The Virtue of Living Life Rationally

My recent posts on atheism and a highly speculative theory of how the universe might work sparked a lot of debate. Although I am pleased to find I have some incredibly intelligent readers here, I am alarmed by some of the comments that were made.

I’m generalizing here, but the basic structure of the complaint goes like this:

“You aren’t even aware of your own assumptions! If you think about it, we can’t really know anything. Therefore, you should just let people believe whatever they want. All beliefs are essentially equal.”

Every time I hear this type of comment I cringe a little. It strikes out against the very core of what I am and what I strive to do here. That is, improvement based from observation and reasoning. Although most of these comments are directed at esoteric areas of existence and religion, there is a subtle venom in these remarks.

Defending Rationality

I’ve heard the above comment enough times that I feel a large percentage actually believe it. I’d like to dissect that above, generalized comment to point out what is wrong with it. And why I feel that the message it holds poisons living life rationally.

Let’s take a look at the parts:

“You aren’t even aware of your own assumptions!”

This is the only part of the statement I fully agree with. Unfortunately, I am too often blind to my own assumptions. The good news is that once someone can clearly explain where you are misguided, you can see past those assumptions. Once assumptions are revealed to you, you can see flaws in your own beliefs.

But there is a hidden misunderstanding in this attack. It presumes that I hold my ideas as convictions. That with atheism, or my speculative universe theory, I am convinced these are correct. Being rational, however, requires that I am able to entertain ideas without committing to them.

Trying to attack me by way of my ideas is attacking nothing. I am not my ideas and I fully admit my own weaknesses. I’m not afraid to flip-flop to a new idea if the evidence counters my current ones. So yes, I do make assumptions, but to put my hesitant speculation on the same level as blind faith is a gross exaggeration.

“If you think about it, we can’t really know anything.”

Now I am forced to disagree with this statement. On the surface, it may seem correct. Since you can always come up with alternate explanations based on alternate assumptions, how do we know anything?

My answer is the same as the one you use. Life is a best-guess. You can’t know anything with perfect accuracy. But you can have different probabilities of accuracy. Even if neither of us can hold 100% accurate beliefs, I’d rather hold 90% or 50% accurate beliefs than 4%.

This statement is a misdirection. It’s an attempt to diffuse the issue by making it black and white. Since no one can know anything with perfect certainty doesn’t imply that you can’t know anything at all. The goal of rationality is to slowly refine your knowledge so you grow closer, if never reaching, 100% truth.

Just because you can never reach the pot of gold at the end of thought, doesn’t mean that steady improvements are meaningless.

“Therefore, you should just let people believe whatever they want. All beliefs are essentially equal.”

People should be allowed to believe whatever they want, provided their inaccurate beliefs don’t hurt me. This is a founding principle of most enlightened nations, and one I wholeheartedly agree with.

But that doesn’t make them right. Just because someone is free to have flawed beliefs doesn’t make them equal. The truth isn’t democratic.

The problem here is one of hypocrisy. You can’t justify convictions in highly speculative ideas by saying that we really don’t know anything. Your own conviction betrays you. If you believe something fully, then your beliefs imply that you think you know something fully. If you believe in a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, you can’t turn around and justify that belief by saying the true nature of the universe is impossible to understand.

All beliefs aren’t essentially equal. And I don’t claim to currently have the most accurate versions of them. Outside this blog I don’t strive to convert people to my viewpoint. That’s a waste of time. It’s far more useful to look at others beliefs to find flaws in your own.

The Goal of Living Life Rationally

My post, Why Atheism, could probably be translated to, Why Rationality? The purpose of that post was to show how pursuing truth can be even more emotionally satisfying than just blind faith. Rationality isn’t cold mechanics and terrifying uncertainties. It is also new possibilities, opportunities and an adventure in what it means to be sentient.

Living rationally is living consciously. It is using the cognitive powers you have been endowed to make decisions about your life and beliefs. I’d like to think most the people here would agree to living consciously. But do you live rationally? Because they describe the exact same thing.

Does this mean you should become an atheist and subscribe to all my personal ideas and convictions? Of course not. Rational living means you are the one thinking it out and you place the same level of questioning on me as you do for anyone else.

Emotions Vote, But Shouldn’t Rule

Many decisions in life require emotions. Who your friends are, relationships, passionate work, hobbies to pursue and quality of life. The goal of rationality isn’t to suppress these feelings. Instead you strive to understand where those emotions come from and veto them when they are based on inaccurate assumptions.

Emotions and rationality aren’t working against each other. Instead they work together. Rationality should strive to understand where the emotions originate so it can consciously solve problems and redirect them. Similarly, emotions should guide where you invest thinking power to solve the problems most relevant to quality of life.

Emotions need to play a role in decision making. I’m simply afraid that too many people use this as a justification to ignore the brain they were born with.

  • Addy

    I like this post.

    I have a friend who has a different opinion than me when it comes to a lot of things: politics (she’s a marxist, I like capitalism), religion (she’s a Christian, I’m an atheist), philosophy (she likes Kant, I like a lot of people she doesn’t), certain topics (she’s pro-life, I’m pro-choice), and etc.

    If a topic stirs up too much heat we avoid it, but when we talk about certain things such as philosophy or even politics we learn a good bit about each other and it does allow us both to reexamine or further develop our own ideas and beliefs. We both try to look at things rationally, and do not always agree on everything. But sometimes I think that is a good thing or else it would be a boring friendship.

