The Rational Roots of the Irrational

Posted by

This column was originally published in the Roanoke Beacon the week of July 10th, 2021.

It seems that the cognitive and intellectual tools that humans have at their disposal to understand and manipulate reality around them are fairly adequate within a medium range of things, tasks, and problems – hardly surprising, since they are probably adaptations to life on planet earth. These tools are mainly the capability to reason logically, to understand and apply the causal nexus, and to use practical concepts of time and space. These tools allow us to find out why the toilet is clogged, to remove the cause, and to restore the proper function of the device. They allow us to build bridges that do not collapse, to design airplanes that really fly, and to travel to the moon and back. They permit us to reason reasonably and solve many problems by way of logical thinking.

It also seems that these same tools become pretty useless when we leave the middle range of earth reality and venture into the macro-cosmos and/or the micro-cosmos, or when we try to apply the principles that serve well in medium-range situations as universal principles i.e. as principles that are valid throughout the universe.

Let me exemplify how this works and how the universal application of our most useful and practical cognitive tools inevitably leads to conclusions that are inherently irrational.

The Causal Nexus

The causal nexus is the principle that nothing can happen without a cause. Differently put: there can be no effect without cause and indeed nothing can ever change, move, develop, come into being, or cease existing without something else causing it to do so. Applied to medium range earth conditions this principle serves us well. It helps us understand why and how things happen and we can use it very effectively to manipulate the world around us. Understanding the principle of cause and effect is the basis of all empirical science and research. Applying it is the basis of all technology and engineering.

But if we universalize the principle of cause and effect by asserting that it applies anywhere and anytime throughout the universe we arrive at the inevitable conclusion that everything that exists must be the effect of one or more causes and that these causes precede their effects. If a cause did not precede its effect, it could not be the cause of this specific effect. It would be illogical to assume that an effect can precede its cause. I am ignoring time warp theories here because I find them unconvincing. Interestingly, the German word for ‘reality’ is ‘Wirklichkeit’, which is best translated as ‘the sum total of all causes and effects’.

The inevitable conclusion is that the universe is a chain of causes and effects and that, since causes always precede their effects, there must have been one primeval cause of all subsequent causes and effects. Yet, this is illogical again, since this primeval cause itself per definitionem cannot be the effect of a preceding cause – or else it would not be primeval. This leaves us with the choice of assuming that either there was indeed a first cause of all causes, a cause that itself is not the effect of another cause and hence is not the effect of something preceding it. We must then face the question of how this cause came into existence. There are two choices: the first cause of all causes could have existed forever (is eternal) or it could have caused its own existence (autogenesis). The first option leads us inescapably to the notion of eternity and the second one to the notion of self-generation. Neither of these concepts is rational or logical.

The other option is to assume that the chain of causes and effects itself is eternal. Again, we end up with the irrational notion of eternity.

In short, the universal application of the rational causal nexus leads us inevitably to the irrational concepts of eternity and self-generation. These concepts are irrational because they defeat the very same principle, which leads us to them and they are also inconsistent with the logical principle that any entity can only be identical with itself. The concept of self-generation mandates that an entity must be its own cause and effect at the same time. It mandates that it precedes itself and also follows itself.


Time is the modus of motion, change, development, sequentiality. Any two events that do not happen simultaneously require time to pass for them to happen. Or in other words: time is the identity-defining element between any two or more sequential events. We think of time as a time-line. A linear entity that extends from the PRESENT point back into the PAST and forward into the FUTURE. Since the transition of the future into presence and of presence into past is a continuous one, we could also conceive of future and past as one continuous time line with the PRESENT point being a dot on it that moves permanently from the PAST toward the FUTURE.

This raises the question of whether or not the time line has a starting point, a beginning and whether there could possibly be an end to it, as well. Could anything exist outside of time? Can we imagine a state of total motionlessness in which nothing changes, moves, or develops? Still, for this state to be reached something must have preceded it, which then developed into it. This notion requires time. Can we imagine time to have existed, then not to have existed, and then to exist again?

The going idea of how the universe developed into what it is today is the so-called Big Bang. It is assumed that it happened about 13.7 billion years ago and that since then the universe has continuously to expand. This means not only that we exist on a tiny piece of matter that is being catapulted away from the source of an explosion, it also raises the inescapable question of what was before the Big Bang. And whatever it was that exploded, why did it explode? What were the driving forces that caused the explosion? Did anything exist before the big bang? Has anything happened before the big bang? It sounds absurd to assume that the universe helped itself into being as its own midwife, so to speak. But if we apply the causal nexus to the Big Bang we end up with endlessness of time again, eternity, a concept we cannot rationally understand or define.

Applying the causal nexus to time and matter, leads to the inescapable alternative that we must either assume that both are eternal or that something caused itself into being from nothing. Neither is a rationally understandable concept. Parmenides argued that that, which exists, does indeed exist, while that, which does not exist, does not. In other words: non-existence does not exist. If we accept that and consider the fact that something does indeed exist, we must conclude that something always existed and something always will. Back to eternity.


Distances between things are real. They can be measured and the time can be measured a moving object needs to travel from A to B at a certain speed. As we expand our view and awareness farther and farther into the universe, which is filled with real tangible objects and some not so tangible ones we must ask ourselves what this thing we call “space” actually is. We know it contains identifiable material objects with measurable distances between them. But what is the illusive expanse that contains these things? If we could remove all matter from space, would there still be space? This empty extended something is not only puzzling in the macro-dimension. If we look into sub-atomic space, we find a reduplication of the macro-space situation: the subatomic particles of the atom are minuscule particles or energy quanta that move around in a vast subatomic empty space and what we call matter is mostly empty space with very few very small particles in it. And when you look at those “particles”, there isn’t really too much matter in them either. What this subatomic space really is, we can no more rationally fathom and explain than what the macro-space of the universe really is. And perhaps they are one and the same thing.

We can assume that space is itself endless. Unfortunately, we cannot understand the concept of endlessness of space any better than that of endlessness of time. If we regard space as a container that contains all these many galaxies, which we call the universe, we must ask whether or not this container itself may be contained in some other larger container. If we assume that space contains all the matter that is “flying around” in it then what contains space? Wherein does space exist? If we assume that space is not contained in anything else and that it is not endless, then we must conclude that space ends somewhere and if it does, what begins where it ends? If not another space container, if indeed nothing, we must then conclude that space, containing all astronomical bodies, is itself contained in nothing. How can nothing (if it does indeed exist) contain something? But if we assume that space is like a reverse Russian babushka, each space being contained in another space, we only end up with an endless sequence of containers or we would still have to arbitrarily stop at some point in which case we revert back to the start of the problem with space either ending somewhere or being contained in nothing. The concept of space leads to three concepts we cannot rationally understand: endlessness of space itself, endlessness of spaces containing spaces, or nothing containing something.


I hope I was able to demonstrate that the categories of time and space, and the principle of cause and effect, which we can use quite effectively to explain and manage our medium-range reality as we reason about it, using logical thinking, all lead to aporias that are irrational or even absurd when they are extended or projected into the macro-cosmos or the micro-cosmos or when they are universally applied with strict consequence. It is thus rationality itself that inevitably leads us to the concept of the irrational and the absurd, which may cause some ill-defined gray feeling of existential fear in many of us. Each of us must decide for him/herself how to deal with this. As for me, I have chosen the easy way out. I admit I just don’t know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.