The Limits of Reason

For Aristotle, our unique capacity to reason is what defines us as human beings. Therefore, our happiness, or our flourishing, consists in leading a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with reason.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that all human beings are ‘endowed with reason’, and it has long been held that reason is something that God gave us, that we share with God, and that is the divine, immortal element in us.

At the dawn of the Age of Reason, Descartes doubted everything except his ability to reason. ‘Because reason’, he wrote, ‘is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts, I would prefer to believe that it exists, in its entirety, in each of us…’

But what is reason? Reason is more than mere associative thinking, more than the mere ability to move from one idea (such as storm clouds) to another (such as imminent rain). Associative thinking can result from processes other than reason, such as instinct, learning, or intuition. Reason, in contrast, involves providing reasons—ideally good reasons—for an association. It involves using a system of representation such as thought or language to derive or arrive at an association.

Reason is often amalgamated with logic, also known as formal logic or deductive reasoning. At the very least, logic is seen as the purest form of reason. Yes, logic is basically an attempt to codify the most reliable or fail-safe forms of reasoning. But logic, or at any rate modern logic, is concerned merely with the validity of arguments, with the right relationship between premises and conclusion. It is not concerned with the actual truth or falsity of the premises or the applicability of the conclusion. Reason, in contrast, is a much broader psychological activity which also involves assessing evidence, creating and testing hypotheses, weighing competing arguments, evaluating means and ends, developing and applying heuristics (mental shortcuts), and so on. All this requires the use of judgement, which is why reason, unlike logic, cannot be delegated to a computer, and also why it so often fails to persuade. Logic is but a tool of reason, and, in fact, it can be reasonable to accept something that is or appears to be illogical.

It is often thought, not least in educational establishments, that ‘logic’ is able to provide immediate certainty and the authority or credibility that goes with it. But logic is a lot more limited than many people imagine. Logic essentially consists in a set of operations for deriving a truth from other truths. In a sense, it merely makes explicit that which was previously implicit. It brings nothing new to the table. The conclusion merely flows from the premises as their inevitable consequence, for example:

  1. All birds have feathers. (Premise 1)
  2. Woodpeckers are birds. (Premise 2)
  3. Therefore, woodpeckers have feathers. (Conclusion)

Another issue with logic is that it relies on premises that are founded, not on logic itself, but on inductive reasoning. How do we know that ‘all birds have feathers’? Well, we don’t know for sure. We merely suppose that they do because, so far, every bird that we have seen or heard about has had feathers. But the existence of birds without feathers, if only in the fossil record, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Many avian species are hatched naked, and a featherless bird called Rhea recently took the Internet by storm.

Inductive reasoning only ever yields probabilistic ‘truths’, and yet it is the basis of everything that we know or think that we know about the world we live in. Our only justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is, of course, an inductive proof, tantamount to saying that induction works because induction works! To rescue it from this Problem of Induction, Karl Popper argued that science proceeds not inductively but deductively, by making bold claims and then seeking to falsify those claims. But if Popper is right, science could never tell us what is, but only ever what is not. Even if we did arrive at some truth, we could never know for sure that we had arrived. And while our current paradigms may represent some improvement on the ones that went before, it would be either ignorant or arrogant to presume that they amounted to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Putting these inductive/deductive worries aside, reason is limited in reach, if not in theory then at least in practice. The movement of a simple pendulum is regular and easy to predict, but the movement of a double pendulum (a pendulum with another pendulum attached to its end) is, as can be seen on YouTube, extremely chaotic. Similarly, the interaction between two physical bodies such as the sun and the earth can be reduced to a simple formula, but the interaction between three physical bodies is much more complex—which is why the length of the lunar month is not a constant. But even this so-called Three-Body Problem is as nothing compared to the entanglement of human affairs. God, it is sometimes said, gave all the easy problems to the physicists.

