Rationality Redefined

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Jeffrey Thayne

Early Greek philosophers saw reason as the conduit through which human beings could access the unchanging certainties of the cosmos. This perspective actually makes some sense. We may age, wither, and die, but the Pythagorean theorem remains unchanged through time. The conclusions of rational thought were seen as the bedrock truths at the bottom of our swiftly changing world.

This understanding of human reason implies that rational people will converge on the same ideas. An interesting, subtle, but extremely important side effect of this point of view is expressed aptly by John Locke: “All that is voluntary in our knowledge, is the employing or withholding any of our [rational] faculties. … But they being employed, our will hath no power to determine the knowledge of the mind one way or another.” Thus, the conclusions of rational thought are inevitable.

Modern philosophers have, to some extent, rejected this ancient perspective on rationality. Instead, reason has been seen as a human tool for satisfying our individual desires. This is easily seen in the example of Sigmund Freud, who believed that human beings possess, at the bottom, a sea of insatiable desires (the id), which are satisfied more effectively by forming a rationality more suited to pursue them (the ego). While few overtly subscribe to Freud’s philosophy, it is merely an instantiation of a widespread modern trend which David Hume summarized when he described reason as “the slave of the passions.”

Michael Oakeshott’s Point of View

In contrast to both trends, Michael Oakeshott did not describe reason as either a conduit to certain truth or a slave of human passion. According to Shirley Robin Letwin, Oakeshott believed reason was “a purely human, but creative power.” Rationality, according to Oakeshott, “is a faculty for inventing interpretations of and responses to experience.”

Basically, reason is the human capacity to “make sense” of the world, to create order and make patterns out of otherwise unordered experience. “In this picture,” explained Letwin, “if a person’s faculties are in good order, he exercises his rationality in whatever he is doing because he is always interpreting his experience and responding in the manner that he selects. This means that whenever a man is aware of anything, he has made something of it.”

There is no single path that rationality may follow. A person may make sense of the same experience in any number of ways. For example, he may make sense of his trip to the fast food restaurant as a deserved reward after dieting for a lengthy time, or he may make sense of the trip as an unfortunate indulgence after a long time of resisting temptation. Which way a person makes sense of his experience is his choice. “In short, to say that a man is a rational being is to say that he makes of himself what he will and that things appear to him as he chooses to see them.”

When we see rationality this way, we see that all of human action and perception involves choice. “To say that human beings possess individuality,” explained Letwin, “means that all are the makers of their own thoughts, … and that they are responsible for what they become.” With this insight comes a danger, however. Letwin warns,

But if understanding rationality in this fashion (as a purely human attribute, instead of as a pipeline to non-human certainties) offers a better explanation of individuality, it also suffers from a great drawback: It allows no escape from the constant flux of human life. And the implications can be highly disconcerting. As there is no cosmic necessity for any human contrivance, everything can be questioned.

What this means is that none of our beliefs or truth claims can be indisputably justified through rational analysis. For example, said Letwin,

however firmly we assert that “every human being is to be treated as an end and never as a means,” that understanding must be a commitment because we accept it even though there are alternatives to it that we cannot demonstrate to be necessarily false. We can elaborate and embellish this commitment, but we cannot establish a universal and wholly uncontentious obligation to regard every human being as an end in himself.

In other words, our most cherished beliefs can never be demonstrated to be indubitably true; we can simply commit to them as an act of faith. We can certainly persuade others to do the same thing; we may even use logic and other persuasive tools to convince them to. However, any subsequent conversion is best compared to a voluntary shift in allegiance, because at no time did we prove that our beliefs were true—we only persuaded others to relinquish their commitment to their former beliefs and commit to a new point of view. According to Letwin, “science is as vulnerable as morality.” He continues:

If we accept a scientific explanation of the precipitation we call rain, we may confidently say that anyone who expects to produce precipitation by rolling stones is mistaken. Our awareness that we may later change our views on rain need not prevent us from declaring the statement to be true. But we cannot ultimately justify our view to the stone-rolling rainmaker other than by declaring a commitment to a particular manner of explaining such phenomena—the manner which we consider to be “scientific.”

