Rationalism and Scientific Doubt

Rationalism and scientific doubt

On the matter of everyday values and ethics western society has apparently changed dramatically over the past century or so. Now we live by standards that we tell ourselves are rational and scientific. No longer is it normal to hold that sex outside marriage is wrong. Before modern rationalism we had Christianity of a sort. People were still complaining about the persistence of what they called Victorian values more than a good half century after the death of Queen Victoria. Even if these had softened somewhat, clergymen still thought they could tell us what to think about sexual matters. How much of it was generally believed is open to question. Today’s young people may find it imagine what it used to be like. We have learnt to look back on the quite recent past as time of bigotry. The Christian view of sexual morality was essentially what was taught to children. From today’s viewpoint it may look like superstition.

Nothing was ever as straightforward as it appears to the historical gaze. Mainstream values were more complicated than they superficially appeared. There was always an alternative subversive tradition, as for example in comedy with its culture of innuendo. Growing up was to become initiated, learning how adults think. Also men often thought differently from women. Though some people, like Scots Presbyterians, may have tried to live by the official code, most did not. Some influential figures like Baden Powell did though. Generations of boys were taught that:-

“A scout is clean in thought, word and deed”.

There were many layers. Also there was resistance. As well as his contribution to serious philosophy, which powerfully influenced the scientific rationalism of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell wrote works of popular enlightenment.
His values as expressed in a book like Marriage and Morals published in 1929, were in the context of their time a form of rebellion. This book sparked a storm of protest, particularly in the United States. Now that such ideas make up the established beliefs of society everything is different.

The so called sexual revolution did not turn out quite as anticipated. Arguably something of value has been lost, including the element of defiance in early twentieth century secularism. Some would even say that with the aim of liberation we have set up a new order which in its own way manages to suppress originality and dissent.

We see how the claims of tyranny may be resisted. With the development of defensive arguments rational enlightenment mutates into something quite different from what it was when Russell wrote. This is commonly the case with successful ideologies. Always there is a process of historical change. What was originally felt as liberation becomes itself a new authoritarian order, bringing unforeseen forms of restraint upon the will. The new order is fights back against reservations and criticism. Here the popular rationalism may seek support from a more intellectual movement.

Russell is a link between two levels of rationalism. It was an impulse from Russell that led to logical positivism with its verification principle, dismissing large chunks of human discourse as factually meaningless. Scientific rationalism was a serious effort to put everything on a basis of reason. It had a political aspect. Some effects of the rational scientific attitude may be counterintuitive. Nevertheless its right to dominate is confidently asserted.

Doubt has been at the foundations of much philosophy. It has been held that any assertion may only be admitted as true and meaningful when it passes some given test. Descartes gave doubt a position at the beginning of modern philosophy. He spoke of the possibility of deceiving demon. Overcoming this source of doubt required demonstration of God’s existence as basis for certainty. Such scepticism few modern takers. More contemporary is the doubt of the logical positivists.

On the strict verification principle any assertion is either tautologous, empirically verifiable, or meaningless. Once we have settled the range of legitimate doubt, some questions will still be left undecided until they can be subjected to a repeatable test of statistical verification. Scientific rationalism leaves much open that would normally be thought closed, matters that are normally taken for granted. On such questions there is a scientific suspension of all belief. Even quite ordinary beliefs when they do not fit the test, and cannot appear in statistical surveys, will be refused significance, especially when this is found convenient, politically otherwise.

While claiming to abolish metaphysics scientific rationalism is itself driven by something very like a metaphysic of its own. Rather than asserting new metaphysical dogmas, it denies a tranche of what might pass for normal commonsense. In this respect it can come across as a strange obscuring ideology, rather like a reformist religion. Some would even call it a cult. Nevertheless it offers a programme for what Wittgenstein would have called a possible form of life.

Scientific rationalism may seem negative, producing little on its own but having a strong critical destructive power. Ordinary personal ambition, the desire to climb up the career hierarchy has a strong stake in orthodoxy and convention. So if an idea has attached itself to received orthodoxy it will have a clear advantage. It is fed by a motive of ambition which may be outside the field of discussion. A greater ambition aspires to overthrow this orthodox order. Pure curiosity may work to the same end.

The history shifts between Vienna and Cambridge. Russell’s pupil Wittgenstein was one important conduit. Having inspired logical positivism he repudiated it, and returning to England later spoke up for some of the less respectable ideas thrown up in early twentieth century Vienna. He defended stereotypes, and restored a place for religious modes of thinking.

From a different philosophical tradition some of Nietzsche’s preoccupations harmonise with this. Truths interested Nietzsche that were inaccessible on strictly positivist assumptions. He was impressed by the insights of French writers like La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyere. Theirs was the kind of psychological wisdom that concerned him, something that could be negated or trivialised by scientific rationalism, which would aim to demolish it if it had any reason whatever for doing so.

The paranoid will to power is a starting point different from both Cartesian doubt and the scepticism of the logical positivists. Nietzschean doubt is paranoid doubt. It has a starting point in demoralisation and threat. These doubts are to be dispelled not by trying to establish truth on a basis of certainty but rather by uncovering and demonstrating obscuring lies. The way forward is not a matter of producing empirical evidence but of overcoming the distorting factors and exposing the lies and the motives behind them.

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