The intricacies of human affairs often lead to a paralysis of reason, and we are left undecided, sometimes for years or even into the grave. To cut through all this complexity, we rely heavily on forces such as emotions and desires—which is why Aristotle’s Rhetoric on the art of arguing includes a detailed dissection of what used to be called the passions. Our emotions and desires define the aims or goals of our reasoning. They determine the parameters of any particular deliberation and carry to conscious attention only a small selection of all the available facts and alternatives. Brain injured people with a diminished capacity for emotion find it especially hard to make decisions, as do people with apathy, which is a symptom of severe depression and other mental disorders. Relying so heavily on the emotions comes at a cost, which is, of course, that emotions aren’t rational and can distort reasoning. Fear alone can open the gate to all manner of self-deception. On the other hand, that emotions aren’t rational need not make them irrational. Some emotions are appropriate or justified, while others are not. This is why, as well as coming to grips with science, it is so important to educate our emotions.

Another shortcoming of reason is that it sometimes leads to unreasonable conclusions, or even contradicts itself. In On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle says that, while the opinions of certain thinkers appear to follow logically in dialectical discussion, ‘to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts’. In Plato’s Lesser Hippias, Socrates manages to argue that people who commit injustice voluntarily are better than those who do it involuntarily, but then confesses that he sometimes thinks the opposite, and sometimes goes back and forth:

My present state of mind is due to our previous argument, which inclines me to believe that in general those who do wrong involuntarily are worse than those who do wrong voluntarily, and therefore I hope that you will be good to me, and not refuse to heal me; for you will do me a much greater benefit if you cure my soul of ignorance, than you would if you were to cure my body of disease.

The sophists of Classical Greece taught rhetoric to wealthy young men with ambitions of holding public office. Prominent sophists included Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Euthydemus, all of whom feature as characters in Plato’s dialogues. Protagoras charged extortionate fees for his services. He once took on a pupil, Euathlus, on the understanding that he would be paid once Euathlus had won his first court case. However, Euathlus never won a case, and eventually Protagoras sued him for non-payment. Protagoras argued that if he won the case he would be paid, and if Euathlus won the case, he still would be paid, because Euathlus would have won a case. Eualthus retorted that if he won the case he would not have to pay, and if Protagoras won the case, he still would not have to pay, because he still would not have won a case!

Whereas philosophers such as Plato use reason to arrive at the truth, sophists such as Protagoras abuse reason to move mobs and enrich themselves. But we are, after all, social animals, and reason evolved more as a means of solving practical problems and influencing people than as a ladder to abstract truths. What’s more, reason is not a solitary but a collective enterprise: premises are at least partially reliant on the achievements of others, and we ourselves make much better progress when prompted and challenged by our peers. The principal theme of Plato’s Protagoras is the teachability of virtue. At the end of the dialogue, Socrates remarks that he began by arguing that virtue cannot be taught, but ended by arguing that virtue is no other than knowledge, and therefore that it can be taught. In contrast, Protagoras began by arguing that virtue can be taught, but ended by arguing that some forms of virtue are not knowledge, and therefore that they cannot be taught! Had they not debated, both men would have stuck with their original, crude opinions and been no better off.

Why does reason say ridiculous things and contradict itself? Perhaps the biggest problem is with language. Words and sentences can be vague or ambiguous. If you remove a single grain from a heap of sand, it is still a heap of sand. But what happens if you keep on repeating the process? Is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, at what point did the heap go from being a heap to a non-heap? When the wine critic Jancis Robinson asked on Twitter what qualifies someone to call themselves a sommelier, she received a least a dozen different responses. Another big problem is with the way we are. Our senses are crude and limited. More subtly, our minds come with built-in notions that may have served our species well but do not accurately or even approximately reflect reality. Zeno’s paradoxes, for example, flush out the limits of our understanding of something as rudimentary as movement. Some of Zeno’s paradoxes side with quantum theory in suggesting that space and time are discrete, while others side with the theory of relativity in suggesting that they are continuous. As far as I know (I am not a physicist), quantum theory and the theory of relativity remain unreconciled. Other concepts, such as infinity or what lies outside the universe, are simply beyond our ability to conceive. A final sticking point is with self-referential statements, such as “This statement is false.” If the statement is false, it is true; but if it is true, it is not false.

