I have an on-going dialogue with a very good friend of mine, about the role of rationality in our respective lives. He is a scientist, and he works in the financial services industry. He firmly believes that we should rely upon scientific knowledge to guide our lives, and ignore other ways of knowing. I know he, like everyone else, relies upon ‘gut feeling’: intuition and wisdom that goes beyond surface-layer logic, but what intrigues me is that he does not want to acknowledge this in his personal life. It’s like he is embarrassed by his humanness. I want to explore this not uncommon trend within us– why the embarrassment? We’re not computers, but it’s like we’re pretending that we are. I will also explore this trend of “the pretend of rationality” within wider society, though I recognise that the wider society question is more difficult.
We live in a secular society, where utilitarianism dominates. In a philosophical sense, rationality can be defined as the state of being reasonable, as conforming one’s decisions to facts or reason. Of course there have been extensive discourses about the role of rationality in life, including in philosophy, religion, political theory, economics, and in art history.
I appreciate the obvious benefits of rationality in the public realm. For instance I do not disagree always with economic rationality. If material wants can be best met through economically rational strategies, there is nothing wrong with this. Decisions are justifiably influenced by economic and scientific evidence. Similarly in the private realm of choices we make about our own lives, instead of relying upon untested modalities or remedies, we can instead rely upon scientifically tested strategies that are proven to work.
However, rationality now seems to be presented as a god as if it’s the only factor in life, the topic most worthy of public discourse. Rationality has become so strong, we have begun to believe it has all the answers, to the exclusion of any other set of human values. Some rationalists, in criticising religious fundamentalism, are guilty of adopting fundamentalist-type thinking themselves, that is, that no one has the answers but themselves, which fails to generate a relational dialogue between two sets of fundamentalist paradigms. In a way, economics and technology have been too successful, too brilliant that it has submerged everything else. It seems these days humanity must serve rationalist goals. Now, I’m exaggerating my point perhaps a little. In reality, there is plenty of irrational behaviour left in the world. However, my question is to ask whether we as a society have an excessive tendency for rationality.
If we too are complicit with this denial of anything else but rationality, this bolsters purely rationalist objectives as the sole paradigm for the wider context of our lives. I call this ‘hyper-rationality’. Hyper-rationality of the western world arguably diminishes our humanity. Harmful outcomes can result from rationalisations that are devoid of a wider set of deep values, a deeper context of humanity, and this here is my concern.
The symptoms of Hyper-rationality
So, what sort of problems do we encounter with hyper-rationality?
The main problem is that hyper-rationality fails to provide a cohesive set of social values that are sincere, and that integrate the heart, body and mind. It’s hard to be sincere and consistent about a set of cognitive rational principles without an underlying emotional content. Robotic, legalistic thinking is just plain lazy. Pure rationality tends to produce actions that are convenient and self-serving to the rationaliser. For example, politicians of the world have plenty of very rational reasons as to why action on climate change is not necessary in their electorates right now. It would be different if politicians and their electorates had a deeply held set of values in favour of ecological conservation.
As evidenced by my friend, hyper-rationality is based on an embarrassment of the sacred. By divorcing itself from deep thinking, it aligns itself exclusively with what can be called superficial calculation, or cheap rationalisation. It has no checks and balances on itself. This leads to a world that is myopic and apathetic towards anything that is not immediately beneficial in a utilitarian sense. In that sense, hyper-rationality often aligns itself with extreme economic-rationalist views. Can you imagine all the incredible projects in the world that would have never started, let alone been finished, if hyper-rationality had dominated us through history?
Hyper-rationality crowds out all the other voices that need to be heard, in particular those voices that are bigger than just your daily thoughts, that are repetitive, sometimes very annoying, and not particularly useful.
Adherence to hyper-rationality means you have no abiding set of values to give life meaning, other than lowest common denominator factors that everyone can agree upon, such as keeping busy, achieving and to not question the assumptions. One instead focuses one’s attention on being functional and useful, continuing with dull inner selves. We then have unconscious emotional needs and unfulfilled needs for potency, together with the mistaken belief that these can be met by consuming something (Rollo May). Again, this perversely aligns with the interests of economic stakeholders.
