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The Promise of Non-Rational Thought


By Terry Anthony

"Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas." - Alfred North Whitehead

Ask anyone today for a definition of reason or rational thought and the best answer you're likely to get without resort to a dictionary will be something like: "It's the way we think." That's like asking someone what a car is and getting the answer: "It's the way we get around." I am a radical, in the literal sense that I seek the root of a problem, the foundation of an idea, and the essence of an ideology. Radical comes from the Latin radix, literally meaning "root" and about fifteen years ago I started digging down to find the very root of human reason. No, I don't think I'm another Immanual Kant. I'm just a man with a lifelong passion for understanding, and what I found changed the way I see everything.

Our blight is ideologies...... they are the long expected Antichrist! - Carl Gustav Jung

We are all ideologues in the sense that we each have a rationally conceived system of ideas about the world through which our experience of reality is normally filtered. This view may contain religious, social, political, psychological, artistic, economic, cultural, and any number of other elements that synergistically combine with direct experience to form our understanding of this world. Since, to some degree, each of us is unique, you could say that there are nearly seven billion reality ideologies in the world today.

Our experience of reality may be temporarily free of reasoned ideology, such as during those exciting moments when someone unexpectedly navigates their car a little too close to ours at high speed on the freeway. For a few seconds we may act instantaneously without reasoning through the various possible courses of action. During those wonderful little events, we "just do it". We don't think about it until it's over. The rest of the time though, we do think about things. In fact we do so interminably, even obsessively.

So what is it that we are doing when we think about something? Obviously we are using the premier human tool of reason or rational thought. I think we civilized westerners are pantheistic worshippers of many deities such as science, technology, sensual pleasure, our culture and nation, and even our individual selves, with Reason as the deity presiding over the pantheon. Reason, coming to us from the Old French: raison, literally means to "re-sound" and describes the mental and physical activity of repeating some experience of reality symbolically in sound as words. Yet these words, as pregnant with meaning as they can be, are but the merest shadow of that which is symbolized. Think "city", with all that may bring to mind, and then go experience one. If you don't see what I mean, you're not giving sufficient attention to the amazingly vast reality of it versus its symbolic mental counterpart. This will even be true with so simple a concept as "tree". There's obviously indefinitely more there than mere symbols can ever relate. It's like the difference between apprehension and comprehension or the difference between the finite and the infinite, with an idea being finite and reality being infinite.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Notice the difference between the written and spoken word. I prefer to see and hear someone giving a dissertation upon some topic rather than read their written explication of it. I have found repeatedly, if after reading someone's written word, I'm fortunate enough to hear them relate it aloud in speech, the subtleties communicated through vocal rhythms and tonalities always noticeably alter and expand my understanding. If I can see them as well, further meaning comes through facial expression and other body language, much of which is simply never transmitted through the written word. The difference between a symbol and the reality to which it refers is that sort of relationship, though often on a much grander scale.

The symbol is not the thing symbolized. - S. I. Hayakawa

"Rational thought", despite the common use of the word "rational" to refer to sanity or "sound" mental activity, literally refers to the mental activity of rationing reality into portions or bits, which we then symbolize with words or what Terence McKenna used to call "small mouth noises". Rational thought and reason are two different terms for abstract symbolic thought. One way of conceiving of this rationing process was described forty years ago in a lecture given by the philosopher Alan Watts where he suggested we imagine ourselves with a flashlight in a darkened room. We only clearly see whatever appears within the circle of light projected by the flashlight. The darkened room represents the whole of reality which we scan and symbolize, a portion at a time, but we can't see the whole. We try to understand the whole by mentally combining all the parts we have seen pass before our little beam of light, but the result is an approximation. This isn't another version of Plato's cave allegory. This is about language.

Oh the word is not the thing, the word is not the thing, high ho the merryo the word is not the thing. - Alan Watts, 1967.

Words can take on an aura of mysterious power as in the speaking of "spells" in the medieval and ancient world. Today, in Christian circles for instance, the phrase "The Word" takes on the specter of ultimate truth. The gospel of John opens with "In the beginning was the Word" suggesting the primacy of language. We "tune out" much of the reality around us as we contemplate in language, traveling along our little mental train tracks of linguistic thought, hoping as we go that we are on "the right track". All too often we find we are not. We may even become "lost in thought" and unaware of the world around us. Imagine reality as an infinitely large blackboard with our thoughts linearly appearing, word by word, across a tiny portion of it. Our attention focuses on the words and the concepts they represent in syntactical combination, but we are unable to fully contextualize our relatively tiny understandings with the unimaginable whole of the reality blackboard which is outside of our rational or rationed view. As we diagram our little train track of thought upon this unimaginably great blackboard, we discover, or create, conceptual sidetrack after sidetrack. We can follow each of these and continue to find further sidetracks of sidetracks, etc. Standing back and viewing this increasingly complex diagram, we see a hierarchical tree structure forming, one train of thought branching into another and then another, and so on. It seems our very concept of hierarchy is a consequence of reason's linear structure itself.

