RATIONALITY and CHOICE:
Exploring The Human Conversation
.by Matt Moody, Ph.D..
Introduction. The nomothetic creature called "rational choice theory" exits in a world of ink and paper, and the reality to which various linguistic accounts correspond are mostly idiomatic mental conceptions held by hoards of social scientists, economists, and philosophers. Basic assumptions associated with rational choice theories reside within four fundamental issues:
1) What does it mean to choose?
2) What is a human being?
3) What is the nature of rational thinking?
4) What is truth?
The way we characterize the answers to these questions shapes our views of rational choice.
While there may be broad consensus on what rational choice theory is, exactly who is consenting with whom is as much a manifestation of power and politics as it is a coherent claim to knowledge. Hence there is no single rational choice theory, but many versions given from a plethora of perspectives. Following consensus views of the majority is often a solid grounding point; nevertheless, the masses have been wrong before. This calls to mind the words of Jacques Derrida:
“ . . . where we thought there was knowledge there is only literature . . . all our writings — all the texts that we write to represent texts, referring to other texts which represent texts and arguing with their representation of texts — that all these texts are suspended over an abyss of fundamental ignorance about the origin, truth, presence, essence, reality and nature of the things which we are representing . . all our metaphors lead us only to an awareness of the limits of our knowledge” (Bannet, 1989: 218-219).
Innovation vs. Reiteration. Simmel states, “we are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems” (Hechter, 1987: 7). To accept any subject matter unquestioningly is to be non-rational, and to simply assume that the authors of said subject matter must have got it right. Because of the nature of nomothetic assertions in representing an ideographic world (Freeman, 1992: 18), history has taught us that a stance of skeptical tentativeness has proven to be the wisest policy.
Intellectual answers must necessarily be tentative, for with the passage of time these same "answers" will inevitably change! This points to the important priority of formulating the right questions in pursuit of answers. A wrong question can never result in a right answer. If the issues people pursue are not right and relevant, then the adjoining answers are as chaff in the wind; but when issues are important and purposeful, those issues will stand through time as a beacon of light illuminating the pathways leading to wisdom and truth (Riddle, 1992).
The fact that I reason and conclude as I will, independent of others, just as they can also reason and conclude independent of me — and diversely different views can still be make sense to each individual author — points to the nature of human beings as creative, volitional agents.
The very fact that I can pose alternative points of view, is evidence that I am chooser. Harvard psychologist, William James (1890), maintained that "man is a creative agent capable of weighing and evaluating situations and then choosing his course." In a concurring opinion, John Dewey (1903) asserts that man is constantly striving to master the conditions of his environment — rather than his conditions mastering him.
In a study of relationship satisfaction, Whyte’s (1990: 195) data showed the greatest support for what he calls “personal autonomy factors” over background demographics. He observes:
"In the debate between traditional sociologists who see individual behavior as determined by social background versus those who stress considerable personal autonomy, the pattern of results reviewed here points more to the autonomy side."
Thus rationality is not governed by a universal logos; rather, it is particular and individual — best understood within the context of specific social settings.
A Grounding Point: Relative or Absolute. Ultimately, who is to say what is right or wrong, reasonable or irrational, fair or unjust? By what standard can the “is” or “ought” of rationality be established? Is there an absolute grounding point from which rationality can be anchored, or is mankind destined to swim in a vast sea of relativism? The answer is yes to both questions.
Rationality, relative or absolute, is ultimately a matter of individual will and choice. In the end, The W. I. Thomas Axiom pragmatically dictates the only reality an individual will know and act on: “That which you perceive as real, is real in it’s consequences.” Hence, any adequate theory of human rationality must take into account the idiomatic ways that people perceive their world — their “definition of the situation.”
There is NOT an absolute grounding point from which rationality can be anchored, just because people (whether the majority or minority) perceive this to be so. Life Realities are obdurate: they don't move about because we want to perceive certain things to be so. (Read more about . . . What is Truth, and how can we lay hold to reasonable and reliable Claims to Truth).
Theories of Man as a Rational Chooser. Although rational choice theory is interdisciplinary — to include political science, sociology, philosophy, and psychology — some of its most fundamental concepts come from economics where value is attached to objects and actions like price tags on commercial products. According this perspective, the perceived value is assumed to guide self maximizing motives.
While the economic paradigm appears to offer a calculated accuracy about how choices can or will be made; nevertheless, sociology deals with diverse behavior that is constantly and creatively on the move, and there is seldom a convenient way to attach value, price, or profit to the elements of everyday experience. Yet a useful proposition adopted from an economic model states: “the more of something an individual has, the less interested he or she will be in yet more of it” (Wallace & Wolf, 1992: 192). Scarcity of resources is another central factor in the rational choice equation.
A hedonistic model of man is the fundamental assumption of most rational choice theories. The roots of the hedonist perspective extend back hundreds of years in history. succinctly stated, it assumes that people are “self-interested” actors who are drawn to and desire pleasure and averse to and avoid pain (Jackson, 1982: 10). Given a self maximizing goal aimed toward personal pleasure, people will base their actions on what “they think” to be the most effective means to that goal (Cook & Levi, 1990: 4). These profit-maximizing schemes are said to be made on the basis of people’s tastes and preferences. This raise the question, does the agent guide his tastes and preference, or does this dispositional taste or preference guide the agent.