Hyper-rationalism mistakes what it is to be human, with emotions and capacity for deep wisdom. By disowning that side of humanity, a vacuum is formed in the human psyche, one that is rapidly filled with other less noble pursuits, based around self-centredness. With no other overriding values, we are left with dwell on self-centred materiality, acquiring stuff for its own sake, produced and consumed evermore efficiently. This is seductive, as it promises ‘freedom’: a freedom to consume whatever, with endless possibilities. Now, ‘we are a community … who has to obey his buyer’ (Auden).
By denying non-rationalist dialogue, it goes underground, where it becomes unaccountable and distorted because it is untested in the social realm. The non-rationalist realm becomes a breeding ground for prejudice, simplistic and facile arguments, and a childish lack of depth.
With no other symbols of ultimate concern upon which they can attach a sense of human belonging, people feel they don’t belong. This leads to a diminished sense of healthy community. With reduced communal feeling, individuals might even become preoccupied with sex, because we need to grasp at alternative ways to maintain the Self and find feeling (Rollo May).
In such a society, the natural tendencies towards greed and envy are untempered. We would feel a sense of belonging in such a society only if ‘we’re good enough’. It’s not ‘OK okay to be people’. A unifying ultimate concern or deep value in this society is that you must achieve. We would all internalise this message, that achievement is valued above all. People would increasingly judge themselves on their material acquisitions and achievements, and adopt frenzied activity as their primary mode of living. We would orientate ourselves with values of competitive striving, prestige, accumulating power, utilitarianism, functionality, conformity and technical efficiency.
Where logic and rationalisms are life’s main focus, there is little time for individuals to confront apparent futility of life. One resigns oneself to simply do what others tell you to do and find meaning that way. In the face of such hopelessness, this of course leads to conformity and a susceptibility to being told what to do by governments.
In the hyper-rational society, the process of government becomes skewed. ‘Government policy’ can become camouflaged on behalf of individuals who know how to manipulate it on their behalf. In that way, society reverts to a primitive tribalism (CS Jung), with manipulative and self-serving messaging about economy from vested interests in corporations and governments (for example regarding climate change and negative gearing).
Real deep change, not tinkering with the system
Despite all these issues, it seems like we’re powerless to change the system. The most that happens is that there is occasional tinkering around the edges of the hyper-rationality paradigm. For instance, some suggest that we should have new economic indicators that include social outcomes. The problem with this is that it ignores the root causes and actually reinforces the longevity of the hyper-rationality paradigm.
I suggest instead a bigger task: to completely deconstruct and de-mythologise the rationalist obsession/paradigm. Resolving this dilemma involves a journey into the mental tendencies of the human mind, to generate a new paradigm of ultimate concerns that go beyond selfish economic ones. Lets go for the big fish, not the small fish, and lets not take short cuts promised by those attractive self-help gurus.
What’s needed is a renewed social dialogue on non-rationalist thought, a revitalised broadening of humanity’s context and how we find meaning. So we need new ways of thinking for us to adopt, which will create some other paradigm of thought that can ameliorate hyper-rationality. Modernists will argue that trying to engender renewed ultimate concerns in society is too divisive. Perhaps our western society has been so scarred by the idealism that led to the wars of the 20th century – particularly those involving the different politics of communism and fascism – that we’ve retreated to the ideologically cool, value-free world. This hybernation may have been useful but its time to wake up.
It’s worth recalling that other regimes have also tried to create a value-free world. For instance, the Soviet Union encourages its artists to eliminate the subjective, and instead just portray what is rational reality. This was supposed to improve upon the human senses. Notably, the strategy was designed to be a tool for the Communist “class struggle”, with hardly enlightening outcomes.
