Why Reason Fails
Ι had faith in reason, and, in some ways, I still do. But it lets me down almost every time.
It’s a superpower we inherited from nature; a part of what makes us human. But it is flawed. Or are we the ones that fail to understand its role in our lives?
We start with two definitions:
- Reason is considered the ability to make sense of the world through the use of knowledge and logic.
- Rationality is referred to as the valuable use of reason, which helps humans arrive at more accurate conclusions about the world.
Reason and rationality are the subjects of many disciplines that began in philosophy and then spread to science as it affects every aspect of our lives.
Now that we’re on the same page, here’s a thought experiment.
Try helping someone in need.
You roll up your sleeves and unsheath your reason katana. You prepare yourself for a rational battle since you expect the person you’re trying to help to be a rational warrior as well.
You’re convinced that your arguments are extremely strong and that you’ll finish this in a single, powerful slash. Your rational attack lands. But it’s not very effective…
You used solid arguments, but they didn’t help. “It must be my technique that is weak,” you’re thinking.
Nevertheless, your faith in reason is unfaltering, and you conclude that your inability to help is because of not-rational-enough arguments. You then decide to improve your technique and add more rationality to it.
Next time that person won’t escape, you’ll definitely help him.
But you are left with a bitter feeling. This thought lingers in your mind: “Was it really my fault or was he just too irrational?”
End of thought experiment.
We get angry when we can’t help people we care about because they are defending opinions that seem irrational.
But since we have faith in human reason, we believe that they just use it the wrong way. We try to put them on the right path — ours.
Going down this rabbit hole has two conclusions:
- Best case it ends up where it begins — with nothing changed. Each gets to tell his piece and leave.
- Or worst case it ends in an emotional argument. Everyone ends up surrendering to his ego and relationships get ruined.
Why do we still have faith in something that supposedly helps us navigate the world, but systematically fails us? This enigma of reason has an answer, we just need to change the way we approach it.
But first, some history.
It began in Ancient Greece.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras based his geometrical theories in the rational and harmonious order of the universe — embodied in his quote “all is number.”
He started an ontological tradition — the philosophical study of being, existence, and reality — that valued our minds, holding reason above all other human traits.
This rational torch got passed down through many generations of philosophers.
Socrates hailed wisdom, which is the correct use of reason, as the one true virtue.¹
Plato, his student, formed his philosophy around rational insights inspired by Pythagorean geometry.
He believed that objects and matter were mere imitations of Forms. They were the non-physical essence of things that could only be conceived of in the mind with the use of reason, which Plato thought was superior to experience.²
Aristotle, Plato’s student, was more down to earth because his natural philosophy dealt primarily with the real world.
His syllogistic logic — the tool we use to explain anything — has immensely influenced the history of western thought.
Despite being pragmatic, Aristotle believed that to flourish as a human being, you have to live consistently, excellently, and completely in accordance with reason.³
Fast forward almost 2000 years.
We arrive at Rene Descartes. He was the French philosopher whose ideas laid the foundations for Rationalism to be developed and get established as a philosophy.
You probably know Descartes from his “I think, therefore I am” quote, which is a summary of his ardent belief in reason as the main faculty we use to understand reality.
He goes as far as to believe that what we sense — all our sensations — must pass our reason’s test.⁴ If they don’t, we can doubt their existence.
Thus, he concluded that he can only be certain of his own thinking — his reason.
Except for illusions and damaged brains, we never doubt our sensations. We believe in what we sense because that’s how we experience life.
But Descartes’ priority of reason over the senses has not been lost. His philosophy still affects the way we view the world; it still makes us believe that reason is superior to the senses.
But you can’t talk about Rationalism without talking about Empiricism — its longtime rival.
The name comes from the Greek εμπειρία (empeiria), which means experience.
It’s a philosophy that goes against Rationalism because, instead of reason, it focuses on experience as the main way we come to know things, hence its name.
Empiricism has influenced science more than any other philosophy because of its emphasis on the use of empirical evidence, experimentation, and falsification — the opposite of verification. And all these guided the scientific method.
