Monday, April 26, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Nine

Emotional Reasoning

What I have been trying to point out with my brief discussion of both faith and honour is that humanity has in the past shown itself able to overcome debilitating emotions through the institutional development of a specific type of collective thought process, namely “faith” and “honour”. I would suggest that if humanity is going to deal with the tremendous problems that we are going to face in the next few generations we are going to have to develop something like faith or honour to do so. I not only believe that there is historical evidence for this thesis, I believe that modern psychology actually suggests why this is so.

One of the iconic images that modern people have from popular literature is that of the android---a thinking machine totally devoid of all emotion and because of this lack, super intelligent. This trope is based on a popular assumption that dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers, that the emotions are an impediment to reasoning. As the modern science of cybernetics and brain physiology have advanced, however, researchers have come to the rather startling conclusion that rather than being an impediment to reasoning, emotions are absolutely essential!

The point that has been realised is that thinking always has to take place in a context. That is to say we do not think as isolated thoughts hovering in some sort of ether. Instead, we think as physical bodies with an individual past history in a specific society. Our bodies are a field on which all sorts of hormonal drives take place---sexual attraction, pain, hunger, fear, etc. Beyond these hormonal imputs, we also exist as beings with a personal history where previous thoughts and actions have implications for our present thoughts and actions. In addition, we exist as human beings in a social context where the past thoughts and actions of other human beings manifest themselves in the culture that we use to make sense of our environment. These three elements of consciousness are essential to the prioritization of our behaviour.

A few moments reflection on our shared experience as human beings should make this obvious. The medieval French philosopher Jean Buridan is credited with posing the following thought experiment. Suppose a hungry donkey is positioned exactly the same distance from two completely identitical piles of hay. He has to decide which one to eat from, but because both seem exactly the same, he doesn't know which one to go towards. If he were forced to make a totally “rational” choice, as long as there was no reason to chose one pile over another, it seems that the donkey is doomed to starve. Lest this seem like a somewhat absurd and contrived example, consider the odd time when we say that a human being is “stuck on the horns of a dilemma”. We have all found ourselves in a situation where two competing points of view have confronted us which it has seemed impossible to choose between. The only mature, rational choice is often to simply “go with our instincts” and accept the consequences. Indeed, the popular expression is “go with your guts” which would seem to indicate that the ultimate arbitraitor is not our higher reason, but rather our hormonal system.

And this is the point that the people who study artificial intelligence have twigged onto. Reason doesn't just consist of a truth-functional calculus that considers the validity of an argument form. Nor does set theory or scientific induction exhaust all the mechanisms of thought. There also needs to be a mechanism for ordering a hierarchy of decisions. And medical practice seems to support this point of view. People who have had lesions in the brain that affect the ability to feel emotions tend to have a terrible time making up their minds. Take away a man's feelings and he doesn't become a super-smart Commander Data (from “Star Trek”), but instead he becomes a two-legged Buridan's Ass who is incapable of deciding what to have for lunch.

Another example that illustrates this insight should come from a few moments reflection about what happens when we are romantically attracted to someone. Physical attraction contracts our field of vision. (I once knew a woman who was so attractive that she had actually caused a traffic accident when walking down the street because a man in a car forgot that he was driving!) In my own case, for example, one afternoon before work I once struck up a conversation with a very attractive woman. I was so fixated on her that I totally forgot about the time and when I remembered, I was forty minutes late for work. In effect, my sexual instinct totally over-rode my normal decision-making hierarchy and deprioritized the necessity of getting to work on time. (I think it was one of only two or three times I have been late in 23 years at that job!)1

People prioritize their thoughts not only due to obvious hormonal reactions (sexual attraction, fear, etc), but also as a result of their past history. People who have had traumatic childhoods, for example, often have innappropriately powerful emotional responses that seem to be “hard wired” into their consciousness. Someone might become, for example, very fearful in situations that people with more pleasant backgrounds might not even notice as being anything but normal. The fear response is itself hormonal, a product of natural selection. But the extra-ordinary heightened response is a learned product of a particular person's past history. If the trauma happened while the brain of the child was still growing, it may have affected the way his or her brain developed. In any case, the example of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder shows that even in adults---who presumably entered into battle with fully developed nervous systems---trauma can lead to permanent change in our hormonal responses, such as fear.

The third element that sets our intellectual hierarchy is cultural. And that is the realm where faith and honour come into play. Societies develop institutions---such as a Benedictine abbey or regiment---where specific practices are developed that change the hierarchy of values for their members. Men learn to overcome their annoyance over brother monk's bad breath and annoying eccentricities in order to create beautiful music and well-ordered farms. Soldiers learn to worry more about the opinion of their brothers-in-arms than the ordinance that can turn them into hamburger. In effect, the good of the group becomes more important than that of the individual. And this re-arrangement of priorities allows the institution (e.g. the abbey or regiment) to continue to function even though it asks from its members things that are usually considered “unnatural” or “against human nature”.

I doubt if any time soon humanity is going to be able to find a physiological way of reprioritizing the values of society in a way that will allow humanity to overcome the damage that comes from despair over impending environmental catastrophe. That leaves us with the sociological options. We need to either re-discover some form of faith or honour that will support us, or find some sort of equivalent thought structure.


baroness radon said...

You last remark brought to mind the apparent renewed interest in Confucianism in China.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Not just Confucianism in China. I understand that there is a renewed interest in books of moral philosophy in the West as well: Stoicism, for example. I am not the only person who has decided that the systems of thought that used to sustain our society, Communism in China and Christianity in North America, no longer make any sense. Yet I also believe that you simply cannot organize a life or a society in a spiritual vacuum. Hence the renewed interest in the ancient somewhat non-religious philosophies of life.