Two Excesses to Avoid: No Rationality, Only Rationality

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socratesThere are two excesses that must be avoided: to exclude rational scientific thinking, and to admit nothing but rational scientific thinking.

As science and philosophy continue to examine and unravel the mysteries of the relationship between the inner experiences of mind and the external events of matter, we stand in an ideal position to begin a fresh examination of the universe. But Reason finds itself still stymied by the stubborn refusal of ‘actual reality’ to reveal itself. As Plato knew, if one wishes to know actual Reality, reason has to give way. This has always been the stance of mystics, but it has also had adherents in western science. “Reason’s last step”, as famously noted by Blaise Pascal, “is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”

This quote is often misunderstood. The kind of realization that Pascal is referring to here is not ‘irrational’ or ‘anti-rational’. There is no question that many critics of science do argue from the tiresome and fatuous standpoint of irrationality, but Pascal is talking about something else, something that the West seems to keep forgetting: he is recognizing the possibility of reaching a higher form of thinking. He is talking about Nous.

Socrates knew that Eros (the Greek symbol for the passionate desire for everything Good, Beautiful and True) is required to lure Reason to its final extremity, where it recognizes its own limitations. Along the way, at its most productive, Reason accompanied by Eros is grounded in feelings of interest in the subject, feelings of devotion to truth, enjoyment in discovery, and an appreciation for beauty and mystery. But Reason without Eros, dried up of feeling and separated from any worthy aim, becomes preoccupied with pointless scurrying about, busily ripping apart the tapestry of life, analyzing all the pieces, classifying them, but unable to remember why or how to put them back together again.

All truly ground-breaking knowledge comes from noetic insight beyond reason. Old thought patterns dissolve and something new appears. Discursive reasoning, logic, experimentation and classification, can all help to prepare the ground for the soul to awaken and for insight to occur, but they do this by simply rearranging what is already known. Only erotic longing, in the real and fullest sense, can lead us beyond such circular processes and open up new possibilities of awareness. When we cherish this longing, remembering what it is and what it means for our lives, we see that Eros is the link between meaningless data and meaningful wisdom. All those subjects that teach the soul about meaning – philosophy, art, music, literature, religion – are enlivened and refreshed once again. They provide genuine, indispensable knowledge that is essential for the mature pursuit of science, a knowledge that carries far more ‘weight’ than mere technological knowledge. And then this technological knowledge gains a context of meaning and purpose that allows it to become, appropriately, the highly regarded servant, but not the master, of humanity.