This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.
To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.
Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.
There are three basic types of human-experience curves, all with a simplicity reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s narrative graphs. The first is provided by the narratives used in media. It is a collection of high peaks and deep troughs. The second is what we could call real life, as opposed to narrative life. It is milder. Rolling hills, rather than mountain tops and steep drops. The third is what the rational-philosopher aims to achieve. Their desired curve of human experience is close to a flat line. Its variance is barely perceptible.
The rationalist thinks that by removing the pitching and yawing of emotion and feeling, they can can come closer to an accurate perception of reality, and so be able to make the right decision, for the right reason, at the right time.
This idea, that it is the varying intensity and swings of human experience that prevent us from making the right decisions is alluring, but wrong. To show you why, let’s compare two characters from Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek.
Zorba the Greek is the tale of an Englishman’s encounter with Alexis Zorba. The Englishman is the stereotypical intellectual, who ponders and questions everything. Zorba, on the contrary, is a free spirit. He explores his passions. He enters into every action with vigour. He sings, he laughs, he cries, he dances and he yells.
For the Englishman, rationality is a way of life. He spends all his energy trying to iron out the creases of emotional intensity he experiences. Zorba, the Dionysus to the Englishman’s Apollo, does the opposite. He lives life in all its glorious intensity, without pause for thought. As the narrator puts it:
“The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weighty, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, the water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.”
To frame it another way: Zorba drinks his spirits straight. The Englishman waters his down. He uses his rationality as a strong filter for the spirit of reality, as a heavily fortified moat and drawbridge which guards against unwanted crossings. He allows nothing to penetrate to the central courtyard until it has been subject to an interrogation, and a weakening, by his rational mind.
It is this slowness, this inability of the Englishman to let feelings enter the inner sanctum unexamined and pure, that impedes his quest to understand what it really means to live. In fact, as long as he thinks before he feels, he can never experience life as Zorba lives it.
Yes, the Englishman’s shield of rationality protects him from the troughs of the human experience, but it also disallows him from soaring to the heights of human existence. He is not overwhelmed by sadness or grief. But he also does not know what it is to feel joy and wonder flowing through every molecule of his being.
The Englishman uses his rationality the same way an individual who has had their heart broken uses a projection of distrust and an unwillingness to commit; as a way to prevent anyone from getting too close. As a way to prevent reality from getting too close.
By the end of the story, the Englishman learns what Zorba is trying to teach him; that by attempting to defang reality and pull it closer, he is, in fact, pushing it away.
Another way to view the effects of rationality on experience is to consider these two diagrams. They represent a momentary snapshot of Zorba’s and the Englishman’s feelings at any one point in time.
As you can see, Zorba experiences the full spectrum, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The Englishman does not. Using his powers of rationality, he places artificial constraints on human experience and feeling. He permits himself feelings which are above monotonous, but well below world-bending. Anything too close to the extremes is disallowed.
You, like me, might wonder why someone would place themselves in such shackles. One part of it is the mistaken belief that you can come closer to reality by suppressing the variance of experience. But perhaps a deeper reason is that they’ve been hurt. The philosophies and models which they favor have been rendered invalid by contact with reality. So like a person who, when hurt by love, meets future relationships with indifference, they have been hurt by reality, and respond by excluding the parts of it that threaten their worldview. They prefer to hold onto their ideas and disavow reality, rather than the reverse.
That’s where the buffer comes in, where they attempt to flatten the curve of human experience. Typical “rational behaviours”—detachment, objectifying experience, seeking strategies and mechanisms to control emotional response—are the means via which this end is accomplished. Flattening the curve is, ultimately, an exercise in control. However you prefer to think of it—flattening the curve, creating a buffer—the main objective is the same; smooth the rough edges of experience to make them safe. It’s kind of similar to baby-proofing furniture edges and cabinet doors. The goal is to create an environment where nothing that can harm you can happen.
But by doing this, by putting on airs and LARPing the appearance of rationality, they are themselves being irrational.
Garrett Hardin, in Filters Against Folly, quotes Baruch Spinoza, and the passage hints at why most rational behaviours are in fact irrational.
“That I might investigate the subject matter of this science with the same freedom of spirit we generally use in mathematics, I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and to this end I have looked upon passions such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.”
You can’t understand nature by ignoring its storms and heatwaves. They are a critical part of its ecology. So too are our emotions. Rage, depression, envy, fear; these are all part of the ecology of experience. They are valid and valuable inputs in the decision making process. They represent something, and just because we can’t quite (or aren’t willing to) understand or formulate exactly what that something is, doesn’t mean we should discount it. So the seemingly rational behaviours that seek to ignore and overlook strong emotion and feeling, far from helping, actually hinder us. They lessen, rather than increase, the chances that we will make the right choice.
