He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Church of Reason

Human thought processes are quite old.  And even of old some human beings realized that their thought processes were rather messy and could stand to be cleaned up a bit.  In many places, at many times in the course of human development, there have been attempts to clean up human thought, to eliminate some obvious perceptual or cognitive errors and help us to be somewhat more likely to arrive at accurate conclusions about our world.  The varied philosophical schools of ancient India and Greece are examples of this sort of human striving for clarity.

There's an obvious survival advantage in being able to more accurately view the state of affairs around you, to be able to think through a problem with clarity.  The perception of this survival advantage and this striving for clarity and precision of thought probably has roots older than our recorded history tells us.  For some humans throughout history, reason had a place in their toolbox that held many tools for understanding the world, including such tools as intuition, instinct, traditions, and empirical investigation.  Some of them preferred to rely on mental shortcuts like intuition and instinct and tradition for navigating their daily lives and reserved reason for use when pondering esoteric topics or working through a problem which was not time-sensitive and/or highly complex.  For others, reason was applied much more broadly, supplanting the use of mental shortcuts and sometimes even empirical investigation.

The broad application of reason came to a crest in Western culture during the Age of Reason, and it did so at a time when empirical investigation was also increasing during what is known as the Scientific Revolution.  One of the philosophical movements during the Age of Reason was rationalism, a view that held up human reason as the source of knowledge and as a means of justifying beliefs.  Even among those who who were not rationalists, rationality (which is often viewed as a means of problem-solving or a set of qualities relating to a person's thought process) was more and more highly prized, particularly among those fortunate enough to be educated.

Rationality began to be viewed in certain circles as an antidote to religion as well as an alternative to it, providing a reliable means of ascertaining the truth or falsity of propositions regarding both ourselves and the world.  The emphasis on rationality was not just something which existed in anti-religious circles, it also existed in religious circles to varying degrees (e.g. Scholasticism).  The strong sort of rationalism which assumes that our reasoned conclusions obtain in an ontological sense or assumes that reason is coextensive with reality was a view which took its place among both religious and non-religious intellectuals (though one might wonder if rationalism had not become their religion).

The broad application of reason is rising to a crest yet again in Western culture, particularly among the young who have been raised to view the world through the lens of scientific narratives and to value academic tools and methods for acquiring knowledge.  There are a growing number of people in this demographic who describe themselves as secular humanists, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics.  Even among those who still accept supernatural claims and/or describe themselves as having a religion, many of them reject the idea of organized religion because of what they see as irrational beliefs or practices within that religious group.

Once again, rationality is increasingly viewed as an antidote to religion among those demographics and religion is often seen as an outdated mode of thinking that just causes conflict, setting aside of course that the historical and contemporary examples we have of secular regimes provide strong evidence that eliminating religion does not end human conflicts at all.  In their view, religion is one of the big problems we have in the world and reason is the solution to our problems.  From their perspective, it is a fundamental dogma that truth is found by the light of human reason and that the light of human reason is not compatible with religion because religion is inherently irrational.

For them, not only is rationality the means by which we may find truth, behaving rationally will solve our problems with our social structures, with our economic systems, and with our political systems.  It strongly reminds me of the views of some folks that if we just all have nice feelings for each other, we could totally fix everything, man.  The problem with both of these views is that they both assume an anthropology which is far from being supported by the evidence of human existence in that we commit cognitive errors quite routinely and often have very natural negative emotions which are largely out of our immediate control.

The notion of rationality as a panacea for human evil is just as irrational as the notion of feelings of love as a panacea for human evil and may even be less practical.  Perhaps if we used our rationality to find ways to be more genuinely loving in our own behaviors, we might start to be effective against human evil.

But regardless of the evidence, the strong sort of rationalism which holds up human reason as a means of acquiring truth will continue to hold on to its dogmas.  The dogmas of rationalism will be the underpinning of the doctrines of the unacknowledged church of Reason, the codified worship of our own frail intellects.  Many will praise the idol of their own cognition, blinding themselves to the depth of its limitations while they rationalize whatever behaviors are most convenient for them through the process of rational argument.

Rational argument done well does not produce an end to rational argument and a settling of belief into dogmas. Rational argument should unsettle, challenge, and provoke those who are most self-assured in their beliefs.  It should do so even and perhaps especially in the case of rationalism and the growing Church of Reason.

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