Irrationality permeates our lives. We suffer from the irrational acts of others, and in turn perpetrate injustices through our own irrationality. Wanton aggression, senseless prejudice and self-destructive vice disorder our societies and efface our collective dignity. Even when we devote ourselves to the pursuit of rational and moral conduct, our emotional impulsivity undermines our noble aspirations and we act absurdly and chaotically. Life in the twenty-first century testifies to the fundamental irrationality of the human landscape. It mars our every stroke.
And yet in some undeniable respects we are incomparably reasonable creatures, endowed with large brains and ingenious methods of manipulating nature. We fashion astonishing machines to ease the difficulty of modern life and combat the oppressive boredom arising from our routine existence. We consider ourselves “masters and possessors” of nature’s potency, to use Rene Descartes’ famous phrase, and our technological aptitude has improved humankind’s material conditions beyond anything our forebears might have imagined. Since the industrial revolution we have transformed the face of the planet, recasting its vast topography in our likeness.
These two traits, irrationality and scientific ingenuity, collide uniquely in our species. Neither can completely supplant the other and so remain locked in a struggle for domination. Sensing the incompatibility of our ineradicable instincts, we suffer supremely among all creatures.
Ironically, the more incisively we exercise our rational capacities the more keenly we feel the grip of irrationality. We apply reason most perspicaciously precisely at the point where we encounter its limits [Kant], where irrationality resists assimilation within scientific categories. In mapping the boundaries of its own utility, reason shows itself incommensurable with the totality of experience. Were we to amass the entire corpus of scientific knowledge, the realm of human irrationality would stand unaccounted for, defying our quest for comprehensive understanding. We may order natural phenomena according to genus and species or track the orbits of matter in motion, but our own actions remain inscrutable. The human animal’s irrationality opens a gap in the cosmos that science cannot suture shut.
This is the abyss—the lacuna felt by all who have endeavored to reduce human experience to a body of scientific propositions. Despite the spectacular capacity of scientific inquiry to penetrate the depths of nature, personal adversity demonstrates our inability to explicate the forces propelling our lives. Not only in difficulty, but also in moments of unaccountable ecstasy, we feel the abyss yawn open to expose the inexplicable pulse of existence. When standing in the presence of great art or joined in romantic union with a lover we fall silent before experiences beyond our comprehension. Science can provide no convincing account of abyssal encounters; they either elude empirical explanation or lose their significance when disfigured by rigid formulations. The wonder and terror of beauty and love—and the irrationality of human conduct—cannot survive translation into the desiccated verities of neurochemistry and brain science.
The abyss renders life and its pursuits tragic, even while most of us pass our time blissfully unaware of the tension at the heart of our experience. Were we more attuned to the abyss’ insistent plea, we might ponder its astonishing presence in our lives; but we no longer pause over the wondrous perplexities upsetting our otherwise orderly existence. “Wonder,” said Plato, “is the beginning of philosophy.” There is ample cause to wonder if we would only summon the courage to admit how many of life’s splendors lay shrouded within the abyss’ confounding shadow.