humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

I’m Not Driving That! – Strong Rationalism

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 6, 2010

On the way to the airport today I saw a billboard with two photographs of a single car, one labelled “the emotionally satisfying view” and the other, “the rationally satisfying view”4. Picture one showed happy people crowding around the vehicle, the other displayed engineering cutaways of the engine, safety and comfort features. Which vehicle will get me to my destination?

You may recall me wondering if I am a rationalist, given that I value reason and think it has a part to play in my search for the numinous. Simplistically, when deciding what to believe I can either say “there’s got to be rational proof ”, or simply try it out and say “this belief makes me feel good and gives me trippy spiritual experiences.”

I have doubts about spiritual experience alone as a guide, which I’ll save for a future post. For now, I came across a section in a recent book1, which helped me:

[The new atheist] authors are evaluating Christian arguments by what some have called “strong rationalism”. Its proponents laid down what was called the “verification principle”, namely, that no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience. What is meant by the word “proved”? Proof, in this view, is an argument so strong that no person whose logical faculties are operating properly would have any reason for disbelieving it.

Fractal rainbow self

A few theists also hold to strong rationalism, suggesting their arguments are so strong that you’d be a fool to disbelieve. I’m thinking of some Islamic apologists here. I met a christian rationalist in an online forum not long ago. Sadly, he was belligerent and rude.

For those of us who find the path of the intellect to g0d challenging, put this on repeat, enjoy some beautiful music and imagine the experiential path to g0d as we continue:

The Gayatri Mantra. I also really like this version.

Keller continues:

Despite all the books calling Christians to provide proofs for their beliefs, you won’t see philosophers doing so, not even the most atheistic. The great majority think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend 2. To begin with, it can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof? You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief.

Strong rationalism also assumes that it is possible to achieve “the view from nowhere,” a position of almost complete objectivity, but virtually all philosophers today agree that is impossible. We come to every individual evaluation with all sorts of experiences and background beliefs that strongly influence our thinking and the way our reason works. It is not fair, then, to demand an argument that all rational people would have to bow to.

The philosophical indefensibility of “strong rationalism” is the reason that the books by Dawkins and Dennet have been getting such surprisingly rough treatment in scholarly journals.

If we reject strong rationalism, are we then stuck in relativism – without any way to judge one set of beliefs from another? Not at all.

He suggests an alternative approach called “critical rationality” 3. I’m not sure what he means by that, but whether or not I agree with critical rationality I don’t think I’m a strong rationalist. I think some things in life just have to be believed – my own existence, for example. However, I do want some rational underpinning for my beliefs. I hope that one vehicle, both emotionally satisfying and rationally satisfying will get me there. Somehow I want to hold these two together.

On the way home I saw a bumper sticker on a car: “Don’t follow me, I’m lost too”.



What do you think? Comment below.

1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pages 118, 119, 120.

2. Keller’s footnotes explain more, and cite Alasdair MacIntyre Whose Justice, Which Rationality (Notre Dame, 1988) in particular. He says “One of the best critiques of the Enlightenment view of strong rationalism is Faith and Rationality: On Reason and Belief in God A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff, eds (Notre Dame, 1983). The Enlightenment view has been called classic or Cartesian “foundationalism,” and that approach has been almost universally abandoned among philosophers. See also Nicolas Wolterstorf, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1984).”

3. Keller footnotes “For a non-technical introduction to the difference between strong and critical rationalism, see Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Inter-Varsity, 2003), pp 30-44.

4. [Edit:] I saw the billboards again, and realised they say “emotionally appealing” and “rationally appealing”. I wonder if there’s a difference between “appealing” and “satisfying”?

47 Responses to “I’m Not Driving That! – Strong Rationalism”

  1. […] I’m Not Driving That – Strong Rationalism […]

  2. Anne said

    Great blend of humor and thoughtful exploration, thank you…
    I think some things in life just have to be believed – my own existence, for example. However, I do want some rational underpinning for my beliefs.

