Approaching Truth

We like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, guided mainly by logic and 'good old fashioned common sense'.

However, our ability to parse through complex issues is something we often over-estimate in ourselves. Not only are we very capable of self-deception, but our logical processes are often hijacked by manipulative actors.

AnnaSalamon describes one of the common ways that our rationality is thwarted:

"Consistency effects make us likely to stick to our past ideas, good or bad.  They make it easy to freeze ourselves into our initial postures of disagreement, or agreement.  They leave us vulnerable to a variety of sales tactics.  They mean that if I’m working on a cause, even a “rationalist” cause, and I say things to try to engage new people, befriend potential donors, or get core group members to collaborate with me, my beliefs are liable to move toward whatever my allies want to hear." (Cached Selves, Anna Salamon and Steve Rayhawk)

The consistency effect works by convincing us that if we went along with some idea in the past, and didn't note any significant amounts of coercion to get us to that point, then that idea we 'went along with' must be valid. It is a way of getting our brains to adopt ideas, in a way that evades our rational filter.

The authors discuss several ways in which you can avoid the consistency effect, such as "Avoid petitions, and other socially prompted or incentivized speech." This seems like a fairly cumbersome way to avoid making irrational decisions, however. It's very time-consuming and demanding, in terms of moulding your thought processes and personality -- because the consistency effect isn't the only illogical way in which we can make irrational decisions.

The problem is that rationality is limited by decision fatigue:

"No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price ... The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences ...The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain." (Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?, John Tierney)

Making decisions is a tiring, fatiguing process. Making decisions brings you out of the moment, and into a state where you're thinking a lot about the past and future. Therefore, whatever benefit or advantage has accrued from making more rational decisions can diminish sharply if the process of arriving at those more rational decisions is too fatiguing.

Humans didn't always consider themselves to be rational and logical. This is a fairly recent construct, and the history of how it emerged can help us to understand its limitations.

David Abram sees rationality as a cloud that's altered our perceptions of how we make decisions, and the nature of knowledge itself. He makes this point most clearly with his discussion of the Socratic method, which was one of the earliest methods of shocking people into a state of rationality:

"Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words ... Prior to this moment, spoken discourse was inseparable from the endlessly repeated stories, legends, and myths that provided many of the spoken phrases one needed in one’s daily actions and interactions. To speak was to live within a storied universe, and thus to feel one’s closeness to those protagonists and ancestral heroes whose words often seemed to speak through one’s own mouth. Such, as we have said, is the way culture preserves itself in the absence of written records. But Socrates interrupted all this. By continually asking his interlocutors to repeat and explain what they had said in other words, by getting them thus to listen to and ponder their own speaking, Socrates stunned his listeners out of the mnemonic trance demanded by orality, and hence out of the sensuous, storied realm to which they were accustomed. Small wonder that some Athenians complained that Socrates’ conversation had the numbing effect of a stingray’s electric shock." (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous)

In the Western world, the Greek philosophical tradition of Aristotle is the clearest demarcation point between modern philosophy and pre-historical philosophy. This is the point when rationality and logic became celebrated within the culture, and were seen as something that (at least the elite in society) would strive towards.

Abram doesn't believe that rationality is a bad thing, or that being outside of the moment and thinking intently about the future are . He simply believes that they are tools which, if overused, can distract us from what's truly important:

"I found my way into this living expanse by dissolving past and future into the sensorial present that envelops me; did I thereby do away with them entirely? I think not. I simply did away with these dimensions as they are conventionally conceived— as autonomous realms existing apart from the sensuous present. By letting past and future dissolve into the present moment, I have opened the way for their gradual rediscovery— no longer as autonomous, mental realms, but now as aspects of the corporeal present, of this capacious terrain that bodily enfolds me. And so now I crouch in the midst of this eternity, my naked toes hugging the soil and my eyes drinking the distances, trying to discern where, in this living landscape, the past and the future might reside." (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous)

Abram believes that an overabundance of focus on rationality and logic can cloud our perceptions, distracting us from the joy and peace that is our true nature as human beings.

It's difficult to relate fully to Abram's ideas, because they're based on phenomenological ways of experiencing the world that don't come naturally for modern, civilized people. Abram describes a consciousness that is guided by perceptions, uses rationality as a tool, and exists primarily in a kind of 'dreamstate'.

He does describe something fundamental about our humanity, however. Something was lost when we came to exist primarily in the rational mind, parsing apart the logic of our beliefs. 

What was lost is a sense of humans belonging to the world, being a part of that world, and existing in a state of joyful mindfulness. What was lost was a sense of knowing that doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, a process of learning about the world that doesn't require a deep understanding of potential logical fallacies and psychological tricks. 

What's missing, in a word, is intuition.

Intuition is a very powerful tool, and it is even more powerful when wedded with rationality. 

Cached Selves, Anna Salamon and Steve Rayhawk,

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?, John Tierney,

Abram, David (2012-10-17). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Originally written on 2013-07-26