Working Together

Working Together

One trap that freethinkers and other proponents of rational thinking should avoid as they would a hungry bear out for a stroll, is the tendency to think of reason as the opposite of emotion and thus of emotion as the frenzied sweaty trembling enemy of cool calm Reason.

That’s not how things are.

For one thing, at the most basic level, it’s now understood that damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion doesn’t result in a hyper-rational person but a dithering useless mess. Cognitive science is demonstrating that emotion is not the antithesis of rationality but a necessary part of it.

But more than that, for the purposes of thinking about human-related subjects – moral, political, social – it’s not rational to exclude emotion from the discussion, because humans are emotional. If you try to talk about human affairs in the terms suitable for talking about machines or blueprints or chemistry, you will get a train wreck.

I don’t mean that people arguing or writing articles about moral or social issues should be in a heightened emotional state themselves; I mean they should not pretend the subject is a matter of pure logic or number-crunching or engineering.

Above all, what we should not do is claim that our argument is Pure Reason while that of our opponent is nothing but emotion. It won’t work, for a start, and it’s not likely to be true, and it’s toe-curlingly arrogant. It helps to remember that we all have enormous built-in cognitive flaws, and that it’s never safe to assume we’ve managed to correct or avoid all of them at any given time.

In any case it’s pointless to pretend we can think and talk about moral or political issues with emotion neatly extracted, because the reason we want to argue about them in the first place is because we care about them. They matter to us. We don’t bother to argue about things that don’t matter to us. Morality is rooted in feelings – we want some things and want to avoid other things. Morality comes in when we extend that to other people – that is, when we understand that other people have the same basic needs we do and …

The next step is the tricky part. It’s easy to want good things for me; what’s that got to do with wanting them for you, let alone all seven billion of us? There are various answers – oxytocin, parental care, co-operation and sociality, reciprocation, trust, expanding circles, and more, but the basic combination of wants and aversions, plus understanding that others share the same wants and aversions, is the foundation.

The goal can’t be to strip emotion out of our thinking on these subjects, but only to channel it in the right ways. That requires both reason and feeling – and as Hume pointed out, feeling has priority.

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them – The Treatise of Human Nature

Kenan Malik, below, in a talk at the Global Humanist Conference in early August, noted the confusion many people have between religion and finding the right moral values.


Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on “Why I am an atheist”. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn’t.

Yes, one can, and furthermore one has to, with God or without God. What else should one do? Simply do what one is told? Simply do what one is told by clerics, without asking whether what one is told is good or bad? That would be a terrible idea. Religions have condoned and even mandated slavery, human sacrifice, subordination of women, mass murder, persecution of unbelievers and heretics and followers of all religions but the one doing the persecuting.

In any case what is it you’re obeying if you’re doing it with God? Something from a holy book, or something said by a cleric, via a holy book or a new revelation or interpretation. You’re not obeying the actual God, so the reality is that everyone has values “without God”. Many of the people who do it with God have the comforting (to them) belief that they’re obeying God, but really there’s no chain of transmission that demonstrates that to be the case. There are only books written by human beings, mostly a long time ago. There has been a good deal of cumulative improvement in moral values since then, so trusting priests to steer us right is a terrible idea.

One of my favorite illustrations of this thought is in chapter 31 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck is having an agonizing attack of conscience over “stealing” the slave Jim from his owner. He imagines that God is watching him and planning to punish him, so he composes a note to the owner telling her where Jim is.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking –thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.

But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’ – and tore it up.

Huck Finn picked and chose, as we all have to. We do it with reason and feeling working together.


11 responses to “Working Together”

  1. Rob Andrews says:

    Twain is one of my favorite comedians on the subject of atheism.He are a few of his quotes on the subject:

    “When one reads the bibles , one is less suprised by what the deity knows than what he doesn’t know”.

    “I know your religion isn’t true, the same way you know other people’s isn’t true.”

