The Rational Life, Autumn 1982
The rational life. At one time, in the heyday of the Enlightenment, it was the ideal. The spokespersons of reason dominated the intellectual world and imagined that the life of reason would become the modus vivendi for all of humanity.
The early rationalists saw the life of reason in opposition to the life of faith. The life of faith, in their eyes, was dominated by the superstitions of traditional religion. It cultivated blind obedience and a self- destructive humility that denied men and women the power to be the masters of their own lives. It downplayed happiness here on earth and promised an illusory immortality of eternal bliss.
The men of reason believed that the life of reason would dispel superstition and would provide “salvation” through the truths of the new science. Made aware of its own power, humanity would seize the opportunity to transform the human condition and to pursue human happiness in the only life that was ours to live.
The men of reason were naive. But were they wrong?
Many modern thinkers think so. Or, rather, we should say “postmodern thinkers,” since they associate modernity with the life of reason, which they claim is now passe. Postmodern thinkers hold reason responsible for the horrors and the disillusionment of the twentieth century. While not wanting to return to the life of faith, they often find it less objectionable than the life of reason. They accuse the rationalists of fostering a narrow and elitist path to truth, which, in the end, produces a tyranny and emptiness worse than the life of religion.
Their chief accusations go something like this:
- Reason is cold and unemotional. It ignores the feeling side of human existence. It does not pay attention to the parts of the human psyche that provide warmth and meaning to human life.
- Reason is wary of the power of intuition, which also may stand in opposition to traditional faith and which also is the source of important truths. The truly free spirit cannot be limited by the pedestrian restrictions of the scientific method. It needs to use the power and the wisdom of the whole mind.
- Reason looks at the world through analytic eyes. It cuts reality into pieces, labels them, and connects them with the categories of cause and effect. But it is incapable of synthetic truth. It cannot experience the world as a whole. And the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The analytic power of the left brain needs to be supplemented by the synthetic power of the right brain.
- Reason leads to moral chaos. Without God and religion, everything is permitted. Reason can tell us how to do things, but it cannot tell us why we should do what we ought to do. Without some authority that lies beyond reason, fascism is just as reasonable as democracy. The terrible anarchy of modern urban life comes from the personal moral autonomy that reason grants.
- Reason fosters tyranny. The worst tyranny of modern times was the Marxist dictatorship of the communist empire. The leaders of that empire spoke in the name of secularism and reason and justified their actions on rational grounds. Their revolution elevated a new “clergy” of intellectuals who were more dogmatic, more arrogant, and more repressive than the clergy they sought to replace.
- Reason rests on the elitist notion of an objective truth, to which only the experts of science have access. It fails to acknowledge the more democratic reality that truth is essentially subjective and that there are as many truths as there are people who experience the world.
I believe that this assault on reason is invalid. The postmodern critique is a distortion of the truth and is, in a very real sense, responsible for the very danger it complains about.
Reason is not cold. Nor is it hot. It is a method for the discovery of truth, which can be used by either cold people or hot people. Most of the time it is attached to the heat of passionate desires. Desire motivates people to use reason. People want to survive and be happy. Reason helps them understand the reality they are dealing with. It helps them satisfy their desires by being responsible to the facts. It helps them tame their desires by reminding them of both their limitations and opportunities. Emotion and reason are not enemies. They go hand in hand.
Reason is not contemptuous of intuition. All great discoveries begin with intuition. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a hunch or intuition. Without brilliant hunches and intuitions, science would be powerless. But, while intuition is valuable, it is not enough. It has to be tested by the evidence of human experience. There are crazy intuitions as well as profound ones. There has to be some way of telling the difference between them. That is what science is all about.
Reason is not only analytic. It also entails synthesis. It deals with the macroscopic picture as well as the microscopic picture. The theory of evolution is not about small facts. It ties them all together into a big whole. The “big bang” theory is not about a teeny event. It is about the whole universe. It synthesizes billions of events and makes them fit one into the other. Holistic insights are as integral to science as they are to art. But synthesis is not just the sudden flash of insight. It also depends upon the hard work of making sure that brilliant flashes of insight are what they claim to be.
Reason does not lead to moral chaos. God is no guarantee of moral order, simply because no one can agree on what God wants us to do. God is not available to be interviewed. Every religion can put words into his mouth, and does. The history of humanity is the story of religious people killing each other over disagreements about God’s commands. And faith is truly chaotic because it provides no way of peacefully arbitrating disagreement. Reason is less arbitrary. It requires that all moral commands or recommendations be tested by the consequences of choosing to act on them. Universal ethical rules are the result of common sense based on long-run human experience. Failure to act on them threatens survival and happiness, both personal and collective. Reason is the only method for the discovery and justification of moral values that does not rely on arbitrary faith and intuition. The anarchy in our society is not caused by people who are rational. It is caused by postmodern hardline subjectivists who believe that truth and ethics are simply a function of whatever their inner voices announce. Freedom that is not subject to the test of consequences is not rational and is dangerous indeed.
