The Tyranny of Rationality

My argument today can be summarized thus: we all are deeply, deterministically rational.

Since we partake of three realities (brute reality, our constructed image of it, and the language we use to convey our knowledge to others), it seems appropriate to examine this claim in reference to each. I do not mean to say that the external reality, the tree that falls in the forest, is rational. Brute reality simply exists, and any character attributed to it requires an interpreting mind. So if we should decide that, yes, the external world is rational, what we are saying is shorthand for what we really should be saying: that we can apply our rational faculties to the substance and events of the world with some confidence, knowing that the predictions and explanations we produce will prove accurate. Further, if they prove inaccurate, we know that our rational faculties can locate a more accurate prediction or take into account some previously hidden factor that will then explain to our satisfaction the way of the world.

Now this congruence between brute reality and our own thinking about it is really very mysterious, for there is no good reason why creatures produced by brute reality should be able to unlock its secrets as well as we do. From the way I’ve framed the two realities referenced thus far, you might assume that the correspondence I have mentioned is rooted in empiricism, the natural sciences. And who can doubt that the disciplines of the hard sciences have proven the exemplars of unlocking the mysteries of nature with the key of human reason? Nothing at all surprising there. You might wonder why I bother bringing up such a cliché.

My answer is that the methods of the hardest of the natural sciences, while profoundly rational, are only more rigorous applications of something deeply rooted in all human experience, something we can no more shuck than the wetness of rain. Even our stoutest protests against rationality, the ecstatic cries of mystics and the Kafkaesque wails of nihilists, are logical shafts of light in a metaphysical darkness and no less attempts to build a working model of reality than applied particle physics. The difference only makes sense in consideration of the process.

Long before neurologists began their contemporary struggle to map the brain, philosophers attempted to probe the mind and its workings. The pioneers of this effort, the first epistemologists, sought to answer the question of how the mind represents brute reality. They quickly discarded the Aristotelian model of direct perception despite its dominance in the thinking of the 17th century. The sort of naïve assumption that we perceive the world complete and entire, that our senses present to us a “true” picture of reality, is a hard one to dismiss, for it is our default approach to experience. But it is patently false. From the vanishing point in art to dreams, hallucinations, and apparent time compression and expansion based on our level of enjoyment, we don’t need to look very hard to find that our perception of brute reality is something different from the reality itself. And don’t even bring into this issue the limits of perception as exemplified in quantum theory and general relativity!

John Locke’s representative theory of perception gave us our second reality, an internal reconstruction of the external one that in his view was a pretty effortless reproduction constructed by the mind. Locke argued that all of our thinking is composed of perceptions and reflections upon them. Of course, that notion of a “reality movie” playing in our head does little to explain either the misperceptions that the brain seems so often guilty of nor the bothersome truth that we all don’t seem to perceive reality the same way. Fast forward a century to George Berkeley’s famous question about the falling tree. How do we know the movie playing in our heads is an accurate representation? All we have access to is the movie.

Berkeley thus builds the most important edifice in epistemology: the perceptual wall, an impenetrable barrier that separates brute reality from whatever we take it to be in our minds. We build a creative representation of reality from perceptions and reflections and have only experience to guide our choices. In fact, as Immanuel Kant famously observed at the end of the eighteenth century, whatever structure we build is formed not only by our senses but by the mental structures in our minds that pick and choose among them to structure our creation. This is an active process of choosing, sorting, and assembling perceptions so as to build a working model of reality inside the perceptual wall. Sense data bombard the mind and just as we can pick out a familiar voice in a noisy room or see a foreground object while ignoring all the others in our field of vision, our minds sort through the barrage of perceptions that our senses transmit to produce a working model of reality. How different is this process from our default notion of direct perception and how likely is it that our minds will build a model that makes sense to us regardless of its fidelity to the entire picture presented to it? And– disturbing thought– how likely that we all will build anything like the same reality from differing experiences?

But here’s the catch. Kant famously insisted that the mechanism for that construction, the sorting device for the incoming data stream, must be profoundly and completely rational. His famous categories of experience were mental sorting and assembling mechanisms that inevitably present to us a rational world. This is why every cause seems to have an effect and every effect a cause, why the world presents itself as both unity and diversity, and why quantity seems so ubiquitous in physical reality. These are simply the way we see things. The way we must see things. We have to remind ourselves ad nauseam that correlation is not causation simply because we are programmed to read causation into every effect we observe (see “Correlation, Causation, and Motivation“). We see constellations in random star positions, animals in cloud formations, and purpose in chaos because that is what we have to see. It seems as plain as the nose on our face unless we check our naïve assumptions at the door. The world is not rational. We are. And we can’t help being.

But wait. There’s more. Just as our moment-by-moment experience of reality is composed of the assemblage of innumerable sense data inputs orchestrated by a mental process, so too is the composite, ongoing picture of reality these experiences produce. We don’t merely act in the world. We respond to it, and that response is a product of an ongoing reflection that orients us to experience. We don’t just think we know the momentary truth of this instant. We know reality. We must think this way so as to navigate our way through the truths that allow us to choose all the goods we come to value, whatever they may be. It is this picture of reality and our place in it that comprise our own virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?).

