Rational?

Although I don’t go around with a badge saying “RATIONALIST”, I realise that since naming the blog the way I did, I probably fit the label quite well.

What does the term mean?

People often use “rational” as a synonym for “objective” or “scientific”, but it means something rather different. A true rationalist would always seek to avoid performing scientific experiments or making measurements, favouring pure reason instead. The rational person realises that empirical experiments are difficult, messy, expensive and always open to challenge and interpretation i.e. they are almost always subjective at some level. If experiments are not going to be enjoyable in themselves, and ultimately inconclusive, then a rational person would try to avoid them. Listening for differences between cables, or CD versus high resolution? No thanks!

It is inconceivable for most ‘objectivists’ and would-be scientists, but rationalism allows for the possibility that some questions are beyond science. Anything that depends on attempting to measure the human response to art (and dressing it up as a repeatable response to signals or stimuli) must fall into that category.

For a rationalist, ideas and reason would be held to be superior to empirical testing and experimentation. In a single sentence it might be possible to state an idea that renders thousands of experiments irrelevant. An understanding of digital audio systems, for example, is enough to dismiss all experiments on ‘audiophile-grade’ digital cables, so-called re-clockers, etc. as a complete waste of time and effort, in well-designed systems.

An idea (a “working hypothesis”) can provide a basis for progress. Such an idea might not be provable experimentally at all, but can still be useful. A rationalist can ‘rationalise’ that it doesn’t matter whether it is proved or not and can then use the idea, but always being open to questioning, changing or superseding it. Thus, the rationalistic hi-fi designer would not be limited to using techniques that have been tested in (pseudo)scientific experiments. Examples of where this might come into play:

  • Should a speaker designer worry about time domain performance?
  • Is the theory and practice of ‘room correction’ valid?

Without doing any experiments at all, I am happy to answer ‘yes’ and no’ to these two questions. You may disagree, but I doubt very much that either of us can prove we are right. The best we can do is to build systems that make us happy, and hope that other people like them too – in non-blind test situations while listening to music for enjoyment. It’s not science, but science cannot help here.

Definitions of rationalism include:

“the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge”

“a methodology or a theory in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive”

“any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”

I don’t see much “appeal to reason” in ‘scientific’ audio forums: most people demand experimental proof of any idea or claim, which makes them empiricists – but they always find fault with the methodology of any experiment whose results they don’t like and give a free pass to any they do! This is stated more elegantly here:

The standard positivist view of empirically acquired information has been that observation, experience, and experiment serve as neutral arbiters between competing theories. However, since the 1960s, a persistent critique most associated with Thomas Kuhn, has argued that these methods are influenced by prior beliefs and experiences. Consequently, it cannot be expected that two scientists when observing, experiencing, or experimenting on the same event will make the same theory-neutral observations. The role of observation as a theory-neutral arbiter may not be possible. Theory-dependence of observation means that, even if there were agreed methods of inference and interpretation, scientists may still disagree on the nature of empirical data.

So in audio I would take the view that we might as well just work out what we’re going to do based on common sense, without messing around with listening trials, statistics and other pseudoscience.