The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing. - Alfred Korzybski

Today's science and industry generally follow only those conceptual sidetracks which promise to lead to privately held and privately controlled wealth and power. There do appear to be largely unexplored rational sidetracks potentially leading to entirely different and much less harmful modalities of technology than those now generally employed. Many sidetracks discovered over time which held the promise of liberating humanity from dependence on controlled sources of food, water, energy, medicinal modalities, etc., now lie forgotten and overgrown. Studied and practiced only by the fringe dwellers of propagandized popular culture, these ideas progress but slowly and endure suppression and censorship while the mass of humanity passively surrenders even its awareness of where authority takes it, let alone its inherent, self-evident, right of self-determined direction. This is partly because we are all becoming lost and confused as we swim within an increasingly swift and mind-numbingly vast river of overwhelmingly complex rational information.

Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. - Blaise Pascal

If you suspect all this is some sort of attack upon sacred Reason, the "foundation stone of science" and the very "cornerstone of civilization", be patient dear reader. I am quite aware of Reason's glorious importance. Without it, this little communique from me to you couldn't happen, could it? Some will say I'm engaging in "bootstrap thinking" here, analyzing reason by using reason itself; quite so. I'm not aware of any alternative.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."- Abraham Maslow

So back to the fundamental crux of the matter: Thinking rationally, or reasoning, is thinking in or with symbols. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes of the "knife of reason" slicing reality into endlessly divisible bits. We identify (some say create) these countless bits of reality, create a symbol for each, and combine the symbols into mental strings we call sentences. Presumably we initially did this in prehistory to communicate with each other better, but somewhere along the line the activity of linguistic thought became unimaginably complex and we began to get lost in it, intoxicated by it all. We became trapped in what far eastern philosophical traditions often call the abiding "inner dialogue"; the continuous mental process where we endlessly try to figure things out. This process rarely leads to certainty, and any certainty may be illusory, so we generally end up choosing our best guess, or intuition, when decision and action become necessary. This inner conversation can continue throughout our day and become so obsessive that it may even prevent us from sleeping at night.

Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. - Albert Einstein

Considering mind and body as separable for the moment, our bodies react to purely mental activity to some degree as they do to our "outer" experience such that tension may build as we contemplate, sometimes emotionally potent, symbolic mental constructs. Our muscles react and tense as we pile one intellectualization upon another, especially as we worry over difficult personal dilemmas or recall painful memories. Some of this tension will remain within us until we melt it away, most commonly through physical exertion or massage, drugs like marijuana or alcohol, or meditation/yoga. After all, the first principle of traditional meditation (not to be confused with intellectual contemplation) is the inhibition and eventual cessation of the inner dialogue. This is commonly accomplished by the concentration of attention upon a fascinating singularity like a yantra, pendulum, flame, gemstone, gong sound, mantra, or whatever best holds our attention. The most powerful trance inducing singularity I know of is a fetching woman because the trance state is almost instantaneous and relatively effortless, but I digress. The object is to break the wild spirit of the undisciplined mind like that of a wild animal by tethering it to something like a mental hitching post, forcing it to stay in one spot, so to speak. Keeping the attention so fixed prevents that mental discourse, stopping rational linguistic thought in its linear tracks. Relaxation, potentially very deep, inevitably follows.

Thought is constantly creating problems and then trying to solve them. But as it tries to solve them it makes it worse because it doesn't notice that it's creating them, and the more it thinks, the more problems it creates. - David Bohm

Tense muscles are tense because they are receiving continuous neurological messages to contract, presumably from some deep or at least somewhat less than conscious portion of you that continues to reflect upon something that is in some way stressful. Concentrating and holding attention upon something as simple, yet fascinating, as a candle flame interrupts this activity. The longer and more fully you concentrate, the more of your mental self you involve and the less energy is given to these neurological impulses and the body relaxes and awareness literally expands. It's as if that portion of mind continually dedicated to generating the neurological impulses has now been freed from its "neurotic" repetition to rejoin its greater conscious self. Practiced meditators know the experience of suddenly seeing anew after a deep meditative practice. Surprisingly obvious solutions to seemingly insoluble problems may suddenly appear in a flash of insight.

Human Reason is like a drunken man on horseback; set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other. - Martin Luther

In our civilized (citified) society the wildly imaginative minds of childhood are gradually overwhelmed by the linguistic reality models of our culture (our general cultural ideology), initially absorbed in an unconscious osmosis from our immediate family. The infant perceives and emotionally, needfully, repeats and imitates, eventually conforming for acceptance. As symbolic linguistic thought becomes unconsciously habitual, the mind thus occupied is partly divorced from reality, as it attends a continual stream of symbols of reality, and may miss what is right before its eyes. That mind is our mind. So what are we missing?

