The Tyranny of Rationality

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

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 material processes of the world or at the least give us some confidence that we will in the future. The apparent causality and determinism we see around us, the predictability of nature, the order that gives “cosmos” its meaning: these all attest to our own capacity to make experience rational.

Now this congruence between brute reality and our own thinking about it is really very mysterious, for there is no good reason why its products should be able to unlock its secrets as well as we do. That thought leads inexorably in two divergent directions: to the mysteries of theology and to the workings of natural science. The idea of the holy may be irrational or suprarational (see “Religion and Truth”). The jury is still out on that one after five thousand years of effort (see Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip). Taking the other option leads us to real and much more recent progress. Who can doubt that empiricism has discovered the means of unlocking the mysteries of nature with the key of human reason? We see evidence of that success in the paradigms of each discipline, to be sure, but even more so in the interlocking nature of the grounding theories in each field. Such a thought moves us to the conclusion first advanced by Thomas Kuhn: that the edifice of science is built of the collective efforts of collaborative communities. This would be a powerful testimony to the intersubjectivity of natural science as an activity beyond nation or culture, but it would perhaps omit the big finish: not only do these disciplines operate by one consensual mode of logic, but that reasoning also interacts predictably with external reality to produce desired results. The inescapable conclusion must be that scientists don’t merely understand their disciplines but the reality they research. But my argument goes far beyond a simple defense of empirical science. For 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. Natural science is special not because it is a different kind of reasoning but because it is the most refined version of what we all do in every moment of our lives. We can learn something from that, though not everything (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“).

One lesson is that natural science was for a very long time the conjoined twin of philosophy and that it cannot escape that connection even today. Three centuries 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. Science came to this conclusion long before it discovered 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 disagree. 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, a barrier that separates brute reality from whatever we take it to be in our minds. A natural question followed its articulation: how impenetrable is it? We build a creative representation of reality from perceptions and reflections and have only experience to guide our choices. Immanuel Kant famously observed at the end of the eighteenth century that 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 already freighted with concepts of rational order like causation, number, unity, and extension. 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 can it be 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, and by that he meant universally rational to all persons. 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 order in chaos because that is what we have to see. The systematic structures of reality seem 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 picture of reality these experiences produce. We don’t merely act in the world. We respond to it, and this response is a product of a second order of rationality that is fully conscious: reflection builds an intentional mirror of reality from experience. We don’t just think we know the momentary truth of this instant. We think we know reality. Our brains are structured so as to seek causes of past events as effects in future ones. Indeed, human beings are not only prisoners of the moment but also of time itself. One of the great challenges of theology is the idea of eternity. We simply cannot wrap our minds around a notion so alien to our own fundamental reasoning and for a very good reason: we must think causally to choose what we value, and causation is inescapably a product of time. We are prisoners of causality for the best of reasons. Our ability to comprehend reality is not the end that all of our reasoning seeks. It is merely the means for us to choose whatever we call good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). We must think ourselves free and reality deterministic to make those choices, for we must be able to forecast the probable effects of our preferences (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem”).  And this must be the area where a claim to our inescapable rationality faces credible challenge.

Let us first establish the probable dividing line between reasoning about truth and about goodness. In our search for the truth that is the means to the end of choosing what we call good, we face separate kinds of operations. Choices about what is true must be descriptive of the reality they seek to mirror. Our knowledge of that reality must be rooted in the past or the present, for it is inescapably about what we think exists. But our calculations of the good, though surely rooted in the facts of the present, must always be prescriptive, projecting present causes into future effects so as to exercise the most defining human characteristic: our preferential freedom (seeOur Freedom Fetish“). Does this change of tense affect the centrality of reason? Are judgments of the good different in kind from judgments of the true? Answering that question calls for a clearer picture of how reason finds truth in experience.

