The Culture of Reason

I have heard the term “The Church of Reason” to refer to our modern disposition toward rationality and science. Some thinkers are upset by this analogy, claiming that rationality is fundamentally distinct from a religion. In some ways this is true: for instance, rationality does not entrust a single institution or treatise with control of its truth (though some sects — I mean branches — come very close to a blind trust of scientific consensus). However, I sometimes get the distinct impression of a further belief, however never explicitly stated, that logic and science are not just the latest way, but the way to discover truth.

A succinct criticism from within the logical discipline describes my thoughts well. I quote:

If I see a coin come up heads twenty times in a row, I’m going to use the power of induction to predict that the coin is biased towards heads. Induction tells me that, the more something has happened in the past, it’s more likely to continue to do so in the future. I trust induction because induction has worked for me before.

Somewhere out there in mind-space is someone who believes in anti-induction: each coin flip of heads convinces him that the coin is biased toward tails. Anti-induction tells him that, the more something has happened in the past, the less likely it is to do so in the future. If asked why he trusts anti-induction, he exclaims: “Because it’s never worked before!”

(Concept by Eliezer Yudkowsky, phrasing by Chronos) (EDIT: It appears that this concept is not Yudkowsky’s creation, but a ‘well-known’ joke in some circles, however I cannot locate its origin)

This delightful morsel is so much more than an idle curiosity to me. Please do not mistake me for taking the surface interpretation: I do not claim that induction and anti-induction are equally valuable. But the anti-induction hypothetical illuminates, in an entertaining way, that belief in induction is circular. Observe that our unwavering trust in logic rests upon induction.

In this modern age it is sometimes easy to forget that there was a time when most of humanity was deeply religious. Humans of every intellectual prowess saw “God did it” as a sound explanation (allow me to assume omnipotent monotheism for the sake of argument). Some theorized about how God thought, what he looked like (whether that was a legitimate question), what would appease him, what actions would cause him to create rain or not. Instead of conjuring thoughts of mockery, I would like the reader to put him or herself into one of those minds. You are not stupid; you are deeply immersed in a cultural belief system. It rains — you think back upon the actions of your town recently to try to determine why it must have done so; determining this is of the utmost importance. You may even engage in scientific practices, coming up with hypotheses and testing them: if I sing to one, but not both, of my children at night, the probability that God will be pleased is increased. But this science is based upon a faulty foundation: a whole host of different phenomena could be attributed to “God will be pleased”, and the method is not scientific by modern standards. It is still superstition. What I am putting forth is that the very process of modern science and reasoning may be considered superstition — or perhaps some yet-uninvented term to describe our primitive thinking — to the cultures of the future. Maybe, like the character above, what we are doing is analogous to the search for truth, but we’re missing the point.

But we can make predictions! I will grant that we can make better predictions than traditional religious belief systems used to. I am no scholar of religion, but I can at least imagine a tribe understanding that the fire spirit, who loves the taste of dry wood, will duplicate himself to any nearby dry wood. This makes a prediction as well (at the time of this understanding, it had not yet been observed that he would duplicate himself from Honto’s wood to Jumara’s wood). Nowadays we have only a more accurate idea of the spirits, and we call them by silly names like Boson and Gluon. (I would like to stress that we cannot yet predict anything perfectly. E. T. Jaynes argues that the stunningly accurate probabilistic results of quantum electrodynamics do not count as perfection; i.e. that interpreting the quantifiable uncertainty of its predictions as fundamental to nature rather than to the theory is a boneheaded arrogance.)

Speaking of quantum theory, in the last century we have come across physical laws with an unsettling interpretation problem. Quantum systems are defined in terms of measurement amplitudes, and measurement occurs when a quantum system interacts with a classical system. Of course, if quantum theory wishes to be foundational, the term “classical system” must refer to a mathematical interpretation of a system, not a specific, real system, for every system ought to be a quantum system. So now we are talking about the point of measurement being one interpretation interacting with another — we are speaking on the mathematical and the physical level at the same time. Philosophically, this is utter nonsense. A dominant viewpoint among physicists is that of instrumentalism, summarized by Feynman as “shut up and calculate”. In other words: our logical and intuitive explanations fail us, but the mathematics work out. We have stumbled upon a stunningly accurate mathematical theory with fuzzy, unintelligible edges; could this not indicate an impedance mismatch between our logic and reality? Electrons do not obey classical physics, though large ensembles of them converge on classical physics. Why should we assume nature obeys classical logic; perhaps only large ensembles of truths converge on classical logic? Indeed, the calculation structure of quantum amplitudes seems to be logic-esque, with rules at least for conjunction and disjunction. Maybe the barrier lies not in the transition to a classical system, but the transition to classical logic. Perhaps, if we could only think differently, there would be no barrier.

