Of fashionable Feelings and lowly Rationality

In these times, it is no longer taboo to talk about ‘feelings’ in plain terms – at least in academic circles, if you are lucky enough to be in one. You can criticize feelings and they will not come after you like they did with Bertrand Russel. Game theory, economics, sociology and psychology have taken quiet a dispassionate and blunt approach towards human feelings (or passions). Although results have been mixed but ‘feelings’ are no longer a sacred cow anymore which can not be put under the scanner of logic. People are more open to question their origin of feelings and much more open to accept their criticism if they ‘feel’ results are helpful for them e.g. a emotionally troubled person is seeking a psychiatric advice.

It is far from my intention to argue that feelings should not exist in a Human or that the feeling and Humans are separable from each other. Neither I want to insinuate that people who feels are anyway logically inferior. Some men who looks like to posses a heart of stone, are not afraid to show their feeling while watching or playing sports. In this blog, I’d like to point out the relative merit of rationality and limitation of feelings in human acts. In fact, some of my argument would imply that it is the absence of ‘rationality’ which gives birth to feelings (or vice versa, I am not sure!).

Let’s consider one of the most primitive act human do. It is an act of  making choices. Given some options, one tends to pick one. In most of the situation, one tends to pick a few. But in some cases, even though the individual is free to do otherwise, one is ‘ethically’ not allowed to choose more than one. Choosing a life-partner in one example in which more than one choice is not allowed, or at least appreciated. On the other hand, not necessarily driven by ethics, there are some situations where one only picks one. One tends to do one job due to ‘limitation on time’ or by ‘limitation of ability’. People argue quite emotionally about the choice they have made. These emotions are mostly visible when they try to criticize or justify their choices. For more technical details on the ‘art of choosing’ see this video or read this book
Whatever experience and observation I have from my life, I can say with a high level of certainty that most of time people do not use ‘reasons’ to make their choices. They tends to act under the influence of ‘feelings’ – an outcome of individual predispositions and social pressures. Feelings cause actions. In most of the cases it is implicit and hardly spelled out. In some cases the role of feelings are made explicit as the only reason of making a choice e.g. choosing a life parter in non-arranged marriages has been directly associated with feeling of ‘love’, which either of the partner could not articulate logically. Even though people use feelings to make their choices yet a sense of rationality is always at work. A person from a certain class or with certain level of natural abilities is free to ‘love’ anyone but he or she would only pick a person from same class or with somewhat same level of natural or marketable abilities. I do not know many (with countable few exceptions) with a rich background picking a parter from a very poor background. Lesser are the chances of a highly trained person marrying an illiterate (unless one is driven by some curious desire to be different).  
 Forming a lifelong relationship (with a high ethical values put on it in certain society like ours) with an incompatible men or women, even though one is in ‘love’, may lead to a totally different or disastrous ends. Then one tends to get emotional and start getting into depression. One may seek some help from psychiatrist. And it often works wonders.  ‘Reason regulate actions. Emotions causes them‘, said Bertrand Russel. Feelings can not regulate an action effectively. To win a war, authorities must have calm head and the ability to do cold calculations. A person high on emotions can start a war but he can not win it. Its the cold calculation of pros and cons which gets an Army general a victory or disaster in wars.
The choice of ‘which end’ can purely emotional. If I do want to become a mathematician, not because out of reasons, but may be because I ‘love’ doing Math. I feel ‘happy’ doing math. I ‘respect’ math or I may have an ‘ideology’ that math is the ultimate science. I may also ‘believe’ the capability of doing hard-core math makes me a superior humans, because few others are capable of doing it. Once the goal is set, one should not rely on emotions. Romanticism of math will not make me a good mathematician, it only helps me choosing it as a profession. Same way, if I want to marry a girl or at least want to have a relationship with her, its not because I have run a simulation with all possible partners. It is just because she might be at a right place at a right moment and something just clicked. And emotions took over me. Even though one does not have control over everything, especially in matters where the outcome is dependent on the choices made by the other person, there is a surprising level of cooperations between humans. It will be very hard to witness a successful man getting rejected even by few girls, or a beautiful girl is being rejected by even a fewer boys. Humans tends to maximize their profit – emotional or otherwise – in every choices they make.

I ‘believe’ that ’emotions’ are unsettled logic. Here I would like to make a rather non-intuitive distinction. The calmness is not a feeling at all. It is the absence of most of the feelings which causes anxiety. A calm face and a smile one can expect on the face of a man who have understanding of things he is curious about. Buddha is known to carry a smile all the time because he believed that he knew the solutions to all problems. Knowledge, thus, must decrease the level of feeling in a man. knowledgeable man can not posses a troubled mind, he is very likely to posses an ‘uneasy’ mind. A noted Political Scientist Rajni Kothari is of the view that, ‘uneasy is the Life of Mind’. True, that one can not acquire all the knowledge but one must strive for section or part of it about which he is most curious. If I understand why a child is behaving is such a selfish manner, I may be able to laugh it off and I can even trick him to change his behavior. Parents who have poor knowledge of child’s psychology tends to get angry and end up beating them up.

Whatever one knows becomes a part of ones rationality or common sense. Whatever is unknown causes emotions. The desire to know is strong in humans. If one can’t know something for sure, then, at least, one must get a feel of it. A human likes emotions and often use them because it saves them their precious time and energy he would spend thinking over it without any guarantee of success. The time and energy I saved, I might spend in some activities which I ‘feel’ worthy or dictated worthy by my social group. I may like to work to earn more money, I may spend this time chatting with friends or writing blogs, I can also use this energy reading fiction or playing sports. Same way, I may like to put an impressive picture on Facebook rather than figuring out why I am doing it in the first place. 

