You Don't Always Have to be Rational
Really. It's OK. Take a break. You'll feel better.
A few weeks ago, for the first time in years, I went to church.
Not a mindfulness meditation class, mind you. Not some clinically-proven-to-prevent-depression Vipassana retreat. Just a good old fashioned Sunday Christian service.
Well, not entirely old fashioned—they were cool and modern enough to have a rainbow flag flying outside. But inside, we sang about how much Jesus loves us and how lucky we are to serve God. We chanted the Our Father in soothing monotone. We shook hands and hugged and said “peace be with you” to people we’d never met.1
Sure, there were a few brief moments where I felt silly. I thought I’d left all this behind as a teenager, when I loudly announced my apostasy from the Catholic Church. I thought was too fed up with the hypocrisy and outlandish theology to pretend anymore.
But mostly I just enjoyed the sound of a talented choir backed by a twenty foot organ, the wandering homily from a precocious young pastor, and the company of a few dozen calm, smiling faces.
I don’t know if I’ll make churchgoing a habit, but I’m glad I joined on this particular Sunday. Walking out, I felt deeply at home in the world.
You Can Just Do Stuff
There’s a part of us that craves connection to the non-rational, or what I’ll call the arational.
We’re certainly not born rational, and many (most?) functioning adults never really make it there. Rationality is an artificial state born of tremendous effort.
And the effects are not all positive! The stereotype of hyper-rationality is a midwit who struggles to fit in, find friends, feel happy, or fall in love.
Our roots—our childhoods, our distant ancestors—spread through an arational soil of impressions, emotions, magic, and mystery. Most of the time, I feel cut off from those roots. I spend my working hours programming and debating business strategy, then retreat to reading non-fiction or writing essays. I idolize reason to an unreasonable level, and lose touch with the wellspring of experience that precedes it.
But over the last several years, I’ve started pushing myself to step beyond this. I read novels and watch kids’ cartoons. I let my mind wander into strange places during meditation, pay attention to dream content, and (on occasion) take psychedelic drugs.
You could call this “getting in touch with my inner child” (and that does seem to be an effect of psychedelics!), but it feels bigger than that. Increasingly, I’m able to approach these spaces not with childish whimsy, but with maturity and poise. Arational exploration has helped me learn new things and grow in ways I thought impossible.
Here Be Dragons
The world is not a static entity populated by thinking ants who, crawling all over its crevices, gradually discover its features without affecting them in any way. It is a dynamic and multifaceted entity which affects and reflects the activity of its explorers.
—Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason
The power of reason lies in its ability to generate highly detailed maps. Where direct experience gives us rough sketches (“things fall”, “sun is bright”), reason gives us mathematical precision. Reason showed us the path to advanced medicine and computing. Reason has mapped entire worlds that were previously hidden behind tiny points of light painted on the night sky.
But on reason’s map, there are also huge swaths of territory labeled: “here be dragons”.
These are spaces where reason’s cartographic skills fail. Try falling in love rationally. Try reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, or with a jealous partner. Try navigating the dream world with reason, and watch Morpheus laugh. No amount of studying psychology, sociology, and neurology is going to tell you what it feels like to be an Evangelical Christian, or prepare you for your first psychedelic trip.
In these spaces, intuition and empathy are better guides than logic.
Rationalism deals with these spaces by ignoring them (“dreams are just random noise!”) or by quixotically trying to conquer them (“our proprietary algorithm will help you find your soulmate!”). Both approaches reinforce the imagined superiority of rational thought, while providing very little value.
Rationalism, no matter how powerful and successful, is limited in scope. It can never give us the full picture.
To be clear: I don’t want to abandon reason entirely. I don’t want to throw away all the highly detailed maps we’ve drawn. I don’t want to go back to an age of unreason.
I just want to see what’s going on near the dragons.
But the danger is real. There really are dragons here.
It’s one thing to engage your imagination by reading a novel. But entry into some of the most interesting and rewarding spaces requires belief, whether that’s a provisional “as-if” attitude, or a deep unquestioning faith.
Adopting a new belief, even provisionally, can completely transform the world you perceive. It can affect your mood, your behavior, how you relate to other people, even your core values. If you want to know what it feels like to be hugged by God, you’ll need to exercise your capacity for overbelief.
rational consciousness…is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.
This is obviously risky. Some supernatural beliefs engender a sense of well-being and connection; others can lead to OCD and psychosis, not to mention witch hunts and holy wars. The line between the positive and negative effects is often razor-thin.
Worse, arational beliefs are often far stickier than their rational counterparts. Rational beliefs persist because they reflect reality; arational beliefs persist because they affect reality. They are psychoactive, and potentially addictive.
That stickiness is where the danger lies.