Here is why. In any attempt to find the true, 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 the car a Mercedes or an Audi? That requires an analysis of the most basic material reality, and, of course, natural science’s power is rooted in its deep reliance on facts, the simplest data of experience. That same mimetic act of reasoning occurs as we attempt to grasp conceptual truths, but we face a much more difficult act of discrimination when we attempt to build conceptual categories from undistilled experience. In our search for the true, we know 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 have 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. To determine correspondence truth between an external reality and our picture of it, we may rely on less reliable simulacrums of empirical science: expertise, competence, or undistilled experience or we may trust authority (see “What Counts as Justification?“). All of these truth tests are inherently rational; they grow more reliable as they limit experiences in favor of applications of reason. We know experts have deeply examined the similar kinds of experiences that produce their expertise. Even when contexts are unique, reason may find the means to make reliable sense of them so as to produce competence. We assume a new experience can be examined in light of an old one, though such a facile assumption is continually frustrated by the uniqueness of every experience. Or we trust authority in one field because it has proven trustworthy in others we judge to have been similar (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge). Please notice that I am not claiming parity for ordinary 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 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 by a preponderance of the evidence. 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.

Our conceptions of “the true” consist of far more than simple correspondences of material reality that science handles with such precision. And it is the existence of these conceptions that mandates a broader view of truth than science can offer. How does our mind construct, for instance, true impressions of abstractions like justice or love? Once we begin thinking about valid conceptualizing, which is in itself an intensely rational act, we cannot help but to enter the realm of utility, for we must categorize similar experiences so as to find their essential properties despite the handicap of their immateriality. We mine them to discern their usefulness to the conception we are forming. And utility is a species of goodness. Without too much conscious thought, in seeking for true conceptions, we begin our search for a second species of goodness: quality. This is the domain of our efforts to develop expertise and competence in our various experiences. These truth tests are judged by the quality of their analysis. Finally, since we know that our determinations of the true must be only the means for finding the good, all such efforts must reach their natural conclusion: we seek the systematic ends for which all of our other choices must be only the hypothetical preferences of utility. The term for that goal is the final category of goodness: morality (seeWhat Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“).  How do we define, limit, and choose that most important of conceptions?

At this moment in history, to claim that such things are correspondence constructions, meaning they have either objective reality or present themselves as intersubjective judgments, is going way out on a limb. I think that argument can be made  (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 seeking goodness must be as rational as your search for truth, or at least, that you think it so.

Every concept is a kind of distillation of the content of an experience. The child at the birthday party gauges the size of her slice of cake to grasp the concept of fairness, and it is only by repeated exposures and consideration that she may eventually discriminate how justice differs from the more primitive term. All conceptions and categorizations are composed in a manner that might hope to approach the kinds of experiences that conduce to expertise, though not all are capable of that level of distillation of experience (see “Expertise“). The jurist can boast of an expert conception of justice, having devoted so many hours to its instantiation in her training and practice, but everyone has lived long enough to have developed at least a rough notion of a concept so fundamental to human happiness. It is significant that expertise in itself as a sequence of mastery of knowledge or skill is an example of universal reason at play, for it is based on thoughtful articulation and analysis. What is more, any recognition of expertise is also a recognition of the quality of that analysis, linking judgments of truth to those of goodness. But expertise, like empiricism, is limited by the variability of experience. Many concepts can only be approached by reason, not mastered by it. These are only open to competence, which is as inferior to expertise as expertise is to empiricism. Many others are entirely singular and undistilled, meaning we are barely able to grasp their nature before being asked to consider how to choose from what they offer, so we may approach these with a minimum of conscious reasoning, though we cannot escape the preconscious sorting mechanisms of sense-data perception.

And in these undistilled experiences that make up so much of our choosing, we still may employ universal reasoning with some effort. For instance, which number in this series does not belong: 2, 3, 5,14? The correct answer is 14 because the other numbers are all prime. But if you are not mathematically inclined, you might say 14 because it is composed of two digits or of two syllables or is the only last number in the sequence. Or you might pick 2 because it is the only first. You might have chosen many other answers, but you must also agree that any one of these is correct. What moves you to that judgment would also move me to agree to a reasonable answer that I had not considered. The moving force is the mutuality of our reasoning.Though any one “correct” response might not be the first thought that crossed our minds or a product of our natural mode of thinking, we are forced to concur that any one is a correct answer. Our reasoning compels that admission, and that force is what I refer to as universal reasoning. Accepting that mutuality must also force the realization that some conceptual efforts produce the very opposite of a consensual and universal approbation.  Religious reasoning is particularly susceptible to the temptations of belief, so its conceptual foundations are always in dispute (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). Human reasoning simply bounces off of thoughts of infinity and eternity, which may attest as clearly to its universality in terms of limitation as empiricism does in terms of potential. Perhaps the clearest conceptual limitation of universal reason is the operation of awe upon the mind, a universal rational intuition we seem entirely unable to conceptualize (see “Awe“). I would be remiss if I did not also concede that this same intersubjectivity of reasoning about experience has brought us the scourges of tribalism, brutality, envy, and the other deadly sins that flow through history like a venomous serpent. We reason similarly even when we do it very badly.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to error involves the inescapable leap from truth to goodness and the temptations of premature closure resulting from the quest for certain truth and inerrant goodness. The subjectivity of belief is traced to desire and since desire only exists as the articulation of a perceived good, we see in the power of beliefs the temptation to two divergent conclusions designed to grace belief with inerrancy. That can be done by either thinking our own beliefs to be objectively true or thinking all others’ beliefs to be as arbitrary as our own.

