On Rationality and Emotion, Faith and Hope
The historical interaction of science and religion in the West can be seen as tension between faith and rationality, with the rise of science steadily driving out irrationality and replacing it with the clear light of reason.
Part of the change was the replacement of emotionally based faith by evidentially based proof, leading to sound theories grounded in logical reasoning and confirmed by scientific evidence)
Through Galileo and Newton, the idea of immutable laws impartially ordering the physical world came into being. With the rise of atomic theory and the understanding that the macroscopic behaviour of matter is determined by forces acting between its constituent particles, an evidence-based picture emerged of how matter is structured and its behaviour determined. The secrets of life and the universe were one by one being laid bare by reason, and categorised in a series of laws that codified our understanding.
As our understanding deepened, apparently quite disparate physical phenomena came to be understood as manifestations of unifying underlying principles. The secrets of life and the universe were one by one being laid bare by reason, and categorised in a series of laws that codified our understanding.
The periodic table of the elements established the basic components making up both the natural and the living world around us, showing how living matter and inorganic material are built up of the same basic chemical elements. The discovery of the cells at the basis of living matter, with their internal biochemical processes, showed how chemical interactions and thermodynamics underlie the functioning of living organisms.
The need for special design was removed by the understanding of the power of the process of Darwinian natural selection acting over very long time scales in sculpting the nature of living organisms. The discovery of the molecular structure of the genome – the DNA double helix, with its ability to store and replicate information – and the biochemical bases of neuronal activity, showed how heredity and brain function are based in basic chemical and physical principles.
The same reasoning power and understanding could be applied to technology, based in our scientific understanding, enabling us to tame and control the environment to a large degree. The principle of rationality became understood to be the basis of an ordered life. Rationality was seen as impeded by emotion, scientific proof thought to remove the need for faith, and hope in the face of evidence was seen as simply an irrational manifestation of our more primitive biological heritage, which we had to learn to overcome.
In the West, the scientific paradigm took over management strategies and provided the idea of rationality as the basis of how both communal and individual life should be lived. The demons of the past were being driven out by science. Science would provide a Third Culture, “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are” [Horgan].
However, it is becoming clear that this view is overdone: science is not the answer to all our needs, and rationality is claiming things it cannot give. Modern technology underlies a series of major problems facing humanity today, ranging from large-scale environmental destruction to the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and does not by itself provide any help in resolving the resulting problems that have the potential to threaten the very existence of human life.
Reason by itself cannot provide an ethical basis for living, and indeed a scientifically based outlook can lead to inhumanity just as much as fundamentalist religion can. Rationality is not all that is important in human nature. A broader understanding is needed that incorporates what science can teach us, but that also has a sound ethical basis and a more humane perspective on the world, and values each of Emotion, Faith, and Hope.
2. The present scientific world-view
Science deals with repeatable situations where quantitative experimental tests can determine reliable repeating patterns of behaviour. It focuses in essence on three domains, and how they relate to each other:
-The large (astronomy and cosmology)
-The everyday and the complex (solids, liquids, gases, waves, heat, sound, light; materials, chemistry, and life)
This characterizes how rationality organizes and comprehends the world – on the basis of unexpected evidence.
2.1 Particles and Matter
All matter is made of extremely small particles called quarks and electrons. They are electrically charged. Quarks bind together to form positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, together called nucleons because they in turn bind together to form the positively charged nuclei of atoms. Such nuclei when surrounded by the right numbers of electrons (exactly balancing the positive charge of the nucleus) form atoms.
The different kinds of atoms (depending on the charge of the nucleus) form the various chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulphur for example) characterised in the periodic table of the elements – one of the central discoveries of science.
Atoms bind together to form molecules, which in turn form materials of all kind, which then when combined in an appropriate manner constitute macroscopic objects – rocks and lakes, birds and flowers, zebras and humans.
