Science, Rationality and the Good

Introduction

How rational is morality? Are fact and value separate affairs, with modern natural science final authority for one and personal choice for the other? Or are they inseparable aspects of a single complex world that must be understood as such?

Modern understandings of man, the world, politics and morality tend to separate fact and value, a tendency with enormous consequences for human life. The traditionalist view, represented on the Web by sites such as On to Restoration! and the Conservatism FAQ, is radically different and reflects an understanding of rationality different from the one now dominant. The purpose of this page is to make that difference explicit and so develop the philosophical background of the traditionalist critique of modern society. To that end we have prepared a discussion and links to resources.

The author of this page is Jim Kalb, a writer on political and cultural topics from a somewhat philosophical and generally traditionalist perspective.

The issues presented here can be discussed in our forum. Your participation is welcome. You can also email the author, or add a comment at the foot of this page.

Discussion

Today “science” does not mean any rationally ordered body of knowledge; it means modern natural science. It is fundamental to modern thought that there is a close relation between reason and science so understood. Modern natural science is taken to be the standard to which anything must approximate if it is to be treated as knowledge or even as rational. It is considered our means for learning the facts about the world. All else is opinion that each may take or leave as he chooses.

One consequence is that men now view the good and the beautiful as a matter of feeling rather than reason. Another is that “social science” is taken to be not our actual knowledge of society put in rational order, but rather the outcome of applying the principles used in studying physics and the like to the study of human affairs. The results have been discouraging. Moral and esthetic life seem to have gone wrong in a variety of ways, and social science tells us much less about society than novels or the writings of the classical historians and political philosophers.

The scientific approach purchases its power by restricting its range of applicability, and has failed outside the study of nature. The reason is that modern natural science emphasizes mathematics, formal logic and observations reproducible by any properly trained observer, while our knowledge of society, politics, ethics and esthetics depends heavily on evaluation and judgment. Whether something is good or bad is something that in a sense we perceive; we call those who are good judges of such things “perceptive.” Nonetheless, the perception is less discrete and quantifiable, and more dependent on the personal history, qualities and social setting of the perceiver, than noting a meter reading or identifying the species to which an animal belongs. Judgment and evaluation can therefore not be scientific in the sense of modern natural science.

Since science is notably rational, and evaluative statements are not scientific, many infer that evaluative statements are not rational, but are mere statements of non-rational preference. They belong to the realm of “value,” which is disjoint from that of “fact.” Such a view is perverse; “rationality” is itself an evaluative term, and to say a proposition is rational is to say that it should be believed — an evaluative statement. Someone might respond that a term like “rational” can be used merely descriptively, so that the choice to accept a rational proposition evinces a subjective preference for the principled, coherent and reliable that is in itself no more rational than any other subjective preference. However, we cannot have such a preference unless we can recognize when something is principled, coherent and reliable, and we cannot do that without making evaluations.

It follows that science can not be altogether scientific. A scientist must be able to recognize, for example, when something is an instance of a more general principle or category, and there is something irreducibly particular and even personal in such a recognition. He must be able to judge whether he is calm, collected and attentive enough for an observation to be counted or chain of reasoning trusted. He must be able to choose which explanations are likely enough to be be worth testing and which are too silly to bother with. To judge that he is doing such things adequately, so that what he is doing is science, is to evaluate his behavior.

All knowledge, scientific or otherwise, thus depends on evaluation, on judgments of good and bad. Verification procedures lessen the need for such judgments to some degree: once a theory has been verified personal elements seem to drop out and it may not matter why it originally seemed plausible. Nonetheless, verification cannot cleanse science of all subjective elements because it cannot be fully defined and formalized. It is an essentially social process that like any other involves intangible relationships of trust and mutual understanding. A scientist must, for example, be able to judge from among the reports and theories of others which are reliable and which are not, and to do so involves an understanding of persons and institutions that cannot be formalized. Even understanding the point of what others say requires interpretation and resolution of inevitable ambiguities of expression, and thus subjective judgment.