In concluding, I want to make it very clear that I hold reason in the highest regard. It is, after all, the foundation of our peace and freedom, which are under constant threat from the forces of unreason. In highlighting its limits, I seek not to disparage or undermine it but to understand and use it better, even to exalt it.

‘The last function of reason’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this.’

Hide & Seek Out Today!

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The new edition of Hide and Seek is now available on Kindle!

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love…  —Fyodor Dostoevsky

Self-deception is common and universal, and the cause of most human tragedies. Of course, the science of self-deception can help us to live better and get more out of life. But it can also cast a murky light on human nature and the human condition, for example, on such exclusively human phenomena as anger, depression, fear, pity, pride, dream making, love making, and god making, not to forget age-old philosophical problems such as selfhood, virtue, happiness, and the good life. Nothing, in the end, could possibly be more important.

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The Psychology and Philosophy of Anger

Anger is a common and potentially destructive emotion that turns many a human life into a living hell. It’s hard to imagine a truly wise person like the Dalai Lama ever losing his temper. By a careful meditation, we can learn to control our anger and maybe even banish it entirely from our lives.

The philosopher Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. Such a person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered. It is only if he deviates more markedly from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends. He adds that the pain of anger can be accompanied by pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge. I’m not so sure. Even if anger does contain a part of pleasure, this a very thin kind of pleasure, akin to whatever ‘pleasure’ I might derive from saying “if you ruin my day, I’ll ruin yours” or “look how big I think I am”.

A person, says Aristotle, can be slighted out of one of three things: contempt, spite, and insolence. In either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feelings that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry but is more likely to do so if he is in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight or about himself in general.

On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologies or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, says Aristotle, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or obviously respects him, or is feared or admired by him.

Once provoked, anger can be quelled by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, or by being redirected onto a third person. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. Writing two thousand years before the birth of psychoanalysis, Aristotle seems to have put his finger on the ego defence of displacement, with the people’s anger for Ergophilius ‘displaced’ onto Callisthenes.

There is a clear sense in which Aristotle is correct in speaking of such a thing as right or proper anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or, failing that, it can mobilize mental and physical resources for defensive or restitutive action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire positive feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to exercise anger judiciously is likely to feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk taking that promotes successful outcomes.

On the other hand, anger, and especially unconstrained anger, can lead to poor perspective and judgement, impulsive and destructive behaviour, and loss of standing and goodwill. So, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, strategic, and adaptive ought to be distinguished from a second type of anger (let us call it ‘rage’) that is uncalled for, unprocessed, irrational, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect a threatened ego, replacing or masking one kind of pain with another.

But even right or proportionate anger is unhelpful in so far as it is anger, which is both painful and harmful, and harmful because it involves a loss of perspective and judgement. Here’s an example. Anger, and especially rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional (or personality-related) factors rather than situational factors. For instance, if I forget to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I have been busy and suddenly felt very tired (situational factors); but if Emma forgets to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is lazy or irresponsible or maybe even vindictive (dispositional factors).

More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the brain activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking and behaving. Emma is Emma because she is Emma, and, at least in the short-term, there is precious little that she can do about that. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve our anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! Anger is a vicious circle: it arises from poor perspective and makes it much poorer still.

This does not mean that anger is never justified, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose, as when we pretend to get angry at a child for the benefit of shaping his or her character. But if all that is ever required is a calculated display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence serving merely to betray… a certain lack of understanding.

The world is as it is and always has been: raging against it is hardly going to make anything better. And it is by truly and permanently understanding this that we can banish real, painful, and destructive anger from our lives. But this, of course, assumes that we can accept the world for what it is.

What Is Intelligence?

There is no agreed definition or model of intelligence. By the Collins English Dictionary, it is ‘the ability to think, reason, and understand instead of doing things automatically or by instinct’. By the Macmillan Dictionary, it is ‘the ability to understand and think about things, and to gain and use knowledge’.

In seeking to define intelligence, a good place to start might be with dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, there is disturbance of multiple higher cortical functions including memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement. I think it significant that people with dementia or severe learning difficulties cope very poorly with changes in their environment, such as moving into a care home or even into an adjacent room. Taken together, this suggests that intelligence refers to the functioning of a number of related faculties and abilities that enable us to respond to environmental pressures to avoid danger and distress. Because this is not beyond animals and even plants, they too can be said to be possessed of intelligence.

