It’s a common misconception that excessive creative imagination breeds insanity. We think of the insane as people whose rationality has deserted them.
Pop culture celebrates the brilliance of mentally-ill individuals while mourning their destruction: Actor Robin Williams, writer Ernest Hemingway, scientist Nikola Tesla, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and countless others.
Did such brilliance occur in spite of such soul-crushing torment, or was it a by-product? Correlation is clear, but we can only speculate about causation.
Perhaps artistic impulse, if not the whim of creativity, is catharsis for the one engaged in too much mindfulness. Paradoxically, it’s logic, rather than imagination, that often leads to insanity.
REASON IS KING
GK Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
This suggests that in the relentless pursuit of truth, the superb reasoner has allowed his mind to collapse upon itself. He’s barricaded himself in the well-lit prison of one great idea, but hides himself from the fuller picture.
The irony is that when we travel to the other “extreme” of thought – that often considered reliable, authoritative and rigorous – there are remarkable similarities to the madman.
Let’s start with what most believe to be the highest authority: Science.
Early scientists were curious theologians. Like how one glimpses into an artist’s mind by studying every detail of his masterpiece, these scientists trusted their God-given minds and considered it their worshipful duty to unpack the hidden, divine nuances in the natural world for the common man.
And, well, it worked. Our nuanced understanding of cause and effect enabled food security, revolutionary medicine, seamless travel and our privileged way of life. The power of science resolves conflicts and maximises efficiency, all of which lead to greater well-being. Science is that which illuminates the subtle links between all physical things.
But some of its strongest devotees began to chase rabbits, going down rabbit-trails. If not careful, the curious scientist becomes a scientific modernist. Instead of trying to explain his observations, he enslaves himself to the theories of his predecessors. Theories redefine his existence and ultimately drown him in a sea of a million identities.
His reason lures him to a great void where he floats in limbo, separate from the crowds of the unlearned.
If not careful, the self-professed man of reason may throw out the baby with the bathwater because the baby is 70% water.
Trading wonder for order, the self-professed man of reason throws out the baby with the bathwater because the baby is 70% water. When misdirected, the most robust logic can become illogical.
Like the unlearned politician who denies climate change (“believe me”), or the pastor who clumsily makes an authoritative statement on science, the scientist often oversteps his boundaries: The astrophysics PhD runs a symposium concerning human rights and Trump.
The acclaimed biologist authors a best-selling book on hard naturalistic determinism – the idea that everything, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable consequence of previous events or laws – while mocking the historicity of the Old Testament.
One’s genius in his field does not give him the right to discredit experts of other fields. He’s merely become a very good specialist.
And for the non-sciency crowd, an even more insane form of scepticism is now making waves.
Often sprinkled into the innocent maxims of motivational speeches, young people are advised to “believe in yourself”. Few ever give it much thought, but some have taken such philosophy to an extreme and, in the light of great self-belief, doubt everything else.
Thus arise solipsists, who believe that the self is the only thing that can be proven to exist, and therefore that the mind is the only known reality. Everything else is unjustified and trivial; all experience is a dream.
For such thinkers, nihilism – the belief that life is meaningless – isn’t a long shot. Which seems harmless, until people start throwing themselves off buildings or start recreational terrorism.
Both the determinist, who trusts his senses too much, and the self-believer, who doesn’t trust them at all, are perfectly rational.
However, both have imprisoned themselves – the determinist has cut himself off from the possibility of heaven, and the self-believer from the world around him.
Perfect logic leads both to ultimate destruction. Such extreme theories are rigorously complete in theory but completely crippling in practice. It’s insanity.
The great thing about logic is that it leads you from point to point. It the little headlamp that lights your next step. It works amazingly well until you reach the crossroads, and – because your eyes are glued to the ground – you miss several crossroads entirely, without ever weighing the validity of other paths. You only considered one.
But when astronomers spot constellations, they don’t erase the other stars from their maps. Don’t shrink your perspective.
Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God that there are some things we accept (with great certainty) despite being unable to rationalise them: Our tendency towards moral outrage, universal human rights, the unnaturalness of humanity in a natural world.
Subtle but great implications follow: We’re either deluding ourselves by accepting these truisms independent of our (fatalistic) worldviews, or “the cosmic bench isn’t empty”.
There is a God.
Sometimes truth isn’t as elegant as we’d like, but it is still the truth.
I’m a big believer in reason. But reason cannot exist in the void. I often find myself walking the paths that lead to insanity, but by grace, God brightens the night sky so I no longer choose to see only the brightest constellations. Sometimes truth comes with difficulty, inconsistency, and apparent contradiction.
Sometimes truth isn’t as elegant as we’d like, but it is still the truth. I cannot run.
The greatest demonstration of this is the Cross of Calvary. It is the most absurd irony, the greatest leap of faith. At its core lies the greatest mystery – not illogical but beautifully, frustratingly, infinitely beyond reason – and in its light, all things become crystal clear.
“So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.
“It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
“But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)
So with good reason, I step into the light.