the imaginative conservative logo

Relentless Rationalism burns up the “life, mind, morality and reason” of man, seeing in the ashes the only true liberation of humanity…

relentless“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

—Jules Verne, The Journey to the Center of the Earth

We are all fragile bags of brains and blood and bone, and beneath those bits of the human form we are mere matter. Many modern scientists have dismembered humanity into its constituent parts, the most basic of which is the slew of cosmic guck that constitutes our brains and bodies both. In this view, which is growing in prominence, man is mere material floating about in the universe. This is the view of scientific materialism and physicalism, both of which lay the ground for Relentless Rationalism, which will be discussed below.

Though it certainly has centuries-old roots, one of the great debates of the twenty-first century has been about this very idea: that human beings are only just messy, temporary collections of matter in motion, our consciousness being an expression of that motion. It seems that most Americans still reject this idea, their rejections rooted in Judeo-Christian conceptions of the afterlife. [1]

Regardless of what most Americans think, a small but growing group of intellectuals and their followers have embraced Relentless Rationalism.

Relentless Rationalism

“Relentless Rationalism,” as I call it, is the belief in the ultimate supremacy of a rigorously scientific understanding of the world, a belief that rests upon the thesis that everything that exists is made of the same material, that man is mere matter. This view, more or less, is based on a rigid view of the universe through the lenses of mathematics and matter, an open-arms embrace of the quantitative aspects of our lives, but a total rejection of all things qualitative, all things felt.

This worldview makes science, and thus the knowledge science yields, an end in itself, and the only real means of exploring the point of it all—the only correct way to distill truths of existence from the chaos of human life. As Jules Verne wrote, it is through the pursuit of science that humanity edges itself “little by little to the truth.”

If “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces” terrified Pascal, stretched endlessly, as they are, both before and after human existence, then they torment the Relentless Rationalist. [2] Aware of the eternity leading to the dawn of humanity, and equally aware of the eons that will remain after humanity returns to the dust, the Relentless Rationalist sees knowledge as liberation. Knowledge, in this Panglossian view of the human mind, will allow for humanity to lift itself out of “the infinite immensity of spaces whereof [we] know nothing, and which know nothing of [us].”

The quest for knowledge, or scientific truths, is a road out of our serfdom in the universe and the finitude of our lives, a means of rebelling against humble realities of our existence, a revolution—“an enhancement revolution,” as it has been called—through which we may bend the cosmos, now an arena of matter, to our will.[3]

Obliterating Enchantment and Mystery

Relentless Rationalists see the truths of human existence as shrouded by “human enchantment” with the world: a conscious acknowledgement of the mystery inherent in life, and the realistic acceptance that the human intellect cannot conquer the cosmos—let alone the smallest sliver of our galaxy—just as the human intellect cannot understand fully its existence and place in the universe.

Enchantment is fixed in the human mind. It has been fixed by religious institutions of every continent, has been given a vocabulary of its own by poets of every age, it certainly still crosses the minds of nearly every human being, and is even evident in the wonder with which we contemplate the cosmic dust in our bodies. Enchantment—thus mystery—is everywhere: in the mysteries of most faiths, in the lines of Bukowski’s poetry, through which we may realize that “the secret of it all is way beyond [us], and that’s the beauty of it,”[4] and in the everyday glances we exchange with one another, the way children run around in the grass, the ways in which we move, clumsily, through the mysterious world.

Relentless Rationalism’s practitioners aim to obliterate Enchantment. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins—a self-described “Passionate Rationalist,”[5] passionate being a near-synonym of relentless—the famous (or infamous) evolutionary biologist whose speaking engagements and writings have been canceled over his relentless, and sometimes offensive, critiques of any belief system that does not embrace the Rationalism he is so passionate about.

It is in the same vein that some neuroscientists and neurophysicists aim to “expel mystery from the mind,” as the philosopher John Gray has put it. [6] This is made plain and clear with popular headlines like “Unravelling the Mystery of the Mind.”[7]

Failing to accept the limits of the human intellect, the “epistemic and moral horizons” that humanity is unable to cross, the infinite unknown—understood by many as producing the mystery and enchantment in life—maddens the Relentless Rationalist.[8] The flavor of citrus from that long-since-past bite into the forbidden fruit, forever reminding him of the sweetness of knowledge, always remains in his mouth, leading him to forget that fruit’s raw bitterness, and how easily it bruised. In his quest for liberation through knowledge, the Relentless Rationalist is enslaved as he endlessly runs and jumps toward those human horizons, which always appear an arm’s-length away; close though those horizons seem, their closeness is a mirage of our own making, the product of a flawed human imagination. Though most of us recognize the futility in the attempt, the Relentless Rationalist will submit himself to such a Sisyphean aim: continuing to run and jump toward those horizons, the quest for knowledge bores into his soul and dwells in him as a tyrant.

Reaching for the Horizons; or, Recoiling?

Wandering on this squalid rock—this “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan famously dubbed it—orbiting around an unremarkable star, and floating about in the Milky Way, a relatively common kind of galaxy, scientists are still perplexed by the deepest questions of our existence.