Hierarchical structure of matter, and associated interactions:
Macroscopic objects Macroscopic behaviour
Macroscopic materials Constitutive relations
Molecules Chemical Binding
Atoms Atomic Binding
Nucleons and nuclei Nuclear Binding
Quarks and electrons Fundamental Forces
Table 1: Hierarchical structure of matter.
Thus the constituents of matter, including the material out of which living beings are constructed, are known. These constituents interact with each other through four fundamental forces (gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak force), and it is these interactions that determine their macroscopic behaviour – the gas laws in the case of gases, elasticity in the case of solids, and so on.
Underlying all physical change is the conversion of energy from useful to unusable forms – the famous second law of Thermodynamics. Microscopic conservation laws – conservation of charge, energy, momentum, and matter – underlie macroscopic conservation laws of fundamental importance to us (objects do not just appear and disappear, for example, and we need an energy source in order to do work). These conservation laws in turn are based in a subtle and beautiful way on symmetries in the underlying physics.
2.2 Complexity and Life
How does life and consciousness emerge from inanimate physics and chemistry? In essence, the basic building blocks outlined above are put together in complex modular hierarchical structures. The key chemical element around which this is all based is carbon, which can form the basis for very long chains of atoms such as polypeptides. The levels of the biological hierarchy are characterised in Table 2.
The key element is the living cell, which is the module out of which all living beings are constructed. This is not obvious because a cell is so small- a human being, for example, is comprised of 10^13 = 10,000,000,000,000 cells. They link together to form highly structured tissues and systems
Hierarchical structure of life and functioning
The biosphere Global resource cycles
Biomes Energy and material interchange
Ecosystems Species interdependence
Animal populations Competition and the food chain
Individual organisms & animals Physiological functioning
Limbs & physiological systems, Organism homeostasis & control, including the brain including purposive actions
Tissues Growth, maintenance, repair
Cells Growth, specialisation, death
Organelles Cell homeostasis
Macro Molecules Folding, recognition, binding
Building Block Molecules Combine to form polymers
Chemical elements Chemical binding
The structure of these complex systems results in emergence of higher levels of order and function that are not present in the lower levels, and cannot even be described in the languages appropriate at those levels. They function by a combination of bottom-up and top-down causality. Not only do the microscopic laws acting on the constituent particles at the lower levels act to physically determine what happens at the higher levels (for example, when electric forces between protons and electrons in my arm conspire together to enable me to move my arm in a tennis shot), but additionally the higher levels control what happens at the lower levels.
Thus the higher levels are not just puppets in the hands of the lower levels – through these interactions they have their own rationality and causal effectiveness at each level, characterised by a language of description appropriate at that level. Purpose is embodied in the set of goals imbedded in these hierarchically structured feedback control systems
Information underlying the higher levels of this hierarchy is stored in molecular structures, in particular in the paired base sequences in DNA that constitute the genetic information of each organism. The whole is self-assembling, the developmental process in each organism being based on hierarchical pattern-recognition processes that convert the specific base sequences in the DNA for that organism into proteins according to the universal genetic code. This reading of genetic information is not a simple algorithmic process; it is highly context dependent, with positional information determining which part of the gene will be read in each cell at each specific stage of development.
At the higher levels, organisms live in ecosystems where they interact with each other to form energy and food chains which underlie major resource cycles. The entire set of such ecosystems forms the biosphere, existing on the surface of the continents on Earth, in seas, lakes, and rivers, and in the atmosphere above.
2.3 Historical origin of complexity
This enormously complex interconnected system of living organisms, culminating in self-aware consciousness, has occurred through the processes of Darwinian evolution. Initial processes that are still ill-understood resulted in single-cell organisms, and then cells learned to join together to form multi-cellular creatures. Random variations in the gene caused variations in living organisms, which were then better or less well adapted to survival in their current environment. Those that were better adapted outperformed the others and their genes had a better survival and reproduction rate; hence these best-adapted organisms came to dominate, the others falling by the wayside.
