Monday, March 21, 2011

Emotion & Reason

Emotions are not tools of cognition. This simple and fundamental statement about the relationship of reason and emotion is both profound and trivial. It's profound in that it makes a clear distinction between the two that we often see blurred in the minds of many people, who see emotion as an immediate, unmediated, and infallible source of knowledge about the world. These people would do well to contemplate the simple truth that their feelings aren't cognitive, that they aren't conceptual awareness of the facts of reality.

On the other hand, the idea that emotions are not tools of cognition is also trivially true. Because we recognize cognition to be an operation of the rational mind (whatever that might be), and we see the operation of the rational mind as a distinct from the emotional mechanism (whatever that might be), then it is simply true by definition that emotion is not a tool of cognition... or that emotion is not a tool of reason... or that emotion is distinct from reason.

Equally fundamental, elegant, and simple is the fact that "Reason is not a tool of Feeling", though I've never heard this phrase uttered by an objectivist, or anyone for that matter. This is simply the inverse of "Emotions are not tools of Cognition". The profundity of this is that it makes a clear distinction between the two that we often see blurred in the minds of many people, who see reason a means for feeling. These people would do well to contemplate the simple truth that their ideas are no substitute for feeling, and that their ideas about what they feel are not the same as actually feeling.

On the other hand, the idea that reason is not a tool for feeling is also trivially true. Because we recognize feelings to be the result of the emotional mechanism (whatever that might be), and we see the operation of the emotional mechanism as a distinct from the rational mind (whatever that might be), then it is simply true by definition that reason is not a tool for feeling... or that reason is not a tool of emotion... or that reason is distinct from emotion.

According to Rand, emotions are subconscious, automatized value judgments. Reason is an active process of focusing the mind... of differentiating and integrating. In the Romantic Manifest, she describes the interaction between the two... stating that for every thing we encounter in the world, we ask two questions. We ask "what is it" (identification), and we ask "what does it mean to me" (evaluation). She proposes that there is then a parallel development in consciousness that results from this duality. In one direction there is reason, presiding over our conceptual framework. In the other direction, there is emotion, presiding over our values. We can't think conceptually without reason, and we can't experience our values without emotion.

However, emotion does not fuel itself. Emotion relies on the rational mind, since we cannot form any but the simplest pleasure/pain values without the use of our rational minds to provide conceptual statements of meaning. This would seem to suggest that reason is the more important function, and therefore we can rely on reason to tell us what we feel. After all, it is reason that answers both of the questions, "What is it", and "What does it mean to me". Reason seems to be in charge of everything, and since we're in charge of our reason, then we can be in control of our thoughts and feelings by using rationality.

This belief that reason can be used to both think and feel is what I'll refer to as psychological rationalism. It is the opposite of the the reliance of emotion, which I'll call psychological emotionalism. The flaw in psychological emotionalism is pretty obvious... that you can't feel conceptual knowledge. Concepts have to be pursued actively. The flaw in psychological rationalism is less obvious.

Well intentioned objectivists will always deny being rationalistic, though I doubt they could tell you why. It is this inability to articulate the cause of rationalism that makes it unlikely that they will avoid it. The trap is this... that reason is not in charge of the mind. If you believe that reason is in charge of the mind, you will always end as a rationalist.

Does this mean that emotion is in charge of our minds? Probably more so than reason. However, that's not really the answer. I believe that what is "in charge" of the mind is a cooperative, interlocked process whereby reason and emotion are just two aspects of consciousness. We divide them for the purpose of analyzing them, but that division only exists in our minds. To carry on as though this were a real division forces us to choose one or the other.

One might say that just because your consider them separate, you don't need to choose one over the other, that you're not forced into the dichotomy. But this is false. One is always forced into the dichotomy when one accepts the very separation that the dichotomy relies on... which is the rejection of the fact that they are two aspects of the same consciousness that are united in every action of the mind.

The way in which these two aspects of consciousness are united requires that we break them down a bit more. I think that we can conceive of reason and emotion as having an active and passive part... or more likely a reactive and proactive part. The break down is as follows.


    Reactive   - reinforcement of value and physical reaction based on value associations in our
    Proactive - active process of experiencing the world, directing our attention to what we care about,
                       and only after that attention is directed thus do we have a context for thinking.


    Proactive - active process of forming ideas, but cannot begin if we don't have a value association
                       with the object that we are considering.
    Reactive  - thinking is mostly reactive, in the sense that we plumb our context of knowledge for
                      conceptual connections that allow us to relate new phenomenon to other knowledge.

"What it means to me" is primary to "what is it". Emotion is primary to reason. Emotion begins life as the pleasure/pain mechanism of the organism, and is not evaluative in the way that it becomes later on. This is parallel to the way in which concept formation isn't present immediately. The ability to feel derives from our animal nature, and keeps us forever connected to that nature. The ability to think also comes from our nature. But whereas our animal nature requires that we feel (due to pleasure/pain responses)... there is no requirement to think OTHER than in response to our feelings. Thinking begins life in relation to pleasure and pain, and even as it evolves away from such basic considerations, it never changes it's relation to feeling (emotion). We begin to think because something affects us (pleasure pain), and over time we think because things "mean something" to us (emotion).

Our emotional life is not only the standard of value, but it is forever establishing the context of relevancy (what it means to me) that reason requires. We direct our gaze not with reason, but with emotion. Once the gaze is directed, reason steps up and does it's thing. Reason is an organizing capability, and like so many organizing principles, we incorrectly make it an end in itself... and we start to view the organization as more real than the things organized. This is a mistake... leading (as stated earlier) to psychological rationalism.

This unbroken chain of action and reaction begins at birth, and doesn't stop.. We might take a slice of this and analyze it as follows:

    Emotionally Pro-Active Step:     We desire to focus on something.
    Rational Pro-Active Step :        Focus on object and analyze it.
    Rational  Reactive Step:        Compare new information with context of knowlege.
    Emotional Reactive Step:        Physical reaction and reinforcement of value.

Emotion is not cognition, but it is awareness. In fact, the vast majority of our awareness of the world is emotional in nature.

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