In other words, certainty is no longer the product of reason; certainty must be found elsewhere, if at all. I suspect that certainty is not impossible from this point of view—it just cannot be rational certainty. Rational certainty is no more than conviction.


This view of human rationality makes individuality inevitable. While the ancient view of reason implied that rational people will converge on a single idea, Oakeshott’s perspective implies that divergence of worldviews is possibly inevitable among rational people. Letwin explains, “Disputes are bound to arise not just because human beings can be wicked [as in the ancient view of reason], but because they are rational. … In short, once we cease to think of human rationality as a pipeline to eternal verities, we can achieve a coherent understanding of human individuality.”

Does this point of view conflict with a Latter-day Saint worldview? I haven’t yet made up my mind about the issue. Many moralists argue in favor of the ancient view of reason because the implications of the modern view of reason can lead to nihilism. Oakeshott’s view of human reason, however, lacks the certainty provided by the ancient view, but may, perhaps, avoid the nihilism of the modern. Consider: few Latter-day Saints claim to know indubitably, through logical deductions, the restored doctrines of the gospel. That kind of logical pursuit is not the invitation we find in scripture. Rather, we are invited to commit ourselves to follow the Savior by making promises, and then to be true to those promises afterwards.

Certainly, we claim certainty through divine revelation. Consider Bruce R. McConkie’s claim that the divinity of the Savior Jesus Christ is not established through logic, but by apostolic witnesses. It doesn’t seem as though revealed truth is something that requires reason to be a conduit to certain truth, since none of the important truths of the gospel are rooted in the claims of reason. I will discuss more of the epistemological implications of Oakeshott’s point of view in a future post. For now, let’s consider the possibility that divine revelation is one of many kinds of experiences that we subsequently make sense of. Unique to the experience of divine revelation is the fact that it frequently invites us to reconstrue our understanding of the world, and to make sense of it differently than we had before.

All quotations taken from Shirley Robin Letwin, On the History of the Idea of Law, (Cambridge: Camrbidge University Press, 2005).


  1. I really appreciate this post. I’ve tried to talk about this to someone who insists that our religion is not logical. (“God just wouldn’t do that – it isn’t logical”)

    There is a really great quote from G. K. Chesterton about this:

    Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman’s ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument. Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books. The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic. Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic—for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.

    G. K. Chesterton (Daily News, Feb 25, 1905)

    1. Brilliant quote! Thank you!

      I agree… logic and reason are about accounting for experience, or creating an interpretation of it. It doesn’t establish the truth of the resulting interpretation.

      I assume you’ve come over here from Connor’s site. Thanks for your contributions to that discussion. I hope I haven’t appeared too combative.

      I hope you know that I’m not opposed to the scientific pursuit. I only question the way we idolize it (to the point that those who question its basic assumptions are compared to Saul of Tarsus). And I feel that we need to be honest about the implications of some of the explanations we use to account for the natural world.

      Thanks, and we hope to hear from you again!

  2. It’s interesting that reason seems indefinable except in terms of a desired outcome, at least when you get two steps away. Whether we want to make sense of our practical world or merely discover more general “truths” we must explain our reason for doing so. (It’s apples to oranges, but is space research as important as medicinal research in other words? Is mere “knowledge” that can’t be applied to our practical or spiritual lives significant?)

    Unfortunately it’s impossible to convince somebody with logic (unless they’re the type of people who like to be seen as somebody who can be impartially swayed by a solid argument) – you can prove, but you’ll need a write a proof to prove the proof and so on into infinity.

    Anyway, I’m opining so I’ll get to my point: I’ve heard so much utter bull and so many contradictory arguments strung together with rock-solid arguments that I must as a matter of course dismiss the convergence theory. For non-omniscient beings who can’t weigh every factor certainty in anything seems unlikely, and anybody who believes anything too strongly because it has been explained to them very well is a little suspicious. So I have to judge mortal reason very pragmatically by its effects. Only God has Truth with a capital “T” because, knowing and understanding everything, He can’t possibly act against that which is good and right.

    But I find some sort of consistency important. I think the LDS faith can be explained logically, without ridiculous explanations, because it’s true and thereby must make sense at some level. I mean, we might not have all of the right explanations but it’s possible to build some kind of satisfactory framework to coincide with crucial spiritual experiences. But maybe that’s how it always looks from the inside.

