How Our Survival May Depend
Less on Reason and More on "Being"
By Srini Pillay, M.D. and Jim Selman
Could homo sapiens as a species choose a different branch in the evolutionary tree? If so, what ‘homo-something-else’ should we become? In this 2021 article, Jim and neuroscientist Dr. Srini Pillay, consider what will be necessary to cultivate in this transition.
Personally, we like the notion of evolving from sapient, knowledgeable humanoids into Homo Exsisto, emergent human beings. (Exsisto means “to be, emerge, exist, arise or come into being”). However, what got us here—our historical reasoning and way of being—won’t necessarily ensure our survival.
For centuries, common sense has dictated that reasoning, grounded in logic and language, is the key to our progress and continued existence. This taken-for-granted belief is at the core of how we normally think and relate to the world. Now is the time to question it.
John Ralston Saul, in his 1992 book Voltaire’s Bastards, argued that ‘reasoning’ was an invention of the “Enlightenment” and that, while our capacity to reason can be a powerful tool, it can also make us prisoners of our own minds and produce many dangerous, potentially fatal and sometimes intractable problems for individuals and society. In effect, when we become our reasoning, we lose the distinction between who we are and what we think. Our beliefs and our explanations about how the world works become distorted. In practice, when logic and language dominate our worldview, we become spectators—blinded to possibilities, limited in our ability to discover and embody new ideas, and challenged to generate meaning in life.
Considerable evidence already exists that our reasoning is not simply based on logic or language. Scientists have observed that emotions strongly determine “logic”.1 Intuitions powerfully influence our decisions.2 And language is not necessary to solve logical problems (e.g. arithmetic): brain-damaged patients can still add and subtract, solve logic problems, think about another person’s thoughts, appreciate music, and successfully navigate their environments even though their language centers have been destroyed.3
Ample evidence also suggests that conventional reasoning—logic and language—is not a crucial variable in discovering new ideas. Steve Jobs, in his famous Stanford commencement address, articulated how you cannot join the dots moving forward,4 and Albert Einstein indicated that his discovery of the theory of relativity was the result of “musical perception”.5 This is consistent with recent scientific findings that key brain pathways involved in thinking and feeling are in constant Brownian motion,6 and that the brain is more dynamic and entropic than systematically or linearly organized.7
Even with all this evidence, we continue to let our rationalizations trap us in a closed, self-referential system. For instance, we can observe the divisive and polarized nature of discourse in the United States. Current approaches to unrest rely heavily on reasoning. People are mostly defending their arguments based on whatever logic they are using. Opposing sides rarely listen to each other’s language. They believe their own points of view. Both logic and language are being weaponized, resulting in an atmosphere synonymous with the “Wild West” in which actions in the frontiers of social media encourage more uncertainty, paranoia, disagreement, polarization, and disillusionment. Twitter-based rants by aspiring autocrats indicate we are in the process of “hitting bottom”. Decent, loving and valuable human beings who are not as “fast on the draw” are at risk of unnecessarily going extinct.
Unless some form of transformation occurs, we will continue down this path until we hit bottom.
Let us try on the idea that we are—all of us—addicted to reasoning and that we have become prisoners of that addiction. Acknowledging our addiction is just the first step: it helps us begin to distinguish how we think from who we are. But, as every addict knows, acknowledgement is only the first step: avoiding the path of self-destruction is a matter of recovering our ability to choose.
No one knows what the future will be. However, in every situation, in every conversation, we have a choice of how we are “being”. Embrace and cultivate our ability to choose our way of being in the world and we can begin to accept responsibility for who we are and what is possible. We have found that, when it comes to choosing, the homo exsisto way of being, which is consistent with Einstein’s and Jobs’ version of discovery, is far more likely to lead to the solutions we so desperately need as we buckle under the weight of our historical reasoning.
Which brings us to “existential confidence”. This is our term for an important capability that human beings cultivate in the midst of this transition from ‘sapiens’ to ‘exsistos’.
Existential confidence is a way of being in which we trust the way we are. In this state, we believe that we are sufficient enough to deliver on promises that have not been delivered on in the past, promises which are frequently unreasonable.