Consciousness and the associated ability to plan rationally results in better survival rates, resulting in the generation of organisms with purposive behaviour, eventually including the ability to make conscious choices of goals.
The specific genes in each organism result from a contingent historical process, and contain a record of that process (for example the migration of life from the sea to land). They are therefore to a major degree determined by historical events such as global heating and cooling cycles on the surface of the Earth.
Nevertheless one can suggest that there will necessarily be a convergence to the same solutions in terms of physiological structure, because of common functional problems faced by organisms on the one hand, and the restricted nature of possible engineering responses (based on the underlying physical and chemical laws) to these problems on the other hand; for example there are only a limited numbers of ways that an eye or ear can function. Biological evolution explores a restricted possibility space.
2.4 The Cosmos
The biosphere exists on the surface of the planet Earth, one of the nine planets circling the vastly larger Sun. The planets and Sun together comprise the Solar System, and is held together by gravity.
The Sun is a vast nuclear reactor, also held together by gravity, in which hydrogen is converted to helium by nuclear burning at very high temperatures at the centre, thus releasing vast amounts of energy that flow into space as radiation.
The small amount of this energy that is received by the Earth powers the biosphere, for example being used in photosynthesis to power the growth of plants and also being the energy source for all the weather on earth.
The Sun is just a typical star, looking much larger and hotter than other stars because it is so much closer than they are.
Together with about 10^11 = 100,000,000,000 other stars, it forms the Galaxy, a huge disk of stars that we see at night as the Milky Way. We see it edge-on, because we are located in the outer regions of the disc.
While stars shine brightly because of their emitted radiation, planets only shine by reflected light, and so are very difficult to see at a large distance. We have detected only a few planets circling other stars; nevertheless there probably are a great many other planets in the Galaxy.
The galaxy is just one of a huge number of other galaxies that we can see as very faint images in the sky, very faint because they are so very far away from us.
We can detect about 10^11 = 100,000,000,000 other galaxies in the visible region of the universe, each similar in size to our own Galaxy This region also contains exotic objects such as radio sources, quasi-stellar objects, and X-Ray sources, as well as dark matter that we cannot directly see, but can detect by its gravitational effects.
This visible region of the universe may be part of a vastly larger cosmos, most of it unseen by us because light will never reach us from those extraordinarily distant regions.
Hierarchical structure of Associated Astronomy Processes
The whole Universe Formation of the Universe
The observable Universe Expansion of the Universe
Large scale structures (walls, voids) Structure formation
Cluster of galaxies Galaxy cluster formation
Galaxies Evolution of Galaxies
Star clusters Star cluster evolution
Stars and their planetary systems Stellar evolution
Planets, including the Earth Planetary formation
Table 3: Hierarchical nature of astronomical structure.
It is crucial to note that the universe is not static, as astronomers initially supposed. The observable region of the universe is expanding, with clusters of galaxies getting ever more distant from each other.
By measuring the expansion rate, we can see that it had a start in a Hot Big Bang event in the past, about 10^10 = 10,000,000,000 years ago, when all the matter was concentrated in an indefinitely small volume.
It is probable that it will expand forever in the future, with the matter in the universe ever getting more and more dilute. It will also get ever colder as the stars burn out one by one, and galaxies become ghostly remnants of their former glory.
One of the crucial features to note here is the immensity of the universe relative to humanity.
The entire Earth is a tiny – almost invisible – speck in the Galaxy, which itself is a minute part of the cosmos as a whole. We are very small indeed relative to what exists. We cannot affect it in any serious way on scales larger than that of the earth.
We are confined to a tiny fraction of the entire cosmos, and that will always be the case. We will never be able to visit the furthest regions we can see, and we cannot see all there is. We do not know what the nature of the universe is on the largest of scales – that is, much bigger than the observable part of the universe.
