Rationalism  - It's Meaning and Implications

By Aparthib Zaman

E-mail: aparthib@yahoo.com 

Rationalism as a philosophy is defined as using reason and logic as the reliable basis for testing any claims of truth, seeking objective knowledge about reality, making judgments and drawing conclusions about it. Although rationalism must ultimately rely on sense perceptions, but it must also couple sense perceptions with logic and evidence. To be consistent with logic, the thought process of a rationalist must be free from logical fallacies, catalogued in many introductory books on logic or critical thinking. There is no place for personal bias or emotion in rationalism, although emotion and rationalism are not mutually exclusive, each has its place. More on this later. Freethinking, which is sometimes confused with rationalism, is defined as the free forming of views about reality independent of authority or dogma, be it from a divine or human source. If we stick to the strict definitions, then freethinking is not synonymous with rationalism. One need not be strictly rational to be a freethinker. One is allowed the leeway to believe or form any opinion, not necessarily rational (essentially "think as you like"), as long as it is not influenced by existing religious, cultural or traditional dogma or authority. A postmodernist (Read intellectual anarchist) may claim to be a freethinker according to this non-restrictive definition. But rationalism is much more restrictive. It enforces logic and evidence as the guiding principle in thinking and forming opinions and cognition. So although rationalism invariably leads to freethinking, but freethinking does not necessarily imply rationalism, since freethinking may include irrational views, beliefs and personal bias. I have attempted to provide my own definitions in a precise way in a recent post (Faith Philosophy and Dogma) to help set the criteria for freethinkers/freethinking.

I must point out that I have tried to define and explain rationalism in the sense it is commonly understood today. I have not tried to approach the concept of rationalism from the perspective of the history of philosophy. In philosophical literature rationalism have been historically used to mean a certain epistemological school. The epistemic rationalism of Des Cartes, Spinozza, Wolff, Leibnitz et alia postulated that human knowledge is attainable apriori through intellect alone, independent of senses. To them the true source of knowledge were innate ideas. Sense perception to them was a poor or incomplete source of knowledge. Rationalism was in contrast with empiricism, whose principal proponents were Locke, Hume, Berkeley et alia. But my definition of rationalism is, in my view more meaningful, pragmatic and consistent with contemporary scientific thinking.

Rationalism as a philosophy demands some strict mental discipline that many find hard to implement in their thoughts and actions. Many may not even be aware that they are not being strictly rational. The reason for this is that some mistakenly associate rationalism with certain ideals and outlook that do not necessarily follow from rationalism. Rationalism as a philosophy inevitably leads to scientific method through logic and critical thinking. Therefore a rationalist cannot subscribe a priori to any ideology, political or ideological, nor can a rationalist make statement of truth that is not a strict proposition. So a rationalist cannot claim to be a strict atheist, i.e cannot assert that "God does not exist", since God is not a logically well-defined and meaningful concept, all definitions of God in any religious context runs into contradictions and logical inconsistency. So the existence or non-existence of God are both logically meaningless to a rationalist. A rationalist can only take a noncognitivist position in the God context. For more details
on this issue please carefully review the following two articles at :

1. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html
2. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/incompatible.html

