We hear the word "rational" thrown around a lot. I like to think I am a rational person but I often find some moments where I need to struggle with what that actually means. Sorry that this got a little long but I think it is an important subject and I wanted to detail out some of my thinking to other intelligent people because I don't have many folks around me who like to discuss this stuff.
Most rational people point to science when they present their conclusions about the universe. Yet, in my view, the most rational principle of science is that it is agnostic. Things are often talked about as if they are fact in Astronomy Magazine and on the Discovery Channel. . . but there is a big asterisk under every scientific conversation that says everything is constantly being tested and some theories have much bigger holes than our confidence suggests. People don't always live up to this asterisk though. There are plenty of examples, in fact, where the progress of science has been slower than it needed to be because too many of the establishment members were over-confident in the existing theories rather than under-confident.
The idea of God is probably the most glaring example in many people's minds of the boundaries between being rational and irrational about the universe. I'm pretty sure that the reason that science has long avoided the concept of God, and mysticism in general, is not because of a deliberate, irrational choice to reject God. It is because of the rational choice to look for evidence and make determinations based on what we have found. I think it is a fair and rational position to say that the past evidence of God brought to us by old books and belief systems has been adequately disproven. . . I am not so sure about statements that no such thing could ever exist in a rational scientific framework, however.
I only say this because it seems to me that Science can accept some really supernatural sounding concepts if there is a rational case being made for them. Think of string theory with multiple dimensions, or the "multiverse" which suggests a nearly infinite number of big bangs happening inside some larger construct where whole universes come and go like bubbles in foam. I once found a suggestion by a physicist that every electron in the universe may be the same single electron that is jumping time boundaries to appear everywhere at once to those of us observing it from our time bound viewpoint.
These are some really big and crazy sounding concepts in a universe that is appearing more and more crazy as we learn more about it. In the last analysis many of these concepts are also completely untestable and unobservable. Yet, there are many scientists and "rationalists" who will gladly ponder these things because they are intriguing and there are ways with math and logic to make them appear plausible regardless of how crazy they may appear on the surface. String theory is one of the more obvious examples of that.
There is also observational evidence of things we cannot resolve, such as dark matter and dark energy which have unremarkable sounding names but they are properties of the universe that appear to exist, but only as their effect. What is creating the effect appears to be totally undetectable with all known means of scientific testing (for now at least). With our current understanding of gravity, they also seem to hold an incredibly irrational amount of invisible power we can't account for. This is not evidence of an invisible entity holding the universe together. . . but it is certainly evidence that we have no business talking about our understanding of even something primal like gravity as "established fact" and we should be careful if we want to use the ability to detect things as the only standard of proof.
I am in the middle of a book called "The Self Aware Universe" by a quantum physicist who has turned into a sort of science mystic because he discovered the ancient monistic concepts of his Hindu upbringing within the framework of quantum physics. It is not quite an anthropomorphic God concept (so far) but it certainly presents a concept of the universe that is not purely mechanical and materialistic like many would choose to believe. He believes he has reached this view through rational means by examining the evidence.
I found myself speculating one day about infinity. Infinity, as a matter of "fact", is a purely mathematical concept. Infinity, as a reality of time or space in the universe, is a concept that makes rational sense but it is more of a leap of faith. There is no way to test it for confirmation, so there are mixed views on the matter. What gets me, though, is that If we enter into some speculation about an infinite universe, then we could arrive at a supreme being concept just by using evolution and time. Take a universe full of intelligent species and project it forward a few billion or trillion years of additional evolution and it is not hard to imagine some sort of supremely evolved being as a result. That's projecting forward in time. But, If we can project the evolution of such a being by looking forward into infinite time, then the infinite amount of time behind us could also have already evolved it, could it not? I'm way out on a limb here, I know. . . but how crazy is this, really, compared to the rational thinking that brings us the 10 or 26 dimensions of string theory? Or the theory that something comes from nothingness if enough time passes? Where do the boundaries of being rational begin and end? Are any and all speculations about a God type concept a taboo no matter what, just because of how long we have been telling ourselves that science killed God?
If we are truly rational is it proper to be something like a Theist or and Athiest who make declarations as if they are facts? Or is it better to always be agnostic, and acknowledge the possibilities while never totally committing to an absolute position on anything? Even when it is something so central to many people's self identity such as believing in a God, or the lack of a God?
