Go out some time onto the playgrounds of your nearest school, and observe there the children at play. Who among them make the best athletes? Those, invariably, who are the most relaxed and natural in their movements. The ones who make the worst athletes, by contrast, are those who seem not to be concentrated on their movements as such, but on the static positions of their arms and legs, as if they were pondering what to do with them.
Even when an expert athlete concentrates carefully on the positions of his arms and legs in order to master some new technique, his effort is directed toward assimilating those positions as soon as possible into his overall sense of movement. Only after such assimilation can he function again at top efficiency.
It's Crazy to Use Reason as the Only Guide
Reason often provides a helpful guide to action, but it can never be successfully made the supreme or only guide.
An amusing example of the debilitating effect of too much reasoning is related from the life of Immanuel Kant. Kant insisted that a person's actions should always be guided by the calm deliberations of reason. Will Durant tells us in his book, The Story of Philosophy "Twice he thought of offering his hand to a lady; but he reflected so long that in one case the lady married a bolder man, and in the other the lady removed from Konigsberg before the philosopher could make up his mind." Kant never did marry.
The farther one gets away from pure science, the less the principles of pure logic apply. In this respect, indeed, the only "pure" science is mathematics, which deals purely with theory.
But in that case, and with even science's increasing skepticism of reason as the final arbiter, what future is there for reason as the determiner of moral and spiritual values? Must reason be abandoned altogether? This would be, certainly, a very Aristotelian reaction: either we accept reason, or we reject it completely! In fact, this very alternative underscores reason's incapacity to provide us with the answer. How, indeed, could it be reasonably expected, by following its own methodology, to find better alternatives to itself?
The Trap of Reason
The fact is, Reason -- that "belle dame sans merci " -- hath us in thrall, and even when we try to break out of our rational enclosure, we only move in such a way that the trap pinches in another place.
We see an example of this predicament in the earnest effort that was made to escape the imperatives of logic by Alfred Korzybski, founder of the school of General Semantics. Korzybski pointed out many of the disadvantages of Aristotelian logic. The cure he prescribed, however, was, if anything, worse than the disease.
He pointed out, as we have done, that word-definitions are not identical to the objects they describe. How then, he asked, is a person ever to say clearly what he means? One may speak of his neighbor Jim, but to which Jim is he referring? To Jim as he is nowadays? or to Jim as he was ten or twenty years ago? For Jim at different stages of his life has been, in many respects, very different persons. How then are we to speak of him meaningfully?
Korzybski claimed that it is really very simple. All that one needs to do is write Jim's name thus: Jim19601980 to indicate to which aspect of Jim's life one is referring. or Jim.
Each Moment, We are Different
Well, that seems simple enough. But -- hmmm, on second thought, here's something else to consider: Jim may be different in the morning from in the evening. Maybe, again, a distinction should be drawn between Jim in the morning before breakfast, and Jim after breakfast. And what about the weather? Cloudy days may affect him one way; sunny days, another. Is it Jim on a weekend in June we are describing, and not Jim on a November weekday at the office? And if so, was his wife in a good humor that day? Were his children well-behaved? Sometimes, come to think of it, Jim may be more like his old 1960 self nowadays than he was, frequently, back when he was his old 1960 self.
I can just imagine the endless series of qualifications after Jim's name that a general semanticist would feel himself obliged to use if he were really conscientious about following Korzybski's principles. Far better, I should think, to take a vow of perpetual silence!
The point is, we find here an approach that tries seriously to discover a logical way out of the Aristotelian corral, and all that it does, while working to ease the pressure on one side of the trap, is increase it on the other side.
The fault lies with the fact that every system of thought creates its own conceptual enclosure. The concepts formed within a particular system can reach to the periphery of that system, but cannot penetrate beyond it, simply because they are a part of the system itself. As Sullivan put it, discussing this dilemma as it relates to modern physics: "Why is it that the elements of reality [physics] ignores never come in to disturb it? The reason is that all the terms of physics are defined in terms of one another." (Italics ours.)
Ignore Reason? Get in Touch with Feelings?
What, then, is the way out? Romanticists would say, "It's very easy. Simply ignore reason, and get in touch with your feelings." The present need, however, is not to ignore reason, but to learn to use it in new ways, so as not to be limited by the "either/or" approach to reality that is our Grecian heritage. Feeling, moreover, needs to be balanced by reason. When it is not, it loses the capacity to be intuitive, and becomes mere emotionalism, clouding every issue and clarifying nothing.
There is another possible way out of logic's enclosure: We can seek out some new system of thought -- one, especially, that might be adaptable to the special philosophical needs of our times, which is to say, to the new world-view of modern science.
Historically, revolutions in thinking have often, and perhaps always, occurred as a consequence of exposure to other systems of thought. This happened, for example, in the West with the revolution of modern science.
