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Am I A Rationalist?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 5, 2010

When I was at university Rationalist House was just down the street, but I never crossed its threshold. The building looked archaic, and I imagined old men inside, perhaps bitter atheists. Much like people must conceive of old churches. I’ve been thinking about *how* I undertake my search, and wondering if my love of reason makes me a rationalist?

I thought, “If I’m going to call myself a rationalist, I’d better understand what that means.” In the library, I picked up a book and began to read 1.


Rationalism regards religion as a personal question … [and] does not deny the existence of God or a future life.

Surprised? I was. I definitely want reasonable beliefs, but not a rationalism which by definition excludes spirituality. However the following section in the book makes it clear that an atheist-leaning agnosticism is the ‘rational’ presumption. Oh well.

The Rationalist Press association defines rationalism “as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority.”

A noble idea. I mustn’t forget the postmodernism of the end of last century attacks the idea that one can create a grand narrative.

Rodin - The Thinker

The writer makes a good deal of noise about ethics, at times there was a moralistic do-gooder sense about his writing. I wonder if that’s the defensiveness of an atheism which was accused of leading to amorality by outsiders?

He quotes Chillingworth, an “eminent Christian writer” of the time who says

Reason gives us knowledge; while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it … it is by reason alone that we can distinguish truth from falsehood.

Also one Bishop Butler who says, “Reason is the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.”

That whole belief and reason thing interests me a lot, and I intend to write more about it some time. I was also concerned rationalism might ignore our emotions.

On the contrary, it fosters and regulates the emotions. There is no denying that some of the noblest thoughts born of human genius have emanated from the impulse of emotion, but it was that emotion was controlled by reason.

Controlled? I’m not sure if I deprecate emotion to that level.

I wondered if being a rationalist would turn me into one of those rabid hater-type atheists I see on twitter and in other places on the intarwebz. I very much appreciated these comments:

“Gentleness is one of the greatest of virtues, and to promulgate our opinions in what is conventionally … termed a gentlemanly manner…[is wise]”

“Of course, destructive work must be done [of error]; but a man need not put himself into a passion in doing it.”

“While some rely entirely upon faith as their rule of life, others seem to attach too much importance to the lack of it. The latter contend that belief cannot save mankind, but they ignore the fact that neither can mere unbelief.”

I heartily agree.

Maybe Not…

Since researching this, I’ve been doing some more thinking and reading. I do think it’s important to figure out the best method to search for truth. Yes, I’m still committed to reason and experience… but perhaps not to the extent of calling myself a rationalist. In my next post, I write about the reasons.

Agree or disagree? How does this rationalist approach to finding reality make you feel?



1. All quotes are from Charles Watts The Meaning of Rationalism (1905) in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (Prometheus, ed Gordon Stein, 1980)

42 Responses to “Am I A Rationalist?”

  1. Iain said

    I think your post here was pretty much spot on the money, both in your approach to the issue and the questions that you raise.

    I think I have some good news for you in answer to some of those questions. But first a little praise. 😉

    1) Rationalism and God
    That’s good that you mention that, as I don’t think rationalism necessarily precludes (or says anything about) religion. What is does say, IMO, is that it is impossible to believe something you don’t have evidence for and that is “irrational”. That means that if a person has good “reason” to believe some spiritual thing then go right ahead, rationalist or not.

    2) A Rationalist Narrative in Ethics
    It’s true we need to be careful not to be overly grand in our story-telling. I like that you raised this point. I think that the rationalist approach is fairly safe here, however, because it basically says, “if it causes tangible harm then don’t do it”. That feels balanced to me.

    3) Rationalism, Amoralism, and Atheism
    I think you are spot on here. That’s almost certainly precisely the reason why they felt the need to take extra care on responding to ethical issues: many believers think that religion is the only true path to morals and therefore by mentioning the high value of reason you immediately down-grade your potential on reaching a proper morality.

    4) Rationalist and being Rabid
    Again, it’s good that you mention this. I suspect that if you analyse the method of the more rabid types, you might find that their “rationalism” exists more in their self-label than it does in their impartial approach to thinking.

    5) Should you call yourself a rationalist?
    Finally, we come to my two-cents worth. I think that whether you label yourself a “Rationalist” has much the same answer as whether you should call yourself a “Humanist”. Neither are dogmatic labels and neither force you to sign your name under a checklist of infallible creedal statements. Humanism and rationalism both just don’t work like that.

