The Sweet Lie of Rationalism

A recent conversation provided the catalyst for this article. I was discussing with an individual who stated that they no longer believed anything. They insisted that they only held as true what they knew to be true. According to this very sincere individual they could never “force themselves to believe” anything. I must admit that the proposition sounds appealing – down right rational. Of course we should never believe anything – we should only hold as true that which we can prove. Excellent idea! Right?

Most of the Western world today is caught in this social tug-of-war match between religion and science. Each side is convinced that their propositions are truth, and that their propositions invalidate those of the other side. As a result of this we have scientists making statements about religion and philosophy and religious individuals making theological claims about science. Of course between the two extremes are a variety of claims and views, each one asserting that they alone have the absolute perspective that can be verified to be truth. If we were to take a step back from this situation, it would seem rather odd to an outsider. How can so many people hold to some many contradictory points of view and each claim that their view is substantiated by evidence – nay fact? This applies equally to the Young Earth Creationist, the Theistic Evolutionist and the hard line Material Naturalist. Each group believes that their position is the rational position.

Perhaps one of these groups are correct. Perhaps one of them has the truth and the other groups are false. This is what rationalism leads us to, and what empiricism demands. This could be true, but it leads us to the problem of statistical probability. I am not a number cruncher, but it seems to me that if we demand that one rational position be the absolute truth, and that all other propositions are false, then we run into a high degree of unlikelihood that anyone could luck up upon the “truth”. Further, no one seems to be less convinced of their points than those who hold polar opposite views. Seeing that each rational view makes up only a small percentage of all views, and all views are equally held as rational by all those holding them, we are left with a conundrum. Of course each of these rationalistic views will contend that it is fear, cowardliness, greed, ignorance ect. that drives the blindness of their opponents. Yet again, however, this accusation is levied equally by all sides.

What the above seems to point to, quite painfully, is the utter inability of we humans to come to a rational formula for truth. We can measure material attributes, but that is not really determining truth. For instance I can list all the physical attributes of a painting, but I cannot say why or why it is not a masterpiece. Why is music beautiful? To answer that question is just as impossible as to ask “why is it wrong to murder”? The multitude of moral and ethical dilemmas we encounter and the plethora of ideological concepts we need to filter are simply out of the grasp of rationalization. This is not to say that there is no truth, such is absurd. It is to say that our rationalism is limited and can never take us to the point of truth.

We are utterly dependent upon our sensations to evaluate the world. Yet, when one studies the science of sensation and perception we find that they are not as dependable as we would like to think they are. Our senses are affected by our beliefs. Studies have shown that people see what they believe they should see. The brain is often filling in and creating images in our mind based on both distal stimulus and top-down processing. In other words what we perceive to be true is a combination of sensation and our beliefs and experiences. Further the raw data of our very senses are suspect. Did you know that you have a blind spot in your eye? ( Click here for an example. ) If you click on the link you will see how that your brain fills in portions of the grid for you. Which leads us to ask: how often is your brain filling in for you? The answer is – a lot. Our senses are not perfect, our ability to deduce truth is flawed and biased. So how do we ever think we can establish truth based on such faulty equipment? The answer is that we cannot.

Western society has bought into the idea that truth and reality can be measured in a lab or reasoned out by scientific thought. The result of this is that we are a very confused and unhappy society. This leaves us with a view of the world that cannot even acknowledge things that are essential to human existence. Beauty, art, faith and religion are all intuitive and mystical ways of seeing the world. They are things that we need to thrive. You cannot test them empirically, you must believe them. We are afraid of paradox. Afraid of not knowing or admitting that we may never know. Not in the way we can know the temperature of water, or the weight of steel. Western society is starving for the mystical. Starving for the bread of life that is embodied in the beliefs, rituals and rhythms of ancient times. Yet like a child that insists on dressing itself, Western society cannot partake of the food it desperately needs without being able to fit it into its neat rational little box. It’s time we embraced the mystery of the cosmos and our own existence again. Its time we allow ritual and rhythm back into our lives. To look at the world through the eyes of the mystic and embrace our true humanity. To do any less is perhaps the most irrational thing of all.


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