A debate on rationalism

One site (in French) was developed to criticize the skeptic movement identified with rationalism itself (since skeptics are the loudest people claiming themselves rationalists). I had an email discussion with the author for trying to explain how to avoid this confusion. Here is a translation. (My messages are in black, his are in blue.)

... I wondered what you meant by "Considering rationalism as an equally reprehensible dogma ..." and looked at your explanation [= defining "rationalism" as the belief in a fixed and universal criteria of scientificity, may it be inductivism or falsificationism, and always dogmatically classifying any phenomenon as explainable in materialistic ways...]. But this use of the word "rationalism" does not suit me. I think that although it can be seen as mainly a problem of terminology, this problem is deeply linked to core issues, that might be seen as details but they are important too. It is very important to put everything clear and position oneself correctly, first to better approach the truth, then to avoid being wrongly attacked. For if you want to oppose people who are in error, it is essential not to be misled by their mistakes in a way that would play their game, even if meanwhile you are less mistaken than them.

First, for the vocabulary problem: how to make sense of the word "rationalism" and on what basis to motivate this choice of definition? Your use seems based on sociological considerations, namely: to accept that the meaning of a word is defined by the majority or dominant use of the word in today's world (what is done in its name, the practices of those who use it).
Problem: is the current use of the word authentic or abusive? Does the usual practice of the word really fit with its original meaning, the one meant, claimed ?
Is there another interesting possibility or even effective practice already implemented, more consistent with what the word was supposed to mean, than the way this word is often officially used ?

Consider the battle over the use of the title of "blog zététique" that took place(*) I don't want to give away the label "rationalist" to the official skeptical movement, for the following reasons: Claiming oneself rationalist, is definitely not the same as being rational. There is a huge reality of rational practice, which is science, and whose actual process is usually very different, even opposite, from what I read from you. But the best description of science is the developed practice of reason in the form of scientific progress. So why not define "rationalism" as the promotion and / or participation in the progress of science and knowledge, as already done and can go further? Would not this be a quite different and more authentic meaning of this word, than the usual practice of so-called "rationalist" activist movements ? Furthermore, I explained in my site how important aspects of the zetetic movement are similar to postmodernism, thus opposite to the normal scientific rationality.

Otherwise, sorry if it sounds personal, but I can only classify my worldview as rationalist, even if I do not put this name forward. But it is quite different from the skeptics view, so I must disagree with the skeptics'picture of rationalism, that I see as caricatural.
[Also, the reference to philosophers (Popper as the "rationalist" vs. Feyerabend as the "irrationalist") is irrelevant, as philosophers are quite disconnected from the true understanding of rationality.]

(*) the word "zetetic" was first introduced by Marcelo Truzzi, founder of CSICOP which was initially a more open-minded movement; but then this movement and thus the use of the word "zetetic" deviated from Truzzi's original intents towards more sectarian attitudes and materialistic dogmas, forcing Truzzi to leave the movement and abandon the word "Zetetic" to the copyright of SCICOP's new pseudo-scientific practices and interpretation. The French skeptic movement followed this trend calling themselves "zététique", and did not tolerate the use this word according to Truzzi's original sense by the group criticizing them. I wrote a quick review of the situation of the French skeptic movement here
Thank you for your letter, and references to your site I found very interesting.

First I must tell you that you're the first one I see condemning the "zetetic" approach while proclaiming rationalism (or so I understand your position) . For me rationalism indeed corresponds to extremism of the "zetetic" method that you condemn in the "skeptics" (what a mixture of words, moreover misused in my opinion). For you it just seems to be a good way to do science, that French "zetetician" are not doing. In a word, I think we tend to agree, and condemn the same things, but not with the same words.

Indeed, I think, perhaps like you, that most of the French "zeteticians" (except a few...) absolutely do not practice as they claim "the art of doubt" because their own method (what I call rationalism and you disagree) does not let them doubt: by claiming to use universal arguments/protocols (whatever they are, falsificationism, induction, the famous and so subjective "Ockham's razor "...) able to ruthlessly sort, precisely with no doubt, theories, explanations between "good" and "bad" and between "scientific" and "unscientific". It is often said that there is "a" scientific method (without ever specifying it, without ever really describing it), but I notice that there are several. They have been several over time, there will be others, because science is built, improved, refined, corrects itself, is constantly evolving. And there are also several at a given moment, because there is not really one better than another. Some are more or less suited to the study / discovery of a particular phenomenon. It's as you know what Feyerabend defended, and it's hard not to join this quite... realistic vision, arguing that we are far from the myth of science with its universally objective method as French "zeteticians" defend.

