Some thoughts triggered from David Miller’s “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” (2005)

Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations” was published in 1963. There is much instruction in the title. After contemplating David Miller’s “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” one might playfully muse with another subtitle for the 1963 work, “Creative Thinking and Reason”, instructive in that it picks up on Miller’s point that intelligent thinking is not necessarily logical thinking.

That the source of our ideas is intuition, conjecture, guessing is one of Popper’s core themes. Our guesses may be true but we cannot prove them to be such. Reason is the test of logic, as in an example of the modus tollens :

If the hypothesis is true, such and such will eventuate
Such and such does not eventuate
Therefore the hypothesis is not true

On Page 52 of “Critical Rationalism a Restatement and Defence” (1994), Miller states: “There are no such things as good reasons; that is, sufficient or even partly sufficient favourable (or positive) reasons for accepting a hypothesis rather than rejecting it, or for rejecting it rather than accepting it, or for implementing a policy, or for not doing so”.

Lest one be dashed that there are no good reasons (but only the act of reason), it can be looked at as a liberation. We are creative, life is creative, our ideas are like mutations that surprise us and have surprising outcomes. The role of reason is not to invent but rather to put a brake on uncritical acceptance of the products of our creativity, thence we might create anew, and by reason perhaps be saved from potential pitfalls. One says “perhaps”, because despite the mythology that has been invented around Popper as a naive falsificationist, he was not thus. Even the falsification of a hypothesis is a decision.

Our thinking, even if it uses heuristics, is conjectural, we may believe our guesses are fine guesses but reason lies in criticism. In common parlance, and often in academic parlance, the word “reasoning” is used interchangeably with “thinking”. This overlooks imagination as the source of fresh ideas, which can subsequently be subjected to the blowtorch of reason. Through reason we may prefer one theory over another but there are no criteria (good reasons) for claiming that we have grasped unchallengeable or even probable truth.

David Miller’s paper, “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” (2005), ends with the following: “The misconceptions about argumentation that I have criticized arise from a single source; from the thought that intelligent thinking means logical thinking. This is false. Most of the time, problem solvers that we are, we think creatively or speculatively or, if you like, intuitively. Although the exercise of reason is inevitably postponed in this way, it is not cancelled. Glaser (quoted above), and Dewey before him, though too sanguine about the power of evidence and positive argument, rightly insisted that the rational thinker should be ready to submit all guesses to remorseless criticism, and to reject the failures. It cannot be denied that a complex sequence of interlocked blind guesses and cruel rejections may look much like directed thought, just as Darwinian evolution simulates orthogenesis or design. But we must not be hoodwinked into thinking that it is reasoning, or anything else that we know, that drives us forward to what is unknown. What reasoning does is pull us back. Our guesses are not random, of course, but informed; which means only that they are guesses informed by earlier guesses. We who have noses follow our noses (and other organisms follow homologous organs), but we do not see beyond our noses. However richly our guesses are informed by what is known, they know not (are blind to) what is not known. Campbell (1974, p. 422) puts it well: ‘ In going beyond what is already known, one cannot but go blindly. If one can go wisely, this indicates already achieved wisdom of some general sort.'”

David Miller’s list of publications can be viewed and a number, including the above paper, can be downloaded from

http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/people/associates/miller

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4 Responses to Some thoughts triggered from David Miller’s “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” (2005)

  1. Rafe says:

    Thanks to Bruce’s persistence in coming to grips with Miller (and others) on the topic of “no good reasons” I have been able to see Miller’s arguments as a massive support for the idea of conjectural knowledge. More good reasons to be a fallibillist:)

    Some years ago (actually it must be decades because Bartley died over 20 years ago) Bill wrote that courses on critical thinking were springing up in philosophy schools all over the place because they were desperate to maintain student numbers by offering “relevant” courses. He said that these courses virtually amounted to courses in justificationism, inductive logic, confirmation theory etc.

    Footnote – the original meaning of proving is testing – the engineers “proving ring”. https://www.google.com.au/search?q=proving+ring&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=RGSzUobrHo3jlAXbyoGIDg&sqi=2&ved=0CCkQsAQ&biw=1680&bih=925

    Under the influence of justificationism there has been a sematic shift from the original meaning of the term to the opposite !

    Thanks Bruce.

    In haste.

  2. Bob says:

    > “…I have been able to see Miller’s arguments [on the topic of “no good reasons”] as a massive support for the idea of conjectural knowledge.”

    Is that a joke? ;-)

  3. Rafe says:

    I wish it was! Nice catch Bob!!

  4. Bruce Caithness says:

    It is worth repeating the importance of critical preference in Popper’s thinking: “although we cannot jus­tify any claim that a theory is true, we can sometimes give good reasons for asserting that one theory is better than another, or even than all its competitors. In this way our knowledge can grow, and science can progress.”

    This is extracted from a longer quote from the essay “Optimist, Pessimist and Pragmatist views of Scientific Knowledge” (1963) contained in ” Karl Popper: After the Open Society” (2008) Routledge.

    “The position between optimism and pessimism which I am trying to establish may be briefly described as follows.

    I agree with the pessimists that there is no justification for the claim of any particular theory or assertion to be true. Thus there is no justification of any claim to know, including the claims of scientific knowledge. But this merely means that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is hypothetical or conjectural: it is uncertain, fallible. This certainly does not mean that every assertion is as good as any other, competing, assertion. For we can discuss our various competing assertions, our conjectures, critically; and the result of the critical discussion is that we find out why some among the competing conjectures are better than others.

    Accordingly, I agree with the optimists that our knowledge can grow, and can progress; for we can sometimes justify the verdict of our critical discussions when it ranks certain conjectures higher than others.

    A verdict of this kind always appraises our conjectures or theories from the point of view of their approach to truth: although we cannot justify any claim that a theory is true, we can sometimes give good reasons for asserting that one theory is better than another, or even than all its competitors. In this way our knowledge can grow, and science can progress.”

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