“It is always safe to assume, not that the old way is wrong, but that there might be a better way.”
I feel strongly that reason is a tool. A valuable tool when used correctly. It is a means to an end. What it is not is an end in itself.
It took me a long time to realize I am “smarter” – in some respects – than many people who call themselves students of philosophy, though it took me a while to get that way. One guy in law school a year back had me fully convinced I have nothing worthwhile to say on the matter because I didn’t major in philosophy.
Guess what. I do. What’s more, I think we all do. And sometimes education gets in the way of that something huge. Mine sure did.
We tend to assume higher education in a particular area equals mastery of the subject – a level of expertise those who are less educated can’t match. That’s not always true. Sometimes education encourages the limiting assumption that we’ve been taught all there is to know. It makes us stop asking questions that don’t fit the mold of those asked by our professors.
Who am I to think I might be onto something Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Russell or the many other great philosophical minds in western culture didn’t already figure out? The answer for me is that I have a brain just as much as they did. And it helps to read Jung.
Our culture’s overwhelming obsession with the western science approach to thinking, and to living in general, is incredibly limited. This should be obvious, but it took me a while to figure out. It usually takes something a bit drastic to push people past rote acceptance of their culture’s most deeply ingrained biases. I was lucky to have had such an experience.
Exclusive reliance on the scientific method fails to take into account whatever we can’t explain linearly. It neglects to incorporate what we can glean from intuition, which results in dismissal or exclusion of key information we can pick up by tapping into a greater portion of our brains.
Intuition is far from foolproof (like logic), but it’s usually our brain’s way of telling us something useful based on filed away observations stored somewhere in the subconscious, inaccessible until we pull them up to evaluate with our conscious faculties. We absorb way too much information to keep everything available on a conscious level.
To maximize our thinking potential, we need to use both reason and intuition.
How absurd is this thought process? If I can’t tell you why this is, it doesn’t exist. I. Me. A regular old fallible human being!
The technical term for that is BS. Let’s not forget that over the course of history there have been plenty of phenomena we couldn’t explain rationally – and plenty of things we wound up accepting as reliable facts once we could. How much more quickly could we progress as a society if we nixed this counter-productive approach to assessing the world? How much time and resources would we save? How much better might our lives be?
The bottom line where I’m concerned is that if something works, it works. That’s all that matters. Maybe we can’t explain how or why it works just yet. So what? We’ll probably get there, assuming we don’t decide not to make the effort to begin with.
Of course it’s preferable to be able to explain why things work. It strengthens arguments, makes it easier to reach consensus on what’s true and what’s not, enhances the likelihood others will accept new ideas, increases our ability to fix what needs fixing and put the good stuff we figure out to best use.
But acting like something’s not there just because it can’t be fully understood or explained is just silly. Not to mention – irony of ironies – it’s patently irrational.
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t always think this way. I was fully on the Reason Is God bandwagon until about two years ago, when I attended an ‘energy healing’ session at the home of the top bankruptcy lawyer in California. He helped draft the bankruptcy code. Charges like $1k an hour (for legal services, not energy healing).
I thought this energy stuff was nonsense when I went in but agreed to go with a small group of girlfriends, all of us his former students at UCLA Law. I did it mostly for kicks, and out of sheer bewilderment and curiosity. What on earth might possess such a widely renowned, obscenely successful thinker – logical as all get-out when he was my contracts prof – to openly subscribe to this bull?
My deep rooted southern prove-it-to-me skepticism took a major hit that day. I was proved wrong. It worked. He told me things about my most privately held thoughts, revealed insights about my psyche I wasn’t even aware of myself. Pretty much predicted my future, as it turns out. Ok, so maybe some of that can be “chalked up” to incredible intuition. Though I promise you that doesn’t explain the extent of what he told me – we’re talking facts he laid out that it’s just impossible for him to have known, rationally speaking.
More incredibly for us biology loving, science-minded skeptics – the man actually healed my friend’s knee. She’d been in physical therapy for a year at the time with negligible improvement. He accomplished that without even touching her. Some people might chalk this up to the placebo effect.
Who cares? My friend didn’t want a rational explanation. She wanted her knee fixed. If it works, it works.
Have you ever taken time to really listen to the ramblings of insane people? If you do, you’ll likely discover that many of them – if not most – exhibit shockingly consistent internal logic.
Their premises often don’t make sense. Their conclusions usually don’t make sense. The ‘insane’ manner of thinking is fundamentally disconnected from reality, and it prevents these individuals from healthy functioning in day to day life. In the real world. That’s what justifies calling them crazy – not failure to use reason, but rather a pattern of using it inefficiently and impractically. That’s not the same as saying they don’t use reason at all, as many people assume.
Those we deem insane are a case study in why we should be very careful with our tendency to glorify the utility of logic and reason. It shows how important it is to carefully question its use and ask ourselves whether relying on it wholesale really makes sense in certain contexts. When applied in a kind of disconnected vacuum, absent intelligent premises and a careful application that takes into account “the human element” (which frankly is what makes up the real world – what makes it relevant), logic is not useful at best. It can even be extraordinarily dangerous.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that reason can take you anywhere. It can be used for great and productive or for manipulative, harmful, downright evil ends. Or it can just cause us to miss the point. See: Most anything Scalia’s ever written. Logic that neglects the human element is also why libertarianism makes me uncomfortable, even though in other respects it makes good sense.
If you refuse to look beyond what we like to call the “rational” approach to thinking and problem solving, if you’re that trapped in our limited western-science point of view, you are not experiencing life. Not as it’s meant to be lived, in my opinion. Not to mention you can do quite a bit of damage. I guess I feel I have authority to speak on the matter since I used to think in that – sorry not sorry – brain dead kind of way.
The smartest thing you can do is to ask questions. Always. Stay open. It’s not for nothing Socrates made a point to say “I don’t know”. We don’t know, and I think that’s the point. It’s what makes life exciting.
What I do know is believing your way of thinking is superior to others’, that you hold all the answers because you earned a degree in philosophy, will cause you to be extremely short-sighted and will almost certainly prevent you from finding the valuable answers you think you already have.
It also makes you someone I feel sorry for, when I’m not keenly annoyed by your unfounded arrogance. Part of which stems from the fact that I used to be the same way, a fact I now find pretty embarrassing. It’s no fun seeing your old self reflected in a mirror once you’ve worked your tail off to improve.
I didn’t improve my thinking or my life in the most vital ways by sitting in a classroom, being spoon fed what’s basically history. I did it by setting all that aside and looking past what I’d been taught to assume. It’s incredible what you can learn just by opening your mind to new experiences, being willing to “think outside the box” we build around ourselves devouring textbooks and lectures. Starting to trust information we can gather only by listening to instinct and experimenting with non-traditional modes of thought.
That’s the wave of the future, in my (text)book.
First published on Jessica’s blog, Feb. 21, 2014. Jessica is a third-year law student finishing her final semester at LSU in Baton Rouge to complete a UCLA Law degree. She majored in English with a concentration in Legal Studies, Williams College class of 2009. Follow her on Twitter.