Grasping beauty

· 4 min read

Rationally awake

Dark forest, Ivan Shishkin, 1890 Dark forest, Ivan Shishkin, 1890

In rationally logical, we explored logical thought - an important part of rationality that lets us split the world into pieces. To continue developing our understanding of the rational, we need to examine another key concept - reason.

To be rational, your actions need to be grounded in reason. A reason itself must sit ontop of other reasons. At lunch you eat a sandwich because you are hungry, but your hunger is not the final causal explanation. Though we cut off the analysis, there is a reason for your hunger, and a reason for that reason. This stack of reasons leads back to the ultimate reason or purpose of your existence - your telos. By this line of argument, rationality in its finality must involve acting in line with your telos.

Rationality and knowledge are themselves connected through reason. When we make use of knowledge and act on it, we are acting for a reason. Therefore rational behaviour is in part acting on the knowledge we have available.

Imagine I have a difficult decision to make with incomplete information available. In this circumstance, it can be rational for me to follow my gut, even though I can't explain why. For this to be rational, I must be making use of some inexplicit knowledge. We assume that explicit knowledge is the only type of valid knowledge, but this is wrong. Knowledge develops from the subconscious into the explicit. Initially it manifests as behaviours acted out physically as imitation and play, or experienced mentally as emotions or curiosity. The knowledge hasn't been sufficiently understood and generalised to be articulated yet. It then evolves into narrative, expressed in art and culture - drama, myth, literature, symbols and dreams. Finally the ideas can emerge more explicitly in philosophy, science and logical argument 1.

SubconsciousEmotions, curiosityImitation, play
NarrativeDreams, visionsDrama, myth, literature, symbols
ExplicitLogical argumentScience, philosophy

Logical argument is at the top of this pyramid of abstractions. If you only value explicit information, a lot of knowledge that you could make use of will be stuck in the lower levels of abstraction. This inexplicit knowledge is valid and valuable. Much of our own bodily function isn't yet explicitly understood - to just stay alive we are all making use of inexplicit embodied knowledge. The same argument applies to collective knowledge - we don't have to each individually witness a scientific experiment to believe the result. Rationality therefore involves making full use of the knowledge available to you, at all levels of explicability.

Another way to think about this is to consider the set of all valid knowledge. Much remains undiscovered. Of the part we do know, only a fraction of that exists in the sphere of explicit comprehension. We can also infer from this that one source of new ideas is to look to understand behaviours and concepts that remain unexplained in the narrative and subconscious domains.

Analytical thinking is itself a spectrum. At one end, you have no critical thought at all - operating in the world purely on intuition and emotion. At the other end there is obsessive logical thought. Here you attempt to sift through the entire desert, logically trying to consider every single action you could take, and every possible side effect of those actions before you can act. You end up never doing anything. Neither of these are desirable outcomes. What is needed is to find the golden mean between these two extremes - between pure intuition and pure logicality. This mid point is constantly moving and changing, requiring flexibility to adapt and find the ideal in each situation. Our intuition and logicality act as opponent processes, which help us fine tune into this unstable optimum.

An alternate approach to rationality comes from John Vervaeke, who defines it as the avoidance of self deception. To understand this, consider that there are two ways you can be stopped from achieving a goal:

  1. An internal failure via self deception
  2. Environmental factors outside your control, fate

In this perspective, the avoidance of self deception is the only thing you can control. Tying this in with everything else, we can say that to be rational means to act for a purpose, making use of all your knowledge and applying the right balance of logical thought and intuition to avoid self deception.

What does it look like to use this understanding of the rational? First, you need to set a goal or purpose. Without this, you can never act rationally. Finding your telos is a spiritual or religious ordeal, outside the domain of rationality - you have to go elsewhere to create or discover it. Once you have it, try to form your goal clearly, otherwise it will be difficult to apply your explicit knowledge to an inexplicit end.

Knowledge is important. You need to make use of the knowledge you already have, and seek out new knowledge that helps to achieve your goal. Try using your curiosity to identify inexplicit knowledge that has the potential to be made explicit. Explicit knowledge is the most useful form your knowledge can be in, but it is also the hardest to produce.

You need to act, and overcome challenges with an expression of will. Leaning into potentially difficult situations requires courage. Finally, you must avoid self deception. The first step here is to identify your errors, by facing up to your mistakes and acknowledging them. This is uncomfortable. Take these errors, and identify which of them were within your control. You need to learn from these instances and prevent them from happening again. You'll find that self inflicted errors are created by an imbalance between logical thought and intuition. Stay open minded and be willing to adapt to the situation you find yourself in. Face the thing you have been avoiding, which will either be preventing you from reaching your goal, or a source of your self deception.

The thing you need the most will be found where you least want to look.

— Carl Jung


Jordan Peterson outlines this hierarchy of explicability in his book Maps of meaning. I have adapted it slightly to distinguish between the individual and collective forms of knowledge. Exactly how knowledge progresses from one level to the next isn't clear, and could be an interesting point to explore further.

Got any questions or comments? Drop me a message on Twitter @graspingbeauty