7 The Limits of Rationality

How does one properly conceptualize rationality?  Does rationality have limits? If so, what are they? Can we rationally come to a conclusion about which worldview is true?

 

In May of 2015, a prominent American researcher, thinker and theologian of the Islamic sciences was visiting Singapore for a series of talks.  He is renowned for his fiery eloquence and his ability to take complex issues of Islamic theo-philosophy and present them in palatable and easy to understand ways. In the question and answer session of a particular talk at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, where he was speaking about his own personal intellectual journey spanning 20 years, a piercing question about rationality was asked: “Does every single doubt and question about Islam have a rational answer?”  The question was couched in a tense air of frustration since in the midst of his lecture he had mentioned that even after studying in some of the most prestigious institutions both in the Islamic world and in the West for 20 years, he still had questions that could not be dealt with rationally.1

 

There is a question that must precede the question in question.  Before we can ask, “Does every single doubt and question about Islam have a rational answer?”, we need to ask, “Does every single doubt and question have a rational answer?” In other words, is there ANY worldview that will allow us to answer every single question on purely rational grounds? The answer is no.  However, just because we cannot answer a question by way of rationality, doesn’t automatically mean that the response will be irrational.

 

Generally, when people think about rationality, they assume that it works as a binary. Things are either rational or irrational. However, a better way of understanding rationality would be to categorize it into three categories: rational, irrational and supra-rational.

 

Something that is rational is something that is understood and it makes sense. Something  that is irrational is something that makes no sense. For example, if someone came to you and  said, “My friend, Ahmed, is a married bachelor.” This is irrational because by definition a  bachelor is someone who is not married and someone who is married is by definition not a  bachelor. In terms of a logical principle, these two items are ‘mutually exclusive’ i.e. they cannot  exist at the same time by definition.

 

Something that is supra-rational, is something that falls outside of the realm of rationality.  Continuing with our example above, imagine that after you politely explain to the person who said that he has a friend who is a married bachelor that that is not possible, that person says, “Well,  I believe it is possible. Why can’t two opposite things exist at the same time?” What do  you do now? How do you prove the logical principle? This logical principle of mutual exclusivity is “supra-rational” because you cannot prove the principle. You must assume it is true. The tool of rationality cannot prove or disprove the principle because it is ‘outside’ of rationality. At the same time, in order for rationality to work, one must rely on things that are supra-rational, otherwise rationality itself collapses. Any logical system must have something outside of itself in order to work. One cannot rationally prove things infinitely.  There has to be a stopping point.

 

If one claims that one can rely on rationality ONLY, then they would find themselves in trouble. A rational proof is required or demanded when one doubts something.  However, doubts cannot be extended infinitely. One cannot ask ‘why?’ (i.e. demanding a proof) ad infinitum. Think about the child who asks, “Dad, why can’t I use the knife?” and the father responds,  “because it will cut you” and the child asks, “why?” and the father says, “because it is sharp” and  the child asks again, “why?” and the father responds, “because it was manufactured to be sharp”  and the child asks, “why?” and so on. This line of questioning cannot go on infinitely. At a certain point, the father will have to respond, “because that’s just the way it is!”

 

In philosophical terms, these items that lie ‘outside’ of rationality (i.e. items housed in the supra-rational) are called ‘basic beliefs’ or  ‘axioms’ or ‘axiomatic truths’ or ‘first principles’. Without these items, a person is left intellectually ungrounded.  Take, for example, the existence of the world around you. Is it real? Is it possible that there is some mad scientist in a laboratory and he merely has your brain in a vat and is tinkering with the neurons in your mind to make you perceive the world as real? We take the existence of the world around us as being real, even though there is no way to rationally prove it. It is a basic belief without which we could not function.

 

Someone may contend and state that our curiosity and skepticism allowed us to progress in many fields. There is no doubt that questioning things and rational inquiry are essential for intellectual development, whether we are talking about individuals or collectively as a society.  However, there is a difference between healthy skepticism, one that recognizes that rationality has its limits and radical skepticism which assumes that rationality has no limits. Radical skepticism puts forth the idea that we are to question everything, literally.  Adopting radical skepticism as one’s paradigm is problematic for two reasons.  First, it leads to intellectual paralysis. If a person doubts everything, then they have to doubt their own doubt which tantamount to a cognitive gridlock.  Second, no person can practically function in life under radical skepticism.  Any mundane challenge in life would become insurmountable under such a paradigm.  Consider, for example, answering your phone.  The phone rings, you look at the ID and it reads “Mom”.  You answer the phone and the voice on the other end says, “Hi dear, I am in a bit of trouble.  My car broke down on the side of the road.  Could you please come and pick me up?” Under radical skepticism, this entire scenario would need to be questioned. When the phone rang, how do you know it rang? How can you prove the sound was actually from the phone? Even though the ID showed “Mom”, how do you know it is your mom? How do you know the voice on the other end is, in fact, your mom? How can you prove this?  The absurdity of such a thought process is clear.

 

Someone making the claim that they can rationally prove everything (without the need for the supra-rational) is like a person who comes to you and says, “I have the perfect solvent.  It can dissolve anything.”  This ‘perfect’ solvent, however, would still need a bottle to be kept in.  Rationality is an amazing ‘solvent’ that ‘solves’ many things but we still need a ‘bottle’ (the supra-rational) to keep it in.

 

Thus, no person, no matter what their worldview (and remember everyone has a worldview) can do without the supra-rational. Every worldview has first principles that are unprovable yet must exist and be accepted, as Daniel Hill and Randal Rauser write,

 

“One can think of a worldview as comprising a number of basic beliefs which are philosophically equivalent to the axioms of the worldview considered as a logical or consistent theory. These basic beliefs cannot, by definition, be proven (in the logical sense) within the worldview – precisely because they are axioms, and are typically argued from rather than argued for. However their coherence can be explored philosophically and logically.”2

 

Under Islamic parlance, the supra-rational can loosely be equated to something called the ‘Fiṭrah’.

 

1 Qadhi, Yasir. “Does Every Single Doubt & Question about Islam Have a Rational Answer? ~ Dr. Yasir Qadhi.” Video. YouTube, September 30, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ3rOXCBmYQ&t=77s.

 

2 See Entry under “Worldview”, Hill, Daniel J., and Randal D. Rauser. Christian Philosophy A-Z. Philosophy A-Z, 2006.

 

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