(I will use here one last time the term in quotation marks, recalling that zetetic (in the field of the paranormal) is the creation of Marcello Truzzi, a true American skeptic, in the right sense of the term, who really knew to doubt and abstain from deciding when missing an argument one way or another. French Zeteticians considerably usurp the term popularized by Truzzi (in his Zetetician Scholar) in the United States, and the American Rationalist (CSI, formerly CSICOP for example) rather describe themselves as "skeptics" (but do not doubt any further in their majority). Zetetics "taught in ancient times" was a philosophical school which advocated the permanent doubt, which French zeteticians are far from.

I even think that in your mention of a contradiction [skeptics'claim for democracy in scientific judgement, in contradiction with their absolute undebatable certainty and value judgement against the paranormal], you miss another contradiction: claiming that the study of the paranormal would aim to keep crowds in ignorance and thus under control. Obviously, on the contrary, the study of something aims to understand it, and by disseminating this knowledge (whether or not a new phenomenon), to free these crowds from mere beliefs, prejudices, etc.. They simply do not understand "study" when they read it, but "proselytizing" or "propaganda" for a given belief, without valid scientific vehicle.

To come back to the term "rationalism" that is the subject of your post, I did not invent the interpretation. It is a term that has an adopted meaning since some time now, and I do not see myself deciding to invent another sense, as French zeteticians corrupt today those of "zetetic" or even "skeptic" (I claim myself skeptical in Truzzi's sense and feel far from their thoughts). I recommend for example, if you have not already done so, to read the excellent book by Alan F. Extension Chalmers: What is this Thing Called Science? (Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend), Discovery, 1976. The idea is indeed that of the existence of universal / timeless criteria for judging theories. One can understand this ideal, or even say that the French zetetician misapply it and that you (or others) could do it better but you understood, for me it is not a matter of practice or modalities, but a principle in which I do not believe. Again Feyerabend provides many examples in Against Method. Indeed as you say the idea of applying "reason" is not the prerogative of rationalism / scientism, but of any scientific method and, if I may speak bluntly, for me just a mat (cream pie) debate on the application of good scientific method.

I'll stop there (...) But I think for the moment that what makes you claim "rationalist" must typically depend on your position relative to the existence of test(s) of universal judgement of a theory. It may be that you are (and apply it better than French zeteticians for example) or otherwise you are simply a good "skeptic" in the true sense.(...)

I see the "scientific method" as a style of spirit and research, which must be developed into multiple forms to adapt to multiple situations, and can not be reduced to a specific algorithm.
For me, the notion of "really best method" has no universal meaning, but should not be dismissed either, but must be understood as something vague, depending on the specificity of each studied problem and provisional understanding, and must therefore be reconsidered continuously from one situation to another.

In other words, the recognition of hyper-complexity and multifaceted nature of the world, should not be mistaken for relativism (a bland uniformity of values).
Well, again we are in substantial agreement with different words.

> what makes you claim "rationalist" must typically depend on your position relative to the existence of test(s) of universal judgement of a theory

No. Reason for me is a multifaceted general discipline, but nevertheless differs significantly from a certain practice of non-reason or intellectual laziness, in fact widespread in some areas ("spiritual" teachings in particular).
A bit like the distinction between human thought and animal thought, that does not need a clean break in the evolutionary history to be something real.
The fact that there is no clean and precise wall (recognizable by an idiot) separating what is rational from what is not, is not inconsistent with the clear superiority of the practice of reason (intelligence) over non-reason (stupidity). See also the beginning of the introductory text ("Rationality and Realism, What is at Stake ? by John R. Searle) on the issue of discernibility between what is rational and what is not.

I hope I was clearer this time ...
I think the misunderstanding is on the idea that "rationalism" is a general term for simply strive for reason, what is rational or not. It is not. What I am saying is that it is a well-defined school of philosophy of science, and therefore we can not use it for something else. If you want to define your approach as a search of the rational, and if you want to avoid confusion with this school, you should use another term.

