Monday, September 12, 2011


Humans are very proud of their rationality and think that it is the one feature that distinguishes them from non-human animals. In this they are probably deluding themselves. Rationality is a combination of voluntary and involuntary mental processes; and these processes are far from being unique to our species.

It is almost impossible for the conscious mind to work out when it is actively directing or intending its thoughts – making them, as it were – and when these thoughts are merely happening to it, i.e. when it is simply a passive recipient of mental events. The problem of making any absolute distinction between so-called willed mental events and involuntary ones seems insuperable. Of course, the whole subject has become vexed by the wild declarations of some in the scientific community to the effect that every mental event is determined, so the ‘free’ will is merely an illusion. Just as it is impossible to draw the line between subject and object, between percept and percipient, so it is impossible to delineate a firm frontier between ego-driven, sequential, methodical thinking on the one hand and complexes of mental contents that simply arise in the conscious mind under their own steam, on the other. The ego, of course has many theories about this distinction and many of these theories consist in the ego’s trying to arrogate to itself the entire process of thought, while denigrating, demoting or rationalising the processes that are clearly not under its control. The result is that the paradigm of pure rational thought is the logical form of the deductive syllogism, where a conclusion is extracted mechanically, that is to say analytically, from premises. Nevertheless a consideration of the difference between deduction and induction – the two operations that underlie most of our supposedly rational thought – is instructive.

Inductive thought is as paradigmatic of human thinking as deduction; but induction, as Hume knew, is not rational. It is a matter of submitting to patterns that appear given in experience and then acting as if those patterns were predictable regularities (whether they are or are not). It is thus largely a matter of jumping to under-determined conclusions about future events on the basis of past regularity. The point about these unsafe conclusions, however, is that they cannot be considered voluntary. Non-human animals also use them and often to their own detriment, when the regularity in question turns out not to be very reliable. To illustrate this, Bertrand Russell told the story of the farmyard chicken which rushed across to the farmhouse at the noise of the shaken grain tin, because this sound had always signified a meal in the past. On the last time it heard this sound, however, the chicken itself was the meal and was hurrying to have its neck wrung. As human beings, we greatly reinforce our inductive generalisations by means of the analytic power of deduction. We jump to conclusions of the ‘all swans are white’ variety and then use such premises in deductions such as this: ‘all swans are white, this swan-like creature is black, therefore it is not a swan’. The mistake is obviously down to the unreliability of our experience allied to an over reliance on deductions based on faulty premises, and the frontier between voluntary and involuntary mental events is further obscured by the reflection that logic is weaker than the desire to believe.

The unsafe character of inductive generalisations is disguised by our faith in deduction. For example, strings of propositions such as ‘all mammals are warm-blooded, this is a mammal, therefore it is warm-blooded’ cannot be gainsaid by anyone for fear of accusations of illogicality and irrationality. To deny the conclusion is to contradict oneself. The power of such trains of logical inference is their tautologous nature: they say the same thing twice, though the repetition is not necessarily immediately evident. The conclusion is deemed to be in some sense ‘contained’ in the premises, though quite what that word ‘contained’ means is not clear. The nearest we can get to it is in the notion of ‘repetition’: the conclusion in some sense repeats the information in the premise or premises. Nevertheless, in chains of reasoning of this type, the important thing is that the ego feels in absolute control and can reassure itself of this fact at any one stage of the process by means of the rule of non-contradiction. The power of such deductive trains of thought is the belief that they instantiate some almost geometrical ‘template’ for all similar arguments. The logic works like the cranking of a handle on a machine, stamping out identical artefacts. The same thing goes for mathematical reasoning, where the ego follows a procedure, an algorithm, in order to arrive at a result, let’s say, the solution of an equation. The same kind of reasoning characterises most practical, calculative thought as well. One measures a desired end against the available means of achieving it and a calculation is made of the least costly of these methods. Long chains of deductive reasoning of the hypothetical type – ‘if X then Y; X, therefore: Y’ or if X then Y; not-Y, therefore: not-X’ – are run through, sometimes with surprising rapidity and almost unconsciously, but the ego always claims credit for them because it feels it can at any one point re-construct them in linguistic form and demonstrate their formal and ultimately deductive validity. Thus the ego jumps to the conclusion that since its preferred paradigm of rational thought is the logical, rule-driven type just indicated, then all thought without exception has to be of this type and what is not of this type is unworthy of the description ‘rational’.

