Re: farewell to Reason?

Gerrit Hanenburg (
Sun, 23 Jul 1995 16:38:08 GMT

Alex Duncan <> wrote:

>I often wonder if "nonrational" people actually use the scientific method
>without a real awareness of what they're doing, and then generate another
>explanation for their behavior that provides a better fit with their
>culture. For example, the Yanomamo may have arrived at the arrow poison
>they use after a great deal of trial and error (hypothesis: this frog
>will provide an adequate arrow poison, test: does it kill the monkey? --
>it seems a bit of a stretch to call this science, but hopefully you get
>the point).

>Within Yanomamo culture, it may be that "trial and error" is not an
>acceptable means of figuring things out, or doesn't carry the legitimacy
>of other methods. In such a case, perhaps a culturally acceptable
>alternative explanation will be found: "the frog god came to me in a
>dream and told me which frog would provide the best poison."

I suspect that trial and error IS the way in which they acquire their
knowledge.Apart from "supernatural" explanations it's hard to imagine how
else it could have been done.Since we do not allow for supernatural
explanations (is that a shortcoming?),trial and error is the only one that
After your comment I doubt there is much more than a gradual difference
between our rationalism and theirs,the term "alternative rationalism" may
have been a bad choice.
I think the difference between our rationalism and their "alternative"
rationalism is that their reasoning is less systematic and strongly
interwoven with "magical" thinking.
We have become more systematic and got rid of the magical part (have we?
are our elementary particles more real than their spirits?)
What we should be carefull about is not to put value-labels on these diverse
approaches of acquiring knowledge.We are somewhat inclined to consider our
way to be more "advanced" than theirs.(advanced in this context should only
mean younger in an evolutionary sense,as we consider eukaryotic life to be
more advanced than prokaryotic life.)
The Yanomamo and other "primitive" people have a respectable amount of
knowledge of their environment which they didn't acquire via an explicit
hypothesis/test complex.Most of their knowledge is tacit.They have no
explicit knowledge of aerodynamics and mechanics,yet their blowpipes work
very well.(an engineer would speak of good design)
(It is very interesting to think about how they can have arrived at certain
cultural artifacts and behaviours.How did the blowpipe/poison arrow complex
evolve?And this is of course closely related to such problems as how hominids
first came to make use of stone artifacts without (I suspect) having explicit
concepts of "hardness" and "sharpness".)

>What I find disturbing about "alternative rationalities" is that they
>don't necessarily reveal the truth.

Neither does our rationality.Our theories may be true (as long as they are
not falsified),but we may never know for sure.

>I recently saw a news segment that
>showed a "trial" somewhere in the middle east. There were a series of
>suspects for a crime. They were all subjected to having their tongues
>burned by a hot iron. The "judge" examined their tongues afterwards to
>determine guilt or innocence. While it's not beyond the realm of
>possibility that this method may work (a suspect who is confident in his
>innocence may secrete more saliva -- or less, whatever -- and thus not
>recieve as severe a burning as a guilty man), I suggest that a "rational"
>method is more likely to reveal the truth.

I agree (mainly because I'm already the "convert" of a certain scientific