On the flight into reason

Hyper-rationality is the unquestioning faith in the efficacy of reason.

This is something of an irony, since those who take the hyper-rational approach to reason are violently opposed to "faith" of any sort. They (rightly) condemn "faith" as "irrational," but they then go to the opposite extreme of making reason supreme. In so doing , they inadvertently turn reason into a sort of surrogate God, to whom they must pay homage at all costs. This is rationality carried to the extreme, beyond rational limits, hence the term "hyper-rationality." It is important to remember that one can be under the tyranny of "reason" just as much as one can be under the tyranny of a god (or gods). To make reason absolute is to make reason into a "god," since only God is, by definition, absolute. To fail to acknowledge the limits of reason (as hyper-rationalists do) is to view reason in god-like terms.

Hyper-rationalists cling to their faith in reason as desperately as believers cling to their faith in God. Both are attempting to escape from something by fleeing into the arms of something else. Here, however, the focus is not on what believers are fleeing from (enough has been said about that by others elsewhere), but rather, on what hyper-rationalists are attempting to escape. The fact that they are taking refuge in rationality would suggest that they are fleeing from a recognition of their own irrationality—or rather, the irrational aspects of themselves. (Remember Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.) They are (often unconsciously) terrified by the prospect that they might in fact have an irrational side that could take over at any time. They have to repress this irrational side at all costs, since it may well go out of control once it is allowed to express itself. So the hyper-rationalist, in an attempt to convince himself or herself of his own absolute rationality and his or her own sense of being completely in control, makes a great external display of being hyper-rational and committed to reason 100 percent. In doing this, the hyper-rationalist is somewhat like Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, who "protested too much" in Shakespeare's play. The excessive protestations cast doubt on the claims.

Are there any grounds for this analysis of the motives of the hyper-rationalist? As it happens, there are.

Scientists have known for a long time that at the core of the human brain, clustered around the brain stem, is a bundle of neurological structures that are identical to the structures that form the brains of reptiles. This part of the human brain is often called the "reptilian brain." It is completely irrational—about as "rational" as a snake or a lizard or a crocodile. The human capacity for rationality is located in the neocortex, the outermost layer of the brain (also known as the "new mammalian brain"), which happens to be a very late addition in evolution. (See David Ritchie's fascinating book, The Binary Brain, for more details.) Irrationality is an inescapable part of our evolutionary inheritance. David Ritchie talks about how the reptilian brain (irrationality) and the new mammalian brain (rationality) are in constant conflict with each other. He notes that the new mammalian brain does not always win in this "contest of wills." More often than some of us would like to admit, we act irrationally: we succumb the dictates of our reptilian mind. Thus, the flight into rationality is simultaneously a flight from one's own irrationality, and hence a denial of one's capacity to be irrational, a rejection of a vital part of oneself. And of course, we flee from what we fear, so it can be concluded that hyper-rationalists fear their irrationality and seek to escape from it by taking refuge in an excessive and exaggerated devotion to "reason."

There is another dimension to hyper-rationality: the flight from emotions. Ever since Descartes, the Western world has held the mistaken notion that emotions are irrational. For the most part, we have accepted Descartes dichotomy between reason and emotion unquestioningly. However, science has once again shown that all is not as it appears to be. In his book Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio has amassed an impressive body of neurological evidence to show that at the biological level of brain processing, reason cannot, and does not, function on its own. Emotions are inextricably interwoven into our most "rational" decisions and thoughts. If hyper-rationalist are fleeing into the embrace of reason, they are also, unwittingly fleeing from their emotions. And as before, they are fleeing from their emotions because they fear them. And they fear them because they think they are unable to handle them—or simply because they just don't know how to handle them.

"Hyper-rationalism" is something of an oxymoron, since true rationalityis always modest enough to recognize its own limitations. True rationality would never claim for itself the status that hyper-rationalists ascribe to it. Reason is not something absolute, some god-like principle: it is practical and grows out of the day-to-day experience of human beings as perceived by the human senses. We now know that these senses are notoriously susceptible to deception, so any system of reason based on the evidence of the senses is bound to be flawed in some way. Aristotle formulated the Law of Non-Contradiction based on the commonsense observation that something could not be true and not true at the same time. But anyone who has some knowledge of quantum physics would know that this does not apply to the quantum world. Reason would tell us (following Aristotle) that things cannot have two different states at the same time, or be two different things at the same time. Yet quantum physicists tell us that light is both a wave and a particle. Reason tells us that a cause cannot be separated from its effect in time and space. And yet, the principle of nonlocality in quantum physics holds that at the quantum level this is indeed possible. Einstein, ever the rationalist, found Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle highly unsettling—and to the hyper-rational mind it undoubtedly is. He famously quipped: "God doesn't play dice with the universe." To his highly rational mind, the probabilistic nature of quantum physics was utterly abhorrent. But he, as it turns out, was wrong. God (if we will temporarily allow that there is such a thing!) does indeed play dice with the universe—Einstein and "reason" notwithstanding. Incidentally, it has been proposed (on the basis of rather compelling evidence) that Einstein suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form a autism, in which emotionality and social interaction are impaired, but sensory perception and cognitive processes (rational functions of the brain) are enhanced in some cases.

Hyper-rationality is a defense mechanism: it defends against all that is threatening and causes unease. Emotions and irrationality are anathema to the hyper-rationalist because they bring uncertainty and doubt—and for some people uncertainty and doubt are unsettling. If we can embrace uncertainty and doubt, and along with them our emotions and our phylogenetic irrationality, we do not need the defense of hyper-rationality. We can live a fuller, more balanced life.


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