Emotion and Reason

“Les passions ont appris aux hommes la raison”
Emotion has taught mankind to reason

Marquis de Vauvenargues 1715-1747

What is it that captures us about these words? Emotion has taught mankind to reason. It is this. They appear to contradict common opinion which holds that emotion is the antithesis of reason; behavior is either emotional or reasonable.

We want to survive. We want to reproduce. Why? Can we justify these ‘wants’ rationally? We wanted these things long before they were attributed to biological evolution. Or demanded by religions. We can’t reasonably justify our desires by these. We reasonably justify wanting a particular key because it’s the one that fits the lock. The ‘want’ is reasonable. But wanting to survive or to reproduce is fundamentally irrational. There’s no reason to want them. These drives are purely emotional.

But in order to service these emotions we need logic; we need rational assessments of how the world around us works. These assessments are what it takes to gratify our emotional need to survive.  It is emotion that drives us to reason.

Reason surely arose from trying to resolve these opposites: security and nourishment. To eat and not be eaten. The mind perceives the current event. It correlates it with all its past history of experience. And, by the power of logic, it guides the individual on how best to survive.

In his informative and captivating 1994 book, “Descartes’ Error,” Antonio Damasio lays out the case that rationality has an emotional underpinning. The exercise of rational behavior depends upon an emotional status. The two are inextricably coupled. Without the emotional component ‘rational’ behavior can be self-defeating. It produces effects that exacerbate the problem being rationally resolved. That’s what Damasio demonstrates. An example might be this: taking the shortcut route because it is reasonably best even though it annoys the landowner. Without the emotional ingedient of concern for others a rational decision can have disasterous consequences.

On the other hand behavior with too much emotional component can also be self-defeating. Among the mentally disturbed emotion and fantasy have overwhelmed logic. That is how we commonly interpret the counterproductive behavior of the mentally impaired; emotion has buried rationality.

So rationality and emotionality comprise a symbiosis of incompatibles. Each feeds on the other. There are behavioral juices streaming around in our bodies generating our passions – our desires, our emotions and ultimately even our reason.

There is even, among some, an emotional drive to explore reason itself; the very product that emotion has generated. Mathematicians and scientists do it. They pursue, rationally, problems that they choose emotionally.

On the Symbiosis of Incompatibles:

    The more precise a picture
    – one wishes to convey
    The longer must one do it;
    – the time just goes astray

But take the time to be precise
– with all the details sound
You lose the import of the thought
– Significance is drowned

The more there is that must be said
– to paint the impact thought
The less the chance the thought be grasped
– The thought just wont be bought

They’re incompatible, the two:
– Message and Transmission
But they’re also symbiotic
– Each needs mate’s condition