Rationalist ideologies as eternalism

Rationalist eternalism is the confused stance that there is a pattern to everything, that all patterns can be discovered by reasoning, and that they give everything meaning. The universe is reasonable, and so reason can master it. This stance is wrong and harmful, just as other eternalisms are.

Rationality, understood and used properly, is a good thing. In the everyday sense, it is wise to think clearly and to act sensibly. My criticism of rationalist eternalism does not reject reason for emotionalism, or for some sort of anti-rational spirituality. I think anti-rational stances are also wrong and harmful. (I’ll analyze their faults later, in the chapter on monism, and in the discussion of the anti-rationalism of the 1960s-80s countercultures.)

In addition to good common sense, there are technical methods of reasoning that can be importantly useful sometimes. I will criticize their misuse, but I value technical rationality itself.

My argument against eternalist rationality is that reasoning does not, in fact, provide explanations or meanings for everything. Reality is nebulous, so that is impossible.

The exaggerated claims of ideological rationality are obviously and undeniably false, and are predictably harmful—just as with all eternalism. Yet they are so attractive—to a certain sort of person—that they are also irresistible.

Rationality and the Big Three stance combinations

The actual basis for rationalistic distortion is not eternalism. The root distortion is dualism, as I use the term in this book. Dualism, in this sense, is the insistence on boundaries; that everything must be definitely this or that, and not vaguely in-between.

The methods of rationality require specific categories. If you keep in mind that all categories are partially-arbitrary, artificial constructions, and cannot fully capture reality, the distortions they create may not cause problems. Ideological rationality tries to force reality to fit categories—and that does not end well.

It might make better sense to postpone discussion of rationality into the chapter on dualism. However, ideological rationality is such an important form of eternalism that I want to cover it here.

You may recall that there are three main stance combinations: dualist eternalism, monist eternalism, and dualist nihilism. Monist eternalism is anti-rational, because rationality depends on specifics, and monism denies specifics.

Both eternalism and nihilism are compatible with rationalism, and in practice rationalists tend to swing between the two. Actually, everyone tends to swing between the two, but for rationalists the alternation is often extreme and violent. That’s because clear thinking easily reveals the defects in both eternalism and nihilism. I will cover nihilist rationalism (or rationalization) later. And I will return to rationalism for further analysis in the dualism chapter.

Methods of rationality

You may have little interest in the technical methods of rationality, because you believe you understand their limits and faults and harms. You might even be a bit smug about that—but if you don’t understand in detail how formal rationality works, you are probably partly mistaken. You are probably, without knowing it, under the sway of Romanticism—an anti-rational eternalist ideology that is just as bad. Also, you are missing out on a good thing.

The methods of rationality are powerfully useful, and everyone should learn them, I think. As with all power tools, such as chainsaws, you also need to learn suitable safety procedures. The problem with rationality is not that it is technical. The problem is not anything about the methods themselves. The problem is metaphysical claims about the power of the methods to explain the unexplainable.

The pages in this section are somewhat technical. They are meant mainly for those who know at least a little about methods of formal reasoning. My intention is to point out potential dangers (ways rationality can distort into eternalism) and antidotes (ways to avoid sliding toward eternalism, or to escape from it when you find you have fallen in).

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This page is in the section Non-theistic eternalism,
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      which is in Meaning and meaninglessness,
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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.