This line of thought can be traced back to Aristotle, who, being a proto-scientist who valued observation, thought that senses came before intellect — experience before reason.⁵
Fast forward to the 17th century and you’ve got Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method and empiricism. He noticed that human beings were not perfectly rational, for they consistently sought to confirm their own beliefs in their pursuit of truth.⁶
English philosopher John Locke took Empiricism to its extreme. He formed the Tabula Rasa thesis, which states that humans are blank slates waiting to be written upon. He thought that we’re born with no innate ideas; we only acquire them through experience.⁷
Despite the evidence against it still manages to survive as an ideology. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker makes a strong case against it in his Pulitzer Finalist book The Blank Slate.
Then comes the great David Hume, who divides perception into two categories.⁸
- Impressions, which are external sensations or internal reflections, such as desires, passions, and emotions.
- Ideas, which are from memory or imagination. These ideas are copied from impressions.
Hume challenged the reigning worldview of his time, mainly that of Descartes’ Rationalism, and paved the way for sensation becoming the main process through which we understand reality.
He concludes that “all reasonings concerning matters of fact seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect.”⁹ Basically, we learn by experiencing things.
But let’s not dive deeper than necessary. The point of briefly going over the Rationalism/Empiricism dispute was to put an emphasis on a phenomenon that has existed for centuries. And that is the divide between reason and emotion.
The Eternal Divide
We view the world through a dualistic perspective.
This means that we can only define something by defining its opposite. We can’t define good without defining bad and we can’t define light without defining darkness. It’s what the Ancient Chinese called Yin-Yang.
This dualism has defined human life since forever and it has resulted, as we saw with the rationalism vs empiricism dispute, in many other dichotomies. One of those is the good old reason/emotion duality.
The idea that we have two minds, one rational and one emotional, has been studied by many thinkers throughout the centuries.
Plato described emotion and reason as two horses pulling us in opposite directions. David Hume said we experience reality with the use of impressions (our emotional brain) and ideas (our rational brain). Daniel Kahneman and Amon Tversky had their dualistic theory of the emotional System 1 and the rational System 2.¹⁰
But which is one right and which one is wrong? How can we know what’s true and what’s false?
There is no ultimate answer. That is because of our own making. Everyone has his own worldview; we view the world through our own paradigm.
An individual paradigm is the way an individual sees the world; it’s what he believes to be true and what false.
A collective paradigm is the way a group of people sees the world; it’s what they believe to be true and what false.
The current collective paradigm is that of human rationality.
The Rationality Paradigm
We believe we generally think, make decisions, and act in accordance with reason.
On the off chance we don’t, we suppress our impulses and control our emotions just to get back on rational tracks.
In essence, we treat our emotional mind as inferior to our rational mind.
Reason is often considered the main thing standing between us and other animals. W hile that may be true, in a way, we’re not that much different.
Because, along with reason, we are also governed by passions. This is the eternal divide — who is and who ought to be holding the wheel, reason or emotion? This is known as Hume’s Guillotine.⁸
Our collective paradigm considers reason as the ultimate driver of our life’s car. We put reason on a pedestal. Everybody teaches us that reason is and should be our main driver, because, they say, when emotion holds the wheel we end up lost or with a crashed car.
This assumption — that our rational mind should never give the wheel to our emotional mind — is what Mark Manson calls “The Classic Assumption” in his bestseller Everything Is F*cked.
Our conditioning begins at a very young age. We’re taught how to think, how to feel, and how to behave in accordance with our society’s rules.
To achieve this we require a rational mind that has the ability to orchestrate everything — a maestro who is responsible for directing the performance we give each waking hour.
This is where the problems begin.
Since our rational mind is responsible for everything, any deviation in thinking or behaving is seen as our fault.
And since we put such value in reason, we see the inability to follow society’s rational paradigm as a weakness. We judge anyone who lacks self-control and can’t suppress his emotions.
If we get emotional, there must be something wrong with us. We need to change ourselves and become more rational. That’s the classic assumption.
But we forget that emotion comes with the package — it’s a part of being human. No matter how hard we try to suppress it, we can’t willfully reason it out of existence. Your emotions will overwhelm you if you try to drown them.
“What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.”
- Carl Jung
So why are emotions all the rage? (Pun intended)
No Action Without Emotion
Enter neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and the case of a man who ruined his life by being totally rational.¹¹
Elliot was a friendly and successful executive and a good father, until he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After his surgery, he began feeling differently.
He was having difficulty making decisions, which led to incomplete projects, which escalated and led to him getting fired. And if that wasn’t enough, he divorced not only once but twice.
He visited many doctors and had many tests, but he seemed fine. Every test had normal results — his IQ was normal, his demeanor was normal, his memory was intact and he wasn’t depressed.