Caspi & Herbener (1990) theorize that the individual personality strives for stability amid an environment full of complexities. They reason that when individuals choose situations that are compatible with their disposition — meaning they generally affiliate with similar others — those individuals set in motion processes of dyadic interaction that will tend to sustain their intra-personal systems. The results of their study concludes that association with similar others "promotes consistency in the intra-individual organization of personality attributes" across time and circumstance. This notion of maintaining intra-personal equilibrium is comparable to Niklas Luhmann’s (1982) macro analysis of how social systems strive for equilibrium within complex environments through a "reductions of complexities." In other words, people cling to societal rules and norms because it makes living within that system more simple and efficient. Both theoretical views explain human action in terms of maintaining equilibrium. For the individual, the assumption is that the external behavior will strive to be congruent with an internal disposition. But exactly what is this thing called disposition, to which we measure our so called states of consistency?
Rationality & Linguistic Constructions. William Glasser suggests that the notion of anger would be better served in the form of a verb: angering. Rather than thinking that we possess a thing called anger--or even worse, that this entity called anger possesses us. The notion of angering linguistically describes this emotion-filled activity as something we are doing. It follows that since we are doing it, we must have chosen it. In like manner, such words as values, desires, and tastes are often conceived as dispositional deciders for one’s rational choosing. Such words tend to ontologize the world in a deterministic fashion. If we change these words from nouns to verbs — valuing, desiring, and tasting — and reconstruct the realities they describe as activities we are engaged in, how might the notion of dispositional cause be re-conceptualized?
Our activities of “valuing” are embedded within the context of a reciprocal dialogue with others, and those valuing judgments are informed and affected by other people in the human conversation. In other words, “rational choice” is not due to some internal “value” that we have, rather our rationality is a result of the external valuing dialogue which informs it. The same reasoning and re-conceptualizing can be applied to the so called dispositions of tastes, desires, and needs; by changing the words to verbs and the represented realities to action — activities of tasting, desiring, and needing — are more meaningfully, and more accurately described. The notion of a universal logos is reinforced by the linguistic descriptions of values, needs, desires, and tastes as nouns--as entities that dictate universal patterns of behavior. These universals purport to describe the way the social world “is” not how it “ought” to be (Raven, et al. 1992: 8-10). The very survival of Sociology and Psychology as sciences hinge upon the existence of these universals.
Such a stance must be taken to preserve predictive science-dom. Without such deterministic assumptions about human beings, the foundation from which to generalize begins to crumble. If there were such a reality as a universal rationality, then there should be empirical evidence of it cross culturally. This paper will establish reasons why the hedonistic rational chooser, bent on maximizing his resources and interests is a description that doesn’t effectively export beyond the boundaries of westernized capitalistic countries.
Universal vs. Particular. Some rational choice theorists are heavily grounded in the assumptions of behaviorism, a school of thought that avoids the black box called the human mind, and deals directly with overt responses that result from observable stimuli. This is a dividing point for many rational choice theorists: Does man universally respond to antecedent and/or reinforcing stimuli in the environment in predictably the same way (given that all environmental inputs are equal), or do human beings perceive the so called stimuli from a plethora of particular and personal perspectives — meaning that one man’s reinforcing reward is another man’s extinguishing punishment, or in common vernacular, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. Is rationality universal or relative?
On the one hand, Mannheim argued that “there is a universal and absolute logos to which all forms of knowledge are related” (Raven, et al., 1992: 8). And on the other, Derrida argues that the ethnocentric thinking of the western world is a white man’s mythology that imposes its rationality upon the rest of the world and “transforms his own consciousness into the universal form of reason (Bannet, 1989: 218-219).
The assumptions of hedonism--that people are motivated towards maximizing of personal pleasure and the avoidance of pain--superficially seems to be a good general rule of thumb for predicting patterns of behavior. But what of the masochists whose pleasure is pain; and what of those who embrace the philosophy of utility, where the greatest good is that which bring the greatest possible sum of pleasure for the greatest number of people; or what of the perspective of Christianity, the self centered soul will lose his life while seeking to find it (Matthew Ch. 10). One in five people in the world identify themselves as Christians; another twenty percent of the worlds population adhere to an islamic rationale that bear little resemblance to the notions of hedonism (Toronto, 1992).
In sociology, rational choice theory is underlying perspective that buttresses exchange theory where people choose to participate in an exchange after they have examined the costs and the rewards of alternative courses, and have chosen the most attractive. As Simmel states: “all contacts among men rest on the schema of giving and returning the equivalence.” However, this begs the question: What is rational criteria for establishing what is most attractive? Are people universally drawn to logical choices based upon rewards of money, prestige, power, property? Or are people rationally attracted to the gratifying feelings of love through acts of altruism and morality? Again, my answer is that rewards and attractions will be what people choose according to their situated rationality. Motivation to act emerges from the chosen valuing and desiring activities. Human action can be characterized on a continuum of self interest to other/corporate interest.
