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The Splendid Feast of Reason

The Splendid Feast of Reason

by S. Jonathan Singer

Jonathan Singer's witty, erudite book is a celebration of rationality and an urgent call to make use of intelligence and reason to better cope with human problems. Emphasizing the importance of rationality's greatest achievement, modern science, Singer—one of the foremost biologists of our era—argues that for the first time in several million years


Jonathan Singer's witty, erudite book is a celebration of rationality and an urgent call to make use of intelligence and reason to better cope with human problems. Emphasizing the importance of rationality's greatest achievement, modern science, Singer—one of the foremost biologists of our era—argues that for the first time in several million years humanity has at its disposal the tools for an objective understanding of the external world. Singer demonstrates that, today more than ever, the fullest exercise of rationality is essential if humanity is to rein in a runaway technology and control an explosion of the human population that together threaten to devastate life on this planet within only a few more generations.

The intrusion of reason and rationality into our largely irrational world has been painfully slow, uneven, and often unwelcome. Singer explains that for rationalists the founding of modern science—which took place only a few hundred years ago—has overthrown many of the myths of conventional wisdom and dogmas of traditional religions. Yet these beliefs still hold sway over the irrational world, obstructing efforts to deal sensibly with the problematic future of mankind.

The core of The Splendid Feast of Reason is an engaging and accessible account of the knowledge that modern science provides. Singer offers an absorbing discussion of how life works, of the nature of reproduction, aging, and death, and of the necessary fragility of the individual life compared to the resilience of life itself. He emphasizes the primary role of the genes in determining the structural organization and the behaviors of living things, including humans. He also stresses the nature and mechanisms of biological evolution, mechanisms that have now been placed in jeopardy because of human ignorance and irrational appetites. Finally, Singer delves into the enigma of the real world with its irrational and chaotic operations and offers suggestions of how a rationalist can not only survive, but thrive in it.

Editorial Reviews

In elegant prose biologist Jonathan Singer details the basic scientific triumphs of modern rational thinkers.

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University of California Press
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The Splendid Feast of Reason

By S. Jonathan Singer

University of California Press

Copyright © 2003 S. Jonathan Singer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520239113

Chapter One

Homage to the Square

This book is a celebration of rationality and rationalists. And they are eminently worthy of celebration. It is the human mind, with its capacity for reason, that is the special mark that evolution has set upon humanity. It is what distinguishes us as a unique presence in the world, perhaps in the entire universe. After all, in what other respect than the mind and its extraordinary force of reason are human beings so special? We cannot fly like a bird, we cannot subsist without water like a camel, we cannot race like a cheetah, we cannot use the sun's energy like a plant, and we do not smell like a rose. Absent the brain (as unfortunately too often appears to be the case), the human is a very ordinary creature. Furthermore, as a factual measure of the great value the human animal invests in its brain, a newborn's brain consumes 60 percent of all the energy a baby takes in. (That figure would be more like 5 percent if it were simply proportional to the relative weight of the newborn's brain.) Rationality, therefore, is one of the crowning distinctions of humanity.

    Strangely enough, though, reason can hardly be said to illuminate human affairs. Instead, reason seems often to be only a candle flickering in the darkness created by human greed, aggression, and ignorance. The history of humanity, the saga of the several million years' existence of the genus Homo, is a story of the only gradual and limited intrusion of rationality into the complex burden of the human experience. This encroachment of reason into a quite irrational world has been painfully slow, imperfect, and often unwelcome. Nevertheless, it is reason that has revolutionized human existence. The elaborate technological structure of modern Western society, which has brought us out of a forested jungle into a cement and steel one, has largely resulted from the application of rational methods to human physical activities. Likewise, all the scientific understanding of the universe and of the nature of life that has been magnificently constructed in only the past few hundred years has been achieved by an uncommon group of people of rational temper. This understanding has completely transformed thinking people's views of the world around them. It was also rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke, Tom Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, who championed the principles of popular governance and the rights of man, ideas that, revolutionary at the time, have since remade Western political life. Although the influence of rationality on the human condition has been limited, it has clearly had substantial consequences. Even so, rationalists, having so extensively shaped the character of our society, have never had much impact on how it has functioned.

    Creative intelligence has transformed the world but has rarely ruled it.

