Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reason is a Tool

A New Yorker subscription is a relentless fire hose of interesting information. I would be a much more interesting person if I read every weekly issue in its entirety, but could only do so if I quit work, ignored my family and friends and eschewed all other social interaction, thus rendering my newfound appeal worthless. I’m calling this the New Yorker Magazine Subscription Paradox.

In any case, a February issue has been hanging around my bathroom long enough that I finally read some small portion of it, and I found an interesting little snippet in John Lanchester’s review of Jonathon Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis”:

"People who suffer damage to the frontal cortex can lose most of their ability to experience emotion while retaining their ability to think rationally. But they don’t therefore see the world with crystalline logic, so that life suddenly becomes simple. On the contrary, Haidt reports “They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or set goals and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, ‘What should I do now?’ they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other.”

Although this may be the opposite of what one might initially think, it confirms what I’ve long believed – logic and reason are mostly at the service of desire and emotion in humans, and are not commonly used to weigh evidence in decision making.

This is not to say that people don’t develop opinions or change their minds based on logical arguments. I would guess that this has happened at some point in the course of human history. But let’s face it - people mostly start with what they want or feel, and then develop arguments to justify them. Mere facts are no match against an idea that one is emotionally attached to. It explains how people justified Manifest Destiny, why slavery persisted for so long and why George W. Bush is still president.

It is also interesting that the most selfless acts often seem to make the least sense. For example, turning the other cheek is a hard sell, even though in the end it creates a more real and lasting peace than returning violence with violence. Why is that such a hard sell? I think it is because our first emotional reaction to being attacked is to return in kind, so we rationalize it to also make the most sense.

It isn’t that logic and reasoning are terrible things that we should completely ignore. It is just that we need to see them as the tools that they are, rather than as the first and last words on an issue. We need to understand that our motivations and emotions and desires are what drive us to seek reasons for what we do, and that identifying those desires helps us to understand each other as much or more than our stated reasoned arguments.

So, according to this theory, it is only *after* understanding the desires behind someone’s reasoning is it justified to oppress them for being that way.


John said...

This is exactly dead on. I've built a research career in machine learning and neuroscience on exactly the premise that we are constantly discovering our goals from our desires and values, and it has never steered me wrong.

I often think the difference that would be made in history if Descartes only said, "I desire, therefore I am." That is a much more solid basis to address the challenges of ethics.

Dan S said...

Well, hey, it's good to know that my off-the-cuff desire for this to be true is backed by actual data :)

Good Descartes modification too. It makes sense that desire has more to do with ethics than thinking does.