"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.

  • abb3w

    Of course, the ultimate premise for determining which measure of basis in evidence cannot be selected purely mathematically, the decision of whether to Assert or Refute axiom of mathematics cannot be determined mathematically or via propositional logic, and the axioms of propositional logic used to connect mathematical axioms cannot be justified unless you have some other axiomatic basis to justify WITH.

    This, however, at worst means that what you mean by “logically compelling”, “rationally coherent”, “mathematically vindicated”, “evidence-based” have ties to certain axiom classes — several alternatives for which are reducibly equivalent. In so far as the choice of which of the equivalent classes to work from is completely arbitrary, it is thus not logical; however, it is also thus utterly unimportant, and not usually what typical defenders of religious belief are talking about to boot.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Some religious apologists, particularly the presuppositionalists, explicitly do want to torpedo all of rational thought as arbitrary on the bases of those sorts of considerations of undecidable axioms, abb3w, but they hardly can get from there to show that other measures of truth (like coherence, probability, brute pragmatic usefulness) support their supernatural guesses and their a priori irrationalism more than they vindicate the presumptions of rationalism and scientific verisimilitude.

    • abb3w

      I’d largely agree. They can reject any of the dozen-or-so axioms needed; I’ve just yet to see them subsequently take enough additional alternative axioms (that are neither equivalent to nor stronger than those defaults) to eventually get to anything able to tell a hawk from a handsaw (my standard infimum threshold for a philosophical system being “useful”).

      I suspect we’re using slightly different sense of “arbitrary”. In the sense I’m using it, it’s like a linguistic choice between French and English, supposing that you could translate anything said in English exactly to French and anything in French back exactly to English — although English-to-French-to-English may result in a significant increase in verbosity without meaning change, and in actual practice French and English may fail to reach such lossless inter-translatability. In the ideal case, although possibly one might be more efficient for some applications, the choice of which to use is effectively arbitrary. From the standpoint of practical philosophy, no-one gives a damn whether you’re speaking English or French. Similarly, for practical math no-one gives a damn whether you use ZF or vNBG as an ultimate axiom basis.

      As a further quibble, using probability as a measure presupposes having enough math axioms to define probability. Probability theory means it also requires making some presuppositions about the nature of the probability distribution. (Historically, it was Bertrand’s Paradox that highlighted this.) Similarly, a formal meaning for “coherence” probably involves having logic where TRUE≠FALSE — which in some senses is actually quite hard to say clearly, since if TRUE=FALSE, (=)=(≠) so to speak.

  • justawriter

    What people usually describe as “not able to understand rationally” are usually emotions, in particular, love. I think one area that rationalists really do need to address is the idea things like love, faith, awe etc. have a free standing existence outside of the context of biologically based emotions. Yes, love exists and it can be best understood by better understanding the brain and how it works.
    The challenge in this approach is always to emphasize that art, drama, poetry, what have you are still valuable and important contributions to society. Just because I want to understand a person doesn’t mean I want to kill all the things that gives that person joy. So love is a real thing. But it is something that emerges from our biology and socialization, not as a consequence of being gifted by a mythological deity.
    The reason why it is vitally important to understand where emotions come from and how they evolve is to give people tools to improve the positives things about their emotional state and guide them away from the destructive avenues. In the case of love the question is how can people develop deep, long lasting relationships and avoid those feelings that mutate into stalking, manipulation and domestic violence.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    My thoughts? That I don’t do theology any more than I do philosophy. They are both just so stories, the difference is that the first has a non-factual basis (that there are gods), the latter can use both factual and non-factual basis as it goes.

    In physics there are no “causes”, there are relativistic causality, which is hugely different. That is, after all, why we have relativistic mechanics and not classical mechanics.

    There is no “common sense” there, for the same reason. (IIRC, and then ironically here, Einstein pointed out that using “common sense” is nonsense in science.)

    Of course there is a qualitative distinction between what we can learn from observation by trial-and-reward or trial-and-error* and what we can learn by prediction and testing on theories. The first is contingent the momentary data, so subjective. The latter is, we find, robustly generalizable outside of context, so objective.**

    We can observe that learning and facts can coincide if learning is informed by best empirical praxis, but can also diverge if not.

    Why would that observation, likely as it seems, imply anything “magical” religious?

    * This is also how the genome learns, by selection for positive or negative fitness, of each gene’s environment (including other genes) _in the preceding generations_. No foresight or universality – or the dinosaurs hadn’t been reduced to the avian branch.

    Famously, theories parsed by testing are predictive – foresight. The Earth continues to rotate, and there will soon be another day locally.