We Westerners tend to think of intelligence primarily in terms of analytical skills. But in a close-knit hunter-gatherer society, intelligence might be defined more in terms of foraging skills, or social skills or responsibilities. Even within a single society, the skills that are most valued change over time. In the West, the emphasis has gradually shifted from language skills to analytical skills, and it is only in 1960, well within living memory, that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge dropped Latin as an entry requirement. In 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer published the seminal paper on emotional intelligence, and E.I. soon became all the rage. In that same year, 1990, Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser. Today, we cannot go very far without having some considerable I.T. skills (certainly by the standards of 1990), and computer scientists are among some of the most highly paid professionals. All this to say that what constitutes intelligence varies according to the needs and values of our culture and society.

Our society holds analytical skills in such high regard that some of our leaders repeatedly mention their ‘high I.Q.’ to lend themselves credibility. This Western emphasis on reason and intelligence has its roots in Ancient Greece with Socrates, his pupil Plato, and Plato’s pupil Aristotle. Socrates held that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He typically proceeded by questioning one or more people about a certain concept such as courage or justice, eventually exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. For Plato, reason could carry us far beyond the confines of common sense and everyday experience into a ‘hyper-heaven’ of ideal forms. He famously fantasized about putting a geniocracy of philosopher-kings in charge of his utopic Republic. Finally, Aristotle argued that our distinctive function as human beings is our unique capacity to reason, and therefore that our supreme good and happiness consists in leading a life of rational contemplation. To paraphrase Aristotle in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, ‘man more than anything is reason, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, the most pleasant, the happiest, the best, and the most divine of all.’ In later centuries, reason became a divine property, found in man because made in God’s image. If you struggled with your SATs, or thought they were pants, you now know who to blame.

Unfortunately, the West’s obsession with analytical intelligence has had, and continues to have, dire moral and political consequences. Immanuel Kant most memorably made the connection between reasoning and moral standing, arguing (in simple terms) that by virtue of their ability to reason human beings ought to be treated, not as means to an end, but as ends-in-themselves. From here, it is all too easy to conclude that, the better you are at reasoning, the worthier you are of personhood and its rights and privileges. For centuries, women were deemed to be ’emotional’, that is, less rational, which justified treating them as chattel or, at best, second-class citizens. The same could be said of non-white people, over whom it was not just the right but the duty of the white man to rule. Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden (1902) begins with the lines: Take up the White Man’s burden/ Send forth the best ye breed/ Go bind your sons to exile/ To serve your captives’ need/ To wait in heavy harness/ On fluttered folk and wild/ Your new-caught, sullen peoples/ Half-devil and half-child. People deemed to be less rational—women, non-white people, the lower classes, the infirm—were not just disenfranchised but dominated, colonized, enslaved, murdered, in all impunity. Only in 2015 did the U.S. Senate vote to compensate living victims of government-sponsored sterilization programs for the ‘feeble-minded’. Today, it is the white man who most fears artificial intelligence, imagining that it will usurp his status and privilege.

According to one recent paper, I.Q. is the best predictor of job performance. But this is not entirely surprising given that ‘performance’ and I.Q. have been defined in similar terms, and that both depend, to some extent, on third factors such as compliance, motivation, and educational attainment. Rather than intelligence per se, genius is defined more by drive, vision, creativity, and opportunity, and it is notable that the minimum I.Q. necessary for genius—probably around 125—is not all that high.

William Shockley and Luis Walter Alvarez, who both went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics, were excluded from the Terman Study of the Gifted on account of… their modest I.Q. scores.

For the story, in later life Shockley developed controversial views on race and eugenics, setting off a national debate over the use and applicability of I.Q. tests.

References

  • Salovey P & Mayer JD (1990): Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality 9(3):185–211.
  • Rees MJ &  Earles JA (1992): Intelligence is the Best Predictor of Job Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science 1(3): 86-89.
  • Saxon W (1989): Obituary William B. Shockley, 79, Creator of Transistor and Theory on Race. New York Times, August 14, 1989.