Reconsidering the Norms of Social Science. In the writings of Dostoyevsky (1961: 112), “And what does reason know? It knows only what it has had time to learn.” Hence rationality is not some deterministic universal controlled by a taste, or desire, or disposition from within, rather it is an understanding acquired through the human conversation — a reciprocally affecting and informing dialogue within particular contexts of community and culture. Therefore the diverse rationalities manifest by the human race deserve more understanding from sociology and psychology, instead of the traditional emphasis on prediction.
The current norms of science-making tend to push understanding aside, and proclaim predictability and generalizability as its most fundamental articles of faith. Given the faulty foundations of assuming a deterministic and universal logos, this means prediction and generalization should be secondary to the goal of understanding the particular uniqueness of human interactivity — a uniqueness that is regularly reduced, thematized, and generalized by the nomothetic machinations of western social sciences.
Charles Horton Cooley (1922), who formulated the concept of "the looking glass self," asserts that people often express themselves in terms of "standardized acts" and thereby those acts can be the focus of behavioristic-quantitative analysis. On the other hand, he insists, there is a "creative, willful, and idiomatic" part of self that is "suffused with meaning." It is this meaning that quantitative analysis cannot measure. Cooley further asserts that using the epistemological assumptions and methods of the physical sciences to study the social world is not the most fruitful approach. He points to the inherent differences between the physical world and the social world — people can choose rationally and rocks can’t — and argues that the study of human behavior is ultimately more an art than a science.
Without conceding this particular point to Cooley, consider the perspective of Max Weber. At the center of his methodology is this critical concept, "human phenomena does not speak for itself; it must be interpreted" (Weber, 1949). In most scientific research, a project begins with theory and hypothesis and proceeds to collect and analyze data in support them. Eventually, every research endeavor be it qualitative or quantitative — is met with the task of "interpreting the data." Even if one embraces quantitative methods. As Weber puts it, the data will not speak for itself — it must be interpreted!
Whether or not one advocates the analysis of social phenomenon in the quantitative model of physical science, the process of data interpretation is always an art! This points up the question of the over arching goals of social science. If one rejects the model of man as a product of deterministic causal inputs from the environment or his biology, then what is the purpose for a continuance of the prediction/generalization mind set of social science. Hence, human rationality is better conceptualized and understood through in depth contextual analysis — yielding particular patterns applicable to people who share common corporate rules, norms, and expectations. In other words, rationality is regionally understood. It is within the context of corporate commonality that Cooley’s “standardized acts” are manifest. Again, shifting from a perspective of universality to one of regionality, again, it becomes clear that the maximizing self-interested capitalist of the western world, is a universal assumption that will not translate well to the regional mind-sets of the far east and middle east.
In arabic the word islam literally means “peace through surrender.” It represents a way of life that prizes and values “submission” and “surrender” to almighty God. The person who “submits” is called a muslim. Islam is not a thing, rather it continues through time as a relationship between the servant and master (Denny: 1985: 74). Such a rationale is a far cry from self serving maximizing motives of rational choice theory. This again points to the diversity of rationality in the social world.
Any formulation of theory must ultimately correspond to the real world for legitimacy and validation. Cook emphasized this point by asserting: “One fundamental issue raised about either variant of the theory is the extent to which rational choice assumptions are sufficiently "realistic." If the rational actor of the model bears little resemblance to those who actually make choices and decisions, the model "fails" both normatively and descriptively.” In describing the world that “is”, one must acknowledge that over half of the worlds population identifies with philosophical and religious ideologies that are primarily focused away from individualistic selfishness, and more focused on self-less submission to God, the good of others, and/or the importance of one’s allegiance to the collective (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even Communism). This assertion is made as to normative ideology; the actual practices of daily doings evidence that people often profess certain values, and live contrary to them. Thus the world has its share of jack-mormons, jack-hindus (Shagle, 1992), jack-buddhas, and jack-catholics. The next two sections of this paper will attempt to lay a theoretical foundation that can make sense of what appears to be a relativity of rationality within this human world.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CHOOSE?
This section explores two important and interconnected realities: rationality and choice. The discussion begins with issues related to choice. The philosophical arguments of free-will versus determinism are reviewed; leading to a conclusion that the most adequate explanation of “choosing” and “free–will” must not only reject hard determinism, but also discard the assumptions of indeterminism as well. The discussion exposes the perspective of freedom as simply “choosing from alternatives,” as being inconsistent and insupportable when juxtaposed against the very meaning of the word “freedom.” Thus, a more adequate definition of “freedom” will center upon “truth” — the ultimate and absolute grounding for rationality. An attempt to answer the question “What is truth?” is made in the final last part of this paper. In that section, the idea that truth resides in a realm of accurate metaphysical representations is rejected; and instead, truth is conceptualized as existing in the realm of ethical human relationships.
Free-Will versus Determinism. One of the most fundamental issues about the nature of human existence is the question of free-will versus determinism. The basic issue is this: Is human action steered by mechanical causal antecedents, or is it guided by the independent will of man — a will that can thoughtfully choose purposive action from among alternatives.
Even though people’s everyday experience suggests that they “feel free,” this view is seen as naive and unsophisticated; many traditional scientific and philosophical paradigms conclude that human freedom is “epiphenomenal” or illusory (William, 1992: 3). To protect their investment in maintaining their science-dom, contemporary sociology and psychology find the stance of determinism necessary. In other words, in order for the human sciences to model their assumptions and methods after the pattern of physical science, a perspective of the social world as causally determined is essential for that type of science–making to proceed.
