I am not sure whether the organizers of this discussion placed rationality before science or after it, but I chose to place it before science because science is the result of rational thought. I also decided to avoid the discussion how rationality and rationalism are different. Instead the areas where they are similar seem to be more relevant to our situation. I shall therefore touch the formal history of rationalism only very briefly, because as a well formulated philosophical world view it has a brief history. But there is a faculty which has existed throughout human history as the defining human faculty. It is this defining human faculty that generates all that we call human as distinct from all that is not human. Rationality, science and modernity are the products of this basic faculty. Our main subject of today’s discourse will be this faculty.
Rationalism and all reason-based forms of human wisdom have evolved rapidly since the 17th century, giving birth to countless systems of the contemporary world. But in its inception, rationalism evolved as a movement in the age of Enlightenment.
Originating in the end of 17th century, enlightenment and rationalism originated in the writings of thinkers like René Descartes (1596–1650) Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Pierre Bayle(1647–1706), Gottfried Leibniz(1646–1716) physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727) philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) The Scientific Revolution is closely tied to the Enlightenment and rationalism, as their discoveries overturned many traditional concepts and introduced new perspectives on nature and man’s place within it..
It was mainly motivated by the tyranny of Europe’s political system. But its objectives were more ambitious. It aimed at reforming society through the tool of reason. It challenged ideas grounded in tradition and faith. The rationalists argued that correct knowledge comes only through the scientific method. It promoted science, skepticism and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition, intolerance and some abuses by church and state. One by one nations of the world accepted the scientific method of inquiry and inclusive political systems proposed by these thinkers. After its profound impact on the continent of Europe the movement reached out to America, where it influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among many others, and played a major role in the American Revolution. The political ideals of enlightenment and rationalism influenced the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish–Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791.
One of its foundational arguments was that belief systems should not decide matters of common human interest firstly because a faith system does not allow human thinking to freely modify and secondly because there are more than one faith systems in the world. If peace and happiness is the birth right of every child born on this planet, then people of one religion cannot decide for others about what is the right belief. It is not possible because belief based on metaphysical concepts cannot be proved by argument or facts. Only such ideas or theories can be proved right or wrong as are based on verifiable facts. If inherited or adopted belief is accepted as truth, every believer has the right to claim that his particular belief is the final truth. This can lead to only two possibilities: if adherents of one faith are dominant, then all the other communities will be subjected to tyranny and abject humiliation, like Christians in Pakistan; or if adherents of two or more faith systems are strong enough or militant enough to fight back, then it results in social conflict and culminates into armed clashes like recent clashes and killings in Pakistan.
When we look at our situation in this region and some other Muslim nations a question comes to our mind: are we lagging some four centuries behind the world? Or is it that the world has gone wrong moving four centuries away from Truth? If we observe the emerging minority of intellectuals in Pakistan who so apologetically advocate separation of belief from politics and advocate equal respect for personal belief, it appears that this four centuries’ gap is real.
Rationalism emerged as a systematic formulation of our rationality, which is inborn in all humans. In more recent times Leo Strauss, rediscovering the Socratic concept of intellectual midwifery, defined this faculty as latent in every human being; it has to be awakened with the help of intelligent questions as if to help it in its birth. Socrates is considered the best known genius in this domain; his seriously considered and formulated questions stimulated this latent human faculty to trigger enquiry which could then promote rationality of the listener. Once it is awakened this inborn rationality breeds more questions. As a school of thought rationalism is a distinct way of formulating those questions and offering answers available at the existing level of knowledge. It is a world view, a philosophy, a system of reasoning to approach reality in its countless forms from the individual in a society to the phenomena of stars and galaxies. But the inborn faculty that causes rational attitudes and matures into rationalism is rationality. Thus rationalism is the child of rationality.
What is rationality? According to Cambridge Dictionary of philosophy, rationality is the characteristic of any action, belief, or desire, that makes their choice optimal under a set of constraints. It is a normative concept of reasoning in the sense that rational people should derive conclusions in a consistent way given the information at disposal. It refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or with one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. However, the term “rationality” tends to be used differently in different disciplines, including specialized discussions of economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology and political science. A rational decision is one that is not just reasoned, but is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem.
Different theories of rationality take a wide range of factors that determine one’s rationality. Max Weber includes so much as habituated response and belief, even instinct as legitimate factors in determining one’s rationality. But then we have A.C.Grayling who thinks a good rationale should be free from emotions, personal feelings and instincts, that rationality means perfect objectivity. Others have considered such an exacting standard is possible only in computers. Therefore rationality is generally considered pretty close to prudence based on common sense. Unlike rationalism, rationality is intelligence applied to social domains which are not exact like natural phenomena. But theories like that of Max Weber are generally refuted as meaningless. The minimum condition for a finding or decision or choice to be rational is that it should take into account the causal relationships and should be based on all the facts that can be studied.
