Reason versus intuition, imagination and instinct

I’m not a philosopher, but I knew one once. We were talking about philosophy one day. It started with a question:

“Have you ever heard of Ken Wilber?”


“I read some of his books and his logic seems horribly flawed to me, but apparently some universities include his writings in their philosophy courses.”

My friend told me he would ask around. I then went on to my next burning question. I took a Philosophy 101 course in college and came away thinking philosophy couldn’t be a pathway to ultimate truth because even the most rigorous philosophers disagree.

“You’re right,” he replied. “Philosophy is a game, like chess.”

Reason is put on a pedestal in our society. We think if it is rigorously applied, it can answer every question and solve every problem. 99 percent of us are armchair thinkers, so it “stands to reason” that our opinions would vary drastically because we break the rules of logic. Some of us start by quoting an authority figure without questioning their authority. Others start by taking a snippet of a new scientific theory and expanding it to the point of absurdity. I’m thinking of the abundance gurus as I write this. Most of us have an underlying emotional reason for following a chain of thought. There are as many reasons for logical inconsistencies as there are individuals trying to think logically.

Eventually my friend got back to me. A friend of his, a professor of philosophy, had tried to read Ken Wilber, but found his logic too painfully flawed to continue.

Reason has its place, but I think it should be put in its place. Arguably, reason is responsible for getting the world in the mess it’s in today. Back in what anthropologists like to call pre-history, humans were just one species out of thousands and didn’t do a lot of damage. Somewhere along the line, a select group of humans started thinking and scheming. They started building empires for entirely selfish reasons. Then other thinkers got the industrial revolution rolling, again for purely selfish reasons. That led to the destruction of the environment on an unprecedented scale: to the point where many scientists believe we’re on the verge of a human-caused mass extinction. It’s already happening to thousands of species, but since we’re humans, we only start to worry when we’re faced with extinction — usually “we” means ourselves, our families and our cultures. It’s okay if we kill off people in a distant country, especially if reason has convinced us they’re “bad.” We feel badly when an animal becomes extinct, but go on with our daily lives and forget about it fairly quickly.

Using reason to make reason commit suicide

It’s kind of paradoxical to use reason to refute reason, but philosophers have been taking a stab at it for a long time. A 2013 article in the New Scientist, The edge of reason: When logic fails us, gives it a shot. The short article is a book review. The Outer Limits of Logic: What Science, Mathematics and Logic Cannot Tell Us, by Noson S. Yanofsky, tries to tackle the problem, but wisely doesn’t offer a solution because reason cannot provide us with a solution:

Quantum mechanics is our most successful theory of reality, bar none, and yet we find its predictions of particles that are in two places at once, or cats that are both dead and alive, “unreasonable”. It is a challenge to our classically schooled logic.
But we cannot observe these predictions directly because, in quantum experiments, our act of observing something seems to change what’s observed — we are ourselves part of the experiment. Is this the ultimate problem of self-reference, one that suggests a limit to how much we can ever reason about the world?

I added the bold type because that’s where I think the problem lies. “Self-reference” is the ultimate tool of logic and reason. We observe the world through human eyes and reason always puts us at the center of the universe. Reason is a tool of the ego. It starts by compartmentalizing phenomena, automatically shrinking reality to a manageable and self-serving level. Reason is unable to see the big picture because it is the servant and master of the ego (at the same time).

We’ve been so programmed to use reason, intuition is almost a thing of the past. The most “reasonable” people think intuition is a myth, in spite of evidence that intuition breaks through in some astounding ways. Reason writes this off as coincidence or an anomaly and sweeps it under the carpet. If it didn’t, it couldn’t stick out its chest and act superior.

Instinct is egotistical, too, but can be far more helpful than reason because instinct reacts to immediate threats. “Rational” psychologists, politicians, marketers and other shady figures have figured out ways to hijack instinct to make us afraid of make-believe threats, but pure instinct alerts us to danger and can potentially do much more if it’s given free rein. I’ll hazard a guess that instinct is closely aligned to intuition and if reason didn’t blur the picture, we’d probably make wise decisions more often than we do now.

Apparently Einstein did not say, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” According to some sources, that quote originated from a guy named Bob Samples, who was interpreting Einstein. Regardless of who said it, it intuitively rings true to me, as does the original, written by Samples:

The metaphoric mind is a maverick. It is as wild and unruly as a child. It follows us doggedly and plagues us with its presence as we wander the contrived corridors of rationality. It is a metaphoric link with the unknown called religion that causes us to build cathedrals — and the very cathedrals are built with rational, logical plans. When some personal crisis or the bewildering chaos of everyday life closes in on us, we often rush to worship the rationally-planned cathedral and ignore the religion. Albert Einstein called the intuitive or metaphoric mind a sacred gift. He added that the rational mind was a faithful servant. It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine.

Imagination needs to be set free from the bounds of reason to be appreciated. Imagination is connected with the bigger picture and is able to step beyond the limits of reason. I used to speculate about this, now I’m certain of it. There’s no reason to try to convince anyone, though. I’d like to suggest switching off that part of your brain that measures and draws conclusions. With a little practice, it’s not that hard. Who knows? You might end up doing something completely unexpected and wonderful.

Originally published at on October 25, 2015.