Posted: 05/02/2012 by zandtao in Insight
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Reason has reared its ugly head again, I hope there are no adverse reactions to this appearance. What is becoming clearer to me is how important the understanding of the place of reason or intellect as compared to insight, and how if I were able to convince people of that place how much better the world would be. But of course in placing myself in the position of wishing to consider the prime importance of Insight and the secondary importance of reason I am flying against the very Church of Reason that initially drove Pirsig to madness as he sought his way out. When has that stopped me? But of course in placing myself in such an isolated position I have to be careful of arrogance. I know little of the suttas but the Buddha saw meditation as Vipassana – Insight meditation, I am unsure of how he saw reason or intellect in this.

I want to begin with a synopsis of my last skirmish against reason. As usual it started with an academic asking me to discuss insight with him. This academic made me angry first of all when he said that my blogs were very rational. Knowing that the source of my blogs was usually Insights gained in meditation, I was taken aback by this until I learnt a very important lesson. One person’s insight is another’s thought or idea. I have read but am nowhere near knowledgeable to comment on its truth that the major step forward that the Buddha made in understanding was the 4 Noble Truths:-

1. The Reality of Suffering–dukkha
2. The Cause of Suffering–samudaya
3. The Cessation of Suffering–nirodha
4. The Path to the Cessation of Suffering–magga

You are not hit by insight when reading them, they are just thoughts. However if you meditate on them, maybe insight comes. I remember reading that at one stage in his life Ajaan Sumedho studied only the 4 Noble Truths and nothing else. Whilst I don’t do that I do know that there is far more for me to gain by meditating on them.

When this academic insulted me by saying my blog was very rational, it gave me a great Insight; Insight is a process that gives rise to an Insight and once expressed becomes a thought – relegated to the same status as any other thought. At the time what this same academic was trying to do was to determine the meaning of transcendence. The way I see transcendence is that it occurs when one crosses over from the world of superficial rational thought into the Insight process of determining Insights. So by his recognising the importance of transcendence he had almost grasped the Insight he sought, but at the very time that he could have grasped that Insight that was transcendence, reason pulled on his ego and he withdrew from the dialogue and personal contact. Sad.

For me significant in his inability to grasp Insight was the way in which he defined reason – it was all inclusive, at the same time he said that my definition was too narrow. I am not going to dispute that my definition of reason is narrow, and that quite simply is because I give such import to Insight. However I do believe there is clarity in how I define it. What was significant in this academic’s definition of reason was that it included synthesis. Now my definition of reason is that it is purely rational thought and logic, and synthesis is definitely not that. Synthesis is a wonderful process where by all and sundry thoughts are encompassed, and out of these thoughts our minds find pattern and a synthesis of commonality. What perceives this pattern? Insight. By my approach attributing such an insightful approach to reason was the confusion, his definition transcended the understanding of Insight and reason so he was unable to see the importance of the Insight process itself. He claimed he had meditated for years, and was never able to grasp this – so near so sad.

The current head that reason has raised concerns discourse or dialogue, a friend values discourse highly calling it Reason. The word discourse arose revolving around an internet conversation, and I claimed discourse unless it was making an effort to determine truth or reach a resolution. When I was meditating I realised a very significant third – learning. I need to consider the nature of discourse. By my approach of rational thinking a discourse is a collection of thoughts, these thoughts are usually but not always connected as the thoughts of one person ought to follow and counter or add to the thoughts of another. Discourse is an essential tool in parts of learning. When reading I often feel I am in discourse with what the author has written. As can be seen from my bookblogs reading takes me a long time, and I am not well read. When I read, do I choose to learn all that the author writes? In some cases, yes. In that case I read, think about and chew over the thoughts that the author has written. Then hopefully a process of awareness encompasses these thoughts, and I have an insight. That for me is when learning occurs. I read the thoughts, insight grabs something and I internalise it. Compare this with a typical academic institution. Material is presented, students study thinking about the material. They then are expected to recall this material in an exam in which they repeat the presented material; years later it is all forgotten. The material was never genuinely internalised or learnt so never became a part of the person.

