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Anti-Rationalism

Michael Albert



AN "ANTI-RATIONALITY" trend is sweeping our society. It's hard to specify its scope or breadth but it seems most pronounced in parts of the left. Consider the following experiences:

At a talk to a group of activists and academics about eight months ago in Amherst, MA, a speaker is repeatedly called "too logical." He is told that he offers too much evidence, hypothesis, and argument, and too few emotive descriptions. His "scientific style" renders his words worthless. A priori, his ideas are dismissed.

A few weeks later an a Midwestern anarchist editorial advises activists to henceforth doubt the writings of a heretofore highly respected commentator. The fellow is too in thrall to "Western Technology." He accepts too many of technologies offerings and by this allegiance, his utterances are made suspect.

More recently, a New York leftist attends a conference where she is criticized by a number of people for being "too forthright" in openly expressing strong disagreement with a presentation. When she replies that forthrightness is honest, and therefore good, she is told that forthrightness is "too fractious." Whenever necessary, she should henceforth "reinterpret the words of others to make them more acceptable to her own views." This will prevent sharp disagreement and "show real respect."

Next, an exchange occurs in Chicago because someone asserts that some claim (I don't remember what) about our culture is true. She is told by another activist that there is no such thing as truth--neither that claim nor any other. It is better to discuss competing interpretations, possibilities, or stories than truth. Truth is too final, too closed, too imperial. There is no one truth, no one angle for knowing, and therefore no single right answers.

Finally, we have the recent national arguments about JFK and Vietnam. First, a view is posited: JFK wanted to end the war and was killed for it. Then, when some data can be "reinterpreted," or "massaged," or manufactureded to fit that view, it's done, On the other hand, when all other evidence contradicts the preferred view, no problem, it's ignored.

I could go on, not only with specific instances such as these, but also with broader trends including aspects of the rise of conspiracy theorizing, especially on the West Coast, and, of course, the miasma of post modernist theory throughout academia. The point isn't that all these phenomena are identical. They aren't. Nor is the point that they all embody disagreements or a diminution of good sense. That's nothing new. The point is that all these examples are part of an anti-rational trend elevating anti-rationality to a virtue and demoting rationality to a sin.

When I first encountered this trend, it seemed to be just one more arcane, academic fad that would quickly fad away. Now, however, seeing how many tributaries feed "anti-rationalism," I worry that my earlier optimistic reaction may have been wishful thinking. What valid insights fuel anti-rationalism? Is it sensible? What effects is it likely to have? What's the antidote?

The Valid Roots Of Anti-Rationalism

ANTI-RATIONALISM ARISES, in part, from many insights about science, which is, after all, the most self-consciously rational pursuit. These insights include feminism's assault on scientific machismo, multiculturalism's rejection of scientific racism, social ecology's advocacy of wholeness as against scientific reductionism, anthropology's respect for experience as against scientific abstraction, humanist's regard for diverse ways of knowing as against the "scientific method," common sense's rejection of scientific propaganda, and the working class's hostility to coordinator class elitism.

SOURCE 1, FEMINISM. Feminist critics are right that the questions scientists have asked and even the answers they have given have frequently incorporated sexist assumptions. Moreover, it's certainly true that women scientists have been excluded, relegated to lesser opportunities, or cast in a peculiar light if they succeed against the odds. Science is often sexist.

SOURCE 2, MULTICULTURALISM. As multicultural activists point out, efforts to homogenize cultural differences, whether by assimilation or annihilation, have often had the support of scientists arguing for cranial racism and the like. Likewise, the scientific establishment has certainly incorporated almost exclusively Eurocentric culture, thereby largely excluding or at least greatly discomforting third world scientists. Science is often racist.

SOURCE 3, ECOLOGICAL ACTIVISM. As Greens claim, reductionist, technological approaches to "fixing our environment" are often as much a part of the ecological problem as the polluting chimneys or leaking pipes they try to fix. Likewise, scientists certainly often ignore the interconnectedness of reality and do frequently emphasize parts to the exclusion of incorporating wholistic dimensions of ecological thought. Science often pollutes.

SOURCE 4, ANTHROPOLOGY. As anthropologists report, scientists do frequently run roughshod over people who lack scientific tools, language, and methods but who, nonetheless, have acquired great wisdom and insight through experience. Moreover, the historically accumulated experience is then often lost forever under the scientific onslaught. Tribal knowledge of the medicinal powers of various herbs or of methods of farming able to flourish without destroying the environment are obvious examples of wisdom often denigrated, ignored, and finally lost forever. Science often colonizes.

SOURCE 5, HUMANISM. Humanists are right that scientists often denigrate non-scientific ways of knowing that ignore the rules of evidence and sometimes even of logic such as mimicry, fictionalization, poetic expression, dramatization, non-formalized experience, faith, etc., without admitting that huge realms of being well addressed by these approaches entirely defy scientific analysis. Science often exaggerates its own power.