In order to be heard, I am arguing from a position that we just have the laws of logic slightly wrong, and that a successor would take the same form merely with different laws. I do not necessarily believe this — my inner mathematician wishes it, for it would be comfortable and familiar — but it is simply the most concrete way, the smallest step I can take, to cast doubt upon the logical absolute.

You and I are immersed in a culture of reason, just as many generations of humans before us were immersed in a culture of theism. I cannot simply show you an alternative way to see the world; I am as clouded by these conceptions as anyone of our time. I do not wish to replace your foundation, just erode it. I wish to illuminate the possibility that we may, still, be looking at clouds, and not at the stars.

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16 thoughts on “The Culture of Reason

  1. While it’s certainly true that logical deduction rests upon induction, as you say, you have presented a straw man of induction. You’re certainly not the first to make this mistake, and you won’t be the last.

    Induction does not rest on statistics, but on causality. While deduction presupposes concepts, induction is the conceptualizing process itself in action.

    Your coin toss example is the same as saying that you can infer that all triangles have an angle sum of 180 simply because all triangles you’ve measured have that property. But that would be a mistake. It would not be an induction, because you have not identified a causal relationship.

    For an accessible and modern defense of induction, see David Harriman’s book “The Logical Leap”.

  2. Well. I’m all for giving up classical logic if the meaning of the alternative logic can be adequately explained to me. Intuitionistic logic and paracomplete logics are great in this respect: Kripke’s semantics makes me perfectly comfortable with them. However, Kripke’s semantics relies on classical logic!

    In other words: I won’t adopt a non-classical logic unless you can explain the benefit to me, in classical logic.

    This is similar to the case with anti-induction. The anti-inducer could explain her argument for anti-induction all day, and it would remain just as unconvincing to us. (Of course, this will only make her more sure that we’ll be convinced soon.) Yet, it’s perfectly possible that we abandon induction… if we find a method that works better when we test it empirically!

    In other words, we can’t erode the foundation– all we can do is build upon it further. It may look very different when we have been building for a while, so we should not cling to its current form… however, to give it up prematurely for that reason would be to give up the tools which we need to find the next idea.

    [Now, this in itself does not make quantum logic unreasonable. We could say that we’ve observed empirically the truth of quantum logic, so it would be reasonable to switch. However, I personally won’t be interested until I’ve seen a good explanation of the meaning of quantum logic, in classical logic. Which may exist. I haven’t really looked into it.]

  3. @Rúnar, hmm, I was about to agree with you, but the more I think about it, the fuzzier the distinction between the triangle example and others become. What distinguishes causality as a reasonable basis for induction? Can you give an example of a proper use of induction, and then explain what distinguishes them, allowing causality to be potentially called into question by this investigation (to me, presupposing causality is equivalent if not stronger than presupposing induction).

    @Abram, “In other words, we can’t erode the foundation — all we can do is build upon it further.” I do not see the, ehem, logic behind this claim. The best I can connect it to is your first two paragraphs, in which you are basically saying that you *refuse* to accept something unless its semantics can be made clear to you. So your claim seems analogous to: “your idea that there may be a way to see the world that does not involve God seems intriguing, but I would only be willing to accept it if you can show me how God would have created such a world.”

  4. Give me anything that will make good predictions, really. Chemistry, fire spirits, I don’t care as long as it works. Because it’s not my field, I just want to be warm; I’m sure some other people are fascinated by either explanation and want to study, talk about them, improve them. All power to them, as long as they can make better predictions, or help other people to make better predictions.

    The scientific method is not here to tell you “you should trust *those predictions* because they have been produced by ‘good’ methods, and distrust *those predictions* because it’s just superstition”. It is a set of guidelines to help anyone interested, really, in doing better predictions. It’s internal to the prediction-making process. The consumer of those predictions just doesn’t care.

    While I’m not familiar with Feyerabend or other relativist work, I’ve always be amused by the question of “On what criterion should we decide how much public money to give to fundamental research? Should we trust the ten world specialists being the only ones to understand the argumentation of their claim that they need more money?”. That’s a more difficult question.

  5. @Chris, having swallowed some of that hooey myself. . . One could almost surely trace back my recent skeptic-skeptical posts to my mental processing of a postmodernism class this semester (combined with an unidentifiable unease interacting with the Skeptics Society). The class has been an intellectual trip, that’s for sure — I’ve found that I can “rationally” argue just about any viewpoint, which has caused my trust in that program to begin to crumble. I’m trying to be careful not to trust my own arguments, but having my roots so firmly planted in a rational viewpoint makes that difficult. One trend you may find in my recent posts (and certainly in my planned posts, if you had access to that part of my brain :-) is, like pomo, I will be criticizing things; and some of the criticisms will contradict each other or even themselves. This is intentional.

