Rationalism and Humanity

Bob Churchill

Here are two claims you might hear quite often, in most parts of the world today.

One: that rationalism is needed more than ever.

Two: that human beings are not the rational animal spoken of in philosophy, and that pure reason is a myth.

There is something to be said for each of these claims. And yet of course there is a tension between them.

The first claim (that we need rationalism more than ever) is prompted by several global trends, each of which appears to cry out for greater rationality: The slew of conspiracy theory and pseudo-science, including flat-Earthers and anti-vaccination movements; The perpetuation of fundamentalism and extremism; The rise of populist political parties or extreme political leaders; In some countries, the resurgence of far-right nationalism and racism; And of course, perhaps the most far-reaching failure of collective rationality that humanity has ever exhibited: our torturously slow and inadequate response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

The second claim (that human beings are not really the rational animal) is prompted by insights into how our cognitive processes actually work, as well as the evidence that different people, groups of people and cultures can come to radically different conclusions on pretty much the same evidence. Over the centuries, we have learned that we are not disembodied, pure spirits, capable of equally detached and pure reasoned thought. Instead, we are strongly influenced by context, emotions, cognitive biases, presumptions and prejudices. We frequently act against our own better judgements and our own best interests. Our objectivity is subject to our subjectivity. To claim any kind of pure rationalism is naive, it is argued.

As we are attending a conference about Rationalism and Humanity, we probably find most in common with the first claim, and agree that more rationality would be good for the world. But I suspect than in other contexts, even as rationalists, we will accept some of the criticism contained in the second claim. Rationalism does not need to entail a naive, pure conception of rationality. After all, it is science and reason that tells us that we are not pure spirits, rather we are spongy brains in hard skulls. Psychologists, sociologists and others can test and measure the mutability of our reason, finding that we reach illogical conclusions, and that we are swayed by irrational factors when making decisions. To not accept the fallibility of our rationality would itself be a failure of rationality.

So, can we believe both that the world needs more rationality and that our rationality is riddled with flaws.

I think we can, if we understand these two claims in a specific way.

First, lets recognize that both of the claims Ive outlined can be overstated.

I do think this it is broadly correct that we need rationalism more than ever, but I want to qualify that. If overstated, one could paint a picture of a world that was more rational in the past and is increasingly irrational today. Yet there has always been plenty of irrationality with us. And indeed with sometimes dire consequences. People have always faced hatred and violence due to superstition and irrational beliefs, there have always been conspiracy theories and misattributions of malign powers to happenstance events, sometimes with results that today we recognize as terrible: centuries wasted sustaining pointless dogmas, human rights violations, war and genocide. As a global community today we are certainly not getting everything right. But imagine putting the same military and nuclear powers that we have now into the hands of warring monarchs in medieval Europe, or Genghis Khan, or any despot from history. Likewise, imagine putting these powers into the hands of contemporary fundamentalist terrorists who would happily obliterate the global population. The consequences could be apocalyptic. And yet, with all this technology in the hands of many governments, so far we have not annihilated ourselves.

So whats the difference between how we might imagine Genghis Khan would handle nuclear weapons and how we in fact handle them today? Maybe there is a collective rationality, embodied in national institutions, international institutions and global economic policies, that have kept most of the worst-case scenarios from happening. Meanwhile, global advances in social liberal ethics and medicine are, from a historical perspective, incredible. Yes, they are patchy. And there is still much economic injustice. Nevertheless, there are definitely some senses in which we have become more advanced, including overall better institutions, practices and policies.

So why might we still agree that we need rationality more than ever? Precisely because we now have powers at our disposal that are exponentially greater than those of the past. The most irrational and prolific despots of a few centuries ago could control or kill thousands. Using propaganda, military power and organization they could achieve disasters that ended a civilization. But the technological powers now in the hands of some militaries and governments is enough to end all civilizations at once. A small group of human beings could unleash nuclear war, or develop viruses engineered to wipe out humanity. Not to mention that collectively we are driving a climate change crisis which on the worst projections could mean a horrific runaway greenhouse effect, widespread coastal flooding, and a mass extinction event more rapid and more devastating to life than all but a handful of meteor impacts in the history of the Earth. People have always feared the end of the world. But for the first time we have created real existential threats, all of our own making. And if we dont work out how to control them then we could destroy ourselves, as well as the wider biosphere.

Thats why we need rationality more than ever: because we now have greater powers to affect greater changes both positive and negative than ever before in the history of the world.

The second claim (that we are not such rational animals) can also be overstated, but there is also some truth in it.

Many writers and thinkers, often labelled post-modernist, run so far with our human irrationality that they end up denying any objectivity in the world at all. Everything is presented as relative to culture, or personal opinion. All talk about truth collapses into my truth and your truth. Claims to reason and rationality, evidence and expertise, are regarded with suspicion, just another form of propaganda.

That is a picture of intellectual relativism. And ironically it cannot stand up to scrutiny. That we are flawed reasoners, prone to bias and error, does not mean that some ideas, some arguments, some evidence, some processes, are not more rational than others.

No one here, no one who ever lived, could ever draw with pen on paper a perfect geometrical circle. But we can recognize that some shapes are more circular than others! I may have cognitive biases, I may act sometimes out of self-interest or stubbornness rather than living an ideal of reason. But that doesnt mean I cant behave in ways that are more rational than others, and recognize rationality in myself and others.

Together humanity has mapped the Earth, resisted disease and lengthened lifespans, built international institutions, codified human rights, invented numbers, including zero, and algebra, computer processors, we took flight with physics, we landed on the Moon, we are finding new ways to probe the gravitational waves travelling through space that enable us to see distant objects millions, even billions of light years away across the cosmos. It doesnt happen by chance. It happens because individually and collectively we have the capacity to reason. It may be flawed, but reason gets results in the end.

So, both of the claims I outlined can be basically true:

– We do need rationalism more than ever. A rationalism that is yoked to humanism, so that it is directed to solving the most urgent problems, to benefit the welfare and flourishing of everyone.

– And our powers of reason are flawed. But working together we overcome our individual biases and failings. We may not be the rational animal. But we can be a more or less rational global civilization.

Not only humanity, but all life and the future prospects of this unique planet, may depend upon how we champion rationalism within our lifetimes.

Email: bob@humanists.international