My preferred label for my worldview is scientific rationalism. It represents the claim that reason and empirical observation are separately necessary and jointly sufficient to produce whatever useful knowledge we may have about ourselves and world we inhabit. It is also the claim, for me, that they are necessary and sufficient constraints on our efforts to answer ethical and political questions.
This worldview is a melding of empiricism and rationalism, regarding both as essential and denying priority to either. It rejects pure rationalism on grounds that we can learn nothing by reason alone. It rejects pure empiricism on grounds that observation unaided by reason is uninformative. It denies priority to either because it recognizes that neither can be justified by appealing to the other. As Hume might have put it, reason tells us how to think while observation tells us what we have to think about.
The history of philosophy is sometimes portrayed as a protracted conflict between rationalists and empiricists. It is unlikely that any important philosopher ever was purely one or the other, at least in actual practice, though some are habitually assigned to one camp or the other. Historically, Plato perhaps came closest to advocating a pure rationalism. Aristotle, though credited with the first formulation of the rules of logic, is customarily designated the originator of empiricism. Most of the work in philosophy since their time has been construed as favoring one or the other, with occasional attempts, such as Kant’s, at reconciliation.
Scientific rationalism says no reconciliation is necessary. It says that the proper exercise of one cannot be in conflict with the proper exercise of the other. What is contrary to reason cannot be true, and what is contrary to established science should not be accepted as true.
That leaves room, according to some, for a large body of speculation that, we are assured by its advocates, does not contradict established science but rather only a dogmatic adherence to a kind of scientific orthodoxy. Scientific rationalism does tend to support the orthodoxy, but it denies doing so dogmatically. The scientific enterprise is defined by its history, and it has historically put the burden of proof on those who challenge whatever is the prevailing orthodoxy. That challenge has been met, successfully, often enough to refute those who claim that scientific orthodoxy never permits itself to be overturned.
We then come to certain ideas, variously called transcendental, metaphysical, or faith-based, for which their advocates admit to having no observational basis. These are ideas are said to be outside the purview of science, and we are asked not to hold that against them. We are told that their insusceptibility to empirical confirmation is not sufficient reason to doubt them. Scientific rationalism, in contrast, claims that doubt requires no justification, that belief is what needs justification.
But must that justification be scientific? Scientific rationalists generally think so, but as one of them, I intend no dogmatism on this point. I offer scientific rationalism not as a set of epistemological doctrines that must be accepted as the One True Philosophy, but rather as what Max Weber called an ideal type, with which probably no one is or could be in complete conformity, and by “ideal,” I intend no connotation of “perfect.” The perfect scientific rationalist, if such a person could exist, would not be a perfect thinker.
What I would say, if I reject some proposition on grounds that it is scientifically indefensible, is that I am not making a mistake even if the proposition happens to be true. I will concede that those who believe the proposition could be right for all I know, and that whatever means they use to defend their belief could possibly provide them all the justification they need. But having conceded that, I will insist that I need no further justification for rejecting that belief beyond its insusceptibility to scientific inquiry.
The roots of scientific rationalism, or at least its modern form, are in the European Enlightenment, a perhaps unfortunate and certainly oversimplified label for the historical period so designated. According to Wikipedia, the thinkers associated with the Enlightenment sought “to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method.” As such, the moment was characterized more by its methodology than its conclusions, so that while some Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume were noted for their religious skepticism, others such as Berkeley and Kant championed the use of reason to defend religious belief. The Enlightenment was not about the discovery of major truths previously obscured by ancient superstitions, religious bigotry, or near-universal ignorance. It was rather about social evolution, something that has been happening to humans for as long as they have existed. And like biological evolution, social evolution is not continuous, not always gradual, and not always in a direction that would be preferred by a disinterested omniscient observer.
I hope in future essays to present my take on how this evolution happened, why the Enlightenment failed to deliver on the promises made by some of those who lived through it, and why that failure does not prove the inadequacy of scientific rationalism to ameliorate the social ills that concern many of us and ought to concern all of us.
This page last updated on March 28, 2017.