Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rational Emotion

This is my response to Jenn's post Dismissing Emotion.

There are two kinds of mental process, conscious and subconscious. We can report the logic of the conscious mind, but we can't observe or give an accounting of the logic of the subconscious. However, many people learn the skill of explaining their subconscious processing after the fact, "rationalizing" the conclusions they came to subconsciously. Doing this completes a feedback loop in which the rules the subconscious uses in its processing can be updated. Basically, the conscious mind can be used to discard the false premises the subconscious may have been relying on.The movie Memento illustrates the inverse of how this is supposed to work. Instead of reliably updating old information with new, our hero deliberately deceives himself.

What is emotion? It is the motive impulse, the thing that drives us to act. It is the expression of mental processing, the result of our thinking, where thinking includes conscious and subconscious mental processes.

The conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to act on impulse/emotion. However, this is something of a misdiagnosis. It isn't that emotion is unreliable, it's that in new situations our thinking is not well-developed and can be mistaken in its conclusions. The conventional wisdom is correct that it's best to pause and take stock and to seek to understand the situation in new light so as to avoid mistakes. But emotion versus reason is a false dichotomy. Emotion flows from reason.


  1. Robert, I love this post.

    Everything you say here makes a tremendous amount of sense, even though it's different from how I (and I think most people, since I haven't heard anyone else express this before) see things. From the time I was very small I remember separating out reason from emotion, my intellect from my feelings.

    But I think you're actually closer to the truth. They're not in opposition, not a real dichotomy.

    Brilliant! :)

  2. Hi, Robert. It is with the utmost respect that I say that I think what you've written is completely backwards. Emotion does not result from conscious thought; it occurs initially and independently of reason.

    The parts of our brain from which emotions arise are some of the most primitive, nestled alongside and closely connected to the parts that regulate autonomic functions like breathing, heartrate, perspiration. Lizards possess many of these components but do not have a cerebral cortex with which to think rationally. Emotions are implements of survival, evolved millions of years ago as reactive means of acquiring the resources and inducing behaviors that were essential to our making it through to live another day.

    Going back to Jenn's initial and fantastic post, this is precisely why children feel and express their emotions so freely: they have no alternative. They have little experience with either their emotions or logic. By unleashing their emotions fully whenever and wherever they feel them, they make their problem become someone else's problem, and they greatly enhance the likelihood that someone will meet their needs. As adults, it's far more likely that we'll annoy others by doing this, so we learn to apply reason to our emotions and to become self-sufficient. (Well, some do.) By the same token, we *could* spend our entire lives crawling (or running around the house), but it is simply more effective for us to do otherwise.

    Are our emotions affected by our rational thought? Absolutely. We can easily contrive in our rational minds circumstances that evoke moods and feelings within us. By doing so, what we have actually done is more akin to creating an awareness of an artificial reality that exists only in our imagination and then reacted emotionally to that awareness as if it were real. I can do it right now, knowing full well that there really is nobody outside my door beating up my co-worker.

    One of the things that interests me most about all of this is how quickly our societies and our lifestyles have changed over the past few hundred years so that our survival-based emotions no longer match the realities of our day-to-day lives. And how poorly some of us are able (or willing) to intercept those emotions and adapt them to actual circumstances.

  3. Bob,

    Have you ever felt one way about something, thought about it for awhile, and then felt differently about it afterward? I know I have.

  4. Absolutely, Robert. But that does not imply that feelings arise from thoughts. It does, however, support the idea that our emotions are responses to our circumstances *as we understand them*. By your logic, those initial feelings that changed upon reflection were themselves products of some causal thoughts.

    Instead, I think your initial feelings were reactions to your preliminary understanding of your situation, and your subsequent ones to a revised understanding that was influenced by your thinking. There is definitely a loop here in which reason and emotion influence each other, but that does not logically mean that thought causes feeling.

  5. I'm not seeing the distinction. My feelings arise from my understanding of my circumstances. My thinking generates my understanding.

