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Deconstructing Rationality

Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.

"Modernity may be defined by the denial of truth and the invention of rationality.” —John Caputo

Rationality was invented with the invention of religion. Or rather, a particularly narrow definition of rationality was invented with the distinction between different modes of seeing reality. In the past, wise people strove for truth, and reason (a precursor of "rationality") was considered the lowest rung of intelligence, only a finite grasping of certain limited truths. In the modern age, rationality is considered a primary moral good for those of a secular bent. But because our current definition of rationality is so narrow, we exclude existential and spiritual mythologies that precede the rational, and this exclusion causes psychological and societal imbalance.

So what exactly is this narrow definition of rationality? Rationality is defined as "being in accordance with reason or logic." It is usually linked to the correspondence theory of truth, which rests on a whole host of assumptions about external and internal reality. Typically, the "rational" worldview implies that separate human subjects ought to pursue an objective reality "out there." But I believe that both objectivity and separate selfhood reflect an outdated materialist ontology. Philosophical materialism states that matter is primary and consciousness is a matter-dependent and secondary phenomenon. Under this theory, matter is stripped of sensory qualities (color, touch, taste) and subdued beneath an abstract mathematics. Then we are left fumbling to explain how consciousness arises from this dead matter (hint: there is no good explanation under materialism. This what philosopher David Chalmers dubbed "the hard problem of consciousness").

The problem is neatly circumvented by abandoning the theory altogether in favor of some form of idealism. Philosophical idealism in its most basic form asserts: consciousness is the one fundamental, and although something we call matter certainly exists, everything exists in a transpersonal consciousness. The shift towards a consciousness-first model may seem tiny, but it overturns many of our culture's assumptions, including the idea of rationality. I recently read an article, written by an academic, that dismissed subjective feelings as the most fallible form of human knowledge. But this paradigm is clearly false. The only thing I can possibly be certain of are my subjective feelings and sensations, that which is most primary to consciousness. I cannot know whether the earth is round as certainly as I know that my back is aching, that the sun warms my face as I walk outdoors, or that I feel a rush of tenderness when I see my daughter.

Irrationality versus rationality is a question already removed from this fleshy and fundamental reality. The question rests on logic, which rests on language, which rests on Nothing. Or rather, it rests on a chaos of felt realities, none of them neatly translated into speech. Feelings are not irrational, but rather arrational, or pre-rational.

It’s in the translation of immediate subjectivity where irrationality and rationality are born. They are born as the result of placing or misplacing intuitions that belong to one category (the existential, mythological, symbolic) into the other category (factual, scientific, historic). The narrative and symbolic impulse is fundamental to the human mind, so if a reigning culture doesn't recognize the meaning or value of the mythological, then that impulse will lose its container, roaming through the factual, scientific and historic realm in order to craft irrational narratives. The scientific and factual realm is also not immune to misplacing its intuitions. Popular scientists seem especially prone to weaving narratives about scientific facts while remaining oblivious to the narrative structure of their interpretations.

Ironically, our narrow view of rationality has actually caused irrationality by excluding healthy mythological containers from society (such as rightly interpreted religion). Humans who lose containers for an inherent impulse will then pour that impulse into ill-fitting containers, such as the conspiracy theorist who translates a symbolic feeling of being screwed over by the rich and powerful into a complex narrative framework about lizard people and child sex slaves.

As humankind evolves towards greater entropy (read: complexity) our definitions will proliferate with our conceptual categories. This is a good thing. Greater complexity can lead to increased clarity and even "rationality" (examples include the proliferation of sexual and gender categories, or the increasing specificity of psychological disorders). But we must be warned against two things:

  1. Even as they help us to organize our thoughts, categories are artificial constructs, unreal in themselves.

  2. Using only one category to organize your reality will lead to either psychological or rational handicaps.

While we delineate categories more clearly, we must remember the paradox that categories themselves are unreal, and constantly interpenetrate with other categories. Science, too, rests on many useful mythologies, such as time, space, and causality, or more overtly interpretive frameworks, such as determinism or materialism. And religion cannot be wholly free of the factual and historical, as a religious person cannot trust the existential and spiritual claims of a founder who distorts history or manipulates facts. But delineating categories can make these endeavors more conscious. Irrational scientists are unaware of their mythologies and irrational religious people take their truth claims literally (this includes the current explosion of popularity of astrology, which has zero scientific credibility). So, categorizing more carefully may allow us to move more consciously through different modes of thinking.

What do you think about rationality and truth? Are we fundamentally rational creatures? What is the highest good concerning truth? Can you think of healthier ways to define rationality? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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