    As far the heart/head bit, I allow my emotions to play a certain part but also know when my head needs to be the ultimate decider. For instance, under stress I know I can become indecisive and moody. Thinking rationally really helps to put things in perspective as far as why I’m stressed and what I can do about it, and whether it is the right time to make a decision (and if so, how to go about deciding). But I appreciate what both have to offer.

  • ZHereford

    Hey Scott,
    I guess what you can and can’t know can be argued from either a practical or philosophical point of view.
    Of course, we can know things empirically. We can interpret and know many things within the context of our existence. Anything beyond that becomes philosophical and is more difficult to interpret. Then you can employ reason, deduction, speculation etc.

  • Iair

    Scott, it’s true that being strictly rational it’s cool, more useful, you name it. In my particular case I “rationally” came to the conclusion that faith (religion) it’s the best way to explain the universe and life. I said “rationally” but it isn’t, indeed. It’s courious, that there is no rational “solution” for believers, i mean, something like: “my mind is strictly rational. I can understand nothing but rational things” “There is no space for believers since they don’t fit into my rationality”. But the fact is that rational people ignore that maybe they are wrong in thinking life and universe depends on something “rational”.
    So, try to find your answer but also accept that you might be wrong and what you think it’s wrong may be right. There is no reason to to ask “Well, you might be right but please demonstrate it”, just let it stay there without a need for demonstration.

  • Tony

    Nice try Scotty, but the Oracle of Delphi must proclaim that Socrates is still the smartest in Greece.

  • Scott Young


    Rationality doesn’t mean you don’t accept anything without scientific proof. It is more of a process than a destination. Exploring ideas without attaching to them, and viewing things as they match up to your reality.

    I frequently hear that rationality is limiting yourself to not believe things that aren’t strictly scientific and logical. I’d like to argue the opposite side of the coin, that this belief allows you to explore ideas and philosophies beyond anything you would by simply accepting one version as being true.


  • Iair

    Right, it’s a process, but my point is (for example):
    “Rational:¿Does G-d exist?, well, as I’m rational, there is no scientific proof that g-d exist, so the possibility that g-d actually exist is 0%, that means that Rationally g-d doesn’t exist. And because I’m a rational man, for me there is no possibility that g-d could exist at all”
    My point: giving 0% possibility to that is obviously unfair. you give it 0% because it does not fit your “system” (process). To have most of the world believing that, isn’t a scientifically or rationally reason to assign it more than 0%. But i sustain that it’s unfair. Strictly Rationally thinking should be a bit flexible in this thing. If not, you will have to accept that most of the people in the world it’s crazy, believing in something 0% possible.
    Do you get my point? I’m not asking you to believe, but to treat somebody not strictly rational as a normal person (that would include accepting that the possibility isn’t actually 0%)
    In Argentina I would have said “Sos grosso, man”

  • zdoll

    Good gracious! Some of the comments you were arguing against remind me of my Philosophy class which mainly focused on morals and politics.. Each of those comments were rebutted quite well (in your article and in that class). I would highly recommend that you should take a philosophy class on these subjects if you can, or read books about them (especially Aristotle’s virtue theory and eudaimonia) if you have not already. What you would specifically learn is how the use rationality and certain universal morals are justified scientifically and otherwise.


  • Vesa

    Thumbs up! I was browsing through the nets and found your blog by accident. In one well written article you managed to say what i was thinking and struggling to say just the orher day.

    Thank you!


  • Dougl ias Cartwright

    This is an interesting debate.

    I’m a Christian (or more accurately I try to live from the worldview of Jesus as best I understand it) and I was recently studying the bible with a guy who is an engineer and sees the world very strongly through the eyes of the empirical, scientific paradigm. I explained to him that that particular paradigm is dominant right now but that doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY way of viewing the world.
    When people demand that evidence be verifiable, measurable, observable etc I understand why they do that. We all do that at times.

    But to insist (and I speak generally) here that something cannot exist because it cannot be measured does smack of blinkered thinking. We couldn’t measure x-rays 200 years ago, we’ve only had powered flight for just over 100 years and so on.

    How do you measure love? At some point we’ll be measuring chemical reactions in the body and brain and probably point to that but that is only one aspect of love.

    I cannot ‘prove’ Jesus is the Man to follow by scientific methods and my faith in Him is, to some degree based on what I call the weight of circumstantial evidence, and the likelihood of the witnesses being accurate (a much longer debate).

    But billions of people on this planet claim to have a relationship with Him, and it’s incredibly arrogant for people to assume that these 2 billion are more stupid or less enlightened than them! The bible also makes it clear that God cannot be understood by intellectual means alone, so that argument does not hold water for me. Without the Holy Spirit, someone who does not believe does not really have a leg to stand on because that is a stated barrier to entry (so to speak).

    Anyway, like Scott pointed out, I understand my beliefs are just beliefs BUT that does not mean they cannot refer to something real.

    Scott,I loved your article on decision making and it’s probably the most helpful piece of advice I’ve had on the topic in years. Thanks

    Doug Cartwright

  • Glenn

    To quote Doug, “God cannot be understood by intellectual means alone”. Well then, this supposed god of yours has lost my vote because all I have is my powers of observation and mind. Why should I choose your god over and above the thousands of other purported gods that people have invented throughout history? Even if your god was real, I would have only a 1/1,000,000 chance of choosing the true god from the plethora of gods available. The whole argument of not being able to understand god and having to rely on faith is one massive cop-out and smacks of church leaders wanting to dumb down the masses. Have a nice day, and may the universal Logos of rationality bring you your just deserts.