The shortcomings of rational thinking

I was brought up to believe that ‘rational’ thinking was the best, if not the only, way to get to the truth. Later I came to see that rational thought cannot, by itself, bring new knowledge; it can only confirm what you already thought you knew. This is because you cannot begin reasoning without taking certain ‘facts’ as given. The reasoning then becomes circular – ultimately ‘proving’ your original premises.

Nowadays it’s more widely understood that so-called ‘scientific’ thinking has been steeped in white Western male cultural ideas. We can almost chuckle at the idea that women in the 50s were seen to suffer from ‘suburban neurosis’ or that slaves in the American south who tried to escape had a disease called ‘drapetomania’.

As a child I believed what I was taught and went along completely with the discourses of the day. However, there were moments when my beliefs were shaken.

One was a class trip to the State Museum (of South Australia) to visit the Ancient Egypt exhibition. I was enthralled by the mummy caskets and the gold and lapis lazuli jewellery. A guide talked to us about the pyramids and said that much of the treasure had been lost because of grave robbers. My response was an uncomfortable puzzlement. All the treasures we were looking at had been stolen from the pyramids – weren’t archaeologists grave-robbers too? I could tell that the guide thought it was all right, because scientists who put things in museums were different somehow from other grave robbers. So I thought it must be all right too.

Another time we were asked to write a composition about how to educate the Aboriginal people to bring them up to the level of white people. (I can’t imagine such a topic being set nowadays!) I thought about it carefully and ended up writing two compositions. One gave ideas for introducing things gradually, such as starting with a hairbrush. The other suggested we just leave them be, as they were perfectly okay as they were. For the life of me I couldn’t decide which of my essays I believed, because the first one was clearly the ‘right’ answer as wanted by the teacher and the second was only some silly emotional idea that had come to me from the blue.

A lot later, in my first year of high school, our science teacher brought a brain to school in a jar. She passed it around and we all peered and joked, fascinated. Then she told us that it was a child’s brain. I was suddenly overcome with horror. Somewhere a mother was grieving for her child and here we were desecrating its memory. It was then that I realised that the scientific way of looking at things could make you completely blind to things that are really important.

We need to take notice of our instinctive responses and flashes of insight, for they give us access to knowledge that we cannot gain through reason alone.


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