What am I? What are you?

I am a rationalist in that I consider reason and evidence to be the only means by which objective truth can be determined. Even when authority, intuition, tradition, or supposed mystical insight, makes a claim to truth, the soundness of that claim must be rationally validated before it can be accepted by an impartial examiner. If widespread acceptance occurs without such validation, the result is often oppression. While people rarely feel the need to coerce others into believing that which they can prove, they commonly consider it necessary to coerce others into believing that which they can’t prove. 

Some people view rationalists as being devoid of emotion, but I, for one, am intensely emotional. While I dont believe that rationality can supplant emotion, I do believe that a reliance upon rationality can make one’s emotional outlook more positive. Some claim that rationalism doesn’t go deeply enough to enable a person to understand himself or to change things about himself that he doesn’t like, but my experience—and the experience of psychologists—is just the opposite. While I believe it would be harmful to stifle my emotions, I haven’t found that purposefully going “deeper” into them has provided me with insights that enabled me to handle them better. If anything, feeling the same painful emotions over and over causes destructive thoughts and behaviors to become ingrained. 

Years ago, I went to a psychologist because I was crippled by stage fright. I expected her to delve into my past, uncover my early experiences with stage fright, and thereby furnish me with insights that would allow me to overcome it. Instead, she showed no interest in my past, but told me to join Toastmasters and to take every other opportunity to expose myself to my fear. I had thought that, with all her training (and for what she charged), she would know an easy way to overcome my problem, but I did as she suggested and it worked. The same is true with depression. It doesn’t matter where the self-talk that characterizes depression came from, the only way to overcome it (aside from medication) is to replace it with different self-talk. This isn’t a glamorous process characterized by tears, insights, and breakthroughs, but hard work that requires perseverance.

Emotion, art, literature, ritual, and other feelings-oriented pursuits are important, but none are the equal of rationality when it comes to gaining knowledge or deciding issues. I would even argue that nearly all of the world’s problems are caused by too little rationality. Take war, for instance. Everyone says they’re against it, yet millions of people are supporting one or more wars at any given moment. Why? Because our species’ rational side is insufficiently evolved, which means that we are still enamored of the same tribalism and violence that we took with us when we left the trees. Otherwise, we could end war, today.

Some people argue that rationalism is another form of faith, saying that just as some people have faith in God, rationalists have faith in science. This is true to some extent, but it’s also true that not all faith is well-founded. For instance, if I said that my faith was in Zeus, people would challenge me to prove that my faith was sound, yet those who put their faith in modern gods can no more validate their faith than I could validate faith in Zeus. The power of science can be validated. While it’s a leap to say that the same approach that has worked so well for us up until now might someday allow us uncover the secrets of the entire universe, such a belief is based upon the fact that everything we have discovered thus far suggests that the furtherest reaches of the universe operate on the same principals as our little corner. Whether our species can survive long enough, or accumulate enough data, to understand the universe is another matter, yet belief in our theoretical ability to do so hardly seems incredible given that we have come so far in the 350 years since the start of the Enlightenment, with knowledge now doubling every seven years.

The portrait is of Benedict Spinoza (1632-77), a Dutch Jew who was expelled from his synagogue because of his rationalistic beliefs. The following is but a sample of the curses in his order of expulsion: “Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in… We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof…or read anything composed or written by him.” 

Spinoza was known for his centeredness, integrity, courtesy, and scorn for money and fame, but his vague, impersonal, and intellectualized view of God made him an atheist in the eyes of the public, if not in the eyes of atheists. Philosophy was his passion, and he is widely revered today because of the joy and fullness with which he devoted himself to its pursuit.