    Now that we have glimpsed some of the extraordinary accomplishments of rationality and rationalists, what do these terms mean? Who are the rationalists among us, and what is it that characterizes them? Rationality, like many other terms in wide usage, is a concept that we think we know but, when pressed, have difficulty in precisely defining. I venture this concise definition: rationality is the use of intelligence and reason to seek the truth objectively and without prejudice. I recognize that this version is loaded with words that themselves require definition; for our general purposes, though, this definition will do.

    More difficult is the definition of a rationalist. This is because every human being functions both rationally and irrationally. In this book, it is rationality that is accorded special prominence. However, irrationality is not to be discounted: it is an inborn and powerful human predilection. Irrationality can be defined as any mental activity that largely escapes or denies our rational control. Our subconscious selves, our emotions, passions, turbulences, perversities--all contribute intensely to our irrational side. Some forms that irrationality takes are benign and are even among the most noble of human attributes--the love of beauty and much of the creation and enjoyment of art and poetry derive richly from the emotions and the subconscious. (As John Keats once wrote to a friend, "O for a life of Sensations rather than a life of Thoughts!") Further, irrationality is often the prime source of the hope that springs eternal even in a rationalist's breast. Rationality can sometimes put hope in jeopardy: "Hope is only man's mistrust of the clear foresight of his mind," wrote that great humanist and rationalist Paul Valery. But without hope, life can be a depressing wasteland. Besides its brighter aspects, however, irrationality has its darker side. It is the source of much of the superstition, absurdity, and violence that permeate our world. So it is clearly a mixed blessing.

    While everyone is a complex mixture of rational and irrational elements, each person exhibits a different effective balance among these elements. I propose to define as rationalists those who demonstrate a much higher than average proportion of rationality over irrationality in the conduct of their lives. For rationalists of contemporary times, such conduct involves seven unusual features.

    First, these individuals consciously elect to have reason and rationality be the guiding lights of their lives; and they have the capacity and courage to confront all aspects of reality with a minimum of illusions, compromises, and subjectivity.

    Second, they prize knowledge and have a high esteem for scientific knowledge. Rationalists need to have some basic scientific literacy and empathy, but by no means are their ranks restricted to professional scientists. Conversely, a significant proportion of scientists may not necessarily be rationalists, if the rationality they employ in pursuit of their professional interests is narrow and doesn't carry over to other aspects of their lives, for example, to religious matters.

    Third, rationalists are prepared to seek the truth wherever it takes them, which may often pit their views against the conventional wisdom of the majority. They are therefore not distressed if they choose to adhere to a minority point of view; indeed, they expect to have to do so often.

    Fourth, they do not compartmentalize their rationality but rather attempt to extend it into any and all appropriate aspects of their lives.

    Fifth, although I recognize the likelihood of arousing controversy over this, I nevertheless firmly believe that modern rationalists, informed by the knowledge gained by biological evolution and anthropology, no longer can accept the dogmas of any of the traditional religions, including belief in the existence of their gods. To rationalists, traditional religions have become the quintessential celebration of the irrational.

    Sixth, rationalists are sworn enemies of hypocrisy, the first and last refuge of many irrationalists. As a consequence, a rationalist in our society is like the uncorrupted child who, almost alone among the multitude of those who see that the Emperor is stark naked, cannot pretend otherwise.

    And, seventh, they have open minds. Rationalists are pragmatists, not unthinking believers. They recognize a major lesson of history; namely, that all institutions--religious, political, and economic--are mortal. Institutions are born and mature in times that are favorable for their success; but as times and conditions change, they eventually decay. Often, institutions may already be in an advanced stage of senescence just when appearances most loudly proclaim their triumph. Rationalists are always ready to subject all ideas and institutions to scrutiny, however sacrosanct they may be deemed by the majority in society.