If metaphysical necessity is assumed — things are what they must be and cannot be something else — then choosing and rationality are impossible, and so is reciprocal and responsive dialogue with others. Man’s freedom to choose is a fundamental condition necessary for our humanity, as well as an essential element that open the very possibility of reflexive rationality--it is precisely our unfettered freedom to choose that we must give up in the traditional deterministic paradigm.
While it is clear that hard determinism is incompatible with a meaningful definition of choice and rationality, the perspective of indeterminism is equally incongruent. In the historical debate between determinism and free–will, those who defend “free–will” are expected to defend the notion of “indeterminism.” Because the opposite of determinism is indeterminism, free-will is logically, but wrongfully, paired with indeterminism. This is a problem that needs to be disappeared rather than solved. In the end, human behavior as indeterminate and random is as ridiculous as hard determinism.
The Possibility of Moral Responsibility. Growing up in any society, people inherit a language of words they assume to be reasonable representations of real phenomena. The English language contains such words as blame, fault, and responsibility. If the assumptions of hard determinism are accepted, these words are empty. Nevertheless, our society has organized institutions around laws that reflect the mores of the people. Prisons have also been instituted by the people for those who will not conform to these legalized mores. The very existence of these social organizations implies that human beings can and must be responsible for their actions (Solomon, 1990: 196).
On the other hand, the English language also has words like stimuli, conditioning, and cause & effect. These words describe an ontology entirely different from a view that acknowledges real responsibility. These “causal” words arise from the theoretical and philosophical premise of mechanical necessity. The clashing assumptions of determinism versus free-will raise this issue: If human behavior is determined by external forces, then why does our society put people in prisons and hold them accountable for their unlawful acts? And if “criminals” are not really accountable for what they do (blame it on bad genes or bad upbringing!), why do prison systems strive to rehabilitate the inmate? Again, the notions of guilt and blame are meaningless unless humans are in some way “responsible” for their acts (Halverson, 1981: 239).
If human beings are morally responsible, then they must be free to choose between alternatives of good and bad, rationality or irrationality. Plato argued that freedom of choice is a necessary basis for the good life; goodness comes only when one has met evil and overcome it--has a made a genuine choice and has chosen well. Both Aristotle and Plato were certain that a world ruled by fate could not be a good world (Frost, 1947: 145-150). Neither can a world ruled by fate be rational, as the possibility of good exists only against the contrasting reference point of evil, so must rationality be differentiated from a reality of irrationality to be actual, rather than illusion.
In the contrasting view of a mechanical world, whether human deeds are deemed to be good or bad, all acts are the inevitable consequence of antecedent causes. Thus in a causally mechanical social world the notions of choice and rationality are words that describe empty illusions. This scenario becomes quite cruel when combined with a belief that a so–called “loving” God oversees this sham--and even created it. It is hard to imagine that a wise and gracious God would create a world in which every act is incarcerated in causal chains that shackle human freedom--especially when an “omnipotent” being could do otherwise.
Determinism vs. Indeterminism: Disappearing the Problem. In order for mortals to be moral or rational, they must have an intentioned choice between contrasting alternatives of better and worse; and the freedom to make that choice is requisite for individuals to be held responsible for their acts. While mechanical determinism obviously makes the possibility of accountability impossible, indeterminism is an equally inadequate explanation, because it attempts to attribute behavior to an uncaused cause (Halverson, 1981: 257). This simply create the conundrum: How can a person be praised for rational accomplishments or condemned for irrational failures, when the explanation for either outcome is randomness? The premise of indeterminism not only makes impossible, but also absurd, the potentials for man to be responsible.
In their attempts to justify a “good life” within a predetermined world, many social theorists adopt a perspective of “soft” determinism. However, this view ultimately reduces to the same restrictive conclusions as hard determinism, and both perspectives are left to swim in a cesspool of pessimism. At the other end of the continuum, libertarians are destined to tread in an equally undesirable trash heap of meaningless randomism. Both views must be rejected if we are to conceptualize the notion of free-will adequately. Williams (1992: 4) asserts that “a free choice . . . needs to be intimately tied to the circumstances in which it is made,” else the choice would be random; and random action is not free action. A free and responsible choice requires meaningful antecedents (grounds) upon which the agent makes a reasonable “non random” decision.
Reframing Determinism: Mechanical vs. Meaningful. If we reject the implications of indeterminism, the dichotomy of determinism versus free–will needs to be recast by a new continuum — with mechanical and causal determinates at one end, and meaningful and contextual antecedents at the other. This continuum would characterize two different ways by which human behavior may be “determined.” Rational human choice could be explained by mechanical causation, or it could be understood by meaningful, self determined choices — decisions that are not random, rather choices that are based on meaningful grounds and historical antecedents that make sense to each individual — a rationality that is not universal, but is uniquely and idiomatically embedded with each particular social setting.