Does it mean a rationalist cannot have any opinion at all about anything? Of course not. If an opinion does not contradict logic, evidence or observation, rationalism does not prevent one from forming a tentative opinion. For example it is not against rationalism to hypothesize about all the POSSIBLE causes of a crime, when definite evidence is missing to point to the actual cause. Same can be said about theories to explain certain facts of reality. That's what science is about. Scientific speculation is just that. Theories are just possible explanation about facts and observations. Before theories can become laws they are just scientific opinions. But the important point to realize is that rationalist opinions, although not yet proven, should nevertheless be consistent with logic or observations (i.e does not contradict logic or observations) and should not use ill-defined terms. Rationalism cannot be a basis for subscribing to a political party based on any dogma, or to express an a priori affiliation or support for a non-dogma based political party.. One can certainly do so as a human out of emotional need or bias, but not DUE TO rationalism. For a rationalist who chooses to be guided by pure rationalism, not emotion, support for a non-dogma based political party should be based on policies, performance, efficiencies and other objective criterion, thus need not be a static one, but changeable based on an ongoing assessment of the fulfillment of those criteria. There is no such concept as party loyalty in a rationalist vocabulary. Some intellectuals believe that certain political stand in an ideological, social or political controversy is required by rationalism, e.g leftist ideology, pro-choice stand in abortion, nurturist stand in nature-nurture debate, etc to name a few. Many of them commit the fallacy of appeal to emotion (invoking patriotism/nationalism) to justify an uncritical adoption of one side of a political issue. To a rationalist, an apriori biased stand is not consistent with rationalism. They should be prepared to accept whichever viewpoint that scientific and logical reasoning may lead to, even if that goes against the popular trend of thinking. Rationalism is ruthless, it does not need to pamper to one's emotional need or wishes, or care about political correctness.. In personal life, that means a rationalist has to acknowledge and be critical of the unpleasant facts, if necessary, about one's near and dear ones, if evidence so suggests. Being able to separate facts from personal biases is an essential hallmark of rationalism. By the same token, a rationalist has to acknowledge, and criticize , if need be, the shortcomings of the race, religion or language he/she belongs to, in a detached way, free from personal bias, as well as acknowledge the superiority of another race, religion in a certain aspect, if objective evidence suggests so. Rationalism also does not imply making an a priori assumption that all bad or wrongs are equal, just because political correctness says so. Rationalism demands doing the required homework to quantify and recognize shades in right and wrong in morality and shades of good and bad in attributes by some objective criteria when applicable. This requires intellectual courage and integrity, as it can be potentially incur one the scorn of the majority, for whom the priority is loyalty, pride, patriotism etc. But rationalism does not recognize such mental constructs or sets such priority. It only cares for logic and evidence. Rationalism does not allow taking a stand just because it is politically correct or popular. Many intellectuals associate the terms liberal, progressive etc with rationalism/freethinking. But liberal, progressive etc are usually understood and judged in the context of which stand one takes vis a vis certain issues, e.g pro-choice in abortion, leftist ideology ij politics, nurturist stand in the nature/nurture debate, a puritanic belief that all bads are equal (i.e cultural and moral relativism) etc. But rationalism does not require one to adopt such positions, and in fact in certain issues,\ may lead to the opposite stand by scientific evidence and logic. I will not dwell at length on the specifics of those scientific evidences in all such cases as it is a topic on its own and I am only interested on the general aspects of rationalism in this essay. A small example may help to illustrate rationalistic approach to an issue. IF we adopt the axiom that ending a "life" is morally wrong, THEN the act of abortion by definition will be morally wrong, since biology tells us that a fetus has life of its own. There is no value judgement involved, that was a conclusion derived from purely logical inference. (Notice the IF.. THEN.. construct). Whether we should adopt "ending life is morally wrong" as an axiom of course is not dictated by rationalism. But in fact we can derive that axiom from rationalism if we adopt another axiom as more fundamental, for example the axiom that we should do whatever is needed to increases the odds for the survival of human species. In that case rational thinking using evolutionary biology tells us that IF we adopt the precept "ending life is morally wrong", THEN it increases the odds for the survival of human species (Again notice the IF.. THEN.. contruct). Whether we should consider "increasing the odds of the survival of human species" as a moral imperative is of course beyond rationalism. This is an intuitive moral axiom. This example clearly shows that rationalism does have a role in formulating moral precpets, barring the mosr primitive moral axioms. Even humanism, is not strictly derived from rationalism. Humanism follows from rationalism if the postulate "we should put priority on the welfare of maximum number of humans irrespective of race, color, creed, ethnicity etc." is added to rationalism. It must be noted that all religions and dogmas claim human welfare as their goal as well. But what differentiates their view of humanism from rational humanism is that for them, that goal is claimed to be achievable only through the implementation of their dogma. So dogma comes first for them. Not only that, the priority for welfare in most religions and dogmas is reserved for their followers. But rational humanism does not make that distinction. Once humanism is arrived through rationalism, the notions of democracy and secularism follows as corollary.