    These characteristics of and criteria for rationalists are not absolute or valid for all times and circumstances. They are not engraved on any tablets. Many readers might prefer to delete some criteria or add others. What emerges from this or any comparable set of criteria, however, is the clear inference that rationalists represent only a small fraction of the human population. The balance between rationality and irrationality in any individual is, as with most human behaviors, quite likely to be genetically determined (Chapter 6); and those who are more highly rational are genetically less frequent. I estimate that today's rationalists, as I have defined them, account for less than 10 percent of the population. A Gallup poll taken in the 1980s indicated that only about 9 percent of the American people did not believe that God created man. Some 50 percent believed that God created man within the past 10,000 years; another 41 percent believed that God created man more than 10,000 years ago--all of this gullibility 150 years after the emergence of the theory of evolution. Referring to the fifth criterion, I would consider no more than the 9 percent as true rationalists. In a different context, other polls have tried to assess the scientific literacy of the American public. One such poll sponsored by the National Science Foundation arrived at the estimate that only about 8 percent of Americans had even minimal scientific literacy--our second criterion for a rationalist. These numbers therefore accord with my guess that rationalists constitute a maximum of about 10 percent of our society. The exact number, in any event, is not the most important consideration. What is significant is the conclusion that rationalists make up only a small minority of the citizenry. Besides, since rationalists are more aware of overpopulation problems than are irrationalists, they may elect to have fewer offspring and hence may be fated to become an ever-shrinking fraction of society's members.

    Rationality is related to, but is not the same as, intelligence. Many intelligent people do not fit the definition of a rationalist by virtue of not meeting at least some of the criteria indicated. Many people value the emotional and irrational aspects of life much more than they value rationality. Much great art, literature, and music, reflecting the feelings aroused by the colors, shapes, and inner voices of the world, are among the creations of irrational high intelligence. Rationalists are therefore a subset of intelligent people. What is more, rationality is not related to altruism. Altruism that is directed beyond one's immediate family and clan is an independent human behavior that unfortunately is also in short supply. So people who are both rational and altruistic are probably altogether only a precious few. Put another way, it is unhappily likely that many more heartless rationalists are around than altruistic ones. In public life, however, a brain without a heart "draws nectar in a sieve." But I will not address this issue in this book. Perhaps someone else more suited to it than I will write "The Splendid Feast of Altruism," without simply reducing it to inclusive fitness or an exercise in game theory.

    That rationalists constitute only a small minority of the population is reflected in many ways. For one, the aspiration for knowledge that motivates rationalists has often been viewed with morbid suspicion by the society at large. The bloody fury of the gods unleashed on Prometheus for revealing the knowledge of fire to humanity exemplifies how human beings have often pictured their gods as jealously guarding knowledge from them. Likewise, Adam and Eve forever debased man and woman by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thereby ingesting a comprehension of Good and Evil--a capability that God apparently did not want His favorite creation to have. In his later years, the Preacher avowed that "he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow," a sentiment calculated to freeze the blood of any rationalist. Dr. Faustus's soul became forever Satan's property when he sought knowledge considered by medieval society to be beyond what a human being ought properly to possess. To elevate scientific knowledge above Biblical truth was a certain way to court death during the Counter-Reformation, as Galileo, a devout Catholic of his time but a supreme rationalist in all other respects, discovered. In our time, things haven't changed all that much: ridicule is often heaped on the "square," the "nerd," and the "egghead." Even Einstein, with his unruly crown of hair and his baggy pants, was revered by the public not so much for his rational genius but more as someone touched by God, in the same way that the Russian masses once held their village idiots in holy awe. While society has usually eagerly accepted the practical gifts of the applications of rationality, it has generally had an uneasy and unappreciative relation with the rationalists themselves. Society, when it hasn't ridiculed rationalists, has often pitied them as misfits, much as, in the fable, the sparrow pitied the peacock the burden of his tail.

    Many of the directions being energetically pursued in Westernized cultures, largely supported by the majority of irrationalists in the society, are often anathema to concerned rationalists. Simply put, the lowest common denominator prevails in modern culture, politics, and morality. Many rationalists have therefore become aliens in a society that their kind did so much to create. Adult rationalists, particularly women, are brought to question whether their rationality isn't a disadvantage in today's society. Men don't like lasses whose intellect surpasses. Equally dreadful is the need of the young to hide the light of their budding rationality under a bushel in order to gain acceptance among their irrational peers.

    Because I wanted to help myself, and, I hope, others of rationalist bent--especially those entering the adult world--to surmount these circumstances, I decided to write this book. It is intended to be a guide for myself and other rationalists to learn to rejoice in the wonderful gift of rationality and to consider how best to incorporate it into our lives. In celebrating reason, I dwell on its magnificent offspring, science. The profound understanding about the nature of humanity and of the universe that has been the flowering of science must be embraced by thinking persons into a meaningful philosophy of living.

