Supplemental from Think Inc – Emotion

Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Thoughts | 3 comments

“I wish 2 inflame debate. Rationality is not everything. There is more 2 life, and to deny emotion is 2 deny humanity of creativity. Discuss!” – @MartinPribble

One of the topics that came up during the Think Inc conference was the one of emotion, and to what degree is emotion an important part of being human. To some extent, I think this was actually a more prevalent message from the conference than the actual topic “What does humanity need to do in the next ten years to survive and flourish.” In fact, I think the topic from the conference was only brushed upon, and what was discussed was actually prompted by ideas that came up from questions from the audience. The inclusion of the poet Shane Koyczan in the line-up, while surprising, was actually a highlight of the conference for many, which is surprising given that most people there would call themselves “rationalists”, and Koyczan’s poetry was all based in emotion.

In discussion with people about this topic I have seen thoughts surrounding the importance of emotions to humanity be expressed in a range which falls somewhere between two opposing camps, which I will present below.

Camp 1 – Emotions are Harmful

One of the common understandings of the rationalist movement is that there is no room for emotion, that all things must be explained rationally in order to be worthwhile, and that all things related to feeling and emotion are to be regarded as weaknesses. Some even regard emotion to be the enemy of intellect or rationality, and it should be quashed at all turns. It is true that emotions comes from an irrational place, especially when emotions result from a reaction to a situation, and the stronger the emotion, the less rational the reaction can tend to be. These emotions can hinder conversation, they can muddy debate and drag what could be otherwise a constructive interaction between people down to become a display of feelings and preconceived ideas. When a debate or conversation heads down this path, emotions flare, wounds are created between parties, and resentment rears its ugly head, people tend to withdraw, turtling up and putting up their emotional defences. While this is human nature, it is not constructive. According to this logic then, emotions should be effectively banned from any debates, because they distract from the topic of debate.

I totally understand this viewpoint as may times I have been involved in a debate, or watched William Lane Craig argue the existence of God with the likes of Sam Harris, where emotion is used as the primary weapon against reason. Tapping into insecurities about the specialness of humans in the “grand scheme” of things, playing on fears that people might have about being animals, or harping on the apparent futility of life without the existence of God are effective in only that they use the emotions of a listener who already has fears about these topics. They do not help us to decipher truth or fact from any situation.

Additionally, making decisions emotionally is a bad idea, as the rational pathways that we should take are overrun by feelings or intuition rather than a real assessment of what one should do. The decisions made emotionally often end up being rash, rushed or just make no sense ing the grander scheme of things, and we have all made decisions too hastily which we regret later.

Camp 2 – Emotions are Everything

Emotion is very much a part of being human, and should therefore be included in debates on the nature of our existence on the universe. I am a thinking AND feeling being, and my emotional state should be taken into account when decisions are made, and when arguments against my beliefs are taking place. Without emotion, life is stripped of it’s beauty and wonder, and we become mere machines whose only real purpose is to breed and carry on our DNA progeny to the next generation. Without emotion things such as art, music and poetry have no place in humanity. An emotionless society casts all others but the self aside and we are left with an existence where one looks only after the interests of the self. The rights of others cease to be important, as do the issues concerning human welfare, human well being, and the wellbeing of the planet as a whole.

Emotion is what allows us to love each other, to bond with out children and our fellow family members and friends. Emotion strengthens these bonds.

Emotions have given rise to some of humanity’s greatest achievements; the lows and highs in classical orchestral music, the lyrical brush works in a painting by Cezanne, the lows and highs we experience during a Shakespeare play, the excitement we feel while reading a book.

Emotions can’t be rationalised, but their existence, and the fact that we rely on them all the time is testament to how much we need them. The rationalist standpoint cannot account for this need.

Camp 3 – The Way I See It

I am one if those people who see the situation as need a little from Camp 1 and a little from Camp 2, but don’t think I’m sitting on the fence, and by no means is my assessment an attempt to placate anyone from either side.