    “It ain’t the parts of the bible i don’t understand that bother me, It’s the parts i DO underestand that bother me.”


  2. L.Long says:

    As you say emotion is a part of anything as it is this that drives the other parts. A scientist may use the rules of rational thought to get his end results but it is emotions that drive him. And when his results are presented, it is his emotional energies that drive the presentation. But when the rational results are read from a paper, the scientist’s emotions are not seen, so many who don’t bother thinking beyond the surface (or all that much) think that science is without emotion.
    Also the perception of emotions is very slanted. Most people think of emotion as that what is seen in total exaggeration as on TV. Excessive crying, wailing, screaming, strong body motion, and other excesses (see evangelical con-man carrying on and his religious audience chanting and waving & screaming Gloria!!!!!) . Is this true emotion or excessive posturing??? This would be very rare in rational thinking.

  3. David Osorio says:

    Is now Ophelia Benson a guest writer here? I regarded The Freethinker as one of the top sources for skepticism and critical thinking. What a disappointment

  4. Barry Duke says:

    And your problem with Ophelia Benson, David is …?

    Ophelia has been a valued contributor to the Freethinker for several years, and readers have appreciated her input greatly.

  5. Steersman says:

    “The heart has reasons that Reason knows not of”. So I quite agree with your hypothesis on the necessity of using “reason and feeling working together”, and that an over-emphasis on either is the proverbial recipe for disaster. As Hume also said relative to the first of those, which might be construed as one of the main arrows in our intellectual quivers, “`Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”: once given a set of premises, and a set of rules of inference – aka “reasons”, then conclusions such as “the destruction of the whole world” have a certain, and frequently problematic, inexorability. Which should lead to the questioning of either the premises or the rules.

    However, while you sort of addressed this somewhat peripherally, I think it is rather unwise to “rest satisfied” with that dichotomy without “looking underneath the hood” – a space which seems to be filled mostly with the engine of neurochemistry, and which in turn seems to be driven by the same sort of digital logic found in computers. But it seems that, at least to a first approximation, reason and feeling are largely or substantially cases of, respectively, deductive and inductive logic: feelings, and intuitions, tend apparently to work as an integrative or gestalt or inductive process which generate hypotheses and premises; whereas reason tends to start from those premises, and uses rules of inference to reach, to deduce, various conclusions. And it is that combination which seems to comprise and undergird not just the Scientific Method, but most if not all of our behaviours. For instance, the British scientist and Nobel laureate P.B. Medawar said, in his collection of essays titled “The Art of the Soluble” referring to science:

    As the very least we expect of a hypothesis is that it should account for the phenomena already before us, its ‘extra-mural’ implications, its predications about what is not yet known to be the case, are of special and perhaps crucial importance. ….

    The three essential stages in the process [of the scientific method?] which he continued with deliberate vagueness to call ‘induction’ were in his [Jevons’] own words,
    (a) Framing some hypothesis as to the character of the general law;
    (b) Deducing consequences from that law;
    (c) Observing whether the consequences agree with the particular facts under consideration.

    In real life the imaginative and critical acts that unite to form the hypothetico-deductive method alternate so rapidly, at least in the earlier stages of constructing a theory, that they are not spelled out in thought. The ‘process of invention, trial, and acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis goes on so rapidly’, said Whewell, ‘that we cannot trace it in its successive steps.’
    [pgs 147-150]

    So I think it somewhat presumptuous, if not a manifestation of some decidedly problematic scientism, for some scientists to argue that their “ways of knowing” are substantially different from those used in the humanities. The former may be substantially more developed – geometry, for example, with its axioms and rules and theorems – but science itself also relies, to a very substantial degree, on inductive logic and intuition. For instance, something from Norbert Wiener, one of the progenitors of the field of cybernetics:

    … and [Gibbs’] work remained for two decades one of those mysteries of science which work even though it seems they ought not to work. Many men have had intuitions well ahead of their time; and this is not least true in mathematical physics. [Human Use of Human Beings; pg 10]

    However, the sticky wicket seems to be that intuition and feelings tend to be cases of “garbage in, garbage out”: if the “facts” and processes of the inductive logic which apparently undergirds those phenomena are flawed themselves – Christian and Islamic theology and cosmology for examples – then one can’t very well expect that the “feelings” that result will have any credibility or justification.

