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.