Can we be rationalists in fact?

After a recent post of mine on here called Where Does The Buck Stop?, someone who reads this blog suggested that I might think about removing my own final comment on it.  This comment was made at a time of turbulence, and the suggestion was that I had exposed my evident disturbance too much to public scrutiny. Since I am a contributor to this blog, I can delete my own posts and comments.  I’m grateful to this person, who had my best interests at heart, but the fact that I have decided not to delete that comment started me thinking about the internal forces which influence our actions, and what governs our choices.

That un-deleted comment shows that we are often not as in control of ourselves as we would like to be.  My internal demons could prompt me to fly in the face of my own advice, and start blaming anyone else but me for something going wrong in my life.  However, the hopeful part is that it’s clear that I knew that, and said so. I’m definitely not trying to present myself as being some kind of self-aware authority, but simply to say that, as well as plunging us into despair, our internal dialogue can drag us back from the abyss as well as prompting us to hurl ourselves into it.  We have choices, and making the right choice can be redemptive and re-invigorating.

The processes which bring us to these points are of course obscure because they are subjective.  We can only judge the outcome by results – by the “fruits” as Christians are wont to say.  That comment shows me feeling I’ve got myself into a bad place, desperately trying to claw my way back.  I now feel I have done that.  Whether I’m right or wrong is of course impossible to say for sure until the game’s over, if we know anything at that point.  So the woolly business of “feeling right” is about all that’s left to those of us who don’t run our lives on external absolutes gathered from the Bible, the Koran ETC. So how we account to ourselves for our actions, when faced with difficult choices, inhabits the same subjective world of experience in which any “faith” or “religious” experiences live.  Crucial choices may be made by standards which won’t be apparent to anyone outside ourselves;  actions which may appear plain crazy to others. At those times, like Martin Luther, we have nothing on which to stand but conviction.

In a recent post, MOI said: “I will say that faith is not the final answer to anything and that science can better explain the actual world of our senses far better than faith can, so trying to make societal rules from such an experiential medium is not a good idea.”  The other starting point for this post was a feeling that I needed to respond to that quote, without disagreeing with it. As MOI says, we can’t start telling others what to do on the basis of individual or group conviction.  As a side note however, having established that principle, I wonder how evils such as slavery might have been eradicated if left to the free market, were it not for the convictions of people like Wilberforce and Lincoln. But I do agree with MOI in principle about the dangers of applying our internal drivers to the choices of others.

To go back to our internal world, it’s clear to me from my own recent experience that we can’t look to rational quantification for answers. As someone who has lived much of his life in head mode, I have recently been driven to the realization that our inner feelings, what we describe as “heart”, will often be the arbiter of our actions and our sense of responsibility for them, as it is for faith as one possible determinant of the human conscience.

I wish U.S. readers a peaceful public holiday today, and the rest of us a productive Monday.



3 thoughts on “Can we be rationalists in fact?

  1. Reg,

    You wrote: “As a side note however, having established that principle, I wonder how evils such as slavery might have been eradicated if left to the free market, were it not for the convictions of people like Wilberforce and Lincoln.”

    I don’t think the evils of slavery would be eradicated without the similar ideas espoused by men and women like Wilberforce and Lincoln, yet, they were ideas informed by faith or lack of faith as each case may be. I’m not saying we shouldn’t listen to those who have faith. I’m saying that basing an entire system of laws and ethics on just one book, like the christian bible or the koran or the jewish talmud or the bhagavad gita or any set of scriptures which contain subjective essays about god or faith, is not a good basis for society.

    I would say that science probably holds the best clues about humanity as it actually exists and how we function. However, I have no problem with people’s faith informing their own decisions and their politics as long as they recognize that other viewpoints are also being informed by faith not their own and dialog ensues. Where there is no dialog, there can be no consensus about societal rules. And that’s all I’m really saying there.

    Good thoughtful post! 🙂

  2. Thanks MOI for making that distinction. I agree with you that we cannot have societies, particularly multi-faith or secular societies, run according to the precepts which some influential group has plucked out of their interpretation of a book. Fundamentalists of all colours are extremely selective about which parts of their book constitute divine law and which don’t. Such codes have a remarkable tendency to put the group’s elite in a position of power over their errant fellow beings.

    Until very recently, I’ve been thinking about faith in relation to rationality purely in terms of religious faith based on religious experience.
    I had neglected to consider different kinds of faith; for example deeply held convictions which we “hold to be self-evident” at least for us as individuals. Why I had not considered this I have no idea. We all have our blind spots I guess.

    As far as our personal convictions are concerned, I think that the distinction between a prejudice and an article of faith is one of degree. In our prejudices, we may be amenable, albeit grudgingly to persuasion by contrary evidence. Our faith, however, will tolerate no such interference. We have acquired beliefs which seem central to our identity, and, even if someone thinks they’re simply having a discussion with us, we will feel under attack.

    Religious faith, and other varieties, such as patriotic or political, are similar in this respect. There is no point in arguing with a person of faith about their faith. In fact, it will do more harm than good.

    So, can we be rationalists in fact? Probably not. We will always be driven by forces we don’t thoroughly understand, and the subjectivists would probably say that, although ultimate reality may exist, we can never be sure we are experiencing it, so our judgment always runs the risk of being skewed by our own subjectivity.

    So do we simply give up in the face of our poorly understood impulses and warped rationality?
    My article of faith tells me no. The promptings of conscience, Spirit, whatever we call it, enjoin us to just get on and make the best of it. Many people would attest to the fact that there is unconditional love somewhere at the back of all this, and that’s not the kind of experience that could be usefully argued about either.
    Since I also believe that there is some kind of unconditional love force in the universe, immanent or transcendant, I don’t fear harsh judgment because of my human limitations, which make it difficult for me to reliably distinguish faith from reason, and, even when I know the difference, I might still follow the wrong one.

    “To whom much is given, much will be expected”.
    But how much and why is another story.



  3. Reg,

    True, all of it, with one caveat. When one person believes they have “facts” on which to base their beliefs and the other person puts no stock in such “facts” there will always be a disparity. One person believes there is no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and another does. End of discussion. One cannot prove the other. The same for other so called “facts.” Just because science says something does not believe it is so, especially in areas never seen before. Science is also as subjective as the scientists running it and there is always, always a societal agenda behind everyone’s purported “fact.” Failing to recognize this also leads to rancor. Why bother with it? Let the sides be and let time prove otherwise.

    Thanks as ever. MOI

Comments are closed.