I still see no reason to let to some specific school of philosophy of science (which I did not care to study), the copyright on the use of the word "rationalism", and the right to fix there a pathological meaning, especially as it does not seem at all to stick with the use of that word in that text by John R. Searle.

Now with the Wikipedia articles: the French one indeed seems to go in your way, or perhaps even a third meaning.
However, the introductory paragraph of the English article on rationalism fits with the interpretation I said.

I don't forget our discussion. Maybe we are finally talking about the same thing but highlighting different aspects: while you insist on the virtuous use of "reason" as the only way to get to the truth, I insist on the fact that this doctrine can be both fuzzy (most people, whatever their theories about mysterious phenomena will agree with it) and very restrictive (the English Wikipedia cites, for example a definition by Bourke advocating deductive reasoning (which, strictly applied, is very unfortunate and even inapplicable, because the deduction requires the prior development of theories, usually based on observations - induction - etc. Of course deduction can be replaced by any other methods or tools of reasoning called "universal" but each have their flaws). And that is a characteristic of rationalism that I do not defend: the idea of a method / a universal tool to compare theories. This is also the paradox of rationalism to advocate a universal method of reasoning without describing which one it is (or only a very blurred one such as the application of " reason" so we can not, as you do during your battles with "skeptics", say who is more rational if not by an arbitrary opinion - a good way to maintain eternal discussions). For this, rationalism is to me rather a doctrine (there is a universal reasoning always valid, but I can not say which one) than a specific method (practice / technique).

Have you read my texts ? (...).
I feel not.

I would describe reason as admittedly somehow fuzzy, but rather hypercomplex.
Namely, for me, because:  reason = intelligence.

Restrictive ???????????????
If you are only looking for simplistic definitions of reason, of course you will only find simplistic definitions.
It is absurd to require stupid definitions of intelligence.
For the reason is the same.

Of course, a Wikipedia article is simplifying by encyclopedic necessity.
For me, reason is not something to be defined, but something to be lived.
From the Wikipedia article I only pointed out the introduction, with which I agree: the primacy of reason over any other approach.
I did not see there the idea that rationalism would be the belief that reason would be reducible to a simplistic definition by the automated application of a tiny single method, I know not where you take that from, and I do not expect many people to interpet it so either. Of course there may be some small definition proposals in the air, to describe one aspect or another, but I do not see these as banners of simplicism that would claim to completely formalize and end what reason is.

To be honest, this is for me the first time I find someone who makes such an amalgam between rationalism and simplicism. I've never seen it elsewhere.

Even zeteticians, who develop a simplistic and degenerate version of reason, do not conceive reason as simplistic. For them too, reason is to deploy their thinking as far as they can. The only problem is that this deployment of reason which they carry out as much as they can according to the extent of their abilities, is limited by the narrow size their own brain.
Please do not blame rationalism for the narrow brain of its loudest defenders. This is just unrelated.

OK, a definition, if one is necessary:

Rationalism = claim that scientific-like research (involving intelligence, with all its rich subtleties such as deployed in many sciences, not excluding other subtleties yet to be added to fit with more issues) is generally more likely to lead to the right discernment of the truth on most truth issues, than traditional religious ways like praying, singing, faith in Jesus or in Islam, nirvana or other "spiritual" meditation practices, the obsession of humility, or this or other feelings, reading the Bible or any other traditional sacred text, or the popular simplistic, fuzzy, immature sort of thought.

This is my definition of rationalism, which, as far as I know, does not seem any way at odds with its most common interpretations.

Need I remind you that this position of rationalism, is far from obvious for many people.
Indeed right now in the world, it seems most people are opposed to rationalism as I just defined. They firmly believe that the only way to truth is faith in Jesus and baptism of the Holy Spirit, or the Buddhist meditation, or the like. So if you do not agree with them that religious practices lead more surely to the truth than scientific research, then you're part of the small minority of rationalists on this earth, whether you like it or not.