    To quote Fred Edwords,

    So, with modern humanism one finds a lifestance or worldview that is in tune with modern knowledge; is inspiring, socially conscious, and personally meaningful. It is not only the thinking person’s outlook but that of the feeling person as well, for it has inspired the arts as much as it has the sciences; philanthropy as much as critique. And even in critique it is tolerant, defending the rights of all people to choose other ways, to speak and to write freely, to live their lives according to their own lights.

    So the choice is yours. Are you a humanist?

    You needn’t answer “yes” or “no.” For it isn’t an either-or proposition. Humanism is yours—to adopt or to simply draw from. You may take a little or a lot, sip from the cup or drink it to the dregs.

    It’s up to you.

    Our responsibility for our life and our world (and our thoughts?) is ours, and ours alone.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, and the perspective.

      I think I’m reluctant to put ANY label on myself, tho at least one other person has described me as a humanist. Maybe I need to get rid of my fear of labels.

      I do find what little I know of humanism to be valuable.

  2. leesis said

    What a great post Jon. Most of this I must allow to ferment before responding but the issue of theology-atheists- and ethics is a…mmm…a bug of mine.

    As you know once upon a time church believers called atheists amoral. Obviously this was nonsense. But some atheists responded and somehow-a-rather this now connects to education whereby some are pushing to replace religious education with ethics. This is when my personal itch starts.

    Ethics ain’t religion and religion ain’t ethics!

    Yes religions have claimed to speak on ethics but my research over the written history of the main theologies indicate that what is called ‘ethics’ is simply their rules of behaviour placed to gain control and power. (Please note I do think for example, Jesus the man spoke deeply on ethics but the development post him of Christianity is very different).

    I guess what I am saying is that atheists kind of got sucked into this debate. The “believers” weren’t talking of ethics; they were talking about who you could and couldn’t have sex with! 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong I want religion replaced in school. But by world theology studies combined with what some would label mythology.

    And I know, from experience both this and the study of ethics (also needed), which leads to me mate Socrates and on to reasoning are easily absorbed by children and will lead them on to new understandings.

    Oh and for self disclosure I am neither atheist nor specific believer. I figured out some stuff…like how much more I’ve got to figure out:).

    • Yeah, Leesa, confusing religion with ethics is not useful. What frustrates me is when people reduce religion to ethics. Religion – or spirituality – has to be more than just “what is good or bad”, in my opinion.

  3. Personally, ‘rational’ has zip to do with ‘finding reality.’ For instance, we know that what appears to be solid, like a chair, is mostly empty space. Logic, like rational, can be flawed. It usually is.

    *Drinking to empty space.*

    • Hi Romy. Are you trying to tell me that logic is not trustworthy, by using logic? 🙂

      I don’t think “hard to understand” or “mysterious” is the same as non-rational. After all, it’s rational science that leads us to believe a chair is mostly empty space.

    • Iain said

      Actual logic, as in the logical absolutes, is “perfect” and cannot be flawed. Logical absolutes describe the structural system to which all other things adhere. Human reasoning, on the other hand, is predictably and reliably flawed.

      • leesis said

        Iain can you please give me an example of a perfect logical absolute. I don’t really know what it means nor what structual system’ you are speaking of or do you mean simple stuff such as ‘how things work’ on a material level?

        • Iain said

          Yes I am talking about the rules of inference that describe how reality works. Philosophers consider these to hold not just for our actual universe but also for all possible universes i.e. they’re as “meta-level” as you can get.

          When I use the term “!” I mean “not”. Also, “!=” means “not equals”/”doesn’t equal”.

          We have the law of identity:
          A = A [something is identical to itself, or a second set of things that equal itself]

          From that, it is also true that A != !A [something does not equal that which isn’t itself (or its negation)]

          The law of non-contradiction:
          !(A and !A) [it can’t be the case that it is both true that something is the case AND that it isn’t the case]

          The law of the excluded middle:
          A or !A [either something is true or its negation must be true]

          If there were any reality that existed which did not conform to the logical “absolutes” then such a reality would not be coherent. In fact, such a place would could both exist and not exist, and any matter contained therein would have no coherent boundaries between that particular chunk of matter and other elements that were not it. It’s an incoherent notion. This is why I say logic always applies, must always apply, and must always be “true”.

