the force of reason

October 9, 2006

Wikipedia on “rationality” links to this piece on legal reasoning by Peter Suber. I’ve admired Suber since reading his piece on “Logical Rudeness,” which is one all Xian apologists should read. It doesn't hurt that he used to be a stand-up comedian before he became a philosopher and game designer and advocate for open access.

In the essay he gives an excellent summary of postmodern critiques of rationality (Suber prefers the term “post-Enlightenment”) and acknowledges their merit. At the same time, he observes the obvious peculiarity that no matter how fierce an attack on rationality may be, it will itself depend upon reasoning. So we have to put the attack and whatever success it may enjoy into perspective.

Here is a paragraph that sums up a portion of the paper:

Locally, there is rigor and rationality. That is the kernel of truth in classical or Enlightenment rationalism. It is also Thomas Kuhn's great insight. Globally, there may be something deserving the name of rationality, but it will not be the same kind we know and use locally to some system or other. On the other hand, globally, there may be nothing but interest and ideology, or choice and policy. In any case, global reasoning will not manifest the sort of rigor which belongs to local reasoning. That is the insight of the post-Enlightenment critiques.

In other words, we can say with confidence that within a “locality,” such as endocrinology, or Constitutional law, that there are clear protocols for rational inquiry which should be followed – in other words, within a local neighborhood, “rational” is a title we bestow, rightly, upon certain modes of reasoning and evaluating evidence and deciding what counts as evidence in the first place. We bestow the title because this is the best way of arriving at knowledge within that local area. Local rationalities claim “epistemic privilege” within their respective areas.

The logical empiricists were pretty sure that science represented a kind of global rationality – something with absolute epistemic privilege. Scientific inquiry was the antidote to irrational and totalitarian ideologies at all times and in all places. Their project failed, however, in that they were never able to explain adequately how science actually arrived at this Truth. Kuhn eventually superceded the whole project when he observed that, while science overall may be a rational activity, it proceeds by alternating periods of dogmatic adherence to a dominant theory with “revolutions” in which scientists within the community have to “convert” from one paradigmatic way of looking at the evidence (and deciding what counts as relevant evidence) to another – in revolutionary science, scientists find out that they do not have an absolute standard by which to (with certainty) adopt one theory (which makes sense of some of the availiable evidence, but not all) over another (which does the same). In retrospect, everyone will be able to say: well, of course, the theory succeeded because it was True – but at the time it was not that simple. The rules of the locality were rewritten, in effect, in favor of the successful paradigm, which until the next revolution will indeed be considered (rightly – locally) true.

So the issue is not that it is better to be irrational than to be rational – the issue is that there is not some key called Rationality with which we can unlock all the mysteries of the universe. Rationality is best seen as an umbrella term which encompasses a multitude of intellectual tools which are appropriate to various fields and disciplines for arriving at knowledge. The tools, however, do not have power in and of themselves – they depend for their beneficial effect on the wisdom of the people using them. Suber: “As G.K. Chesterton put it, the madman is not one who has lost his reason; the madman is the one who has lost everything except his reason.” If we say that we can somehow rationally define what the “everything” is that makes a human being whole, we are relying on a global model of rationality that is a fantasy.

If I had to argue this point, I would not try to do it as a philosopher would, but as a storyteller. I would relate a story I heard once, that went something like this:

During our visit to New York, Rebecca and I went out and took in more of the beauty of the city. In the afternoon, we headed back to our friend's apartment in Brooklyn and got all dressed up in fancy clothes for a night at the opera. We headed back into Fort Greene to go to a French-Vietnamese restaurant called the Feast of Saint Stephen's. The owner was there when we came in to claim our reservation, and he paid my girlfriend some extravagant compliments and told the maitre d to seat us in the back. In was a beautiful room, clearly used for special events, and we were the only ones sitting in there. A very quiet candlelight dinner.

The opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a reinterpretation of the legend of the Fisher King, an Arthurian myth. Three hours of operatic singing and awesome set design later, we left the Opera House at BAM, whereupon I said we should go to the Brooklyn Bridge and see it since it's so close. Even though it was quite cold, we started across the bridge and stood staring at the lightshow that is the NYC skyline at night. I told Rebecca that I had something to tell her. Then I pulled out the ring and proposed to her. She said yes! We were quietly in tears the whole walk back to the subway – people kept turning to stare at us. And that is the story of the most romantic night of my life, proposing to the woman I love on the Brooklyn Bridge.

What strikes me about this story is that, if we try to analyze it rationally, we simply fail to take hold of it. Is it to be properly analyzed by examining the hormone content of the narrator's bloodstream? Or the genetic suitability of the narrator and his fiancee for each other? Or the neurological effect the music had on the audience that night, and the geneaology of the cultural traditions of opera? The history of French influence in Indochina? If the narrator, after telling me this touching story, were to go on to lay out in detail his psychological and economic cost-benefit analysis which led to his choosing to woo Rebecca, I might lose all of the emotional warmth I felt on hearing it. And yet this is not a particularly extraordinary story. That is, it is extraordinary in its very ordinariness. That people should fall in love and get engaged and marry and have children is a scenario that has repeated itself billions of times in the history of the human race. And what's extraordinary is that each time it happens, the people involved think it *matters.* They're happy that the city is beautiful, the food is delicious, the opera is stirring, the night is clear. If you ask them to replace their emotions with rigorous justifications, they would look at you funny – likewise if you were to suggest that the experience had perhaps emotional meaning but no other meaning.

The same thing would happen if we took a subculture – the fetish club scene, say, or role-playing gamers – and tried to insist that they tell us WHY their activity was meaningful in terms any good logical-empiricist would accept. They might be able to do it, as an exercise, but they would be the first to admit that they don't do it *because* there is a “rational” justification. Reason is simply an inadequate tool for certain very important dimensions of our lives.

This business of art and fantasy play on the one hand – or romance and sex and commitment and childbearing on the other – constitute the larger context within which we pursue truth in narrower fields like neurology and sociology. Neurology may shed light on what makes one dj better than another in dance clubs, but we will never ask the neurologists to come in and spin at our clubs. Sociology may shed light on why certain people are more likely to marry, but if my marriage is in trouble, I am not going to try to find a sociologist to counsel me. Meanwhile, the neurologists will go dancing and the sociologists will marry without any dissonance, perhaps because they understand the relatively narrow parameters within which the tools of their field operate.

It would be foolish to criticize rationality as if it were something bad or distasteful. I only find it necessary to criticize rationality when it is presented to me as the ultimate answer to ultimate questions of meaning and purpose for our individual and corporate lives. If someone tells me that rationality supersedes and renders obsolete religion, then I find it necessary to point out that this is to presume too much. As Suber writes, “…we cannot return to the Enlightenment's naive confidence in a transcendent faculty called reason possessed of superhuman authority.”

Of course, the context of that statement is as follows: “While we cannot return to the Enlightenment's naive confidence in a transcendent faculty called reason possessed of superhuman authority, neither can we follow its incautious critiques into self-refutation.” In other words, the critiques are valuable for showing that rationality does not compel us to enthrone rationality as supreme over all other modes of knowing. However, they are limited by the ultimate compliment they pay to rationality by using rational modes of argument to critique rationality. It is not simply unwise to ask a person to confine his choices and thoughts to what is justifiable within this or that logical framework – it is unreasonable! In the words of Pascal: “We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit. He who does not do so, understands not the force of reason.”


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