"No ray of sunshine is ever lost, but the green which it awakes into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted to the sower to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith." - Albert Schweitzer
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the limits of rationality. The focus of criticism will be the following presupposition:
The premises of a good argument provides a good reason to accept its conclusion
The majority of rational debate is undertaken with the expectation that participants should advocate a position, rally support and mount defenses. The perennial debate between rationalists (empiricists, intellectualists, objectivists, etc.) and irrationalists (relativists, dogmatists, postmodernists, etc.) is conducted with this shared assumption, each asking the question ‘do good arguments exist?’, and coming away with a different answer. This presupposition forms a framwork in which problems are identified and solutions evaluated, a metacontext in which rational discussion is conducted, and does so with such authority that few ever question it.
There is an argumentative fallacy called petitio principii: the fallacy of assuming in the premises of an argument that which one wishes to justify in the conclusion; a begging of the question. That said, an argument which begs the question is not invalid. In logic an argument is valid when it has no consistent interpretation where the premises are true and the conclusion is false, and so an argument which assumes in the premises that which it is intended to justify in the conclusion must be valid. The fallacy of begging the question does not depend on the logical form of an argument, but on what the argument is expected to achieve. Therefore, if an argument is presented without the expectation that its premises can provide a good reason to accept its conclusion, then there can be no begging of the question.
Here arises the problem. Taken in conjunction with the prohibition against question begging arguments, the presupposition that the premises of a good argument provides a good reason to accept its conclusion implies that there do not exist any good arguments.
If someone places apples into an empty basket then they would not expect to take anything out of the basket except some of the apples they put in. This is not unlike how valid arguments function: the premises are placed in the basket and nothing can be taken out except some of the premises which were put in. What is taken out of the basket often appears different to what was put in, but this superficial change is only a trick of the transformational rules of logic. If an argument is valid then the conclusion will always repeat, either wholly or partially, what is already assumed, either implicitly or explicitly, in the premises. In other words, no valid argument can avoid the charge of petitio principii when it is offered with the expectation that its premises are a good reason to accept the conclusion.
On the question ‘do good argument exist?’ the irrationalists are correct: good arguments cannot exist by definition. However, irrationalists then jump to the conclusion that argument is futile, everything is relative, there is no truth etc. but there is no need to despair for rationality yet. There are other options: if the definition of a 'good argument' prevents its own existence then a more sensible response might be to reconsider that definition. For example, the nonexistence of "good arguments" does not imply that every argument is invalid nor that any argument is false. This problem may render the search for good reasons futile, but the search for truth can go in unimpeded. There is even some good that can come it, perhaps encouraging more humility regarding our ability to recognise the truth if it is discovered.
There may be some resilience to this idea and the question might be asked: if no argument can justify its conclusion then why should someone believe it? The correct answer is simply 'because it may be true'. The decision to accept an argument lies with each individual, as do the consequences of deciding to accept an incorrect argument.
If I were to stub my toe on the doorstep tomorrow then I would not hold the doorstep morally responsible for my pain, and nor would I hold it responsible for my good fortune if in my moment of pain I were to spot $100 which I would otherwise have not noticed. The doorstep is not a decision-making agent, and no punishment nor reward could have any consequence on its future behaviour. The doorstep will not move aside to prevent me stubbing my toe in the future, and nor will it leap into my path to draw my attention toward some item of worth. It seems to me that many people want to be my doorstep. The metaphors of coercion, compulsion, addiction and force seem to infuse ordinary rational discourse, betraying a peculiarly authoritarian attitude to rationality.
Whenever choice is mentioned it is with a ring of resignation, choosing is what is done when there is no decision-procedure, no authority giving orders. When there is no rule to decide for us, rules on which people so often unload their responsibility, reason has failed. The language of debate describes 'forceful points', 'compelling arguments', 'destructive criticism', 'powerful defence' and so on, a good argument should compel, by the force of reason. If the argument can be doubted, dismissed or deflected in some ad hoc manner, then the argument is at fault, it lacks sufficient force. A good argument cannot be denied, but compels all "right-thinking" people to accept it.
I think, however, that it is our choice to be rational, to care about logic, evidence, critical discussion, ethics, and our conduct with other men. It is not something which can be forced on us, but a free choice with all the responsibility that entails.
To insulate theories from criticism and refutation is the easiest thing, done simply by denying the applicability of all standards of criticism, allowing any theory, whether scientific, mathematical, ethical or whatever, to be immunised from refutation. If a theory is to be criticisable, then the responsibility lies with each individual to decide what kind of criticism they will accept. In other words, theories are refutable if people choose to make them refutable i.e. clarify the problem which the theory is an attempt to solve, and then specify what kind of argument or experiment could be deployed as a test. The rationalist ought to be someone who voluntarily enters into this arrangement, eschewing authority outright, with the intention of learning from his errors before acting on them.
A criticism that can be brought against everything ought not to be brought against anything.