Freedom as Choice. If we assume that humans have the power to determine their course of action by making meaningful choices, then the following question arises: Is the notion of “choice” the best characterization of human freedom? The answer is no. Having grounds for one’s purposive decisions is requisite to the very definition of choice; but to be “free,” the agent must “at the same time [be] independent of them [grounds]” (Williams, 1992: 5). The moment “the chooser” invokes some ground for choosing, in the same stroke, he or she acknowledges that “ground” as a “determining” basis for action. Therefore, the person is not free from the grounds on which the choice was made. Because of this puzzle, Williams concludes that “Human freedom as choosing among alternatives both requires and disallow its own grounds.” Thus choice is an inadequate characterization of freedom, “for it cannot meet the demands of its own definition.”
Freedom as Having Truth. The issues surrounding freedom also raise the questions Freedom from what and Freedom to do what? Any freedom that can open possibilities toward important and desirable ends as well as release one from undesirable consequences represents a more meaningful conception of freedom compared to simply choosing from an array of options. What if all the alternatives one is aware of eventually lead nowhere? In such a scenario, even if a person has a hundred options, he or she is still not free to realize personal dreams.
What good is a truck load of keys (alternatives) if none of them will unlock the gate to the good life? Truth is the one key that opens Mankind to possibilities of highest human fulfillment and the maximum measure of rationality. Truth is essential to make the will of Man, a free will. Without truth, humans are merely “willing” but not “able.” This begs the question of truth, the answer to which will be explicated in the final section.
WHAT IS A HUMAN BEING?
The Human Context of Identity and Rationality. Ontological issues of human identity have been argued for thousands of years. This debate, carried on by philosophy and science, has raised questions about human nature from hedonism to benevolence, determinism to free–will, and individualism to sociality (Jackson, 1988: 4-12). In the analysis of human identity there are many explanatory perspectives, some emphasizing objects versus activities, nouns versus verbs, bodies versus be-ings. One traditional perspective portrays people as individual entities filled with entrenched personality traits governed by genetic determinate.
According to this freedom-crushing perspective, the human “organism” transports its bundle of predestined patterns from person to person and situation to situation behaving in fixed and predictable ways. From another view, human identity is explained by societal factors in a straitjacket called cultural causality. In this paradigm humans are seen as organisms that respond mechanically to antecedent or reinforcing stimuli in the environment Both of these stale pioneering paradigms--biological and cultural determinism –– ultimately obscure and reduce the wonder and surprise of the human self; they deny the possibilities of purposive and creative be-ings, and the ontological reality of humans having free–will.
The view of human identity one assumes will have far reaching effects on the way one ultimately constructs human rationality. One’s ontological assumptions about Man’s identity will determine the very issues and questions that are raised and pursued. Having the right issues before one is the foundation of good thinking and theorizing (Riddle, 1992); a wrong question can never result in a right answer.
This section of the paper characterizes a view of the human self that is diametrically different from sociology’s clashing caricature of the culturally determined self, and from psychology’s reductive account of the biologically determined self. This paper also examines a view of Man as a responsive being, capable of weighing alternatives and consequences, and possessing the self determining power to choose among options. A perspective that also acknowledges the emotional and feeling aspects of human beings —a “hot” psychology when compared to the pervasive perspective that Man is a “cold” cognitive machine, governed and guided by a universal logos.
The Socially Situated Self. Over eighty years ago, sociologist Charles Cooley (1909: 36) offered an explanation of human identity called “the looking glass self” theory. Cooley contends that self concepts are constructed from the reflected images that emanate from social interactions: “there is no sense of I without its associative aspects of we, they, or us. ” One’s individual impression of self develops within and manifests through relationships. Who we are, and how we think of ourselves, is intimately and inseparably bound up in the context of sociality. The human conversation is an activity of echoing images that move back and forth through reciprocal and responsive dialogue. “Self-identity” is located directly within these mirror–like relationships.
If one accepts this line of logic, then individuals can never come to know “who they are” by staring inside themselves; there is literally nothing much to see, only a couple of kidneys and a lung or two. Looking within oneself to locate a sense of self, can only be a metaphor, it is never an achievable activity. Berger (1966: 160) echoes this theme in the following assertion: “Identity is a phenomenon that emerges from the dialectic between individual and society.” Mead also asserted that individuals are inherently social and that self–identity develops out of one’s ability to assume another’s perspective, to imagine how oneself is perceived by others (Wallace, 1991: 247). Thus getting a “handle” on who we are is not secured somewhere deep within individualistic realms, but is grasped at the heart of each and every directly lived relationship we experience.
The Illusion of Individualism: Bodies vs. Be-ings. Since we are human be-ings , we are more than the physicalities of our bodies. While our bodies do mobilize our be-ings with others through time and space, our essential identities are infinitely more than the reductive descriptions of our carnal exteriors (Warner, 1992). Rather, “who we are” is the totality of how we are be-ing with others in the world--a relational reality that exists in the particular doings and deeds of everyday interaction. Heidegger furthered this notion of human identity as “situated activity” with his concept of Dasein--literally translated as “being there.” With Dasein, Heidegger tried to re-conceptualize the social world from a “noun” orientation of human bodies to a “verb” ontology of human be-ings (Melchert, 1991).