But he was indifferent to everything, he could not care for anything. He went to Damasio as a last resort, seeking to find answers that no one could give.
At first, Damasio tested his intelligence and he found no deviation. Baffled by Elliot’s apparent normality, he began having casual conversations with him. He noticed that Elliot could perfectly explain what had happened to his life, but he couldn’t explain why.
That’s when Damasio realized what was going on. Elliot had no feelings. He was using only his rational mind.
Damasio concluded that the tumor or the surgery had damaged Elliot’s emotional capacity — making him the perfect rational agent, according to our human rationality paradigm. He had suppressed his emotional mind and perfectly controlled himself.
But despite his perfectness, he had ruined his whole life. Elliot was unable to make a decision and act on it because of his lack of emotion.
Action, therefore, has emotion embedded in it. Without emotion there can be no action — no moving forward.
Why did Elliot’s perfect rationality not work? Aren’t we taught that when reason is behind the wheel, everything works out fine? Apparently we’re taught bullshit.
Elliot’s case challenges the classic assumption — that reason is superior to emotions — and calls for a new paradigm, in which reason has a different role to play.
Humans create their environment and the environment creates humans. It’s a feedback and feedforward loop process.
Our individual biological evolution has always walked side by side with our collective cultural evolution. This is the secret to our success.¹²
Having a bigger and more efficient brain made us smarter, which, in turn, made us more social; becoming more social made us smarter, which, in turn, made our brains bigger. This evolutionary cycle has profound consequences on how we use our minds.
To adapt to social pressures we have to excel at social interactions.
Human interactions are based on signaling intentions, either explicitly or implicitly. Evolutionary forces have shaped our behaviors in order to improve our survival and reproductive chances.
Thus, evolution has influenced human interactions.
And this leads us to the interactionist approach of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
In their book The Enigma of Reason, they reject the rationality paradigm and put forward a new theory: Reason, they argue, has two main functions: that of producing reasons for justifying oneself, and that of producing arguments to convince others. The justificatory and the argumentative functions of reason.¹³
Human cooperation has increased in scale and in complexity because we don’t live in local tribes of a hundred and fifty members.¹⁴
We live in a hyperconnected global world of billions. We meet new people every day and cooperate with them not just in the short-term but in the long-term as well.
The justificatory function becomes an effective way to signal our intentions. This way, we let other people know what to expect from us and what we expect from them. We foster human alliances.
We value communication and use it in every interaction, but we have to filter out the noise from the signals we’re getting.
The argumentative function becomes an evaluation tool we use in order to make communication more honest and effective.
If those are the real mechanics of reason, who’s the one driving the car?
A Drive with Emotion and Reason
Reason has a social role. And what’s the one thing found in abundance in human relationships? Emotions. Therefore, we can’t have a social act without both reason and emotion.
Emotions make us human, they’re a part of us. Despite what our conditioning says, emotions aren’t something to be suppressed. They aren’t bad; they just are.
However, it’s how we use them that’s important. Do we use negative emotions as a fuel for our evolution and betterment, or as a proxy for bad behavior?
Many of the problems we face have an emotional nature. We try to face those problems using logic — the domain of our rational mind — instead of dealing with them with our emotional mind. There’s a mismatch happening — we’re using a hammer to tighten a screw.
Basically, we act this way because our rational mind likes to imagine itself as the driver, but, in reality, it’s the co-driver that merely gives instructions to the real driver — the emotional mind.
Emotion is the one holding the wheel, and it can go wherever it pleases, just because it feels like it. Reason is there to merely suggest which route to take, and to rationalize and justify the emotional brain’s decisions. This becomes a problem when it escalates badly, resulting in rampant and erratic driving.
“The overindulgence of emotion leads to a crisis of hope, but so does the repression of emotion.”¹⁵
- Mark Manson
So what can we do?
The answer to every duality problem is synthesis.
The first step towards solving a problem is becoming aware of it. Awareness is the process of becoming conscious of something, which you can only do using your rational mind.
Start by acknowledging that every thought, decision, and action is emotional, not rational.
You’re not the perfect rational agent you think you are, nor will you ever be. And you don’t want to be — look what happened to Elliot.
You’re not a rational creature, you’re an emotional machine that rationalizes.
