About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Ah, yes, the limits of rationality
But what on earth does it mean to move “beyond” reason? Readers of this blog and of my columns know that I'm the first one to point out that reason does, indeed, have limits. There are several kinds of what philosophers call “epistemic limitations,” for example, sometimes we simply don't have enough information available, at a particular moment, to reach reasonable (i.e., based on reason) conclusions; in other cases we cannot, in principle, gather such information, for instance because it has been destroyed, or it isn't accessible by human methods of research; moreover, there are epistemic limitations intrinsic to the fact that our minds are finite instruments shaped by natural selection, and as such incapable of grasping things beyond a certain level.
There are also areas of human experience that are simply outside of the proper scope of reason. For example, I cannot “reasonably” argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, because this is a matter of taste, and there is neither a logical argument nor any kind of empirical evidence that is relevant to a discussion of taste.
So, yes, reason has limits and proper domains of application. But what annoys me is that this admission is immediately greeted, in certain quarters, with glee and a sense of triumph, as if admitting limits to reason (which is in itself reasonable) somehow lends credibility to all sorts of fantasies that go “beyond” reason. In reality, nothing is beyond reason in the sense that it is “better” than reason when the latter is used properly within its own domain. Irrationality hasn't gotten us any scientific discovery or technological advancement, and it is hardly a guide to proper social behavior.
A few days ago I listened to a bizarre appeal for funding on a local national public radio station. Ira Glass, the host of the acclaimed program “This American Life,” told his listeners that not to contribute to public radio funding is perfectly rational, but – you see – sometimes you need to go “past reason,” and just do what feels right. Except, of course, that not to contribute to a public service is anything but rational, and results in the famous problem known as the tragedy of the commons, where if everyone stops doing his part everybody loses, a highly irrational, and undesirable, outcome indeed.
One can be rational or, when it makes sense, a-rational, but to glorify being irrational (i.e., going against, or ”beyond,” reason) seems to me to be a recipe for disaster. Which may be why it is the most irrational individuals on this planet who keep crying out that reason is limited; why else would people listen to their foolish advice?