Savvy Western elites are suspicious of the modern glorification of Reason. They’re aware that postmodernism began with a litany of critiques of free thinking: David Hume maintained that we’re led by emotions, not by reason; Herbert Spencer extended Darwin’s explanation of biological design, reducing society to a set of animalistic compulsions that should be allowed to play out without unnatural, governmental interference; Nietzsche wrote that confidence in reason is a booster for resentful losers so they’ll forget about their foiled will to power; Freud showed that there’s an irrational unconscious mind that can only be recognized, not controlled by rationality; Marx argued that ideologies are weapons in economic conflicts between social classes. So much, then, for the early modern celebration of Reason! We might have assumed, on the contrary, that the evident progress in the eminently rational fields of science and technology should inspire us to admire critical thinking, as we’ve lost lazy faith in feel-good dogmas. But it turns out that reason ironically undermines itself, as in the above philosophical and scientific discoveries as well as in Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the quantum observer effect. Mathematical systems can’t consistently express every true arithmetical statement, because such systems run up against the Liar’s Paradox. And attempts to measure quantum phenomena perturb them so that a neutral, objective view of them is impossible. (There’s also the intrinsic uncertainty of measuring wavelike effects).
But there’s a deeper problem with reason—and here I’m speaking about our general talent for thinking itself, not just the modern cult of Reason. The problem isn’t that reason is a two-edged sword, that while thinking has allowed us to prosper as a species, as we’ve learned how to exploit natural processes, our power of understanding also saddens us with knowledge of unpleasant facts such as death’s inevitability for all living things or the universe’s undeadness. Reason is both a blessing and a curse, but even this isn’t the problem with which I’m here concerned. The deeper problem is difficult to articulate, since seeing it requires a rather mystical, outsider’s view of human life; moreover, there’s the looming paradox that if you express the problem reasonably, you may have only reestablished rather than shed light on it. In a word, reason isn’t just cursed, figuratively speaking; it’s literally a trap.
Reasoning and our Illusory Godhood
The trap becomes apparent when we compare our chief skill with that of other species. Fish have fins that allow them to swim; birds’ wings enable them to fly; tigers run on four powerful legs in their hunt for food; spiders spin webs to catch prey, and so on and so forth. These animalistic virtues are plainly phenotypic, in that the animals have an advantage that manifests as an outer, bodily attribute which equips them to flourish in a specific environment. Our primary advantage is less tangible. True, we have opposable thumbs and we walk on two legs, freeing up our arms to devise techniques to compensate for our relatively weak bodies. But those mutations would be useless without the modifications to our protohuman ancestors’ brain. That which makes us human isn’t immediately visible to us in our daily life—unlike an elephant’s trunk, a monkey’s prehensile tail, or a lizard’s scales, which are apparent to them. Our brain gives rise to even more ethereal benefits, namely language, autonomy, and culture, or in general the ability to think, to understand virtually any situation and to take appropriate action. We mythologize these aspects of personhood by calling them supernatural and spiritual, telling all manner of bizarre religious stories to explain our uniqueness in the animal world. In doing so, we mistake the inwardness and complexity of our primary adaptation with crass transcendence. We don’t wear our brain on our sleeve and the brain’s internal workings are astronomically complicated; moreover, thinking isn’t a thing, like a body part that plays some obvious role as a weapon in a competition for resources. Thus, we’re tempted to think that we’re not really animals at all, that we don’t belong in the material world of physical and biological machines.
As for thinking itself, its entrapment of the thinker is insidious. With reason we merely organize the thoughts that incessantly occupy our attention, stipulating to conceptual distinctions and appealing to rules of reliable inferences. We follow trains of thought, testing ways of thinking and of classifying phenomena, and in doing so we seem on the surface to be utterly unlike the animals in their struggle for crude advantages. Animals merely fight with their specialized body parts, whereas we see the world as it really is. Animals are genetically driven to rely on their overt traits, but they aren’t thereby misled to assume that the world revolves around their distinguishing robotic characteristics. There’s obviously more to the world than flying, swimming, or running, since nature throws up countless such innovations as life forms attempt to take advantage of one or another opportunity in the struggle for a sustainable way of life. But is there more to the world than what can be thought about it? Does thinking exhaust the world’s contents? Hamlet speculates that there’s a mismatch even in that respect (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”), but that's because he's just seen a ghost. The point is that while outward traits are obviously limited, thinking feels as if it’s unlimited. Not only can we assign a name to every phenomenon, including the zero to nothingness or an elliptical concept to that which may elude our conceptual grasp, but we can imagine fictional worlds or conceive of a multiverse of possible universes. We can plan for eventualities in every earthly domain and can even adapt ourselves to life in outer space. It’s at least possible that for every fact there’s a corresponding thought, so that the human specialization seems as large and impressive as the rest of the universe.