The attempt to objectify belief is always tied to the power of religious authority to transform private belief into public dogma (see “Premodern Authority”). But that effort collapsed spectacularly in the wake of the Protestant Reformation both because the transformation was always an inadequate private-to-public warrant and because authority was plagued by its own unique difficulties (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Certainly, religious absolutism must argue for a universal morality necessitated by the nature of its Guarantor and its longevity can be partially explained by the hermetic linkage of truth and goodness claims the creator transmits. Their truth is inseparable from their goodness, and when given by religious authority, their power is multiplied by the forfeiture of rational agency that trust must include. The congregant simply lacks the means to doubt and can find no fissure in the moral truths into which she might insert the lever of her own reasoning even if she could. The long collapse of orthodoxy introduced doubt into the linkage between reason and morality if only because divine command morality was incapable of withstanding challenge from other authorities appealing to the same justification.

Now we live in an individualist age that has fully appropriated its own rational and moral agency and has largely discredited institutional authorities of all stripes.  We prefer to think our minds entirely our own possession, though we are poised on the verge of revolutions in neurological science and artificial intelligence that will reveal the common features of our species. These will, I think, usher in a reexamination of a century-long uncritical acceptance of the impermeability of the perceptual wall that elevated the epistemological viewpoint termed phenomenology. This view 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 (see The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“”). 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 conceptual 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 we embrace the impermeability of the perceptual wall and proclaim the privacy and uniqueness of our own experience, we still examine our truth claims in comparison to the virtual circle of truths we have already accepted as true (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). And though it differs from the one-to-one mimesis of correspondence in favor of examining each candidate for inclusion in light of the complex of truths already accepted, that act of analysis so necessary to avoid contradiction must also be entirely rational, or, I should say, must be considered so by the thinker.But even if it isn’t, even if a conversion experience, a horrifying ordeal, a drug-induced revelation that changes one’s life cannot be conceptualized as experienced, it must still be incorporated into the virtual circle of the coherentist. It still must comprise its own piece of her 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 the principle of non-contradiction. The mental process of turning a unique experience into testable conception of the true and the good must be 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. This is a problem for my argument, for the mutuality of reason that leads us to acknowledge different correct answers to the number sequence problem I posed earlier can easily be shrugged off by the coherentist. She might say the number that does not belong is 3 “because that is my unlucky number.” I could not deny the truth of her claim, nor could I confirm it. Her reasoning is entirely private and idiosyncratic, “true for me,” yet impossible for her listener to confirm or deny.

The virtual circle is particularly susceptible to the temptations of belief, for what we imagine or hope for can easily be fitted into what we perceive if we do not engage the act of severance that critically engages our determinations of what is true before we consider what we desire.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.

Though the act of severance draws the line between our judgments of truth and of goodness, one common feature remains. Just as universal reason compels our assent when engaged in pursuit of truth, so too does it operate to compel universal moral preferences in the search for goodness despite the hypothetical nature of experience (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends“). Those of a religious inclination might find some tantalizing intimations in the oddly compulsive nature of reasoning correctly and moral truth. But these complementary assents may not be apparent to our naive intuitions in either search, for we may allow authority to preclude agency, indulge beliefs or pragmatic pursuits as forms of premature closure, or be blinded by the glittering diversions of materialist or entertainment cultures. Thinking is harder and more fraught with anxiety than surrendering the rational autonomy that is each adult’s legacy.

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 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, or at least we can be. 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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