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern. - Aldous Huxley, 1954.

You can rationalize anything, they say, and they are right. Here lies Humankind's greatest dilemma: how to understand things aright. Take all the world's problems and controversies, tragedies and injustices, mysteries and uncertainties, and you will find them embedded within great swirling complexes of rational definition and interpretation. The endless analysis and discussion of it all provides a nice living for many. Anything communicated by language is "rational" by the above definition of rationality, so saying someone or some argument is not rational is misunderstanding the problem which is rationality itself. It is in fact limited, but reality, within which it operates, apparently is not. No matter how much data you collect regarding some question or problem, you can not collect enough to achieve full comprehension. There will always be more data to discover and a more mature understanding to achieve. This is why we often intuitively hesitate to accept pronouncements from those who say they "know" or are "absolutely certain" that they are correct about something. We learn from life that there is always more to learn about anything. We know from our own life of rationalizing that something may be well buttressed with logical argument, yet untrue. I try to think in terms of probabilities. One of the continuing ironies in my life is that no matter how certain I am about anything, should I declare aloud my certainty, especially uttering the classically egoistic "I know", life metaphorically (sometimes literally) slaps my little face with some punishing revelation of error, and back into modesty I slink. Doubtless some brilliant critique of this article's inevitably imperfect employment of imperfect reason will repeat this lesson.

Language is a virus from outer space. - William S. Burroughs

The dilemma, dear reader, is this: If reason itself is fundamentally flawed, and doomed to imperfectly representing reality due to its reliance upon interpretations of great collections of symbols of reality rather than a more direct manner of understanding, should we trust only reason to guide us rightly into our increasingly chaotic future? Has it not been the primary vehicle through which we have arrived at the world's current state of affairs? Should we not be freeing ourselves from the mind deadening and disease producing stress of our rationally conceived modern civilization thus expanding our awareness and allowing a more direct and reality based understanding of our situation?

We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if only words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves. - John Locke

Perhaps another example of "non-rational" knowing will help here. When we are genuinely loved, we know it. We non-symbolically feel it, no matter what is communicated in language. Conversely, when we are not loved, we know it, no matter the claim nor even belief of the supposed loving one. Somehow we have the ability to directly sense the truth of a matter. When we do something that is simply wrong, we know it, we feel it "in the gut" as we sometimes say, no matter our self-supportive rationalizing, for the rationalization is symbolic and the feeling is not. This can become confusing as it is often an emotionally based desire that leads us astray into wrongful action to begin with. Since strong emotion can cloud reason, it remains suspect within intellectual discussion and rightly so. We can go round and round with this until we simply realize that we do have the capacity, through the amazing mystery of awareness, to directly sense the right path. Tension abrades this natural ability, dims our perceptive ability, and a continuous inner dialogue increases this tension. As you become conscious of uncomfortably tensed muscles through any relaxation/meditation practice, this becomes obvious. Even sitting quietly will produce tension in direct proportion to the intensity and duration of the inner dialogue. Quieting the inner dialogue reverses this. Ever notice how extremely talkative people, especially those who speak at a fast pace, are often the most tense and also generally unaware of it (and much else)?

If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. - Henry David Thoreau

Civilization is literally the culture of cities. That is, in fact, the etymological meaning of the word. Compare the stereotypes of the relaxed, almost carefree, presence of the country villager to the tense and hurried city dweller. There are two generalizable qualities of awareness represented here. The city dweller finds the quiet presence of the country fellow to be evidence of a dim simplicity or less sophisticated intellect. The country fellow finds the city fellow to be in such a tense and hurried state that he actually misses the forest for the trees. This city/country dichotomy of relaxed versus tense awareness may underly the old conflict between Christian and Pagan populations. The Christians were the city folk. Pagan literally means country or forest dweller. Pagan peoples with their relaxed and expanded awareness, directly sensed the Mystery around them in nature. Christians received their rational ideology from the written word. Both, however, were fully capable of superstition, fearing what they did not understand.

Born Free, Then Caged - Springfield Wild Animal Park

This technology-centered civilized world has evolved into its modern form by use of the tool of reason. The basic model for our civilization harkens back to the ancient world. Centuries ago, as organized religion was corrupted by business and political interests, it was displaced by science as the supreme authority of reality. Today, science research is increasingly corrupted by those same interests. I suggest we question all authority which pretends to hold the high ground of truth. Reason can disable as easily as it can enable. I suspect the mystics have been right all along. First we must achieve some degree of inner peace. Perhaps then will our expanded Awareness realize Reason's promise of a truly reality-centered civilization, versus our modern fantasy-centered culture. After all, reason is only a tool of mind. The results of its use are determined by both the quality and the state of the mind.

This inner peace stuff is tough on the ol' coconut. - Homer Simpson