  3. Clumpy: The LDS faith … might not have all of the right explanations but it’s possible to build some kind of satisfactory framework. … But maybe that’s how it always looks from the inside.

    If it makes you feel better, my Protestant friend agrees with you. He told me once in a chat:

    I have found LDS doctrine to be very tight. People say it has contradictions, but I have not found them. Very well at covering possible holes. It has good internal consistency.

    It’s interesting, because if you believe in rational theology (that God is discovered and understood primarily through logic and reason), then the idea of other religions being logical and having high internal consistency would be a threat. You’d think, “Christianity is the truth because it is the most logical. Therefore I must show that all other religions are illogical if I am to retain my creed.”

    But if you believe in revealed theology (that God is discovered and understood primarily through revealed knowledge), then you’re fine with the fact that other religions can be internally consistent and reasonable—because reason is not the primary path to truth. There are many things that are reasonable that are not true, but revelation tells us which of all those reasonable creeds is the true one. So we’re not threatened by the existence of other fairly logical systems of thought.

    It also means we should feel no pride in our knowledge of the gospel, because it was given to us as an act of kindness, not deduced through our own efforts.

  4. Actually, sociology has begun to hold that belief in any idea that has been widely accepted cannot be “illogical”, for the reasons we’ve outlined. Many of the individual precepts church members invent to “explain” my religion I disagree with. I don’t believe in the “Day of Defense” style of waterproofing one’s religion, going through any contorted explanation just because it technically works, then being forced to wedge future ideas into the framework you’ve already created.

    But I believe that the logic exists, and, most importantly, our church fixes many of the problems inherent in Christianity (the problem of the unbaptized majority, recognizing faith and grace as crucial without opening the can of worms that is Salvation Through Jumping Through a Series of Hoops, and recognizing modern revelation without the sort of power structure that can often create).

    We’re a little too close to our own religions and distanced from the others to really discredit any other religion based on logic; though many people don’t think about the sticky spots of their religion I’m sure that most religions have their own webs of consistency (at least the ones that don’t cater to people who worship mainly through clapping and demeaning others).

  5. Great post, and thanks for the follow-up quotation, Angilee. I think we all have our own personal “religions”, that we’ve constructed based upon our experiences, our logic, and our reason. Sure, most LDS people have a great many beliefs in common, but how quickly we can be divisive in our own interpretations (justifications) of different points of doctrine, scripture, etc. (Exhibit #1: any sunday school class or priesthood class.) And of course, my brand of Mormonism is more correct than yours. 🙂 All too often, we are more “tolerant” of our Catholic or Baptist neighbors than we are of our “misguided Mormon” brothers and sisters.

    When discussion turns to argument and nit-picking; I find it better to focus on the atonement, and the associated first principles and ordinances of the gospel.

  6. All too often, we are more “tolerant” of our Catholic or Baptist neighbors than we are of our “misguided Mormon” brothers and sisters.

    Can I get an amen? Amen! It makes me sad sometimes how quickly saints will say things like, “He stays in his church clothes all day? How pharisaic.” It’s personally not my standard, but lands sakes! The Spirit can prompt us to do different things with our lives. I admire someone for caring enough to have a personal standard.

  7. And honestly, I am more guilty of the other way around. “That person does {fill in the blank}”, I might think. And that {such and such} doesn’t mesh with my idea of how to live a certain commandment. Shame on me. How does my judgment of this person help me or them, or anyone around me, in any way whatsoever? It doesn’t. I constantly have to “coach myself” (those are the words I use) out of such judgments. Though I have been working on it for years, it’s still my natural tendency to judge, unless I am “yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19)–it it then that I find it much easier to love others. Looks like I wavered a bit off topic. To bring it back: sometimes my logic and reason give me a false sense of justification in judging others. I can logically see that neighbor is doing something wrong (and that’s up for debate sometimes); but it doesn’t logically follow that it would be helpful to anyone that I think less of this person.

    This early morning comment has helped me start off the day on a good note. I commit myself to a day of loving others. . .

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