Rationalism: The (un)faithful servant?

“The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~Albert Einstein

I’m sensing a conflict. While the conflict is in part an inner-struggle, I believe that it’s also ongoing in Western science & society (though it’s not always acknowledged to be as such). What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about the relationship between the rational and the intuitive intelligences. I am intentionally referring to the intuitive as a type of “intelligence” along with the rational.

To some this seems an obvious thing to do, but to others – the two words are themselves at odds. In fact, the belief of the latter group – that intuition is devoid of intelligence (and by extension legitimacy) – is at the root of the inner / personal struggle.

After all, I’m a scientist. In order to be legitimate, I can’t be hokey-pokey (and isn’t that what intuition is?). Skepticism is an important part of my investigative toolkit – and while I’m okay with hypothesizing, and exploring alternative possibilities, all the imaginative and intuitive theories of the world are, in the end, nothing more than theory if they are unsupported by data. Show me your evidence! Or in the words of physicist Richard Feynman:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Period. I defend and believe in this sentiment with every fiber of my being. I also believe that there is absolutely no good reason to disparage the role of intuition and creativity in the sciences. In fact, I believe that the spirit of scientific investigation itself is fueled by such things as: excitement (for the question), love (of discovery), joy and pleasure (of finding things out), fun (of exploring the unknown). Notice a common thread? They are all emotions! And emotions are, by definition, excluded from the realm of the “rational”

“Observation provides the empirical data used to form our conclusions, and also arouses certain emotions for which there are no substitutes – enthusiasm, surprise, and pleasure, which are compelling forces behind constructive imagination. Emotion kindles the spark that ignites cerebral machinery, whose glow is required for the shaping of intuition and reasonable hypotheses” ~Santiago Ramon y Cajal

So it is clear that one cannot really ignore that emotions, intuition, and the subjectivity of our beings, play in this game of discovery we call science. Did I just place subjectivity and science in the same sentence? Aaaaaah! I think I just cringed while typing it. Even if we acknowledge that we are inevitably biased as individuals, don’t we believe in an ultimate objective, testable truth out there? And don’t we believe in the power of the scientific method? of peer-review? Yes (mostly), yes…and yes (also most of the time for that last one but that’s another post for another day).

I’d like to draw your attention to an interview, aired recently by one of my all-time favorite science correspondents, Natasha Mitchell, over at All in the Mind. The interview this week was with Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and author of the book “The Master and its Emissary” Interestingly, the subtitle of the book is: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In it, he discusses how (at least in Western society) we are growing more and more heavily dependent on a rationalized, de-contextualized, and consequently de-humanized point of view.

The main title of the book, “The Master and his Emissary” is intended as a metaphor (inspired by a Nietzsche story). The “Master” is used to represent the right-brained, contextualized, intuitive, big-picture and experiential point of view while the “Emissary” is representative of the left-brained, rational and logical point of view. Of course, McGilchrist himself is quick to point out that both sides of the brain perform varied and important functions and that these are simplifications of their roles. The point, however, is even larger than our society’s potentially increasing brain lateralization. In his own words:

“But I think because it [left-brain/rationalism] is so eloquent on its own behalf, it’s neglected to allow us to perceive that there are other very important things that need to be combined with it and that’s really the message.”

What a shame! Yet, I think it’s true. There are several examples around us both within science itself, and in mainstream society where we see a higher value and respect placed on “logical and rational” and a belittling of the “intuitive” – often writing it off as “new-agey”. Of course we need to be critical of claims, of course logic needs to be applied – but as McGilchrist stated in his interview… there is little to no danger that (at least as scientists) we will give up on rationalism. Perhaps our concern then, to redress the balance, ought to be that we have lost sight of the other type of intelligence.

Thoughts? Feelings? Do share!

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4 Responses to Rationalism: The (un)faithful servant?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Rationalism: The (un)faithful servant? | Genetic Expressions -- Topsy.com

  2. Karolin says:

    so first off- loving the blog! As you cringed with the use of the word subjectivity, I too did with the invocation of Nietzsche. I tried to figure out the reference and it sounds like the latter part of the essay called “On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense” although I could be mistaken. But there he discusses the man of intuition and the man of reason. So while Nietzsche’s accounts seem to favor the former, it seems to me at least, that he is generally telling us that we need to strike a balance. Or in other words, that we need not forget the part of us that is intuitive as we build upon scientific theory. I think this is what you were getting at in the conclusion of your post. Anyways, thought it was rad enough to comment on!

  3. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. The links to the McGilchrist work are great. I’m going to read that interview carefully when I have more time.

    I have a Ph.D. in social science, very different from natural science, but I got a lot of indoctrination about scientific method and so on, so I completely understand the perspective you reference.

    I also in recent years got very into yoga. Practicing yoga convinced me beyond a doubt that we have other parts of our brain that we can learn to use other than this rationalistic part you discuss – and that it’s incredibly useful, healthy, and enlightening to do so.

    You are probably aware of the studies going on in terms of the intersection of neuroscience and Buddhist meditation practice – that’s a good place to bridge the gap you’re describing, as you have brilliant scientists and accomplished meditation practitioners working on it together.

  4. Anahita says:

    Hi Carol! Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comment and thanks for taking the time to do so! I, too, am an avid yoga practitioner. In fact, I was kind of MIA for a bit last week as I was at the Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco; it was quite a treat. And yes, thanks for mentioning the meditation/neuroscience research. I am actually currently rotating in a lab that is focused on doing exactly that kind of research. Perhaps it’s too soon to say, but I dare say I’ve found my home for the next 5 years.

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