Rationality is crucial in derermining fact from fiction, and “what is” from “what is wished to be”. Emotions can and do get in the way of rational thought, and can cause lapses in judgement to the point where bad decisions are made.

On the flipside, when talking about ideas of religion, afterlife, death and love, rationality can seem a little cold, falling short of describing the feelings that are associated with religion, the want for afterlife, the finality of death and the earning for love. Emotions allow us to feel these states, and anyone who’s ever felt elated at the results of a football match, swooning in love, or mourning in death will admit that these moments are the ones that make our individual lives special.

Emotion can and is described by science in a variety of ways; coping mechanisms for stress and loss, chemical reactions to stimuli, etc., but science is at a loss as to what emotions feel like. As should be the case. Science is not in the business of feelings and emotions. It is in the business of analysing. Emotions exist despite this analysis.

To go back to my original premise, to deny emotions is to deny humanity of some of the greatest and most powerful events and sensations we will experience, and human life is all about experiences. As rational people we have to realise this is the case, especially when arguing against people who have such passion about their beliefs, be they religious or political. It is no good to fly at someone hammer-and-tongs with rational thought on an issue that they have evaluated on a purely emotional level. Likewise (and for this reason I would be poor at one-on-one debates) when arguing rationally, emotion must be left aside. It is not welcome in debate. Always attack the idea, not the person.

I think the answer lies in empathy. We are all, for the most part, affected by our emotions, and so can better understand how someone else might be feeling, or why they are angry, or why they believe something. Most people can see reason, but judgement may be clouded by feelings of certainty, of familiarity, or of fear of the unknown. Passion is fuelled by certainty. Comfort comes from familiarity. Defense comes from fear.

So when debating, a good idea would be to determine what you hope to achieve, assess your goals and stick to them. I wouldn’t call emotions a weakness, but they can have a nasty habit of derailing conversations.

I as much as anyone else like to revel, to celebrate, and yes even to mourn. Its all a part of the fabric that makes us human, part if our richness, our creativity and our uniqueness. Celebrate this, but don’t forget to leave emotions aside when debating reality. It’s all part of being human.

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  1. Well said! Rationality is not about denying emotion, but recognizing it and understanding when it is interfering with us when we wish to be (more) rational.

    Context is typically what matters. Sometimes emotions are appropriate or even called for, other times, they need to be set aside to the extent possible.

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  2. Very succinctly put, Marty.

    I often have to explain to some of my more believing friends that I don’t seek to become totally rational (besides the fact that it’s humanly impossible), just better at it.

    My own psychology sometimes presents difficulties in debates with others, and I’m studying argumentation to work around that annoying situation to make and deliver better arguments.

    I can be roused to awe when beholding some scenery or looking at the stars, but I’m very much interested in emancipating my reason (to paraphrase David Hume)from slavery to the passions as much as I can, at least in discussions of matters of fact.

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  3. Nice post Marty.

    I think I want to distinguish between emotion in “argument” and emotion in general life. On the latter, emotion is one of the great things (and difficult things) about being human.

    I think reasoning works best without emotion – HOWEVER, one should be careful as I think our emotions also give rise to intuitions that can tell us important things. Reason alone can sometimes appear to lead to arguments that are actually abhorrent. Our reason is not perfect, and our emotions can sometimes indicate where we’ve got things wrong, even if the “reasons” seem watertight.

    This is why I was uncomfortable reading Charles Watts – a great early rationalist (quoted here ) who said “[Reason] fosters and regulates the emotions. There is no denying that some of the noblest thoughts born of human genius have emanated from the impulse of emotion, but it was that emotion was controlled by reason.” Although I haven’t yet got a fully worked out – logical ;) – argument for why I “feel” that ;)

    I think that’s the point of the Spock and Data characters in Star Trek. Both characters are “missing” something, in spite of their great logical abilities. I followed up my thinking in my “Why I’m not a strong rationalist post”

    An an aside, I really liked this quote by Watts: “While some rely entirely upon faith as their rule of life, others seem to attach too much importance to the lack of it. The latter contend that belief cannot save mankind, but they ignore the fact that neither can mere unbelief.”

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