A Note on Rationalism
Rationalism is the belief that everything in this universe can be explained in terms of reasoned thought, or of empirical observation or of logical argument. But there, tucked away at the beginning of the statement, is that curious word ‘belief’. Rationalism can fall into the same traps that we find with spiritualism or theism, that of a blind adherence to a formula of response. Both sides are equally loath to say, ‘I do not know,’ and will both require the listener to subscribe to their viewpoint, even in the absence of proof. For the theist, lack of proof is not an obstacle: “Faith is the constant reassurance in things not seen, the evidence of that which is hoped for.” For the rationalist, if proof is not there, then either it is wrong, or the proof is somewhere: we just have not found it yet. Faith is still required.
Rationalists must not be afraid of the unknown, and this is where they often let themselves down. When presented with the pure fact that a man on six occasions had dreams about the death of six different friends, on all occasions he woke up and wrote about it in his diary, and on all occasions within 48 hours that friend was dead, the rationalist is loath to say ‘I do not know how that happened.’ Rationalism does not mean that you know the answers: it merely means that you know what the answer is not – it is not the spooky and the supernatural. We tend to forget that the phrase “We do not know’ can be appended with the word ‘yet’. After all, modern, contraspiritual and empirical science is only around 500 years old. It will take a lot of time yet to explain away all that theism was able to write off in a single sweeping comment, ‘God did it.’ Theism has never had to explain how things happen when all that they do is attribute the event to an author, so science and rationality have twice as much work to do.
In Lyall Watson’s famous book, Supernature, the author attempted, successfully for the most part, to convince us that in this universe everything by definition is natural – it must be. It is just that a lot of it we do not understand… yet. He attempted to demystify the mysterious. We might examine an issue like astrology, and the rationalist goes into paroxysms of hysteria as they unilaterally try to sweep this aside as so much hocus-pocus. What Watson did is to remind us that the influence of the moon is very great. The tides gives us twice-daily reminders of its influence. Indeed, scientists have even noted the rise and fall of a ‘tide’ in a cup of tea. Certainly every woman on earth may be aware of the way that her body responds to the monthly cycle of the moon. The sun itself has similar influences, though they manifest themselves differently. Can something as small and seemingly insignificant as Mars or Jupiter have such an influence? If we spin a metal sphere within a circular magnet, in time that sphere will pick up a magnetic pattern. If the magnet has a flaw in it (at, say, a particular ‘latitude’), that flaw will be transferred onto the sphere. Can a planet as far away and as ‘weak’ as Mars or Jupiter have an influence if it has been going around and around us, year after year, for a hundred million years? It is possible for a rationalist to remain rational, while still at the same time recognising, ‘There is an element of logic and argument to the primitive theory of astrology.’ But can astrology say, ‘On Thursday afternoon, you will meet a dark-haired man from Europe, whose lucky number is eleven’? No, that is where it become irrational! There is nothing to support that extreme.
And what of ghosts and spirits? Physics tells us that matter and energy can not be destroyed: they merely get transmuted into other forms of matter and energy. So what happens after our death to the energy which keeps us alive and indeed which identifies our character? Certain amount of evidence is accumulating that something ‘spiritual’ exists out there. (And we must remember that evidence is not proof: proof is the accumulation of a level of evidence which aids us in reduplicating phenomena to a scientific certainty.) But of this ‘evidence’ all of it finds these ‘spirits’ as amorphous, non-humanised forms, as balls or vague masses of energy, if they are visible at all. We ask, ‘How can a spirit speak, when speech requires air, a diaphragm, a throat, vocal chords, a mouth, teeth, tongue and lips?’ And a spirit has none of these. Again, there is an element of logic and argument to the primitive theory of spirits. But why (and indeed how) does a spirit appear in a specific form? Why are they always dressed? Why is this dress always in the style of the times in which we expected that they lived? Why do they ‘speak’ in our language? Why do they appear as a woman when we assume that they are a woman, yet suddenly change to a man when we get informed that a brutal death on the premises was that of a man? A spirit may exist, but how we experience it is clearly defined by our preconceptions.
So the task of the rationalist is not to dismiss anything which sounds a bit ‘spooky’, but to accept whatever parts are intelligible as being potentially credible, while ascribing the unintelligible and the irrational to the scrap-heap of human stupidity. The battle between the theistic or spiritualist and the rationalist need not be an all-or-nothing battle.
We are all after an answer, but it is the question which determines the level of comfort we have with the world and the universe in which we live. The spiritualist is after answers to the questions about the ‘great beyond’ because they do not feel comfortable living in the here and now. They feel that everything must be for a purpose, or have an outcome beyond our daily lives. What the rationalist offers us is the ability to represent where we are as valuable in its own right. An adopted child looks for its birth parents because it is not satisfied with who it is, where it is: it looks for explanations beyond the cause and effect of the environment which it has had. The spiritualist is the adopted child of philosophy. The traveller on their great Overseas Experience goes off ‘to look for themselves’. But how does anyone ever find themselves in a place that they have never been? The spiritualist is a traveller on a journey to find what is always right in front of their noses. The offering of rationalism is that these ‘inadequacies’ are dealt with in the here and now, by seeing a universe in which we are in no special relationship with the unknowns. There is no guiding light greater than the light which we shine ourselves. But the rationalist must still learn to accept the unknowns and not present their response to them as dismissals, but as a comfortable universe to be revealed in the due course of time.