2.5 Historical origins of the cosmos
The hot big bang expansion phase of the universe is well understood, because matter and radiation were then in equilibrium at the very high temperatures consequent on the universe being condensed to a very much smaller size than today. The process of nucleosynthesis – creation of the light elements (deuterium, helium, lithium) from protons and neutrons – took place when the temperature was about 109K.
The tightly bound matter and radiation let go of each other when the temperature dropped to about 4000K, and the universe became transparent at that time (previously it was very opaque – light could only penetrate a few cm. at most). The radiation we receive from that time (“Cosmic Background Radiation”) is one of the key pieces of information we have about the early universe, and much of present day cosmology is engaged with measuring and interpreting minute fluctuations in this radiation.
First stars formed by gravitational attraction, but without hospitable planets circling them because the elements needed for life did not yet exist. The most massive ones did not last long by astronomical standards: they burnt their nuclear fuel too fast.
However they had time to synthesise heavier elements deep in their interiors, and in particular the elements essential for life such as Carbon and Oxygen, before their death in a spectacular supernova explosion.
That explosion spread these elements through space, forming the clouds of dust from which second generation stars could form, surrounded by planets that might support life. This is the origin of the elements out of which all living beings on earth are made, as well as the earth itself.
What happened before the Hot Big Bang era is much less well established. Many believe it was preceded by an era of very rapid accelerating expansion, when the universe very quickly became very much larger in an exceedingly short time interval. This “inflation” ended when the effective negative energy field driving it decayed away, its energy being transferred to radiation that would have then heated up the universe to high temperatures after the super-cooling that would have resulted from this rapid expansion.
Inflation would have both smoothed out the universe, thus explaining why its structure is so simple on very large scales, and introduced fluctuations that were the seeds of later structure development as the universe expanded after this inflationary epoch ended. This proposal explains the origin of the clusters of galaxies we see around us at the present time; however its underlying physics is still ill-defined, so it is a broad set of ideas rather than a specific unique proposal for what happened then.
Even earlier than inflation, the universe would probably have been dominated by quantum gravity effects – some combination of quantum ideas with Einstein’s theory of gravitation. However we do not yet have a good theory of quantum gravity, so our theories about this epoch are highly speculative.
In particular we do not know if these effects can remove the inevitability of an initial singularity – a boundary to space-time – at the start of the universe. It is possible that we face an intriguing choice: either there were very special (`fine-tuned’) conditions at the start of the universe, or there was indeed a singularity.
The latter is a very extreme situation – a start to space, to time, and even to physical reality itself, so this is then the boundary of what physics can say about the universe. Some physicists find that a very unpalatable prospect.
One alternative is that we live in a multiverse – there are many other expanding universe regions, apart from the one we can see around us. Perhaps there are even truly disconnected universes, quite separate from our own.
Because there are then so many universes in existence, with varying properties, at least some of them would be like the rather improbable universe in which we live. We can do statistics concerning this family of universes, and try to show that the universe we see is in fact probable.
However this possibility is not observationally testable, so this possibility – foreshadowed in science fiction novels, such as Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker – may or may not be true. Uncertainty remains at the foundations of cosmology.
2.6 Consciousness and the brain
The brain is the most complex system known to us. Brain function is based on mechanisms allowing information storage, processing, and usage, mainly through the electrochemical properties of neurons (the cells that are the basic computational units in the brain), which are connected together in immensely complex ways.
Neurons are made up of a cell body together with long branching extensions called dendrites and axons. Information embodied in action potentials flows down dendrites to the cell body, where summation of inputs is performed and the output is sent down numerous axons to meet dendrites of other neurons at synapses). Here the incoming information is transferred by neurotransmitters from the axon to the dendrite, which are separated there by a small gap. A single neuron may be connected in this way to hundreds or even thousands of other neurons.