Possibly, we are persuaded to believe the mirage of individualism because our bodies are physically separate from others; therefore, we mistakenly assume that our “beings” and “doings” can be understood individually as well. Indeed, our bodies are single and separate in this physical world, but the expressive mobilizations of the body (our be–ings) are responsively, reciprocally, and rationally tied to the sociality of others for meaning and identity (Berger, 1966: 160).
The wisdom of keeping the subject situated can be illustrated by analogy with interpreting written text. Trying to understand individuals outside of their social situatedness is as futile as translating individual words outside the context of their sentences; or trying to interpret particular paragraphs apart from the story that ultimately illuminates understanding. Accepting this line of logic, the perspective of non situated individualism is found hopelessly lacking, and emphasizes the necessity of taking account of corporate context to understand both human identity and human rationality.
Rethinking Traditional Philosophies. To establish the phenomena of rational and reciprocal human activity, we must build on the assumption that man has a will to think and choose, to affect others and be affected in a mutually responsive human conversation. Coleman (1990: 20) confirms the interconnectedness of human dialogue, “one actor’s independent action imposes externalities (positive or negative) on others and this changes the structure of incentives confronting them.” Corporate action is possible only if human beings have agency to choose for themselves--a free choice sufficient to hold individuals responsible for their rational choices. The very existence of language is evidence of human reciprocity. The act of trying to be intelligible to others, and yielding anticipated outcomes, shows that the human conversation is mutually meaningful--not causally mechanical.
Furthermore, that we even have the capacity to be rationally intelligible necessitates “a world with others” to be intelligible to (Warner, 1992). Linguistic exchanges of purposive relevance are not solos or soliloquies, but always socialities. Language connects us to others meaningfully and purposefully; this is the interconnected situatedness in which rationality and identity are embedded. Meaningful interaction is impossible if one embraces deterministic traditions.
Contrasted to a view of self as a determined product of biological and societal inputs, Gergen (1982: 157) argues that the individual should be “viewed as an active agent who may construe the environment in an infinity of ways.” Because everyday experience suggests that Man does have freedom to choose, even the purveyors of biological determinism demonstrate a need to explain why people “appear” to have free–will, while maintaining that this apparent freedom of choice is illusory (Wilson & Lumsden, 1983: 174). Ironically even sociobiology adopts a rational choice perspective as a basis for their theorizing (Wallace & Wolf, 1991: 177). This seems a contradiction because the main proponents of sociobiology, proclaim that there is no free choice, and that human action is actually guided by genetic determinates. The use of rational choice theory by sociobiologists is a peculiar paradox.
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF RATIONAL THINKING?
Rationality and Language. Given the “nothingness” of man without God, mortal attempts to climb a metaphysical Mount Everest, without humbly hearkening to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, are completely futile. This paper will reinforce the notion that linguistic representations are forever locked in an “interpretive” box; meaning that representational efforts of mental metaphysics will never arrive at a final and ultimate point of perfect correspondence between object and idea.
Simply put, human attempts to accurately metaphysicalize the universe are impossible — it is the wrong goal and the wrong question. In the end, our most meaningful linguistic constructions will be those that are augmented by the illuminating Light of Christ, motivated by purposes that are inextricably embedded in the charity and love. Intellectual prowess, in and of itself, is a vain and empty endeavor. The following will explore the nature and limitations of human intellectualizations and linguistic representations.
World Shaping. We are each born into a particular social setting where communicative continuity is secured through mutually negotiated norms, beliefs, and traditions. As Heidegger reasons that we are “thrown” into a well patterned world and unquestioningly adopt most of its social conventions (Melchert,1991: 550)--we tend to take for granted the overt and covert symbols that cement all human acts together. As Markova (1982: 12) points out, “the absolute necessity of securing stability and order in forming our concepts and acquiring beliefs makes us prisoners of what we take for granted.” We not only cannot question presuppositions of which we are totally unaware, but we also cannot be cognizant of alternative ways of thinking, perceiving, and believing. Indeed, the metaphysical mind set of each individual is uniquely constructed and modified by myriads of social assertions and spiritual affections--interactional permutations that characterize each individual’s unique situatedness.
Generally speaking, Most people are socialized into society oblivious to the ontological constructions that language is loaded with. We simply assume that our eyes and ears provide us with a correct and accurate picture of the world, and our language simply names that reality. According to Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis, different languages impose different conceptions of reality: “Language itself shapes a man’s basic ideas” (Myer, 1989: 309). It is only when we realize that others do not share our same sensory experiences--when the conversational interpretations of others constantly fail to correspond with our expectations--that we start to question our differing mental conceptions and constructions. In moments like this, we examine more closely the fundamental foundations of cognitive and linguistic processes.
Metaphysical Facilitation and Distortion. Given the personal and particular nature of each individuals interpretations and translations, the quest to adequately conceptualize the realities of the universe remains a major challenge before us. Nietzsche reasoned that through linguistic representations, raw experience is artificially ordered and simplified and therefore inevitably distorted. He maintained that, “no matter how careful we may be . . . a philosophical mythology lies hidden in language which breaks through at every moment.” He also claimed that, “language necessarily falsifies reality” and that the categorical net of language capture reality “only at the expense of fatal distortion” (Flew, 1979: 346). The inevitability of linguistic reductions and distortions is a phenomenon that mortals must constantly be aware of in their quest for understanding. The linguistic signs and symbols we inherit from birth have a direct and profound impact on the shaping of our mental metaphysics.
