I’m neither a rationalist nor an empiricist. I am, however, moderately rational and do hold that certain things must be experienced to be believed. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists, on the other hand, claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge. Now that I think of it, maybe I’m both a rationalist and an empiricist.
I’m also something else. Irrational.
I don’t mean transrational, a term often employed in speculative metaphysics and brought to charismatic respectability by the late John Wimber. Transrational implies beyond rationality, that something can be known apart from rational engagement. But this very term also implies that we can conceive of something which exceeds our capacity for conception. That’s rationalism with a contrived humility. If we mean by the term that we can experience something that we cannot rationally contextualize, then we’re empiricists whose brains are on indefinite standby.
No. I’m definitely irrational—and necessarily so.
One of my other favorite dead guys is French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). A devout Christian, Pascal considered the unanswerable chasm between the monolithic physicality of the universe and the pronounced ethereal nature of mind and spirit. Even as a man of faith, this prospect unnerved him.
This is what I see, and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet. If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny [Him], and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a God sustains nature it would reveal Him without ambiguity.
Here is the empiricist Pascal failing the rationalist Pascal. The experiential evidence is simply not conclusive. Yet the rationalist Pascal doesn’t fair much better when it comes to saving the empiricist Pascal from the onslaught of the inexplicable and terrifying materiality of the universe.
He who sees himself thus will be frightened by himself, and, perceiving himself sustained… between these two abysses of infinity and nothing, will tremble… and will be more disposed to contemplate these marvels in silence than to explore them with presumption. For in the end, what is man in nature? A nothing in respect to the infinite, everything in respect to the nothing, a halfway between nothing and all. Infinitely far from comprehending the extremes, both the end and the beginning or principle of things are invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he has been drawn, and the infinite in which he is engulfed.
Pascal is onto something. Against the backdrop of an immeasurable cosmos and inscrutable human self, both rationalism and empiricism are burnt toast.
But then what’s left to us? I suggest that the best, even the necessary reply is a well-considered irrationalism. By this I mean an approach to life not dependent upon the faculty of reason or the evidence of experience. This is not to advocate a disregard for understanding or experiential facts. Irrationalism acknowledges them as enriching and confirming phenomena, but it refutes them as determining ones. Of all people, the wise writer of Proverbs himself demotes the rational: “Do not lean on your own understanding.” And throughout the Biblical record, the Divine seems unconcerned about the tyrannical rule of the obvious. Often facts are unreliable; and they can sometimes even be stupid things. The reasonable and empirical approach to life are doomed to . . . well, rationality and experience. What a drag.
Søren Kierkegaard, another cool dead guy, believed that ultimately we simply have to jump. Whether there’s something soft to land on is a question beyond a priori knowledge or experience. We just have to pick an authority, take his word for it, and hope to hell he’s trustworthy.
Some may find this position uncomfortable and seek rational or empirical reassurances. Good luck. I’m putting my money on the maniac Messiah, the crazy Christ, the stark raving Savior. I may be irrational, but I’m pragmatic about it.