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A Reasoned Defense of the Irrational

Is it logical to enjoy irrational things?

The terms of the question seem to necessitate “No” as an answer. The logical and the irrational appear immiscible. On closer inspection, however, the question asks whether “it” is logical to enjoy irrational things. So then, this asks not about the things themselves, but about the enjoyment of them. Is that actually illogical? But what does “logical” mean? Or “irrational”?

The Study of Reasons

Logic, since the days of the Greeks (who gave us the word, via their “logos”, which means something like word, or argument, or organizing principle), has concerned reasoning. One investigates the reasons of conclusions in some capacity or other. Deductive reasoning, one sort, involves taking categorical statements (“All men are mortal,” “Socrates is a man”) with common terms and deriving conclusions (therefore, “Socrates is mortal”).

Something that is logical is something that is in accord with the study of reasons; something that is illogical is out of accord. To go further, however, we have to investigate “reason” some more.

Reason: Underlying Assumptions

Reasons, in some sense, can be called the “causes” of their conclusions or outcomes. Philosophers traditionally distinguish between four types of causes. One of these is the efficient cause – this is what we most often mean when we speak of something’s cause, the cause that, in physical terms, creates an effect. “I broke the window because I threw a baseball in that direction” channels this meaning. “I broke the window because I was feeling spiteful” channels a different sense, the “final” sense, which draws on the notion of purpose. In this sense, spite was the reason why I broke the window.

I’m compressing these causes a little, but they can be more complicated, or multifaceted. The velocity and trajectory of the ball, the quality of the glass, and the wind speed could be considered in a comprehensive “efficient cause” of the broken window. Likewise, complex final causes can exist – consider the implications of what Joseph says to his brothers at the end of his story in Genesis: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

Within the confines of the physical world, it is axiomatic that every effect has a cause; the cause meant by this is the efficient cause. This exists even if no apparent final cause is apparent or exists.

The next thing to investigate is the manner in which man investigates reasons.

Man has several different faculties. These include his rational, articulate mind – the part of man that classifies things with speech and discusses them. He also has others. There are his senses, which perceive the appearance, touch, etc. of his environment. Various appetites and a capacity to relate to other human beings also fall under this heading.

Reason: An Application

How, then, do we answer our question of whether enjoying the irrational is logical?

Take the example of eating dinner. If a stomach is complaining about a lack of nutrients, and one understands that food supplies him with nutrients, then eating is logical because the person does x in order to necessitate y, knowing that x is the efficient cause of y.

This doesn’t mean that this action is necessarily right, of course: The same goes, so far, for the test case of a murderer pulling a trigger. Morality is not automatically invoked in a discussion of causes and effects. Something is logical when its final cause operates in accord with efficient causes and effects as they are perceived; something is moral if it is in accord with the will of God. “Consistency is all I ask,” says Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern, and his lament does well as a motto for formal logic.

Back to our motivating example: What, then, if, like a well-adjusted human being, someone doesn’t consider weigh the pros and cons of nutritional intake before every meal? What if the meal is only eaten in order to silence the pain of hunger? It seems that in some sense this motive is less rational than the other; the former, it seems, is a chain of events motivated by the dissatisfaction of the mind recognizing an abstract concept. The latter, more realistic person is in some sense less rational, because a different, sensory faculty is motivating action. Nevertheless, his action is still within bounds of what is logical, because the person takes what he knows of causes and effects and applies the precepts to his situation. In the case of eating, a person thinks a certain amount before an action. Habits, which preclude thought to a certain degree in their exercise, may even be logical, if they are constructed in the first place with the agent thinking logically.

Reason: Its Limits and Boundaries

Interestingly, even within rational speech, slightly irrational factors can be induced. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style contains a comparison of “These are the times that try men’s souls” and other, logically equivalent, content-identical, scrambles. (“Soul-wise, these are trying times.”) The actual patriotic line is manifestly better. It is better because of ways in which it appeals to a person that could not be reduced to reasoning. We could express them in words, as ancient rhetoricians used to – “consonance,” “hypallage,” “hyperbaton,” and the like – as modern physicists describe physical phenomena of “gravity,” “electricity,” and such. Nevertheless, the line does not affect us because it inserts lines of disputation into our intellects, but because it sounds lovely. The mere existence of poetry attests to this beautiful synthesis of sound and sense. “’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, tapping at my chamber door,” goes one telling line from Poe. It communicates the events of the narrative; it scans; it rattles off with a percussion of “t”s that tap like the late visitor.

So then, actions can in fact be logical even though they have no obvious or immediate relation to the faculty of man with which he discerns reasons. These distinctions matter because they influence how we classify and evaluate activities, time, and other fundamental components of our lives. Often, we conflate the senses of “logical” and “good.” If one has a moral – irrational, strictly speaking – basis at the foundation of their daily living and their decision making, then these two should grow together harmoniously. Nevertheless, at many points in our life, mere morality does not enjoin a particular command. “Should I drink red or white wine for dinner?”, for example.

Reason: A Case for Freedom

This argument should liberate people to consider as logical activities that do not rely on man’s rational faculty. Sometimes, I believe I’ve observed, irrational activities are scorned as “illogical” by people who collapse the two meanings. This is unjust. Is it logical to dance? Once someone has learned the steps and doesn’t need to count to the beat, then man’s rational faculty need not be engaged as such. Released from that, one is free to dance – an irrational activity that may well be, nevertheless, logical. Why this is, on a physical level, I cannot explain – the intrinsically wordless concepts haven’t yet been nailed down by a satisfactory vocabulary for me to use. Looks like you’ll have to try it for yourself.

Many of us derive powerful enjoyment from understanding and reasoning, but if we want to be healthy human beings, we need to remember to look to our other faculties as well. As Hamlet once remarked, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Author: Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper studied Latin and Mathematics at Hillsdale College (B.S.) and Data Science at Loyola University Maryland (M.S.). Motivated by a desire to preserve and share knowledge, he contributed to and has also been published in The Critic, The Federalist, Intercollegiate Review, and The Baltimore Sun.

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