    Who is to say, though, that what our human minds can understand as truth or as a belief about truth, has to be a shared experience, seen/experienced the same way by all, in order to be “truth”? (Could we each perceive the same “truth” differently, sometimes in ways that seem opposite, based on our individual way of seeing/experiencing/path, and if so, how would you find a rational underpinning?) I have a belief that it is possible that many seemingly disparate viewpoints could be equally “true” as different facets of a prism… or at least, that there is some part of each view that is “true.”

    That may sound like romanticism, but the fact that many people are so passionately definite in their beliefs tells me that either we’re all just demented by our nature and nurture, or there must be something to each of our beliefs about our existence. Does a belief about our existence need to be shared to be true? Does it need to be verified to be true, or, by relying on evidence, are we just denying our power to accept our beliefs?

    Wow, that one really got me going! : D

    • You’ve raised some very good questions, Anne. For now, I’m just going to sit and go “I dunno?”, *shrug*

      I tend towards an idea that if some peoples’ ideas are true, then others are false. Some things are mutually contradictory, and I cannot conceive of how they would all be true at the same time.

      But I’ll just sit on this for now. Sometimes it takes me a while of pondering to figure out what I think and articulate it clearly.

      • Let me add that the idea that “everything is true”, and we are all correct is very attractive emotionally. I’d love the world to be that way.

        I just don’t find it attractive rationally. Somehow, I want both experience and reason to be true, and that means that maybe there won’t be room for some ideas?

      • Anne said

        Well, of course, “Don’t follow me… I’m lost, too.” I also have the same questions you have. Your posts continue to “Aha” me. Thanks.

  3. Iain said

    I’ve got Keller’s book (p.s. I think he’s Timothy? Keller) and I admit I have only read a few chapters here and there but not all of them.

    I was very impressed when I heard him give a talk at Google once but I must say he appears to be using a bit of a straw man argument there.

    I’ve read A.J. Ayer who is the main proponent of verificationism. There are two ways that verificationism is used. Originally (philosophically) it is merely a Theory of Meaning i.e. a way that words and sentences get their meaning (c.f. Idea Theory, Proposition Theory etc).

    The philosophical Verification Theory of Meaning says, “the meaning of a sentence is its verification”. So things that cannot be verified IN PRINCIPLE cannot point to meaningful referents. This is the basis of “ignosticism”, I know, but I don’t have a problem with this at all.

    The more common notion of verification (that something cannot be rationally believed unless conclusively proved) is a bit of a false caricature and is far, far too strong as ordinarily used in practice. Even the notion of the Problem of Induction, which is well accepted by many (most?) philosophers, shows that what is considered to be “rational” must also be fairly generous in order to be practical for real-world instances of “knowledge”.

    I think Keller is being unfair if he is attempting to pit verificationism against the Problem of Induction. Very unfair.

    Also, the recently quite popular attempt at rejecting verificationism due to the fact that it cannot verify itself is missing the point. It is a practically useful axiom. You can’t “prove” axiom. That’s what axioms are there for: to provide a (meta-level) framework for the system which they describe. EVERY system has unprovable axioms at their base, as far as I know, and if he applies that criticism against verificationism by attacking the idea of axioms then I’m afraid he has a fairly nasty sword awaiting him that he will also have to fall on.

    If I try to turn “popular” verificationism into as simple a wording as possible then perhaps this will indicate why I think it’s reasonable: “We look at stuff. We learn stuff. We observe stuff. If somebody makes a claim involving stuff that none of us can observe, ever, then we can never tell whether they are correct or not. We should try to make comments about stuff we can know about.”

    p.s. I totally love that car ad you talked about, it took me AGES to get it. Maybe my cousin had to explain it to me (lol, I’m that stupid) and then I laughed very hard.

    • Although I get the general gist of what you’re saying, I think I’m going to have to get you to explain the specifics to me. I can’t speak for what Keller is saying.