The example of the dodgy relationship between involuntary inductions and voluntary deductions, however, should give us pause for reflection because of the unsafe character of inductions. We should reflect upon this: the rules of logic – identity, non-contradiction, excluded middle etc. – are derived from our experience of solid objects. That is what makes them self-evident and ‘irrefutable’. Tangible things cannot be themselves and not themselves at the same time and in the same place, for example. The rules of logic are however, by this very token, infected with the sort of involuntary and unsafe assumptions that made us pronounce space to be infinitely three-dimensional, time infinitely linear and the world to be composed of three-dimensional objects – all assumptions demolished by physics.

Rational thought, so the official story told by the ego runs, is method-driven all the way down. There is only method, and all method is under the direct control of the ego. Thus the history of human culture is, for the ego, largely a process of separating mental processes that are not rational thought, according to its criteria, from those that are. Human culture is therefore represented by the ego as an inexorable march to ultimate and final victory of the algorithmic type of thinking over which the ego has complete control. All other kinds of mental activity are dismissed by the rational ego as ‘irrational’, ‘subjective’, ‘immature’ and so on. (An egregious example of this sort of ‘rationalism’ is John McCrone’s, The Myth of Irrationality, Macmillan 1993.) All of the above words involve reliance on the power of a kind of insult and not on a genuinely critical assessment. But there are many types of thinking. In the quasi-mythological language of current brain-science we could say that the ego, tied as it is to the left-brain language-engine, always and only comes up with the same thing: names of ‘things’ and procedures for grouping them together, and yet more names and yet more procedures for grouping them together. The right-brain, however, is largely inarticulate and, since it allegedly works on images and feelings, is easily shouted down by the vociferous left-brain, particularly when the ego’s lust for power kicks in with force. Thus, like an old oriental despot, the ego claims more and more absolute control for itself over the ultimately indefinable mental realm that is the fundamental experience of the self. But we do not have to go along with this – rather dated – mythology to be aware that there is something wrong with the ego’s over-optimistic rationalism.

The ego has a vested interest in maintaining that there is no other authority, no other controlling agency than itself and its logical methods. The suggestion that there could be other agencies in the mind that are not under the ego’s control is impatiently, intolerantly and even angrily rejected by the ego as ‘infantile’ or ‘irrational’ nonsense. The ego loves to equate maturity and all the other intellectual virtues with its methods and only with its methods. It loves to suppress any view of the mind that seems to indicate that it is not sole master in the mental household. When it comes up with theories of the unconscious creativity of the mind, it does as Freud did: it reduces them to a mechanism in order then to be able to dominate, ‘cure’ or otherwise eliminate them. Alternatively, it puts the unconscious creativity of the mind – which, after all, it would be folly to deny – down to the complexity of the brain and to the brain’s tendency to indulge in random ‘chatter’ between its various modules, random chatter that is so complex that it just throws up novelty and innovation as a matter of course, like the random clatter of the imagined millions of monkeys, bashing randomly away at typewriters for millions of years, that would ‘inevitably’ throw up the collected works of Shakespeare. This touching faith in the almost miraculous power of accident is one of the hallmarks of the ego’s invincible self-belief and is detectable in a surprising number of high-profile scientific theories from the cosmological to the biological and psychological. It has re-emerged in recent years as the ‘complexity’ aspect of so-called ‘chaos-theory’ and here the rational ego claims to have grasped the chaos by means of fractal geometry whereas all it has achieved is an illuminating analogy and anyway, its application to processes in the brain is obscure to say the least.

The common factor in all of these denigrations by the ego of non-rational thought is simple fear of irrationality. The ego is afraid of what it does not control and insists on controlling it or exorcising it as a kind of evil spirit by various apotropaic uses of language: ridicule, insult, belittlement, calumny, and so on. The characterisation of non-rational thought as ‘accidental’ is the most scientific of these exorcisms, but its purpose is similar to the others: whistling to keep the ego's spirits up.

One is surprised that this kind of conception of the mental economy – the belief that what is not the result of the ego’s volition is mere random activity – could ever have gained acceptance by intelligent people. But then one realises that it is in fact an ideology. In the language of the mythology mentioned above, it is an ideology of the left-brain that wishes to pretend that it is the focus of all power and authority. All ideologies turn into rigid and punitive orthodoxy at some point in their development and the ideology asserting that real rational thought is entirely under the control of the ego is no exception. We can however adopt a quite different view of the mental economy, without denying anything that ego-driven rationalistic theories say about the mind, but rather by classifying all those activities called ‘rational’ together and pointing out that they invariably depend on those aspects of the mind that the ego can only dismiss as ‘irrational’. We may to this end distinguish thought from intelligence, and understand intelligence as a fundamental property of the self that, though highly productive, is not ultimately governed by the rules and algorithms that are considered by the ego to be of its essence, and not under the ultimate control of the ego.