* * *

How will rationalists make sense of their lives, especially in view of the irrationality that reigns around them? That is the question. Not whether to be, or not to be. Each of us gets a free admission to this Globe; it would be churlish to walk out before the performance ends. And once we have left, we will never be allowed in again. So it is best to learn to bear with the whips and scorns of time (not to mention the slings and arrows, the contumely, the fardels, and more, of an often malign world), to brace and fortify oneself in order to enjoy life to the fullest and to savor the splendid feast of reason.

    For each of us, the beginning and the end of everything is the self, which is our internal world. This internal world is the rich treasure house of thought, sensations, emotions, and passions; as such, it is also the primary domain of human irrationality. The internal world centers on our mental being, both conscious and unconscious, and the actions taken in response to the dictates of the mind. It is the world of Descartes's first principle of existence: "I think, therefore I am." The internal world is by its nature completely egocentric. It has always been, and always will be, the one unimpeachable reality of an individual's existence. It therefore forms the crucial center of every human life. But each of us also perceives an external world around us, one that is primarily material rather than mental. This material world, which includes one's own body, consists of one's surroundings, the multitude of objects in the sky, the powerful forces of nature, and the great diversity of other inhabitants of the earth, all of which each of us becomes aware of and must contend with as we mature. What is one to make of this external world? How does our self, isolated and sovereign, relate to it? This book is essentially devoted to these questions. While I affirm that the internal world of human beings is the vital core of our existence, that is not the world that I explore in depth here. I concentrate instead on our external world, while acknowledging freely that the internal world is, and must be, primary to each person.

    The conscious awareness of an external world is a uniquely human attribute, a hallmark of our rationality. Only very recently in history have humans begun to achieve an objective scientific understanding of the external world. By contrast, for almost all of humanity's several million years of existence, our views of the external world were completely subjective; they were solely a reflection of our internal world. As we have become more confident of our powers, our benighted and aboriginal views of the external world have become more and more centered on ourselves; that is, we constructed an anthropocentric externality.

    These views originated from needs to propitiate the vast forces of nature that could destroy us, to console us for our inevitable death, and to magnify our sense of significance in a complex and bewildering world that altogether dwarfed us. A myriad of primitive views of the nature of human beings and their external world were therefore elaborated in different societies over time. Many of these views were remarkable for their ingenuity and beauty, but they were all anthropocentric offshoots of an egocentric internal world. Many often sought to dignify these inventions by attributing to them a divine origin or inspiration. Even so, these views have never evinced any autonomous and objective reality. Nevertheless, over the millennia most people came to accept one or another of them unquestioningly.

    The most extraordinary of the many remarkable consequences of the rise and maturation of modern science, starting only about 400 years ago, has been to provide a singular, spectacular, and verifiably objective view of the external world. The scientific view, though derived by human minds in the context of the society of which we are a part, for the first time transcends our egocentric internal world and is essentially independent of it. Like mathematics, the scientific view of the external world has by now attained its own autonomy from the evanescent human condition. Even though this scientific view is incomplete--and continues to be adjusted and expanded by scientific investigation--its outlines and many of its details are already secure. Many features of the rational scientific picture of the external world are conceptually quite revolutionary, often completely at odds with many traditional anthropocentric views. The facts ascertained by science show that many of these traditional views are fictions. Partly because they are relatively recent, though, these scientific ideas have so far had little effect on majority views of the external world. By and large, the old anthropocentric views, even if somewhat shaken, still prevail in a society that is fundamentally irrational.

    Majority opinions, however, are irrelevant to scientific truth. We have never held a plebiscite to determine whether 2 plus 2 equals 4, or whether the Earth is round or flat. Rationalists understand that science has provided an awesome, astonishing, and ever-deepening insight to the reality of the external world, an insight that is not subject to opinion uninformed by facts. Science is the sturdy saxifrage that has split the rock of dense delusion.

    As the book proceeds, I examine and contrast the anthropocentric and scientific views of the external world. Most of this is not new ground, but it needs to be continually reasserted above the noise and clamor of our irrational world. My ultimate object is to suggest a rational conciliation of the internal egocentric world of an individual human being with the vastly different cosmic world that envelopes us; this juncture occurs in Chapter 10.


Excerpted from The Splendid Feast of Reason by S. Jonathan Singer Copyright © 2003 by S. Jonathan Singer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

S. Jonathan Singer is Professor of Biology Emeritus and University Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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