      That’s a “thankyou”, by the way 🙂

      I’m surprised you didn’t get the car ad, but… who knows?

      (Corrected to ‘Timothy’, thought I’d already done that.)

      • Iain said

        Sure, and i certainly don’t mean to read too much into Keller as though i think you are saying things he wouldn’t mean. I should grab his book down off the shelf and try to look some of these things up.

        You’d like some more specifics explained? I could do that. Perhaps if I got more detail about what needs expanding?

    • “It is a practically useful axiom. You can’t “prove” axioms.”

      Would it be fair to call an axiom a “belief” then? Like my belief that I exist?

      • Iain said

        Are axioms beliefs? Hrrmmm. Um. I’m not sure? I might need to wrap my head around axioms for a bit longer before I offer a more considered reply.

        I can speak to your example, though. The thought, “I exist”, is something that is covered quite well by Descartes (IMO). If you can at all think, “I exist”, then for it to have any content whatsoever then (i) something must exist to think it and (ii) that something is you (“I”). So “I exist” is not a belief, per se, but is actually the most solid and reliable data point that you can ever know. It is the truest example of fact or knowledge that you have access to.

        Generally, axioms are a different type of beast. They are HOPEFULLY self-evident or at least logically necessary. More often than not, I think general axioms are logically necessary but they are necessarily based on things that aren’t always strictly provable. A spinning wheel needs some initial ground to rest on in order to produce any traction at all. If there is no foundation, the wheel can spin as much as it likes and it won’t go anywhere.

        For example, for us to rely on our senses at all we have to at least assume that our senses are reliable enough in practice (excluding optical illusions and genuine misperceptions). You can see that a “leap” must be made, but then to gain further knowledge we use those basic assumptions to build up quite a coherent and extremely beneficial system (e.g. consider the fruits of science).

        Why I say that “it is a practically useful axiom” is because it is extremely practical in that it produces so much other coherent knowledge about our surroundings that you might say it is worth “paying the ontological cost”. Every assumption has a cost. Certain assumptions produce less coherent results, and others require a cost that is too high to reasonably bear.

        This isn’t meant to sound like relativism or presuppositionalism (because I think that both of those ideas are too strong to be merited).

        Not sure if I’m making any sense. Blargh.

        • “Generally, axioms are a different type of beast. They are HOPEFULLY self-evident or at least logically necessary. More often than not, I think general axioms are logically necessary but they are necessarily based on things that aren’t always strictly provable. ”

          That’s sounding an awful lot like a belief to me. Maybe the people who talk about axioms are just embarassed to call them beliefs?

        • Iain said

          If we can identify certain things that are self-evident, analytically true, logically necessary, or structurally built from any of those things using logically consistent methods, then we can identify axioms that satisfy the strictest requirements of fact and can be called “knowledge” unashamedly.

          I’ll admit that not all axioms are that good. The trick is to get as close to that as possible. The further away you get from that point the more you could call it belief.

        • Hmmm… I am not that bothered by “belief”, myself. I will have to read over this and possibly ask you more questions. This is just my “reaction”. I may well be wrong 🙂

        • Iain said

          Here i go about to mention meanings again *slaps self*

          Yes, I may agree with you. I don’t know. It depends on what you mean when you say “belief” and what you think is a “rational inference”. I’ve schooled myself a bit today in that (check my blog, in fact). I may very well agree and it would definitely make a great conversation. I’d love to discuss that via Skype sometime when we aren’t so limited by the medium.

          It’s entirely possible that many people who think they are Rationalists are just being too cruel about what they perceive in others to be a lack of rationality.

  4. Man, you write well. Did you actually go to the airport or was that metaphor?

    • Oh thank you. That makes me more happy than figuring out life, the universe and everything.

      Yes, I did go to the airport today. And yes, I did see all those car things.

  5. Isn’t writing life, the universe, everything?

  6. Probably why I need a vacation BADLY!

  7. leesis said

    sometimes words take us in endless circles. I remember being told math was logical. My reply…not to me it aint!

