“Excuse me luv,” the woman said to me as I walked down the street on my way to the train station. As I turned around to see who was speaking, she picked my scarf up from the ground, which I had evidently just dropped, and handed it to me with a smile.
I was visiting Reading, England, and was always pleasantly surprised, amused, and a little perplexed by the familiar “luv” manner of speech in this rainy island where I was born.
The scarf had been given to me about a week earlier, by a very nice woman named Julie who was looking after my grandfather for a few days. The gift was unexpected, as I had never met Julie before then.
The kindness of strangers seems irrational to some people and wouldn’t generally be considered economically rational behavior to an economist focused on pure cost/benefit analysis. Thankfully, humans aren’t entirely rational creatures, despite the assumptions of economists. We follow our hearts as much or probably more than we do our heads.
This latest essay in my series on absent-minded science continues the exploration of reason and logic, begun in my last installment. Part X will conclude the series with a light-hearted examination of why certain explanations are more compelling than others.
A broader insight into such kindnesses may be arrived at when we consider what it really means to be “rational.” Like a lot of concepts, we think at first blush we know what this word means. But there’s really no clear and defensible definition of rational behavior or “rationality” more generally. What time frame are we referring to? How broad are our considerations in making “rational” decisions? These details are key to any conclusion regarding “rational behavior” in any situation; and these details depend on the choices of the person acting in each situation. (As discussed in my last essay, truth is perspectival in all situations, other than definitions that are independent of any particular space-time.)
Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, has much to say about the heart. This amazing little book is a parable about how to live a good life by finding and achieving one’s “personal legend.” Alchemy is unsurprisingly a consistent theme in the book, meant as a metaphor for personal transformation. The book is still on bestseller lists despite its release in the early 1990s.
The book’s main character, a young sheepherder from Andalusia, Spain, travels with the Alchemist through the desert of North Africa looking for his personal legend. He asks the Alchemist: “Why do we have to listen to our hearts?”
‘“Because wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.”
‘“But my heart is agitated,” the boy said. “It has its dreams, it gets emotional, and it’s become passionate over a woman of the desert. It asks things of me, and it keeps me from sleeping many nights, when I’m thinking about her.”
‘“Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say.”’
The boy had a long conversation with his heart there in the desert. He came to understand his heart. “He asked it, please, never to stop speaking to him. He asked that, when he wandered far from his dreams, his heart press him and sound the alarm. The boy swore that, every time he heard the alarm, he would heed its message.”
The secret that alchemists have pursued over the centuries, according to Coelho, is known as the “Master Work.” The Master Work is written on an emerald and describes how to create the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. But the Master Work, according to the Alchemist, “can’t be understood by reason alone. It is a direct passage to the Soul of the World.”
This metaphor stands for life in general. Can we grasp life, can we understand our own lives and find meaning, with reason alone? It seems not. Reason is a very powerful tool and it is certainly a good guide to most aspects of life. But reason has limitations. Reason depends on representations, on models of reality. To try and grasp life with reason alone is like trying to describe the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen with words alone. It can’t do it justice.
The problems go far deeper, however.
A prominent Second Century CE Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, concluded that there is no ultimate truth: All doctrines are ultimately empty. Jan Westerhoff writes in his introduction to Nagarjuna’s work (Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction): “According to [Nagarjuna’s] view of truth, there can be no such thing as ultimate truth, a theory describing how things really are, independent of our interests and conceptual resources employed in describing it.”
But if there is no ultimate truth, even this doctrine cannot be true, so there is ultimate truth. We end up in paradox, a problem inherent in all logical or conceptual systems, as discussed in more depth in my last essay.
This is a key insight of the Zen Buddhist tradition (which came much later than Nagarjuna’s version of Buddhism, but still relies in part on Nagarjuna’s thinking): Language and concepts ultimately fail in leading us to true understanding. They are, at best, pointers to reality. Hence the use of paradoxical koans as teaching aids, the most famous of which is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These mind-twisters have no correct answer – they are intended to show that logic itself is illogical.
Reality is apparently deeper than logic.
Nancy Cartwright, a respected philosopher of science, makes a great case in her 1999 book, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science, that science does indeed exist within fairly limiting boundaries. Even our best theories of physics, biology, economics, etc. consist of a “dappled” patchwork of ideas and mathematics. Despite the fact that we have accomplished truly great things over the last few hundred years—modern medicine, powerful computers that fit in our palm, marvels in entertainment, etc.—we are just scratching the surface of what the universe has to offer.
Science, while limited, has obviously been tremendously important in helping us to understand the world and create useful technologies. This trend shall certainly continue, probably in perpetuity.
We know with certainty, however, that we will never know the fullness of nature because we never know the full extent of what we don’t know. We are like a hiker seeking the top of a mountain who thinks she sees the top not far away only to find as she crests the hill she is on that she sees yet another hill above her, and so on. We will never know where the top is because we don’t know the full extent of what we don’t know.
To extend the physical metaphor further: This mountain springs from an ocean of unreason, with other islands of reason rising from the ocean’s surface in the dappled manner suggested by Cartwright and other thinkers. The best we can hope for is to navigate this vast ocean of unreason and scale the islands of reason we come across with equanimity and grace.
The kindness of strangers often demands this, as does a more complete experience of the universe.