What Richard Rorty calls the mirror of nature, this protean ability of human understanding to accommodate any real property, to respond to this or that situation with a fitting representation, using language, logic, and mental symbols, is then readily mistaken for supernatural transcendence. After all, if we can mirror the whole world we must stand apart from everything that’s thinkable, which lands us in an unknowable supernatural realm. Another way of saying this is that objectivity is comparatively godlike; we seem able to perceive reality rather than just to exercise a more pedestrian skill. That is, we’re unlike the fish that tries to swim out of any trouble since that’s all a fish can do—even when the fish is caught on a hook and parted from water. We presume that when we think realistically, we wield an infinite net to catch anything at all—not just prey to fill our bellies, but any entity the world has to offer. We ignore our subjective distractions and let the world speak for itself, as it were, but only as a ploy to capture that part of the world in our conceptual net, to add to our worldview so that it more and more adequately maps the terrain. Objectivity seems like the fabled horn of plenty, the gift that keeps on giving. No matter what we encounter, we can defend against it since we can absorb its image by imagining fitting symbols in our understanding. Nothing escapes the power of our mental map.
But we’re trapped by Reason if we contend that our power of thinking transcends metaphors like those of nets or maps. Neither a net nor a map stands entirely apart from what it captures. When we reason, we often presume that we occupy our own world. We assume that we’re free from anything that lies passive before our understanding, that when we come to terms with some phenomenon we don’t interact with it, merely adding one more process to the world, but we detach ourselves from what we contemplate so that we might have ultimate power over it. Natural processes are limited and wholly undead (mindlessly changing). For example, wind blowing through trees affects the leaves by striking most of them on only one side, given the wind’s particular direction and strength. Wind doesn’t get at the essence of leaves so that it can use them under any circumstances. But the power of objective thinking seems much more adaptable: we don’t merely project our biases such as our personality or culture, but discover a leaf’s true identity and position, for example, right down or up to the subatomic or cosmic levels. When we understand the real world, we don’t interact with it as an animal might, by twisting and turning a leaf hither and thither and using it in some predictable, blundering way; instead, we seem to transcend the world, scrutinizing the leaf from all sides in our imagination or in the laboratory, escaping to an inner or artificial microcosm over which we’re sovereign. Far from being merely subject to natural laws, like animals or the wind, the objective mind assigns rules to its symbols so that we can ponder not just how the world does work but how it ought to be changed.
Reason’s endless capacity to capture the world in its net of symbols helps to generate the illusion of our immateriality. We assume we must be made of some supernatural substance, because this ability to be about anything at all, to be consciously aware of anything and to fathom its hidden workings seems to remove us from the world we reproduce in our mind. How can anything that’s merely part of the world contain everything in that world, including an understanding of itself? And yet this is just what we learn from biology, that cells each contain the entire genetic code for building the whole organism. And nature is superficially chaotic in its dynamic processes, since such processes converge to those states that are mathematically represented by attractors, as determined by fractal patterns within the apparent noise. Like the cells of an organism, a fractal is self-referential in all of its parts, since however you divide the whole or subdivide its parts, you’ll discover a copy of the whole pattern. The brain is evidently like a DNA code for the universe, in that it has the potential to represent the whole, or it’s like a fractal pattern in which the history of the cosmos repeats itself in symbolic form. At least, there’s no good reason to believe we’re spiritual beings in any metaphysical sense.
After all, when we reason we aren’t perfectly removed from the rest of the world. However the introverted genius may retreat to her room and contemplate the universe’s mysteries, she can engage only in thought processes as sustained by her brain. The brain is indeed walled off from the rest of the body by the skull, and consciousness can be further removed by means of a meditative state or even a sensory deprivation chamber, in which case its thoughts and images may indeed unfold with little or no external prompting, as in a psychedelic trip. But the brain itself is a natural object—fiendishly complex, to be sure, but part of nature nonetheless. Thinking of leaves, then, is like wind blowing through the trees, in that each is a natural process that potentially brings about some change in leaves. True, we can imagine things that don’t exist and thus that can’t causally originate any such mental process. Moreover, unlike institutional science, the ability to entertain fictions isn’t a byproduct of more evolutionarily rooted skills. Contrary to empiricists, fictions don’t arise as peculiar assemblages of puzzle-piece “sense data.” Indeed, just as children begin by whimsically interpreting the world as a giant fiction, so too our species was originally outfitted with a mythopoeic mindset so that bizarre religions were central to the earliest cultures. Objective reason is an individual and historical modification of the ability to freely play with symbols, not the other way around.
In any case, the imagining of fictions is a natural process comparable to quantum wave functions which carry the potential to bring about alternative realities. Just as anything is potentially different, the higher brain reflects that variability in its mental maps. We don’t confine ourselves to mapping actual reality, but delight in speculating on magical links between phenomena, which personalize nature and make it seem less monstrous, that is, less zombie-like. This freedom to conceive of unpredictable, counterfactual worlds is as natural as the fractal order within a chaotic system or as the wave-like (and thus merely statistical, indeterminate) foundation of all material phenomena. Everything we perceive is ghostly in that all things have the quantum chance to be measured otherwise and might even actually unfold differently in other universes. If anything, the brain is a nexus in which the undead playfulness at the decaying heart of nature is amplified. Thus, the mental representation of fictions isn’t so anomalous that it warrants the positing of anything supernatural.
Now, Reason is no ordinary trap. We’re bound to be misled by what our minds tend to do, and so the trap isn’t something you just may or may not fall into. We can reflect on the social damages done by our self-entrapment (on religious wars, egoistic selfishness, bigotries, etc), but as long as we’re being our brainy selves we’ll feel like superpowerful lords of creation, because we’ll seem to be divorced from what we objectively hold in the grip of our linguistic symbols. Indeed, the subject-object dichotomy is likely the source of that sexual perversion, the power play of sadists and masochists—which is actually most revealing of the general horror of sexuality, the impersonal public praise of sex notwithstanding. We learn to be domineering or submissive from our success at rationally mastering the natural world. That’s why nature is typically personified as a female in religious myth, because men are better suited to the social role of sadists (owing to their greater physical strength and to their proclivity to think in terms of rigid positions in space and of subordination to rules rather than in terms of mutually reinforcing relationships). Our brains play out the flow of nature in symbolic form before our inner eye and we feel like gods surveying the whole of reality, empowered also to recreate the world since we come equipped to draft nature’s blueprint. But again, however much reason empowers us, our separation from the known world is an illusion. When we reason, we merely carry out one more natural process that’s added to the list of those operative throughout the universe. To be sure, there are levels of complexity and of relative transcendence within nature, but not an absolute kind that propels us to literal godhood.
Truth and Power
What, then, is the process of objectively knowing something? Isn’t there a crucial difference between getting the facts wrong or right? What is truth if not some mirroring of a phenomenon by a set of symbols? For example, the ancients had hardly any idea what the stars in the sky actually are, whereas now we surely have abundant information and can say with much rational justification that stars are thermonuclear fusion reactors that evolve and differ depending on their mass and so forth. Does this mean stars aren’t gods, as the ancients thought? Well, if gods are the sources of life, then stars are indeed divine. But are they literally gods or just metaphorically so? And yet how meaningful would that distinction have been to the ancients? Perhaps the ancients’ beliefs can’t fairly be judged according to modern criteria because the cultures that define the meaning of our symbols are largely incommensurable. So were ancient and modern people to debate the nature of stars, they might well just talk past each other—until one side would go native and adopt the foreign way of thinking.
Does this mean there’s no such thing as truth? Don’t we know much more about stars than the ancients? Well, knowledge depends on interests, since we don’t expend sufficient effort to learn about that which doesn’t interest us. Modernists are interested in understanding natural mechanisms and we’ve inherited and devised many techniques to accumulate that kind of knowledge. So we know a lot about how stars work. For the most part, the ancients were interested more in teleological questions because they lacked the techniques to apply much mechanistic knowledge. They wanted to know the purpose of sunshine and so they conceived of the world in mythical, quasi-personal terms. Do we know for certain that the world is fundamentally impersonal? Has science demonstrated atheism? Only if we assume certain epistemic criteria that slant that philosophical question in atheism’s favour. You see, the ultimate philosophical questions aren’t matters of empirical or rational knowledge. The answers are largely speculative and thus lie more in the domains of ethics, aesthetics, and religion. Truth in their cases, in the sense of surface factuality, is beside the point. And as for empirical truth, that’s mainly a matter of instrumental power over what’s explained. To say that we know more about the universe than the ancients isn’t to say that our symbols magically agree with the world whereas the ancients’ symbols were duds, but that we have superior control over nature. And that control is one natural process that unites the rational subject and the known object: the subject uses tools to alter the object, and so reason is a step in that development. We gather information, our brains churn with interpretations and goals, and out pop opportunities for rearranging the landscape.
Mystics criticize Reason by saying that ironically the deepest answers sought by logical, evidence-based thinkers are obtained in a pre-rational way. As soon as we start to reason, we fall from grace, as it were; that is, we fall into the trap and succumb to the egoistic illusion that bars us from a deeper, philosophical understanding. To take some pop cultural examples, in the Tron movie remake the Jeff Bridges character paradoxically equates doing nothing with a superior kind of productivity. Instead of scheming with an overactive mind, we should let the world unfold around us and become one with it, as a Daoist would say. In the film called Cube, a group is imprisoned in a giant, subsectioned cube whose sections shift places and kill the prisoners off one by one. But it turns out that instead of fleeing from the room they first occupy, to try to solve the mystery of their giant prison, they should have stayed put in the room in which they first awake since that’s the room that would have brought them to the exit. Such movies play on the mystical principle, then, that Reason is part of the fallen world, ironically bringing us to a dead end. Far from allowing us to see reality, reason perpetuates certain illusions such as that of the independence of all things from each other. Now, contrary to mysticism, there is no absolute pre-rational knowledge such as mystical access to God or Source energy. Prior to reason, historically and epistemically speaking, there’s just the childlike artistic imagination and the will to take an existential leap of faith. Again, truth in the sense of a mirroring relation is irrelevant as well as an illusion brought on by the trap of objectivity, that is, by the feeling that we stand alone in our act of understanding something, occupying a view from nowhere.
Willful Withdrawal from Natural Life
Ascetic detachment is ultimately just more natural creativity, although in this case what’s created is transitory anti-nature. If mentality has a fractal structure that recapitulates the variety of forms in nature, as we echo what we perceive in our thoughts and languages and cultural images, there’s some courage or stubbornness in occupying a higher, mystical state in which we recognize that dreary dynamic and choose instead to become dead ends, to decline to participate in nature’s decay. However, that choice is tragic, at best, because the world’s decay, which is to say its impersonal flow to nowhere, is unstoppable. The evolution of nature is a tidal wave of black zombie ichor that mutates for no reason of its own, although some of its mutations evolve a taste for Reason and the mental space for an incessant encore of nature’s symphony of moans, coughs, and screeches. Perhaps asceticism is yet more fractal repetition—only the existential naysayer harkens back to the ultimate personal negation, to some insane and corrupt God’s act of universal creation through self-destruction, as Philipp Mainlander speculated.
In any case, given the tragic limitations of these forms of transcendence, of objective thinking and aesthetic refinement which shocks the likes of introverts and artists with a vision of the world’s monstrousness, salvation may come in mind-numbing nostalgia for children’s mythopoeic playfulness. If only we could remain in the wonderland of our imagination and not grow into rational dominators who are corrupted by the illusion of our power over the world! If only the quantum foam of possibilities didn’t collapse into actual law-bound worlds; if only happy-go-lucky toddlers didn’t fall into the state of either adult egoism or the existential rebel’s self-righteousness. But those falls happen because Being lurches onward, being essentially and appallingly undead. Like black comedy, the opiate of nostalgia saves the enlightened few only by allowing them moments in which they can forget the existential plight of all sentient beings that learn they’re part of the colossal abomination that is the natural universe.