I don't claim to have the answers, and I'm not here pitching a new God concept (except as a personally intriguing intellectual exercise). I try to fall into the agnostic category for the most part. . but I have no fear of speculating within reason and that often leads me to strange places where I wonder where the boundaries of being rational really are. At this point I feel like the truly rational choice in a belief system is not to harbor any belief system at all . . .only a "possibility system" which is always open to change. Science strives for this as a field, but can individuals really do it? Latching onto tribal belief systems seems to be part of human nature. It makes me wonder if any and all belief systems are in danger of becoming just another form of over confidence, self deception, and tribalism; even the ones who are trying to be rational.
Is this a. . . rational. . . concern?
Rational thinking is based upon assumptions made from the objective knowledge we share. It is built up over time from evidence based observations. It is not dependent on the views or opinions of any one person. At times new evidence can appear and it can change our accepted knowledge.
At one time the accept knowledge was that the world was flat. It would have been deemed to be the rational view as there were no real arguments against it. As we gained new insights (from scientific observation) with telescopes, circumnavigation of the globe and eventually photographic evidence from space, the consensus (accepted scientific opinion) changed and now almost everyone accepts the world is not flat. The probability of the world being flat decreased over time (Bayes Theorem – we change our opinions based on new knowledge). So we now accept this to be TRUE because it is knowledge that has been justified by observation. We can look back at the entire history of our thinking on the matter and see why we no longer consider it rational to still say it is flat.
I suppose the Theory of Evolution is similar. Most people (theists) that say it is “only a theory” or offer what they call alternatives are like the people that called Galileo or Darwin heretics. They challenged the accepted wisdom of the day based on new evidence gained from scientific observation. However we know today that Human Evolution to be the truth. We are beyond any doubt a species that evolved over time from other species. We know this based not upon Darwin’s ideas but because of what modern Evolutionary Science tells us. Darwin would weep in amazement at how far we have run with his initial theory. The deniers, the Intelligent Designer brigade or Creationists of any form (subtle pun intended) are thinking irrationally. They are still criticizing Darwin. They misunderstand and misrepresent Modern Evolutionary Theory. They still come up with arguments that were debunked decades ago like “why are there still apes today if we descended from apes?” (We are not descended from apes, we share common ancestry).
Their irrational thinking is based upon a lack of knowledge that stems from denying anything that contradicts their Holy science book or because they have never properly had the chance to learn about it because their religious based “education” did not allow it. It is irrational because they cover their ears like children with a “I can’t hear you” attitude.
There was a time when the religious view of the world was the rational way of looking at things. We, as a species had no alternative answers. The “god-did-it” argument made sense to the majority and that formed the consensus viewpoint. It was the rational way of thinking for centuries. Anyone that suggested otherwise was deemed heretical and irrational.
Now, today, we are left to ask what worthwhile answers can religion give us that Science cannot provide a better answer for (to paraphrase Sam Harris). What major discoveries has any religion made in the last 500 years since we started to emerge into the light of reason and rational thinking from the dark days of religious oppression? Religion no longer holds the keys to education and to knowledge. Anyone that still sees a god behind the mechanisms of nature is looking at things irrationally because of their god delusion. It is intellectually immature to still claim god-does-it when all the evidence suggests otherwise. It is this way of magical thinking that leads to irrational thinking.
The religious view has now become the irrational view. It is fully aware of the ever mounting body of scientific evidence concerning the origins of the Universe and the origins of the human species that makes it books irrelevant on these subjects and it now subsists on lies based on the fears of the uneducated or the misinformed. It is irrational to suggest that we can communicate with the creator of the Universe and that we will become immortal for believing that. We know this from thinking rationally…or thinking Atheist.
You and I may have things in common when it comes to being keenly aware of our ability to loose emotional control. I have gotten pretty crazy on the internet and sometimes these passionate discussions will bring out the worst in me. . especially if someone is pushing buttons in just the wrong way.
I try to catch myself and admit if I have just been an idiot. . . but sometimes I am like a dog who won't let go of a bone. . . and I hate it when I catch myself in the middle of acting in a way I am regretting.
So, I will also agree that being rational also means we should always be on guard against emotions, especially the kind that spark resentful tirades. . . or pushing back too hard in disagreements. .
I haven't read anything else you have written yet so I am only thinking of myself when I say this. . .
I haven't read anything else you have written yet so I am only thinking of myself when I say this. . .
LOL, you don't have to! I'll readily admit to the same thing. Do you know how many things I've written on TA and then subsequently deleted? LOL...you probably don't want to know. I'm sure if the moderators ever tried to dig up the loose ends of my stupidity it would freeze up their database with some kind of horrendous error message......
Work in progress.....baby steps......breath deeply......
Hey Belle, check your messages my friend..... :-)
Thanks for the great reply Reg. I like the answers you offer.