So let’s turn to discourse. Initially I spoke of truth and resolution of a discourse as being their purpose, in my current adherence to Occupy perhaps a better word than resolution is consensus, resolution being one form of consensus. Whilst academics might not consider these two the purpose of discourse these might well be considered admirable outcomes of a discourse. But I want now to discuss how learning occurs during a discourse. I described discourse in this way earlier:-

“By my approach of rational thinking a discourse is a collection of thoughts, these thoughts are usually but not always connected as the thoughts of one person ought to follow and counter or add to the thoughts of another.”

In a discourse do we learn all that is said? Do we even agree with all that is said? No. Sometimes we might recall something that was said to us that somehow got lodged in our memories but most of discourse goes in one ear and out the others as thoughts do when alone – in, circulate around the mind and disappear. One advantage to discourse is that these thoughts are not ours, so there is greater potential for learning something new. But sometimes in a discourse we pick up on something, grab it and say “I get that”. This is a learning moment, and what does that learning? What does that grabbing? Insight. So one approach to understanding a discourse is to say that it is:-

Learning by Insight
Determining the Truth
Attaining a consensus
A series of rational thoughts that are forgotten.

If discourse is seen in this way then as described evidently only the first three matter. What is discourse other than this?

Now the internet conversation arose from the discussion of politics, and I want to discuss that next. Political discourse is completely different to the discourse that I described above – a discourse that might be described as a genuine discourse because of its three aims of learning, truth and consensus. The objectives of a political discourse usually have none of these aims in common. Let us consider the Republican primaries that are happening now. The politicians are using the discourse to gain power, they wish to be nominated to run for president. Ostensibly they are trying to promote themselves but often they do this by attacking the other candidates. Whilst the points they raise might be valid such as Ron Paul’s call for ending the wars or the attacks on Mitt Romney for his legal corrupt business practices, the debate is not rational, and does not appeal to logic in any way. One can only come to a sense of the proceedings if one understands the process, there is limited inherent rational context.

Across the pond parliament debates at Westminster, Labour attacks Tory and vice versa. They seek to undermine the position of the opposition in the eyes of the voters within certain guidelines. 30 years ago Ireland was a no-go area for politicians, parliament agreed not to discuss Ireland. Whilst in the 70s and 80s polls would say that the UK people did not want the troops there but the matter was not raised in parliament. In the US recently there was debate about the debt ceiling. Because the Republicans were blocking the usual practice of raising the ceiling, they applied strings that insisted public service cuts were the issue and not stopping financing war or increasing tax on the rich. So when considering political discourse it is often what is not said rather than what is said that is more important.

In the 80s I listened to Robert Mugabe during the Zimbabwe independence talks. I was knocked back, here a politician stood up and told the truth about colonialism and the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on Africa. His discourse on independence and white minority rule were an eye-opener to me when such an important issue was never even raised by UK politicians. But what is happening with Mugabe now in Zimbabwe – he is virtually a dictator. When I worked in Africa I began to understand. This polemic, as I understand it, was actually common currency on both sides of the political debate in African countries. That doesn’t argue against its truth but nor does it say anything about the integrity of the speaker. Simply put I would expect African politicians to use anti-neo-colonial rhetoric, and to assess them I would seek other statements or positions to determine the better candidates. From my UK background neo-colonialism was the first step in understanding the need for global democracy, but in black Africa it gave no indication as to the genuine position of the candidate because it was required currency. Such political insights are essential in understanding what is happening politically, but are they raised as a process of reasoning? Often not, reason often deludes itself that it can scythe its way through political discourse whereas in fact if reason becomes the measure of argument it is often fooled.