Intelligence is the more capacious concept; and rational thought is simply one of many expressions of intelligence. In the human sphere, intelligence may well be expressed using the methods of ego-driven, routine thought, but it is also the origin of creative, innovatory insight. The former may for the most part be under the control of the ego; but the latter definitely is not. We ought to relax the monopolistic stranglehold that the ego has on intellectual life in the west and reflect for a moment on the degree to which human culture is driven forward not by the ego – which uses methods that may or may not be appropriate and tends rather to make a hash of things – but by the self’s passive reception of mental contents that it cannot command, nor direct by any method whatsoever.

The simple fact is this: the methods of the ego can only repeat past thought-patterns according to a distinct recipe. That is the essence of purely rational thought: the re-activation of, and extrapolation from, past experience couched in terms that ‘repeat’ a self-evident template. Ego-driven thought is fundamentally repetitive, because new elements of experience are jammed into old configurations. That is central to the ego’s method. The ego wants always to contain the new in old configurations, calling certain old configurations in which it believes very strongly ‘necessary truths’, ‘invariant features of experience’, ‘regularities’, ‘the laws of nature’ or suchlike. Rational thought can only repeat past patterns and try to tell new stories in old ways. Intelligence – the partially voluntary functioning of the self – does not, however, operate like that at all.

The self’s intelligence is much more aware of its collaborative, subservient nature: it is as much structured by reception as it is by production. The intelligence of the self receives insight as a gift and in combining this insight with rational extrapolations, creates genuinely new methods of containing new ideas. This principle should therefore be writ large in all educational institutions: there is no rule for generating new ideas but neither are they accidental. Really new ideas simply have to be accepted as grace. Along with the new ideas come new insights into the formalisms needed to express them. Often the new insight comes with its new mode of expression. Existing modes of expression are blown wide open and re-formed on a higher level of formal complexity, a higher level of formal power. To want to claim these creative deliveries of the mind for rational, algorithmic thought is to misunderstand totally the entire process according to which human culture has grown steadily richer and more complex. It is creative innovation that drives culture, not rational thought.

The fundamentally repetitive character of rational thought can be seen in every situation where a body of ‘truth’ is being worked upon, processed in order to make it yield up its implications. Much of routine science is the repetition of old thought-patterns and their imposition upon new experiences. It seems that the rational ego can simply not get out of this bind. This is all the more surprising, given the fact that the great innovatory scientists, though using the deductive methods that are vital to rigour, are always conscious of the non-rational, non-methodical aspects of the insight that brings or brought them to their innovatory ideas. The vast mass of scientists seem to be very good at thought, that is to say good at the rule-driven manipulation of old insight; they are sometimes not so good, however, at the generation of radically new insight; indeed some are so bad at it, that they deny its existence and even forbid any appeal to it altogether. Orthodoxy in science, it is well-known, can stifle innovation, cover up results that militate against a standard theory and even so influence the process of observation that scientists mis-observe and mis-interpret observations in favour of the prevailing orthodoxy. The persecution of the unorthodox scientist, the enmity towards him or her and the orchestrated efforts to discredit both the person and the work are all aspects of the same process of mere rational thought. It is almost miraculous, given this, that science produces the wonderful creative advances that actually characterise its history – a history that is most often driven forward by the flexible creative plasticity of the innovating genius.

