Trust within Reason
Haydn Mason on different forms of rationalism
There is rationalism and there is rationalism.There is the rationalism of Aquinas, demonstrating the existence of god, or the rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, which seeks to prove the ultimate constituents of reality. Such approaches may have their value for the theologian or philosopher, but they are not what I hope the Rationalist Press is about and will continue to be about in the next century. The Press cares for reason; but it is, I trust, reason based on observable experience. This matter-of-fact approach is more than ever necessary today, when subatomic particles appear to defy the usual laws of nature and Gödel's theorem argues that truth outruns provability. These paradoxes lead many to reject the faculty of reason as outmoded. So the path lies open to the postmodern view that all concepts are but metaphors, or to a new version of appeal to the supernatural along the lines of Tertullian's famous declaration: 'Credo quia absurdum est'.
Such a rejection of reason leaves society vulnerable to any form of oppression, once it is accepted that all doctrines arbitrary or that the only refuge is blind faith. Reason is the only counter to the irrational; as Karl Popper made clear. Even love is no safe antidote, since love unmitigated can end in prejudice and conflict.
We may take some comfort in living under the rule of law. It would not, however, be wise to assume that we are equally governed by the rule of reason. Astrology and birth-signs are common currency; quite recently ITV advertised the astrology column in a leading newspaper, despite the strict guidelines that are supposed to apply to its commercials. The BBC Thought for the Day accepts a plurality of beliefs, but has no place for secular rationalists. Songs of Praise provides weekly evidence that reason will always have an uphill fight against the temptations of religious sensibility. All this will appear innocuous to many, as doubtless it is. But it still gives assent to the irrational which, elsewhere and in more poisonous mental climates, ends up in the horrors of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing.
There can be no logical proof of the superiority of reason. Indeed, carried to an extreme it may result in the dead end of sterile and amoral technology. So reason must always begin with the pursuit of truth, happiness, cultural and social good. Such generalities show its fragility; but it is the best we have. The late martin Hollis, in his last book, recognised the uncertain future that necessarily awaits the practice of reason; and yet, he argues, it is the only path open to the liberal. He modestly advocates, to quote the book's title, Trust within Reason. Not a bad motto for the Rationalist Press Association. Happy Returns, for the next 100 years!