is make up the most absurd, ridiculous and far-fetched ones imaginable. Futuristic science fiction, silly cartoons and really funny comedians are an inspiration. At least all of these have some entertainment value.”

Again, there was nothing to say. In the shock of the moment, remember laughing a lot. Seeing the shock and disbelief on my face, he added, “And if the one you picked ever gives up on you, like a tire that’s gone flat or an interest that no longer does it for you, then make up another one. It’s just as good, no kidding! They’re all made up anyways!”

Now there was laughter and lightness in the air between us along with hearty good will in seeing glimpses of Truth revealed. Remember him asking, “Is there anything else?”

Pausing and looking, this one merely smiled and said, “Actually, that more than answers my question. My profound thanks!”

With that he shook my hand, smiled broadly and went on his way walking at a good steady clip. This one just stood there, like following a huge wave that had just crashed over me without any advanced warning and no way to prepare, a refreshing wake-up call and deluge of ice water in the face.

Certainly as portrayed above, reasons do have entertainment value and offer a revealing look into the fictive mind’s conditioning in making sense of just about anything. Beyond all of this, on a purely practical level, you can’t help but notice that providing a brief description of what the point is of doing something often aids greater compliance, such as conducting an inventory to limit taxation, taking a shower to feel clean, or cleaning up the backyard for guests at a Summer barbeque. Other reasons serve to make something non-rational or irrational appear to be rational, what is commonly called the ego defense of rationalization. Illustrations include noting how missing the movie allowed more time to get work done around the house, being behind a slow car is a good thing since it prevented getting a speeding ticket from the policeman hiding behind a building, and having a paper rejected was a blessing in disguise since it demanded a conceptual breakthrough and the birth of a whole new paradigm. The power to rationalize well often functions to cognitively reframe difficult reality feedback to bolster confidence, enhance optimism and fend off discouragement, negativity and depression. So long as such rationalizations work with present reality, the downside looks negligible.

Outside reality, watch out! Outside of informal or formal symbolic logic, a reason is considered an abstract nouns which explains or justifies, what philosophers distinguish as explanatory reasons and justifying / normative reasons. Explanatory reasons are synonymous with ’cause’ since they serve to answer why an event occurred or why some state of affairs is the way it is. Illustrations of a motivating reason, one that offers the context of rational agents or beings that act for specific reasons, include running the washer to have clean dishes, going to a university to learn and prepare for a career, and seeing movies to be entertained.

Justifying / normative reasons are not the same since they give prescriptive explanations of how things ‘ought’ to be, why some state of affairs ought to come to be. Examples of justifying or normative reasons include: you should study to do well on your exam, someone ought to pick up the litter in the park to not attract vagrants, and everyone ought to vote to live in a Democracy. Normative or justifying reasons can be distinguished into epistemic / theoretical reasons that count in the favor of believing a proposition is true, and practical reasons which count in favor of taking some action or having some attitude. 1 With a few key exceptions, reasons function as a useless cerebral exercise for the fictive ego. What is gained in keeping them? Little. What is lost in giving them up? Very little. And your point is…?


1. “Reason (argument)” in Wikipedia (2011).

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