Rationality can best operate not in isolation, but within a wider context of human knowledge, including human experience established through tradition and other experiential learning. My scientist friend has to admit that the process of scientific discovery is likely to originate with an intuitive hunch, followed by rational evidence to support it. Another friend of mine who is a doctor also claims that experienced doctors approach a patient with intuitive understanding, before seeking blood pressure readings and other rational evidence-based factors.
Its worth noting that theories of economics and utilitarianism (e.g. JS Mill) used to assume there was an underlying higher purpose and dialogue with society (in those days Christianity) that operates in conjunction with economics. However with the demise of that religion, utilitarianism is left to exist on its own strength. In other words, whilst utilitarianism was founded to serve humanity under the supervision of other non-rationalist thought, this is no longer the case. My hypothesis on this is that rationality operates at its best when it exists in a bigger context. It is but one faculty of our heart-minds, and there are other human faculties. “Love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a God” (M Denis de Rougemont) can be said equally of rationality. That is, rationality is great, kind of like a god, but if its worshipped like the one God, it ceases to be god-like.
What would a new paradigm involve?
We need to re-create, in our minds, a new competitor to hyper-rationalism, a new paradigm that presents new symbols of ultimate concern for humanity. We need a sense of ‘telos’, a good purpose or moral compass to provide a sense of worth.
We need to be aware that we have incredible levels of technology. While this has benefits for the external world, it has taken attention away from introverted pursuits. Technology has magnified the human tendency to be fascinated by the external world, and to lose contact with one’s own inner reality and reality in general. Instead, our ultimate concerns need to be directed away from technological pursuits and the external world. Perhaps this involves placing greater faith in one’s inner life, instead of misdirecting that inner energy into outside activities where it doesn’t belong.
We need a re-appreciation of matters that don’t necessarily fall within rationalist Western thought. Rationalism believes that everything has a rational cause, and that demons don’t exist. This sounds fine in theory, but the reality of such a view is that is causes individuals to ignore irrational forces, and focus just on what is predictable and consistent – and therefore good for economic growth. Reliable inner growth relies on confronting one’s own inner demons; they are not rational! Any system of thought must integrate the two sides of humanity, the rational and the intuitive. Without integration, there will be more and more examples of extremism, tribal associations, belligerence, unwillingness to compromise and overall just a whole lot of unintelligent actions. Maybe we are starting to see more of this with Donald Trump, and Brexit.
We need to acknowledge that hyper-rationalism does not actually exist- it actually is a mask used to hide irrational prejudices, in order to pursue an agenda. Look at how easily any environmental consultant can rationalise a freeway, and come up with benefits to outweigh the costs.
We need a new sense of myth. One of the key components of humanity in classical culture was reason, but the other one was myth. The Greeks had ‘myths’, stories that addressed rationality with emotional life and morals. Indeed, life is a story, a myth, a romance, with morals attached. We know that these stories are valid, in the sense that they consistently strike a cord with humans, despite being irrational. So we need to generate new myths for humans.
Ultimately, there is no quick cultural fix. It depends on us as individuals. The obsession with rationalism is just one example where people accept society’s dictates and don’t find their own individual meaning. CS Jung thought this occurred because humans have a weakness: believing that certain rules are universal and always true. So we follow what others say. This denies our subjective individual experience, so that we become anonymous components in abstract ideas (government’s economic plan). Individual realisation is replaced by policy directions from authorities such as the government or religious organisations. The current obsesssion with hyper-rationality and efficiency is just one of them. Joseph Campbell’s concluding paragraph in Hero with a Thousand Faces states that modern man’s greatest challenge, or the ‘hero’s journey’ so to speak, is to find a true self through and in spite of a society and culture that presents falsity.
I don’t suggest any world wide movement against hyper-rationality. Its likely to be mis-understood as a war against rationality, which is not my point. Instead as individuals we need to change our hearts about hyper-rationality. Over time nothing changes unless we as individuals change, and this is especially true today, because we live in a highly individualistic world. Ultimately, I am not arguing against rationalist principles, but against those who deny there is anything else. Because such denial simply forces non-rationalist thinking underground, into the shadows, instead of integrating it with reason and advancing humanity.
6 September 2016