Reason does not foster tyranny. As both Baruch Spinoza and John Stuart Mill pointed out, reason cannot survive where there is no freedom. Without the give and take of a free society, conclusions freeze into dogma. Tentative answers turn into absolute proclamations. The Marxists of the Communist empire claimed the authority of reason, but they were much more comfortable with the style of the religion they insisted they hated. All forms of dogma are inimical to reason, whether they be Jewish, Christian, or Marxist. And all forms of dictatorship are subversive of the integrity of reason. Tyranny flows quite naturally from absolute certainty, the vulnerable need to be protected from error. When the boundary between truth and error is unclear, only freedom suffices.
Reason is elitist in one sense but egalitarian in another. The one person with evidence to support a stand does win out over the masses who have not done their empirical homework. But this one person can come from any class, ethnic, or educational background. The peasant or the plumber with the evidence wins out over the king with none. On the other hand, an egalitarianism that claims that all opinions are subjective and, therefore, of equal value is opposed to reason. Reality is not the creation of our minds. It is not invented; it is discovered. Equating ignorance with knowledge may be democratic. But, in the end, it is foolish and dangerous. Reason does not imagine that truth comes from an act of will. It is the product of training, discipline, and hard work, Rational free spirits pay attention to outer evidence. Crazy free spirits listen only to inner voices.
The rational life may not be as euphoric as the early Enlightenment philosophers imagined. But it is the best alternative available. To live the life of reason is to be able to do the following:
Face the Facts
Rational people can respect themselves only if they are strong enough to face reality. Painful truth is more desirable than painless illusion. You cannot take control of your life if you are dancing with fantasies. Rational people do not believe because they want to believe or need to believe. They believe because the evidence provides them with no other alternative.
Live with Uncertainty
For many questions there are presently no clear answers. Evidence is too slim or ambiguous. The best you can say is “I don’t know.” Some people find uncertainty unbearable. They prefer any answer, however absurd, to no answer at all. Rational people do not like uncertainty. But they are strong enough to live with it. They do not insist on an answer when none is really available. They do not admire intense faith. They are afraid of it. Where evidence exists, strong convictions are appropriate. But waiting for the evidence can take equal strength.
Live with Ambiguity
There are no absolutely right or wrong decisions. All decisions have good and bad consequences. Recognizing ambiguity is part of being rational. When we make decisions, we may choose the alternative with the least number of disadvantages or the greatest number of advantages, but we can never escape mixing the two. Rational people are never self-righteous. They never claim moral purity. They are too practical and good-humored for that.
Dismiss the Past
The past is unreachable and unchangeable. No magic can transform it. Learning from the past is rational. Worrying about the past and wishing it were different are a waste of time. Rational people turn their energies to what they can change and improve. They do not cultivate full-time regret. For them, being sorry does not last forever. It turns into constructive action. Guilt is not a profession. It is the rational prelude to making actions produce better consequences.
There are many things we cannot change, including the law of gravity. But there are many things we can change. No matter what happens no sacred or holy power has ordained it. It happened because — like a hurricane — blind, unconscious, and uncaring forces made it happen. Or it happened because — like cruel violence — people made it happen. If something is bad, we may not have to accept it. And if we can change it, we do not have to pretend that it is besherrt (destined). Passivity in the face of our power to make a positive difference is not rational.
Suffering may be unavoidable, but it is not a rational goal. Rational people may suffer because they cannot avoid suffering or because they cannot achieve what they want without pain. But they do not choose to suffer because of a belief that suffering is ultimately good. Happiness is the satisfaction of basic human needs and desires, including the desire for community. Happy people know that their happiness is intertwined with the happiness of others. We are social beings who thrive on the help and approval of our peers.
Direct Our Emotions
Emotions are facts. Denying them when they are uncomfortable does not make them go away. They simply go into hiding and cause more trouble than before. Nor do our emotions exist in perfect harmony, each complementing and cooperating with the others. Fear, anger, hate, and love compete for our energy. If left to their own devices, they produce emotional chaos. We end up indulging the wrong feeling at the wrong time. Rational people never deny their feelings. They try to become more and more aware of them. But they do not surrender to them. They control them. They respond with fear when fear is appropriate. They offer love when love can be nurturing. Reason does not stand above emotion. It is the managing director, making sure that our emotional energies work for our happiness and the happiness of others.
Acknowledge Our Power
It is dangerous to imagine that we can do what we are not able to do. But it is equally dangerous to imagine that we cannot do what we are able to do and need to do. Too much humility provides a rationalization for cowardice and makes us wary of useful action. Reasonable people do not claim powers that reason denies. But they do not hide behind the excuses of convenient modesty. Most of us have the power to do more than we give ourselves credit for. Self-esteem is owning up to our own power, especially in a world where religion gives the credit for everything to outside powers.
The rational life is a fulfilling life because it negotiates between what we want and what is possible. That balancing act needs the discipline and good humor of reason.