Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Rationality Doesn't Exist

Reason versus Passion: its a conflict as old as when the question first occurred to someone "What is a good life?" The Greeks discussed it. The religious have discussed it. We discuss it today. Its linked into a lot of other discussions too about the nature of the world and existence itself. And people take sides. Our society, as many others have done, values rationality. Some within it will believe in a capitalized form of it: Rationality. This will probably go along with their belief in capitalized forms of other things like Morality or Goodness or Truth. For these people, to be rational is the highest good. It is a goal and an end. They will judge people on what they consider to be a rationality scale. The more rational you are, the better a person you are. The flipside of this is the less rational you are, the more emotional you are - for to be emotional is thought by these people to be the opposite of being rational - then the worse of a person you are. 

Let's offer the case in defense of rationality. Rationality is that ability to think logically and to be able to offer reasons for things. These reasons should be based in what can be regarded as reality. To be rational is to be reasonable but also to be speaking truthfully about the world. Scientists think of themselves as rational and that model is a good example of what rationality can do. Rationality has a very high yield where measuring and judging things is concerned which is a lot of what scientists do. Rationality does not involve itself in flights of fancy or speculation. Rationality is about lucid detachment and not letting personal involvements get in the way. Some would offer rationality as the way we humans gain real knowledge of things and set truths about the world in order. It is a true and good thing to have which gives humanity the progress it desires.

But let's compare this view of reality, and its bias in favour of the rational over the emotional, with the world as it occurs to us to be. Survey the world you actually live in with this view. Does it seem to you that the world as a whole is rational? Does it seem to you that the people who inhabit it are rational? I put it to you that it doesn't, certainly not simply so. You might consider that this is because rationality is available but people, for some reason, choose not to use it. Their rationality seems to have been hijacked by that bad alter ego, emotion. People become passionate, willful, controlled by their own interests and agendas, and any rationality that might be available to them gets lost. And where does the capitalized form, Rationality, stand in all this. If there is a deified form of Reason how can it be that so many people can so easily turn their back on it and ignore it, becoming self-interested agenda pushers in thrall to their emotions?

Once upon a time there was a mustachioed philosopher and his name was Friedrich. He proclaimed in one of his books "GOD IS DEAD AND WE HAVE KILLED HIM". He meant to refer directly to the Christian god but his proclamation had much more thorough-going consequences than that. For those who believe in this God, something that is harder to do these days than when Friedrich made his pronouncement, God is the underwriter of all the capitalized things like Rationality and Morality and Truth. But if God is dead then Rationality is dead. Truth is dead. Goodness is dead. These things cannot stand if the guarantor of them all is dead. They must pass away. Friedrich thought this was true, even if you aren't a believer in this God, because he thought that, socio-culturallly, we all live in societies in which this Christian-Platonic view of the world is accepted anyway. So even if we tried to cut God adrift and carry on with divinised concepts like Rationality or Truth it is just a bad faith form of Christianity in disguise. Rationality or Truth become substitute gods and, as Friedrich has already said, God is dead.

To my mind, the interesting part of what Friedrich Nietzsche said is not that God is dead. That, to me at least, seems self-evident. My observations of life lead me to this conclusion. "We have killed him" is the interesting part. Nietzsche seems to be saying that our human ways have laid waste to a deity, to all deities, to all things that we might want to hoist over and above us. The gods crumble before the follies of human beings. He was not alone in that thought. Many other philosophers after him, some referred to as existentialists and some referred to as pragmatists, have made similar points. These types of people would tend to come down more on the side of a human being not conceived as something made for the purposes of being merely rational. These types of people would want to balance rationality and emotion out in the human being. But this subtly changes the picture we then form of the human being. For me, the human beings we all are are not rationality machines networked into a divine arbiter of The Rational. We are complex and holistically configured emotion-rationality organisms. You can't chop the emotion out of a human being anymore than you can stop them making up reasons for things, the activity of the rational.

