A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 40, 41, and 42)
To be rational usually means to be good at logical games, to be able to see through cognitive bias, to make empirical arguments, to score high on an IQ test. However, John Vervaeke tells us that this common view of rationality is narrow; it has, over time, been divorced from relevance or depth. But rationality can’t be reduced to logical or propositional knowing, just as wisdom can’t be reduced to mere intelligence. Rationality has more to do with ‘relevance realisation’ and wisdom than mere logic.
Aristotle’s rationality included the ability to realize our potential as an ethical human being. Furthermore, rationality was not considered a trait but something to aspire to — something malleable. We can increase or decrease our rational capacities. Recovering the original, more aspirational meaning of rationality, can help us ‘Awaken from the Meaning Crisis’, according to Vervaeke.
Vervaeke contrasts rationality with intelligence, which seems to be relatively hard wired. Sometimes our innate intelligence can contribute to rationality, at other times it gets in the way. We all know intelligent people who are wildly foolish and irrational, and people with limited intelligence with a solid rational capacity. An intelligent idiot might know a lot of stuff but still be full of bullshit and self-deception, whereas a person of low IQ might stun us with his or her depth and understanding.
Today we equate rationality with scientific or empirical reasoning; we mistake expertise for rationality. For instance, the late physicist Stephen Hawking once declared ‘philosophy is dead’. Hawkins’ expertise lead him to blindly dismiss a whole domain of knowledge that he was not adequately versed in. Similarly, the groundbreaking biologist Richard Dawkins went on a crusade against religion despite having a pretty superficial understand of it. Many empirical scientists who trumpet virtues of The Enlightenment, arguably fail to be rational, by underestimating the depth of religious practice and thought.
Sometimes we mistake expertise in a narrow field of knowledge for wisdom in all others. Expertise in one area could contribute to our mastery in an another, but the opposite could also be true. To use a sports analogy, we can ‘cross train’ and improve our ability to run marathons by doing another sport like swimming. However, our mastery as a sumo wrestler will probably hinder our ability to run long distances.
We conflate wisdom and expertise because it is so easy to measure expertise, but rationality is harder to achieve, and can’t exactly be measured. Becoming rational is an existential goal, not the answer to an equation.
The Rational Ape
Is the human being really the ‘rational ape’ as Aristotle claimed? Because of our wildly irrational behaviours, we might conclude that the human being is essentially irrational. However, even if the human being can’t be fully rational, he or she cannot be fully irrational either. Rationality exist as a potential whether we chose to be rational or not.
For example, we may be capable of dancing, speaking English, or being an ethical person — but we can also fail to perform that capacity when we are very drunk, for instance. The same goes for being rational: if we are totally foolish, it just means that we have failed to be rational, not that we are essentially irrational. Being rational, as we have said, is a potential, not any kind of ‘natural state’. Rationality can be cultivated or neglected, refined or dulled, depending on how we practice it.
Vervaeke notes the difference between hard skills like intelligence, and more malleable ones like rationality, compassion, or courage. This has important ramifications in terms of education. If we focus on the more hard wired aspects of consciousness—such as intelligence (some children are obviously more innately intelligent than others)—we will keep the student from developing their potential to be more rational, more generous, or more kind. A teacher is more effective by focusing on aspirational qualities rather than limitations. Again, rationality is what we can aspire to, not an essential trait.
To commit the ‘Spock fallacy’ is to confuse logical thinking with rational or good thinking, which always involves heuristics and feeling. Spock, the supposedly rational Vulcan in Star Trek, is actually quite irrational, according to Aristotle’s vision of rationality, even if he is good at logic and calculation.
Human beings are uniquely gifted at unreasonable ‘leaps of faith’, ‘short cuts’, ‘breaking the frame’—at heuristics which bypass ordinary logic. Heuristics are sometimes more rational than logics—and too much logic will create ‘combinatorial explosion’—or ‘too much information’. The rational person often needs to bypass the labyrinths of ordinary reason. Reason is only one part our rationality — we also need to be unreasonable at times.
Vervaeke also notes that intelligence is not a sufficient criteria for rationality. Intelligent people reliably act irrationally, whereas wise people are rarely foolish, even if they engage in all kinds of ‘serious play’. It is therefore important to see that real rationality is related to wisdom, unlike intelligence. A wise person knows, not only how to solve a problem, but how to identify a relevant problem.
The Jewish Rabbi Manis Friedman describes this well: he tells us there are three kinds of intelligence. The first is creative intelligence, or the ability to come up with ideas. The second is rote intelligence, or the ability to copy and assemble those ideas. The third and most important kind of intelligence is wisdom, or the ability to say ‘so what?’. In other words, the wise person is is not fooled by clever ideas, is able to distinguish ‘the wheat from the chaff’, and is gifted in relevance realisation. The wise person does not just generate or copy ideas. The wise person knows what is appropriate and what is bullshit, and that is real rationality. (Vervaeke distinguishes between intelligence and wisdom but you get the point).
Opponent processing (System 1 and System 2)
We have different ‘information processors’ built into our very own nervous system according to Vervaeke, and they often tell different stories. This has been called S1 (System one) and S2 (System 2). S1 one is a fast intuitive approach to reality, heuristics again. With S1 we ‘jump to conclusions’, to make ‘quantum leaps’ of understanding, bypass the algorithmic or linear logic. S2 is more about ‘thinking twice’, or overriding our foolish assumptions, and mindfully looking back at our creations and deciding what to keep or discard. S2 has a ‘corrective function’.
As an example, Vervaeke talks about the Freudian method of ‘free association’, which involves shutting down S2 to allow the flood of images and leaps of unreasonable faith and imagination that S1 affords. Freud’s approach was rational—even it wasn’t a logical one. And many methods of psychotherapy (as well as Shamanism and psychedelics) are designed to shut down our logical tyranny to open up the sensorium. But they are not ‘irrational’, quite the contrary. They are rational because they make us more adaptive and intelligent.
There are times to break stubborn patterns of thinking, and other times when we need logic to free ourselves from a sea of information, to clearly draw lines in the sand and make maps of reality. Sometimes we need to tear down our constructions, other times examine them. A rational mind works with both SI and S2 in this very confusing and contradictory ‘opponent processing’.
S1 throws us into life, S2 is our chance to evaluate and reformulate our experience. The rational person needs to cultivate both S1 and S2 — to combine his or her ability to leap into the unknown with a sober reasoning facility.
One of the difficulties in being rational is the fact that we are often divided in our own house, and the two systems seem to contradict each other. But positive antagonisms help us to grow. Opponent processing, however, needs to go beyond the adversarial. There need to be sparks of polarity between the systems, but the systems also have to work together, like a good married couple.
Is meditation rational?
Mediation breaks our logical, verbal, and propositional framework. It is the practice of letting our reasoning facilities drop, of giving up on our tight grip on reality. And yet, as Vervaeke pointed out in my conversation with him, meditation is a rational activity: it re-balances the opponent systems. And by dissolving excess cognitive stress, it actually actually helps us to think clearly.
Meditation provides a space for opponent processing to flow and resolve its antagonisms. It involves an increase refinement of both of intuition and reason, which ultimately leads to increased wisdom. In meditation we can clearly see opponent processing operate. The ‘opponent’ may be our own stubborn, mechanical habits. We do however need to balance meditation with contemplation, which is analogous to balancing S1 with S2.
What appears to be an irrational activity like meditation, from the logical standpoint, might be more rational than anything else, and may help lead a fool to wisdom.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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