Humanistic Judaism, Winter/Spring 1974, pages 4-7
A former humanist confided to me that he had repented. Most of his life he had believed that the best way to handle human problems was through the use of rational thinking. He had frowned on all forms of emotionalism and preferred to confront the realities of the world with cold objectivity. Mind over heart had been his credo and he pursued it relentlessly. The result of such consistency, he confessed, was a dramatic absence of any sense of personal fulfillment. Since the most important things in life cannot be trapped by logic, the purely rational approach to the solution of problems had proved a fiasco. He regretted that he had not seen the light sooner.
The accusation of this new “penitent” has become a familiar assault. A recent letter from a troubled rabbi denounces the pretensions of scientific humanists. The age of science, he asserts, has sponsored the two most devastating wars in human history as well as Auschwitz. If rational thinking can produce results no better than these horrors, it has abdicated the right to be the arbiter of human decision. Perhaps the simple and intuitive commitment is morally superior to the sophisticated emptiness of logical solutions. The world may need less faith in reason and more faith in love.
A local Christian cleric pleaded that a philosophy of life that starts from a dispassionate view of people and nature can only produce human automatons, insensitive to emotional reality. Feeling, not logic, gives meaning to existence. The coldness of rational thinkers chills the operations of human society, and substitutes the superficial for the profound. Reason places a premium on the trivial events that can easily be described over those profound realities which can only be felt, but never described.
A university psychiatrist, who provided an able challenge at a recent debate, contended that most human reasoning is a defensive game. Rationality does not determine our decisions; it simply finds respectable excuses for the devious tyranny of certain feelings and desires we are afraid to re v e a l. Under the cool exterior of impeccable human logic lurk the irrational thoughts and visions of our childhood fears and fantasies. Most rationality is only rationalization. The social role of reason has rarely been the pursuit of truth. While reason pretends to reveal reality, it usually only succeeds in hiding it.
A writer of science textbooks, who lives in the Ann Arbor area, mocked the value of reason for answering ultimate human questions. He pointed out that an empirical psychology can reveal the life goals that people do have; it cannot disclose the goals they should have. Rationality only measures efficiency. If one chooses to exterminate Jews, there is a reasonable way to go about doing it. And if one chooses to suffer, there is a rational program for effective masochism. Reason is morally neutral.
Even two businessmen who are well known in the Detroit commercial world for their unfailing success, pooh-poohed the relevance of reason. Most decisions in life, they disclosed, preclude rational investigation. There isn’t enough time in any given day to adequately research the basic facts which are relevant to the most trivial of decisions. Most individuals who claim to be reasonable, actually determine their actions by personal hunches, sudden intuitions, and a quick perusal of limited evidence. Life is too short for rationality. The pressure of decisions makes a mockery out of any extended claim to patient objectivity.
While the roster of objectors and objections to rationality continues indefinitely (for there is nothing more fashionable in the current religious and literary circles than to denounce the adequacy of reason) it may be wise to pause and evaluate the familiar criticism we have just recalled.
The “Auschwitz argument”, in particular, is one of the oldest and most durable in the antirationalist arsenal. Among Jews it carries an emotional charge which no other assault can equal. Rabbis galore always thrust the challenge of the concentration camps into the face of the humanists with a fanfare denunciation of the sins of science. ” If a people as scientific as the Germans have succumbed to such barbarism, then how can one praise the supreme value of empirical thinking? ” The implication of the complaint is that in the twentieth century, whether we speak of Germany or America, we are living in the age of science.
But no view of the twentieth century is farther from reality. While it is true that empirical thinking dominates our research in the areas of physics and chemistry, it is false to assert that this procedure characterizes the ordinary approach to the study of human motivation and social behavior. The most sophisticated aeronautical engineer who can describe in detail the intricate operations of the jet plane motor, has only the most primitive conception of the nature of the human brain and nervous system. The most talented physicist whose discoveries have revolutionized our notions of interstellar space, has only the vaguest conception of the social causes of war, economic depression, and bigotry. The reasons for these deficiencies do not lie in their unwillingness to receive available information. The difficulty arises from the fact that very little scientific information is really available.
One may plead that human society does not easily lend itself to the controlled experiments which empiricism demands. But this observation only begs the question. It still remains a fact, that in the areas most intimately concerned with the values and behavior of men, scientific information has never replaced the inherited prejudices, intuitions, and tribal myths which control contemporary political behavior. In the crucial disciplines which purport to explain human nature, no age of science can even be detected. To combine a barely liberated empirical physics with a primitive sociology and to label this bizarre mixture as the natural expression of a scientific world is to win arguments by inventing straw men.
Perhaps our problem does not even start with the difficulty of investigating human behavior. Perhaps, it begins with the terrified reluctance that most people express when someone sets out to probe and analyze their inmost thoughts and feelings. No one is emotionally threatened when the researcher intends to study the electrical operation of a computer. But when the investigator seeks to correlate the e le critical system of the human brain with the emergence of certain ideas and feelings, he is accused of demeaning man. It is wiser to leave that realm of darkness in darkness, where ignorance can poetically be disguised by the clever brandying about of such informative terms as “soul”, “personhood”, and ” I-Thou”.