          There are more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rules_of_inference

        • leesis said

          okay I’m going off to read but I admit I struggle with…hmmm…is it left brain stuff here? But…

          “If there were any reality that existed which did not conform to the logical “absolutes” then such a reality would not be coherent”

          So the presumption has to be that we ‘know’ what reality is…that we’ve defined it, boxed it and can therefore say anything outside it…well…’isn’t’.

          But this is not a correct presumption is it?

        • Iain said

          Not at all. It’s not making any claims about the content or deep mysteries that may exist within reality.

          It’s simply saying there are certain things that are completely self-contradictory that cannot be the case.

          For example, imagine I had a sealed black box in my room.

          Imagine I asked you to tell me what was in the box. You would have no idea. Any guess you made would only be complete speculation based on the size of the box. Is a pen inside the box? We don’t know. Is there a cat inside the box? We don’t know.

          Now imagine I asked you to name something that wasn’t inside the box. You could name a few logically contradictory things and we could both be sure that you were correct. For example, a square-circle is not inside the box. If you said, “An apple both is and isn’t inside the box”, we would also both know that was definitely wrong.

          None of this defines what IS inside the box, it only shows us some reliable constraints. Reality is like this black box. Reality can be deeply mysterious and we might never positively define it, but we can say certain things CANNOT be the case by using logic.

        • leesis said

          got it and thanks for your patience. The wiki stuff had me blinking rapidly :)!

      • Sorry Iain,
        I don’t believe anything is perfect. (not even me!)
        Thanks for trying though!

        • Iain said

          The problem is, you can’t be you or choose to believe or disbelieve anything unless logic holds. If you propose to use your mind at all either in the search for or rejection of any type of absolutes or perfections then logic is the one tool that you can’t escape. The only other option is total incoherency.

        • leesis said

          Iain, what do you see as the diff between reason and logic. See I would replace your word logic with reason above but don’t see either of those concepts being “perfect”. For me when exploring it is the moment when reason and emotion come together in unison that ‘truth’ is revealed.

        • Iain said

          I’m guessing you mean human reasoning rather than “Reason”. Human reasoning is flawed. It is reliably flawed, demonstrably flawed, and predictably flawed.

          Reasoning, done well, uses inference in order to take some statements and form a true conclusions. Converting true statements into true conclusions requires the use of reliable, truth-preserving rules of inference. That uses Logic.

          P1) I have either an apple or an orange in my pocket.
          P2) I don’t have an apple in my pocket.

          Therefore, using logic,
          C) I must therefore have an orange in my pocket.

          Human reasoning uses Logic but human reasoning is not identical to Logic. Human reasoning can be faulted: we make all sorts of reasoning errors (statistical, inferential, evidential, etc) but Logic itself is “perfect” and can only be so. By perfect I only mean that logic inference, when applied properly to true premises, will always produce a true conclusion. We might not always be able to DO that with our flawed grey-matter but that says nothing about Logic itself.

          If Logic didn’t always hold true then conversation would be pointless, thinking would be impossible, and the universe might as well not exist (in fact, it might exist AND not exist!).

        • Putting my spin on it, logic is the tool, reason is how we use it. Sometimes we use the tool wrong, but the tool itself still works 🙂

        • I agree with Iain here. If I can’t trust that my thoughts make sense, then I can’t even trust the words I’m typing now.

          (Language uses logic, for example, so I cannot even say ‘I don’t believe logic works’ without lying to myself in that very sentence.)

          I also can’t trust my intuition, because I interpret these feelings using logic – everyone does.

        • Iain said

          The foundational quality of logic is a very interesting thing to me… and a very confusing thing.

          I think some people would try to make the same point about morality (e.g. C.S. Lewis and the “Tao”/Moral Law) but that argument simply isn’t as convincing. I see no reason to presuppose a foundational morality in any way close to logical absolutes which seem “structurally” essential to any functioning universe.

          The TAG (transcendental argument for god) tries to argue that logical absolutes prove the existence of God, but I think that is based on the flawed premise the logical absolutes must be seated in a Mind (i.e. the argument assumes that there are only physical or conceptual things, and since all of immanent reality relies on these absolutes they must be transcendent, and since the only non-physical option is that they are conceptual there must be a transcendent mind). I think that’s wrong. e.g. The law of identity of an object isn’t found in the object itself as a tangible property but we can’t then make the claim that the only other option is that this law is a mental one. That’s why I used the word “structural”. Confusing, I know, but I think it’s a better term.

