In our current society, rationality and logic are put on a pedestal as the best parts of the human mind. I think if you asked, many people would say they are the only real part of conscious thinking. Emotions and instincts are suspect. This has been true in the West since the Age of Reason introduced rationalism as a basis for philosophy and science and is now promoted everywhere, since Western civilization came to be the basis of world civilization.
We take reason so seriously that many people even think of it as a basis for determining what is morally good or morally wrong. And because we believe that pure logic can be a basis for intelligence, decision-making, and moral reasoning, we also believe in things like the possibility of artificial consciousness (both that it could even exist, and that if it did, turning decisions over to it would be able to make the world better). We say things like “science says X”.
But of course science doesn’t say anything. A person does an experiment and gets a piece of data and people have to decide if they care and what to do with it. The problem with a view of intelligence that is too narrowly rational is that it leaves out the part about judging what rationality comes up with. Biases, instincts, emotions, assumptions, and blind spots are not just things that intrude on consciousness or impede it. They are fundamentally a part of consciousness and are as equally inseparable from intelligence and morality as is conscious, rational thought. Without them there is no perspective, no valuation of options, and therefore no possibility of taking an action at all. There would only be analysis paralysis.
This is because logic is a process that must have a starting point, a goal, and and rails to keep it on track. Pure logic unfetteredis nothing but an infinite loop incapable of making any decisions. It has no motivation for actions, no sense of self-preservation, and no way to evaluate its results for success. Consider software development – no program works without built-in parameters about error handling, what to ignore, what is valid, or (for deep learning algorithms) definitions of the goals to approach and the data to be considered. People work the same way. A baby is nothing but wants and needs, and this drives it to learn. Science and philosophy – no matter how logically executed – are fed by the same things in the form of our emotions, values, instincts, and biases. They are what tell us to care enough to look for a better way. These things are not a bug in consciousness, but a required pillar holding it up. Without selfish and altruistic motivations, the effort of living life wouldn’t be forthcoming.
Notice I’m not saying here that all emotional decisions are perfect. What I’m saying is that debate is meaningless and no decision at all is possible without the values and emotions. If it was all rational thought without emotional values, then every decision would eventually just come down to, “we’re all dead anyway and the sun will burn out, so what’s the point?”. There should be no surprise that extreme nihilism or cynicism is both the logical result of philosophers trapped by too much unfeeling rationality, and also a common affliction of depressed people – people whose emotions have burned out and aren’t giving enough feedback. Depressed people sit around and don’t do things because there is no point without feeling something. In both examples – the better philosophies and non-depressed thinking – a high value on human life and the effort put into it has to be a basic assumption or it just doesn’t work.
Even if action was possible, the question about which choice is potentially more valuable would be meaningless without putting an emotional value on things. We might as well flip a coin. Consider the case of Elliot Demasio. This man suffered a brain injury that left his consciousness, intelligence, and memory perfectly intact. He was a perfectly intelligent and education man who remembered all his training and had a high IQ and could think rationally after the accident. This was measured with IQ tests and in discussions with psychologists. He was also a husband and a father. So after he healed, he went home and back to work. And he lost everything – his family and his job. To crudely summarize he could not emotionally distinguish between speaking to his wife or picking his nose, or skipping work to look at cracks in the sidewalk vs doing his job, no matter who was relying on him. It’s important to understand this, because that might make it sound like he was in a fog. He was not. He was an adult man with years of life experience who understood perfectly what was happening. If you asked him, he would tell you accurately how his disinterest and unreliability would likely affect his marriage and his job. But with the literal inability to feel emotion, it quickly became obvious that he could not make any decisions. His above average IQ, education, and experience told him the likely outcomes of different courses of action. But this wasn’t enough to pick the right thing, or often anything. Rational thought could only present options, and he was no longer able to correctly pick between them.
All of this is not to say that rational, logical thought has no value. It has plenty. But it is a tool for evaluating the best way to get to a goal, not for determining what the goals should be. Children learn that poking at someone is not the best way to get them to like us, compared to treating them with genuine interest. We learn that helping our family or personal community is often best pursued by working in a system that also brings together people we might not personally care about, because the safety and stability is good for everyone in the end. But that didn’t start with logic. It started with basic drives, and the logic was applied to experience to build better ways of getting there. Fairness is logical, you say? How can you make that argument in a vacuum? What would it even mean? Our version of fairness is logical based on the social dynamics of intelligent monkeys, not as a principal for the universe. Our fairness would likely look less logical to intelligent sharks, if we ever met any.
I am talking about this because I believe it says something important about how to live a well-ordered life. It says that if you don’t know what you want, or what is right, logic alone won’t help you. If you persist in the myth that it does, you will simply become vulnerable to consumerism and scientism – the phenomenon in our society where people are tricked into supporting anything that sounds more ‘advanced’ or is portrayed as logical and scientific. But someone wanted to sell you that product, or that idea, and from the fact that they promoted it we can only know for sure that they think they benefited from it. It may or may not be good for you too. If you aren’t in touch with your own values, traditions, and instincts, you will become easily paralyzed by trends and choice. As a healthy individual you need to know what you are feeling and why. Not so you can be touchy-feely about it or do whatever you want. Acting on only emotions is as useless as only on logic. It leads to action but not to learning. Putting emotions and logic together and learning from experience is how you grow your character. And you can learn not only from your own experience. You can talk to your parents, and learn from philosophy, history, and religion to deepen your understanding of what’s possible in life for a self-aware man.
I think this is why revolutions so often fail and turn out worse than the status quo, and why it’s so hard to tear down old traditions and social norms on a broad scale. Building something from the ground up is much, much harder than it sounds, and almost impossible if it goes against people’s values and instincts, no matter how good it sounded as a theory. Society does change all the time, of course, but gradually and generally not much faster than at the generational scale, even in times of historically rapid change. This is because all human societies are a complex web of traditions that are based on human needs and instincts.The existing structures developed to support these things in that specific environment. It is much more manageable to gradually build on or change this set of traditions one adjustment at a time than to tear it all down and build a utopia.
That truth is why so many long-standing philosophies and religions say that the future must be built on the traditions of the past. This is not taken to mean that nothing should ever change, although sometimes that mistake is made, but to remind people that stable growth has to be based on the experience of the society already in place. The same is true of much personal development. You can’t erase your personality. You can gradually shore up your weaknesses and build on your strengths by experience and effort, day after day.
So don’t fall for utopian visions of rationality. Look for what’s being sold. Use rationality together with your own moral wisdom and human feelings, and put effort into developing all three throughout your life. You’ll be better for the combination.