limits of rationalization

The problem of what we can think and how we systematize what we think, the boundaries between what we teach and what we know always emerge when I run into people, (students, professors), who think that they have all the categories in place and a place for each bit of knowledge that can be acquired. This is a form of foundationalism that immediately calls up the process of our discoveries in the twentieth century, that an exact interpretation of our world, the proofs we might offer, and the certainties we might give as answers to the issue of what we can know must be left to the fuzzy borderlands that stretch beyond our technologies.

By technologies I mean not only the physical reach of our civilizations, but the practices of the self that enable us to live within that reach. Not only is our physical technology extremely dangerous to those who will not control their interface with it, but the technology itself, a prodigious intelligent machine thinks nothing of the beings that inhabit it, and can’t will their safety. Its automatic responses reduce the freedom to move, act and choose a future course of events, limit and restrict what can be known.

In a similar fashion, the rational technology of our civilization, reduced to axioms and formulas, both create a comforting residence for the unimaginative servants of that technology, and a dangerous limitation on the expansion of our knowledge. Definitions and categories, themselves useful in turning words and ideas into technologies, fail to extend themselves to the possibilities that lie beyond that technology. Just as a label restricts the movement of an individual by subjecting that individual to a set of written, spoken, and unspoken rules, so categories and definitions set boundaries on what is knowable, and limitations on the discovery of truths. Categories and definitions, not true of themselves, are but artifacts of our civilization or some previous one, whose use is to create some technology that gives us ability to manipulate our world. Reliance on them is particularly helpful for managing ordinary issues, but of no help for discovering how to manage new knowledge. Attempting to do so would be something like reverting to Newtonian mechanics for solving some riddles that arise in Einstein’s theories, or, as Galileo famously criticized the proponents of Aristotle for appealing to authority when faced with the results of his empirical examination of the heavens.

Don’t get me wrong, when our theorizing reaches a certain level of competence, we find it useful to turn it into technology. But we have to recognize the limitations of that technology in order to look beyond it. We must be cautious not to try to answer questions that are no longer being asked. Why should we still ask how the laws of physics changed when the universal flood took place according to the biblical record? Well, we shouldn’t. Not only do we know that there wasn’t a universal flood, but that the timeframe for local Mesopotamian floods is perfectly coherent with the biblical record. Add that to the forms oral history took, the local nature of their cosmos, and the explanation for the record as it stands in the Bible do not require a transformation of physics into something unrecognizable. Add to that the fine-tuning argument (anthropic principle as yet unresolved) and you retain a universe with constant physical laws. The worried believers will then place this discussion outside of their reality and dismiss it. But have I valued the text less than they by understanding the context under which it was written? Not really. I have valued it more for what it is instead of what I wish it to be on the basis of a faulty hermeneutic. I have retained the truths inherent in the Bible while they have manipulated the text to create an alternate universe.

What I am asking the reader to do is to consider the use of our rational technologies, philosophies, theologies, psychologies, scientific theories, et al with their axioms and rules of inference, with their ability to map out the rational landscape. We must recognize the limitations of such approaches to philosophical knowledge. They have great powers but by their nature restrict. They forbid asking questions of a certain kind, because those questions are double edged. They not only speculate, but worry the certainties and coherence of the systems they are part of.

One standard presupposition in my repertoire is that reality is richer than any of our theories can draw out. In all of history, the wonder of new discoveries and the profligate productivity emerging from them has never disappointed this presupposition. The greatest value of this metarule is that it doesn’t create rules, but incites us to permit curiosity and explore the wonder that the natural world and our minds provide.

So as much as I explore the reaches of our ancient and current theorizing, I never let it rule possible theorizing. I remain open to the wonder that emerges naturally without saying beforehand where it will lead. This is risky behavior, because it could lead me to rebuild my core beliefs. But the risk I turn away from is that of being turned to stone, trapped in a system from which I may not be able to escape. What poverty.

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