I have not read your texts more than last time, sorry.
It seems to me that there are misunderstandings of my position in what you say in your answers:
When I say fuzzy, I mean it is not at all accurate, it is too general (and thus a doctrine rather than a method). You can tell at length what is the application of science rather than non-science, but you still do not specify the idea. For me your definition boils down to "the application of reason is better" without saying why, how, etc. .. Because ultimately you cannot really define what means "scientific" apart through its results ("you see, it works better than the rest" - but why? And is this always true?). Because the border between science and non-science is not always obvious, and it is better defined by its methods (absent from a definition of reason) than by a general idea. This is not the application of the use of reason (say, doing science) that I find simplistic, but its definition (non-existent or vague / general / subjective). That is why, even if I consider like you, scientific explanations as more convincing than mystical explanations of the world, I do not claim any rationalism. For me what is important is to produce shareable things, in the sense of verifiable by everyone (so, the opposite of subjectivity), whether it be in a box "science" or not.

So I agree with the idea that rationalism mainly includes the idea of "every reason is good," but it does not bring much in itself (i.e. it is vague), and the real content that follows is a sort of "soft dictatorship" that imposes a /several universal method(s) * (which non-science would not have) without really defining them (no method specified). What is all this vagueness for ? I think, for rejecting what a priori scares rationalists (the mystical, etc..), so as to maintain this "great divide" between science and non-science (formerly non-science = popular culture, but it is reducing now), between "serious" people and others. Rationalists want to mark their acquired territory.

* Where do I take this from ? I've already said, the book is a source of Chalmers, "What is science?".

(Not reading, deprives the discussion of chances to progress).

I remember the comparison:
It is impossible to define humans versus animals, but can one deny the ability of man to know the world better than animals ?

It would be wrong to require a stupid definition of intelligence, and to conclude that intelligence does not exist by lack of a stupid satisfying definition.

So, reason is fundamentally different from non-reason, insofar as the adjective "fundamental" is understood to mean something practical and contextual, that has NOTHING TO DO with that of "essential" = separate by profound nature, binary or things like that.

See more I wrote on essentialism

On the next remarks: I'm not sure what to answer specifically, or how it could change my previous statements, except to specify the following very important point:

In reply to:

"Because ultimately you cannot really define what means "scientific" apart through its results ("you see, it works better than the rest" - but why? And is this always true?). Because the border between science and non-science is not always obvious"

Sorry but I must contradict you there:
Indeed, what brings me to discuss science, is indeed that I am basically much involved in math and theoretical physics, and theoretical reflections on various topics from childhood, and I thus reached important achievements in these areas. One of my experiences, was my fervent evangelical faith that lasted a number of years, followed by a complete deconversion, after which I have done a tremendous work of restoring order to my understanding of this whole religious adventure.

All this gives me some very extensive and intimate knowledge of science and reason.

So for me, talking about reason is the opposite of something vague, but it's a gigantic universe that I know well, and it is only as an intimate knower of this universe, that I dare to talk about it.

I do not doubt that you have an opinion on what is reasonable or meaningful ("scientific" say some, while there are a lot of scientific results or even methods that are wrong) and what is not (or worse, if we take the reference of your evangelical experience). I do not doubt that this opinion is based on considerable experience in these areas, and you speak knowingly.
However (and unfortunately), it brings nothing as long as it cannot be shared (hence the importance of publishing works in science, for example). Saying "I know very well to discern good from bad", the rational from the irrational or the unscientific from the scientific, is good for you, but it is incommunicable to others as such. There is no other scientific knowledge than a shared knowledge. To make it communicable requires to communicate something repeatable by others (typically via a description of a method to reproduce the knowledge you claim to have discovered). And this communicable, shareable description, still lacks in your speech that remains paradoxically subjective on science (from what I've read so far in our discussion).
Understand me well, I do not blame you for not providing such a universal description of what science is, or what method should be applied systematically to arrive at scientific truth, because I think it is not possible. To say that it is possible, is rationalism.
Let's go further:
Indeed I can not verbally communicate intelligence itself, the source of insights that I developed.
Nevertheless, there are still very significant things I can produce and communicate verbally, especially some actual understanding of a number of specific topics. So I can communicate something of my reason in the form of examples, a lot of discussions and explanations on specific things.
And more specifically, on issues among the most important I could find.
Texts I wrote on the foundations of mathematics, on religion, on a number of myths that dominate the world, economy, etc..
And I think that, even though it will ever be the magic potion to discern for sure what is most rational from what is at fault among all movements and all teachings of the present or future world, at least it can make significant progress.

For even if reason itself is not transmissible, a good overview of a number of rational thoughts that can give some knowledge and serve as examples while refuting a number of currently widespread mistakes, pitfalls and obstacles to reason, can help inspire people in the right direction.