Auschwitz is no more an expression of the age of science than Albert Einstein is an expression of Jewish piety. Aggressive tribal nationalism is not the result of an insightful and sober analysis of the human psyche through empirical responsibility, it most likely is a self-righteous and self-pity in attempt to keep the reality of one’s weakness and fears from conscious confrontation. Hitlerite hysteria, not a scientific psychology, produced it.
If the nature of science has been misconstrued, so has the role of feeling. The contention that the most important things in life are both indescribable and detected only through emotion leads only to confusion. Man’s strongest feelings are not aroused by vague and nebulous notions which defy conception. Hostility, anger, and love are not responses to emptiness. If the object of their intensity cannot be described, it is hardly because it is indescribable. It is more likely because its concept is too frightening, too threatening, or socially too embarrassing to verbalize. A perfect parallel presents itself in ancient Jewish practice. Graven images of Yahweh were not prohibited because Yahweh had no face. They were forbidden because the face of Yahweh was so terrifyingly radiant that to gaze on it was to die.
The human unconscious is filled with all kinds of objects like the imagined faces of Yahweh. They are scarily specific or benevolently detailed, and like father and mother awaken the strongest emotions. On the conscious level we feel the pleasure or pain of the feeling but have conveniently forgotten the object. In fact, we prefer only dim recollections. The less specific and the less describable we pretend the source of our feelings to be, the less likely will we have to truly confront it. And then we crown our deception by pleading mystery.
There are presently many events in the universe which defy easy description. Their status is not due to some inherent inconceivability; it is rather due to the primitive character of our language, which is not sufficiently precise. The task of the sensible philosopher is not to plead an incurable verbal helplessness (a rationalization for fear), but to improve and refine our language by the creation of new words. To substitute worship for analysis is to inhibit self-insight.
The university psychiatrist is correct in his assertion that most “rationality” is only rationalization. While the fantasy ideas and opinions that populate our subconscious actually control our emotional responses and determine our personal behavior, we exhaust ourselves with naive self-deception, in justifying their consequences. Intellectual conversation so often turns sour and meaningless, simply because it is the most guilty of this pretension.
But to assert that human behavior is chiefly under the control of irrational ideas, and that most so-called rational conversation is pure sham, in no way invalidates the value of reason. It only implies that it is harder to be reasonable than we imagined. Logic without self-insight is a child’s game that condemns us to repeat the suffering of the past – and rational thinking means, first of all, self-insight. Unless we are aware of the true nature of our subconscious visions, we cannot change them. The goal of life is not to wallow in self-pity and meekly accept the tyranny of irrational ideas. It is to risk their discovery, and, if possible, transform them.
The rational goal of life is happiness, the science writer from Ann Arbor notwithstanding. While it is possible to plan a world in which pain will be maximized and pleasure will be minimized, the reverse seems more reasonable, given the ordinary meaning of the word. To pursue pain and self-destruction with logical efficiency may be rational in the narrow sense of effectiveness. It is irrational in the broader sense of conforming to universal desires. Although the rational categories of truth and falsity apply only to ideas and cannot be attached to desires, the pursuit of suffering for the sake of suffering is unreasonable by association. It defies what rational thinking has historically been used to achieve.
However, the need to be reasonable is an aspiration, not a reality. It is not only challenged by fantasies deep-rooted in the human psyche: it is also frustrated by the urgent demands of time. If daily decisions must be made quickly, as our businessmen confirm, life is too short for rationality. Intuitive hunches and risky plunges are far more characteristic of the chaos of normal living.
Up to a point. For many intuitions are often more than they seem. They may be the inarticulate common-sensical observations of years of practical experience (e.g., quick-thinking successful entrepreneurs with no formal education) or they may be sensible evaluations, the evidence for which has long since been forgotten. They do not defy rational thinking; they are simply primitive expressions of it.
Sometimes, doing lengthy, detailed and painstaking research is a sign of being irrational. If the purpose of study is to control action, study which prevents action is absurd. When our happiness at a given moment depends upon our willingness to make quick and risky decisions, delay, for the sake of analysis, is unreasonable. Rationality does not imply an exhaustive survey of all facts relevant to a particular problem. (If we had to do that, we would never take any action.) It rather implies the desire to confront as much of the available evidence in the time limits of a given situation. Only the gods claimed to be omniscient; human beings have to settle for intelligence.
The sensitive rational humanist sticks to reason, not because he is a ga-ga gung-ho devotee of logical order. He just isn’t aware of any alternative procedure that is better suited to reduce human suffering and enhance human pleasure. He does not presume, in some pollyannish fashion that it is easy to be reasonable. He understands the perils of self-deception and arid justifying, while affirming the riskiness of all decisions. Although he knows that he does not yet live in an age of science, he hopes that man’s self-understanding will grow. If he rejects the notion that he must choose between being either “cold” or “warm”, he does so with the knowledge that passion and objectivity are not mutually exclusive. They are indispensable partners in the work of human happiness.