Hierarchical structure of the brain: Components
The brain: Brain stem, cerebellum, neocortex, spinal cord
Neocortex: Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, Occipital lobes
Neural networks: 10^11 neurons each with 102 to 103 connections
The neuron: Axons, body, dendrites, synapses
Axons: Nerve fibre, sheath (myelin)
Biochemical molecules: Proteins, nucleic acids
Organic molecules: Bases, Amino Acids, Sugars, Phosphates
Atoms: Nucleus, electrons
Each level of structure in the hierarchy carries out a different function, described in a different language. Neurons are clumped together in major functional areas. Some brain regions are dedicated to automatic (instinctual) functions, some are the seat of our inherited primary emotions, while some are dedicated to analysis of sensory input, to higher cognitive functions, and to handling motor output. Bottom-up and top-down action combine to create consciousness – an emergent feature, based on the physical and chemical interactions underlying the functioning of the complexly interconnected neurons.
The neurological details of these mechanisms are relatively well understood at a micro level, and the broad ways brain areas function is understood at a macro level, showing how various brain areas correlate with various aspects of consciousness.
Nevertheless, the way that consciousness itself is generated is simply not understood. Nor do we understand the relation between the mind and the brain: how matter is able to support self-transcendence.
2.7 Problems at the foundation of science
At the fundamental level, we do not know what the quantum theory of gravity is, although there are two well developed attempts under way to solve this fundamental question.
However problems run much deeper than that; in particular, we do not understand the quantum measurement problem – how microscopic states relate to measurements made by macroscopic laboratory apparatus. The problem is that the laws by which measurements are supposed to occur are not compatible with the measuring apparatus itself obeying the laws of quantum physics; but it is inconsistent for that apparatus to not be composed of matter that obeys these laws.
In terms of the relation of fundamental physics to macroscopic systems, the fundamental problem is we do not know how the micro laws determine the macro arrow of time – which is the future direction of time, which is the past; but that distinction is one of the most important characteristics of macro systems.
In terms of cosmology, I have emphasized above the uncertainty about the way the universe originated in some kind of quantum state, and whether or not there might exist a multiverse. However again the issues run deeper than this.
The fundamental issue is, what determines the existence and specific nature of the laws of physics? What chooses which laws of nature apply? These laws determine the evolution of the universe itself, and of the matter in the universe; but what determines them?
This is a meta-scientific issue, for no scientific experiment can resolve this question. However it gains its specific bite by realising the issue of fine-tuning of the universe for life. There are numerous ways in which the laws of physics and the nature of the universe seem remarkably suited for intelligent life to exist. Most universes we can conceive of would not allow any life at all to exist.
So the ultimate question in relating the cosmos to life is, what is the origin of this fine tuning?
The main scientific proposal in this regard is to suggest that our universe is just one of many in a multiverse. If there are enough varied universes in existence in a multiverse, it becomes more or less certain that there will be life in at least one of them.
However this proposition is not testable, so its scientific status is questionable. The issue is in reality a metaphysical or philosophical one; the inability of science to give an answer is just one aspect of the limits of what can be determined by the scientific method.
Science is very powerful in its domain, but that domain is strictly limited. Firstly, natural and biological science is limited by its very nature to its proper domain of application (the measurable behaviour of physical objects), and so cannot handle features of a quite different nature, such as
– the appreciation of beauty,
– the greatness of literature,
– the joy of cooking,
– the lessons of history,
– the nature of evil,
– the quality of meditation,
– the understanding of love.
3.1 Limits of science
These are of great significance to humanity. Science can explore some of the associated conditions for each of these topics, but cannot in each case enter the core of the topic itself.
For example, there are no machines that can measure the beauty of a painting, or that can experimentally determine how evil an act is. Indeed there are no units for beauty (‘two milli-Rembrants’) or for good and evil (‘one micro-Hitler’). The attempt to set up such experiments on a purely scientific basis would be absurd.
That does not mean making judgements in these areas is absurd: on the contrary they are all important parts of human life. The point simply is that they lie outside the strictly limited domain of science itself.
