Unreason's seductive charms

posted Nov 06, 2003

Unreason's seductive charms. "... our rationality is bounded by what our brains were constructed -- that is, evolved -- to do." [dangerousmeta!]

The article really deals with two types of unreason, "strong emotions" and "not applying logic where it should be applied". Actually, the article itself covers how to explain the latter in a reasonable framework. In reference to a pure-logic formulation of a probem vs. a socially-based formulation of an equivalent problem:

whereas the first is a matter of pure reason, disconnected from reality, the second plays into issues of truth telling and the detection of social cheaters. The human mind, Cosmides points out, is not adapted to solve rarified problems of logic, but is quite refined and powerful when it comes to dealing with matters of cheating and deception. In short, our rationality is bounded by what our brains were constructed -- that is, evolved -- to do.

It is simply and quite unreasonably assumed that it should be immediately obvious that one problem is merely a transformation of the other problem. Well, truthfully, it's not; it requires examination and an informal proof (i.e., "I have convinced myself this is true", a very low standard) to determine that. I do not find it so unreasonable that a person may not immediately realize that, or that they do better in a context where the imagination is much more easily applied.

But I really wanted to address the first one, the "strong emotions are unreasonable" claim, as in:

For one thing, it may simply be that reason -- by definition -- is dry and cerebral, only rarely making inroads below the waist. Omar Khayyam made this trade-off uniquely explicit: "For a new Marriage I did make Carouse:/Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed/And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse."

I strongly disagree with this dichotomy. (And I disagree with the "by definition" part; there is no accepted definition of "reason" at this level of precision. "Reason", "rationality", "logic", and a few other things tend to thrown about and mixed freely. This isn't by definition, it's by choice.) The problem is that the "reason" being considered here is a parody, an abstraction, something that doesn't exist and shouldn't necessarily exist. "Reason" is simply assumed to be dry and unemotional, with no evidence, with no particular reason for this assumption.

It is quite analogous to the Euclidian axiom that parallel lines never cross. It was introduced because it was necessary to make it work.

Almost identically to the fact that the parallel axiom can be modified and one gets a very different geometry that fits many situations better, one can introduce "emotions" back into your basic axioms and continue applying logic to emotions. Emotions do not defy "logic", they merely defy logic as applied to axioms that explicitly wrote emotions out of the mix.

Gee, big surprise.

I mean really, are emotions so random? If you hurt me, I will be angry and, if I trusted you, betrayed. If you abuse a child, certain very predictable and sad effects will occur. If you see an attractive member of the appropriate sex while you are horny, you will have an entirely predictable reaction. If you are a volatile person and you are excessively insulted while rip-roaring drunk, you may try to kill the insulter.

These things may not be "reasonable" according to the parody of reason, but are they really "illogical" or surprising? Emotions are very rarely completely unreasonable, one must 'merely' use the right axioms to deal with them. With the right axioms, ones that acknoledge they are a real part of being human and they can not just be wished away, they are generally fairly amenable to treatment and certain limited manipulations. If you know you are going to get angry and hurt something you shouldn't hurt, you can choose to leave, whereas if you believe emotions are unpredictable, tempremental things that you are hopeless before, you might stay. But the truth is you could leave.

Of course this doesn't grant you total control; but you're better able to handle emotional situations if you come at them with better axioms then otherwise. (How many men have suffered in silence because "Men don't cry?" Well, they do sometimes. Understanding emotions won't let you get by without grieving, but if you know it must be done, you can do a better job of it then if you think you must not grieve.)

This is merely "emotional maturity" with a slightly different tack. Sometimes I feel I spend a lot of time here saying perfectly obvious things in a slightly different way, but the evidence suggests that much as it is not obvious that the purely logical formulation of the problem in the article is identical to the social one, it remains unobvious that logic and emotions do indeed mix.

I hate to sound like a self-help book, but understanding this is the basic key to living a life of "reason" and "emotion" in an integrated fashion, where they are not intrinsically at odds with each other. When I was young I used to imagine I was like Spock; now I realize how incredibly stupid and inflexible the Vulcan species is, how blind in devotion to an unreasonable logic they are. Their "logic" is not to be envied, but pitied.


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