In continuing my look at what shapes both my life and the world, I thought I would tackle one of the most fascinating (in my mind, at least) ambivalences of my personality. There seems to be a constant state of friction between a sort of scientific naturalism or rationalism and emotionally founded instictualism. They are warring ideologies in many ways, but they both profoundly affect the way I think and approach situations. It is possible for these two foundations of thinking to be reconciled in any meaningful way? What does this tell me about the way I think? Should I actually try to fundamentally change by outlook on life to avoid the dreaded hypocrite brand? Is it even possible to do that at this stage of my mental development? How many questions can I throw out here to make this introductory paragraph seem longer than it is? Well, that’s probably a sign I should get moving.
I was always a very strong, well rounded student throughout my entire educational career. There were rough sports at times, but these were due to personal situations more than academic incompetence. It’s usually the case that liberal arts majors like myself are much stronger at subjects like English and History or Social Studies, but for a long time, I was actually an incredible apt pupil in the math and science portions of my secondary school curriculum. It wasn’t until calculus reared its ugly head in my senior year of high school that I lost the passion for that sector of education. I certainly had trouble with calculus back that, and it was the first time I became really frustrated with education. I had already been writing as an ongoing concern at that point, and I had made the decision to pursue English and Creative Writing at university (I didn’t make the change to Philosophy until the second semester of my Freshman year at Boston University), but I did not have an aversion to science or math. Calculus created that aversion. I scraped and clawed my way through AP Calculus and AP Physics 1, 2 (called such because it covered two semesters of college level physics), hating it the entire time and barely sneaking away with low C grades. I somehow pulled 4’s on both the AP tests, and suddenly had 16 credits to my name (in addition to the eight credits I got from getting an easy five on the AP English test). When I came to Boston University, my math and science requirements were already complete. I couldn’t be happier, and I didn’t look back.
I spent the next seven semester at college immersed in a sea of German Idealism, Phenomenology, Aesthetics, Greek Morality, and so many other philosophical subjects completely worthy of being capitalized. I can probably count on one hand the number of classes I took that had actual in class non essay tests, and three of those were language courses. I had really stuck to my guns about my new hatred for math and science; the only time it really came up was my higher level logic course, which was a wonderful mix of algebra, grammar and philosophy. This period of my life solidified my beliefs in the importance of the sort of emotional and instinctual outlook on the world. The biggest factor in that development is easily my first exposure to reading Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his first published book, The Birth of Tragedy, which I read for a Philosophy and the Arts class the second semester of my freshman year. Nietzsche has always strongly argued that life is ruled by the instinct, which is meted out through his preference in the Dionysian aspect of tragic theater, which was designed to produce this sort of adrenaline fueled nightmare of terror and ecstasy. Nietzsche also specifically contrasted the Dionysian tradition with that of the Apollonian, which was embodied by the paragon of rational thinking that was Socrates, whose method of questioning, analyzing an argument and searching for truth became the basis for all scientific explication once Aristotle got his hands on it. So right there, in his first published work, Nietzsche attacked the tradition of scientific rationalism. This is something he would continue to do throughout the rest of his writing career, and I was hooked.
While this was going on and I was opening my mind to new philosophical experiences, the rational side of me never went away. So much of what I think makes me who I am is my staunch atheism, and that belief is rooted in science. The natural world, I thought, is such a wonder that the idea of a prime mover that created it seems to rob it of its beauty. This is the kind of beauty that is meticulously meted out over millennia. And as much as I disapproved of calculus, the pull of mathematics and science remained. I consider myself somewhat of an expert logician. It’s part of the reason why I’m such a strong essayist and grammarian. I can understand the innate logical glue that holds together concepts, and it is not difficult for me to discover when two and two do not add up to four. And really, what is mathematics at its core but an organizational system for the logical relation between numbers. And mathematics is at the core of physics, which is in turn at the core of the natural world, a phenomenon unlike any other that I find endlessly fascinating. As such, as much as I love the thoughts and opinions of Nietzsche, I cannot divide myself from the logical order of the natural world. And as much as I am captivated by the endless beauty of this world in which was are so fortunate to live, I cannot divest myself from emotion and the power of instinct.
There is, of course, a link between the two divergent parts. All animals, with man included, are governed by an absolute and hard wired fight for survival. Food, shelter, sex, these three things allow us to continue living and carry on our progeny to a new generation. These are instinctual acts, but they also lie at the center of biology and evolution science. But at the same time, instinct is by its very nature beyond rationality. That was a good portion of Nietzsche’s original point. Instinctual actions can be rationalized or viewed as a rational decision in hindsight (for instance, the instinctual action of desiring food is inherently a rational decision, because it keeps you alive), but they are naturally not the product of rationality. You don’t rationally decide that it is in your best interest for your heart to continue beating, and then, predicated on that decision, will your heart to start or continue beating. It is instinctually controlled by the subconscious functions of the mind. There is no room for rationale in instinct because it is a split decision and there is no window of time to mull over the whos, whats, and wherefores of whatever you basically just did, because you’ve already done it by the time you thought about it.
The rational side of me began to return after I graduated from BU and returned to Pennsylvania. I started listening to podcasts as an ongoing concern, and in 2007 I discovered the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, a skeptical science show out of New England based around interviews and news subjects of the day. I listened to about 130 episodes over the course of about four months, and I really rather enjoy it. That show has gone a long way to remind me of love of science and the fonder of the natural world. Of course, science is unerringly clinical in its bent, and as such there is less room for the kind of overflowing of emotion that is often at the base of many of Nietzsche’s fundamental beliefs. The life of science has certain similarities to the philosophical sentiments of atheism and secular humanism. Most atheists and secular humanists think the way they do from a scientific outlook, in that most of the wonders of the world previously attributed to God have since been adequately explained by the sciences. Indeed, much of the instinctual side of life is also explained by the biological sciences, so there is a kind of overlap there.