    ** The reason is because physics have symmetries, or symmetry breaking, so laws. Random noise can have all sorts of patterns too, but they are no due to symmetries (no universality).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    I wonder how appropriate it is to ask for proof that something cannot be (or should not be) logically explainable. If there was such evidence I cannot imagine it would be anything other than logical evidence – so surely that would put it back into the logical framework such a phenomenon was supposed to be outside of? It seems that demanding evidence comes close to begging the question. Though perhaps not; this is really just my first reaction, not my considered thought.

    The only alternative I see is to find a counterexample. If I could point to some phenomenon that science couldn’t explain. The problem here is that science isn’t finished, it is a process, and so what it can’t explain today could plausibly be explained tomorrow. If I pointed to (e.g.) someone who woke up from a coma after scientists had declared this impossible and said this proved that there were some occurrences science could not explain, the scientist might rightly say that science today couldn’t explain it, but surely there was something at work here that future science would take into account. That argument would always be available to a naturalist, etc.

    What this suggests to me is that there is possible evidence for events outside the rational framework, but that that evidence is not available now, and won’t be available until science is complete (in practical terms: never). If I’m correct about that, it seems like this is the kind of question we should be forever agnostic about.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I wonder how appropriate it is to ask for proof that something cannot be (or should not be) logically explainable.

      How is it ever appropriate to specify a priori that some things “cannot or should not be logically explainable”, exactly?

    • abb3w

      Except it need not always be taken a priori, when it may instead in cases be taken a posteriori.

      Contrariwise, if it may be taken a posteriori, then the question remains what else remains as implications of the a priori suppositions that allow this.

  • reighley

    The laws of physics at present are neither complete nor entirely self consistent. They never have been. Why would we expect this state of affairs ever to change? If it never changes, wouldn’t it be acceptable to assert that the universe as we observe it is only approximately rational?

    re: symmetry; I was thinking something along those lines just the other day. In particular the way in which a symmetry in the laws of physics often yields a conservation law, and a conserved quantity appears as a “real thing” in our way of speaking and our habits of mind.

    I asked myself : am I prepared to endorse a sort of ontological Noether’s theorem whereby I automatically identify symmetry and reality? It turns out that I am not.

  • Jesse

    I think justawriter has part of it. Part of the problem is teasing out what exactly you mean by rational, and acknowledging that people do have experiences that can’t be described that way.

    For instance, there is no rational reason why I shouldn’t like beet soup. It’s nutritious, and it doesn’t taste particularly bad. But I don’t ever eat it (not often anyway). Why not? I just don’t. There’s not a shred of rational calculation that goes into that.

    I mean, I decided to have a tuna sandwich for lunch. I didn’t weigh all the possibilities and pros and cons of tuna, and write a 100-page treatise on the relative effects on my body, the environment, and whether giving an extra $2 to the company that made Hellman’s would negatively affect me I just made a freaking sandwich.

    That’s the kind of thing people are talking about a lot of the time when they say that.

    I mean, why is blue or green or purple your favorite color? There’s no rational reason for that either.

    Then there’s the stuff you can’t prove. That is, you cant scientifically prove we aren’t all in the Matrix. So that question is out of the realm of science. It’s pretty useless for figuring out the natural world, so most scientists won’t touch it. (To put it more formally, in a sufficiently cleverly-designed system, there would be no way to test your environment to determine that you weren’t a brain in a vat).

    A lot of emotional experiences are also well-nigh impossible to test. For instance, if someone says they think you are a nice person, (expressing their state of mind) there really isn’t any good way to scientifically test that assertion. Why not? Because if there was nobody would ever feel a sense of betrayal, ever, about anything. We’d know beforehand what people would do. So when someone says “you are my friend and I would do anything for you” we weigh whether or not we believe them, but a good chink of the time I think we can all admit that becomes something of a toss-up. It isn’t like saying that if I chuck a brick into the air I can say with pretty good certainty that it will land in X place.

    Then there’s ethics. Look, there is no “rational” reason whatsoever not to have slavery or human sacrifice. I mean, there just isn’t. Neither one impacted human survival. In fact from an economic standpoint slavery is pretty rational and even efficient and logical. See the American South as exhibit A — if you did not know that people kept slaves and were just looking at the economic growth numbers like GDP, Dixie would have looked pretty fantastic. The logical thing for me to do is be a sociopath, after all. (There are of course evolutionary reasons why the number of sociopaths would tend to be small, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they often do the most logical thing for their own gain). But we decided in our society that even though slavery makes a lot of economic sense (for some people, anyway) that we would do without it. But logic — at least the kind that you use to solve a physics problem — didn’t have anything to do with it. By some lights the logical thing to do would be to let it continue, after all. (Hey, a whole long war with an attendant death and destruction would have been avoided).

