My Personal Age of Reason

 

Rational linear proof is what the mind demands. The heart’s way begins when one lays one’s head on a person’s chest and drifts into the answer.  — Coleman Barks

 

What is it to be “scientific”? What does that word mean in the context of day-to-day life? Since the 17th century the man of reason has been elevated above all others, and reason assigned the highest status among all forms of cognition. Reason is, after all, the unique province of humankind, distinguishing us from the animals, elevating us past our biological heritage of instinct and emotion. To be a creature of reason, then, is to be more ascended; it is to be more a man and less an animal.

I use the word “man” for “human” advisedly here, because cultural prejudice has long held reason to be a distinguishing quality of the male sex. Men were supposed to be more rational; women more emotional and more intuitive. Women were thought closer to their biology, more subject to periodic fluctuations of hormones. Tied up in our elevation of reason, then, is the elevation of the male sex above the female.

Reason is a male-associated trait not because men are more capable of it, but because they apply it more broadly. Generally speaking, the men of our culture deploy reason in more situations than women—even and especially in situations in which reason is inappropriate. If we see reason as a hallmark of separation, then the male predilection for reason is evidence for the more extreme separation of the male sex. Women (and more generally, the feminine, including the inner feminine of both sexes) offer us men a way to reconnect with the biology, emotion, and intuition that reason has separated us from.

Like the mythological Greek hero Theseus, we wander in a labyrinth, a labyrinth of rationality and ego in which lurks a monster that can devour us. The Minotaur is a beast with a human head,[4] the face of reason atop the drives of biology. To it we sacrifice, as did the Athenians, the best and brightest of our youth. Once inside the Labyrinth, the only way out is by following the lifeline that Woman alone offers.

I am intimately familiar with the labyrinth of rationality, because I lived in it for many years. Applying logic first to any situation, suppressing emotion and deploying reason, I thought myself more cognitively evolved, more intelligent than most other people. A higher sort of man, more scientific, more rational—in a word, better. I acted from the mind, which was higher, rather than the emotions, which were lower. In applying reason to my own life, I echoed the ideals of Enlightenment philosophers who thought that a new Age of Reason would usher in a perfect society. Reason was to be an omnipotent tool that would solve all the world’s problems.

You can probably imagine some of the calamities that befell me as I pursued my personal Age of Reason. Numbing down my emotions, I could make decisions only by comparing one list of reasons (the pros) to another (the cons). I tried very hard to “figure things out”, but either way, my decisions lacked the certitude that accompanies a heart-based choice. Doubt plagued me, and I was unable to follow through on any decision wholeheartedly. I became paralyzed with indecision before, and doubt after, any decision I made. To compensate for the numbness, I would create vast, elaborate networks of reasons and justifications to bolster my decisions, but no matter how hard I tried, I felt hopelessly adrift.

Much later I understood that all my reasons were actually rationalizations for choices already made, non-rationally, based on something unconscious and unfelt. To bring to light the hidden determinants of my choices became an urgent priority. If not for “reasons”, then why do I do the things that I do?

Notice the parallels between this and our own collective Age of Reason. For all our clever elaborations, are we too not adrift in a sea of impotent analysis and explanation, propelled headlong toward calamity by forces we are only dimly aware of? Does not our collective history repeat itself, just as I helplessly recreated the same patterns in my life again and again? Do we not still look to reason—embodied in science—to save us, just as I tried repeatedly to figure out a solution to my problems?

Whether on a personal or planetary level, the same conceit rules: that if we only try hard enough, we can figure everything out and live happily ever after.

When did I finally abandon my personal version of the Scientific Program? Only when a series of crises ripped apart the fabric of my life in a way that made it abundantly clear that the program of management and control was doomed. Look at the world around us. Is there any doubt that collectively, we too are approaching such a moment?

