The Dichotomy of Reason and Spirit

29 January 2021

2017 words: 7-8 min read time

The Dichotomy of Reason and Spirit

We all know the struggle between our heart and our brain. The brain seeks reason, while the heart seeks passion. More appropriately, we might refer to the mind as reason and the heart as the spirit. This writing will look defining more closely the brain’s activity – reason – and the spirits activity – feeling. It will provide definitions of both and compare them, showing that i) though they are contrary, ii) they are both right in their own way, and iii) they are unable to understand the reasons each other provides. I will first each describe reason and spirit, then contrast them, and finally give my opinion on how they should be handled.  

The brain and the spirit/heart/soul are doomed to eternal conflict. When I say brain, I mean reason, thought, and rationality. When I say spirit/heart/soul I mean those volitions we get as feelings or intuition that drive us and seem contrary to reason and will refer to it as just “spirit”.

Reason

Reason defines what is good based on experience and rational argument and is said to originate from the brain. It acts as a mentor, using doctrine to follow based on what is best, given the circumstances. It follows words, theories, concepts, dogma, structures, and formulas based on experience, objective truth, and facticity in a structured argumentation from premises to conclusion. Reason is our religions, schemas, education, and causal knowledge. It knows what is right through constructs and objective soundness. It mostly concerns what is right in the long-term. The power to know we followed our values drives adherence to reason. When we see a cake, we might think of the calories (concept), nutrition, cost, our promise to honor our diet, etc… For instance, reason might formulate the following argument:

  1. Drinking a lot is fun but gives me a hangover.
  2. I do not like hangovers.
  3. They cause great harm after the fact.
  4. Drinking too much can also cause physical, social, or reputation injury.

Therefore,

  1. If I drink too much, then I will most likely pay for the moment of fun with a hangover and potential injury.
  2. I do not want any injury.

Therefore,

  1. It is right that I should not drink. The benefits are not worth the cost.

We see that reason is working from the concept of physical safety, balance, law, and ego. It is considering the potential subjective experience but bases itself on objective fact.

Spirit

The spirit on the other hand takes a different approach. The spirit is said to originate from the heart, chest, or gut. Spirit does not seem to originate a feeling from the head. It is more widespread bodily focused, though generally in the torso. The spirit acts as a guide to our subjective state, relying on how a thing feels, how much value you gain regarding experience. It has to do with positive feelings of warmth, tingling, emotion, epiphany, elation, and joy. The spirit uses feeling and momentous experience based on subjective experience and subjective truth. It mostly concerns what is right in the short-term. The raw power to feel ecstasy, joy, connection, and the feeling of “rightness” within the soul. Symbiosis, connection, balance, reciprocity as subjections of qualities of the soul. When we see a cake, we think of how it would taste, the texture, aroma, and the impact on the senses. An argument from the spirit might go as follows:

  1. Drinking a lot feels good.
  2. Feeling socially included.
  3. This feels right.
  4. Spirit needs release.
  5. I’ll be okay.
  6. Screw reason, this is “right” opportunity.

Therefore,

  1. I’ll drink a lot, it’s right.

We see here the emphasis on “feel” and the subjective aspect of it. We also see, like reason, it claims to be right. They also arrive at different conclusions.

Spirit vs. Reason

When we act, it is often not in isolation from spirit or reason. It is difficult to just go on reason or spirit. Though in conflicting situations, we often consider both but must ultimately decide of relying on one or the other. Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics states that “decision is a deliberative desire” and the principle of action is decision, meaning that to act we need deliberation using correct reason towards the correct desire (NE vi.2 1139a23-25). Because we need desire, a spirit feeling, in action, to act is a symbiosis of reason and spirit. Though reason is the master of both.

            In the arguments above, reason and spirit both claim to be right and have contradictory conclusions. We cannot both have reason and spirit as the master. Reason and spirit constantly battle. Reason defeats spirit with logic, creating mental and life balance and peace of mind; spirit defeats reason with raw subjective experience the “right feeling”, creating harmony of soul and connection to the universe. Both believe they are right and true. And they both are right and true in their own way. Objective truth resides in reason, subjective truth resides in the spirit. Our mind knows what is objectively good and our spirit knows what is subjectively good. Spirit is good for us, and reason is good for us as well as others. Spirit can seem to transcend reason in ways reason doesn’t understand, and reason seems to have a pointed focus or structure that spirit lacks.

Spirit tells us what to do from a warmth, pulling in the chest, butterflies, and turmoil within the torso. Reason tells us what to do from a feeling of knowledge, brain chatter, a pulling sensation in the head, and rolling thoughts. The spirit takes the highway on a road trip with no destination, reason takes the calculated route to get from here to there as efficiently as possible.

