When rationality and critical judgment block us from what we need to learn

I got my first retweet and first hint of an actual public conversation with someone working in the area I’m writing about from James Croft in response to my half-baked musing on the first couple chapters of Good Without God (slightly elaborated here).

What I mean here is nothing terribly original. We use our rational minds not just to reason but also to rationalize. And, more than that, our rational minds have a sneaky habit of skirting issues that make us uncomfortable.

Rationality is good for figuring stuff out, especially when the questions are clear. But getting to the deeper, personal stuff that is the material of any given person’s inner life — that requires venturing onto murkier ground than rationality on its own can navigate. Humility and a willingness to accept guidance from others, in these matters, can work where rationality fails.

So, in practical terms, I don’t imagine we have a big disagreement — except I place a great value on attitudes that I label “humility” and “surrender”, and, I don’t know about you, but Greg Epstein seems to denigrate or at least not recognize this value in passages like this:

Greg Epstein, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (2009 William Morrow).
Humility Along with belief in God, two central values of human history have been humility and submission. Life was so unrelentingly difficult for so much of humanity for so long that it didn’t make any sense to strive to improve your conditions. It was like beating your head against a brick wall—pointless. Submission was almost the only way for a sane person to respond to a situation in which there was no way for common people to figure out why it would rain for weeks and destroy their crops, then go dry for months and starve them some more…
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I have no nostalgia for my ancestors’ unrelenting oppression and need to express servility towards their social or religious superiors. Humility and an attitude of surrender can co-exist with a complete rejection of subjugation to any power or imposed belief. But there are moments when I turn to a person or a piece of scripture or other wisdom, or to my imagined deity, and say, “I am powerless here. My best thinking has gotten me nowhere. I need help. No one can take responsibility for my life or my decisions or my beliefs but me, but, for this moment, let me be a child in someone else’s kindly embrace. Tell me what to do, because what I’ve been trying is not working.”

At those moments, of course, we still hold on to our rationality, our critical judgment. But our judgment tells us to put our own judgment aside, and try on the advice of someone else we trust, even when it seems crazy. And sometimes it is crazy. But a person who places too high a value on rationality and self-reliance can end up missing the most promising moments of self-transformation. Rationally enlisting the help of someone with greater expertise doesn’t involve the kind of vulnerability we need in order to become different and better people.

— Further thought: Maybe that’s all too emotional and vulnerable and icky for you.  I just stumbled on this Jerome Bruner quote while reading Michael White and David Epston’s Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality….A good story and a well-formed arguments are different natural kinds.  Both can be used as means for convincing another.  Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.  The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical truth.  The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.

So — if we are looking for verifiable explanations of objective phenomena, rationality and techniques like the scientific method are unbeatable.  But religions and spiritual practice, as I seem them, are about moral and ethical and emotional development of individuals and groups.  This development proceeds much more through narrative and story than by argument.  So, when I say that rationality and critical judgment can block us from what we need to learn, it is because that mode of thinking can interfere with narrative modes.  Stories are not subject to the principle of non-contradiction.  Stories with completely opposite points or interpretations can be simultaneously true.  Furthermore, stories used in a context of transformation have power not (only) by convincing the intellect, but through a sense of recognition that strikes an emotional chord.

Writing posted in Blog.

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