If evaluation and judgment are just a matter of non-rational preference, then the modern natural science that depends on them can be no better. So then what? To point out the irreducibly informal and value-laden aspects of science may seem an attack on rationality and objective truth, but only if the latter are identified with an idealized scientific rationality. Scientific rationality is real but not self-supporting. It is dependent upon a larger and less clearly defined human rationality that never exists in pure form, separated from the practices and traditions of particular societies. That human rationality is nonetheless genuinely rational. We could hardly have reason to think otherwise, because it is only through it that we can have reason to think anything whatever.

What we need, then, is neither to debunk rationality nor to demand impossible certainty and transparency but to understand better what human reason is, how it works, and what it depends upon, so that we can think, act and live better. We think and come to conclusions through our judgments of good and evil and the traditions implicated in those judgments. It follows that all our thoughts and actions depend on things we cannot fully understand or control but must nonetheless trust and feel ourselves justified in trusting. Those things are necessary to rationality. To try to do without faith that they are founded in the nature of things, and to view our own reason as a self-contained absolute, leads to self-deception and true irrationality, obscurantism and dogmatism.

It is that self-deception that lay behind the political madness of the past century and lies behind the social and moral disorder of the present. Totalitarianism is the attempt to reduce the world without remainder to a system we understand and control fully because we make it ourselves. In its national socialist and communist forms it has been defeated but it remains in the form of liberal universalism. For the sake of a better future it must be given up.

This page is devoted to an exploration of these issues.

Resources

Scientific rationality and reason

Does the attempt to apply science to the whole of reality fail because of intrinsic limitations of science itself?

  • Our review of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control argues that his celebration of hyper-modernity suffers from inner contradictions that reflect the limitations of the way of thinking characteristic of modern natural science and show the need for older and broader approaches.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an attempt to bring some of the most subtle aspects of reality decisively under the sway of modern natural science:
  • David Chalmers’s “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” is a discussion of current academic views on a related issue, the nature of consciousness. While he doesn’t raise the issue, it seems that if reductionist views fail then scientific facts — those fixed by publicly repeatable observations and measurements — do not include the whole of knowable reality.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Science article on the “Laws of Nature” raises a more subtle point regarding the laws modern natural science proposes, whether they are descriptions of observed regularities and nothing more, or approximations of laws of nature that hold by virtue of natural necessity and so are not reducible to observation.

  • Darwinian evolution and its generalization to a theory explaining not only life but the universe at large is another attempt to establish the universal sway of modern natural science.

  • In Ideas Have Consequences Richard Weaver discusses the nominalism characteristic of modern natural science and its relevance to general philosophical, religious, ethical and political concerns.

  • “Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth,” by Jonathan Chaves, deals with the fundamental problem of subjectivism in modern (post-Ockham) thought. Does our knowledge begin with things or our representations of things? If the former, we can attain to knowledge of reality, commonly known as “knowledge.” If the latter, we fall into the Cartesian black hole from which no man emerges.

Scientific and traditionalist rationality in society

If science rests on less formal ways of knowing and on community practices, and those things develop and are refined through the development of tradition, then all rationality has a necessary traditionalist component. The need for that component is especially vivid in connection with social questions.

Science and religion

Does the success of modern natural science make religious explanations outmoded? Does it limit religion to some realm of non-factual meanings? If religion has cognitive content then the limitations of science come out most vividly in its dealings with it. Here are some attempts to deal with the issues:

Christians in science

Views of theologians and religious communities

Skeptical views

  • Secular Web Library of materials critical of religious claims.
  • Science and Religion on About.com. An atheist’s collection of materials critical of religious arguments and claims relating to science.

Web directories and other resources

Other resources on science and culture

In recent years there has been great interest in the relationship among science, society and culture. Much written on those topics has had little value, but the issues are important.