    Seems that all, or virtually all, of our “imaginative and critical acts” – largely predicated on feelings and reason, on inductive and deductive logic, respectively – have to be iterative processes where we generate hypotheses, and then honestly ask ourselves whether the conclusions, the deduced theorems, have any correspondence to “reality”. Which can be problematic as, even in such “hard” sciences as particle physics, proof can be rather hard if not impossible to obtain. Which can then necessitate some degree of faith – and choices made with some degree of “fear and trembling”.

  6. Daz says:

    The goal can’t be to strip emotion out of our thinking on these subjects, but only to channel it in the right ways. That requires both reason and feeling – and as Hume pointed out, feeling has priority.

    I agree, but from a slightly different tack. Or maybe also from another tack.

    Morals are all about human interactions, and humans act from emotion. Which means you have to take emotions—both your own and others’—into account if you’re going to think about morals rationally. To not do so is to ignore people’s humanity, and no system of morals you come up with that way is ever going to be practical, no matter how logically ideal it might seem.

  7. Daz says:

    Umm. That first paragraph was a quote from Ophelia. I definitely put it in blockquotes…

  8. Stephen Turner says:

    Well I thought it was an interesting and thought-provoking article. Not sure what the objection could have been. Thank you, Ophelia.

  9. Daz – well I think it’s actually the same tack. That is pretty much what I meant to be saying.

  10. jay says:

    It’s a mistake to dismiss emotion.

    Our cerebral cortex and its associated ‘rational’ structure is a relatively recent evolutionary development. This did not just appear and replace our instincts, we have a complex of instincts, as well as the ability to perceive the world around us just as animals do, tracing back many, many millions of years that served us very well and this is not suddenly out the window.

    Instead the rational, conscious mind has to integrate with the instinctively driven mind and the instinctive sensations are perceived as emotions.

    Never underestimate the older, ‘animal’ brain. For many types of activity it IS the superior process . Consider catching a ball using mathematics vs catching a ball with ‘gut feeling’.

    But it’s more important than that. We are driven by complex social instincts, modified perhaps by intellectual perception, but in general our drive to cooperate, to be liked and respected, to be part of some larger organization–this comes out of instinct, not knowledge. Even conversation, the semi random exchange of observation and information, often has little rational justification. It’s an instinctive social drive that enables cooperation. Computer may be configured to exchange information but they have nothing comparable to conversation.

    It goes deeper yet. Not every important problem can be solved by logic. Morality is one example (Sam Harris notwithstanding). One can come up with general axioms (harming others is bad) and use logic to try to anticipate and reduce harm, but it only goes so far. And this comes into play when people actually try to define morality. Jonathan Haidt did an excellent analysis of this in “The Righteous Mind. He analyzed how different political and social positions can be explained, not because one side is evil or non-thinking, but because of the different weights people apply to different emotional variables.

    The ‘trolley car’ test helps enlighten us as to the inconsistency of our own internal set of values. Would you kill one person to to save a group? Would you push someone off a ledge (resulting in his death) to hit a switch to stop a runaway train? Would we accept the deaths of a very few people as the price of a vaccine that saves many lives? What about laws that reduces everyones’ freedom but might save lives? What if people disagree about how much freedom/risk they’re wiling to allow? Which is more valuable? Freedom or safety? Is it wrong to stop a person from taking a risk for themselves?

    How do you quantify (in a way that all would accept) the ‘good of society’? Even within this small group, you’d get widely divergent answers.

    Many moral questions simply cannot be solved logically (though logic can inform them). We need to reach back into our years old evolutionary library and finding something to go by.