One can almost draw an analogy between the durability of scientific orthodoxy and the conservatism of species. The genome is like a persistent theory of the way things are to be done. This theory is incarnated in the animal concerned; and this theory will continue as a rigid orthodoxy until evolution, by whatever means it uses, accidental or not, alters the genome and the behaviour patterns of the creature. Some creatures – for example, the coelacanth – show astonishing conservatism. The creature was thought to be extinct until one was caught by a fisherman in a deep lake in Africa. Now it is called ‘a living fossil’. But this sort of conservatism is equally applicable to various beliefs, scientific or not. Old religious and magical practices persist; old theories of the universe persist. People go on believing and defending views of the world that have become difficult or impossible to defend. Even Richard Dawkins, who invented the word ‘meme’ to refer to persistent inheritable ideas, seems not to realise that in his popular writings he too is defending an outmoded and now indefensible view of the world. But that is what happens when the ego takes control of the intellect; and there are few better examples of an ego-controlled intellect than that of Dawkins. It almost seems that natural systems from bacteria to the human mind have two opposite tendencies built into them – the conservative tendency, self-protective and self-perpetuating, on the one hand, and the adventurous, risk-taking tendency that appears not to be afraid of simply giving in to the new and accepting it as a challenge from reality as such. The risk-takers have a kind of faith in their own experience of creativity, the conservatives, with their jealous regard for procedure, do not.

The methods of thought pronounced to be authoritative by the ego are not the only forms of repetition that it develops. The thing-ideology is also a kind of repetition. The naming of a thing is the first stage in the effort to control it. Then by defining and circumscribing it by means of more names, such that any further instances of that ‘thing’ will have all and only the properties given in the definition, the feeling of repetition is guaranteed. The combination of objectification, reification, and the ‘rules’ of reasoning are the principal means by which the thing-obsessed ego strives to wrap up the process of thought for all time and reduce it to a mechanism. The ego can simply not admit that the best products of the mind and the world it experiences are not under its control. It combats such an idea with the ferocity of a creature under attack. This kind of panic-stricken, sometimes paranoid urge to dominate is almost what the ego means by ‘thought’ or ‘rationality’ and constitutes the principal means by which all ‘irrationality’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘mysticism’ and suchlike heinous intellectual crimes are to be eradicated.

Rational thought, with its desire for repetition, control, objectification and so on, is the mechanical aspect of the mind and this mechanical aspect may well be entirely driven by purely mechanical processes in the brain. It is this mechanical kind of thought that pronounces that certain rules of logic are ‘rules of thought’, as if the rules of the mind were laid down in the nature of the universe. These so-called rules of thought are deemed to govern all legitimate mental operations; and hence by definition those mental operations that are not so governed are somehow illegitimate. The ego simply cannot admit that the rules of thought are invented by the self’s need for expression and therefore do not rule the intelligence of the self which invents them: the self, using equipment bestowed by evolution and following a similar biological compulsion to that which drives induction, made them up for its convenience and therefore it rules them rather than being ruled by them. The manner in which the intelligent self rules its own rules, so to speak, is by creating them in the first place in order to externalise its insight. It is strange that the ego wants to ground the rules of thought outside of itself, pretending, like many despots to be no more than the servant of something higher: the logic of reality itself. The intelligent self is above all rules, beyond all rules that it sets itself; and it sets itself rules because without them it can say nothing coherent. But in the saying, in the rule-generation, the means of speaking of ever more complex matters is vouchsafed to the self by a process that is not under its control, but which it enjoys or suffers, depending on your point of view.

This process can only be characterised as ‘creative’ and it is not, repeat not, the prerogative of the rational ego and its repetitive thought. The methods of the ego are pure midworld – that is to say they are linguistic phenomena. They consist in the drawing out of implications from existing formalism, existing theory, existing ‘knowledge’. They are the manipulation of the mechanical aspects of these formalisms. In these methods, midworld, mere language, has taken over hindworld, i.e. the self’s raw experience of reality, and has set itself up as the essential truth about foreworld – the realm of perceived objects. In so doing it has excluded altogether hyperworld – i.e. untamed reality as such. But this exclusion is in fact impossible. There is inevitably a hyperworld component in foreworld, hindworld and in midworld, since we, our world and our language are integral parts of a process that we use but do not grasp. Foreworld, hindworld and midworld each have an indeterminate component. That is the zone into which the intelligent self has as a birthright unimpeded access and from which the ego excludes itself by its dogmatism. It is the indeterminate hyperworld element in all three worlds that is the source of all novelty and therefore of the future. Hyperworld, which is essentially what Bohm means by his term the ‘holomovement’ is the locus, the essential ‘milieu’ of intelligence. It is here that new structure that is manipulated formally by thought emerges into what we call ‘reality’. It is here that the miraculous incarnation of intelligence first takes place. Rational thought that then follows is mere rationalisation of the products of intelligence.

We shall take a look at intelligence in a separate post where our fundamental premise will be that intelligence is not a product of evolution, but rather a fundamental and universal property of the essential processes of reality as such.

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