Limits of Rationality


A central concern of education today has to do with the promotion of rationality. What is meant by “rationality” is not always clear, but there seem to be two essential elements: the providing of good and relevant reasons with respect to one’s beliefs or one’s behavior; and the exercising of a critical spirit. The latter is seen as a complement to reason, because it forces one to critically examine one’s beliefs in order to find out whether they can be supported by good reasons.

Thus, we find that a favorite teaching method of university professors, especially philosophy instructors, is to challenge the beliefs held by students. Sometimes this is taken to the extreme and an attempt is made to destroy the entire belief system held by a student. This will supposedly enable the student to start from scratch in building a new and more acceptable belief system, where each belief is accepted only after it has been shown that it can be rationally defended.

This emphasis on rationality and critical thought has a long history. Plato suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living. An important seventeenth century French philosopher, René Descartes perfected the method of critical or systematic doubt as a method of arriving at certainty and truth. More recently, Bertrand Russell optimistically argued that “rational doubt alone, if it could be generated, would suffice to introduce the millenium.”

There is certainly something to be said in favor of critically examining our beliefs and trying to support all the beliefs that we hold with good reasons. Human nature is such that we tend to believe unquestioningly, to trust authority blindly, and to become enmeshed in tradition without reason. These tendencies can be dangerous in that they can lead us to believe that which is false. As Christians we value truth, and a critical spirit is often an important tool to eliminate deeply entrenched error and falsehood. Thus there is a place for cultivating a critical spirit. The Bible also clearly describes persons as thinking beings, who can and should support their beliefs with good reasons.

But, concern for rationality and a critical spirit can be taken to extremes. The problem with many thinkers and educators is that they fail to do justice to the limits of rationality and criticism.

The basic difficulty with the demand for adequate reasons for all of our beliefs is that it is impossible to satisfy. Suppose I have a belief and a skeptic challenges me to provide a reason for it. I do so, but the skeptic now asks me to provide justification for this reason. The skeptic is still not satisfied and so the process goes on  – ad infinitum or ad nauseam. It is simply impossible for a finite intellect to provide an infinite heirarchy of reasons for beliefs held. We must start somewhere, with beliefs that do not themselves need support. In other words, all knowledge ultimately rests on faith.

A similar problem exists with the concern for cultivating a critical spirit. All thinking, including critical doubt, can only proceed if there are certain assumptions or presuppositions which are themselves not subjected to criticism. Of course one can critically examine these assumptions at a later time, but here again, we can do so only by accepting other assumptions which for the time being remain unquestioned. It is simply impossible to question everything at once. Again, we can only proceed in our thinking by first accepting certain beliefs on faith.

The Christian does not deny the importance of rationality and criticism. He or she only insists that these are put into proper perspective. Rationality and the critical spirit are limited and need to be supplemented by other ways of knowing which ultimately rest on faith. For the Christian, the basic presupposition and only adequate starting point for all knowing is faith in God.

French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way: “One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. Some men run counter to these three principles, either affirming that everything can be proved, because they know nothing about proof, or doubting everything, because they do not know when to submit, or always submitting, because they do not know when judgment is called for.”

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, August 28, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)


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