Rationalism+Human good--> Humanism--> Democracy-->Secularism

Another point that many may have already wondered is that how can we decide who is rationalist or not? After all, followers of all religion or dogma claim they believe in logic and reason. Doesn't every one have their own logic and every religion their own logic? So how can one not be rational? This is a tricky question that can lead to a slippery slope if not clarified beforehand. Cultural and moral relativists, postmodernists exploit such slippery slope to argue that all are equal, nothing is more valid than another etc. The logic and evidence referred to in rationalism, is shared by humanity with an overwhelming consensus crossing race, religion and affiliation etc. In other words they are universal. Modern logic finds much in common with the logic of early Greek, Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, as well as the early Muslim rationalists (Mutazillites) during the time of the House of Wisdom in Bagdad. This logic has been perfected and improved by later philosophers, like Locke, Hume, Kant and many Mathematicians and logicians of the twentieth century. This is the logic that is taught with tax payer's funding in public schools in most nations of the world as well as secular private schools. This is also the logic that has WORKED. This logic has been the basis of the scientific method that has been so successful, has changed the world, made predictions about nature that was tested and verified to be true. It is also leading humanity towards continued advancement. It is no surprise that this is the logic that people have staked their money in teaching and learning. There are a set of unambiguous rules for valid logical reasoning, both informal and formal taught in elementary logic class that can act as guide to resolve dilemmas, ambiguities, paradox. contradictions, disputes etc. Also it is important to note that claims must be backed up by not just logic, but evidence and objectivity as well, both of are lacking in claims of religious or other dogmas. Contrast that with the "logic" that person "A" uses to rationalize his own belief, or the "logic" of religion "X" to rationalize that religion. Such "logic" is not shared universally, nor has it demonstrated its utility by coming up with any predictions, inventions or innovations, nor to the discovery of any fundamental truth about nature or reality. A "logic" that has been invented as a dedicated ploy to justify one dogma or belief is no logic at all. Besides such logic does not have universal appeal.

It should suffice to note that a dogma by definition is not based on logic and evidence, so to try to justify a dogma by logic is a fallacy to begin with and thus contrary to rationalism. It is quite intriguing to see vocal champions of religious dogmas even among some PhD's of reputed universities, who are not ashamed to claim that their belief is supported by logic and evidence!

Rationalism also implies skepticism. Skepticism requires one to doubt any claim to truth, unless proven by evidence and logic, and to suspend belief or judgment in absence thereof, which clearly follows from rationalism. In personal life, such skepticism forces one to refrain from forming judgement or drawing hasty conclusions or opinion about a person or any claim of truth. In the absence of any evidence or logic a skeptic should stay in a "do nothing" i.e neutral mode. This "do nothing" neutral mode is a level most minds cannot recognize and needs some effort to become at ease with it. Most feel tempted to ruch to an opinion one way or the other, even in the absence of any supporting data. If and when the evidence or logic is available only then a skeptic can form an opinion, that is dictated by the evidence and logic, not by their wishful desires or biases. A rationalist has to have the intellectual courage to acknowledge unpleasant truths. A rationalist never gained/gains materially or otherwise by being rational. It is just a philosophy that they find intuitively appealing.

Let me now turn to some mistaken notions about rationalism that is quite common among many. Many think that rationalism means an arrogant claim to infallibility, that rationalism never admits of ever being wrong, that it denies the possibility that logic itself may be wrong! All these are due to a lack of careful reflection. First that one could be wrong is a trivial and self-evident fact. It is like saying that one cannot be sure that he/she will make it to the destination as the flight may crash. ACKNOWLEDGING that fact of the limits and uncertainties in one's knowledge is a matter of humility. Humility is a personality trait. Rationalism is a philosophy, not a trait. Rationalism does not prevent one, nor does it mandate one to possess certain personality trait. Second to say that "logic" itself may be wrong is to commit a fallacy. Because to judge something as "wrong" needs a logic of its own. One cannot use logic to judge the same logic as wrong! We have assumed that there exists only one system of logic that works best. Until we find a better system of logic, it is a fallacy to judge that logic as wrong. But saying that the "logic" is not wrong does not mean saying that one cannot make mistakes. Mistakes are due to an individual's limit or flaw in applying logic, not due to logic itself. But there is no better way to overcome that limit than logic itself. Anyway, that humility of admitting the self-evident fact of fallibility is built in the scientific method. Scientific method, which is derived from rationalism is based on the premise that there is no absolute or final truth, and that any conclusion about reality is always tentative, subject to continual revision in light of further evidence. But one must not conclude that just because in certain instance one could predict the truth correctly by non-rational (intuition, guess) means that means intuition is superior to rationalism as a means for seeking truth. For example if a coin is tossed, an intuitionist may intuitively guess that the coin will come heads up. A rationalist cannot predict the outcome on the basis of logic and science (It is incredibly complex calculation) If the coin does fall heads up, does it prove that intuition is superior to rationalism? Of course not.

