"Not Everything In Life Is Logical"

When we rationalists, naturalists, and other assorted atheists insist that no one should form beliefs that disregard logic and evidence, the defenders of faith often tell us that “Not everything in life is logical”, or use some variant of this phrase. What might they mean by this? Where is their confusion exactly and how best should we remedy it?

Naturalists assume that everything which occurs in the world has an explanation in terms of natural causes. Rationalists put this point another way: everything which happens has a rational explanation. For lack of a better word, there are “laws” of being and there are laws of nature, and it is impossible for anything to act in ways that are fundamentally counter to the logic of those laws, i.e., in ways which are illogical, irrational, or unnatural.

There are some discoveries of the basic realities in nature which are wildly counter-intuitive to our everyday perspective, of course. When the sun travels through the sky, it is because the earth is moving and not because the sun is. The evolution of complex, ordered, beautifully functioning living designs out of random mutations and natural selections by environments over millions of years, runs completely contrary to our natural common sense assumptions that all complex and intricately ordered designs need intelligent, conscious designers. Quantum mechanics befuddles common sense categories about waves and particles, and relativity theory completely alters our understanding of the relationship between space and time.

But each of these amazing discoveries, and countless more in science are deeply rational. They make beautiful sense mathematically, they make coherent sense of an astonishing amount of empirically observed phenomena, they enable us to make completely accurate predictions of certain kinds of future events, and reliance on their truths has led to the creation of utterly amazing technologies which exploit the secrets of nature to make it serve our purposes in astonishing, unprecedented ways.

So, when the defenders of irrationalism say that “not everything is logical”, they should clarify what they mean. Do they mean that some things in nature (or beyond nature?) are not only counter-intuitive and contrary to common sense but are fundamentally irrational such that, unlike even quantum mechanics and natural selection, they somehow violate mathematics and act in ways that are in no way law-like? Is there any evidence for such things? It is one thing for nature to overthrow our everyday expectations and reveal itself to work according to a deeper and more intricate logic and mathematics than we normally think within. But where is the evidence that it is ever irrational, and acting in ways which violate all regularities and quantities whatsoever?

There are some regularities we cannot yet figure out and some paradoxes that still perplex our common sense, but where is there evidence that this is because the universe fundamentally makes no rational sense (i.e., is illogical), rather than because our investigations are still incomplete? And if the universe is ever outright illogical how does such an incredible degree of logical, scientifically explicable, mathematically describable, common sensibly navigable order even emerge in the first place? Would not the basic illogical character of the universe at its core prevent it from ever manifesting as such a rational and ultimately predictable sort of place on the levels we are now so good at describing it?

Even our imperfect common sense itself would not work properly if things were not following a fundamentally rational course. Nothing would ever make any sense. And yet it all makes a lot of sense. Both the ways that common sense itself gets things right and the ways it gets things wrong even make sense scientifically and philosophically. Rationalists, naturalists, philosophers, scientists, atheists, etc., are not just closed minded people demanding overly-simple explanations because they are incapable of handling the profundity of counter-intuitive ideas. Quite the contrary! The ideas of science and philosophy are more counter-intuitive and complex, and come much less naturally to “common sense logic” than the anthropomorphisms, superstitions, and poor statistical reasoning of most religious arguments defending the existence of “things which logic cannot explain”.

Essentially when defenders of faith say that not everything is rational, I think that all they mean is that not everything is the way our common sense level of engaging the world would have it or that not everything that happens in life goes the way we would expect it to or, even more trivially and irrelevantly, just that sometimes emotional experiences are more satisfying than some rational truths are. While it is true that our common sense is not perfect by any means, and while it is true that we are surprised in life repeatedly by unexpected turns of events, these are poor bases for inferring that the world itself is fundamentally irrational and illogical. We get surprised by reality because of the limits of our common sense or of our current understanding to grasp basic realities and to predict the future perfectly—not because there are limits of reality to be rational in itself. It is rather anthropocentric to claim that something about the world makes no sense just because we cannot yet make total sense of it ourselves. And to infer that it is justified to believe in an anthropomorphically imagined God that makes no sense logically and has no evidence rationally, just because we have not yet made any sense of some part of the world is not to get us any closer to some deep counter-intuitive truth. It is only to capitulate to the commonest and least vindicated pre-scientific superstitions rather than to continue to investigate rationally.

So we rationalists and naturalists are just people who only accept logically compelling, evidence-based, rationally coherent, and mathematically vindicated sorts of counter-intuitive ideas—not ones which are explicable in terms of common cognitive biases and superstitious errors which have been scientifically undermined, which are sheerly illogical, which lack evidence, which are rationally incoherent, which are mathematically implausible, and which encourage us to stop looking for the next powerful counter-intuitive idea that will deepen our rational understanding of reality and enable us to more powerfully transform it for our purposes.

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.