The search to answer the question of humanity’s origins, a question that may be as old as human thought itself, for example, was until recently tied to hydrothermal vents at the deepest points of Earth’s oceans. [9] Pursuing new evidence in the quest to answer this age-old question, researchers are now tracing life to “land pools in an active volcanic landscape,” shifting the birthplace of life on Earth from the warm waters spewed from rock-bottom vents in the oceans to the “Life Springs” on Earth’s surface.

This is a truly important development, one that makes clear how turbulent science is. What is more, this revelation that humanity may have emerged from “Life Springs” is small potatoes when compared to some new theories in physics, one of which asks, “Does the Universe Have a Mind?” [10]

Such turbulence is part of the process, though. Science is so successful because it relentlessly questions both the unknown and known. Science moves, after all, “little by little to the truth.” Yet despite this skepticism inherent in modern science and the turbulence in the field, the Relentless Rationalists remain convinced of the total materiality of mankind, even as many in their own fields savage them with criticism.

As was recently seen in the Scientific American, “Prominent physicists proclaim that they are solving the riddle of reality and hence finally displacing religious myths of creation […] A corollary of this triumphal view is that science will inevitably solve all other mysteries as well.” Yet, the piece continues:

Science’s limits have never been more glaringly apparent. In their desperation for a “theory of everything”—which unifies quantum mechanics and relativity and explains the origin and structure of our cosmos—physicists have embraced pseudo-scientific speculation such as multi-universe theories and the anthropic principle (which says that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). [11]

Relentless Rationalism’s detractors see “life, mind, morality and reason”—enchantment, mystery—as incompatible with current ‘theories of everything’.

Here we may grin, exhale, or shed a tear in relief, for modern science often appears as if it has been hijacked by Relentless Rationalism. This perception is not helped by movements like Transhumanism, one of the natural consequences of Relentless Rationalism, which is dedicated to using technology “to re-design the human form of life to fund its vision of technological advancement,” thus “bringing us to a virtually immortal posthuman future.”[12] Here it must be remembered that the loudest voices are always carried farthest by the wind, but they are never strong enough to enter the hearts of those who hear them.

Moving Forward

To be sure, modern science provides the most effective phraseology for explaining the workings of the world. What is more, the explosive rapidity with which new technologies have been developed and used by humanity has been a boon to fighting global poverty, addressing concerns of environmental sustainability, and helping us live healthier lives. Most importantly, though, not all scientists are Relentless Rationalists.

Nevertheless, Relentless Rationalism, if ever grafted onto a governing body, would be decidedly disastrous for humanity. Relentless Rationalism atomizes humanity, aiming for a decades, perhaps centuries-long scientific and surgical removal of that elusive, enigmatic thing: human nature. It burns up the ‘life, mind, morality and reason’ of man, seeing in the ashes the only true liberation of humanity. The quest for knowledge without enchantment ends in the bonfire of all things characteristically human. 

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

 Notes:

[1] Caryle Murphy, “Most Americans Believe in Heaven … and Hell,” Pew Research Center, November 1 ,2015.

[2] “Blaise Pascal: The Infinite Spaces, Alienation, and the Wager,” Academy of Ideas.

[3] David Masci “Human Enhancement: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection.” Pew Research Center: Internet & Technology.

[4] Abel Debritto, Essential Bukowski: Poetry .

[5] Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist .

[6] John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom .

[7] Antonio Damasio, “Unravelling the Mystery of the Mind,” CNN News, February 5, 2012.

[8] Wilfred M. McClay, Donald A. Yerxa, “Can We Live Without Enchantment?,” Big Questions Online, June 5, 201.

[9] Mariette DiChristina, “How Did Life Begin on Earth?,” Scientific American 317, no. 2 (2017).

[10] Deepak Chopra, “The Last Paradox: Does the Universe Have a Mind?,” Huffpost US Edition, June 26, 2017.

[11] John Horgan, “Is Scientific Materialism “Almost Certainly False”?,” Cross-Check: Critical Views of Science in the News, January 30, 2013.

[12] Bob Doede, “Transhumanism, technology, and the future: Posthumanity emerging or sub-humanity descending?,” Appraisal 7, no. 3 (2009): 41.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Relentless rationalism is the upper class phrase, or can be, for increased centralization of the State, it doubtless serves as a stand in for the never ending battle between freedom and coercion.

  2. Greetings from Copenhagen, Denmark.
    Perhaps the list of the ten “most fashionable” university degrees (most demanded university studies by best high school grads) in Denmark can foretell the upper class cultural climate here which – notwithstanding protestant Christianity – will characterize society and schools next generation:
    Graduate in marketing management (Sielland)
    International business (Copenhagen)
    International business and politics (Copenhagen)
    Cognitive science (Aarhus)
    Graduate in multimedia design and communication (Sielland)
    Psychology (Copenhagen)
    Molecular biomedicine (Copenhagen)
    Graduate in computer science (Sielland)
    Enterprise project management (Sielland)
    Psychology (Aarhus)

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: