Meaningful answers can lie outside of reason… meaningful answers that are impossible to discover when locked in the rationalist paradigm.

The Fallacy of Reason

Rationalism, a paradigm whose influence has seen an explosive increase in the past several hundred years, views the universe as a thing which follows certain laws, laws knowable through logical inquiry. As such, rationalism forms the basis of nearly all modern science & many other modern methods of inquiry. As a sole method of perception, however, rationalism is incomplete and must be supplemented with other paradigms in order to provide a more accurate understanding of the universe.

In its mental evolution, humanity passed through various stages prior to its current reliance on rationalism as the accepted method of acquiring and understanding knowledge. Until well after the Renaissance, more spiritual and emotional modes of understanding held sway.

However, its highly structured system of logic, its ability to “reliably” reproduce and predict results based on past experience, and a pervasive belief that rationalism would fully explain our universe, all helped rationalism ascend to the throne of the court of knowledge. For the past several hundred years, rationalism has ruled humanity’s search for knowledge with an iron fist.

Our methods of inquiry have been based on calculation and logic rather than intuition and feeling. Because rational methods of thought produce what appear to be reliable and believable results, we tend to accept the correctness of rational methods themselves. We have seen tremendous advances in science and the search for knowledge. Because these rational methods appear able to pertain to and explain everything from comets to ‘road rage,’ we give them sole reign over what we call fact.

Let us inquire into the rationalist assumption of cause and effect– the scientific community will declare a theory a ‘law’ of nature only after many, many reproducible experiments which, taken together, ‘prove’ the theory. Proof, to the scientific community, is never concrete; a law is based on the assumption that past experiments have been successful, so future experiments should show the same results. Although we might protest, “Of course! What reason do we have to doubt these results?”, our logical assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow morning is merely faith in a system of logic.

Faith, by definition, is belief without rational proof. Our belief in the rational paradigm is based on the acceptance of its apparent ability to facilitate our understanding of the universe. Any attempt to rationally prove the viability of the rational system would create a tautology, a vicious circle. Therefore, our belief in the rational paradigm must be based on our faith in its relevancy.

We can never prove whether the rationalist system is actually pertinent to what is true fact. Instead, we point to the reliability of its answers and say “It works so often, could it be anything but true?” And by the results of applying rational methods of inquiry, we try to prove rationalism. It’s a case of circular thinking. Rather than struggle with the proof of rationalist pertinence, we accept it on faith because of our experiences.

What, then, of questions which rationalism cannot answer? For example,* what is the essence of man*? Does God exist? Try as it might, any answer to these questions based on traditional rational methods is doomed to never being “quite enough.” Answers often given to these questions usually defy rational inquiry: “God is everything, God is perfect.”

To a rationalist thinker, these arguments have no meaning; to the believer, such an argument means everything. Meaningful answers can lie outside of reason… meaningful answers that are impossible to discover when locked in the rationalist paradigm.

We feel a strong connection to rationalist “proof” because it offers such convincing evidence for belief, because it offers reproducible experience, and because it offers an assuredness that the universe is understandable, perhaps even predictable. Alternate forms of understanding are often subjugated or ignored when faced with rational proof, especially in the past hundred years. This is a natural reaction, since the sciences have brought us so many inventions and discoveries that to deny their relevancy seems insane.

We see the rationalist paradigm working- our experience of the paradigm confirms it to us. At the same time, however, the ascendance of logic and reason asks us to doubt our other forms of understanding. It was inevitable, then, that logic and reason would eventually doubt themselves, and their own applicability to the world around us.

In a journey that began with philosophers like Kant asking what was rationally knowable, and which continues through an armada of postmodernist philosophers, thinkers began to question how relevant rational thought was to life, and what were the limits of an inquiry of reason. The questioning rose to a head at the end of the 19th century as the varied philosophy of Existentialism stripped existence of its inherent meaning. To be concise, Existentialism focused on existence because of the lack of any discernable ‘essence’ of life.

Existentialism and postmodernism are slippery beasts that defy definition; they are more like hydra, the many headed beasts of mythology. Existentialism, at its core, admitted nothing but the existence of the thinker. From there, existentialist thinkers discovered meaning in their own actions. Many felt themselves freed from the traditional confines of conventional mores, but existentialism’s core message, “no true meaning of life” lived on past its viability.

This Existentialist assault asked, “what’s so special about logic and reason? What gives them their importance?” They found no satisfactory answer, even though their inquiry was for the most part logical. The focus of life, of growth – for the Existentialist – was to be an individual, to live an authentic life, and to seek one’s own understanding of the world- to exist and not worry about why we exist.

Postmodernism took this idea a step further and explored all paradigms of meaning- that is, sought an understanding of how a society’s world-view related to the time and place in which it existed. To the postmodernists, our perception of reality is constructed, and is intricately related to the time and space in which it exists. All paradigms are fleeting, invisible monarchs of ages, which come and go, sometimes slowly and sometimes abruptly. Nevertheless, the postmodernists say our truths are built for the age; we either cannot know the eternal truths because we are rooted in the here and now or there are no eternal truths.

A true Existentialist or Postmodernist will tell you that her philosophy is positive if followed correctly and that it brings a tremendous freedom and understanding to the world. Unfortunately, Existentialism and Postmodernism have infiltrated the mass of society and been corrupted to inspire great doubt and hopelessness. That there are a great number of constructed paradigms is misunderstood to mean there are no ‘real’ paradigms; an unknowable essence of life becomes non-essence, non-meaning.

Our question now becomes: how do we understand, and is there any way to reach beyond the limitations of historical and geographical placement for a more global, even universal understanding?

The attacks on rationalism by postmodernism and existentialism struck hardest at the inability to remove human bias, even from the most rational actions. In a century that brought us the Uncertainty Principle, light that can be waves or particles depending on what the observer seeks, and other peculiarities in which the outcome of a study is as dependent on the observer as upon the observed, these attacks carry great weight. After all, rational science produced these odd occurrences, opening doors to its own demotion.

On the other hand, these two new philosophies have been too esoteric, too distant from the non-academic society, and only their great doubt in Truth has settled in the minds of many.

Understanding is the act of relating one’s perception of the world to knowledge already in the mind. As the mind accumulates sense data, it files it and relates it to existing knowledge. We understand as the result of these relationships; in a very real sense, we do not perceive any object or existing thing in itself. We perceive our relationship to that object, and that is understanding.

When I see a tree, why is it a tree? It is a tree because the paradigm to which I subscribe classifies certain things as trees? This certain thing which I perceive fits into that class, therefore it is a tree!

If I climbed trees as a child and fell out of one and broke my leg, I might feel fear when seeing the same type of tree. This fear definitely did not originate in the tree itself, but is nevertheless important in my understanding of it. These associations arise because understanding is not in perceiving things, but in relating to things.

When associating sensory information with existing knowledge, the mind uses several methods to integrate the data. Logical association is one of those methods. Forms of logical relation include but are not limited to quantitative descriptions- how tall is it, what color, what shape, what other characteristics has the perceived? However, as we have seen just a moment ago, these types of relationships are not alone. Speaking of fear in the context of the relationship to the tree, for example, illustrates an emotional relationship to the tree. This is what we call an emotional understanding.

No perception of a thing is an island, entire of itself. Knowledge and understanding rely on the ability to integrate new information with information and relationships which already exist in the mind.

Rationalism now becomes a single mode of understanding among several. Although it enjoys the most emphasis in our particular time period, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss other forms of understanding, because they may give us valuable answers unreachable by logic and reason, and may give us a greater understanding of those answers which rationalism gives to us.

Knowing now that understanding is an act of relating rather than one of objective perception, we must realize that differences in individual minds make the passing of ‘objective’ knowledge between people difficult, if not impossible.

Carl Jung, talking about the collective unconscious, noted slight differences in archetypal symbolism between different races. It’s reasonable to assume that these differences exist on levels other than only the racial and the collective unconscious. In fact, the greatest differences in understanding are a result of the personal conscious and unconscious, which have a different history in every individual mind.

We each are born differently, raised in different ways, meet different people, and have a different life experience. We also each have different bodies and different chemical balances and different cells in our minds. However similar we are, we are also unique.

Language is an attempt to transmit the essence of a thought between minds. Due to the fact that human minds are largely similar in structure, language does its job decently. We should, however, not be fooled that it is perfect.

Only a thought can be perfect. What you read now has passed out of my mind, diluted and condensed (without myriad associations which make sense only to me), translated from living thought into unchanging word, and then has been retranslated by you, reassociated with many similar associations (the alphabet, the word’s ‘stated’ definition) and many vastly different associations. What are you thinking about now, reader? What thoughts does this paragraph excite in you? Though they may be similar to my thoughts when I wrote this, they are invariably different in some way.

These small differences, you may say, don’t mean much; we shouldn’t trifle with them. At once I say you’re both right and wrong. You are right because for most practical purposes enough of the original message survives in passing. You are also wrong, because placing too much reliance on the passing of any thought, even rational thoughts, can be detrimental to a wider understanding. So let us remember this and now leave language and communication alone; for most purposes, they work admirably.

The differences in our minds also make the idea of objective perception impossible. I have stated that understanding is relating, and this act of relating is the opposite of objectivity! Objectivity, by its definition, is understanding a thing without relation to the observer. Rational thought has worked hard to remove the individual mind, and perhaps even the mind of the age, from the scientific and logical process. (Is it any wonder, then, that the impersonality of logic leaves us yearning for more?) Ironically, science has discovered that many of our fundamental assumptions about the universe, especially in physics, are incomplete unless we involve the observer. The West finds this a revolutionary notion; the East, however, has long known that the subject/object division that rational thought so doggedly defends is not so clear-cut a line as we think.

In other words, we can not know a thing without relating to it. Rational systems can never overcome the human brain, which is why postmodernism complains of bias. Try as we might to keep our experiments clean and unbiased, every action of ours is ruled by relation, and every bit of knowledge is understood through relation.

Our minds are different, yours and mine. So we must assume that anything we perceive, we each come to understand differently. Even rational thought cannot fully overcome these limits. The universe presents a face that changes depending on the observer, and only in recent times have we begun to recognize this fact. Our science has become a game of dice and probabilities, and our truths have become transient paradigms. We may choose to accept these changes as the death of all possibility of Knowing, or the passing of the throne from the rationalist dynasty to an oligarchy of rulers– Reason, Experience, Emotion, and Intuition – who, together, will share the responsibility of understanding.

These four kings and queens of understanding, taken together instead of on their own, provide the key to a fuller and more satisfying view of the universe.

Mila (Jacob Stetser)

Mila is a writer, photographer, poet & technologist.

He shares here his thoughts on Buddhism, living compassionately, social media, building community,
& anything else that interests him.

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