I am not advocating the abolition of reason. As with the Scientific Method, reason has its proper place. Operating within their proper spheres, both are tools for the creation of wonders. The problem comes when they exceed their proper bounds, as they did in my own life, and seek to bring the whole of reality under their sway. The consequences of this happening are escalating damage and depletion of the social and/or physical environment. In the personal example, other people get hurt. In the collective example, it is whole cultures, ecosystems, and the planet itself. Eventually, because the self-other distinction is not fundamentally valid, the damage and depletion circles back to affect the self—inevitably. Managing, fixing, and controlling these consequences can only work temporarily, and at an escalating price, because it is in fact the mindset of separation behind these responses that caused the damage in the first place.

The anthroposophical physician Tom Cowan offers an interesting metaphor for this process, drawing on the Medieval alchemical tradition.[5] The alchemists understood human beings as consisting of three parts: the head, the thoracic region of the heart and lungs, and the viscera. The head, symbolized by silver, is cool, static, and reflective; the heart, symbolized by gold, warm and rhythmic; the viscera, symbolized by sulfur, hot and transformative. In this philosophy, the faculty of knowledge resides not in the head, but in the heart. The heart is for knowing, and the head for reflection. Cowan explains the consequences of the head function invading the rest of the body: its stillness manifests as concrescences and sclerosis, such as stones in the organs, plaques in the heart and arteries, and tumors all over.

Is it mere coincidence that the technological artifacts of the Age of Reason are also predominantly hard? Pavement, buildings, metal and plastic, all are designed to resist the rhythms and transformative processes of nature. Looking down from an airplane, the burgeoning suburbs look like metastasizing tumors radiating out from the urban hubs. The earth’s softness turned hard.

In the personal story I have related, and in the whole culture of science, the head has usurped the heart’s function as the organ of knowing. We intuit this when we associate the alchemical head-quality of coolness with the exercise of reason—”coldly rational”, we say, or “cool-headed”. The head is meant to reflect, to consider, to explore, but it is the heart that is meant to know and, therefore, to choose.

The idea of choice not compelled by reasons runs counter to a fundamental principle of classical physics: determinism. A mass in a Newtonian system has no choice; its motion forever into the future is wholly determined by the forces acting upon it. When we see ourselves in the same way, science’s promise of control comes at an enormous price—an equivalent feeling of helplessness. We, like a Newtonian mass, are wholly determined by the totality of forces acting upon us.

The universe of classical science is a universe of force. While the achievements of the Scientific Revolution gave explicit form to this principle, it actually goes back much farther, back to the very origins of separation. It harks back to the ancient farmer, applying force to keep the land from reverting to its wild state; it harks back to the builder societies, replacing natural forms with human creations through human effort. The conquest of nature and human nature requires, like all military endeavors, force. The history of technology is a history of humanity putting greater and greater energies at its disposal, graduating from human power, to animal, to water and wind, to steam, to oil and gas and electricity, to nuclear power. And since energy, in physics, is nothing but force integrated over a distance, the ascent of humanity amounts to the exercise of more and more force. It is the bringing of force under human control. The fulfillment of human destiny, then, would be the harnessing of all the forces of nature, to bring them wholly into the human realm.

Forces in physics are the counterpart of reasons in our own lives. Just as we attempt to understand events by looking into the reasons that caused them to happen, so also do we understand the behavior of a physical system by adding up all the forces acting upon it. My personal Age of Reason had all the hallmarks of the classical scientific worldview. Steeped in the ideology of science, any other approach to knowledge seems nonsensical.

It is ironic indeed that my own attempt to live a scientific life governed by reason, which was motivated by a desire for control and certainty, generated instead crisis and uncertainty. The same has happened globally. The Scientific Method really comes down to, “Let’s check and make sure.” Yet we are increasingly unsure, paralyzed by the same doubt I experienced in my own life. The welter of opposing voices in my head mirrors the bitterly conflicting interests of modern politics and other institutions that thwart any purposeful transformation. They leave us helpless, trundling forward under the momentum of the past, buffeted by forces beyond our control.

 

[4] Modern depictions of the Minotaur show the head of a bull atop a human body, but in many classical drawings it was reversed.

 

[5] Cowan, Tom, “The Fourfold Approach to Cancer”, Nov. 13, 2005 presentation at the Wise Traditions Conference, Chantilly, VA.