Is Rationality Rational?

Vic Stenger

In an article entitled "Relativism and the Limits of Rationality" appearing in the January/February, 1992 issue of The Humanist, Thomas W. Clark says that using rationality as a basis for evaluating the correctness of our ideas about what's true and what's right is "a chimera." He presents a good case. His arguments are very well made. Indeed one might call them, uh, rational.

And that's his problem. The author paints himself into a corner of logical contradiction. He attempts to prove a certain thesis, that a particular method of thinking is invalid, but uses that very same method in attempting to demonstrate his case!

Clark seems to be in the camp of the modern-day sophists and politically correct revisionists who are eating their way through the core of academy like worms through the gut of a dead horse. They see consistency as a mark of smallness of mind. Their own minds must be huge, go great is their inconsistency.

The sophists do not hesitate to exploit the products of rationality in proclaiming their ideas. In the electric-lit, air-conditioned comfort of their campus offices, they type their essays into computers, print them out on laser printers, and fax them to their colleagues. Except for rational thinking, they would be huddled in the dim firelight of a cave, carving scratches on its walls with a stone picked up off the ground. They travel by airplane and automobile to academic conferences where they expound their views to eager audiences over electronically amplified sound systems. If those views had any merit, they should be able to make the trip by magic carpet and communicate by ESP. Using all the magnificent tools that have developed as a consequence of rational thinking, they proclaim that rational thoughts are just a matter of opinion.

Rationality, in the new sophists' view, is simply a special thought process developed by oppressive European civilization. Other civilizations have developed different thought processes, and these are just as worthy of our attention as rationality.

Still, the sophists can't completely ignore the obvious practical successes of rational thinking, in particular, science. Any objective observer must admit a simple fact of history: As a tool, rationality works far better than any alternative scheme of thought so far developed by the human race. From a pragmatic viewpoint, rationality has no competitor. But then, objective observers are rational aren't they? The new sophists disdain objectivity as they disdain rationality. They assert that science and rational thinking are nothing but the despicable tools used by white males to subjugate the rest of humanity.

And so, politics raises its ugly head, demanding to be the arbiter of truth and promoting a perverted form of democracy in which every idea, from every culture, no matter how nonsensical, must be placed on the same footing with all others. Rational thinking, the politically correct say, is just one of an infinite set of possible working assumptions. All other forms of thinking, including the irrational, must be given equal time. Astrology is as worthy of our respect as astronomy, alchemy is as good as chemistry, and numerology should command as much attention in our classrooms as arithmetic. And, of course, if people persist in their delusions about an imaginary spirit world for which no scrap of evidence exists, then their perspective is as good as anyone else's. What's the big deal about evidence, anyway?

The erosion of Western ideals has been going on for some time in America - since the 1960's, in fact. We have seen the effect in our schools, as the traditional core curriculum that once developed critical skills has been gradually watered down. One direct result has been the taking over of many of our markets by the Japanese, as our workers prove less capable than the better-educated Japanese in handling new technology. How ironic! Once as non-Western a nation as found anywhere on the globe, Japan discovered the power of Western methods and has thrown them back in our faces.

What is this method of thinking we label "rational?" Since physics is the prototype science, you should expect an experienced physicist like myself to be capable of describing rational thought. But, try as I might, I can't think of any special feature that distinguishes rational thinking from just plain thinking. As far as I can tell, rational thinking IS thinking and irrational thinking is NON-thinking.

What we label as rational thinking has more to do with communication between brains than the jumble of electrical pulses that rattle around inside any given brain. Until we communicate our thoughts, they cannot be labelled either rational or irrational. Once we begin to communicate, the images in our heads are described by sets of words, either sounded out or written down. These words transmit a mental image - an object, a person, an idea - to our listener or reader. The transmission is never perfectly satisfactory, but at least we can attempt to make the connection between the mental image, and the words and sentences used to describe that image, as accurate as possible.

And that's all there is to rational thinking: communicating our thoughts as faithfully and unambiguously as we can; defining words carefully and using them in the ways they are defined, not in arbitrarily different ways; and connecting those words in sequences that are self-consistent, that is, logical.

The irrational, non-thinking alternative is to communicate inaccurately, to use words other than how they are defined, to talk in sentences that "make no sense," that are illogical and inconsistent. I can't imagine that any possible, honest benefit can come of this. The only benefit is the dishonest one of clouding our thoughts, to produce an image in our listener's mind that is deliberately different from the one in our own.

Are only Western math, science, and philosophy rational? Of course not. Good poetry, art, music, literature - East and West, North and South - are eminently rational. Words, pictures, and sounds represent their creators' best attempts to accurately communicate their deepest thoughts. The best of these, the highest art and science, are the most rational.

I would label as irrational all the rubbish that masquerades as art, literature, music, and even science in today's pop culture. I hardly need mention TV commercials, "infomercials," and bible thumping. The pictures and sounds that are transmitted in most of these productions are lies. They do not accurately represent the deepest thoughts of their creators. Rather, they mask their true thoughts. If the pictures were accurate, they would flash dollar signs. If the sounds were honest, they would ring with the jingle of cash registers.

Rationality is the not just some special, uniquely Western method by which we evaluate what's true and what's right. Rationality is the definition of truth and right, valid for all cultures. When people are honest and faithful in their communications with one another, they are being rational. Falsehood and evil, lies and malevolence, are the synonyms of irrationality.