21 February 2020

Who is the winner: reason or emotions?

Who is the winner: reason or emotions?

Our question or questions of this genre are an old problem in philosophy and as we would expect a lot has been written about it. Thus any self respecting search engine on the internet should come up with a decent representation of the reason-emotions problem. Indeed, any references of the problem written these past few years would accept that there is no real problem at all between the emotions and reason. In effect one needs the other not to mention that both have their distinct function in human beings. Over and above this scenario researchers in neuroscience are making inroads into how the brain functions, especially in the context emotions.

In the context of modern day use of emotions and reason we accept that somehow reason is by far a higher order ability than simply reacting to events through the emotions. Emotions are the vulgar uncivilized motivating causes. No one disputes that emotions have a causal effect on our actions and today it is accepted that emotions also have a causal effect on reason. We work harder to buy the latest sports car.

Indeed for many centuries in modern history we find the rationalist philosophers and the empiricists battling it out for the high ground of philosophy. And rational philosophy was supposed to be a higher order philosophy: at least in the propaganda war. Rational philosophy was the quest for true solid permanent knowledge that did not change with the weather, with the state of our eyesight and so forth. So the emotions lived in the body and reason (also rational reasoning) lived in the mind.

But this duality was not destined to hold forever despite the efforts of renaissance philosophers ad beyond. How could there be two separate entities of different forms and yet they are found in the same historical tempo-spatial body each characteristic with its own identity? It is not that emotions and reason are of different forms but that these are or supposed to be diametrical different. So it is not that emotions and reason are different but these renaissance philosophers suspended their reason in the face of the changing empirical nature of emotions. Let me try and repeat this idea: these philosophers used reason to create this new "entity" they called reason (rationality) to reject the status of emotions and empirical evidence.

However, these past philosophers were correct in assuming that reason was a higher order form of causing or motivating action when compared to say emotions. It is not that reason, and to remind you we also mean rationality, generates automatically or by its very nature superior knowledge, but that the methodology we use for reason can result in more advantageous knowledge in many cases.

The methodology for activating the emotions and thence action is physiological, instinctive, of the here and now. This is important for events happening now to avoid danger; when we encounter a snake in our path we instinctively want to avoid it, a cat would, a horse would and a normal human being would. Unless that is the human being "knows" that this type of snake is harmless and that it makes a good dinner when poached with certain herbs.

The difference between us trying to avoid the snake and the hunter trying to catch the snake for dinner is that the hunter knows the snake is harmless, knows how to handle the snake and most important of all knows how to cook the snake or knows someone who can do it for him or her. Whereas we know nothing useful about the snake: only the bare survival minimum, run away from it. Thus the same empirical information activated different parts of our brain because we have different sets of knowledge related to snakes. This does not mean that we are always right but that we never act without the necessary set of information relevant to a situation. But when we don’t know the emotions tend to kick in.

I am inclined to argue that both the emotions and reason require a certain set of information and knowledge to be activated. The hunter that does not see the snake is not elated that he found dinner for the evening, and we who saw the snake are filled with fear. Thus the key factor for us is not emotions or reason but information-knowledge or no information-knowledge.

Now in the savannah or jungle it makes sense that the first to see the snake or the human would have a better chance of survival if one of the two reacted quicker. Today in Western society we do not preoccupy ourselves much with snakes, but cars are as dangerous as a snake. Except today our proverbial hunter does not cook a car for dinner but sells the car to someone who is not afraid of cars, or not that afraid of cars, and with the profit buys dinner.

The reason why rationality is still today highly regarded and considered a higher form of motivation is because reason is more in tune with long term planning; precisely finding ways and means to avoid danger in the future and thus have more time to be happy. But the idea that reason and rationality can somehow lead us to a superior form of morality and ethics is off course a load of nonsense. There is no evidence to suppose that being rational will lead us to being good or morally good anymore than reacting from an emotional impulse is less a moral being.

Someone who instinctively pulls a child away from a coming car is no less performing a morally good act than someone who spent the nights thinking about some magic creatures on how to be good. But it is all about the information and knowledge sets we have in our brain: if the person did not see the car the child would be dead, and if the person contemplating during the night was happy they wouldn’t seek justice for unusual sources.

Economists, psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have a hard time creating real life experiments to study but sometimes politicians oblige. In 1929 German nationalists (including the Nazi party) managed to organise a referendum against the enslavement of Germans: the context being the Treaty of Versailles; they failed. It wasn't until the majority result of the referendum in 1933 to leave the League of Nations that opened the way for the Nazi party to become the monster we now know about. Basically a rational instrument (referendums) led to one of the most evil periods on this Earth.

The modern equivalent of a situation where reason was used to the maximum effect to emotionally influence the electorate was the departure of the UK from the European Union. The genesis of this event goes back to the late 60s and  early 70s when the UK economy was practically bankrupt and the international financial institutions forced the British governments of the day to either let these institutions manage the British economy or join the then European Common Market. Those on the left objected that this would reduce the protection of employees by privatising nationalized industries and those on the right object because this would introduce rules and discipline in the financial market something they were not used to before.

Like Hitler (which I use as shorthand for German right wing nationalists) the politicians in the UK had a legitimate point. Hitler was right to object to the Treaty of Versailles which was probably one of the worst treaties ever created. An in Britain the loss of empire, the cost of the Second World War and the intransigence of management and workers created an inequitable situation for people and instability for the economy. Except that the situation of the UK in 2020 is a product of using reason to influence xenophobic emotions and arrive at the result of the 2016 referendum and 2019 general elections.

The irony is that in 1929 and 1933 Hitler did not and did not try to cheat in the referendum; but it is now legally accepted that the Leave campaign criminally cheated to arrive at a leave vote in the 2016 referendum. And at the time of writing we are still waiting to find out how Russia helped influence the 2016 referendum result and subsequent elections in the UK.

So yes, reason does causally affect emotions, rational justification does not necessarily lead to justice and morality, and emotions can be the mindless slaves of reason. Thus as far as who won between emotions and reason, none have won for the simple reason that those, in my examples from the UK and Germany, who succumbed to emotional xenophobia believe they are right and those who used reason to influence people emotionally won because they got what they wanted, the protection of off shore tax havens in the case of the UK.

But this is not the end of the story. I would argue that today the race is not really over but that the race is now whose rational methodology works best to influence emotionally the largest number of people to help the few get what they want from the many. We can use reason to avoid mindless revolutions or wars by accepting the principles of democracy or we can use emotions to spend our income frivolous on things. The methodology does not have the right or wrong answer, it’s just a methodology.

By the way have you noticed that this ratcheting up of reason and rationality is very similar to the evolution of religion? One sect proclaims to have better powers to heal and fix sins and another can reward believers in more desirable style than another sect. The methods are the same it’s what we put in the methods that matters.

Best Lawrence

best Lawrence

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