I remember a recent discussion concerning Tony Blair. A recent book was supported by a friend who was angered when I said I would never read it because of the level of obfuscation and lies that I perceived would be contained therein; I said I would be unable to discern all the lies. The friend had read the book and had rationally accepted the inherent logic of the writing. How could this friend support a man who took us into a war for profit? Reason could not see through his lies, but insight into the Blair’s practices could.

Approaching a political discourse from the point of view of it being a genuine discourse does not lead to truth, it is important to understand the context in which the positions of political discourse are presented. And this insight concerning context needs to be considered in wider discourses. Is the discourse genuine seeking truth, consensus or learning? If not what is the purpose of the discourse? What about spokespeople? Is their discourse genuine? No, it is controlled by their employer. I watched “Tapped” and saw all the lies of the Canadian politicians, their jobs depended on the Tarsands irrespective of whether people were dieing. In work the lies spoken are concerned with career, and usually discourse is more concerned with “watching your back”. In this way I am forced to dismiss much that is discourse as fruitless.

What about political debates when it is not concerned with power? How often are they pointless? More often than not they become an exchange of entrenched positions that just lead to frustration as no matter how much good reasoning is presented there will be no change of viewpoint. To understand this entrenched position we can consider a very important Buddhist approach, that of attachment. And it is because of this attachment that I become concerned with reason so much.

Attachment is generally considered in terms of the 4 Noble Truths (again):-

The core of the Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering. There is a cause to suffering. There is an end to suffering. The is a path out of suffering (the Noble 8-fold path).
1. The Reality of Suffering–dukkha
2. The Cause of Suffering–samudaya
3. The Cessation of Suffering–nirodha
4. The Path to the Cessation of Suffering–magga

and as can be seen is concerned with desire and being attached to desire. These Truths are a very powerful source of understanding as to why there are so many problems in the world today, if we all weren’t so fixated about our desires we could live more harmoniously. But the issues with reason are not connected with desire. When we have an entrenched position we are attached to ideas, and we are not free to understand the other person. Now politics is usually about entrenched positions so because we are attached often political discourse is a waste of time. However if in such a discourse we allow ourselves not to be attached to ideas, and genuinely listen we can perhaps learn.

This position of being attached to ideas also applies in different arenas – not just politics, and this can mean that we are not open to the logic that can refute the ideas that we had become attached to. In some cases people identify themselves with their ideas or conceptual thinking. This is particularly the case in religion where we attach to the dogma of the religion – we consider it a faith. Because it is a faith it becomes irrefutable and yet they are only ideas. Typical might be the Ten Commandments where we believe totally in these Commandments. Whilst as a moral code to guide our lives they are excellent, to take them as rules that have to obeyed irrespectively is a form of attachment. Equally one can say this about the 8-fold Path of the 4 Noble Truths, whilst they are intentionally vague to treat them as laws without questioning is a form of attachment as well.

But there is a different form of attachment that my discussion concerning discourse led me to, that we become attached to a process. Reasoning is a process and as a process of logical thinking to dispute erroneous causality and conclusion it has tremendous value. But when do we need to apply that process? Or perhaps a more appropriate question is – do we apply a process of reasoning when it is not appropriate? It is my assessment that inappropriate use of reasoning is a serious problem. Through science and our education we have been trained into believing that all that should be accepted as truth should be open to logical proof. This is an aspect of what Pirsig called the Church of Reason. Whilst there is much that reason can ratify, asserting that logical proof is the only means of accepting knowledge is limiting. Yet academia and the education process that sets academia as a goal presents knowledge in this way.