SOURCE 6, COMMON SENSE. Popular common sense does correctly tell many average folks that a nuclear physicist arguing that fission reactors are safe, or a bio-chemist arguing that cigarettes don't really cause cancer, or an engineer arguing that work must be organized in a hierarchy of jobs differentiated by skill and empowerment, are all hypocrites. Their high-falutin, expert, and "statistically-ratified," testimony is pure bunkum, packaged for the highest bidder. Science often sells out.

SOURCE 7, CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS: Finally, of course, working people are right when they feel that it is unadulterated self-serving ideology when doctors, managers, scientists, and other representatives of the "coordinator class" claim that their advanced knowledge entitles them to assert what is true and false and good and bad about everything from the nature of the atom to the meaning of hope or love, and to then decide for us how our lives ought to be lived. Science often exploits.

Science--meaning a body of verified knowledge--is sometimes limited, biased, or just plain propaganda. Science--meaning the practice of accumulating verified knowledge--is often distorted in its questions and answers, often dominates those with different agendas, and is often just plain bought and paid for. Scientists--meaning the people who accumulate verified knowledge--are sometimes narrow, mechanical, colonizing, or hypocritical. Moreover, all these problems exist primarily along the familiar axes of class, race, power, and gender. Science can therefore be an illegitimate totalizing project, can marginalize less scientifically presented knowledge, and can argue, seemingly quite rationally, for the most odious projects, just as its crtiics claim.

At Los Alamos during the massive multidisciplinary effort to develop the atomic bomb biographies indicate that not one influential scientist ever raised a single moral question about their actions. Even worse, a significant number of the scientists working on the project thought that an open-air detonation of their new weapon might conceivably ignite the atmosphere thereby terminating all earthly life. They ignited the bomb anyway, expressing relief to be alive to assess the devestation afterward.

So What's Wrong With "Anti-Rationalism"?

WHEN I WAS a student at MIT (from 1965-1969) I used to spend considerable time struggling against the nearly overwhelming arrogance and hypocrisy of science. I called the school "Dachau on the Charles," and I would rail at its noted scientists for having despicable values and for so often imperially usurping the rights of others. Because of the particular character of the place, I repeatedly urged, by logic and by raucus emotive example, that there was nothing wrong with feeling strongly and that feelings and values should have a priority place in deciding what to do with the insights that more sober analysis produces. My hostility for the majority of the world-class scientists around me easily kept pace with the hostility for today's experts felt by contemporary ecologists, feminists, multi-culturalists, and just plain sensible citizens and workers. Moreover, nearly a quarter of century later my views on this score are, if anything, even more militant. Yet I have never criticized rationality or logic, and though anti-elitism and anti-coordinatorism are part of my project, anti-intellectualism is anathema to me.

These distinctions are important. (1) To critique scientific knowledge and scientists is part of understanding the world so as to make it better. Indeed, that kind of critique is a core activity of science itself. Moreover, (2) to suggest methods that people could use to avoid excessive reductionism, guard against exaggerating the scope of scientific insights, or ward off sexist, racist, and classist biases is a useful way to aid scientists (and political activists as well). But to then (3) critique reason and logic as being at the root of science's many evils is a misconceived act of self-denial. It is both wrong and has no role in making the world better. It is consistent, instead, with the worst kind of religious, Stalinist, bourgeois, and fascist demagoguery.

Yes, the faults critics find with science are mostly there. In fact, nearly everyone from every background exhibits varients of the same sexist, racist, classist, and ecological faults. But these faults do not arise in science from the fact that all scientists follow the rules of evidence, make deductions, or argue strenuously for their beliefs, any more than they arise throughout society from the fact that all people breathe, eat, sleep, or procreate.

Instead, just as for the rest of us, overarching institutions of the broader society establish boundaries for what scientists must do to garner rewards during their lives, upbringing and schooling limit scientists' concepts and feelings, and the immediate institutions scientists operate within have biased roles that limit their daily choices. Moreover, properly elaborated in the usual ways, these facts easily explain and even predict the ills prevalently found in modern science, just as they explain and even predict related ills in sports, drama, work, and family life. For explanation of their ills, we have no more reason to appeal to a "more basic" corrupting cause in the "ways of thinking" that all scientists use than we have to appeal to a more basic corrupting cause in the ways of metabolizing that all athletes use, or in the ways of memorizing lines that all actors use, or in the ways of coordinating eyes and hands that all workers use, or in the ways of speaking with mouths that all family members use. The institutional and social context surrounding all these realms and the science, sports, stage, work, and family roles that they force people to fulfill provide explanation enough.

That said, it is also important to note that the difference between science and the rest of what people do in life is grossly misunderstood by most "anti-rationalists" who generally take for their archetype scientist either a demented mad physicist, or the average bourgeois economist, generally a despicable whore to wealth.

First off, serious scientists don't disavow intuition, hunches, guesses, experience, or any other avenues to a new idea. They use all of these, nearly all of the time, just like everyone else.

Second, serious scientists don't depend for verification entirely on logic and deduction, but instead elevate experiment, which is to say actual events and experience to the determining position.