The essentially falsifying nature of mortal metaphysics evolves from the schism between particular reality and the nature of representationals to be universal and categorical (Riddle, 1992) Therefore distortions in rational thought are inescapable, and the futility of attaining ultimate accuracy in sending and receiving symbols with only human physical faculties is once again emphasized. In ongoing efforts to instantiate one’s representational constructs, the restrictive walls of the hermeneutic circle present a formidable obstacle: because we see, hear, taste, and touch through the biased filter of our minds, the data that we use to instantiate our metaphysics is ever colored by the current configurations of one’s mind. While we hope and assume that our sensory data is reliable and objective, it is our very mental metaphysics that guides and distorts the data we use to instantiate that same mental metaphysics.
Circular Reasoning & Science. This hermeneutic problem is an inescapable trap to which scientists are also snared. To substantiate their theories, they use “theory laden” methodologies that skew and distort data in ways that are often favorable to their scheme — data that is in turn used to support the very same theory that gave them birth. Behind the “stainless steel” claims of scientific objectivity--where wrinkle free “permanent pressed” data are produced in an ever impressive statistical “spin cycle” — the so called “value free” results are actually the product of sophisticated, but circular support.
In other words, its like a mother (theory) giving birth to children and then nurturing them as only she can (theory laden method), so as to gain their allegiance and support (bias) that she is a wonderful mother (theory), and then using the “objective” reports of the children (value free data) to substantiate and “prove” that this Mother (Theory) is a wonderful one. In this mortal life, one’s mental metaphysics will always be corralled within an interpretive circle, and any sensory instantiations to support new metaphysical constructs will be “begotten” by the same metaphysical “mother” that one attempts to instantiate.
Escaping the Metaphysical Menagerie. The word of the Lord is thus: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55: 8) and “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with [me]” (1 Cor. 3: 19). These two passages reiterate the point that without the guiding Light and Life of the world, Jesus Christ, the so called intellectuals of the world will be “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And as Bacon puts it, our mortal attempts to capture the world in linguistic form will “still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies” (Harris, 1981: 19).
In Man’s search for meaning, the alternative to the cognitive quest is the ethical journey of loving and serving others. As Levinas (1988: 56) puts it, “The ethical relationship is not grafted on to an antecedent relationship of cognition; it is a foundation and not a superstructure.” To pursue rationality solely through means of intellectual cognition is to set up the wrong goal and entertain the wrong issue. Achieving ultimate rationality has always been an issue of ethics and morality.
In the end, our mental conceptualizations can only reach reliable and worthwhile metaphysics of reality through revelation from the Light of Truth; therefore, it is imperative that continuous conversations with a loving Heavenly Father become the firm foundation of our attempts to understand and explain the wonders of the world. While mortals ever strive to “build” a metaphysical tower toward the truth, such a goal will ever allude them; for the heights of truth are not attained in intellectual efforts of “building,” but in ethical acts of “yielding” — not in prideful declarations of academic accomplishment, rather in the humble and obedient service to God and neighbor. Not in rational self-interest, but in ethical and moral other-interest. These are the rationalities to which man will choose.
WHAT IS TRUTH?
The Firm Foundation of Truth “Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God” (Jacob 4: 8). Revelation from God is the only way truth is verified and known to Man (Moroni 10: 5; 1 Cor. 2: 9-16). The world’s wisdom is “foolishness” unto God (2 Nephi 9: 28-29). But ironically, intellectuals and scholars do not generally include revelation as a legitimate source and method for making truth claims. For this reason, these so–called “educated men” are “ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3: 7).
Truth as Accurate Ideas and Propositions. Historically, the philosophies of Men have focused on truth as the “quality of an idea or statement” as being correct and accurate (Warner, 1992a). To establish symbolic statements and ideas as truth, philosophers use three main approaches (Riddle, 1992): (1) coherent reasonings and their consistency, (2) the evidence from productive pragmatic outcomes, and (3) ideas and propositions that correspond to empirical evidence. In attempts to assert claims of truth, each of these methods has the following problems:
Coherence: A significant flaw with this approach is that the power of reason relies on the relative use of language and the diverse definitions of words. In this way, logic is locked into and distorted by the linguistic constructions. Given this, representational ideas or statements cannot be reasoned to an ultimate point of consistency called truth.
Correspondence: In this method, the classic dichotomy and dilemma of “subject versus object” emerges. Truth as a property of linguistic propositions verified by perceptual and sensory data becomes inescapably subjective, reductive, and distortive. Left to their own carnal capacities, human beings mentally construct the world in wildly different ways; furthermore, the generalizing and categorizing nature of human languages and symbols simply cannot encapsulate the particularness of “things as they are.”
Pragmatism: While a “propositionally guided” pragmatic activity may bring positive and productive results, it is obvious that the resonating results are most clearly correlated to the “activity.” The problem of representationally connecting a proposition to the actual pragmatic deeds is another nagging linguistic puzzle. If the question of truth is simply changed from the realm of representational propositions to the realm of action and “being,” our problem can be solved.
