Are We Rational Beings?

One of my favourite novels is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is a real doorstop of a tome – some 800 pages, though somehow it actually feels longer. If you don’t know it, it can perhaps best be summed up as “Jane Austen with magic and faeries” – though it’s a lot more than that, being a beautifully written tongue-in-cheek pastiche of early nineteenth century novels, full of meticulous historical research, witty dialogue, richly realised characters, endlessly entertaining digressions (it even contains footnotes), and of course the aforementioned faeries.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Faerie? Why can’t this man spell?”, or even, “What tedious orthographical affectation is this? I’m sure we’re about to find out…” – and you are. Clarke prefers the term “faerie” to its more common modern equivalent “fairy”, largely to distinguish the twee little nature spirits beloved of Victorian book illustrators and Disney animators, from the more unsettling, powerful and occasionally malevolent beings of folklore. Clarke’s book captures the tone of this older tradition perfectly, and one of the key themes of the novel – without spoiling it for you – is the struggle between rationality and irrationality. As such, it can be read on one level as a parable of the progress of science – for “magicians” read “physicists”, “biologists” and (perhaps) “computer programmers” – and the attempt of the titular magician Mr Norrell to create a new tradition of “English Magic” devoid of faerie influence perhaps parallels the modern attempt of science to distance itself from religion and “superstition”. And yet, as I explore in my little book on Descartes, science and religion have long gone hand-in-hand. Chemistry originated from the psycho-physical experiments of the alchemists, astronomy has only gradually disentangled itself from astrology, and many of the founders of scientific method – Newton, Descartes, Francis Bacon – were deeply religious men. In philosophy, too, the Western tradition is built on three philosophers who held similarly non-rational convictions: Aristotle argued that God allotted all things a purpose or telos, Plato was a believer in reincarnation, and Socrates claimed that he was guided by a disembodied spirit that sometimes spoke through him and told him what to do. Even Immanuel Kant, writing over two millennia later, admitted that the only ultimate justification for acting morally was that the good would receive their reward in the afterlife.

If there is a moral to Clarke’s book, it is that this attempt to jettison the influence of the “irrational” is not without consequences, or even perhaps dangers. Philosophically, we might also question whether such a move is in fact possible. It is this issue to which Friedrich Nietzsche dedicated his life. From his first published work (The Birth of Tragedy), he realised that we are pulled in different directions, which he symbolised by two Greek deities: by the rational spirit of Apollo, and the instinctual urges of Dionysus. His philosophy is therefore an attempt to marry these two warring principles, and to show that both are an expression of the same underlying drive – our will to power – and that we may cultivate and combine their different aspects into a unified attitude that expresses the best of both sides of our nature. One of Nietzsche’s key achievements (the basis of which he owes to Schopenhauer) was to reveal how rationalism is often driven by our non-rational assumptions. Freud and the psychoanalysts would later pick up on this insight and use it to argue that the rational mind is at the whim of a much more primal, unconscious entity (the Id), driven by Darwinian imperatives to seek pleasure, sustenance and procreation. Nietzsche, I think, was more subtle than either Darwin or Freud, and saw that, if unchecked, the rational scientific drive could eventually lead us to nihilism, or belief that life is inherently without purpose or meaning. As he puts it, in one of my favourite quotes, there are those who would “ultimately prefer even a handful of ‘certainty’ to a entire wagonload of beautiful possibilities” (Beyond Good and Evil). Put simply, the search for absolute certainty, for clear concepts and fixed principles, risks losing those rich, ambiguous, uncertain experiences that are the basis of life, but which cannot themselves be rationally pinned down.

We find an example of this nihilistic attitude in the modern debate concerning the nature of consciousness, especially in relation to the slippery notion of qualia. The aroma of coffee, the redness of poppies in bloom, the “umami” savouriness of a curry – it is arguably impossible to describe these things to someone who has not experienced them or something similar. Since qualia cannot be put into words, they are arguably not rational entities. An argument against the idea that the brain is simply a computer is therefore that no mere machine could replicate these sensations – even a very sophisticated machine, able to rationally communicate and think and act, would simply be a “mechanical zombie”, possessing no awareness, no rich inner sense of being alive.

The debate concerning the puzzle of consciousness rumbles on, but one quite drastic response – favoured by some philosophers and advocates of artificial intelligence – is to simply deny that qualia exist. You think you smell a rose or have a savoury taste, but it’s really all just an illusion cooked up by your brain. I won’t here go into all the reasons why I think this is batshit crazy – not least of them being that the illusion itself (as Descartes realised) is something whose existence we cannot deny – but I shall just point out how well it fits Nietzsche’s observation: here is something that almost no sane person would question (that we have wordless tastes, smells, sensations), but given that these experiences are fuzzy and do not fit neatly into a rational scheme, they must be sacrificed on the altar of certainty. But why? For what? This is the really interesting question.

Returning finally to faeries, it’s intriguing to note how persistent belief in them has been, right up into modern times (see, e.g. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W. Y. Evans-Wentz). In his book Angels and Aliens (less kooky than it sounds), Keith Thompson drew attention to the remarkable similarities between reports of alien abduction and folklore concerning being whisked away to the land of Faerie, and psychologist Carl Jung similarly considered the UFO phenomenon to be a modern expression of some deep need of the human mind to engage with reality on a non-rational or symbolic level. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you should start believing in faeries, UFOs, God or anything else – Nietzsche was himself an atheist – but at the very least that this tells us something important about human nature, and our capacity to understand the world. As Jung put it, “Man cannot stand a meaningless life”, and where such meaning is denied to us – where, as arguably is the case with modern science, our sense of place and purpose is increasingly eroded – though our reason may be satisfied, our non-rational side is not, and will seek fulfilment in other ways, and with other stories.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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Image Credit: Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie.