The Romantic Logician

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As a logical, sensitive, systematic and passionate person, no dichotomy irks me quite like the one between reason and emotion. Since the enlightenment and beyond, these two human capacities have been viewed as diametrically opposite. Of course, reason—with its allegedly “masculine” temperament—has traditionally come out on top.

The opposition still exists, but it’s been reframed in terms of “heart” versus “head,” “feeling” versus “thinking” and so forth. These days, people self-identify with a particular hemisphere of the brain. “I’m a right brained thinker,” someone might say, “so I’m no good at math.” Our values have also undergone a shift. In our largely anti-intellectual times, the long-venerated Head—formerly the focal point of unbenighted rationality—now carries connotations of parochialism, aloofness and irrelevance. Think: “egghead.”

(Incidentally or not, in the 1952 presidential election, then-vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon used the term to disparage a follically-challenged political rival. Not long afterwards, a prominent rightwing novelist remarked that “the recent election demonstrated a number of things, not the least of them being the extreme remoteness of the ‘egghead’ from the thought and feeling of the whole of the people.”)

Borges once wrote:

I have frequently spoken, perhaps on too many occasions, of poetry as a sudden gift from the Spirit and thought as an activity of the mind. I now believe that, in all poets who are worthy of being read again and again, both elements coexist. How can Shakespeare or Dante be classified?

As Borges suggests, the dichotomy between emotion and rationality is simply too easy. Others take a similar line. In a paper titled “Virtue as Knowledge,” the moral philosopher Margaret Olivia Little makes the claim that both emotion and reason are essential to moral conduct. In light of our limited cognitive capacities, she argues, emotion shows us where to focus our efforts (e.g., our friends and families). It’s also what spurs us into action.

On the neurological level, too, it makes little sense to detach emotion from thought. Both are rooted in that lump of matter we call the brain. Both involve neurotransmitters and the activation of various neural circuits. But yet we continue to talk as if the two were as different as “warm” and “soft.”

“Global warming? That’s just a bunch of BS concocted by ivory tower intellectuals.”

“Theory’s nice and all. But see, I’m a practical person.”

“Don’t think about it. Just follow your heart.”

Perhaps we can go about it in another way. Following the work of Daniel Kahneman, many psychologists have distinguished between “fast” and “slow” types of thinking. According to Kahneman and company, fast thinking is “automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious,” while slow thinking is “effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.” Roughly speaking, then, we could say that emotion corresponds to the first type of thinking, reason to the second.

Yet the analogy isn’t perfect. Many cerebral-seeming heuristics, such as those pertaining to mathematical calculations, fall under the first type. Should we really claim that arithmetical savants are by definition highly emotional individuals? Most people would be inclined to think the opposite.

Another problem is that we can’t ever escape the theoretical. Not really. In “Why Theory?,” the Marxist post-punks Gang of Four sing: “People have opinions. Where do they come from?” Kant, for one, thought that all human cognizers were irresistibly drawn towards metaphysical speculation. Does God exist? Why am I here? Do other people perceive the world as I do? Similarly, the American empiricist philosopher W.V.O. Quine believed that humans are pretty much always practicing a rather loose notion of “science.” From old wives’ tales to the most casual of generalizations (“Looks like it’ll rain today…”), we extrapolate from past data sets to make predictions about the future. It’s a natural part of life, and it’s all theory.

So when you have a “gut feeling” about something, what exactly is going on?

“I don’t know why, but I really don’t like that dude.”

“I just know she’s gonna be alright.”

These sort intuitive responses could have their basis in evolutionary psychology—or so some eggheaded scientists would have you believe. According to one theory, certain “psychic” activity can be explained with an appeal to heightened (and thoroughly non-occult) perceptual abilities. In such cases, the psychic is unusually adept at reading non-verbal cues, at making inferences, at reading between the lines. When she says, “I’m sensing that someone important to you just passed away,” she’s picking up on a myriad of subtle hits and signs, not least of which might be the slight quiver in your voice as you utter the word “mom.” Oftentimes, the psychic is fooling even herself.

In a Kahneman-esque experiment, a lone subject must decide whether or not to contribute to a church donation box. In one version, a painting of Jesus adorns the wall above the box. In the other, the wall is left blank. In both cases, the subject believes that she’s making a completely autonomous decision. Still, she (reliably) happens to be most generous when she’s standing beneath the Son of God’s judgmental gaze.

“I just felt like I should give something…”

What does this show? If nothing else, it suggests that our gut responses occasionally have reasons behind them, even if these reasons remain largely hidden from us.

“Hey, is something wrong?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

Some of the time, these reasons fully justify our intuitions. This would be especially true, for instance, in the domain of interpersonal interactions. But would it be possible to make these reasons conscious? Or to say it another way, is there a necessary gap between the content of our intuitions and the content of our (rational) thought?

It may be no more than a feeling, but I suspect that certain things—things like persons, societies and ecosystems—are just too damn complicated to (fully) understand on a rational level. Chomsky makes a similar point when he writes:

Someone committed to [the scientific method] (as I am) can consistently believe (as I do) that we learn much more of human interest about how people think and feel and act by reading novels or studying history than from all of naturalistic psychology, and perhaps always will; similarly, the arts may offer appreciation of the heavens to which astrophysics cannot aspire.

And perhaps therein lies the purported disparity between theory and practice. Like Kahneman’s first mode of thinking, theorizing should be rigorous, systematic and slow, which makes it ideally suited to such activities as quantum physics and maybe even formalist poetry. But riding a bike? Loving your partner? Not so much. And perhaps a great deal of anti-intellectual sentiment stems from the suspicion that theory has overstepped its bounds.

But has it? And how can we tell? Such questions seem far too specific—far too atypical—to trust solely to our intuitions. Rather, I’d like to suggest that we view them as points of discussion, of debate, of inquiry. In other words, we ought to examine these questions in a systematic, explicit and ultimately rational manner.

Of course, when a politician accuses his rival of “ivory tower intellectualism,” the aim isn’t to throw some accountability on the latter’s approach. No, the charge of eggheadedness is meant to curb any possibility of further conversation. Unlike my Enlightenment forebears, I firmly believe that the cluster of concepts surrounding emotion—pragmatism, intuition and so on—play a crucial and legitimate role in our knowledge. But tread carefully, for these concepts can also be used to mask gross indolence of the mind.

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