A Personal Example. Recently I had a strong battle of mind and spirit. I met someone new as a potential romantic partner. We talked and interacted. We managed to figure out that our concepts, values, ideologies were nearly contradictory. I am a deeply dedicated Christian who relies on doctrine, honor, and justice. I like to be cautious and enjoy planning. She, a spontaneous free-spirited pagan chaotic mistress who enjoys subjective joys. Thus, reason would dictate we are not meant for each other. But even with the awareness that our qualities are different, we did have one thing in common. We felt subjectively attracted and right with each other on a level reason cannot explain. So, the dilemma was that either I follow what I know to be true and right within reason, or what my spirit says is right. Do I follow that my reason is right in that a companionship would never work, or do I follow that my spirit tells me a spirit connection is right? I cannot ignore then strength of both, but I do need to do one or the other (politely refuse any further interaction, or give into more primal, subjective desires).

Aristotle and Plato’s Conception of Reason and Spirit. The problem occurs when we practice the mind or the spirit too much. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics book ii chapter 6, argues that a good life is one that follows virtue according to reason, for which virtue is a mean (balanced middle) between different states of being. We aim for specific virtues of characters (dispositions or states of being) which are means between the extremities of behavior. For instance, courage being a virtue, one can be cowardly (deficient extreme) or rash/impulsive (excessive extreme). The mean is bravery, neither being too cowardly, nor rushing into every situation without reason. Virtues of character are a part of the soul that could listen to reason but is not reason itself. I take this as Plato’s “lion” of the soul in his tripartite division of the soul (Plato thought we had rational soul, spirited soul, and a beast soul – from most rational to least rational). Plato’s thumos (spirit) seems to correlate best with Aristotle’s division of the soul here. He also believed the thumos was not reason but could listen to reason.  

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/da/70/4e/da704e9e7a49202b2b7772220ce5a134.jpg

Though I must make something clear. I am describing that the soul is dualistic, not tripartite, like Plato and Aristotle argue. We can listen to thought or feeling. Perhaps this “feeling” part of the soul does break up further, but I am not making this distinction. From my experience there’s a dual nature to the basis of choices and action and this is what I describe here.

Within music is rational beauty – the arpeggios, the keys, key transitions, beats, pauses, timings. They all create a harmony in the music based on mathematical timings and distances. But there is also the spirited beauty – the tonality, creativity, sounds, how the music sheet is interpreted, the soul within the music.  We can play music by the book, it can be mechanistically beautiful, and we can play music with soul, it can be subjectively beautiful. Two people may play the same music sheet and it may sound profoundly different. What I am getting at here is that we can see the rational harmony within the music from a construct framework – it makes reason to return to C at the end of a piece in the C key, but the spirit takes note of how hard and long the bow slides across the strings, and in what intensity. 

How Do I Think We Should Live with Them?

My interpretation from my own subjective experience of reason and spirit is that spirit is right in its own way. Reason is right in its own way. Reason is the dominant method we should follow, for a free-spirit is mostly self-focused. It wants what it wants and wants it now and overshadows consequence. Though we should not ignore the spirit. Reason is right but is right in a way that does not understand the reason of the spirit. The spirit is right in the way that reason cannot understand. Spirit can say “but reason doesn’t account for the feeling” and reason can say “spirit can’t consider sound objective fact”. Only when reason and spirit come together do we have true harmony in life. Sometimes this harmony is impossible, and we must listen to one over the other. Life without spirit is egotistic, lonely, dull, deficient, constrained, and predictable. Life without reason is chaotic, rash, error-prone, adventurous, and free. We can try in to find a mean between reason and spirit, or sometimes listen fully to spirit and sometimes listen fully to reason.

A person who thinks all the time
Has nothing to think about except thoughts
So, he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions
By thoughts I mean specifically, chatter in the skull
Perpetual and compulsive repetition of words, of reckoning and calculating
I’m not saying that thinking is bad
Like everything else, it’s useful in moderation
A good servant, but a bad master
And all so-called civilized peoples
Have increasingly become crazy and self-destructive
Because through excessive thinking they have lost touch with reality
That’s to say
We confuse signs
With the real world

Alan Watts: quoted from the song Inzo – Thinker

            Choice dictates we must select one or the other. Which one is ‘right’ depends on the one we value more. Do we value our soundness and adherence to doctrine, or do we value the potential subjective satiety? We must allow one to prosper, and we should never regret the chosen action, because it is right.

Conclusion

Reason resides in the brain and uses logical technique; spirit resides in the torso and relies on subjective feeling. They argue like dogs fighting over a single bone. Only one dog can get the bone, but either dogs is correct to get the bone. Spirit wants to achieve a height it has never achieved before, and reason wants to stay grounded and solid. We should always cultivate reason and spirit in our lives, since a life deficient in spirit or reason is one which is imbalanced. Once we realize that reason and spirit are mortal enemies doomed to an eternal struggle of conflicting understanding, we can take more solace in our decisions.  

Work Cited

Aristotle, et al. Nichomachean Ethics in Aristotle: Introductory Readings. Hackett Publishing, 1996.

Featured image credit: Corina Chirila (https://korethemaiden.wordpress.com/)

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