Late last year my friend Mark asked if I considered constant rational thinking to be an ideal cognitive state. An unusual question to be sure, but it fit well in the context of our conversation. My answer was a quick yes, but by being pushed to explain myself in writing, I detected a better case for rational thinking. That is to say a motivation to think rationally better than the one that propelled me towards rational thinking previously. I’m aware there’s a nontrivial amount of guesswork in analyzing motivations, but it feels good to try nonetheless.
From as far back as I can remember, I’ve understood my support of rational thinking as something like:
Well, it seems only right to think rationally. If I am not rational, how do I know what to believe? There doesn’t seem to be another mechanism available to navigate life. If I believe in one supernatural thing, what is to stop me from believing anything anyone’s imagination can construct?
And then another part of me would chime in with,
Shit, isn’t it possible I’m thinking this way only because I’m already in a rationalist mindset? An irrational person would (presumably) not raise the point of inconsistent navigational mechanics. How do I know I’m not in a bubble and sealed off from some greater truth?
After a period of uncertainty, though, I would recall that a rationalist mindset is one aligned with the overwhelming majority of scientists and engineers, and that it has been their work that has engendered human progress of nearly every kind. And so that’s where it stopped. I never saw a deeper layer to peel back. But as I’ve said, in responding to Mark, I believe I intuited something novel. To his question of whether I consider persistent rational thinking an ideal cognitive state, I wrote:
Yes, unless it comes in conflict with mental tranquility. Being a rational thinker helps me achieve mental tranquility. Rational thinking is just a tool; a restful mind is the goal.
It was the brevity of the last sentence that stuck with me: “Rational thinking is just a tool; a restful mind is the goal.” What I seemed to intuit is a new motivation for thinking rationally — one far more pervasive than those already discussed. That being a rationalist helps me maintain satisfaction with my present interpretation of consciousness.
Many examiners of life have philosophized about the value in remaining content with the present; there are many influential thinkers I could cite. But since I read his Meditations recently, here’s Gregory Hays translating Marcus Aurelius in Book 3:
Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
We may interpret this as: Consciousness in its active state — the stimulations and sensations it generates — is tantamount to what we call living. Marcus elaborates later on:
It would be wrong for anything to stand between you and attaining goodness — as a rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it — for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
We find evidence of this both in our own lives and in the lives of others. We see those we don’t know achieve any number of the things the vast majority of us* seek — money, power, prestige, respect, fame — only to later find themselves in circumstances we would do anything to avoid. But as mentioned — and even more compelling — we see this in our own lives too. It takes a modicum of imaginative thought to envision my life as that of someone exceedingly less fortunate than I am at this writing. One of the homeless people, say, who are living on the street no more than 100 feet away from my building in Midtown Manhattan. Only a little more imagination still to visualize myself as that plighted individual fantasizing about living the life I’m living right now. I can even imagine the silent monologue of that person as they see me walk into my building nonchalantly clutching groceries and an iPhone.
If we abstract this line of thinking to the circumstances of the 7.3 billion of us around today, it seems fatuous to believe we may achieve mental satiation through our traditional (Western) definitions of success.
When I asserted to Mark that a restful mind is the ultimate aim of my thinking, I realized that while agreement with the brightest minds in science is important to me, what I am chasing more than anything is a cooperative stream of consciousness.** One that recognizes the best individual reward we can ask for in life is a supple mind and, subsequent to that recognition, a mind conditioned to remain present, considered, and at peace.
*“Us” is defined here as those fortunate enough to be in a position to seek them. What citizens of advanced countries call fame is effectively unattainable in places like Central Africa.
**William James coined the term “stream of consciousness” in 1890 to describe the flow of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that ramble through our minds.
UPDATE: Found out some days after publishing that everything meaningful I wrote here has been captured by the observed tendency of hedonic adaptation. If you’re reading this, I highly recommending checking it out.