I was coming out of the staff club when I ran into a colleague going into it. I changed direction and went in with him. It was a pleasant dinner and by the time we all worked our way to its conclusion someone managed to say: “But surely reason is universal.”
“Well, if you have scientists from U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. and France and Britain and Japan at a conference, they are able to arrive at conclusions in common.”
“True but you also have controversy in science, with scientists differing among themselves.”
“But they can always appeal to empirical verification to establish whose reasoning is correct through experiment, or through observation as in the case of astronomy.”
“But to the extent that a line of reasoning is verifiable it is extra-subjective and the way to really settle an issue is to make it extra-subjective. Reason, however, is intra-subjective, and it remains in the realm of reason only to the extent that it is debatable.”
“No. Your approach draws a fundamental distinction between science and other forums of reasoning but the scientific method is only one form of reasoning. As a matter of fact there is no such thing as the scientific method.”
“No. A lot of work has been done on this point by philosophers of religion.”
“But if reason is so universal in its operation and the scientific method, so to say, also falls in the domain of reason, then why do scholars agree that the earth is spherical (pace the Flat Earth Society) but do not agree whether God exists or not?”
“Because in the latter case there are good reasons for and against and because science, so to say, is a special case of reason.”
“It is so special that its conclusions command an acceptance denied to reason in its other applications?”
“But in its other applications too reason should command the same acceptance,” said the colleague. He was by now on his cup of coffee and I on my cup of tea.
“Then why do scholars differ so sharply in other realms of reason?”
“Because the correct reasoning has not yet been established.”
“But what constitutes correct reason. Or better still, what is reason anyway?”
“It cannot be defined but surely what is reasonable is clear enough.”
“Perhaps to reasonable people,” I said.
“We are talking of reasonable people.” My friend would not let my obiter dictum slip by.
“Then why do even reasonable people differ?”
“Because reason has not yet fully worked out the issue.”
“That sounds reasonable,” I said. “But could not what is considered reasonable be culture-bound?”
“Give an example.”
“Well. It was considered reasonable in medieval times in the Christian West that biblical authority should be accepted in matters related to the physical universe. This was not considered reasonable in Hindu thought for instance, wherein the scope of scriptural authority was limited to matters of morality and salvation, so there is a difference of opinion here regarding the field in which reason can be applied.”
“But these matters as to the field in which reason could be applied can be settled by recourse to reason itself,” the colleague said.
“If it were,” I said, “why would even some scientists arrive at correct conclusions, verified by experiments, for the wrong reasons. I have been told that this has happened in the history of science. But then what is reason?”
“It’s a mystery,” the colleague said.
And we left it as such.