Rationality and Inquiry

rationalspockRationality is something that we do not always understand. Inquiry is something that everyone uses at some point or other. But rationality is more than grammatically correct form and some combination of truthfulness or truth-aptness.

Rationality is a presupposition of all inquiry. In other words, every question presupposes that there is a rational answer to that question. If I ask “where are you?” I am presupposing that you exist and that you are present at some location or other. This means that you are not an abstract object, you are not omnipresent and there is such a thing as “place”. But this is true for absolutely every question that can be constructed.

Begging the question is irrational in all contexts and in all circumstances. Begging the question (also known as circular reasoning) covers a wide variety of arguments. What all of these arguments have in common is that the conclusion of the argument is presupposed by the argument. There are a number of ways to do this. First, it might be identical to one of the premises. Second, it might be identical to the logical form of the argument. Or much less commonly, it might be identical to a concept found in one of the premises. No matter which form it takes, the problem with begging the question is that the argument is an illusion. Begging the question proves nothing but gives the appearance of proving something. Circular reasoning is a way to trick someone into believing something rather than convince them by rational means.

When both of these facts are considered together, we should wonder whether some questions might beg the question simply by their nature. Consider the question “Is the universe rationally ordered?” Since this is a question, it presumes that there is a rational answer to that question. But anyone asking the question is a part of the universe and therefore covered by the question. As a result, any attempt to answer the question will be an attempt to rationally answer the question of whether or not the universe is rational. But this is an instance of begging the question. Therefore, any attempt to answer the question will also be irrational. Since rationality is the presupposition of inquiry, there are some questions that cannot be rationally answered.

Consider the liar sentences. One such sentence is that “this sentence is false”. If the sentence is true, then it is false. Therefore it cannot be true. But if it is false, then it is true. Therefore, it cannot be false. But this means that the sentence cannot be true or false. Since we normally consider any meaningful indicative statement to be either true or false, we are forced to conclude either that some meaningful statements are neither true nor false or that some apparently meaningful statements are not really meaningful at all.

It might seem that any meaningful question has a rational answer, but I have already shown that some meaningful questions cannot have a rational answer because they cannot be rationally asked.

What this means is that rationality and meaningfulness cannot be considered as elements of an equation. It is not as if we can begin with properly formed (grammatically correct) indicative sentences and then follow a mechanical procedure to determine which ones are true and which are false. No such procedure will ever work. I have shown this by indicating that some sentences are grammatically correct, in indicative form but are neither true nor false. I have also shown this by showing that some sentences can be mentioned, are in a grammatically correct interrogative form but cannot be rationally asked (used). In simple terms, rationally and meaningfulness are distinct but more grammatically correct form and truthfulness.

Sentences and Reasoning

I have shown that all self-evident sentences are true. But some sentences are not self-evident, even though they are true. These sentences are found by reasoning from self-evident sentences. Such reasoning can be either deductive or inductive.

We determine whether or not a sentence is true by asking why that sentence is true. For self-evident sentences, the justification comes from the senses, reflection or some combination thereof. For all other sentences, the justification (reasons) comes from other sentences. For example, suppose that I was counting my pennies. I can see all 102 pennies on the table. I remember counting them and coming up with 102. It is hardly self-evident that there are 102 pennies. But my memory of counting them is a good reason to believe that there are 102 pennies – especially if a second count of those pennies also comes up with the same number.

No sentences are brute facts. The reason for this is simple. If any sentences were permitted to be a brute fact, then there would be no way to distinguish between sentences I strongly wish were true and sentences that actually are true. In both cases, I believe that the sentences are true. But if I can simply avoid justifying my sentences, then there is no way to determine which is which.

Deductive reasoning is the kind of reasoning in which a set of sentences guarantee the truth of the sentence that needs justification. For example, If I know that I am sitting down, then I know that there is something I am sitting on. The truth of the second sentence I am sitting on something is guaranteed by the truth of the self-evident sentence I am sitting down. Any argument that begins with self-evident premises and only uses deduction to arrive at a conclusion is a demonstration. Demonstrations are extremely important in philosophical reasoning.

Inductive reasoning is the kind of reasoning in which a set of sentences support but do not guarantee the truth of the sentence that needs justification. For example, if I know that I am sitting down, then it is likely that I am sitting on a chair. But it is quite reasonable to believe that I am sitting on a bench, on a log or on the floor. So while the statement that I am sitting on a chair is supported, it may not be true. This sort of reasoning appears in science and history. Such reasoning can become so strong that disbelieving it is irrational.

This is the end of my exposition on self-evident truths. Further exploration would include a defense of the previous exposition or a exploration of that exposition in detail. Such things would include a defense of definition against Wittgenstein and his modern followers, an exploration of the relationship of illusion to self-evident truths and a more precise account of just what self-evident truths are.