The implication is that there are different types of knowledge and understanding important to us: there is that accessible by the scientific method, but additionally philosophical and moral knowledge, art and literature, personal knowledge, mystical experience can all be significant to us.
One can still use methods similar to those used in science in understanding these areas, looking for predictive power and adopting a form of critical realism, but the data used will be quite different – often involving individual personal experiences, for example, rather than repeatable laboratory situations. Indeed it is in the uniqueness of experience that much of life’s richness is captured; but science is searching for the common core that can be reliably tested for in identical situations.
One should note here that science by itself does not either confirm or deny a spiritual or religious understanding of the universe. Those making that link are following an illegitimate line of argument that cannot survive critical scrutiny.
3.2 Human Sciences
Is it not perhaps the human sciences that can give guidance to humanity and tackle issues such as those mentioned above? What about the possible contributions of anthropology, sociology, economics, political studies, psychology?
In principle they can indeed help considerably, but there are significant problems related to their use that cannot be resolved on a strictly scientific basis.
The first problem is the lack of consensus, indeed the considerable fragmentation of the social and human sciences, even at the foundations. This is in contrast to the considerable degree of unity of understanding apparent in the ‘hard’ sciences. Consequently, almost any interpretation or proposal one makes in relation to the issues mentioned above will be vigorously disputed by some faction or other. So it is difficult to decide whether progress in understanding is being attained.
The second problem, related to the first, is the fundamentalism that has been apparent in many attempts to relate human sciences to human affairs. Partial and incomplete theories or explanations have been trumpeted to be the whole truth, and used to vigorously denounce those holding opposing views, even when there may be valid support for the contrasting proposals; and that is the essence of all fundamentalisms.
The way this has happened across many of the human sciences has been described in an illuminating way by Steven Pinker in his book The Blank Slate. Examples are the culture-biology tensions in understanding human behaviour, and contrasting approaches to understanding the mind-brain relationship. These partial understandings that have been proclaimed to be the whole truth (for example, Skinner’s behaviourist psychology) have inevitably been demeaning of our deep human nature.
The scientific method has often come across as incapable of providing a worthwhile understanding of humanity.
The third problem is the implied ethical stances and value choices that have been implicitly assumed and taken to be valid in many social science analyses – particularly in economics and politics – and have then shaped the resulting suggested understanding of human affairs.
Again this is often done with a dogmatic presumption that this is the only way of understanding how things could be. This may have improved somewhat in recent times, but nevertheless an explicit exploration of the ethical presuppositions underlying analyses in the human sciences is relatively rare.
The key point, then, is that these ethical understandings, which fundamentally shape the outcome of any analysis, cannot come from science itself – they have to come from elsewhere. Overall, science is concerned with the means rather than the ends of life, and this concern is built into its very nature. That is the reason it cannot deal with such issues.
3.3 What is the nature of ethics?
There are many options that have been advanced through the ages.
The claim I will make is that deep ethics is kenotic: that is, it is based in generosity and love, and involves the capacity and willingness for forgiveness and reconciliation, which in turn means giving up the need for revenge, in order to attain the greater good. On occasion it can involve the ultimate of sacrifice on behalf of the other, even the enemy, because that is the way to turn the hardened heart, to convert an enemy to a friend, and so to create the true security that comes from being surrounded by friends rather than enemies.
The implication is not that one is always sacrificing on behalf of others, but rather that one is prepared to do so when the context is such that a move of this kind can have a transformational quality.
This moves ethics to a totally new regime: the arena of deep ethics that can indeed transform context and situation, in a way that is paradoxical because what was impossible in the old context becomes possible in the new, for the hardened heart can indeed on occasion be touched and transformed.
This is the only ethics that can create true security by fundamentally transforming the situation. It is recognised as an aspect of the highest good by all the major religions; and one can suggest therefore that it is indeed the true nature of a realist ethic, deeply imbedded in the nature of the universe, that would indeed be recognised as such by ethically advanced intelligent beings anywhere in the universe.
In all human actions, the means used are as important as the ends, because you cannot attain ends based on one kind of values through means based on different values; and so the means used should be kenotic in nature in order to attain the good we envisage.
3.4 Free will and responsibility
In order for ethical choices to be meaningful, it is crucial that the human mind has “free will”; that is, the individual can make choices expressing both their nature and their conscious decisions about the way they want to act. We must be responsible for our actions in some serious sense.
Many scientists in various ways deny that free will exists, because of the way that physics and chemistry underlie neuronal functioning and hence brain activity, as outlined above. It seems as if our brain is a computer that computes output according to immutable laws of physics, its operations shaped by either our evolutionary history or our culture in such a way that consciousness is a mere epi-phenomenon superimposed on its unconscious operations, with the disastrous implications that “there is no sound biological (or ideological) basis for selfhood, willpower, freedom, or responsibility”.
The response to this deterministic and reductionist denial of the core of personhood is multiple. This view is based on laboratory results that fail to take into account the timescales and complexity of real-life interactions, and it does not adequately represent the way the human mind develops and functions as part of a distributed cognitive network . It fails to take into account top-down action in the brain, together with the causal effectiveness of consciousnes.
And above all, if it were actually true, then science would not be possible, because we would not have the power to assess theories on the basis of their internal consistency and compatibility with the data.
Our brains would be computing output in some internally determined way that would not necessarily relate to any concept we might have of rationally deciding whether theories are scientifically acceptable or not. The whole supposed basis of the scientific enterprise would turn out to be a charade.
3.5 Rationality and emotion
Finally in looking at the relation of rationality to other human attributes, it is important to note the Cartesian error of considering the essential feature of human existence as being rationality alone.
The mind is an integral party of a being imbued with internal affective states as well as external senses. Feelings and emotions are just as much core human capacities as thinking is, and have evolved to what they are because they serve vital functions in human life. In essence they continuously evaluate our situation as being satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and signal both the conscious and unconscious brain when change is needed.
Without emotion, intellect cannot function adequately; and this can be clearly demonstrated in the case of patients who have suffered damage to the emotional centres in the brain.
Actually the relation goes much further than this: emotions underlie the development of rationality in neuro-scientific terms. They provide a value system that guides the development of the intellect in response to internal and external senses and experiences, as the individual interacts with family and society.
The implication is that the theoretical concept of pure rational brain activity is an illusion. Rational cogitation is always part and parcel of an ongoing integral activity in which emotion and reason and values interweave with each other. We are able to restrain the emotional side in order to arrive at rational conclusions in accord with our value system, and science is the system par excellence for doing so.
The sources of values that help guide the higher emotions are as important to our lives as the rationality that assesses what is happening on the basis of those values. Science can help us determine if we can attain our chosen goals, and see the outcomes that will follow from our chosen values; but it cannot itself substitute for the human choices of such values and goals.
4 On being Human: faith and hope
Essential features of a full human life are faith and hope, driven by the need to make life choices in the face of uncertainty and adversity (and we note here that even atheism is a faith). Rationality, based on impartial analysis of repeated experience and carefully collected evidence, is what gives us our ability to plan sensibly and successfully in the face of reality and its inherent limitations, but hope is often needed in order to continue surviving and functioning in the face of desperate situations – to fight against the odds.
Indeed that has been abundantly clear in the recent history of South Africa- there were many times when the rational thing would have been to give up in despair. But the miracle of the political transition happened without the country descending into wholesale bloodshed, because of the political and moral leadership provided by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Part of the point is that the non-rational clinging to hope is itself part of the transformational process. It is an active factor in changing the context in which we live, and hence the outcomes of our choices and actions.
This process has an element of faith – faith in what might happen if hope is pursued. But faith is needed anyhow to provide a basis for thought, values, and action, for a number of reasons, even though it is itself guided by thoughts and values. Faith is needed when the evidence is incomplete; hope when the evidence is against you.
