Tuesday, November 25, 2008

what is "rational"?

Have I written a post by this name before? I don't know, but it's something I've been thinking about for a long time now. What counts as rational and how do we know it?

Generally what counts as rational is something that is objective, meaning it can be studied from a distance, without the use of emotions, and it can be explained using the language of the natural world. In scientific studies, a study is rational and objective if it is studied by someone not involved in the situation, can be replicated, and does not make interpretive claims. It just studies the way things are. When it moves into interpretation this can bed one rationally but also involves a fair amount of guessing and putting pieces together, and may require further research in order to fill in these gaps.

This is good in that it helps us separate out one piece from another, to study each piece well, and to not be confused by our own part in the process (supposedly).

Unfortunately, this rules out a lot of experiences that are not able to be proven as "rational." One cannot tell another person their experience did not occur, but one can question the reasons for it, or the sanity of the person who experienced it, or whether that person is interpreting the situation to fit their own beliefs rather than through sound research.

But what if there are things that can't be studied in a laboratory? Things happen to us every day that don't happen in a lab. No one will tell us that just because it wasn't studied it didn't happen. The problem is that those things which happen in real life might not happen if one was in a laboratory at that moment. And things happen that may not happen again even if one was in a lab. Surprising although not impossible things happen all the time, like someone shooting a basketball backwards over their head from 3/4 court and it goes in, when they may try this again and again and it would never happen to them.

And then there are religious and emotional experiences. One can study in a lab where these experiences occur within the brain, but one cannot study from whence they come, if they are "valid," or when they come. One can't really study what kind of effect they have on the person. These experiences are not able to be replicated. One can't say, "OK, now I'm going to have a religious experience," and expect the Spirit to show up in exactly the same way as last time one tried the test.

So there's no way to prove whether emotional or spiritual experiences are "rational." They are not objective, in that they happen to each of us differently, at different times and for different reasons. We cannot will them to happen, or manipulate them. We can manipulate ourselves to have an emotional response, but not the same one we had before. One can become centered and that can be studied, but one can't know for sure that God's going to show up in a powerful way we can understand while one's brain is being scanned, any more than one can tell if God will show up on a Sunday morning or a Tuesday night or when one is sleeping or when one is driving or when one is picking one's nose.

In a sense, these experiences are not "rational" because of the definition of rational that has been agreed upon--but the problem is whether or not these are valid and important forms of knowledge. If we only accept "rational" knowledge as valid, experience of other forms doesn't count. It can't be studied, manipulated or replicated, and I think this is what scares us about it.

Also, we have to be careful when talking about "rational" knowledge that we don't forget that no matter how much people want their scientific observations to be "objective," for their own views and experiences to play no part in the study, this just can't be so. Viewing and recording scientific studies is another form of "experience," one that requires selection of data to notice and record, and one that requires interpretation as one sets up the experiment and "interprets" the data. So even objective scientific studies can't really be termed "rational." This is shown to be the case in studies where people look at light to see if it's a wave or a particle, and they see whichever one they expected it to be.

But if nothing is rational, how do we know anything? If everything is valid knowledge, why is it necessary to discern truth? Is there something there, something that we're seeking when we try to do rational, objective studies? Is there something there, something that we encounter through our emotions, dreams and spiritual experiences? How do we find that "something" if not through objective studies? How do we know it's real if we find it?

2 comments:

Tom said...
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Barry Clemson said...

Logic (i.e., rationality) necessarily operates within some predefined framework (e..g, algebra or Newtonian physics). The choice of framework is, at best, only partially rational and partially emotional / aesthetic /etc. In some cases we choose the framework because the results are more appealing. For instance, i choose the framework "cooperative' over the framework "competitive" because I like the results better, not because I can rationally demonstrate that my choice is more true in the real world.

This question of objectivity and rationality has been extensively debated, of course, and the cyberneticians, particularly Heinz von Foerster in the Cybernetics of Cybernetics, have dealt with the question of the observer's impact on the system being studied. Turns out that even in physics the impact of the observer is huge and that what we used to strive for as objectivity in science is mostly a mirage. This is not to say that science does not move toward better and better explanations of how the world works. it just acknowledges that we as the observer are in the middle of everything.