What unites these two factions of belief is the sense of anti-spiritualism. Neither the instinctual nor the rational outlook on life require a higher power to understand the functions of the world. This is fundamental to both sides, because the influence of a higher power undermines each of them. I guess, the a certain extent, that the instinctual side of this is less incompatible and as such more susceptible to the belief in a godlike deity, because much of the emotional perspective on the world is unexplained, and the whole point of religion is to explain that which cannot be explained. At the same time, it’s another example of taking the onus away from the self. If you do something as an instinctual or emotional reaction, attributing that to God would take away any (and this is a somewhat clunky word in this case) credit away from the actions of the person. What is the point of instinct and emotion if they come from without.
I think the bottom line is a kind of selective use of both mental disciplines when they fit to the situation. Matters of emotion are covered by the instinct, while matters concerning elevated thought are the domain of the rational mind. It’s a bit of a cheat, and there’s a good chance that it simply doesn’t follow logically, but in a way, that’s sort of the point. The instinct does overcome the rational mind in times of great strife or joy or what have you. The choice, then, is made by deciding which side to embrace. Do you forsake the rational mind and live entirely in the moment, trusting only your perceptions and gut feelings? Or do you do anything in your power to eschew the pull of emotion and live in a sort of ascetic stoic existence predicated on learning and understanding the world of rational and scientific extent, relying entirely on a priori knowledge to shape your view of the world? Let me tell you something: I’ve read Immanuel Kant. Quite a lot of it, really, and that outlook is just boring as hell. When you basically disavow all sensation, which is necessary because sensation is by its very nature a posteriori knowledge beyond the realm of rational pursuit, you’re walking a very fine line.
The fully sense based anti-rationalist look at the world is also a bit incompatible with the way the world actually works. Both disciplines create a partial view of reality as it is. So it is obviously the case that the extremes have to fold into each other in some kind of hybrid view of the world, but what makes this tricky is the attempt to make the instinctual and rational play nice without creating direct contradictions or expressly defeating the purpose of either. To do so, it is needed to break down the intent of each discipline, and how they are designed to look at the world from a metaphysical perspective. With a better understanding of their metaphysical functions, it is more likely that synergy will present itself.
Two words can be used to describe the basic way in which these two conceits interact with the world: reaction and reflection. The instinct is the domain of reaction. The world is how you see it. Sense data is to be processed at the immediate moment it is encountered, and taken at face value. If you react to something emotionally at first glimpse, this is not only intended, but encouraged. Extreme rationalism can go so far in the other direction that sense data can no longer be trusted at all, potentially reaching a sort of Cartesian skepticism. It is not often the case that your average every day rational scientist ascribes to this theory, especially considering that the natural sciences extrapolate their theories and hypotheses from that self same sense data. So your average run of the mill rationalist will not discount sense data, but also will not take it on face value in the same fashion the empiricists do (here we are, about 2000 words into this essay, and that’s the first time I’ve actually referenced empiricism as such. Strange). The rationalists instead choose to reflect, predominantly in an abstract way, in an attempt to determine how these moments in time may or may not reinforce their pre-established world view. Immediate, snap decisions are not in the realm of the rational mind. So you have a discipline that is based around immediate reactions and a second discipline based around analyzing these moments after the fact. So really, it’s a situation where these two sides both look at the sense data in different ways at different times, and these approaches do not interfere with each other in a temporal sense. And this is where, with a bit of playful jiggering, we can make them at least superficially fall in line.
The basic conceit is to take the best of both worlds while eliminating the contradicting elements of each. It is a similar take to the super simplified version of the Hegelian Dialectic, which takes a concept (thesis), finds its counter argument (antithesis), and searches for similarities within the two to create a new concept (synthesis). The dialectic continues past that point until a satisfying end point is reached. In this case, we have only one iteration of the dialectic to complete, getting us to a satisfying conclusion and a model of perception. First, we establish the essential parts of the whole that are needed. From the empirical/instinctual/emotional side of things, the importance obviously lies in the immediacy of perception. This is the cornerstone of instinctual acts, and without it you cannot react instinctually. The cornerstone of scientific rationality is deductive reasoning. You take the sense data that you receive through perceptive events and figure out not only what it tells you about the world as such, but whether it can be trusts by seeing if it ascribes to what the world should be from a logical scientific sense. So far, we’re not really in the territory of a necessary contradiction between the two mediums beyond reason’s inherent skepticism of perception in general. The problem lies in reason’s discounting of emotion. It is a necessary evil for the rationalists, as emotion will create bias, and bias obscures one of the tenets of rationality, which is the withdrawn outlook of the disinterested third party.
What we need to do is justify take the disinterested nature out of scientific rationality. You cannot be impartial when dealing with emotional situations that directly affect you. And as someone who cannot give up on the emotions of life, I need that to change if I want to put these two disparate elements together in creating a model of perception. From my angle, what works the best is to use sense data as an immediate foundation in the day to day shaping of the outside world. Whatever happens needs to be dealt with in an at least partially immediate fashion. But these moments should not just be perceived and then pushed off to the side. They would and should be processed and reflected upon at a later date to see what these situations mean and how they shape both the self from a personality sense and the world from a natural science sense. There is even a psychological component to this reasoning that exists beyond the realm of sense perception that creates more value after the fact for these emotional situations. Despite the fact that this model of perception does not incorporate the full breadth of both the rational and the empirical in its union, this reinforces the point and purpose and of the Hegelian Dialectic, in that it is designed to create a strengthened unity that more accurately informs the world in a metaphysical sense. And I believe, in my own way, that I have done that.
This post was predominantly written to the tune of Mastodon’s Crack the Skye