Freedom on the Fritz: Rationalism Run Amok

Written by Shawn Funk

The Enlightenment promised to wake us from our dogmatic slumber, to reveal the world in numbers, allowing us to master nature and increase our overall happiness. It is, therefore, surprising that the rationalization of our world has produced some very irrational outcomes. For example, in the last 80 years, we have developed the capability to extinguish our species in more than one way. Can a civilization where technological innovation has led to the development of world-ending technologies call itself rational? This is rationalism run amok, that is, the rational formulation and execution of very stupid ideas. According to Max Weber, rationalization is the process by which “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation,” disenchanting the world through technical means and the scientific method (Weber, p.7, 1919/1946). Cultural theorists were no doubt afraid of the bomb, but their focus was to analyze the effects of rationalization on the human with respect to their freedom and ability to find meaning. They ask,

what is the state of the human being living in a society where every aspect of their lives, social, economic, and political, has been transformed through the process of rationalization?

 Herbert Marcuse argues that for all the rational processes working through our society, our society is quite irrational. Our technological innovation, according to Marcuse, has led to technological domination. The systems that satisfy our real and imaginary needs work against us, robbing individuals of their freedom to act willingly. Marcuse notes that “[I]ndependence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals” (Marcuse, p.1, 1964), implying that human beings are quite amenable when satisfied. Thus, to quell the disruptive instincts of the masses that compel them to rise and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!,” their needs, real and false, must be satisfied. Roman emperors noticed this too, spending fortunes on ‘bread and circuses’ to distract, occupy, and satisfy the impulses of their people against their better judgement. Wants or what Marcuse calls “false needs” are “those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests,” serving to disarm the individual through gratification but only perpetuating “toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse, p.5, 1964). While the satisfaction of false needs brings fleeting happiness in the individual, Marcuse states that “this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained . . . if it serves to arrest the development of the ability . . . to recognize the disease of the whole” (Marcuse, p.5, 1964). The production and satisfaction of false needs are, thus, mechanisms of control. Today credit cards, social media, shopping malls, movie theatres, parades, arcades, bars, etc. distract, occupy, and satisfy our decadent urges. Yet if Marcuse is right, the over-satisfaction of false needs facilitates totalitarianism by obstructing the avenues of critical discourse with glitz and glam, cordoning off any opposition to the status quo. It is very hard to revolt when the system satisfies your every impulse. Imagine the kind of being such a society produces, Tolkien’s Golem? Decadence comes before the fall, my precious.

We are currently in the beginning stages of artificial intelligence development, a technology that has the potential to transform our lives and vault us into the realm of technical ecstasy, but will it be for the better? Marcuse would argue that such a technology would reinforce repressive structures in society, making it even harder for the subject to become aware of their servitude; he states that the “more rational, productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the more unimaginable the means and ways by which administered individuals might break their servitude and seize their own liberation” (Marcuse, p.7, 1964), meaning that these ‘administered individuals’ can’t even muster the thought of something apart from the rational processes that dictate their lives, a fatal blow to an individual’s free will. Max Weber picks up on this idea; he argues that the human being has become subservient to these rational processes, effectively confining their thoughts and ideas to what can be understood within the process itself, which suggests that the human is free to choose but only within the confines of rationality. Max Weber refers to this confinement of thought as the ‘iron cage of rationality’ where creativity and imagination are stunted in favour of an overbearing rationality that plays dictator to your thoughts, like living life in algorithm mode, where you accept the first recommendation every time (Weber, 1962). In reference to advanced AI systems, what happens when the computer thinks it knows what is best, and we start to believe it? What becomes of the human agent?

Dostoyevsky hints at a similar idea when his sickly protagonist in Notes from the Underground suggests that free will and rationality bear no relation to each other; he states, “what kind of independent will can there be when it comes down to graphs and to arithmetic, when nothing counts but “two times two makes four”? Two times two will be four even without my will. Is that what you call man’s free will?” (Dostoyevsky, p., 1864/2005). This is a joke, but in all seriousness, he is saying that rationality is rational despite our wills, not because of our wills. For example, in a game of poker, you are free to play your hand however you want, but you don’t get to choose your cards, and in most cases, your actions will be determined by the strength of your cards. Are these free acts, or are they forced? Dostoyevsky’s narrator would say that the cards play themselves, and therefore, it is not a willful act but one predetermined through rational operations. Do we really have free will, or are our thoughts being corralled in a way that gives us the illusion of free will?

Dostoyevsky’s narrator emphatically states that free will implies the freedom to act irrationally, in other words, to act against one’s own interests, in direct contradistinction to the rational man who always acts in accordance with his interests. It is no secret that most of us act in ways that go against our interests, when we smoke, drink, drive fast, don’t wear a helmet, etc. For Dostoyevsky, this is free will in action. The sick man indicates that the irrational person “will insist on clinging precisely to his own fantastic dreams, his most vulgar folly, solely in order to confirm to himself (as if this were, indeed, so necessary) that men are still men, and not piano keys, which may be played by the hands of natural laws themselves” (Dostoyevsky, p. 30, 1864/2005). It seems that humanity’s grip on folly is, thus, proof positive of our freedom. However, according to Dostoyevsky’s sick man, this freedom is under threat by rational processes and technologies that could eventually bring our society “to a state where it will no longer be possible to wish a thing outside of graphs and schedules” (Dostoyevsky, p. 30, 1864/2005), perhaps we are already there! The point made is much like Weber’s above in that rationality becomes the final authority on how our society should be organized and how our lives should be lived. In a sort of dogmatic affirmation of rationality, we have replaced one dogma, that of organized religion, with another, rationalism. If the Enlightenment was responsible for the death of God, it is also responsible for the creation of a new one. Today’s priests call themselves scientists. Tomorrow’s priests could be artificial!

Rationalism is a seductive concept in that it is very easy to agree with and hard to refute. Why would we not want to be rational? That doesn’t make sense. Well, that’s the rub ain’t it? Things don’t make sense. What is the cost of progress? Well, of course, it’s progress at any cost! Nuclear weapons programs are proof, and so is the destruction of the environment and all the wars, too, for progress. We are now hostages of progress; our lives hang in the balance. There is no rationality that will make sense of that.  If one of the ideas behind rationalism is to make sense of things, it often fails, for it carries with it its own undercurrent of ideological assertions that promote its own dogmatic ideals, blinding its adherents to the consequences of those ideals, turning non-sense into sense and back again when it’s convenient. Indeed, modern life is very near senseless. Ironically, the truth is in The Bible: we see through a glass darkly. Our rationality is half-cocked on a good day, and our vision is imperfect. Expecting anything more is just irrational.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Bantam, 1864/2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Beacon Press, 1964.

Weber, Max. Science as a Vocation, 1919/1946 Accessed 16 Feb. 2024.

Weber, M. Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Allen & Unwin, 1962. 

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