You tell a story about yourself to yourself. You have an interpreter system in our brain that starts with making sense of all the information bombarding the brain — interpreting your experience of reality. It also creates a narrative of your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
The interpreter system is the glue that keeps your story unified and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent.
You follow this story not only in social situations but when you’re alone as well — it’s deeply ingrained in you. We all do this unconsciously.¹⁶
So, you have to become aware of the interpreter in your head and the story he’s creating.
After you start listening to the story, realize that it’s not set in stone — it can change. Emotions of the past determine how we view any future experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
You can learn to control the interpreter, and tell yourself a different story. Do this in the present, in the now.
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
- George Orwell
This doesn’t only apply to authoritarian governments. It applies to you as well. If you tell a different story in the present, you’re altering your past. And since you’re altering your past, you’re changing your future.
Choose a different story now, but choose wisely.
Become aware of your present emotions and accept them. Burying them only makes your shadow — the repressed aspects of your soul — bigger.
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”¹⁷
- Carl Jung
Start by shining light upon those negative feelings you experience.
If you’re angry or sad, accept those states of being, and drill into them. Keep asking why until there is no further why to be asked. Use your rational mind to dig deeper and find the real reason for your anger or sadness.
Finding the emotional root of the problem is very hard because our rational mind is programmed to find no fault within us. Our ego works for itself.
Think about what you’re thinking, and ask yourself, “am I deceiving myself?” or “am I justifying myself?”
You need to train our rational mind to view the emotional mind not as a rival but as an ally. The synthesis of reason with emotion is what peak human potential has to offer.
Use your rational mind to change the bad parts of your emotional mind. Then use both minds to transcend yourself.
Navigating the world
Befriending your emotional mind has 2 consequences.
First, you begin to understand yourself better.
You can finally grasp why you think, feel, and act in certain ways.
Now your upgraded rational mind will not be there to justify your emotions or rationalize your actions, but to grab the emotional mind’s hand and tell it “I know how you feel and it’s ok.”
This way, the emotional grip on the wheel weakens. Your minds can now work in unison and have a fun ride together.
With the rational mind looking at the map and setting the destination, and the emotional mind having the time of his life in the journey.
Basically, if you integrate both minds and use them together you can accomplish anything while enjoying the process.
Second, you realize that all this applies to everyone else, too.
You begin to comprehend the whys of people — why they think or feel or act in irrational ways. Now you can understand it is because of emotion.
I began this article with a thought experiment. Now, let’s run it again, but this time you’ll be using emotional katanas instead of rational ones.
This time it will have a very different result because people are more influenced by emotions than reason. Your emotional attack is going to be way more effective at helping.
To be honest, I still fail at this. I still use reason instead of emotion when I try to help someone. It’s hard to break free of the rationality paradigm.
But it’s not reason that fails us. It’s we who are failing reason. We expect so much but understand so little. That’s why I’m disappointed.
To help someone you have to appeal to his emotional mind; the rational mind is useless against emotional problems.
Think of it as two different modes of understanding:
- The thinking mode.
- The feeling mode.
The thinking mode operates with verbal language, while the feeling mode operates with experiences. Therefore, when you talk to people you engage their thinking mode, not their feeling mode.
Most people don’t have a problem with the thinking mode; they can grasp concepts logically. It’s emotionally that they fumble.
Only when people experience what you’re talking about do they understand you. They have to feel it in their skin and live it. There is no other way.
Emotions are something you can’t force upon somebody — they either speak to him or not.
Using reason against emotion is futile. It is a bit like trying to open a lock with the wrong key — it’s gonna get both the door and the key broken.
Forceful intervention results in ruin. Force a result and you always get the opposite.
There is no better way to end this article than with one of the most profound quotes I’ve read. Read it again and again — it might just change your life.
“Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred. It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.”¹⁸
– Lao Tzu
- Xenophon, Memorabilia, trans. Amy L. Bonnette, book 3, chap. 9, p. 5
- Plato, Republic, book 5, section 479e-484c
- Louis E. Loeb, The Priority of Reason in Descartes, p. 1
- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, p. 13
- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
- Daniel Kahneman and Amon Tversky, Thinking, Fast and Slow
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error
- Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success
- Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason
- Mark Manson, Everything is F*cked, chap. 2, p. 39
- Michael S. Gazzaniga, Human, part 3, chap. 8, p. 300
- Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, chap. 3, p. 93
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chap. 29
Originally published at https://newpercept.com.