The Irrationality of Rationalists

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic: post ? –The Irrationality of rationalists.


Most people who dismiss religion would call themselves rationalists.  They think that only clear and rational thought based on reliable data can lead us to truth.  Only science can give us reliable facts, for only science is based on unprejudiced gathering of data, hypothesis, experiment and peer review.  Superstition and magical thinking must be cleared away, especially religion for religion is their very embodiment.  It’s a mistake.


I am taking many of my ideas here from Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio and from Ludwig Wittgenstein.   The emphasis on clear and rational thought to the privileged exclusion of all else really begins with Descartes. He is said to have thought up the basis of his philosophy all in one day while holed up in a stove in Poland (apparently they had walk-in stoves in Poland in the seventeenth century).  The method he adopts is hyperbolical doubt.  How do I know strawberries are sweet?  I might be being fooled by my taste buds.  Am I really sitting here in front of the fire in my dressing gown?  I might be having a dream.  I might just think I am.  But what I can’t doubt is that I am thinking it. “I think therefore I am” became the basis of his philosophy.  He made a sharp distinction between what he called the res cogitans, the thinking thing, and the res extensa, the material thing.  I am my mind, my body is just a physical chassis for my mind, a kind of cart I lug around for merely utilitarian purposes.

“I think therefore I am”

This kind of attitude has had a huge influence on Western thought, and underlies the frequent separation of thought from feeling in order to preserve the purity of reason.  Thought is what matters, emotion is just something you indulge in your spare time.  I like poetry too, says Dawkins.  But the neurologist Damasio argues persuasively that in neurological terms this attempt to separate mind from body, thought from feeling is mis-conceived.   We don’t just think in our minds, not even in our brains even, but with our whole bodies. Imagine, says Damasio, that you are walking home alone along a dark street. You think you hear a movement in the darkness, Immediately the metabolic rate of your whole organism is altered, the immune system leaps into action, your muscles contract and your skin shivers, feeding instantaneous information along chemical and neurorological pathways to your brain.  You are on alert.  Because of these physical reactions you begin to think that even the rustle of a leaf, which you would hardly have noticed before, is evidence of a mugger.  Your whole body is triggered into action by your thought and in turn influences your thinking.  Perhaps you will object that this is an example in which thought and emotion are peculiarly connected.  You don’t feel like that when your maths teacher tries to explain Thermat’s last theorem to you.  But Damasio produces plenty of evidence to show that even the most abstract thoughts trigger just such physiological reactions, although most of the time they are unconscious, which in turn influence and channel your thinking.


Damasio believes we are directed in our thinking by what he calls somatic markers. Suppose you are faced with a life choice, who to marry, whether to believe in religion or not, whether to change job.  If you start trying to decide purely intellectually and try to think through the ramifications of each possibility it just gets too complicated.  So he thinks there is neurological evidence that your body steps in.  Because of upbringing, temperament, what your friends think and so on, you are already emotionally predisposed to one of the choices.  She often wears red.  Your mother, who you resent, often wore red too.  No matter she isn’t a bit like your mother, you are already being channelled in one direction, and you immediately start trying to find arguments, however flimsy, to justify it, and just don’t pay attention to other arguments, however compelling, that challenge it.  I think Damasio must be right.  Think of so many peoples’ attitude to climate change.  No matter that virtually all climate scientists are warning us most solemnly of the direst consequences if we don’t quit fossil fuels, because the evidence is now overwhelming, people just don’t believe them. Scientists?  Don’t know what they are talking about.  But an article in a tabloid newspaper by some ignorant journalist.  Now you’re talking,

This amazing little organ can think about the universe.  Our brains are in constant contact with our bodies and our bodies with our brains.  We live in deeply emotionally impregnated informational ghettoes – universal minds trapped in local circumstances.


The nothing goes but facts and logic reached its apogee in logical positivism. It was an attitude that found its best-known proponent in Wittgenstein.  He was not originally a philosopher at all but an engineer who had grown up in Vienna and come to Manchester to study engineering.  There was so much ant-semitism in fin-de-siecle, over-ripe Vienna even the Jews themselves were affected by it.  A leading Jew called Weininger taught that Jews had no right to live unless they could prove they were geniuses and two of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide.  Becoming interested in mathematical philosophy, Ludwig went to Cambridge to see its high priest, Bertrand Russell, his only chance, he felt, to prove he was a genius. ‘Oh prove there’s not a hippopotamus under the table without looking’ said Bertie as he sped down King’s Parade to see his latest mistress.  He was pursued by a despairing Ludwig shouting in a heavy Austrian accent ‘but you cannot prove there is not a hippopotamus under the table’.  Wittgenstein took Russell’s philosophy to new extremes.  Only logical statements or what can be empirically verified are not nonsense.  Compound statements can be broken up into atomic propositions which can be subjected to logical tests according to what were called truth functions, and tables could be consulted to show what was logical and what not. Everything else was mythical nonsense. Having worked out a complete list of truth functions in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein declared philosophy was now complete and went to Ireland to watch birds.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The only philososopher I can think of who realised he’d been wrong.

But tell it to the birds.  He now began to realise that his previous philosophy had been completely wrong and went back to Cambridge.  He said he knew he’d arrived because as soon as you stepped onto the platform people were saying ’oh really”.   Truth functions were now replaced by language games. What is a king in chess?  Logical-positivism would have said it’s really a bit of wood.  But this tells you almost nothing.   It has no meaning outside the rules and conventions of the game of chess.  But what is a game?  Anything between rugby football and hopscotch and maybe games yet to be invented are games.  None has a prescriptive right to be THE game.  This is where Wittgenstein hits Damasio.  Life’s just too short to play all the games.  So you concentrate. We all live in informational ghettoes that think within their own languages.   Beekeeping has its own language.  Only beekeepers understand what swarm control means but use words that connect with other languages – take back control said Cummings – which connect with others and yet others far beyond those few you can speak and understand.  Your capacity to know complete truth unravels.  He now came to see that his previous philosophy had not only been wrong but a paradigm of wrongness because it DID claim to know complete truth.  This is why the attitude of so many humanists, only science can tell us truth because only science is verifiable and logically provable is paradigmatically wrong too.  It is a lovely irony that the humanists and the religious fundamentalists share a common playing field of a wrong attitude to truth.  You just can’t know everything that is true, even if you think God or Bertrand Russell tell you you can.


I love and greatly respect Richard Dawkins.  His wonderful writing and enthusiasm for science and refusal to out up with religious nonsense have deeply inspired me.  But I also now think he’s profoundly wrong about both science and religion.  His is a paradigm case, I now think, of somebody who is trapped in a belief box that only speaks one kind of language game. and I want to devote a whole post explaining why I think that.  We are all trapped in informational ghettoes, somatically marked belief boxes, and the difference is between those who realise it and those who don’t.  For people who have failed to distinguish between facts and meanings in science, science is the most misleading of all belief boxes for the very reason that the facts it has discovered are so irrefutably true.  How did this situation come about?  I think you can only understand that if you appreciate the devastating impact of the trial of Galileo, the misleading teachings of Francis Bacon whose scientific method has underlain English science and the erroneously limited  ideas of John Locke, whose philosophy has also underlain it and still does.  So I want to discuss all that in the next two or three posts.  I hope you find these posts interesting, well presumably you do because if you didn’t you’d have already stopped reading them.  I didn’t need Wittgenstein’s truth functions to work that one out.   I’m fascinated.


Descartes:  photo by I’mm courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Wittgenstein: photo by Muli Koppel courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of a brain in the palm of a hand by el Neato courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons


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