Theology of technical rationality


‘It’s bloody obvious,’ is my frequent, exasperated response to my long-time interlocutor, critic, sometime editor, second harshest critic, and good friend, Dorothy Uckling. Her counsel? ‘You should explain what you mean when you say… because people won’t understand you.’

The critique about not explaining myself more clearly happens less frequently than it did, but with a still somewhat predictable regularity that tells me I need to pause, sometimes, and consider whether I have assumed the wrong audience, and whether I need to do something about that.

This is likely a problem for any writer. You have to think yourself into your subject, but when you then write about it, you may leave behind more casual observers who did not come along for that immersion, and who may not agree with your conclusions. One of the obstacles working against that apparently simple writerly task is an orthodox tradition in the academy, and the public province of readership, of frowning on self-referential pointers about such journeys, and the unwritten prohibition on any self-assertiveness. ‘Who do you think you are to say such a thing?’
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The cult of expertise: surrendering freedom


Every day we abstain from considering and making decisions that are rightly ours to consider and make.  We defer that engagement with our world to people considered more ‘expert’ in the apparently germane disciplines, but to the exclusion of all others.  And so we build the world around us as it is, with all the grandeur and the despair in it, as a deferred potential and responsibility.  Nevertheless, we build it in our own images, because we ourselves become a perpetually stalled potential when we choose this as a reflexive response to all contemplation and decisions about matters more complex than immediate self-gratification.

What is it that we really do when we abdicate our own authority and wisdom?  Do we actually comprehend what the consequences are, for ourselves and others, even when we think we don’t care enough to want to have a say?

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The Ends of Rationality

This essay stretches to around 5,500 words, covering the Enlightenment; Descartes, Newton and rise of scientism; Kant and autonomy; the utility of Utilitarianism; the middle class ascendant; rejection of religion in public, but not in private; Burke and the baby with the bathwater hazard; Shelley and Verne as Enlightenment bookends; industrial society and engineered solutions; Liberalism as balancing act; Marxism as counterpoint; Freud as prophet of the self; post-war quests for paradise; Habermas, Popper and the end of certainty; limits of rationality; Western cultural dynamics; the primacy of education; the subversion of freedom of speech; the absence of a neutral press; and the ends of rationality.

The Wikipedia article on rationality opens with the following statement:

In philosophy, rationality is the characteristic of any action, belief, or desire, that makes their choice a necessity.[1]

It is an incomprehensibly tortured sentence offering a nonsensical proposition that might be better used to demonstrate irrationality. First, in ‘philosophy’ rationality has multiple and specifically contextual meanings, and many more meanings in disciplines other than philosophy. Secondly, rationality is a characteristic of human reasons for taking any action, holding any belief, or rationalising any desire, not necessarily or exclusively of the products of those reasons. Thirdly, it is always people who suggest that some choice is in fact no choice, and only one course of action, or one set of beliefs, is necessary or permissible; this is called absolutism or totalitarianism, which are systems of political organisation usually antithetical to rationality. In a contemporary context, as will be illustrated below, rationality is actually a specific acknowledgement of the plurality of ideas and possible courses of action.

If the world’s premier source of ‘information’ can start so misleadingly about the topic, are we justified in assuming that of the myriad ways the words ‘rational’ and ‘rationality’ are used as a justification for arguments, policies, and actions, many of them are in fact not rational at all? The question is a theme pursued in this survey of the ideas that have made rationality a critical concept in Western civilization.

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