Reflections on Rationalism - II


In my earlier essay [Rationalism - It's Meaning and Implications] on the occasion of last year's rationalist day I attempted a definition and explanation of rationalism. I wish to continue on further elaboration and clarification of rationalism, particularly the relationship of rationalism with idealism and personal faith. As I mentioned earlier that rationalism as a philosophy inevitably leads to scientific method, because scientific method is based on logic and evidence, two necessary element of rationalism. Scientific method (Or simply Science) is nothing but applied rationalism. Consequently any idea or view that contradicts science or logic cannot be consistent with rationalism. Having said that I must emphasize that any personal faith or ideology which is not supported by logic and evidence but which nevertheless does not necessarily contradict logic or evidence cannot be considered inconsistent with rationalism. It is important to understand fully the implications of the previous statement. Rationalism does not disallow personal beliefs and ideologies that are not supported by logic or evidence. Its just that those beliefs and ideologies cannot be considered to be necessary elements of rationalism. For example belief in the existence of alien life is neither supported by logic nor evidence but does not contradict logic or evidence either. Thus scientists can be divided in two camps on the belief in alien life with neither camp violating rationalism. It is not against rationalism to hold a personal belief unsupported by logic or evidence (but not contradicting it). What is against rationalism is to assert such belief as a true statement (proposition in the jargon of logic). In other words a rationalist can hold a personal belief but allowing for the possibility of his/her being wrong, thus refraining from asserting the belief as a proposition (Again to it must be reemphasized that a rationalist belief should not contradict logic or evidence). That is what distinguishes a rationalists' belief from that of a dogmatist. A dogmatist asserts his/her belief as absolute truth. As a trivial example, one can be rationalist and for some reason believe that he/she will die at age 82. But as a rationalist he will be well aware of the fact that his belief can be wrong and that there is no logic or evidence behind such a belief. Usually the reason for beliefs unsupported by logic and evidence is gut instinct, intuitions etc, something that all humans (rationalist or not) are subject to, due to biological evolution. For example a person may instinctively feel scared by the presence of some people in certain neighbourhood (The fear translates into a belief that those people will harm him). A woman may feel threatened by some man, in both cases there being no conclusive evidence or logic to justify that fear. Someone might feel scared walking in a graveyard alone at night. But all such fear will still not be inconsistent with rationalism as fear is an instinct, instincts are biologically hardwired in the primitive part of the brain, not generated by the thinking part of the brain (cortex). Rationalism is a result of brain's cognitive process, although whether a person's brain will generate rational thinking or not may in part be genetically hardwired.

What characterizes a rationalist is that he/she can reflect on him/herself from a third person perspective and recognize his/ her belief as not being a truth statement (proposition), but only a belief due to personal reasons and consciously aware of the possibility of his beliefs being wrong. The same is true in forming judgmental opinions of others. If any such judgment is not conclusively supported by sound logic (people often justify their opinion of others based with logic that contains fallacies in it) then a rationalist will only take a tentative opinion of others, if at all he/she has to. This may sound obvious but it is surprising to see how many people forming opinions not based on sound logic about others with smug conviction about their being right about it. Even some "freethinkers" have been seen to jump to a conclusion about someone using flawed logic. For example when a person A says "B says that X is true", it will be a fallacy for C to conclude that A is implying that X is true. It only means that A is saying that B is implying that X is true. It also does not mean that A is implying that X is true in order to offer it as evidence that Y is true. Such fallacious opinions are not uncommon among freethinkers as well. As I mentioned it

What about a belief in God and soul? The statement "One will die at 82" is a proposition, a statement that is unambiguously true or false. There is nothing undefined or ill-defined in that belief. In the case of a belief in God or Soul it is a bit more tricky. The question is whether belief in God or Soul contradicts logic or evidence. It depends on how one defines God or Soul. These words have defied a unanimous, logical, objective definitions. Many definitions end up in self-contradictions. In some definitions such a belief does contradict logic and/or evidence (as in most religions), in others they don't (Almost invariably in these cases the definitions reduce to labeling some existing set of notions, no new objective reality is discovered). One can define God in an abstract sense as the first cause of the laws of physics and then hold the belief that such a first cause exists, or one can hold a belief that there is no first cause of the laws of physics, the laws of physics are the very cause of everything (universe). Both view would be consistent with rationalism.

How about belief in paranormal, UFOs, apparitions etc? Again it is not against rationalism to admit the possibility that these phenomena might be real, that these are not mere illusions of the mind, but are unexplainable events. It is also not against rationalism to believe that these are illusions of the mind or are just hoaxes. But to assert one view or the other as absolute truth or fact, and that personal testimonies provide an evidence for asserting them as truth or fact is contrary to rationalism. As an example I wish to refer to a debate in Mukto-Mona forum on paranormal phenomena where Ali Sina suggested his personal testimony as evidence for the existence of paranormal [Check Debate on Rationalism in MM] . While it is perfectly consistent with rationalism to hold personal belief in the existence of paranormal due to personal testimony, it is certainly against rational thinking to out the personal testimony as an evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena. On the other extreme it is also against rationalism to assert as truth that these personal testimonies are hoaxes, fraud or illusions. Another example is UFO. Ufologists cite the sheer volume of personal testimonies (many of which are from credible people) as conclusive evidence of visitation of aliens. Whereas Physicist Michio Kaku only admits the possibility that UFO sightings CAN POSSIBLY be due to aliens. There is a clear difference.

Now let me focus on ideology and morality vs. rationalism. It should be clear that science and rationalism does not have any inherent value judgment in them. There is no normative element in rationalism. Ideological beliefs are by nature value laden. Certain ideological social views are not objective statement of facts, so are not dictated by rationalism. Examples of such ideologies are views on homosexual issues (like gay marriage), abortion rights, communism versus capitalism (in the sense of economic systems) etc. On many issues on morality and ethics, one cannot take a rational stand without the help of some additional moral axioms. In logic one draws a conclusion using valid rules of inferences starting from one or more premises( axioms). So to form a rational conclusion on an issue of morality one has to rely on some axiom or premise. An example of a premise may be to adopt "it is immoral to kill an innocent life" as a moral axiom. Is the conclusion "abortion is immoral" then rational? If life is understood as defined in biology then it certainly is. If life is redefined as a human being after birth then it is not a rational conclusion. So the problem reduces to unambiguously defining "Life" in the axiom "it is immoral to kill an innocent life", to decide if the conclusion is valid or not. Although science defines life unambiguously, that definition will not be acceptable to those who have adopted an a priori stand that abortion is not immoral, as that definition will contradict their ideological stand. At least we can see that taking either position on abortion is consistent with rationalism. But it will be inconsistent with rationalism to adopt one definition of life in one context and another definition in another context. That will be a fallacy of equivocation, nd rationalism is inconsistent with logical fallacies. In the case of abortion we saw that because of the ambiguity of the word "Life", it is not possible to assign a rational status on a stand on abortion. But in cases where a moral axiom is expressed in unambiguous terms and is universally accepted as an axiom, then it is possible to decisively judge if a conclusion based on the axiom is rational or not.