But for me there is an important corollary to this academic approach, and that is political manipulation. Above I referred to Blair and his plausible manipulation in his book. Whilst I have not read the book I can accept that his book appeals to reason. When I read what the friend wrote about what was in the book I could see that it had rational plausibility. Let me make that assumption, that his presentation was rationally acceptable. Do we then conclude that it was plausible? I don’t, I claim the wrong tool was used to assess it. This man was a puppet of the 1% war machine, and he spent much of his time in parliament justifying sanctions against, and the invasion of, Iraq. Whilst Saddam was a dictator who hurt the majority of his people, this invasion was never justified and the results of the invasion have proven that. The case for invasion was based on false logic that has subsequently been proved, but prior to the invasion that information was withheld from us. We were never able to make a rational assessment of all that Blair and his backroom staff used, and that was the intention. So to attempt to discern the truth by competing on a rational basis with his assertions was doomed before we started. This was not by accident but it is a tool of government – to feed us with part of the information and assert rationally that the course of action is justified (in this case the result was the cause of the deaths of more than a million Iraqis). Knowing this is what is done, having this insight into the way governments control their democracies, approaching the question of whether we accept their actions cannot just be a question of rationale. In the particular case the war against Iraq was immoral, and should not have happened. Tony Blair was a political liar, ought never to have been believed, and we should not have gone to war.

The key word in the assessment of this political approach is insight, we need to use our insight to determine our assessments politically – as reason is manipulated. Insight is never taught in our education institutions, and is definitely discouraged by many teachers. A student asserting an insight would be refuted unless there were sufficient rational evidence to back it up. Why? If it is a genuine insight the student needs to be rewarded for the process, not have the insight dismissed for lack of evidence. Rationally supporting an insight is a good tool to develop, but dismissing that insight because it lacks evidence is not good education. We need to encourage the use of insight in the education process, a UK insight concerning Blair and his approach might well have saved lives in Iraq.

For me reason is a process of logical development often of insight, and within that context it is valuable. Applying reason without clear insight into the situation (such as in politics) is open to misuse and manipulation by the forces that include our governments, as such avoidance of reason is advised unless we can be sure we have all the information. Can we ever be that sure?

  1. naivelysage says:

    “The case for invasion was based on false logic that has subsequently been proved, but prior to the invasion that information was withheld from us. We were never able to make a rational assessment of all that Blair and his backroom staff used, and that was the intention.”

    You use this as an exemplar for your claim that the application of reason in political discourse is futile because the knowledge that the discourse is based on is in the hands of the powerful. You argue that by token of their access to privileged information the powerful will always win rational arguments. I don’t believe that this is the case.

    Blair and his crowd simply did not win the intellectual argument. The resignation speech by Robin Cook highlights the intellectual paucity or plain dishonesty of the case for war. The decision to go to war was faith based nor reason based. Blair appealed to faith that he had privileged information that he could not share and that contradicted all that was actually known.

    Governments, particularly western governments, espouse rationality as a principle but their real position is that revealed by a Bush aide in a moment of uncommon openness:

    >>The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”<&lt;

    I am proud to be a member of the 'reality based community'.

    I do not believe that reason and insight oppose each other. To use an analogy with mathematics which you know far better than I, insight operates at the level of ideas or ideals (recognition of axiomatic truths) and at the level of particulars (perception or grasping of a connection between particulars and between the particular and the ideal). The dialogue between Socrates and the slave boy is the classic example of the use of reason to evoke insight in a student.

    As you know I am perhaps irrationally passionate about reason. Our recent conversation reminded me that I have, in the past, felt a little pagan about it; even to the extent of whispering the occasional prayer to Athene the goddess of Wisdom. For me Insight and Reason are both aspects of Wisdom and when Reason is being abused by the powerful I would consider it shameful to abandon her. Reason does not serve the establishment she is merely their hostage.

    I recall that several years ago a line manager commented that there was some kind of antipathy between me and higher management; she said that it was because I was more rational than they were. I resisted the cheap quip that it was white men who were supposed to be most rational … but, you will understand, I did not feel in any way insulted.

  2. zandtao says:

    Thanks for the comment. I can accept that Blair lost the intellectual argument but what was the result? Nothing. Blair took the UK into war against the will of the people and the consequence of the allied actions was that more than a million Iraqis have died.What is then the point of the discourse? Blair is now wealthy earning millions as a pay-off.

