- Is Scientific Knowledge Rational?
In his new book Is Scientific Knowledge Rational? Halil Rahman Açar probes the problem that rationality has presented to paradigms of epistemology throughout the history of Western thought. He claims early on that “we do not at present, have a general theory of rationality that can explain both the rationality of action and the rationality of a set of beliefs” (p. 14). His purpose is to address this problem by defending rationality and by building up a coherent reconstruction of it through an analysis of truth and science, which are currently the dominant paradigms of human rationality.
The chapters of the text are set up to address the problem through a series of stages that will build up to a theory of meta-rationality—but more on that later. Chapter 1 is devoted to rationality in general, and its primary focus is the development of a clearer understanding of what exactly rationality is by way of analyses of human nature, human culture, and human interaction. Chapter 2 takes up the question of the superiority of rationality in science; that is, it focuses on knowledge as the product of science. Chapter 3, on objectivity and subjectivity in science, deals with the problem of science as a human endeavor and tries to separate out the subjective preferences of scientists (and philosophers) from objective knowledge characterized through scientific theories. Chapter 4 deals with truth in science, but the author is clear that he does not mean capital T truth, but rather a truth we produce by participating in each level of knowledge. Chapter 5 shifts the focus of the text away from fundamental questions about science to look at the progress science has made in its pursuit of truth and rationality.
Açar begins by offering his own definition of rationality as a guide to the intention of the text: “Rationality . . . must be seen as an alternative system of interpreting knowledge” (p. 15). However, he goes on to add the following addendums to his definition in the first chapter: rationality is not intelligence, it differs from noncognitive aspects of human community and communication, and it is the manner in which humans grasp and relate to the world they inhabit. By arguing this way he ultimately makes a positive claim for a fundamental, or foundational, rationality that unites all of humankind.
Eventually, following Jonathan Bennett, he argues that rationality is what marks humans off as separate from animals. Rational acts become acts that one ought to perform and irrational acts are those that one ought not to perform. Making his case, though, that rational acts are different, or require a different rationality, than rational beliefs, Açar argues that while there may be objectivity in science there is not objectivity in scientists. Because we cannot have absolute certainty through an empirical discipline we hold our rational beliefs on insufficient evidence. This is because [End Page 561] scientists are subjective agents susceptible to feelings or commitments that erode their ability to perform objectively.
Developing an adequate theory of rationality that can transcend the context of both scientists and experiments becomes the final focus of the text in chapter 6. It is for this reason that I want to spend a little more time on the arguments in favor of the meta-rationality that Açar proposes. In chapter 6, he attempts to explain his theory of meta-rationality, without which, he claims, “we will not be able to solve the problem [of rationality]” (p. 159). The problem with his meta-rationality theory is that it offers no substantial help to his argument because it ultimately concludes with an acknowledgment that no meta-theory can be tested; it can only be acknowledged. Before he gets to this point, however, he moves through arguments about monism and pluralism in order to make the groundbreaking claim that his theory is “radically different from the proposals considered [in the preceding chapters] . . . [because] it allows for a variety of conceptions of rationality and it takes none of them as the only correct...