Emotions in Decisions

One of my chief conflicts with Catholicism (despite the fact the I am and remain a Catholic) and with many people in it is not, contrary to what many would have you believe, anti-intellectualism, but a stringent, austere, and deadening anti-emotionalism.  If you should bring an emotional datum into an argument, no matter how pertinent the response is nearly always, "Reason must triumph."  It is refreshing to reflect on the passages below to realize that the triumph of reason is, in fact, the triumph of the emotional life.  The two strands cannot so easily be parted.  The human entity is not intellect and/or emotion but intellect entwined in emotion.  To deny the emotional life is to deny the intellectual life, as these passages demonstrate.

How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer

The simple idea connecting Plato’s philosophy to cognitive psychology is the privileging of reason over emotion. It’s easy to understand why this vision has endured for so long. It raises Homo sapiens above every other animal: the human mind is a rational computer, a peerless processor of information. Yet it also helps explain away our flaws: because each of us is still part animal, the faculty of reason is forced to compete with primitive emotions. The charioteer must control these wild horses.
            This theory of human nature comes with a corollary: if our feelings keep us from making rational decisions, then surely we’d be better off without any feelings at all. Plato, for example, couldn’t help but imagine a utopia in which reason determined everything. Such a mythical society—a republic of pure reason—had been dream of by philosophers ever since.
            But this classical theory is founded upon a crucial mistake. For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.  (p. 13)

            To Test this diagnosis, Damasio hooked Elliot to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands in his palms. (When a person experiences strong emotions, the skin is literally aroused and the hands start to perspire. Lie detectors operate on the basis of this principle.) Damasio then showed Elliot various photographs that normally triggered an immediate emotional response: a severed foot, a naked woman, a house on fire, a handgun. The results were clear: Elliot felt nothing. No matter how grotesque or aggressive the picture, his palms never got sweaty. He had the emotional life of a mannequin.
            This was a completely unexpected discovery. At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational.  A person without any emotions—in other word, someone like Elliot—should therefore make better decisions. His cognition should be uncorrupted. The charioteer should have complete control.
            What, then, had happened to Elliot? Why could he lead an normal life?  To Damasio, Elliot’s pathology suggest that emotions are crucial part of the decision-making process. When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. (p. 15)

Perhaps it is not so simple, the rest of the book will bear out.  And perhaps it isn't entirely true.  Because this demonstration comes close to demonstrating the validity of the emotional life--a position I would like to take, I must be more skeptical of it than I might be of a position that contradicts my own inclination.

Nevertheless, however it may occur--the book makes for fascinating reading.


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