Medieval rationalism had been a perfect system unto itself. There was no way out of it -- not, at any rate, so long as the system itself was adhered to. The Church was authorized to interpret divine revelation. And by whom was it authorized? By Jesus Christ in the Bible, when he said to Peter, "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18) And how was one to know for certain that by these words Jesus meant to confer such authorization on the Church? (After all, he often used similarly concrete words symbolically.) Because the Church said this was what he meant. And how did the Church know? Because theirs was the task of interpreting divine revelation.
It was a perfect argument in a circle. The only avenue by which the human spirit could escape to new vistas lay outside this ideational enclosure. And this was the path science found, through its unprecedented method of testing its hypotheses by experimentation.
Science: The Web of Greek Rationalism
Science too, however, was still caught in the greater web of Greek rationalism. Our very discovery of the limitations of reason has only shown us the need to break out of the system. It has not in itself led us outside the system.
Much has been written, particularly since the time of John Stuart Mill, on the supposedly un-Aristotelian method of scientific reasoning. Aristotle, we are told, reasoned deductively: From general principles he deduced specific conclusions. Science, by contrast, is said to reason inductively: From specific facts it draws general principles. The difference, however, is not so great as is claimed.
Scientific reasoning is not actually opposed to Aristotelian logic. It is only the other side of the same coin. Both methods of reasoning are simply means of reducing natural phenomena to rational categories. Both represent an attempt to set reality in a firm mold of definitions.
The dividing line between the two systems is, moreover, anything but sharp and clear. For it is doubtful whether general principles are ever conceived a priori, without at least some prior reference to specific facts. It is not possible to think in an ideational vacuum. Nor would facts by themselves seem meaningful enough to merit scientific interest, had scientists not already some preexisting hypothesis to which to relate them.
Nor has science been able to kill the spirit of dogmatism that is so inherent in our rationalistic heritage.
Alexis Carrel, in Man, the Unknown, wrote that scientists, like people in other fields, have a "natural tendency to reject the things that do not fit into the frame of the scientific or philosophic beliefs of our time... . They willingly believe that facts that cannot be explained by current theories do not exist."
And Max Planck, the famous German physicist, wrote in his Scientific Autobiography: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
We Need a Revolution in Our Thinking
A revolution in our thinking is the need of the hour. If ideational revolutions require going outside the current systems, then let us see what other systems are available. In them, we may at least find a hint of new directions for ourselves.
In medieval times, the answer came from outside the Church. Today, perhaps it will come from outside our own civilization, the entire structure of which is framed in rationalism.
One advantage to living in the modern age is the contact that easy transport and communication have given us with peoples all over the world. Somewhere, in all this diversity, there may exist systems of thought that are different from our own, yet sufficiently like our own to be compatible with it. For what we want, essentially, is not to abandon that which is good in our own system, but only to infuse our system with new insights. This is what happened, for example, with the reawakened interest in Greek civilization that brought about the Renaissance in Italy.
We Need a New Renaissance
What we need today, in other words, is a New Renaissance.
Paramhansa Yogananda, the great Indian sage, won a Western critic to his side when he said to him: "We are all of us a little bit crazy, but most of us don't know it because we mix only with people with the same type of craziness as our own. See, then, what an opportunity you and I have to learn from each other. It is only when differently crazy people come together that they get a chance to find out the errors in their own types of craziness!" Witty words, and wise!
Meanwhile, let us reflect whether our discovery that reason is, after all, only a wooden idol is not cause for rejoicing rather than for despair.
Thinking About Life is not Living
Take a glance at the furrowed brows, the burdened gaze, the ironic smile of people who wander all their lives in a desert of dry logic. They are thinking about life; they are not living. Is that our image of the ideal man? Is it what we ourselves wish to be like?
How many popular heroes of modern novel, stage, and television try to demonstrate their superiority to the rest of us social pygmies by never laughing, never grieving over the sorrows of others, never meeting others sympathetically on their own level, nor ever rejoicing at the wonder and beauty of life.
"Keep your eyes on the road," says our logical superman curtly, when his cab driver ventures some harmless pleasantry. "You poor, foolish mortal!" his lofty sneer seems to imply, when a woman or a child marvels at the riot of color in a sunset. Our logical hero, too, is a wooden idol. His halo of superiority is formed of an absence, and not of any fullness, of life.
But what does it mean, when one's wooden idols are destroyed? Need one's faith be destroyed with them?
Leo Tolstoy wrote: "When a savage ceases to believe in his wooden god, this does not mean that there is no God, but only that the true God is not made of wood."
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Crystal Clarity Publishers. ©2001.
Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe But Can't
by J. Donald Walters.
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About the Author
J. Donald Walters is widely considered one of the foremost living experts on Eastern philosophy and spiritual practice. An American born in Rumania and educated in England, Switzerland, and America, Walters studied at Haverford College and Brown University. His books and music have sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide and are translated into 24 languages. He has written more than 70 books and composed over 400 pieces of music.