Let me now clarify what rationalism is not or cannot It is a mistaken to believe that rationalism can solve all problems in life, or prevent them. It cannot. The fact it cannot is because the truth in many situation in life is not always known in advance for one to make the right decision. Rationalism is limited by the knowledge or truth that is needed in making an informed decision to solve or prevent a problem. In an indeterminstic situation intuitive guesses and judgement is inevitable. And the intuition of rational person is not guaranteed to be right. So in those situations in life where there are unknowns and uncertainties, intuitive guesswork cannot be avoided. Rationalism may offer some guidelines in making the best guesses, but it cannot offer a guarantee for success. For example, rationalism cannot guarantee one will make the right choice in marriage or relationship. Rationalism cannot prevent one from making mistakes in life. Gamble in life cannot be totally averted through rationalism. Risk cannot be either. More generally speaking, from an utilitarian point of view, rationalism is no guarantee to material success in individual life. Rationalism is a principle based on logic and evidence. In an imperfect world, that is not always the sure route to material success. Just like honesty is not. But the value of rationalism goes beyond personal gains or interests. It's value lies in the collective imnprovement of the quality of human life by following rationalistic approach. COnsider the cost human society has paid and is paying in terms of dollars and man hours for believing in dogmas and faiths that have no logic or evodence as its basis. How much time and resources are being spent towards relgiouis rituals, how much suffering and persecution has enforcement of some cruelst relgious dogmas brought to many decent humans? If majority of a society adopt rationalism as their personal philosophy, then such wastage and social evils could be abolished or minimized. Society would prosper faster then. A common thinking is that morality is beyond rationalism. I think that is a mistaken view. Although the moral axioms at the bottom of a moral system may have to be assumed arbitrarily based on intuition, once the axioms are accepted, further moral precepts based on those axioms can certainly be rationally analyzed or developed. Rationalism is the product of human mind. So is morality. There is no apriori cause for them to be not connected. In the ultimate analysis since it is the laws of nature that has created human brain and thus rationalism, so it should be in principle possible to formulate a moral system based on the same laws of nature via rationalism. It may have to be an evolutionary process.

It must also be emphasized that not all human brains are equally capabale of rationalism or programmed for rational thinking. There is no guaranatee that rationalism can be inculcated by preaching or training. Human brain, being inherently complex, have varying degrees of potential for each type of thinking. It is possible certain brains are more susceptible to certain cues that triggers rational thinking, while others are impervious to any cues. For example for Aroj Ali Matubbor, the legendary rationalist farmer of rural Bangladesh, the cue that brought out his latent rationalist mind was the event involving taking the picture of his mother's burial. On the other hand some PhD's of reputed US universties, even after being exposed to some of the finest rationalistic arguments, writings and philosophical essays, continue to defend religious dogmas, sometimes even using the very same rationalistic arguments and languages they read about! They are impervious to any rational cues at all. The majority of humans who are in between, are easily susceptible to cues of dogmatist preaching or rationalist thinking. They are up for grabs, so to speak. These are the fence-sitters, swing voters in the rationalism vs. dogmatism election, metaphorically speaking. It does not make much sense to say "thou shalt be rational". The best that those who value and cherish rationalism can do is to target this majority, present to them examples of rational arguments to refute or critique issues, debunk the claims of mystics, godmen and other charlartans by logical means and evidence. This can be through electronic and print media, or preferably if possible through practical workshops as has been done in many rural outbacks of India. I also strongly suggest that rationalism be included in high school curricula. While it may be unrealistic to expect this to happen in the current environment in many countries where religious sentiments run high, specially if rationalism is pitted against the popular religion, it may be acceptable including rationalism as a general philosophy to emphasize reason and evidence over blind faith and superstition. Leading educators and academicians need to take the lead in lobbying with the relevant authorites for such curricular changes.