When we have existential confidence, we drop our shields of defense. We allow other people to see us fully so that we can see them fully. And we also recover our sense of wonder and have a comfortable relationship with the mysteries of existence.8 We take on any challenges we face in a state of consciousness that is fresh and imbued with what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”, that ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”9 Rather than react, we meet any view with genuine curiosity. Curiosity will make us smarter and able to attend to what is relevant.10 We will also remember more, and our brains will have far more time to assimilate critical information that needs time to surface. Such curiosity about what is emerging, reflected in “neuroemergentism”, is how we can make the best use of our critical faculties.11
Adopt this new way of living in the world and we—ALL of us—will likely access far greater rewards and much more pleasure in being alive than is possible in the current state of argument (which will eventually lead to the extinction of homo sapiens). Instead of substantiating our own points of view, this new way of being will allow us to shift our attention to solving the greater problems of global unrest and conflict.
While we can certainly reflect on the results of this evolutionary process logically, we cannot reach this new way of being rationally. Instead, it requires a kind of spaciousness and accommodation of others’ points of view, a form of mental hospitality and caring for others.
And so, to begin, we suggest no action. Simply, pause.
This may sound facile. But it is not. Creating this mental break will literally create new mental real estate, new space in which each of us can accommodate the innumerable diverse opinions of our rapidly exploding population.
If we do not pause soon, the dark derision and dissension of our times will continue to only serve the loudest and most volatile among us. The quiet voices of decent, loving and valuable human beings will not be heard. The wisdom that arises within and between us, wisdom that could ensure the survival of our diverse and beautiful society, wisdom that could be key to our survival as a species, will be lost.
Jim Selman introduced the concept of “coaching” into the culture and practices of business in the 1980s with his landmark article “Coaching and the Art of Management”. He is the author of “Living in a Real-Time World: 6 Capabilities to Prepare Us for an Unimaginable Future”.
Dr. Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and leadership development expert. He is the author of “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.”
1 Kristen A. Lindquist, Tor D. Wager, Hedy Kober, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. “The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review”. Behavioral Brain Science. 2012 Jun; 35 (3): 121–143. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X11000446. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences/article/brain-basis-of-emotion-a-metaanalytic-review/80F95F093305C76BA2C66BBA48D4BC8A#.
2 Valerie F. Reyna and Charles J. Brainerd. “Dual Processes in Decision Making and Developmental Neuroscience: A Fuzzy-Trace Model”. Developmental Review. 2011 Sep; 31(2-3): 180–206. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.004. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214669/.
3 Evelina Fedorenko and Rosemary Varley. “Language and thought are not the same thing: evidence from neuroimaging and neurological patients”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2016 Apr; 1369(1): 132–153. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13046. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214669/.
4 Steve Jobs. Stanford Commencement Address delivered June 12, 2005. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/.
5 Albert Einstein. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://aosa.org/music-quotes/albert-einstein/.
6 Skirmantas Janušonis, Nils Detering, Ralf Metzler, and Thomas Vojta. “Serotonergic Axons as Fractional Brownian Motion Paths: Insights Into the Self-Organization of Regional Densities”. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience. 2020; 14: 56. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2020.00056. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncom.2020.00056/full.
7 Julian Q. Kosciessa, Niels A. Kloosterman, and Douglas D. Garrett. “Standard multiscale entropy reflects neural dynamics at mismatched temporal scales: What’s signal irregularity got to do with it?” PLOS Computational Biology. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007885. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007885.
8 Judi Neal. Handbook of Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace: Emerging Research and Practice. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013.
9 Stephen Hebron. “John Keats and ‘negative capability’”. May 15, 2014. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/john-keats-and-negative-capability#.
10 Hongxia Duan, Guillén Fernández, Eelco van Dongen, and Nils Kohn. “The effect of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on memory formation: insight from behavioral and imaging study”. Brain Structure & Function. 2020; 225(5): 1561–1574. doi: 10.1007/s00429-020-02074-x. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00429-020-02074-x.
11 Brian MacWhinney. “Neuroemergentism: Levels and Constraints”. Journal of Neurolinguistics. 2019 Feb; 49: 232–234. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2018.04.002. Accessed June 21, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6329393/.