    What was the purpose of the discourse? To ensure that there was not an insurrection when Blair went to war. He succeeded in that.

    Could it have been any different? I doubt it, the 1% have control and Blair was their puppet. Changing the way we see how politics works might enable the people to have an impact. In this case as with many other cases winning intellectual arguments does not affect actions.

    That is why I harp on about Occupy. They seek action. Whilst they have the intellectual tools to compete they choose not to.They have sought alternatives to the intellectual discourse that has played into the hands of the 1% since and before I have been alive.

    • naivelysage says:

      Occupy is an important movement because it appears to be concerned with action outside of the normal structures of political discourse. This does not mean that they are not using reason, they have to as it is essential to communication. They and you are right to recognise the futility of depending on this tool in the struggle. Rove’s comment, that “we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”, is instructive and we should take that instruction in creating our own realities the difference is that we remain committed to wisdom through insight and reason while the establishment is committed to the service of power through force.

      • zandtao says:

        Below is the way I see reason, and I am unable to see it your way. I believe it is very important to put reason back in its place, and that’s that for me. For any kind of meeting of minds on this, there might be value in a precise investigation of terms such as wisdom, insight and reason, but even that is so difficult when discussing transcendent terms like wisdom and insight. At the moment all we are doing is rehashing “he said she said” as there is no attempt at consensus and as we are simply stating our positions there is no attempt at learning.

        To me this is just circular discourse and I suggest we leave it:-

        “You cannot gain wisdom through reason. Insight provides the basis that reason can use to develop. Wisdom comes from insight, not the reasoning that develops the insight.

        Learning occurs through insight not through reason. Reason cannot go deep, it only provides what is falsely called “academic learning”, depth occurs through insight. No amount of reasoning can change that.

        You describe reason as a passion, I see insight as Path and there is nothing more valuable than Path (Path is far more valuable than passion) and reason is often a restriction to finding the Path.”

  3. naivelysage says:

    Our positions derive from who we are, from our experience, from the way we define ourselves, and from the definitions we associate with particular terms. These things do not change easily.

    In discussion my object is not to persuade or to be persuaded nor necessarily to arrive at consensus. I seek not simply to state my position but to deepen, examine, clarify and refine that position in the light of another’s understanding.

    If there is consensus it is at the level of mutual respect for differing interpretations and visions or at the level of agreement to work for common objectives regardless of differences in perspective.

    In the course of a dialogue I ask myself questions such as what does this assertion mean to me? How does it relate to my own premises and understandings? How do I feel emotionally about it? What is my reaction and resistance? FOR ME it is out of these questions and considerations that learning happens and that insight arises.

    The question of circularity in discourse is something through which insight and learning may arise. Is circularity necessarily inferior and less conducive to insight than linearity? If discussion serves the deepening of my own understanding through allowing me to explore and express that understanding then I consider it worthwhile regardless of the judgements of others on that matter and regardless of any judgement as to whether we have ‘gotten anywhere’.

  4. […] following is a quote of a post I made to an old friend’s blog. It arises from an extended conversation we had been having about ‘Reason, Insight and the […]

  5. naivelysage says:

    Having re-read this. I can see that while it does pretty accurately state my position and concerns around discussion it’s incomplete. What I realise I have said is that I am invested in certain positions and see things from those positions and commitments. While I do examine those positions I have to ask if that focusing on my own positions and framework blinds me to all that is being said in a dialogue. Essentially is the past blinding me to the fullness of the present?

    Often in dialogue we (I’m not sure how much I do it .. it’s easier to recognise in others) are waiting to make our point and select out of what is being said the bits we want to respond to while ignoring other stuff that might be important or even contain the real substance of what is being said.

    I noted this in my blog at but thought it appropriate to post here also.

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