The Secrets of Inspiration

poseidonThink back to your favourite teacher: for me, a French teacher who wept as he read out from a novel by Marguerite Duras. The teachers whom we hold in our hearts are not those who taught us the most facts, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves. But what is inspiration and can it be cultivated?

The word ‘inspiration’ ultimately derives from the Greek for ‘God-breathed’, or ‘divinely breathed into’. In Greek myth, inspiration is a gift of the muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (‘Memory’), though it can also come from Apollo (Apollon Mousagetēs, ‘Apollo Muse-leader’), Dionysus, or Aphrodite. Homer famously invokes the muses in the very first line of the Iliad: ‘Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans…’

Similarly, the Church maintains that inspiration is a gift from the Holy Ghost, including the inspiration for the Bible itself: ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘inspiration’ as ‘a breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, especially of an exalted kind’. Going with this, there appears to be two aspects to inspiration: some kind of vision, accompanied by some kind of positive energy with which to drive or at least sustain that vision.

‘Inspiration’ is often confused with ‘motivation’ and ‘creativity’. Motivation aims at some sort of external reward, whereas inspiration comes from within and is very much its own reward. Although inspiration is associated with creative insight, creativity also involves the realization of that insight—which requires opportunity, means, and, above all, effort. In the words of Thomas Edison, genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration—although you may not get started, or get very far, without the initial one percent.

Other than creativity, inspiration has been linked with enthusiasm, optimism, and self-esteem. Inspiration need not be all artistic and highfalutin: I often feel inspired to garden or cook, to plant out some bulbs for next spring or make use of some seasonal ingredients. Such inspired tasks feel very different from, say, writing a complaint or filing my accounts. If I could be paid to do what inspires me, and pay others to do what doesn’t, I should be a very happy man.

Despite its importance to both society and the individual, our system of education leaves very little place for inspiration—perhaps because, like wisdom and virtue, it cannot easily be taught but only… inspired. Unfortunately, if someone has never been inspired, he or she is unlikely to inspire others. That is a great shame. The best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired, and, if I could, I would rather inspire a single person than teach a thousand.

But where, in the first place, does inspiration come from? In Plato’s Ion, Socrates likens inspiration to a divine power, and this divine power to a magnetic stone that can not only move iron rings, but also magnetize the iron rings so that they can do the same. This leads to a long chain of iron rings, with each ring’s energy ultimately derived from that of the original magnetic stone. If a poet is any good, this is not because he has mastered his subject, but because he is divinely inspired, divinely possessed:

For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Socrates compares inspired poets to the Bacchic maidens, who are out of their minds when they draw honey and milk from the rivers. He asks Ion, a rhapsode (reciter of poetry), whether, when he recites Homer, he does not get beside himself, whether his soul does not believe that it is witnessing the actions of which he sings. Ion replies that, when he sings of something sad, his eyes are full of tears, and when he sings of something frightening, his hairs stand on end, such that he is no longer in his right mind. Socrates says that this is precisely the effect that a rhapsode has on his audience: the muse inspires the poet, the poet the rhapsode, and the rhapsode his audience, which is the last of the iron rings in the divine chain.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that madness, as well as being an illness, can be the source of our greatest blessings. There are, he continues, four kinds of inspired madness: prophecy, from Apollo; holy prayers and mystic rites, from Dionysus; poetry, from the muses; and love, from Aphrodite and Eros.

But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.

All human beings, says Socrates, are able to recollect universals such as perfect goodness and perfect beauty, and must therefore have seen them in some other life or other world. The souls that came closest to the universals, or that experienced them most deeply, are reincarnated into philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As the universals are still present in their minds, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Humdrum people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty. In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung echoed Plato, arguing that the artist is one who can reach beyond individual experience to access our genetic memory, that is, the memory, such as the memory for language, that is already present at birth. It is perhaps no coincidence that, in Greek myth, the mother of the muses is Mnemosyne/Memory.

