Nicola Chiaramonte suggested in Encounter May 1972 that the European crisis of conscience has grown deeper and more widespread. This crisis concerns the nature of truth, the meaning and purpose of life, the reality or otherwise of progress and the role, if any, of the intellectual in the affairs of the world. Kierkegaard, Kafka, Neitzsche, Rimbaud and many others have given us various perspectives upon this crisis but they have not formulated the problems in such a way that rational solutions could be proposed. Indeed the thrust of their arguments seems to be that there cannot be any rational solutions.
But solutions are at hand if we are prepared to take arguments seriously. We must not be overawed by those who argue against the rational basis of argument by claiming that our theories are determined by our class, our culture, our interest or our framework of ideas. This line of thought (relativism or perhaps determinism) can be used to imply that it is a waste of time to try to come to any understanding with the members of different groups an ultimately it implies that we cannot communicate meaningfully with any other person. People who preach the impotence of arguments are in a paradoxical position, analogous the paradox of the liar.
There remain the problems of people who want to take arguments seriously but are frustrated and driven to skepticism when they find that their theory of rationality is inconsistent or inadequate. William W Bartley has formulated a general solution to the problem. (Actually, writing three decades later, it seems that the underlying problem is better described as the problem of the limits of criticism or the problem of the infinite regress versus dogmatism. See Agreeing to Disagree: Bartley's Critique of Reason. He achieved this by developing Popper's 'critical rationalism', following Popper's identification of the authoritarian structure of Western thought, into a theory which he called 'comprehensively critical rationalism'. He argued that the only premise required for a sound and consistent rationalism is the principle of criticism; the premises of an argument must always be open to further discussion and criticism. This theory implies that we should not try to provide ultimate justification for a theory, instead we should be content to justify a critical preference for one theory rather than another, at that particular stage of the discussion.
I will proceed within this general theory of rationality to argue against two particular types of skepticism. (A third strand of skepticism or irrationalism will not be considered in depth here. This is the cultural backlash against science and reason which are supposed to be united in opposition to imagination and the creative life of the mind. This line of thought comes to us through William Blake, who was consciously revolting against Bacon and Locke, and the Romantics. It is a revival of the ancient doctrine of the divine madness of poetic inspiration and outriders to this counter-cultural bandwagon include the importers of Indian mysticism and the people who keep live the tradition of genius and insanity which is sometimes used a rationale for drug use. In so far as this movement is a reaction to the inductive method of science it should lose momentum when the principles of the hypothetico-deductive scheme are more widely understood).
The first form of skepticism questions the rationality of the empirical base of science; the second questions the possibility of conducting rational arguments in the domain of values. Both these strands of skepticism may be traced back to Hume who pointed out both the problem of induction in the philosophy of science and also the impossibility of deriving 'ought' statements from 'is' statements. The two problems are similar in form - there is no logical method to produce general laws from the observation of individual events and there is no logical way to derive ethical proposals or principles from matters of fact.
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The rationality of science and values may be saved if we reject the tradition of seeking some ultimate justification of belief and try instead to establish critical preferences for various propositions or proposals rather than others. If we do this, then the problems of rationality and objectivity shift from the domain of individual psychology and become problems of critical argument and institutional reform.
In science, our arguments will be mostly concerned with error elimination and in ethics we will usually have to try to choose the lesser of evils. This is barely tolerable for absolutists and utopians which is why they are prone to lapse into relativism. However the critical rationalist can accept this provided that he is prepared to learn from his mistakes. If this suggests that we are satisfied with less rigorous arguments then it is up to our critics to keep us honest by locating the weak spots of our case. For instance we are deeply in debt to Edmund Burke who located many defects in the early rationalist philosophy.
Our continued efforts do not depend upon any laws of progress, they depend on our resolution to work for changes consistent with our principles, provided that our principles stand the test of criticism. We seem to be making progress in some respects - in the west we no longer burn witches or put heretics on the rack - and there is a growing realisation that the behaviour of consenting adults in private is not the concern of the state. Areas of confusion remain, for instance in euthanasia and the social responsibilities of scientists (and public servants) but we should welcome difficult test cases because they force us to sharpen our principles by bringing them to bear on new problems.
Rafe Champion 1972