I’ve come across a similar line of thought in subjects like Stoicism, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness; the transcendence of labelling emotions as good or bad. Of trying to push some away and pull others closer. I’ve found it also in Venkatesh’s thinking around areas of “maximal interestingness”. To many, heading in the direction of maximal interestingness, logically, makes no sense whatsoever. Apart from its interestingness, it seems of little value in comparison to other, more rational directions.
The same thing is apparent when combating the Resistance. Taylor Pearson talked about moving towards the Resistance, towards existential terror, as a way to grow. That heuristic—what you need to do is what scares you the most—can seem downright barmy. But it is often the most transformative path to tread.
The ability to, one, allow yourself to feel these feelings, and two, do something with them, is incredibly valuable. Consider Feynmann’s first principle — “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” — and ask yourself, which part of me is easier to fool; the rational or the intuitive? The rational, every time. A person can use rhetoric and wordplay to convince us of something that isn’t true. But it’s much harder to persuade our gut, our intuitive wisdom, of an untruth. The rational mind thinks it knows what it doesn’t know. The intuitive mind may not know explicitly what it doesn’t know, but it can give us clues and signals that our conscious mind cannot.
Another way to look at the effects of emotion and feeling on perception and judgement is to ask yourself this question: does emotion disrupt and obscure the workings of reason? Or does it correct and stabilise our faculties of thought? Rationalists argue the former. So would the Englishman. Zorba would argue differently. I’m sure he would agree when I say that impartiality for the robots. That by attempting to flatten the curve of human experience, we are diminishing the potency of our own mind by neglecting one of its critical properties.
Yet, while I maintain that Zorba is more rational than the Englishman because he incorporates, rather than excludes, the variety of human experience into his actions and decisions, I still think there’s another plane. Another, higher level.
When I edit for technical practitioners, I have two specific modes. Macro and micro. Abstract and specific. One mode is concerned with outlining and flow, with viewing something from the mountaintop. The other is concerned with rolling in the mud. With getting as close to the ground as possible. That’s the higher plane. If we can somehow incorporate the strengths of Zorba and the Englishman, if we are able to both immerse ourselves and detach ourselves from reality, would that not give us the best chance to discover the right decision, for the right reason, and enable us to take it at the right time?
The effects of rationality and its strategies on our judgement and perception is fascinating. But there’s a darker side to the LARPing of rationality, of trying to become a real-life Spock, of aspiring to be someone who is impervious to the flights and falls of experience.
In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb makes a point about complex systems. He says that to thrive they need variety and novelty. For a complex system, randomness is a necessity.
This applies to the human body, a gloriously complex system. Muscles need a range of stimulation that varies in frequency, intensity and duration to be at their most strong and supple. Joints need to be moved through multiple planes under a variety of loads to retain their stability and mobility. The cardiovascular systems needs to be challenged and tested to be at its most effective. All this needs to be done, but not in an organised way. The human body needs random variety, not regimented variety.
The need for randomness is also true for the human mind. To be deprived of stimuli is excruciating. There’s a reason solitary confinement is a punishment. We need short and simple. We need long and complex. We need sensory stimulation. We need to be exposed to a vast array of information and inputs. And when we are not, we can feel it. Our minds become diminished.
What is true for the body and the mind is also true for the human spirit. To reach its full potential, it needs to feel joy, to be crushed by grief. It needs to be capable of gratitude and of a sense of injustice. And if it isn’t? If it is artificially choked of the extremes of experience? Well, the implication is the same as when we starve any other complex system of randomness. It begins to shrivel and die.
Devoid of variety, the human body tightens up. It becomes brittle and weak and breaks easily. Without diversity of stimulus, the mind becomes similarly weak. The imagination loses power, and our ability to think loses its potency. We become unable to think widely and deeply. The blade of our mind is blunted by deprivation of variety. And when prevented from experiencing the full spectrum of existence by a buffer of rationality, by flattening the curve of experience, the human spirit decays. It becomes a mere shadow of its potential form.
Think of the story of Spock. What is it but a journey in which Spock learns to be more human, to feel more human? Or think of another fictional character; Voldemort. He Who Must Not Be Named is evil precisely because he denies himself the most potent, dangerous, complex, misunderstood feeling of them all: love.
They say that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. The rational community and the strategies it promotes—objectivity, impartial analysis, tyranny over emotion—are championed with a noble end in mind. They seek to help individuals and organisations make better decisions. But my concern is that, in seeking to act like Spock, we may end up becoming like Voldemort.