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Must We Be Irrational and Unreasonable To Live Balanced Lives?

Why would anyone be anti-rationality, anti-critical thinking, or anti-reason?  The answer has to do with people's misunderstandings of what these terms mean, and more to the point, what they do not mean.  This problem could best be understood by thinking of the "Spock" character in Star Trek.  He is highly logical, but lacks emotion, and frankly, he's kind of a dick.  I have heard too many people justify superstitious, irrational, and faith-based beliefs as a way to "balance" their humanity by experiencing life on a more emotional or "spiritual" level.  These people are half right, and half wrong.  They are right in that a life devoid of emotion, imagination, and passion is not much of a life at all. They are wrong in believing that these experiences require the suspension of rationality, the need to embrace the supernatural, or the need to believe something disproportionate to the evidence.

Kicking Old Ladies

I can best explain why this "balance" hypothesis is a bad one through an analogy.  It is safe to say that most people would agree that morality is a good thing, that is doing what is right and good over what is wrong and bad.  We would not claim that we should "balance" our morality with immorality.  In order to embrace our humanity, we don't need to kick an old lady every week and rob a bank once a year.  We strive to live moral lives and any deviation from that path is considered a wrong turn.  But what about brushing our teeth, going for a walk, listening to music, or the countless other actions that are not considered "moral?"  To claim that because an action is not moral, then it must be immoral, is not only wrong, but fallacious reasoning (i.e., a false dichotomy).  Actions can also be amoral—which means there is no moral value associated with the action.  When we scratch our head, sneeze, or do push-ups, we are not acting immorally, we are simply engaging in amoral actions.  We are not required to behave immorally when our behavior does not require morality.

Arationality: Neither Rational Nor Irrational

Awe, elation, and love—some of the most meaningful human experiences—are not results of reason, rationality, or critical thinking.  However, this does not mean they are the result of being unreasonable, irrational, or using poor thinking.  These are what philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse refers to as arational processes (Hursthouse, 1991), or experiences that are not subject to rational scrutiny.  This confusion leads to problems that arise when an arational experience is confused with an irrational belief based on that experience.

Love and "Soulmates"

Love is arguably one of the most wonderful of all human experiences. When we experience love, we feel a warm sensation all throughout our bodies—this is an arational process.  A common irrational belief associated with love is the belief that we found our one and only "soulmate" on a planet of 7 billion people (a statistical impossibility).  This is also a potentially devastating belief to future happiness in the statistically likely case the marriage fails. This irrational "soulmate" belief is not required to experience love.

A Feeling Is Not the Same as an Explanation of the Feeling

Awe is another of the great human experiences.  Looking down on the world from 10,000 feet or out into the universe on a clear and starry night can certainly lead to what many would call a "spiritual" experience—the feeling of being just a tiny part of something much greater than oneself.  However, many take this experience and create or adopt a narrative in an attempt to explain the feeling (e.g., God).  This is the forming of an unnecessary and irrational belief based on the arational experience.  Believing you know something you can't is not required to experience awe, in fact, this only robs people of more experiences—wonder and human curiosity.

Keep the Good, Lose the Bad

There is an added benefit to embracing the rational—we can limit and control the effects of negative arational processes such as anger, jealousy, grief, shame, fear, and even hatred.  For example, hatred is the result of a strong emotional response.  If we think critically by seeing the situation from the perspective of the target of our hate, we start to replace the hatred with understanding which reduces or can even eliminate the negative emotional response, while enhancing the quality of our lives through better relationships.

We do not need irrationality any more than we need immorality.  Rejecting the irrational and unreasonable in no way limits the human experience—it enhances it.  Through arational processes, we can experience the full range of human emotions and use our rationality to form the most accurate and rationally-based beliefs.  We can use our critical thinking skills to mitigate the damage done by negative emotional responses.  Being a rational and reasonable critical thinker does not mean being an emotionally bankrupt shell of a human.  We embrace the arational such as elation, affection, awe, wonder, and love for what they are—human experiences that make life worth celebrating.

Action Items

Make a list of the negative emotions that you experience most, and rationalize those emotions to the point where the negative emotion is no longer negative (see the hate example above).

Hursthouse, R. (1991). Arational actions. The Journal of Philosophy, 88(2), 57–68.

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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