Rebirth of Reason


Emotions and Reason
by Tibor R. Machan

     One of the oldest topics in human thought is whether emotions drive us or are we guided by reason. The ancient Greeks thought reason will rule if we only engage it, while David Hume, one of the most influential modern philosophers, believed that reason is the slave of the passions.
     In todayís neuroscientific climate the Humean doctrine is more prominent, mainly because the idea that emotions cause actions is easy to adjust to the notion that everything must have a cause outside or within itself to behave as it does. Emotions seem to fit the billóthey are deemed to be such powerful aspects of our psychological make-up. Whereas reason is less clear-cut as a candidate for something potent, powerful. When we reason, for example, nothing much happens that can be seen or felt. Cognition in general seems less potent than feeling.

     Yet there are experiences people have that suggest very strongly that reason is indeed potent and comes before passion, as it were. Take fear. Only once something is recognized as dangerous, hazardous, threatening and such does the emotion of fear arise. Well, one can also imagine danger, hazards and threats but then, too, a kind of warped cognition is at work to which fear is a response. Or take anxiety. It seems clear that something must be recognized as upsetting before anxiety arises in most of us. Indeed, the recognition of such upsetting or worrisome factors seem to underlie anxieties in most cases.
     I have recently been faced with the situation of fires raging through the region where I live and my particular place of residence has been subject to the threat of fire as well as its abatement, day after day, even hour after hour. No sooner did I learn of the fires subsiding, my emotions calmed down; as soon, however, as reports reached me that the fire is coming closer to my area, I became anxious, fearful, upset.
     This emotional roller coaster experience could very clearly be accounted for by reference to the facts I became aware of, facts my reasoning capacity could discern and understand. If the discernment and understanding pointed to the bad prospect of our area being consumed by the raging fires that had destroyed numerous residential areas of Southern California, my emotional state responded accordingly. And I have noticed the same in my neighbors, many of whom, evacuated as we all were, gathered at a huge parking lot about 10 miles from our community. The emotional yo-yo experience clearly illustrated that it was their reason that first put on record something important, such as a threat or its reduction. When things looked bad, they turned anxious, upset, fearful, angry, and such, whereas when things started to look good, they responded accordingly, started to smile more, laughed (a bit nervously, of course), made jokes, extended themselves toward others with friendly gestures, etc.
      Of course, none of this manages to amount to a controlled experiment, so maybe those who want strict scientific support for a theory will find it unsatisfactory. However, science didnít come before ordinary experiences human beings had and used to make judgments about the world. Indeed, if technical science fails to square with such experiences it is probably wrong. We start with those and when we reach more specialized notions down the line, it would be unwise to discard our starting point entirely.
      Reason is what we use to recognize the world, to figure out whatís what. Then, based on how we assess the impact of what we recognize on our well being, we respond with our emotions. Of course the situation can get very complicated so that it is difficult to figure out which is first, which next in every case, but generally it is more likely the case that our passions follow reason, not the other way around. When people do something out of a strong emotion, what they do has to be informed by what their reasoning shows them. Passions, desires, feelings, and such do not work as ways of identifying the world since identification presupposes judgment and judgments are made by the mind, by our reason.
Sanctions: 7Sanctions: 7 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (3 messages)