The Morality of The Rational, and How We Shape Meaning from The Void
I was recently talking to someone about how uncertain everything is. There are different opinions on everything - from what’s really happening in politics to the healthiest diet to follow. With so many different opinions, we could easily become overwhelmed, and decide that since we can never really know, we should just stop trying.
But of course, life is lived in spite of uncertainty. We trust science until it changes, we trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy. Things change all the time, but that doesn’t stop us from plunging ahead, making our best guesses in the face of the unknown.
All of life is an exercise in creating confidence out of uncertainty, distilling meaning from the void.
But that means that we human beings have a massive responsibility. We can quite literally make the world mean anything we want it to. In a special sense, we are like gods, writing the world as we see it.
That does not mean, however, that we should simply craft whatever meaning we want. Some people have taken the uncertainty, and their awareness of their own power, and have written bizarre and horrific interpretations. Others have decided that since there is a void, that they too will become little voids, embracing nihilism, using their power to create only more nothingness.
I see things differently. To me, our power is a chance to exercise a morality of truth. We can choose to exercise self-control and integrity as we create meaning.
I don’t mean simply that we weigh the consequences, for instance, of believing that the holocaust never happened. That’s a morality, but a morality about the effects of our beliefs. I’m talking about a morality that pertains to how we believe, and how we come to conclusions.
The scientific method is a particularly strong type of such morality. It maintains a very definite understanding of what sorts of things may be said, and to what degrees of certainty. It doesn’t allow us to simply say anything we want; it requires us to be very precise, and to only say things that could be verified by others. It is a certain sort of universal equality - an assertion that the truths that matter are discernible from any vantage point.
The principles of rational thought are another such morality. There are many more.
What all of these have in common is that they require us to sacrifice something. Many people will get into arguments about meaning and truth, and hold onto their positions no matter what. This means that at a certain point, when it suits their purposes, they will abandon rationality.
A person of character, in contrast - someone exercising a personal morality of meaning and belief - won’t use just any argument that comes to them. Instead, they will constrain themselves, putting forward their beliefs and assertions with integrity, in a humble manner. And when they can’t say something within their principles of rationality or science or whatever else, they will not say it. They will allow others to be right, they will allow themselves to be wrong.
We certainly don’t have to act this way. We can absolve ourselves of any constraints on our choices of meaning. We can be right every single time. But to exercise character, responsibility, consideration for others - this is what it is to act like an adult when it comes to interpreting the world.