Every ideology constructs a worldview that’s perfectly coherent and self-consistent, even if it relies on some olympic-grade mental gymnastics (e.g. claiming the devil planted any evidence that contradicts young-earth creationism). And the most successful ideologies provide believers with mental armor that can transmute refutation into support.
Here’s Michael Polanyi quoting two repentant ideologues:
“My party education had equipped my mind with such elaborate shock-absorbing buffers and elastic defences that everything seen and heard became automatically transformed to fit a preconceived pattern.”
“The system of theories which Freud has gradually developed is so consistent that when one is once entrenched in them it is difficult to make observations unbiased by his way of thinking.”
The first of these statements is by a former Marxian, the second by a former Freudian writer. At the time when they still accepted as valid the conceptual framework of Marx or of Freud—as the case may be—these writers would have regarded the interpretative powers of this framework as evidence of its truth; only when losing faith in it did they feel that its powers were excessive and specious.
—Michael Polanyi, The Stability of Beliefs
The Cosmic Dancer
Polanyi takes this to be evidence that Marxism and Freudianism are nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. But they’re only dangerous if taken dogmatically. If we stay nimble, we can benefit from them without getting stuck.
Treated properly, Marxism and Freudianism can provide a lens for examining tricky psychological, social, and political spaces. Of course, any lens will clarify some things and distort others, but a new perspective is generally valuable. If nothing else, an appreciation of Marxist or Freudian ideas can help us get along with Marxists and Freudians!
The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest.
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Pluralism is the key to safety. By refusing to elevate any single philosophy or worldview above all others, we can avoid getting trapped. A pluralistic mindset can dislodge you from even the stickiest beliefs, giving you the freedom to explore.
Importantly, this includes2 rationalism! The rational mindset has its own brand of stickiness—it convinces us that the world is both knowable and controllable, if only we could become perfectly rational and intelligent. But as we’ve seen, totalitarian rationalism blocks us from properly exploring some parts of the world, especially those that are unknowable or uncontrollable.
The easiest way to step off reason’s map is to just live your life. Fall in love, get angry, read a novel, play with children. Cut yourself a little slack and be comfortable with not-knowing. No amount of effort and education could make you 100% rational anyways.
But for the brave, there are a few means for exploring uncharted waters.
One avenue is to become deeply invested in a particular religion, preferably one you have some cultural heritage around. I say this not to avoid appropriation—Christians, Muslims, Taoists, and Buddhists will happily have you—but because that ancestral connection carries a weight that needs to be felt to be appreciated. In the spirit of Pluralism, you can also pick more than one (though this might require some gymnastics), or supplement with a philosophy like Marxism or Jungianism.
If you’re doing it right—truly absorbing the new worldview—you’ll feel the quality of the world shift.
Another avenue is to experiment with divination tools—Tarot, the I Ching, and Astrology are contemporary favorites. Try planning your Saturday around the advice of a psychic. You’ll likely find it does as much good as harm, jostling you out of comfortable (and reasonable) routines. Here’s an anthropologist describing his experience with divination:
Let the reader consider any argument that would utterly demolish all Zande claims for the power of the oracle. If it were translated in Zande modes of thought it would serve to support their entire structure of belief…
I may remark that I found [consulting the oracle for day-to-day decisions] as satisfactory a way of running my home as any other I know of.
—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande
And of course, the classic three: meditation, dreaming, and psychedelics. Each of these will induce a state where conceptual categories break down and ideas become fluid, disrupting rational patterns of thought. They create the intense energy needed for neural annealing; they’re the solve in solve et coagula.
The Deep End
Again, I want to stress: this can be dangerous. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get lost or stuck in a painful or destructive headspace.
Spiritual practitioners often encourage each other to “stay grounded”: feed your healthiest habits and maintain your relationships. Friends and family will help anchor you to reality.
When wandering in the murky, fluid space between the islands of rationality, a good practice is to look for people you want to emulate. That could be a spiritual leader3, a successful coworker, or a well-adjusted friend. Adopt their beliefs (“meditation is great!” “my job is important!” “people love me!”), and you’ll soon find yourself inhabiting their world.
But remember: the dragons are real. Believing “people love me!” might make you more confident, or it might make you a narcissist. And as Polanyi points out, some ideas are radically sticky.
This is uncharted territory—all we know is that many who wander near the dragons don’t come back. So stay vigilant and keep your rational map by your side.
But if you’re feeling brave, peek over the edge of the world and let us know what you find.
These folks actually call it the “Our Creator”. I’m sure the change was born out of one form of wokeness or another, but theologically I love it.
If you’re feeling particularly brave, you might even apply the principle of Pluralism to Pluralism itself, and feel the rush of getting lost in a single-minded worldview. But I wouldn’t recommend it.