Next, to many, rationalism means robbing one of the sense of beauty, romanticism, love, compassion , i.e leaves one heartless and devoid of emotions. This is a big myth. Rationalism stresses separating the head from the heart, not REPLACING heart with head. Certain things are intrinsically rooted in instinct, and thus beyond rationalism. Love, fear, altruism, conscience (sense of right and wrong), these are biologically rooted instincts. Instincts are not controllable or influenced by rationalism. Instincts are more or less hardwired in our genes and manifested through the workings of the limbic system of our brain. Whereas rationalism results from the thought process determined by the evolution of cerebral cortex. Humans posses both these brain components. So a rational person can feel an instinctive fear in certain environment, or can feel passionate love for certain person. What differentiates a rational person from a less or rational or emotional person is the synaptic connectivities in their cerebral cortex, not in their limbic system. So when it comes to primal instincts controlled by limbic systems, for example self-preservation, the difference disappears. In a life threatening situation, control is automatically taken over by the limbic system from the cerebral cortex, biological instinct of aggression may kick in, and at that point whatever one does is not subject to rationalism anymore. Taste is also instinctive. Rationalism has nothing to do with it. Although rationalism does not decide or control our tastes and emotions, it can however EXPLAIN (or at least try to through scientific method) the basis of such emotions and likes or dislikes. Rationalism cannot affect or control love. But rationalism can certainly help explain the biological (in both evolutionary and biochemical terms) origin of love, morality and other human values and attributes. The same can be said about all other instincts and emotions. A good example of that would be the book "Why we feel : The Science of Emotions" by Victor Johnston. So being rational does not by any means deprive of those instincts, tastes and emotions, because they are an integral part of being human, rational or not. Rationalism enables humans to understand and explain the underlyinmg basis of emotions, it does not rob us of the emotions. A neurologist does not lose his mind(brain) in trying to understand the workings of the brain, nor does an evolutionary biologist ceases to be a loving mate or parent in trying to explain and understand the biological roots of love, simply because we have no control on our biological instincts, whether we are rational or not. Rationalism however can however help to control the impulses that emotions may lead to. In biological language, although the generation of emotions in the limbic system itself cannot be controlled, the impulsive ACTS (e.g aggression) that those emotions often lead to can be controlled by the feedback mechanism of the cerebral cortex over the limbic system.
Another "reason" for viewing rationalism with cynical eyes by many is because it is believed by them that humanitarian acts should come from an emotional impulse, not from a rationalization process, which does not take the compassion factor in the decision of such acts. On first look, it may look like a noble view, putting heart before head. But as I pointed out, compassion, humanitarian acts all are derived from altruism, a biologically rooted instinct, so rationalism cannot affect it. Although rationalism can certainly manage altruistic instinct in a way that ensures optimum utilization of it. Impulsive altruistic acts do not always lead to the best results. Rationalism can help to channelize our altruistic instincts in the most optimal manner. At a very personal level, of course even a rationalist can (and often does) act out of an impulse and do an act of humanitarianism or compassion, since doing so is not contradicted by logic. Compassion should not REPLACE rationalism, but must be accompanied by it. A good example would be the case of a judge granting leniency to convicted on compassionate grounds. But the compassion follows only after a thorough rational analysis of the crimes committed by the convicted. Rationalism is truly applicable in forming opinions, judgments, learning the truth and solving problems, but not to instincts, or impulses that are non-judgmental, non-intrusive and innocuous

Lastly I will be remiss if I do not point out the challenge that rationalism is facing from the postmodernist thinking that seems to be gaining ground in recent years. Postmodernists are challenging that very golden product of rationalism, namely scientific method by insisting that scientific method is just one among many EQUALLY valid route to truth and deserves no special privileged status. This is nothing but intellectual anarchism. Postmodernists are nothing but armchair social scientists that have fallen much behind modern scientific paradigms and are threatened by the scientific approach that the social sciences are adopting (rather being forced to adopt). They are watching with frustration one after another social discipline is losing ground to the exact sciences. Not being able to face upto the challenge of the sciences some of them have chosen the treacherous art of deconstruction and misapplying it to scientific method. So rationalism now faces challenges from two fronts, religious dogma (which Europeans successfully faced during the renaissance), and postmodernism, which is a new challenge that needs to be faced. So the need to emphasize rationalism is more now than ever. Hopefully my fellow Mukto-Monas will share my passion for rationalism.

[ Slightly modified from the original write-up which was appeared at MM on May 26, 2002. ]

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