The rationality of the irrational

Though it is supposed that rationality and logic comprise a monolithic structure apart from feelings and emotions, the truth is that our rationality sits upon emotional structure. This is most evident in attachment to scientific rationalism, and its reliance on empirical “fact-based” data. I put “fact-based” in quotes precisely because facts are regularly overturned and scuttled off to the dustbin of history.

Facts are often theories upon which we place great emotional power. “Facts” supporting the idea that the sun revolves around the earth, what we would call the earth-centric universe, seemed incontrovertible to the scientific establishment of its age. The Copernican revolution placing the sun at the center of the solar system was controversial not due to any changed physical effect on the lives of human beings but to the emotional attachment of people to the idea of an earth-centric reality.

Similarly, the introduction of quantum theory ran headlong into a scientific establishment which, having forgone the “facts” of Newtonian physics in favor of Einstein’s theory of relativity, resisted yet again accepting newer “facts.” Ironically, Einstein himself had difficulty accepting the validity of quantum physics. In this way we see how new “facts” in the present change the nature of the past.

We observe the connection between “fact” and emotion all the time. The wisdom of the “free market” for example, has gained widespread acceptance as “fact” and public policy discussion proceeds as if  “free market facts” are immutable. Emotional attachment to “free market” wisdom then demands glossing over the actual inconsistencies in our economy that erode the factual basis of the “free market.” Tax policy and incentives slanted in favor of large corporations and the wealthy, the suppression of worker-organized unions, and usurious interest rates: all these give lie to the idea that we operate under “free markets.” An emotional attachment to the idea of “free markets” is the only fact.

How people feel matters. It is from the basis of feelings that new ideas arise, borne of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Layers of rational argument are then built over time as support for the underlying emotional constructs, and become the dogma of new “fact.” The world was flat, right?

Today, feelings are customarily relegated to the realm of the unscientific and unsupportable — mere entertainment — as if a manifestation of imagination unworthy of consideration in public policy. Instead, we look for guidance to “facts,” those comforting assumptions that at the moment are, for example, propelling the globe into the calamity of global warming. We are awash in facts; facts about the economy, the climate, technology and so forth, but we are more influenced by feelings.

Unacknowledged, feelings emerge nonetheless, and not always in healthy ways. The suppression of feelings in public policy is analogous to the suppression of feelings in the individual; it erodes happiness. Happiness in this case means contentment and equilibrium, not joy. Joy might be regularly available to some, but for most it comes and goes. Contentment, on the other hand, often simply comes with being heard and genuinely acknowledged.

Our bias towards the “facts” of scientific rationalism has created a situation of mental and societal torment. The “facts” are changing faster than ever but feelings move at their own pace, and unless we reintegrate these two realities — as individuals and as a society — our troubles will only increase.

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