    I admit a bias towards the word rational. Propbably because it has always been thrown at me when I have sought answers…deeper, spiritual etc.(oh and absolutely an axiom is a belief; usually from reasoning).

    So I dumped rationale and looked to ‘reason’ and then realized I had no paradigm for ‘unreasonable yet true’.

    So am I a rationalist? No. A person who wants reason behind any theory? Absolutely! And yet,it is only one part of what will end make a theory applicable or no for me.

    Hmmm…reason, plus emotional resonance, plus an open mind to mysticism??? That makes me a ???????? (be nice!)

    • “reason, plus emotional resonance, plus an open mind to mysticism??? That makes me a …”

      That makes you an awful lot like me I think, so you’re in good company.

  8. On the way to the airport today I saw a billboard with two photographs of a single car, one labelled “the emotionally satisfying view” and the other, “the rationally satisfying view”. On the way to the airport today I saw a billboard with two photographs of a single car, one labelled “the emotionally satisfying view” and the other, “the rationally satisfying view”.

    Don’t you think that it’s incredible that you saw this? I mean, really…

  9. Joshilan said

    why all the axioms of relevance or proof

    why everybody got to rationalize or logically verify their feelings seeking some outer acknowledgment for consensual ratification

    there is no reasoning that is real while we are groping in the abyss of rationalization

    reality is a far cry from intellect and a far distance from logical reasoning too.

    • Iain said

      I won’t get into a discussion about most of those points, but I think I can answer one question you had.

      “why everybody got to rationalize or logically verify their feelings seeking some outer acknowledgment for consensual ratification”

      This is because unless your belief has some objective verification to it, then you may find yourself believing literally anything and everything you feel like with no regard to whether it is logical or true.

      There are certain facts about our shared reality that we all must acknowledge. Beyond that, each can choose how they parse the available data. We are each free to choose, that is true. But what we cannot do is choose to believe absolutely anything at all.

    • I will write more on experience in future. I’d really like to “just believe” or “just experience” something mystical (sorry if this is not what you’re saying).

      Before I try something, I want to use reason to see if it’s likely to be worthwhile as there are so many things to try and I can’t try them all. (Or I can reason at the same time as experiencing, of course.)

      I could assume they are all the same, and it doesn’t matter which one I try. But that is a position I arrive at by reason, not experience.

      Are you saying I have to just “jump” and believe something/try something?

  10. Iain said

    “Rationality” is our process of cognition that utilises reason and logic.
    “Rational” is that which pertains to the use of reason.
    A “reasonable” answer is one found through the proper use of reason and logic.
    A “rationale” is a set of (ideally) good reasons for a belief.

    I think that perhaps in the weak sense everybody should be able to say that they are rationalists. If you think that your mind works without dependence on reason, think again. In a very real sense (similar to C.S. Lewis’ defence of the “Tao”/Moral Law), the people who try to reject rationality end up making a case that underminds their own thinking and thus their basis for rejection of rationality.

    @Leesa, do you have room for “unreasonable yet true” now? I didn’t quite understand that. Is it even possible to have unreasonable and true thoughts? I suppose so, but you wouldn’t have come to think them for any good reason (or they would be reasonable), and that means that if they are still true they must be “accidental true beliefs”. Like having a guess and later finding out it was correct. If you like reason and mysticism, then you’d fit in well with an ancient school of thought amongst the Catholics (and others): mysticism. I’m serious. That would make you “a Mystic”. It’s old, generally well-considered, and has produced lots of writings over the centuries about knowledge of God via mystical encounters rather than the usual means only.

    • I wonder if you could think “apparently” unreasonable yet true things? Things that are paradoxical, perhaps like light being a wave and a particle? ie our reason can’t understand (yet) but things seem to be true to us?

      I am rather fond of mystical stuff, am dipping into some old Catholic? stuff at the moment.

    • leesis said

      unreasonable yet true I guess needs defining. Iain haven’t you hit moments…usually unexpected experiences rather than intellectual ponderings…where somthing occurs and there just aint no paradigm to make sense of it. I have had four specific moments where I have been absolutely without conceptual words to even think about explanations.

      These experiences taught me humility in my quest for understanding in awareness of what little we/I know and I guess how silly we are thinking we have paradigms to explain it all.

  11. Joshilan said

    means nothing actually

    in fact rationalized reasoning is more often false than true

    you can never rationalize what another person experiences your basis for hypothetical preconceived judgment is false before you even start

    who the hell are these preordained custodians of rationality

    they have crucified many a saint in the name of the rationalized god while they proclaim to know reality from a vantage point of abject self righteous blindness.

  12. 100 percent Jonathan. In Quantum Physics it’s called ‘The Observer Effect.’

    Thanks Joshilan. Logic is a box. Rationalism is its key. You use the example of Love. Love cannot be contained by the logic-box. It overflows and seeps out. In the film ‘Breaking the Waves’ the Beth character saves the man she loves by going back to a ship of sailors who she knows logically, will harm her. Her illogical actions ultimately do heal her man – love can be pain and sacrifice. Her illogical actions are driven by love and succeed.

    Love is Light.

    Going on vacation for a week. Blessings to all.

    • Romy, I have some questions. (Probably best saved ’til after your holiday.)

      I’m assuming you’re referring to my seeing a billboard (a sign!) when you talk about the observer effect? If not, please ignore this. As I understand quantum physics, I thought the observer effect is only at quantum levels? ie very small particles. Is it possible we misunderstand if we apply this idea to large, everyday objects?

      I’m not sure I see your point in your middle paragraph. I don’t think a good outcome from an illogical action shows that logic is useless. Or something like that, anyway. Trying to get it clear in my head.

      What does “Love is Light” mean? Is this a metaphor? Or do you mean something more literal by it? Something like “love is an energy?”, or something else?

      I hate appearing contentious, but I like to understand too.

      Have a great break 🙂

  13. leesis said

    I read this line last week in an odd little book ”In Prasie Of Folly by Erasmus and it kept niggling me as I read all this.

    “..into the composition of our humanity more than a pound of passions to an ounce of reason: and reason he confined within the narrow cells of the brain, whereas he left passions the whole body to range in.”

    I know the brain is much more complex than folly gave it credit for. And yet this still resonates…to my reason.

    Jon re: labels. I hated them the first thirty years of life because I copped a few that came with harmful behaviour from the accuser.

    By thirty I didn’t care what labels others used because I clearly wasn’t very boxable (don’t you hate red lines hen you want the word to be real whether it is or isn’t :).) And besides I had worked with folks with mental illnesses for some time and my experience with labels appeared nothing next to theirs.

    But now, as a new writer, I yet again am struggling with labels…this time with the ones I need in order to communicate thoughts.

    Am I a humanist? Well I certainly resonated with Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow as a student many moons ago and still do. Though the more modern humanist can leave me frowning.

    Am I a Christian? Well despite finding Jesus the epitome of reason combined with mysticism in action I absolutely cannot use a word that lost relationship to the man not so long after his death.

    I can’t call myself a rationalist because I give reasonable gut/emotional/spiritual realities the same weight as rational. And rationalists have never liked that.

    I am that I am? And that which I am is more than I was and less than I will be. Yet when we write we must use user-friendly terms.

    When I communicate with my fellow man I try to be as clear as I can but essentially there is absolutely nothing I can do once my words enter space. It requires a certain amount of surrender (lack of control) that is, well, not comfortable but I do think valuable.

    And I think there is a link here between this and rationalism for it always has seemed to me that the rationalist ‘needs’ everything within explainable definitions or it ‘doesn’t exist’. Just as I want to keep control on how others interpret my words.

    Neither is truth for neither when applied to life, actually work. That’s what I’ve observed anyway?