My own progress in the exercise of reason, came by practicing it and seeing what helps to go further and what does not, so that a success can inspire further success...
Thus, examples of well-conducted reflections can inspire others to think well.

To come back to the initial subject:
Yes, reason exists, it is a very real thing, even if, precisely the same way as many other subtle realities studied by science (dark matter, etc. etc.), it can be very difficult to capture or characterize.
And it's not because something is difficult to discern or understand, that it does not exist.

To try to re-explain things:

For me (and I think, for many others too), reason makes sense only insofar as it is actually useful to advance the understanding of reality. Therefore, what for should one claim to define and communicate reason in a pure form ? Indeed, reason truly becomes reason, only by its effective work on reality. It would not make sense to transmit reason separately from what it can be here for. The problem of skeptics, who uses the paranormal as an example, is that, while admittedly, somehow it would be good to present reason as applied to something, it is also necessary to do truly and sincerely, appropriately to the reality of the object at stakes. Because the real goal should be the object, reality, and not reason for itself. For, a reason that would be reduced to itself or seeked for its own purpose, disconnected from the reality that it is here to discover, even if some bits of reality would be used as an exercise, would simply not be reason anymore. (This remark does not diminish the rationality of pure mathematics, which is an effective knowledge of the existing world of mathematics, even if different from the usual world, rather than an empty methodology).

To use anything as an excuse or support to communicate reason, is already a diversion from reason. The real reason can exist and be transmitted only by being taken neither as an object in itself, nor even a priority, but by treating it fully and honestly as it should always have remained: a discipline subordinated to the study to its true goal which is knowledge of reality.

I therefore believe that the true rationalism must renounce trying to define reason as a definable object, in favor of its development as a reality, as a kind of sport that exists only through its practice.

So my main approach is to develop my own exercise of reason, and work to make it succeed in something. It would be absurd to try out a characterization of reason without having prior "evidence", experience of how this can effectively help the progress of knowledge. Finally, this "reason" by which I could finally discover reality, turns out to be neither simpler, more fundamental or transmissible than its fruits (knowledge). Thus it is just natural to me, in my rationalism (= desire of contributing to the development of rational understanding in the world) to attach as much importance and care to first exercise reason in myself and then share the fruit obtained, than models of reasoning that led me there.

Is this clearer?

Some further ideas that came to me afterwards:

One could say that the method is to science what means of transport are to travel.
Means of transport are required to travel, but they are not the travel.

Putting forward some scientific methods, may be useful to people who might currently have no method to progress but say still and only dream of traveling rather than really travel in the world of knowledge; who dream of knowledge but have none true and reliable. Or maybe, who develop some partial knowledge, but mixed with errors, and remain unable to sort them. Unfortunately, this is precisely a very common situation across currently widespread religions and spiritualities.

But the presence of some possible means of transport, does not exclude other useful ones. Some are genuine, others illusory. How do we know? Well that's a big problem, the answer is not always given in advance ... however, the point is that, fantasy and actual travel are two separate things, and the abundance of people who seriously imagine themselves on the moon while they are only there in dream, is a major problem. And the presence of a serious problem, does not mean that the mistaken ones would necessarily be "at fault" in any sense whatsoever, nor that any readily available solution must always be here under hand - but some possibilities of a few significant steps forward do exist, and need to be used.

Also, normally the high-level rational discussions are debates in which many specific questions can be addressed, but where the qualifiers of "rational" and other variations of this word, has no place because it lacks the necessary meaningfulness for the issues involved (it would sound like the battles of insults among children, away from the real debate). But there are also hopeless cases, where one debater is unable of reason; this lack of rationality turns out to be a major obstacle to any attempt at dialogue, letting no other option for the other, but to express this observation of failure in terms of irrationality ... while the other may have a similar impression in the other way round. Who is really right? Well, hard to say...

Also, I do not see the issue of rationality as a matter of "criterion for comparing theories". Reason is a dynamic for the constitution and development of any theory. Some theories are rationally developed, others less. There is no on the one hand, theories enjoying an independent reality in the world of ideas, then on the other hand, a rationality criterion falling from the sky that would give them good or bad marks. Reason was there in the first place to build theories presented, then it can come back and rework them, review them and modify the old ideas into new, clarified ideas (that may or may not be rigorously equivalent to the former version).
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