  6. I wonder why the above examples are parading as examples of reason/science esp. when they quote unscientific/unreasonable ways of approaching a problem

    ” I [trust] induction because induction has worked for me before.”
    ” someone who [believes] in anti-induction..”

    What does [trust] and [belief] got to do with reason?.

    And are you too sure that the modern philosophy-physicists are better than before since you seem to be quoting the findings of philosophers more than the physicists. I consider most of these modern philosopho fellows reviving mysticism than reason. You should view history in this aspect as not a a line which shows that present is always getting better than past, but rather the history of mankind as with ups and downs with the ups being when reason was held as absolute(golden age) and downs when faith, belief and trust as absolute(Dark ages). Mankind progressed during the golden ages and regressed in the dark ages.

    ..”You and I are immersed in a culture of reason, just as many generations of humans before us were immersed in a culture of theism”..

    Just because modern scientists haven’t concluded some phenomenon doesn’t mean it makes the process a culture(implying irrational traditional peer pressure based approaches). you can always question their reasoning approach but that doesn’t equate it with theism. And doesn’t give hope that in the future something will supersede reason.

    Reason is not a culture.

    Your claim of being able to argue any side of the coin in any issue is something that I enjoyed in my early days of exploring philosphy , until I realised that I can’t do it anymore if I choose to be …. It was only possible to do it in a abstract world devoid of reality or purpose (irrational). The more abstract I got the more weirder these kind of fantastical interpretations (approaching mysticism). Anyway I realised that abstraction by itself is not the problem. It is the same issue that concerned the two great fathers. the same issue the master and the disciple took opposite sides of.

  7. @Roark, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Addressing your last point first: yes, and I’m aware of the facade in which I engage. But the facade shows me the cocktail of assumptions upon which any reasonable argument rests. To make progress (to which I will return) we must find a basis of common assumptions and work from there. As I have thought about this more from my post, I have refined my protest: I am not so much against reason but realism — that arrogant word — the idea that my set of assumptions, my perception, is the way the world really works, instead of acknowledging my relativity in mind-space. I don’t contend that some views are more accurate than others, but I am trying to erode those who consider their view not to be a view but the truth.

    And in that sense, your initial point is correct. It is not science — the theories that predict outcomes of experiments — to which I am opposed, but the the belief that an electron is a fundamental building block rather than a mathematical model; the belief that logic is true rather than predictive. It is the perceived strength of the model — the beliefs that cause people to condemn alternate views for conceptual disagreement — which I oppose. Chi energy can exist alongside electrons and protons; one need not be explained in terms of the other. (And please do not fall into the trap of considering me to “believe in” Chi energy which is not “real”; a tendency to do so is an indication that you are missing my point)

    The article’s use of the words trust and belief are to bring out the trust and belief underlying the assumptions of the philosophy of realism, because many realists do not acknowledge their beliefs as such, but as “truths”.

    Regarding: “You should view history in this aspect as not a a line which shows that present is always getting better than past, but rather the history of mankind as with ups and downs with the ups being when reason was held as absolute(golden age) and downs when faith, belief and trust as absolute(Dark ages). Mankind progressed during the golden ages and regressed in the dark ages.”

    I did not want to get too crazy with this post, but since you have brought it up: I used history as “the present getting better than the past” because it is a common assumption that I could use as a rhetorical tool. Rather I will go one level of abstraction further: do you see the assumption implicit in “mankind progressed during the golden ages and regressed in the dark ages”? Now, I’m sure most of us will attest that we would rather be living in today’s world instead of what has been presented to us as the dark ages (which I don’t believe to be some kind of conspiracy, but I acknowledge that it may be distorted as a value confirmation — it’s easy to feel better about our own lives if we can look elsewhere and see how horrible it was). But introducing the term “progress” linearizes possibilities; it says, tacitly, “today’s world is further along the only path which could be better since the dark ages.” I would prefer not to use the term “progress” but perhaps “techonologize.” Anyhow, I will grant that technology is a result of science; the fallacy I wish to bring to light (again, in retrospect) is science implies realism (which comes bundled with “logic is true”).

    It is possible that the moment I clarified my target to “realism” from “reason” that you agreed with me, but this gave me an opportunity to elaborate on some of the subtleties of my position.

  8. I believe there is some literature in philosophy and logic on the justification of induction and deduction. I know of it mainly through a paper by Susan Haack, which you can find at:

    She points out that there is circularity involved in each case, although I think there are follow-ups that argue against this. (A quick web search found e.g. a paper by Rosen at

    For what it’s worth, you can find the Haack paper in her book on Deviant Logics. And I very much recommend her book “Philosophy of Logics” on more general issues.

  9. “anti-induction” is a popular paraphrase of an argument originally made by Hume in the Treatise: Book I, Part III, section VI.

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