Rationality is a function of our intelligence. Every intelligent entity can have rationality. We have defined intelligence as a faculty to model reality correctly in real time. But is that sufficient? If the intelligent being is an alien, detached observer, it may be good fun to make models of reality and play dice. But if the observer is facing that reality as a part of that reality then their ability to make a correct model of reality is not sufficient even if it is in real time; because the correct model should be followed by a correct response. Then the correctness of that response be checked on the basis of correct or incorrect results. This is what we call the causal order.
Rationality is the approach based on reason and knowledge. In dealing with a given subject we take into consideration all the available facts and alternatives. To achieve a desired result we have to think with an objective and keen mind so that the conclusion or decision is not influenced by notions or emotions. Such way of dealing with reality is rationality. As a function of intelligence, rationality should meet the demands of human situation.
But what is the human situation that needs rationality. Squarely speaking the human situation is the struggle for survival.
Perhaps the struggle for survival starts with the individual and its mother. But as intelligence grew in human individual, we discovered the art of collective response. Society with its constitutions, forms of governance and laws is the outcome of the individuals struggle for survival. Do these collective patterns serve his purpose to exist, survive and thrive? That is what intelligent humans keep asking. That asking and insistence improves collective modes of survival.
Relationship and communication is a mode of existence of the universe. All life forms on our planet have the same mode of being. It exists between the mother and issue like cause and effect in all reality. Then they build a relationship with their environment through some form of sensory contact. These forms have grown from elementary to higher efficiency through evolution. The driving force of this evolution seems to be the urge to survive. Apart from the repeated evidence provided by research to prove the validity of Darwin’s theory of Evolution, common-sense evidence comes from the relationship between life and the universe. Life’s urge to survive does not receive motherly support. The role of the universe may not always be hostile but it is never motherly. It can at best be called indifferent. The young ones of a life form cannot survive without the support of their parent or without extreme and painful effort. Only a wishful myth can narrate a story of extraordinary or supernatural support.
Survival needs appropriate response to the forces that threaten or support. That means a response quick enough and accurate enough to defeat the threat or to utilize the support. Sensory contact of life with the environment produced more and more complex sensory systems with the formation of brain. But with all its efficiency of response, the animal brain could not combat the powerful combinations of factors called nature, the countless entities like other animals and elemental forces of the inorganic world. Many a species was wiped out en masse to become fossils and fuel. Life succeeded in its effort to keep its presence on the planet but its losses were massive and there was no (and is no) certainty that it will continue to keep that presence for ever. It needed for its survival an ability to adapt to nature if not overcome it. That means an ability to not only defend but even to sometimes preempt.
If we give a closer look to things and matters around us, we find that there are systems or patterns everywhere. One may or may not be pleased with these patterns or arrangements but they are inevitable. Even the worst chaos has a pattern: what you may call a method in madness. We perceive this phenomenon of pattern in our society, in the world, in the skies and as far as we can see. What we call “order” or “pattern” in the universe seems to operate on the principle of “the hierarchy of Power”. Willingly or otherwise, everything and entity functions under or above another, which seems to be determined by the power factor. Power results from energy which permeates the universe. Every entity has a measure of energy which gives it its place in the hierarchy. Energy exists in diverse forms from light to mass to intelligence.
In the inorganic phase of existence, larger units of energy dominate through mass/movement combination. Smaller units follow. Adaptability, therefore, is the corresponding property of existence in this relationship. Even after the living phase of existence evolved, supremacy of the powerful and adaptability of the weak remained the pattern of relationship. But life forms developed new expressions of energy and power. Although physical power decided in most of the cases, adaptability emerged as a tool of survival. It can be argued that the planets were a form of adaptability of inorganic matter; that they adapted to the greater power of their stars. But life’s adaptability evolved a different pattern.
While planets could not move to other options, the living organisms developed the efficiency to move to less harsh environments. Their abilities to absorb energy through metabolic processes, to multiply and to evolve toward greater efficiency were new features. These faculties brought them greater freedom to manipulate their relationships. But adaptability to stronger systems and stronger entities remained their decisive mode of survival. Darwin discovered this principle of “fitness” in the survival struggle of the species.
Fitness means ability to meet a requirement. Almost all forms of life adapt to their environment. But pre-intelligent life adapted only through instinct, which is a slow process of learning. The living organism comes in contact with the surrounding reality, responds randomly, makes a mistake, responds again with some hesitation and some improvement but fails again. Its nervous system (or brain in more developed animals) gradually develops a habit pattern, which evolves into instinct and is recorded in genes for transfer to the pedigree.
