Living in an irrational world

I have become persuaded that we live in an irrational world.  By that I don’t mean the kind of inane romantic tripe recently offered up by an ex-student agitator in the op-ed pages of the NYT.  He said he went “crazy” in 1968 because that was the only “sane response to the hand I had been dealt” — a plagiarism, or maybe a paraphrase, of R.D. Laing, who called insanity “a perfectly rational adjustment to the insane world.”

The aging agitator was a child of privilege in a land of freedom and plenty.  Laing was a poseur who confused Sartre with psychology.  When I speak of an irrational world I am not making a political or sociological statement, much less diagnosing madness in any community.

I mean simply that no single set of rational principles appears able to explain the physical world.  Instead there has been a proliferation of principles, each holding sway over a limited domain.  The diverging assumptions of quantum physics and relativity are an obvious example.  The differences between chaotic and non-chaotic structures is another.  Even the “laws” of mechanics are bounded in time and space.

Many regularities in nature, I suspect, may simply be unstable balances viewed from the perspective of a short-lived creature:  us.  I won’t argue the case — I’m not sure an argument can be made either way.  To explore the consequences, let’s grant that the world is irrational in the sense just explained. Does it matter?

From the days of our cavemen ancestors, cosmology has powerfully influenced culture, including ideals of behavior.  Because we are symbolic animals, we think of the world not as a place but as a story, in which every one of us wants to play an important part.  Since the seventeenth century, the most persuasive story has been that the universe is ruled by laws that brook no exception.  The very word “universe” describes an orderly space, bound to a single set of rules.

Science lent this story its tremendous prestige.  Scientists demolished superstition to peer into the machinery that moved the world.  Their work was mysterious but sacred:  “God said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.”  It became commonplace to expect a science of man to follow the Newtonian science of nature.  A handful of formulas would unlock the secret to ideal relations between people.  Marx and Bentham, followed by millions of successors, made determined attempts to place society on a scientific foundation.

Nothing in logic compels the imitation of the cosmos.  The proposition “The world is ruled by rational principles, so I must lead a rational life” is itself irrational.  Plainly, however, it evokes strong sympathy from the depths of human nature — from that part of us which desires to play a leading role in the cosmic drama.  We stand in the latter days of a centuries-long campaign to eliminate every aspect of human life which, to the rationalist mind, smacks of superstition, inconsistency, or contradiction.

The imposition of “science” on human relations has everywhere diminished the circle of personal choice.  Policies promoted on this principle shout “You must” and “You can’t” at the citizen, and along with war-making — a kindred activity — have been responsible for the monstrous growth of government, in power and wealth, over the last century.  Among totalitarians, the desire to rationalize humanity has led directly to holocausts and killing fields.

In liberal democracies, the intent remains benign:  to solve social or environmental problems, say.  But citizens become children to be protected, and are still told, kindly but firmly, “You can’t” and “You must.”  Thus a presidential candidate asserts that, in the face of international outrage, “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat all we want and keep our homes at 72 degrees at all times.”  More comically, the regulatory “dustbin Nazis” of the European Union urge the “disciplining of citizens” by “intensive observation of illegal waste disposal through patrol and special task forces.”

Because a rational world is by definition a predetermined world, the behavior of individuals — our comings and goings, our tastes and consumption, even our votes — is predetermined too.  Human action, on this view, springs from purely material gears, and it’s these “underlying causes” that rationalist policies attempt to leverage and manipulate.  Thus the response to crime isn’t punishment but the elimination of poverty or tinkering with social conditions.

What if the story changes?  An irrational world is undetermined and thus uncertain.  The assurance of a single correct explanation to every puzzle is gone.  The problem now isn’t a dearth of explanations but an overabundance of them:  in what William James called a “pluralist” world, there are many paths to salvation, many ways to the truth.  Instead of “You can’t” or “You must,” the answer often will be “It depends.”

An immediate consequence, then, is the need for intellectual and moral modesty.  To call the world irrational is to acknowledge our ignorance of it.  That is not a place from which to make demands on the behavior of others:  it lies near the source of scientific wonder and curiosity, but very far from the formulaic certainty that makes the rationalist, at times, sound like a religious warrior.

The question arises whether one ought to “embrace” irrationality, in the style of R.D. Laing.  But what does that mean?  No one who has ever witnessed a hallucinating schizophrenic will ever wish himself insane.  It isn’t romantic:  it’s horrible suffering.  Nor can I imagine anyone making an ideal of wandering from mood to mood, without plan or purpose.  The inconvenient practicalities of obtaining food, shelter, and companionship might get in the way.

The story that emerges is anchored to uncertainty, not deragement.  This new story is in fact very old, and would be understood by an ancient Greek, or by St. Augustine.  The world is irrational but not insane.  It stands to reason that we should wish to make it less irrational, more predictable, more amenable to happiness, virtue, and justice.  The human race must sweat for its daily bread, and struggle to bring an imperfect order out of chaos.  Material needs and symbolic cravings must be wrestled with, and balanced.  The question for a moralist is how best to do so.

But even to ask that question is to strike a false pose.  It assumes one of two propositions, both equally wrong.  The first is the rationalist fallacy:  that there’s a single correct explanation somehow dictated by the cosmos and accessible to the science of man.  The second is the postmodernist error:  that the lack of a cosmic answer means any answer will do, depending only on personal preference.  Reality is far less malleable.

Every person is born into a way of life.  Every way of life is a story of the world, evolved through history.  It makes available to the individual a set of beliefs linked to morals, manners, customs, rituals, styles, modes of thinking and expression, which simplify immensely his navigation of the natural and human environments.

One can forsake one way of life for another — but, except for the very young, one will remain an immigrant and speak with an accent, literally but also socially.  It’s not a painless choice, here or there.  Almost certainly, there are biological reasons for this:  after adolescence, our ability to learn declines severely.

To talk about a personal way of life is preposterous, a contradiction in terms.  To look for a way of life in a book, no matter how profound or philosophical, is just as absurd.  The most ruthless imposition of book philosophy on a living culture took place in the twentieth century, with the spread, at the barrel of a gun, of Marxist-Leninist regimes.

The formulas failed to work their magic — no surprise there.  More to our purpose, the old ways never died:  Russian communists remained Russian, Chinese communists Chinese.  The strange resurrection of St. Petersburg, for 70 years Leningrad, should serve to illustrate the persistence of memory.

The question we posed ourselves now appears simpler and less open-ended.  I can only live the good life within the customs and traditions I have inherited.  That is my story, which makes the world into a stage and my life decisions into moments of absolute drama.

The search for a balance in the satisfaction of material and symbolic needs is the continuous performance on that stage, in which the players are the living, and the critical audience the dead and the not yet born.  The end of the play is uncertain:  but so is everything else, in an irrational world.


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