The idea that ‘madness’ is closely allied with inspiration and revelation is an old and recurring one. In Of Peace of Mind, Seneca the Younger writes that ‘there is no great genius without a tincture of madness’ (nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtuae dementiae fuit), a maxim which he attributes to Aristotle, and which is also echoed in Cicero. For Shakespeare, ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact’. And for Dryden, ‘great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide’. As I argued in a book called The Meaning of Madness, our reservoir of madness is a precious resource that we can learn to tap into.

For the modern writer André Gide,

The most beautiful things are those that are whispered by madness and written down by reason. We must steer a course between the two, close to madness in our dreams, but close to reason in our writing.

7 simple strategies to encourage inspiration

So it seems that inspiration is some kind of alignment or channelling of primal energies, and that it cannot quite be summoned or relied upon.

Nonetheless, here are seven simple strategies that may make it more likely to alight upon us:

1. Wake up when your body tells you to. No one has ever been tired and inspired at the same time. To make matters worse, having our sleep disrupted by an alarm clock or other extraneous stimulus can leave us feeling groggy and grouchy, as though we had ‘woken up on the wrong side of the bed’.

2. Complete your dreams. REM sleep, which is associated with dreaming, is richest just before *natural* awakening. Dreaming serves a number of critical functions such as assimilating experiences, processing emotions, and enhancing problem solving and creativity. In fact, the brain can be more active during REM sleep than during wakefulness. Many great works of art have been inspired by dreams, including Dali’s Persistence of Memory, several of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories, and Paul McCartney’s Let it Be.

3. Eliminate distractions, especially the tedious ones. Clear your diary, remove yourself from people, take plenty of time over every small thing. You want to give your mind plenty of spare capacity. You want it to roam, to freewheel. Before going to bed, I check my calendar for the next day’s engagements, and am never happier than when I see ‘No Events’. Don’t worry or feel guilty, the sun won’t fall out of the sky. Many people are unable to let their minds wander for fear that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings might arise into their consciousness. If they do, why not take the opportunity to meet them?

4. Don’t try to rush or force things. If you try to force inspiration, you will strangle it and achieve much less overall. There may be ‘on’ days and ‘off’ days, or even ‘on’ hours and ‘off’ hours. If you don’t feel inspired, that’s fine, go out and enjoy yourself. Your boss may disagree, but it’s probably the most productive thing you could do. If you can, try not to have a boss.

5. Be curious. The 17th century philosopher John Locke suggested that inspiration amounts to a somewhat random association of ideas and sudden unison of thought. If something, anything, catches your interest, try to follow it through. Nothing is too small or irrelevant. Read books, watch documentaries, visit museums and exhibitions, walk in gardens and nature, talk to inspired and inspiring people… Feed your unconscious.

6. Break the routine. Sometimes it can really help to give the mind a bit of a shake. Try new things that take you out of your comfort zone. Modify your routine or your surroundings. Better still, go travelling, especially to places that are unfamiliar and disorienting, such as a temple in India or a hippy farm in the Uruguayan pampas.

7. Make a start. When I write an article, I make a start and come back to it whenever I next feel inspired. The minute I start flagging, I stop and do something else, and, hopefully, while I do that, the next paragraph or section enters my mind. Some articles I write over three or four days, others over three or four weeks—but hardly ever in a single day or single sitting. When I write a book, the first half seems to take forever, while the second half gets completed in a fraction of the time. Small accomplishments are important because they boost confidence and free the mind to move on, establishing a kind of creative momentum.

If you have any other thoughts on inspiration, please put them in the comments section.

What Is Wisdom?

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Every time I utter the word ‘wisdom’, someone giggles or sneers. Wisdom, more so even than expertise, does not sit comfortably in a democratic, anti-elitist society. In an age dominated by science and technology, by specialization and compartmentalization, it is too loose and mysterious a concept. With our heads in our smartphones and tablets, our pay slips and bank statements, we simply do not have the mental time and space for it.

But things were not always thus. The word wisdom occurs 222 times in the Old Testament, which includes all of seven so-called ‘wisdom books’: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom, and Sirach. ‘For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it’ (Ecclesiastes 7:12).

The word ‘philosophy’ literally means ‘the love of wisdom’, and wisdom is the overarching aim of philosophy, or, at least, ancient philosophy. In Plato’s Lysis, Socrates tells the young Lysis that, without wisdom, he would be of no interest to anyone: “…if you are wise, all men will be your friends and kindred, for you will be useful and good; but if you are not wise, neither father, nor mother, nor kindred, nor anyone else, will be your friends.” The patron of Athens, the city in which the Lysis is set, is no less than Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung out in full armour from the skull of Zeus. Her symbol, and the symbol of wisdom, is the owl, which can see through darkness.

In fact, ‘wisdom’ derives from the Proto-Indo-European root weid-, ‘to see’, and is related to a great number of words including: advice, druid, evident, guide, Hades, history, idea, idol, idyll, view, Veda, vision, and visit. In Norse mythology, the god Odin gouged out one of his eyes and offered it to Mimir in exchange for a drink from the well of knowledge and wisdom, thereby trading one mode of perception for another, higher one.

And the very name of our species, Homo sapiens, means ‘wise man’.

Wisdom in perspective

So what exactly is wisdom? People often speak of ‘knowledge and wisdom’ as though they might be closely related or even the same thing, so maybe wisdom is knowledge, or a great deal of knowledge. If wisdom is knowledge, then it has to be a certain kind of knowledge, or else learning the phonebook, or the names of all the rivers in the world, might count as wisdom. And if wisdom is a certain kind of knowledge, then it is not scientific or technical knowledge, or else modern people would be wiser than even the wisest of ancient philosophers. Any 21st century school-leaver would be wiser than Socrates.

Once upon a time, Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the Pythian priestess replied that there was no one wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of men who laid claim to wisdom—politicians, generals, poets, craftsmen—and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. He offended so many people with his questioning that, eventually, they condemned him to death—which served his purposes well, since it made him immortal.

The Bible tells us, ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2). Socrates was the wisest of all people not because he knew everything or anything, but because he knew what he did not know, or, to put it somewhat differently, because he knew the limits of the little that he did know. Shakespeare put it best in As You Like It, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’

Still, there seems to be more to wisdom than mere ‘negative knowledge’, or else I could just be super-skeptical about everything and count myself wise… Or maybe wisdom consists in having very high epistemic standards, that is, in having a very high bar for believing something, and an even higher bar for calling that belief knowledge. But then we are back to a picture of wisdom as something like scientific knowledge.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says that people of wisdom and virtue seem to be very poor at imparting those qualities: Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever said of Cleophantus that he was wise, and the same could be said for Lysimachus and his son Artistides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. And if wisdom cannot be taught, then it is not a kind of knowledge.

If wisdom cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good people come into existence? Socrates replies that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge: a person who has knowledge about the way to Larisa may make a good guide, but a person who has only correct opinion about the way, but has never been and does not know, might make an equally good guide. Since wisdom cannot be taught, it cannot be knowledge; and if it cannot be knowledge, then it must be correct opinion—which explains why wise men such as Themistocles, Lysimachus, and Pericles were unable to impart their wisdom even unto their own sons. Wise people are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are divinely inspired but have no real knowledge of what they are saying.

Aristotle gives us another important clue in the Metaphysics, when he says that wisdom is the understanding of causes. None of the senses are regarded as wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they are unable to discern the distal causes of anything. Similarly, we suppose artists to be wiser than people of experience because artists know the ‘why’ or the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas people of experience do not, and cannot. In other words, wisdom is the understanding of the right relations between things, which calls for more distant and removed perspectives, and perhaps also the ability or willingness to shift between perspectives. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero cites as a paragon of wisdom the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, “I knew that I begot a mortal”. For Cicero, true sapience consists in preparing oneself for every eventuality so as never to be overtaken by anything—and it is true that wisdom, the understanding of causes and connexions, has long been associated with both insight and foresight.