    • “I can’t call myself a rationalist because I give reasonable gut/emotional/spiritual realities the same weight as rational.”

      I noticed you use the word “reasonable” in there 😉 I’m not sure what weight I give those experiences, but it’s at least some weight. Hence, at least right now, I’m not a “strong rationalist”. Maybe a weak one, but I’m not really sure what that means, so I will just say I value reason and experience – which can include the kinds you mention.

      Appreciate your thoughts 🙂


      • leesis said

        yeah re reasonable emotions etc. In this I guess I mean not the ‘knee jerk’ ones but the deep psche ones…oh dear I’m going have to blog on this to make sense:)

    • Oh, I liked the Erasmus quote too. I think it actually accords quite well with modern brain/body ideas. He was a renaissance (Christian) humanist I believe, one of the founders of classic humanism.


      • leesis said

        ive just discovered him…some amazing original thought for the day I think with opposing moments of cultural bias. So much to read…ahhhhh :0!!!

    • Iain said

      I think that we’re really on the same page here, Leesa. Perhaps not in the exact content of our spirituality, but certain in the form. I would almost certainly value mysticism less than you (in fact, I know I do, I find mystery inherently irritating… unless its a puzzle-game I am set to solve) but I really liked everything you said there and especially your comments about labels and boxes.

      Perhaps we can all give each other a nice pat on the back and while we’re doing it, remove the labels other people have stuck there 😀

      I find labels a tad insulting, at times. I know that conceptual schema are useful, but when a general label replaces actually paying attention to the person that you are speaking with then you lose what was human in the interaction and the whole thing becomes one big scripted stereotype.

      • leesis said

        yes yse yes to all you said :). Re your irritation about mystery…I was thinking for my self any irritation I feel is usually as a sign that theres something there to investigate?

        • Iain said

          I know this is beginning to wander away from Jon’s post, but yes I think you make a fair point. I remember the impact and massive effect that those two questions had on my thinking: “Why does this person/idea annoy me so much?” and “Why do I so strongly like this person/idea?”

          Rather than just feeling and reacting as simple cause-and-effect, asking why I feel certain things is often the insight I need to respond appropriate to the actual system at hand rather than the baggage-laden way I might ordinarily do.

          Perhaps I need to face Mysticism head on. Cage match of the century! “Mysticism: floats like an undefined term, stings like a heavenly epiphany” 😉

  14. Joshilan said

    2 many boxes
    far too many boxes on the hilltop made of ticky tacky,
    little boxes all the same

    reason is death, love is life

    religion, as is science (or reason) are both illiterate in the avenue of love.

    you got the balls for love, you kill reason, and follow the way to your soul.

  15. Hi,
    Leaving early my Monday. Limited internet access now.
    Oy. Ok. I believe that the Quantum levels resonate with our material world. My book AGAIN does this.
    I NEVER said that logic was useless – I am not a fan. As Joshilan noted atrocities have been committed in the name of logic.
    Illogical actions in the film are a result of a leap of faith – we’ll agree to disagree.
    Love is Light. I have a whole chapter on light. It is on one of my blogs: (http://shillerreviews.blogspot.com/2010/08/again-chapter-8-light.html)

  16. SugarPop said

    Great post – and I love the bill board you mention. To me it speaks of needing to satisfy both the mind and heart (translate as reason and emotion) when making decisions. Sometimes all the logic in the world cannot change my mind about seomthing ‘cos it just doesn’t feel right.

  17. […] history, sociology… In brief, through the doorway of the mind. I’m not looking for proof. As I’ve written, we rarely get that kind of strong proof for most things in life. But I am looking for reasonable […]

  18. […] feel uncomfortable reading this. I think there are two extremes, one is to have too strong a role for the mind, the other is not to value it at […]

  19. […] know I’m fairly rigorous about what I believe, call me a skeptic if you wish, although as I’ve explained here, I don’t consider myself a rationalist. I want to hold those things together, rigorous […]

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