First, metaphysical uncertainty is inevitable in terms of ascertaining the underlying nature of reality, as pointed out by Immanuel Kant, and so in order to have some philosophical position to live by, we need to make choices concerning our metaphysical worldviews that cannot be proven to be right (we may be totally persuaded they are true, but that is not a logical proof).
Second, ethical stances also cannot be proven to be right or wrong, but we have to make choices here too, as they guide all our other choices (and making no consciously thought-out choice is itself a choice, in this context).
Third, in everyday choices we are always proceeding on the basis of inadequate information, and have to proceed on the faith and hope that our judgements are right (in choosing business partners, life companions, what career to pursue, and so on). We have to trust some people, thereby accepting that we are not in full control of what happens.
Indeed this applies even in science: setting up a scientific project is an exercise in hope.
Finally, we are inevitably concerned about the future – where this is all going to end. Faith and hope naturally arise in this context. These are crucial elements in our exercise of volition.
Thus there are important roles for both rationality and hope in human life, but there is an ongoing tension between them, for rationality is based on logic and proof, but faith functions where there can be no proof. We cannot live without it. Thus in many ways the concept of a purely rational, securely evidence-based approach to life is an illusion. Life is much richer than that.
However there is a crucial final point. It is not true that all exercises of faith and hope are equal. Like all our abilities, they too can be used rightly or wrongly. This is where the exercise of discernment is essential. Some faiths, and in particular fundamentalist faiths, are destructive and to be avoided; some hopes are evil.
Thus faith and hope, like our actions, have to be guided by ethics – value choices of what are acceptable goals for each of us.
Each of Rationality, Emotions, Ethics, Faith and Hope are influenced by each of the other, with reason being the key player trying to bring the others into harmony. The instinctive brain underlies this as does the unconscious.
There is a subtle tension here between the natures of reason and hope. Reason can help us discern which faiths are reasonable faiths, and which hopes are ethical hopes. This does not deny what has been said before, but indicates how rather then denying their important role, reason plays a crucial role in the exercise of faith and hope.
This is an important point. I note here two aspects of this crucial tension. First, in the end, as with all other choices we make, faith and hope must be judged by their outcomes – “By their fruits ye shall know them”.
Second, those outcomes in turn are to be judged relative to a universal ethical base: are they in the end promoting generosity and love among human beings, or not? This implies that the faith and hope we choose to live by should be kenotic in nature, in order that our resulting actions can attain the good we aspire to. Reason can help us in this endeavour.
5 Concluding Overview
A main tension in human life is that between intellect, faith, and hope, specifically between impersonal rational analysis, driven by curiosity and the desire to understand both our universe and whatever life situations may face us on the one hand, and on the other hand, faith and hope, driven both by the desire to fulfill our deepest natural desires, and the need to make life choices in the face of uncertainty and adversity. This interaction is guided by a subtle interaction between intellect, values, and emotions.
We can engage with life in different ways: mainly on a scientific basis, obtaining rational impersonal answers based on simplified analytic models and repeatable experimental observations, with all the strengths and limitations that entails, or alternatively in terms of personal and communal faith and hope, based on wider aspects of our experience, and addressing other dimensions of understanding.
Either approach by itself is partial and limited.
The suggestion is that we need a focus on the nature of being human that involves the integral whole – that celebrates and nurtures an ever-changing and deepening interaction between rationality, emotion, values, faith, and hope. This is nothing other than an old-fashioned approach that recognizes and celebrates the classical virtues of faith, hope, and charity – but also takes the rationality of science into serious account, with the whole guided by values of a kenotic nature.
The interaction between them has the potential to help produce the kind of integrative worldview, incorporating all these elements, that will ultimately be most satisfying.
Actually this is all obvious – one only has to emphasize it because so many clever people deny the obvious.