Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

Emotions and Reason.jpg

1. Is Hume correct that reason is the handmaiden of our passions?

2. Are not the technological achievements of which we are so proud primarily evidence of the preeminence of reason? 

3. Why are academics and the Enlightenment tradition so derogatory toward our emotional make-up and its effects on our behavior?

Like so many of you, I was trained and accepted the idea that emotions are inferior stimuli to action. Passions seem so out of control, random even. Plus they often seem so explainable. Running from the unexplainable is a common defense we deploy to prevent persist, debilitating rumination. Then when we think of the horrors that one group of humans can so eagerly deliver to another group unfortunate enough to have the wrong sacred text, ethnicity, sex, sexual preference, or parents, we see more emotion than reflection at work.


But multiple thoughts have caused me to modify my views.

1. Neuroscience and behavioral social science have persuaded me that the victories of reason over emotions are a broken metaphor. How many books must one read documenting cognitive heuristics that interfere with our careful reasoning before we start to question the thickness of the boundary between the reasoning of children and that of adults. Reason and emotions are partners, often best represented by Jonathan Haidt.

 The elephant representing emotions can be controlled by the rider, here representing reason.  But the contest about who is in control is persistent and unbalanced.

The elephant representing emotions can be controlled by the rider, here representing reason.  But the contest about who is in control is persistent and unbalanced.

But what about medical research, men on the moon, complex missile systems, bridges that function dependably again and again and again? Well, those achievements are formidable, but how did human energy become focused on those wonders, rather than a plethora of alternative creations humans could have used their reason to develop? I find it difficult to answer that question without thinking about aspirations, fears, and hopes. Are these forces and their intensity explained by reason?

I do not mean, can you create a reasonable narrative to explain their hold on us? Of course you can. Reason is a flexible tool. Its uses are varied and almost unlimited. But then how do you privilege or defend the correctness of that narrative? You will of necessity have to appeal to the pathos and ethos of your narrative.  In other words, you will return to the emotional roots of your effort to justify the prominence of reasoning in human affairs.

2. So many of our basic life decisions seem clearly unexplainable except by an appeal to our emotional make-up. I know what those immersed in science say at this stage. They say that I am using emotion as a default to name the current limits of reason.  In other words, soon enough those who think they are the high priests of reasonableness will be able to explain human behavior in its entirety.  

I am always puzzled how someone can make that argument and then an hour later denounce religious beliefs as wishful thinking. Where would you go to explain that contradictory behavior?  Personally, I would do so with a concoction of reasons and emotional commitments, both of which to me have explanatory value in explaining our behavior.

Emotion or Reason?

1. Listen to 2 songs for me. a. Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, "Time to Say Goodbye" and b. Kathy Mattea, "Where've You Been?"   How do you explain your reaction to those songs? Reasons or emotions?

2. Watch the movie MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. Do you disagree that an abiding fascination with a smile should not guide love when you, a very rational person, have dozens of good reasons for not being attracted to the person? But is it not entirely realistic given what we have seen with relationship formation that the unexplainable frisson associated with that smile can overcome any pile of reasons.

3. Read Irvin Yalom's LOVE'S EXECUTIONER and try to explain how love can persist when every seminar room full of reasonable folks would shout "ENOUGH ALREADY."

4. How can soldiers plunge forward to their highly probable death or demolition?  I can offer something that sounds like an explanation using emotional language, but I would be hard pressed to make a list of good reasons for doing so.

So where am I now? And where are you?

 I think there are many good arguments for seeing emotions and reasons as potentially friendly enemies.  Let me explain. There seems to be little question but that certain emotions have roots in the uglier elements of our humanity. Repugnance toward those emotions were an understandable influence on the French Enlightenment. The ease with which people wreck havoc and injustice on others based on what seem to be emotional drives or needs is disgusting.

But all of us can name emotional sentiments and expressions that motivate the most noble parts of our humanity. People do tend to rescue lost children when they see them. The motivation to do so is magical, not clearly sensible. In other words, certain emotional potential we possess can call forth reasonable solutions to problems. 

Just as certain emotions push us toward war crimes; others propel us toward sympathy and fraternity. Reason in turn can redirect potentially ugly emotional emphases when Rwandan leaders strongly reinforce forgiveness for atrocities against their loved ones ON THE GROUNDS THAT REVENGE MERELY REPRODUCES MORE VIRULENT FORMS OF RETRIBUTION.

1. Does an evolutionary model of explanation undercut everything I argued above?

2. Is there historical evidence that reason is gradually becoming dominant?

3. Why are so many utterly beguiled by reason when that tool can be used to justify almost anything?

AuthorM Neil Browne