    'Preliminary' means what? How long has it been since you started thinking about your circumstances? A long time. So you've been in the loop of thinking -> feeling -> acting -> observing -> thinking for a long time. You could say that you have many years of accumulated understanding that's come from all of that thinking. Many years of programming your feelings through this feedback loop, so that you can act effectively in the moment, without thinking. You did your thinking ahead of time, ahead of this moment now when you need to act.

  6. Robert, I'm very confused. You've made very clear that you feel that human beings are inherently valuable, but you've said that it's something you can't explain with reason. If I've understood you correctly, you've even said that it troubles you somewhat that you can't explain it rationally. I've always been satisfied that you don't need to; it's a feeling that you have, and feelings are not rational and do not require rational explanation.

    But now, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that those feelings themselves arise from thinking and reason. That part I absolutely do not understand, especially given your previous descriptions of your position. Perhaps what you've been saying is not that it's a feeling that you have but that it's some Absolute Truth (that human beings are valuable) and that you are in possession of some quasi-rational awareness of this fact but are unable to put words to how you acquired this awareness. I'd love for you to clarify this piece.

    As a Plan B, please explain to me the love (emotions, I hope) that you feel for your daughters. From what thoughts of yours do those feelings arise? An awareness of your responsibility as a parent to nurture them? I don't think so. I think you're wired first to feel that love and then to use reason to determine how best to act upon it.

    And what of your daughters' love for you? Did they emerge into this world with thoughts in place to enable them to love you? Did it take some time for them to develop thought processes that gave them the capacity to feel love? I really don't think so. I think they felt love in some primitive way, un-complicated by thoughts, the moment they arrived.

    Please look back on your post several months ago describing who you are. You are love, Robert. Remember? Now you're telling me that you're really thoughts that somehow culminate in love?

    Are you saying then that beings that do not have the capacity for reason neither have the capacity for emotion?

    What of instinct and impulsive reaction? Are you saying that subconscious thoughts must be present to react emotionally? I disagree in the strongest possible way, and I think there's a large body of neuroscientific research that disagrees as well.

  7. Emotions are a kind of reflexive reasoning. They arise from a millenia of trial and error problem solving, i.e. evolution. They are like desk-top short-cuts, and the vast majority of the time they work great. But although emotions are a quick and cheap way to process and react to new information or thoughts, there are cases where they run as afoul. Fortunately, we're equipped with a back up system called "reason," which can short and override emotions when appropriate. Too much reliance on emotion or reason tends to make a person stupid. Emotion is like an biological tradition, tacitly expressing knowledge captured by countless generations.

    Of course, it's a bit more complicated than this, but you get the idea.

  8. In addition to the above comment:

    Since emotions were not designed by an engineer with an explicit purpose, and the problems that emotions solve may not be obvious to our reason, people have often deemed emotions to be irrational.

    For people who consider themselves rational, one ought not to act without a reason or explicit goal, because one ought to be able to "justify" their actions in accordance with reason (as though appealing to a higher court). But emotions can't work like that because they emerged spontaneously without an explicit goal. In other words, what matters to evolution is that emotions solve problems, and not that the emoter can specify those problems and explain how the reacting to the emotion will help.

  9. Bob,

    Sorry for not replying for so long. My position is that feelings arise from the program that you execute as you process your surroundings. I think we show up with programming already in place, hence the suckling instinct, etc. However, I also think that we humans, at least, have an enormous potential to re-write that programming through conscious thought, and through interpretation of experiences. I think that explains why I felt one way about experiences when I had them, but now feel differently about those same experiences later in life -- because my understanding of those experiences has changed.

    I don't see a contradiction between this and what I've said previously.

    Maybe there's a question about how much of the programing I was born with is still intact, and maybe there are questions about my ability to distinguish between my native programming and the programming I've written through my own mental processing. Certainly there are questions about that. But those questions don't dissuade me from my belief that I am constantly rewriting my programming, and therefore changing what I will feel in response to future stimuli, as I think and try to understand.


    I don't disagree with you, and I heartily agree that it is complicated. Here's how I think my view agrees with yours: One should seek to use reason to re-write one's programming, because the programming one is born with is not reliable.

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