    This doesn’t mean the origins of emotional states, for instance, can’t be understood scientifically, but “blue is a perception by our brains due to a signal from the retina corresponding to a 460 nanometer wavelength” and “The sky is a pretty blue” are actually referring to totally different things.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No, there are reasons that slavery and human sacrifice are irrational. Positions against them can be objectively defended. And arguments can be made about many of the other issues. Just because historically certain practices changed through some irrational means does not mean that there is no such thing as better and worse in general or in specific cases.

    • Jesse

      Well, then we get into defining rational, and what’s better or worse — which i why we have discussions about ethics at all.

      I mean, let’s tease this out. What is wrong with human sacrifice? If we get rid of someone, that’s more food for the rest of us (in a pre-industrial society, certainly!) And if it’s say, a kid I couldn’t raise because I don’t have the money, great! One less mouth to feed. I would be able to devote that much more to my other children. Why is that bad? After all, if I said we had to sacrifice one person to save more than one you’d probably be okay with that under certain circumstances. My point is that many of the ethical lines we draw are pretty arbitrary because it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.

      Or, slavery. Human societies functioned perfectly well with it. There is no “objective” stance that says it is bad anymore than there is an objective standard that says intelligent life is a good idea. We could all die, every one of us, and the universe doesn’t give a damn. We’re making it up – all of it.

      In the case of the US, slavery worked. If it didn’t people wouldn’t have done it! Now, it did not work for African-Americans, obviously — but greater human achievement wasn’t the point. The whole premise was: produce more cotton at any cost. The white southerners decided that black people were not human. A purely arbitrary distinction, I think you will agree. But no more arbitrary that one tribe deciding to wipe out another because they spoke a different language or worshipped a different god.

      That’s part of what I am getting at. Any ethical system has axioms that can’t be scientifically proven. You just take them as starting points. Just because your ethics are different than those of an ancient Roman doesn’t mean his are objectively worse. For his society, they might work well. But that’s because the society is set up in such a way that they do work.

      That’s what is good about this: human societies are, due to our pretty decent brains, really, really flexible. Nothing is written in stone. SO we have a lot of room to come up with things that make more people happier and allow them to leave more fulfilling lives. But that idea is just my idea; the universe doesn’t care if people are happy. I could just as well reject that very premise. Plenty of people have. And their societies worked well enough and their logic was just as self-consistent as mine.

    • Jesse

      Or to put it another way: quantum physics works no matter what your politics. An economic system doesn’t have that kind of objective existence. There is no particularly rational reason whatsoever that gold should be a medium of exchange over say, copper oxide or Levis jeans or whatever. In economics some take it as a basic article of faith that people want more stuff but there are plenty of cultures where that was discouraged — and would in fact be irrational. But again, the question is: what are you trying to do?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Not just any goals are equally rational as any others. If a culture decides it does not want to flourish in basic human ways it is being irrational. If it wants to destroy the autonomy of rational beings it is being irrational. Not every rational or objective thing is something which would be that way if there were no humans or no objective human goods. There are humans, there are objective human goods, and it is irrational to systematically undermine them, regardless of what anyone thinks.

  • Jesse

    “If it wants to destroy the autonomy of rational beings it is being irrational.”

    Why? I have a group of 100 people who, by enslaving 20, will all have more food than before, and be able to, I dunno, spend time working on some scientific project, like finding a cure for malaria. What’s irrational about that?

    I mean, by most measures I can think of a cure for malaria and more food supply to people is a good idea.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

    My main objection to this line is that it usually devalues the parts of life that are not doing logic. Proponents use it as a claim for magic; opponents usually deny it vehemently as if agreeing meant magic.

    It doesn’t mean magic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with emotion and sensation. With feeling awe-struck by some majestic and beautiful part of nature. With enjoying the sensations of eating wonderful food or waking up in a warm bed from a sound sleep and snuggling with your loved one. And there is ALSO nothing supernatural or magical about it.

    So my preferred answer is “Sure, not everything in life is logical! But those other things are still not magic.”

  • Dunc

    The most important things in most people’s lives are their relationships with other people. People and their relationships are not especially logical or rational. That’s what I think they’re talking about.

    Most people actually spend very little time wondering about how the world works – they’re too busy trying to decide whether they should ask that cute [girl | guy] out, and if so, where to.