In contrast to the slow instinct-building and reflex building process, conditions on the planet Earth can change more briskly, making it impossible or very difficult for the less intelligent life forms. Countless factors, ranging from a falling meteor or cosmic rain to surges on the Sun can influence the atmosphere of our planet. Only one of such factors could have eliminated dinosaurs and most of the life on the planet, while evolution of a particular species to a new stage of efficiency took several hundred thousand years. A faster tool of response was required.
Thus evolution produced intelligence. This new tool gave life the ability not only to keep alive and procreate but to defend itself against forces far more powerful than itself. It does so by creating in the brain a correct model of reality in real time. Intelligent life, therefore, exists, lives, grows, survives and creates what did not exist before. But its defining virtue is its faculty to co-exist with all forms of existence, even when it can destroy them. This is the so-far-final meaning of living.
Mind is considered to be among the most complex systems of the known universe. Mind is the defining faculty of human brain; it means the ability to know and understand reality. This process starts with observation which is done through sense stimuli. Mind receives sensory data and defines it. The act of defining means the act of identifying a sensory signal which is an image, a sound, a touch, a taste or smell; or it can be a concept which means a word or symbol. Mind’s ability to define depends on its training and the existing store of data available in the memory. But as mind is the defining property of human brain, urge to know is the defining property of mind. In its desire to know mind asks questions.
Mind’s desire to know existed ever since we evolved as homo sapiens or were created as Adam and Eve if you will. It was this faculty which urged Adam and Eve to discover the taste of the forbidden fruit defying the command of the all-knower. It was this faculty to discover and know that created the relationship through contact and laid the foundation of society. It is this faculty to discover and know which urges us to ask why the All-knowing creator tried to stop me and my partner from knowing. Who had created the urge in me and my partner to know each other and all about each other? Did He wish to retain all knowledge to himself? Or did he wish to spoon feed both of us forever? Would that spoon fed knowledge be our knowledge? Did He produce us as programmed robots? Then was there an equally talented hacker who hijacked the programmed robots? How did that talented hijacker have such talent? Did the creator create him and us with a free will? Why did this villain exercise his free will to defy the Creator instead of obeying him? If I and my partner also had a free will, then why we preferred to follow the villain and not the Creator? Was it because we had a desire to rebel against restrictions? Who created that desire in our souls? Did the Creator know beforehand what we will choose while exercising our free will? What is the relevance of His foreknowledge to our destiny?
The Maulana tells me “These questions are evil; Al-Shaitaan, the hateful Iblees puts these questions in your mind”. But I wish to know who puts these questions in his mind?
These and countless other questions are the products of our faculty to know. The faculty to discover breeds questions. It is the urge to discover and understand. This faculty of our mind that finally created our modern political systems and sciences is the ancient human faculty of understanding. It has always demonstrated itself as the rational approach toward life. Thus it has a history of millions of years and all that we see on the planet Earth and in our individual lives today is the product of this faculty of rationality.
This process of knowing and understanding created earliest human inventions to defend life and to make it more livable. Fire came from heavens only as scorching Sun or as lightening. But observation of the fact that certain things burn and certain stones produce the spark made fire possible. The observation that rounded shapes can roll enabled early man to create the wheel. These were earlier acts of science. Man’s ability to create what did not exist in nature is not a new ability. Nor does modernity strictly belong to a certain century. The humans have always aspired to overcome nature; they have always created the tools to tame hostility around them; they have always created a modern society, the one that brought greater security to life of the individual. But the scope and quality of primitive science or per-Enlightenment modernity look like a child’s painting before Picasso’s brush.
It was so because contact and communication was limited. Mankind was under the faith-based systems. Europe was under Christianity for 15 centuries before Enlightenment. It brought no comfort to its societies, produced no system of thought except Christian dogma and invented nothing. Large parts of the world were under Islam for 12 centuries. It produced nothing for the teeming millions. The only hope of creativity that emerged for Muslim society with Greek thought, starting with thinkers like AlFarabi and ending with Ibn-e-Rushd was crushed by anti-reason movements starting with Imams Hambal and reaching its climax with Ghazali.
Sharing of knowledge was not easy. Forces of production were in their per-conceptual phase. It took Romans centuries to discover how Chinese made silk. Process of creativity and invention was, therefore, frustratingly low. Naturally change from one stage of individual and social life to the next was also lazy and stretched over centuries.
Science and modernity of our times is so fast because it is universal. Its greatest gift for mankind is the Scientific Method of knowing and understanding. Our best achievement is the concept of equality of all humans which is the most developed because it is rational. It does not discriminate between sexes and all identities are equally respectable. It is the natural result of our rationality and science which created the communication revolution. In fact the march of mankind to surer survival has started at a pace that was never imagined. Humans have dreamed for millennia what three centuries of recent history have more than produced. It is in this sense that I say: It is the start of history.
Notes from Rationalist Society of Pakistan event held on 21st February 2013 in Islamabad.