I often slap my forehead when I hear from a religious viewpoint that is hung up on the holy book. Book and scroll worship has become the real downfall of religion if you ask me. For a very long time it was the religions that were the sponsors of knowledge and art. Now it has all become so reductive and political that we have people walking around thinking all the answers in the world are in one collection of writings.
Science is bringing us a lot but I sometimes wonder if there is something soul like to loose at times. Money and power destroyed the positive parts of religion and made it the stubborn mule it is today. Is kicking out religion and cutting right to the worship of money and power going to bring better things? The problem with being a humanist is that you need to have faith in humanity. My faith in that bounces around.
Thomas Pain wrote The Age of Reason. It is one of the best takedowns of the Bible I have ever read. Benjamin Franklin read the manuscript before he published it. He told Pain that it was a great piece of writing, but he would still be better off throwing it in the fireplace. Franklin's reasoning was basically that he felt there were some people that NEEDED an imaginary man looking over their shoulder and an organized group telling them the right ways to act, and that it was a rational choice to allow them that fantasy. He worried that those particular types of people were numerous enough that they would find there way in to much worse things if left to their own devices.
Pain sacrificed his whole legacy and published it anyway. No church would take him in their graveyard when he died. He was buried in a private corn field. Later his body was dug up with the intention of being given a proper burial but there were delays and the remains became lost. . . Ironic ending. . .
"He was buried in a private corn field. Later his body was dug up with the intention of being given a proper burial..."
I laughed when I read this.
This is just the view of those people in that day, not my view. They thought a founding father needed some sort of recognition. I think there was an intention to create a memorial of some kind around his remains. . to commemorate him.
There is nothing soul-like anywhere. When the brain dies, the person is gone, because the encoding of consciousness is physical. It's in the neurons.
Have you read much about "mind upload" possibilities? They suggest that we may eventually be able to slice the brain up after death and analyze it at the molecular level, then reproduce it as software which can run the "person" indefinitely and interface them with sensors and robotic vehicles.
It's one of those fascinating speculations about the future. In that case, it would be the "mind" itself that was a soul like entity that would last forever if it had the right machinery to run inside of.
It's not a scientific reality yet, but it has me re-examining some of my assumptions. It also makes me a little humble to think that my consciousness and self awareness may be something so unremarkable that it could be digitally duplicated into mental clones just as easily as it could be deleted from existence. Then I start wondering if I would know the difference between being deleted and being restarted. . . then I wonder if I am already a clone that doesn't know. . . then it get's weird in my head. ..
Rationalism is the opposite of faith and guides your beliefs and decisions based on the best information available. It requires education, objectivity, and patience. Politics, religion, and emotion are often quick enemies of rational thought; however emotions such as "awe" can actually inspire rationality.
I have a history of applying rationality to some aspects of my life and then abandoning it for other aspects. Relationships and irrational paranoia about finances come to mind. At least as I mature I become more and more rational and can head off those self destructive thoughts a little better.
I agree. I think most situations can be approached this way.
I think my question is looking for those areas where we become less certain.
Evolution is a rational concept and we have found it with evidence. It is clearly irrational to stick with a literal interpretation of Genisis. We have enough information now that we can conclude that most processes of nature are mechanistic, they are not something directly controlled by an invisible man in the clouds.
We can also make rational judgements that evolution is a time driven phenominon. Many people agree that the random odds of our universe coming together the way it did are huge, even though the evolutionary process we have drawn out it is absolutely possible and rational. This means that if the universe is truly just a random machine, then there must have been huge amounts of time passing. The limits of this time have no boundaries in theory. The passing time leading to our universe has been pushed back into virtual infinity in order for the proverbial monkey at the typewriter to finally randomly type out Shakespeare. Allowing for infinite time in the theory of evolution is rational. There is no real reason to limit how far back the past may go in order to make evolution work.
The problem I personally run into when projecting evolution backwards is that evolution itself is, truly, a miraculous and powerful process. Logic tells me that we may not be the end game. If we have infinite time behind us, it could have evolved not just self aware intelligence like ours, but any sort of all powerful intelligence we could imagine within the boundaries of nature and physics. Just take your own self awareness and intelligence and project our own technology and information processing power a trillion years into the future and you can also imagine what an infinite past of evolution could bring before we even showed up.
So I arrive at this rational paradox. If the proverbial monkey at the typewriter could eventually type Shakespeare, then how could a near infinity of evolution not eventually evolve a monkey into God? If we really want to be technical with infinity, then the infinite past has actually had time to evolve the monkey into God an infinite amount of times already. . .
Believing that God is possible has traditionally been an irrational premise. So am I rational or irrational when I entertain these speculations?