Third, while people who pretend to be scientists, such as economists, sociologists, and psychiatrists sometimes claim that the range of their knowledge is everything and the scope of their wisdom is without limit, serious scientists admit: (1) that the set of all things that the rules of evidence plus logic and theory can sensibly inform us about is tiny compared to the set of all things people care about, and (2) that all knowledge is contingent and may be proven false any time in the future.

Ironically, therefore, what actually distinguishes science from non-science is precisely: (1) science's eagerness to change its ideas rather than hold them as fixed dogma, (2) science's openness to simultaneously celebrating multiple conflicting explanations, at least while there is no convincing way to choose among them, (3) science's disregard for credentials, authority, or even past achievement in judging any person's claims, and (4) science's elevation of experience to the prime arbiter of disputes. In other words, real science is distinguished by its adherence to exactly the aims that the critics of science say they seek.

Finally, ironically, instead of tending to produce racist, sexist, classist, and ecological insensitivity, employing rationality, logic, and the rules of evidence, helps counter these distortions, though not always sufficiently to offset pressures from an overarching institutional context and therefore not always sufficiently to prevent these ills from infecting scientific thought and practice.

Effects Of Anti-Rationalism

ASIDE FROM OFFERING mistaken understandings of science and unwarranted leaps of opposition, anti-rationalism has other, more strategic problems. Here, I mention three.

First, in the struggle over how to improve society, activists confront big guns, big media, and big money with, essentially, our minds and bodies. Anti-rationalism says let's reject using a significant portion of the former. Now that's an interesting strategy. Give away your chief asset before the contest even begins.

Second, there is of course no such thing as choosing to be systematically non-rational. That would be a condition beyond insanity, a kind of permanent primal scream. We can, however, certainly be more or less rational in the sense of trying to limit or enhance the extent that other factors override our rationality. But all anti-rationalists use rationality as a matter of course. Rationality is, after all, just another name for how people think. We therfore express our allegiances and determine our actions partly based on our rationality, but also partly based on additional things like desire, fear, and habit. The fact that no one knows much about how rationality works or even about the nature of its many dimensions (beyond the one that we can specify quite well, which we call logic), certainly doesn't preclude us from all acting largely rationally nearly all the time. Indeed, neither rationality as a whole nor just logic can be dispensed for long without disastrous results. Thus, if dispensing with rationality was the anti-rationalist agenda, their cause would not only be unwise but also foredoomed. However, since it is quite possible to reduce one's use of evidence and argument in certain contexts, it is therefore not necessarily futile for anti-rationalists to urge that everyone should do this every time they disagree with what anti-rationalists believe. Indeed, while it lacks philosophical profundity, this is a very effective plea for an anti-rationalist to make to enforce that his or her critics never utter an effective contrary sound. While I'm not saying that all anti-rationalists have this as their purpose, I am saying that anti-rationalism leads to this, more or less inexorably, and that to employ more of this practice on the left would be still another self-defeating strategy for making the world a better place, though it might do wonders for some careers.

Third, once one removes evidence, deduction, and argument as our favored means for trying to choose among views, what's left? How should we decide what explanations to support, what policies to advocate, what tasks to undertake? The claim of science is that we should use our experience and the experiences of others, our intuitions and the intuitions of others, and even our fears and guesses and the fears and guesses of others, all mediated, however, by logic and the rules of evidence. We should assemble the whole mass of elements into "an argument," where we distinguish facts from wishes and assess the extent to which we have a compelling or only a very tentative case. However, if we set rationality aside, instead of using logic to help sift though and verify connections and implications, we will have to rely only on feelings, emotions, preferences, or whims--or on obedience to some authority. Given the institutional context in which we have matured and now function, the most likely possibility is that we'll wind up deciding what positions to advocate on the basis of the style or credentials of presenters. Charisma and herd mentality will replace informed judgment, and the Left will turn into the Right. Another wonderful strategy.

An Antidote

WHEN A PARANOID individual claims that the CIA is after him, it's hard to break through the story. Anything you say can be made part of the delusion. If anti-rationalists were really irrational, the situation would be similar. No appeal to evidence, logic, or implication could affect the irrational person's view because all this would be reinterpreted to fit their schema. But anti-rationalists, with very few exceptions, are not irrational. They are either: (1) people who want to ratify the worth of other ways of knowing than science but feel they have to denigrate the latter to succeed, (2) people rightly troubled about current affairs and justifiably hostile to scientists and other authority figures who lack, however, a viable alternative and therefore desperately welcome whatever seems to be on their side, (3) academics with confused illusions of philosophical grandeur, or (4) ideologues who have found a new way to silence whomever they disagree with.

In all four cases, the only response to anti-rationalism is to steadfastly employ whatever experience, reason, and evidence we can muster to explain the true origins of the ills we face and to offer a real alternative vision and strategy that might better fulfill people's hopes and desires. Along the way, however, not succumbing to rationality-baiting and being honestly respectful of anti-rationalists but also forthrightly hostile to the views they espouse may also help.



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