So, the word ‘neorationalism’ is not one I coined, but it’s consistently been used to describe the work of Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and myself, along with numerous fellow travellers. It’s not something we’ve ever defined as such, precisely because it’s not a moniker we ever consciously picked. However, today I’m reminded of the implicit commitment that might be taken to distinguish neorationalism from its opponents, if it can be said to be anything like a consistent philosophical program. It’s this:
To reject all rational intuition in the name of reason, to insist that not only is there no intuitive faculty of rational knowledge, but that there is no intuitive purchase on reason’s own structure, possibilities, and limits. Reason is not what you think it is. Reason is not rationalisation. Reason is not reasonable.
What distinguishes neorationalists isn’t just this principled commitment, but our practical response to it. Our main departure from the classical rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, is a fidelity to the computational turn begun at the beginning of the 20th century, and whose consequences we are still working out; consequences which land blow after blow on our intuitive conception of what thinking is, breaking our ways of rationalising what we are, and shattering our illusions regarding what it’s reasonable to believe.
Reasoning is something that is done, and it’s something that can be done by processes other than us, processes that can and have been studied using reason, with the unforgiving precision of mathematical proof. Russell’s paradox and Gödel’s theorems lie at the beginning of an ongoing process through which we demonstrate reason’s own limits, and then, following Turing, use these limits as purchase to pull it out of our hominid skulls and realise it in new and stranger forms. We haven’t yet created artificial rational agents, only fragments thereof, but the humanist hubris that refuses to see these processes as fragments of things like us, looks increasingly desperate, increasing willing to rationalise away the advance of mathematical logic, the progress of artificial intelligence, and the encroach of computational neuroscience.
If you think that you can’t be studied as an information processing system, and that this allows you to wall off your intuitive conceptions of not just the human condition but what is good in this condition, then I’m afraid there’s an oncoming wave that will crest those walls and drown your parochial ambitions. The promise made by neorationalism isn’t that this wave is empirical science come to show you the horrors or your neuronal substrate, but that it’s mathematical science come to show you the wonders of your computational soul. We are non-terminating processes interacting with our environment and with one another, exploring the mathematical and empirical realms together, playing games of proof and refutation, and building systems and models that are beginning to encompass ourselves. We are beautiful. We are free. Computational self-consciousness will only enhance this, even if it changes our understanding of what it means.