          I’m still trying to work out whether it even makes sense to ask, “Where do the logical absolutes come from?” It may be a faulty (teleological?) nonsense-question or it might be a good one. I don’t know. Either way, logical absolutes confound me on a very deep level.

        • leesis said

          That is really interesting Jon. I trust my thoughts because ive proven myself intellectually to myself and others whose ratings I trust. I trust my intuition because it has proven itself reliable over what feels like eons some days :).

          But my intuition encompasses my reason and experience heightens my intuition.

          And honestly all Ive ever read beyond Socrates (whom I admire immensely) about this ‘pure logic’ makes me think its a lot like maths for me…un-computational in this life time :). It makes me feel very inadequate at times though.

        • Iain said

          I don’t trust intuition. I think it’s great sometimes but other times it is extremely hopeless (in well documented and studied ways). That’s why I’m looking at for my thesis: the use of intuition as a primary source of evidence in philosophy and epistemology.

        • My point above was only that IF I trust intuition to give me some kind of “higher knowledge” than reason, I actually still have to use logic to interpret my intuition. I was trying to say it’s inescapable, in “normal language” 🙂

        • Oh yes, “heavy logic” can certainly make us mortals feel inadequate. That’s for the experts. Sometimes they come across as feeling superior, whereas Socrates embodies a more ‘humble’ logic.

          To me, the point is that good reasoning is important, and we only have to learn a few basics to do that.

        • PS: Let’s not forget my other post on this, where I talk about what kind of reasoning might be ‘good enough’


        • Hi everyone,
          Look, I was going to use the mind experiment in Quantum Physics where a cat is both alive AND dead – ‘Schrödinger’s cat’.
          Illogical or logical or neither. If you believe in mind-perfection, all states are possible which is illogical to reason. Makes you want to scream, eh?
          The black and white is really shades of grey. I’m going to end my discussion here. I simply don’t buy into your ‘logic’ paradigms. They are too rigid for me. Boxes.

        • I feel like I understand your perspective Romy. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about this lately.

          For the record, I think this understanding of the implications of Schrodinger’s Cat is incorrect, but I understand the desire to move on.

          I also want to let everyone know that I expand my thoughts in https://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/i%E2%80%99m-not-driving-that-strong-rationalism/ and https://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/how-to-find-god/

          It’s obvious to me that the way in which we decide what things we believe is a very important topic, and I appreciate everyone’s contribution, it’s really making me think – and feel. 🙂

        • I’m having trouble with the ‘reply’ link…

          I wasn’t going to respond and just move on but…quantum physics is considered weird and strange because it goes against common sense and reason – our fishbowl. I really respect your quest to understand but in this case old models need to be thrown out.

        • [Edit:] I’ve moved my reply to the bottom, Romy, as this box is way too small.

  4. […] Am I A Rationalist? […]

  5. Any logic that is based in the solid or apparent real is flawed. Raw data is likewise always interpreted. If meaning is in flux data changes. There is no such thing as unbiased logic. Nope.

    Science is not God. Yes, even empty spaces are suspect.

    • I’m not sure all logic is based on “reality”.

      Is 1+1=2 unbiased logic? I was about to agree with you, and then I wondered if there is some logic that is unbiased.

  6. there are numbers between numbers. we don’t see everything…

  7. Integers, ha! semantics…

  8. You know, I said:’There is no such thing as unbiased logic’ so what we choose to exclude from 1+1=2 speaks to biased logic. Take that!

  9. leesis said


  10. Joshilan said

    Romy is right

    Logic is more often false than true, leads poor intellectuals right up the garden path

    sight, vision, love is not logical

    only 1 + 1 = 2 is

    try another angle you may see wood for trees.

  11. […] Am I A Rationalist? […]

  12. Replying to Romy, above:

    I will concede that I need to learn more on quantum stuff.

    My previous take on it (eg wave/particle duality of light) was that it was indeed mysterious. “Paradox” is another word.

    I will park this as “unsolved” in my mind for the time being.

    Thankyou, Romy. I know the boxes get small and hard to read.

  13. leesis said

    oh lordy I so want to understand the quantum stuff but crikey my brain hurts!

    Also it is so hard as a non-scientific brain to know who to read and who to not read. You know as a therapist I make my CV available to all before they come to me so they are clear about my background. I wish scientists would do that.

    For example I spent heapo-mundo time following researching after watching ‘What the Bleep-Down the Rabbit Hole’…then read everything that says it was nonsense and came out needing to drink profuse ammounts of alcohol! Sigh…

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