The pursuit of truth as a property of ideas or statements is unsolvably problematic. In this mortal life, linguistic representations will always be interpretive; they cannot completely “encapsulate” reality (Harris, 1981: 11-12). Therefore, they can never arrive at a final point that one could claim as truth. Nevertheless, the word truth is used in scriptural context to characterize the veracity of words and accounts (D&C 6: 22). But when used as such, they share a common characteristic: linguistic accounts that are “the truth” all testify of Jesus Christ and admonish the reader to follow his example of love and charity. While accounts remain interpretive and representational, if the experience of reading or hearing them is mediated by the Spirit of Truth, these symbols will be sufficient to facilitate truthful action. This means it is the actual and active “believing in” and “being like” Christ that is the ultimate and firm foundation of the best conception of "truth."
The Realm of Truth: Perceiving a New Paradigm. Some conceptualize truth as a fixed reality that exists “out there” somewhere, independent of perceiving subjects. From this perspective, truth exists in a metaphysical realm and is the “real stuff” behind the human phenomena that it governs. Social interactions are “epiphenomenal”--mere reflections and shadows of these reified metaphysical forces. From this perspective, truth is most often conceptualized as a thing, or in a grammatical sense, as a noun.
In a preferred paradigm, truth is not “out there” somewhere, but is “right here” within the tangible realm of human reality as an active way of “be-ing” with others in the world. Therefore “truth” is an ethical experience, realized within the immediate context of relational activity and best conceived in the grammatical sense as a verb.
Truth as Ethical Being and Knowing. Truth is an entire way of life that was exemplified by the Savior in his mortal ministry; it is a sensitive way of living attuned to the enticings of the Spirit. It is the epitome of “conversational competence” which consists of dynamic communication aimed at affecting and informing others to their eternal advantage (Riddle, 1992). From this foundation of ethical action and be-ing, the knowing aspect of truth unfolds. This facet of knowing is emphasized in a familiar scripture: “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93: 24).
If one focuses on the words “things as they are,” one might conclude that truth is a synonym for reality. But this scripture states that “truth is knowledge,” not “truth is things.” To interpret this scripture faithfully, one must spiritually discern the meaning of knowledge--what does it means to “know”? Without importing contemporary interpretations into the translation of this passage, one can allow the scriptures to clarify themselves. Numerous passages clearly point to the inextricable connection between truth, knowledge, and ethical action. Those who “know” are the same who are enlightened by the Spirit of Truth, fear God, have faith in him, repent of their sins, and obediently follow the Savior’s loving example with and eye single to his glory (Prov. 1: 7; John 3: 21; John 7: 17; Alma 26: 22; D&C 88: 66–67; D&C 93: 28)
Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). He is the Truth in at least two ways: (1) he is the exemplar of the ethical and truthful way of being––which way is love and charity for others, with others; and (2) he is the source of all knowing, “for he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it” (2 Nephi 9: 20). The truth is with us, as we are perfect in our charity and love with others and exacting in our obedience with God. The knowledge that is imparted to us by Christ is not an “object” or a “thing,” rather it is a radiant “activity” of enlightenment. Knowing is a description of the illuminating light we are filled with as we live ethically and lovingly with God and others. “Knowing” is inseparably embedded in our dynamic two-way communications with God the Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Light and Life of the world. “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things” (D&C 88: 67).
Truth, Freedom, and Agency. Jesus said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” What is the freedom of which Christ speaks? The scriptures are clear on this issue. If anyone will believe the words of Christ and emulate his loving example, that person will be freed from the bondage of sin, being also free to partake of eternal life (Rom. 6: 20-23; Gal. 5: 1).
Having a world of opposition is one of the essential conditions that opens the possibility of human agency (2 Nephi 2: 11-16; D&C 29: 39). The agency of Man is inextricably embedded in the diametrical choices of “liberty and eternal life” through the great Mediator, Jesus Christ--or “captivity and death” according to the power of the devil (2 Nephi 2: 27-29 & 10: 23). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the word “agent” two specific meanings: (1) “one who has the power to act or to choose what he will do,” and 2) “a person authorized to act for another.” The scriptures speak of both these meanings: “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58: 28), and “that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ” (2 Nephi 31: 13). Being an agent of Christ means acting in his name by following his example but also applies to the “others” to whom we relate--subject to subject, agent to agent. In other words, the very people we love and serve in the name of Christ are surrogates for Christ as well (Riddle, 1992): “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25: 40).
Self and others exist in ethical interconnectedness — a synergistic setting of love and hate, joy and sadness. Humans have the agency to act one way or the other--to act in the name of Christ and walk in the radiant light of his love, or to follow Satan and do the anguishing deeds of darkness--an agency intended to make man “accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101: 78). Human agency represents our opportunity to dis–cover the possibilities of who we are and who we can become — possibilities not achieved within ourselves nor by ourselves, but only through the tangible and real relationships we share with others. Luciano De Crescenzo puts it this way: “We are each of us angels with one wing, and can only fly embracing each other.” The quest is to “forget” oneself and to love others through the mediating Light of Christ. It is ultimately within the ethical embrace that we come to “know” God’s Freedom and Truth, and can therefore soar to heights of eternal joy and glory with those we love.
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