Belief and Reason

Christopher Whitt


For: Dr. James Bradley
Engineering 3102
Knowledge, Values and Technology

"Beliefs are not matters of reasoning , but of feeling - which is why engineers don't need to concern themselves with anything except engineering." Is there any validity to this statement?

The prevailing, sometimes unconscious attitude of Western society today is that beliefs are purely subjective products of feelings and predispositions. That is to say, beliefs are non-rational, but rather a consequence of a person's heredity and environment. Scientific and rational pursuits need not concern themselves with anything outside the realm of deduction or induction - the two obvious forms of rational thought.

It is because deduction and induction are the obvious forms of rational thought that they are mistaken to be the only forms of rational thought. Their rationality so compelling because they makes truth claims about the facts themselves. Deduction and induction state things which are logically irresistible consequences, of or undeniable patterns found in the 'facts'.

The thesis that deduction and induction are the two sole forms of reason was the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. The conclusion reached by David Hume claims to be logical and rational, but his conclusion does not explain the logic or reasoning that produced it.

The statement "The only forms of reason are induction and deduction" is self-stultifying. It proves itself false. The conclusion is not arrived at deductively or inductively, yet it claims to have meaning: there is implied rationality. That is, it claims to state some truth about the way things are. This suggests there is at least one more form of reasoning.

A candidate for another form of reasoning that might be a rational basis of beliefs is not obvious . An example can be found in religious belief. Many who believe strongly in Christianity claim to be rational. To them faith is not a method to find meaning in life, one of many ways of interpreting life and existence, or dealing with daily problems and stress. These Christians maintain that their beliefs are a consistent and comprehensive way of describing the facts of existence: they reveal the true nature of things. The same facts are available to every human, yet others do not interpret them in this same way. The form of reasoning is not obvious, but reason is implicit. What rational Christians have done is interpret the world in a rational way.

The type of reasoning which produced the faith in the rational Christian is also that which produced Hume's claim about reason: interpretive reasoning. Interpretation can be defined as the process of examining the facts to find evidence of the underlying causes or process. Interpretive reasoning, unlike deductive and inductive reasoning, doesn't make claims about the facts, but rather about the nature of the facts. Interpretative reasoning is so hard to recognize because it requires an act of interpretive reasoning to reason that interpretation is a form of reasoning.

Once identified as rational thought, and defined, interpretive reasoning can be found in many areas of life seen as subjective: ethics and morals, law and justice, politics, religion, the arts. While not all beliefs are rational, the process of interpretative reasoning can produce a rational belief, as in the case of the example of the Christian beliefs. That beliefs can be rational is logical because beliefs formed solely from feelings would be as inconstant and varying as emotions. However, strong beliefs do not waver according to temporary passions, but can temper and influence emotions. On the other hand, beliefs formed from natural dispositions would be impossible to change, yet irrational beliefs can be changed by reasoning.

Beliefs can be rational thought. The consequences of this have real implications for engineers. Beliefs, regardless of their source, influence everything we do. Even if it is unconscious, everybody has a worldview; nobody is devoid of opinions and beliefs. Therefore, engineers have a responsibility to understand not only their own personal beliefs, but also how beliefs are formed and how they affect us. They must carefully examine their own ethics, beliefs and motivation to ensure that their motivations are rational and their goals worthwhile.

Engineers obviously have other concerns besides engineering. They must concern themselves with the economic consequences of their work - not only the direct monetary costs. They must be aware of good stewardship of the earth's resources. They must restrict their work within certain ethical boundaries. They must concern themselves with their own satisfaction and purpose in life.

A large problem faces our society today is that of 'sustainable growth.' Of course, this is an oxymoron. Mankind cannot indefinitely continue to consume more by simply finding more efficient ways of utilizing natural resources. Engineers must concern themselves with the economic and ecological impact of both their work and the enterprises with which they involve themselves , or else become responsible for the continuing misuse and uneven distribution of resources. The belief that humankind must evenly distribute resources and wealth, and create sustainable development (not growth) is a rational belief with which engineers must concern themselves, if we hope to leave a world that even habitable, much less comfortable and equitable for all people.

Engineers must concern themselves with ethics. If beliefs are non-rational, then the desire to help developing nations or to educate people that do not want it is no more valid than their desire to refuse. In the other extreme, there is no reason not to build harmful technology because the belief that people have a right to expect safety is no more valid than the desire to maximize profit. Science and technology has the capability to create devices and agents to do very destructive things.

Engineers believe their work has meaning. For this to be true, beliefs in general must be rational. A belief-system based on changeable things such as money, power, fame, hate, love, revenge, greed, will not provide the stability that is needed to find meaning and satisfaction in work and in life. Engineers must look outside engineering to give their work meaning, which in turn gives life purpose and satisfaction. It is only through a life based upon a core of principles which are rational and unchanging is one able to properly handle change, make decisions, become self-aware, and find true meaning and satisfaction.

Great leaps of invention and imagination can also be seen as spontaneous acts of interpretive reasoning. In order to see beyond the methods and formulae to find better solutions to problems that face them, professionals must learn to see not only the facts, but the nature of the facts. The great thinkers of the past such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, Newton, Galileo, and de Vinci, looked at the same facts as their contemporaries. In contrast to their peers they were able to see the nature and underlying principles of the facts, and make a leap in human understanding.

The increasing ability to reason, to abstract, and to inspect the nature of the real world around us is one of the key features of Western thought and civilization, and the cornerstone of science, which is in turn the cornerstone of technology. If humankind loses the ability to hold rational beliefs, society will degenerate into a mass of reactionary, primitive bipeds. Science will stagnate, and technology will become a kind of incomprehensible magic. Engineers must concern themselves with the study of reason and beliefs because they are the curators of the technology which fuels our techno-economic system. They must be rational, educated people, aware of the consequences of their actions, and the importance of their role in society.