Is Reason My “God” 3: What It Means To Be A Rational Being

Late last night Grant challenged my insistence that reason is not my “god” in whom I have faith.  I have already replied to his attempt to lump in reliance upon science with reliance upon religion as equivalent strategies for avoiding facing the fact of uncertainty and inexplicability.  In this post I consider the next portion of his remarks:

You lost me at “We are all, as rational beings…” If there’s one thing demonstrated by the facts – humans are not rational beings. Unless you believe we are… against the evidence.

You are equivocating between two different senses of rational.  When I say that we are rational, all I mean is that our minds employ reason.  Specifically, we can go further and note that we not only perform simple rational operations but are capable of a number of complex, abstract forms of reasoning.  That’s not just what the evidence shows, it is a precondition of the very endeavor of assessing evidence.  When you allege to infer from the evidence that we are not rational beings, you employ your reason. When you tell me that the evidence shows we are not rational beings, you assume and depend on the fact that I use reason.  It’s as simple as that.  We are only talking, writing, reading, thinking, inferring, arguing, etc. because we are reasoning.  It is the absolute precondition of all these activities.

Of course just because we are reasoning beings does not mean that we always reason in truth-conducive ways or that we always reason with adequate attention to fairness or attend to matters with the right emotional disposition, etc.  In these ways, many of us may fail to be good rational beings.  But we are, nonetheless, rational beings through and through insofar as we constantly think, constantly infer, constantly intuit, etc.  Even when we do these things mistakenly, we employ our reason to do so. I never said that we were perfect reasoners, that’s not necessary for claiming we are rational beings and we have no good reason to not be the best reasoners we can.

The question that occasioned my post on whether reason was my god was whether or not I depended on reason like religious people depended on a god.  My answer was simple, no, reason is simply a truth-conducive tool.  I am not even saying what other philosophers have—that reason is our highest good.  I am saying simply that insofar as we are rational beings, we should reason as well as we can.  Just like we should be artistic the best we can insofar as we have artistic capacities, and just as insofar as we are social beings we should be social in the best ways possible, etc., etc.  Ultimately, I am a perfectionist who thinks our ultimate good is in found in growth through self-overcoming towards the full maximization of our various powers.

Both insofar as being rational is constitutive of our nature and insofar as reason is integral to all our other endeavors—artistic, political, social, familial, athletic, academic, economic, sexual, aesthetic, imaginative, etc., reason is an indispensable human good.  And insofar as irrationality, bad use of reason, hinders our endeavors it is an evil to be mistrusted and an obstacle to be removed.  Occasionally of course some irrationality will serendipitously work to our favor and of course sometimes one’s good reasoning (not just their over-thinking, but their good reasoning itself) might accidentally lead to lamentable problems.  But when talking generally, reason is an unquestionably greater human good than unreason.  But then that leads us to Grant’s next challenge:

Appealing to the authority of reason is the same as appealing to the authority of a God, same psychological dependence, just a different rationalisation.

Well that can’t be right.  l explain why in the next post.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.