You are reading this blog on the Internet. The Internet in many minds has gained a certain reputation for outrage. It is a very immediate form of media and people these days complain if anything takes more than a couple of seconds to happen anyway. We are the now generation. This is no less so of human judgments. We are, after all, beings in an environment and this engenders a two-way process of influence. We can influence our environment but our environment also influences back. So we tend to get things served up to us in very superficial and bitesize form. It strikes me as amusing that these days if any debate goes on for more than 10 minutes it is regarded as some kind of long form exposition of a subject. "I haven't got time for this" isn't the least common expression in human language. We want fast facts and fast answers. So we have no end of media outlets dishing up these compact facts and dealing with whole issues in the matter of a couple of minutes by reading a top ten list. Its my suggestion that none of this encourages real thinking, the kind that takes time and involves, get this, more than one side of the story. Indeed, you can go to a lot of places today, maybe even most, and you will get served up to you a partisan description of a problem written from one point of view.

A comment came into my Twitter timeline about a day ago. It was complaining about the overuse of the word "outrage" as a cover all description of any questioning of someone's position on something. I took the point. It is true, I agree, that not all points to the contrary of yours, not all criticism or comment, is about "outrage". But the commenter went further and suggested that saying such people were outraged was some kind of attempt to paint them as "irrational" and the clear inference was that being irrational was a bad thing to be. The commenter clearly valued rationality and wanted to be seen as such, even if also wanting to criticize other people's points of view. The sense was that you can disagree with someone about something but still be seen as rational. I agree with this. You can. But you can't do it if you think there is a thing called Rationality. Because that kind of rational only admits of one thought process, the one that is right and over above everything in an arbitrating way, the one that brooks no challenge or divergence from it. Lucky for us that Friedrich has reminded us: God is dead. 

But what follows from this? Well, it follows that if you criticize a point of view and someone accuses you of "outrage" (which may or may not be true and could be argued without resolution forever) and you take this to mean they are accusing you of being "irrational" then, from their perspective, you might very well be. Since there is now no Rationality there is only partial, situated, local rationality, the rationality some particular person or group is possessed by. And from that point of view your criticism might be irrational. They do not need your agreement to make this claim. They do not need to appeal to some higher court of Reason (which, as we now know, doesn't exist). They just need to use their own personalized form of rationality, do the math, and come up with the answer. That answer can easily be "Your criticism of me is irrational. It is vocalized outrage". Whether you agree or not is, as it would be if things were reversed, irrelevant to that. We all know quite commonsensically that people have their own point of view on things. But when it comes to rationality we get a bit fuzzy about it. We don't like the idea that people might have their own personalized form of what is rational and what is not. But they do.

And, the truth is, its not even really all that difficult to see this and acknowledge it. Every one takes sides in this world. Everyone finds themselves situated inside points of view, attitudes towards things and beliefs about the way the world is. What needs to be seen is that these same things are generative of our rationality. It is these things that will inform us what we regard as rational, when someone is displaying outrage and what counts as these things. There is no outside way or overarching way to triangulate these things. We are already fully equipped as sentient human beings to make these calculations. The problem is that this often results in lots of incommensurability. My rationality may not work always in accordance with yours or your neighbor's, your friend's or your partner's. The traditional way out of this is conversational. We talk and come to some agreement or point about which we can all feel our dignity respected. Rationality is educable, after all. But in the instant world of the Internet that is not going to happen very often. Our feelings (emotion!) get hurt very easily and its often easier for us (in lots of ways too complicated to get into now) to just regard the other person as irrational or outraged as we see it. We have our notions vindicated and the other guy is a loser who thinks differently.

I would hope that none of this comes across as very revolutionary. It seems to me to be common sense. But then that is a function of my own rationality. Within that rationality people are partial and sectarian. They take sides. They are well able to make their own judgments and provide their own reasons for things they say, do and think. They do this without any recourse to a divinised form of the rational because such a thing doesn't exist. They are partiality machines. It is because this is how I see things that I find agreement to be a wonderful thing. Such a view of the human being could go the other way and become a solipsistic world of incommensurable views. Sometimes when you look at the Internet it can seem like things are going down this dark path. But the light is still available to us as long as we can talk to one another, try to understand things as people with their own human dignity express them, and explore each other's views on what being human is all about. That, in fact, is our only hope. Human life, in other words, is all about talking to the irrational and the outraged. 

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