What is rationality?
There are two types of rationality:
- Epistemic rationality is the willingness to update one’s beliefs based on logic, critical thinking, and empirical evidence.
- Instrumental rationality is the ability to make good decisions and achieve goals effectively.
For both types, we can
- embrace rationality by living in accordance with reason (= rational),
- oppose rationality by thinking and acting contrary to reason (= irrational/emotional), or
- transcend rationality by venturing beyond reason (= spiritual).
1. Embracing rationality (being rational)
We embrace epistemic rationality when we have a desire for truth. We want to have knowledge (accurate beliefs about the world), so we explore nature, study the universe, apply scientific methods, and seek to overcome our cognitive biases.
We embrace instrumental rationality when we do what we truly want. We want to achieve meaningful goals and succeed in life, so we make intelligent plans and exert willpower to follow through with them.1
2. Opposing rationality (being irrational)
We oppose epistemic rationality when we hold on to beliefs that contradict logic or empirical evidence. Epistemically irrational people commit logical fallacies, believe in the literal truth of “divine” revelational texts, believe in supernatural forces and spiritual entities that exist in or can interact with our world, overstate the epistemic value of subjective feelings, or believe in the “truth” of emotional convictions.
We oppose instrumental rationality when we make stupid decisions, ground plans in faulty reasoning, or give in to akrasia (weakness of will). Instrumentally irrational people act impulsively, let emotions and biases dictate their plans, lack the discipline to stay on a reasonable path, and place values and principles over outcomes.
By the way, opposing instrumental rationality often causes rationalization—the misleading use of epistemic rationality when instrumental rationality fails. We rationalize whenever we come up with smart excuses for stupid decisions or self-control failures in order to hide our true motivation, weak character, or ego-threatening emotions such as fear, shame, or insecurity.2
3. Transcending rationality (being spiritual)
We transcend epistemic rationality when we have convictions that do not fit into the language-game of science. For example, the pantheistic belief that God is Nature is beyond reason because it opens the language-game of mysticism. Another example is the spiritual belief that Love is the fabric of Life. From a rational perspective, such statements are not false, but meaningless. The reason is that capitalized spiritual terms like God, Nature, Love, and Life denote esoteric experiences rather than exoteric forces or biological processes.3
We transcend instrumental rationality when we are on a way without a goal, in a state of mindfulness, perfectly present to the moment. For example, meditating under a tree in the forest is beyond reason because it is an aimless immersion in the totality of Being. Other examples include creating art or music l’art pour l’art and having enlightened sex out of pure love and animalistic instinct.4
Is spirituality irrational?
Mystical beliefs are irrational only if they are used in a scientific language-game so that they interfere with epistemic rationality. A classic example is the idea of “quantum healing,” which contradicts reason rather than transcending it.
Spiritual practice is irrational only if it violates a broader rational frame so that it interferes with instrumental rationality. Two examples are (1) the mindful, unprotected banging of a sexy stranger when one would actually want to shop for a birthday present for one’s wife and (2) the incessant mindful focus on one’s breath and body when one should be productive at work, both of which contradict reason rather than transcending it. A third example would be the practice of magick rituals as an escape and distraction from reality rather than as a form of meditation, self-hypnosis, or psychological self-manipulation to better achieve goals.
In conclusion, so long as language-games are not mixed up and a general rational frame is maintained, venturing beyond rationality into spirituality is not irrational.
- My View on God
- Why Rationality Is Important
- On Faith and Risk-Taking (Shallow Vs. Deep True Will)
- When Reason Needs Emotion: The Problem of Rational Foresight
- List of cognitive biases: Wikipedia, Design Hacks
- List of logical fallacies: Wikipedia, Fallacy Files
- In some special cases, it might be more rational to strategically loosen or temporarily forgo rigorous self-control. I discuss this in my book Willpower Condensed, which is essentially a book about embracing instrumental rationality, even though the word doesn’t feature in it.
- A related form of rationalization is the choice-supportive bias that makes us fabricate logical-sounding reasons to support our choice of whatever we have done, regardless of why we really have done it.
- The statements might, however, be scientifically relevant as second-person indices of subjective experience (e.g., in neurophenomenology).
- Note that orgasm and reproduction are usually not conscious goals and that the goals of pleasure and ego gratification would undermine the spiritual quality of sex and thus block the transcendence of rationality.