So wisdom is not so much a kind of knowledge as a way of seeing, or ways of seeing. When we take a few steps back, like when we stand under the shower or go on holiday, we begin to see the bigger picture. In every day language use, ‘wisdom’ has two opposites: ‘foolishness’ and ‘folly’, which involve, respectively, lack and loss of perspective. For some thinkers, notably Robert Nozick, wisdom has a practical dimension in that it involves an understanding of the goals and values of life, the means of achieving those goals, the potential dangers to avoid, and so on. I agree, but I think that all this naturally flows from perspective: if you have proper perspective, you cannot fail to understand the goals and values life, nor can you fail to act on that understanding. This chimes with Socrates’ claim that nobody does wrong knowingly: people only do wrong because, from their narrow perspective, it seems like the right thing to do.

In cultivating a broader perspective, it helps, of course, to be knowledgeable, but it also helps to be intelligent, reflective, open-minded, and disinterested—which is why we often seek out ‘independent’ advice. But above all it helps to be courageous, because the view from up there, though it can be exhilarating and ultimately liberating, is at first terrifying—whence, no doubt, the giggles and the sneers.

Courage, said Aristotle, is the first of human qualities because it is the one which guarantees all the others.

The Five Enemies of Reason

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If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The enemies of rational thought can take one of several overlapping forms, including formal fallacy and informal fallacy, cognitive bias, cognitive distortion, and self-deception. If these are difficult to define, they are even more difficult to distinguish.

A fallacy is some kind of defect in an argument, and may be either intentional (aimed at deceiving) or, more commonly, unintentional. A formal fallacy is an invalid type of argument. It is a deductive argument with an invalid form, for example: Some A are B. Some B are C. Therefore, some A are C. If you cannot see that this argument is invalid, complete A, B, and C with ‘insects’, ‘herbivores’, and ‘mammals’. Insects are clearly not mammals!

A formal fallacy is built into the structure of an argument, and is invalid irrespective of the content of the argument. In contrast, an informal fallacy is one that can be identified only through an analysis of the content of the argument. Informal fallacies often turn on the misuse of language, for example, using a key term or phrase in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one part of the argument and another meaning in another part (fallacy of equivocation). Informal fallacies can also distract from the weakness of an argument, or appeal to the emotions rather than to reason.

As I argued in Hide and Seek, all self-deception can be understood in terms of ego defence. In psychoanalytic theory, an ego defence is one of several unconscious processes that we deploy to diffuse the fear and anxiety that arise when we who we truly are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, a person who buys a $10,000 watch instead of a $1,000 watch because “you can really tell the difference in quality” is not only hiding his (unrecognized) craving to be loved, but also disguising it as an ego-enhancing virtue, namely, a concern for quality. Whereas formal and informal fallacies are more about faulty reasoning, self-deception is more about hiding from, or protecting, oneself.

Cognitive bias is sloppy, although not necessarily faulty, reasoning: a mental shortcut or heuristic intended to spare us time, effort, or discomfort, often while reinforcing our image of the self or the world, but at the cost of accuracy or reliability. For example, in explaining the behaviour of other people, our tendency is to overestimate the role of character traits over situational factors—a bias, called the correspondence bias or attribution effect, that goes into reverse when it comes to explaining our own behaviour. So, if Charlotte omits to mow the lawn, I indict her with forgetfulness, laziness, or spite; but if I omit to mow the lawn, I excuse myself on the grounds of busyness, tiredness, or bad weather. Another important cognitive bias is confirmation, or my-side, bias, which is the propensity to search for or recall only those facts and arguments that are in keeping with our pre-existing beliefs while filtering out those that conflict with them—which, especially on social media, can lead us to inhabit a so-called echo chamber.

Cognitive distortion is a concept from cognitive-behavioural therapy, developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all. Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction and catastrophic thinking. Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, “My partner hates me. He gave me an annoyed look three days ago (even though he spends all his spare time with me).” Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the consequences of an event or situation, for example, “The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So, I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.” Cognitive distortions can give rise to a chicken-and-egg situation: the cognitive distortions aliment the depression, which in turn aliments the cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortion as broadly understood is not limited to depression and other mental disorders, but is also a feature of, among others, poor self-esteem, jealousy, and marital or relationship conflict.

Are there any other enemies of rational thought? Please name them in the comments section.