Monday, December 28, 2009

Are all valid ideas derived from Rationalism? A palette of reason.

source: Zoonomian highlights comments: Tim Jones draws insights from a talk by Stephen Fry and expands on the meaning of Rationalism and its many synonyms. Read full article. Just as some concepts are grounded in the 'Scientific Method' so can other (equally valid?) ideas be derive from Rationalism and Empiricism.
Yet at an emotional level, attacks on rationality can grate, especially with scientists and technologists.  I bristled when Fry likened over-zealous support for rationalism to belief in religion.  Was this the same Stephen Fry whose debate trounced the Catholic Church, and who regularly shares platforms with the likes of Richard Dawkins? But rather than rejecting rationalism, I believe he made a valid point: that it is too easy to assume a rationalist approach in all situations – however complex – when sometimes the abstract premises from which we deduce knowledge for decision making are just not up to it.

A palette of reason
Moving on, but with an eye to Fry’s sentiments, there seem to be an awful lot of reasonable sounding words out there: like ‘rational’, ‘empirical’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘logical’; and indeed –  ’reasonable’.  Whether in the context of drugs policy, climate change, faith schools, or whatever;  these words sit like so many pigments on a palette of reason, wielded by individuals and governments alike, to convince us – and themselves – that a particular course of action carries some special sanction.  But why do the same words frequently lead to misunderstandings and angst?

It seems to be down to definition and interpretation.  Boiling our list down to rationalism and empiricism (subsuming ‘evidence-based’ into empiricism and  logic into rationalism) the dictionary definitions and learned philosophical commentaries leave plenty of scope for confusion.
The  Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines rationalism as:
the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response’and empiricism as

the theory that all knowledge is derived from experience and observation
which seems pretty clear. But  the Oxford Pocket English Dictionary muddies the rational water by including philosophical and theological interpretations that flex the definition of rationalism to a form no scientist could agree with.  It seems scientific rationalism is just one brand.  I’ve really no idea what to make of the theological interpretation given as:
the practice of treating reason as the ultimate authority in religion’.
but it put me in mind of this quote from the current Pope, relayed in this interview by the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, and equally confusing to my concept of rationality:
religion needs science to keep itself away from superstition


 And when A.N.Wilson goes on to invoke the R-word:
‘Those who dare question scientists are demonised for their irrationality. Global warming may or may not be a certainty, but anyone who queries it has his sanity questioned. Cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression -…’
Are scientists certain about climate science? I don't think so. So anyone who questions it should surely not be demonised! For example IPCC Synthesis report pg 17 states "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations." On pg 5 the IPCC define 'very likely' and other terms viz. 
Where uncertainty in specific outcomes is assessed using expert judgment and statistical analysis of a body of evidence (e.g. observations or model results), then the following likelihood ranges are used to express the assessed probability of occurrence: virtually certain >99%; extremely likely >95%; very likely >90%; likely >66%; more likely than not > 50%; about as likely as not 33% to 66%; unlikely <33%; very unlikely <10%; extremely unlikely <5%; exceptionally unlikely <1%.
he’s right;  anyone who doesn’t comply with the scientific definition of rationality is demonised.  Personally I’d like the scientific definition to be universally accepted, but while there are powerful constituencies who benefit from and delight in wooliness defended as realism or flexibility  (politicians, theologians, dictionary compilers), I can’t see it happening.

 Likewise, the only kind of rationality under which a discussion on the virtues of faith schools makes sense is one that allows ethical and metaphysical propositions (e.g. is there a god).  Moreover, we’re left with politicians working up a drugs policy using an ethics-based ‘political rationality’, and an education policy that recognises and values a ‘religious rationality’.
Unfortunately, the transparency being called for concerning when and under what circumstances this flexing of scientific rationalism happens, also threatens politicians with the anathema of exposing less visible agendas traditionally played close to the chest.

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