I have discussed the virtual circle at some length. It bears repeating that our ability to find some correspondence between our experience and external reality is only testable by experience and that our efforts to improve those tests has brought us the scientific method. Its essence is an effort to improve the reliability of experience and our reflections upon it. We have other tests, of course. To determine correspondence between an unknowable reality and our picture of it, we may rely on expertise, authority, or undifferentiated experience (see “What Counts as Justification?”). But all of these truth tests are inherently rational. We know experts have deeply examined the repeated experiences that produce their expertise. We trust authority in one field because it has proven trustworthy in others (a questionable assumption: see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). We (mistakenly) assume a new experience can be examined in light of an old one. Please notice that I am not claiming parity for undifferentiated experience and a scientific experiment. The latter has intentionally confronted the issues of unreliability that plague the former and has attempted remedies for them. What I am claiming is that our conscious assemblage of reality, our virtual circle, is composed of rationally constructed truth claims. Their correspondence is, of course, always in doubt (we cannot guarantee the tree has fallen, after all, only that we have heard it), but the truth tests I have mentioned produce sufficient warrant for us to judge these claims as true. It is also defensible, though not certain, that the human operating system that presents such sense data constructions to us operates as a guarantor of intersubjectivity so that we may compare our correspondence claims constructively to those made by others.

But, of course, our constructed reality consists of far more than simple correspondences to material reality. What about correspondences to conceptualizations? How does our mind construct, for instance, true impressions of abstractions like justice or love? And what about the purpose of all this construction? How do we define, limit, and choose that most important of conceptions: the good?

In this zeitgeist, to claim that such things are correspondence constructions, meaning they have some objective reality, is going way out on a limb. I have attempted to make that argument  (“Is Goodness Real?”), but even if you embrace our culture’s attachment to the subjective quality of conceptualizations, and especially conceptualization of goodness, I can still claim with confidence that your subjective experiences are rational, or at least, that you deem them so. Here is why.

In any attempt to find the true or the good, we engage in an act of comparison. In correspondence truth tests, we examine the percept in our minds against the brute reality we seek to know. Is that a Mercedes or an Audi? Even if we embrace the impermeability of the perceptual wall, we still examine our truth claims in comparison to the virtual circle of truths we have already accepted as true. Is this queasy feeling in my gut what I call nausea? This act of analysis so central to every truth and goodness claim cannot help but be a rational one, and it characterizes each moment of consciousness. It builds a second level of rationality over the foundation of Kant’s sense data theory of perception, this one a conscious and comparative one.

An unfortunate consequence of the acceptance of the perceptual wall is the epistemological viewpoint termed phenomenology. This school takes seriously the impermeability of the perceptual wall and argues for the radical subjectivity of all experience. Its adherents take their name from Kant’s famous assertion that we can never know things-as-they-are (“noumena”) but only things-as-they-appear (“phenomena”). We can only see the inside of the perceptual wall, digesting phenomena as they appear in the mind. Perhaps this argument would have been taken less seriously if it hadn’t followed upon the heels of Romanticism, with its perceptual wall-piercing valuation of intuition as a divine source of insight. Question that level of certainty by doubting either the reality of intuition or its divine source and you are left with something far less convincing: the total subjectivity of experience. This bleak picture of humankind’s fruitless search for truth and goodness leant its emotional force to the twentieth century’s infatuation with postmodernism ( see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“).

But note that even in this bleak and black view, we see the light of reason. For phenomenology is founded on Kantian metaphysics, Romanticism on a valuation of intuition as a reliable means of knowledge, postmodernism on a cobbled-together set of reactions to unsettling events in the first decades of the twentieth century. Despite their claims to the contrary, the source of all philosophy is the search for wisdom: the true conditions of reality. And if Theresa of Avila, St. John the Divine, and Franz Kafka find those conditions to extend far beyond the reach of correspondence knowledge — meaning beyond the reach of the third level of reality I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, the use of language– that is still fine. For their beliefs do not render their rational appraisal of reality incorrect. They extend it, perhaps to realms that others might not see or appreciate. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto makes clear that any concept, even of the numinous if such a thing is possible, is rational.

But even if it isn’t, even if a conversion experience, a horrifying ordeal, a drug-induced revelation that changes your life, cannot be conceptualized as experienced, it must still be incorporated into the virtual circle. It still must comprise its own piece of our picture of reality. And that process too must be a rational one. For the only way we can construct that picture is to examine it according to the rule of either the principle of non-contradiction or, if we are more rigorous in our thinking, the principle of logical entailment. The mental process of turning a unique experience into a bit of the virtuous circle must be an act of conceptualization and thus a rational act. I am certainly not claiming that we all succeed in this effort, nor that we apply very much rigor to the process. The haze of beliefs that extends our knowledge like a sun’s corona are often poorly examined in light of the knowledge we have already accepted, for instance. But even so, note the act of rational comparison that lies at the center of the effort. Perhaps mental health professionals might find a continuum of rationality from the integrated personality to the psychopath. I doubt the latter considers her virtual circle very much compromised. We all think our conception of the world pretty sensible, and each thinks her own the best for the simple reason that she would choose another if it seemed more true or good.

Perhaps logicians will find fault with my argument, insisting that rationality is not a matter of degree and that it indicates some absolute proficiency. I cannot disagree that formal logic establishes a rigor absent in less rigid formulations, but certainly at least some of the difference is attributable to the third reality of language rather than the second reality of the virtual circle. But just as expertise is a less perfect form of rational application of experience than empiricism, so too is ordinary logic a dilution of the methodology of formal logic and for the same reasons. We accept expertise because we cannot frame many experiences in the light of experimental science, accepting the limitations of experts because that is about the best we can do just as we cannot frame ordinary experience with the mathematical structures so admired by formal logicians. Dilute that comparison still further and observe that we subject our beliefs to the far less rigorous tests of non-contradiction because we cannot subject them to the truth tests of correspondence. The lesson should be clear. We are rational beings. Rather than eschew that inherent rationality, we should embrace it and apply the most rigorous tests to our perceptions and reflections that they will withstand. We cannot escape conceptualizing our thinking about truth, goodness, and beauty, and in seeking warrants, we cannot escape the reasoning that must accompany such thinking.


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