Feelings (passions) are so much appreciated when their returns are encouraging and expected. When a sportsman like S Sreesanth is high on emotions and is taking wickets, he is cheered by the crowed. But when the same bowler is being hit all around in the final over, his emotions are considered ridiculous and childish and he is booed by the same crowed. Emotions are an ornament for successful. Failed people have to be prosaic. There is little benefit (such a pity etc.) they can derive from showing their emotions.

Social constructs enforces these behavior. It is fashionable to talk in terms of feelings. No one would say that I married her or him because I had no other choice or she or he was best reward I could get as a potential partner. Talking in these terms are not appreciated in society. Why would these kind of social constructs were made in the first place. Why is it considered ethical that a man and woman should stay together all their lives once married? Surely, it is good for children, the next generation! It is also helpful when mobility was low and  are few options were available. Most importantly, developing a understanding takes a lot of time. If a couple has developed an understanding then they have to start afresh and will loose all their ’emotional investment’ – so they prefer to stick around. Those who can not develop an understating would still carry together for their children. Telling so much to everyone (or even to oneself) is costly and there is no guarantee that they will appreciate the reason. Besides emotional statements are consumed more rapidly by public than logical ones. A badly written poem generally have much more influence than a logically superb essay. To control a crowd is equivalent of having power. So why should any religious or spiritual leader turn to logic when he can spellbound his listener using emotional statements. No body like to listen to a logicians. To seek power, one must give people what they want. I must tell them what they like to listen. They will thank me if I tell them what they are already convinced of. In a group where Pakistan is deeply hated, I will hold no influence if I were to say things logically. But I start preaching emotional stuff which has nothing to do the points at hand, I’ll have a strong influence over them.

People like to avoid complex logic. It is much more easy for them to see things black and white – right or wrong. In fact they like to take it as a sign of their intelligence. One often preach that this is ‘morally right’ without giving many reasons or giving only those which will enforce what is being preached.  Once convinced that this is ethical, no one suppose to doubts ethics next day and  thus a system of belief is started. It helps society in many ways. People are less confused and there is some harmony in their actions. They are easy to control now. But the cost is often a reduced rationality in society. 
No matter how much knowledge human race would acquire, all of us will be ignorant of something. Feelings are here to stay. The world I wish to see where emotions are strong but not destructive. Where everyone is convinced of their limitations. As Russel said, ‘because they [emotions] are acknowledged, they lead no deception either of oneself or of others. Such a world would include love and friendship and the pursuit of art and knowledge.’

PS : I believe that ‘abstract reasoning’ which is the mother of all reasoning is a defense mechanism against the pain feelings cause. Empirically, one can prove it by noting that how many philosophers are known live ’emotionally painless’ life?


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

5 thoughts on “Of fashionable Feelings and lowly Rationality”

  1. Emotions have no logic,true.Emotions should be regulated by reason.If the reasoning comes quickly enough before the emotion converts into action the better.Also one shouldn't expect the other person to acknowledge one's emotions.It is all a question of pros n cons..if their pros overlap with ur expectations they'll acknowledge else they'll part ways.In any case,dependency on others emotionally isn't going to fetch any reward now or later

  2. "I 'believe' that 'emotions' are unsettled logic." Actually, I believe emotions are well reasoned out logic. You may not reason it out at the time of expressing it, but the very reason why the emotion comes out is because it has been reasoned out earlier in some prior experiences so well, that it has become an established fact, part of yourself that you dont need your intellect to reason it out afresh when you encounter a similar experience.Of course, when you get passionate you are lost in it, and you dont have control over it. but you dont get passionate abt something just like that. like u dont love math just like that. you have no reason why love it, agreed, you are passionate abt it, and when there is passion there is no reason. but there must have been a well settled 'tendency' in u that made u feel passionate for it. and that tendency must have been a result of a past action/inherent nature of yours which u NOW dont have to reason out. I dont know if this is contradicting or supporting your blog, or an extension, but thats my view.

  3. What exactly these words – reason and emotion – mean ? Our problem is picking the right interpretation within the domain of semantics. If you choose Bertrand Russell for a model, are you being dictated purely by reason or is it your emotions that are responsible because you realize that your thoughts do share a wavelength with that of Russell's? Feeling is a reaction of the heart and reason is the response of the intellect. Again semantic blur is unavoidable as long as we see the necessity for a binary frisson. Why not see them as complementaries? For any given situation/context, it the inter-proportionality of reason cum emotion that matters. Sometimes, reason is the sculptor and emotion is the clay; and on other occasions, emotion is the sculptor and reason is the clay. We can't escape the complementary reciprocality of the semantic expressions which are themselves inventive (reason) products of the discovering (emotion) minds! Emotion without reason is obsession and reason with emotion is passion. – M S Dinakar

  4. Hi Dinakar,Yes, it is very true that I found Russel impressive which might be due to some other factors other than just pure logic. I am not sure whether feelings can be mapped to heart, that would be too abstract a concept. I am not denying that there is only a thin line which separates feelings from reason. Different people will draw this line at different places. The depth of this line may be exaggerated but its existence can not be denied. The assumption I have made is that there is a line which separated logic from emotions. I am not very successful at drawing it conclusively. This is why when I say that "I 'believe' that 'emotions' are unsettled logic", I have put 'believe' under quotes. I am not sure, as you have mentioned, that this 'belief' is an outcome of logic or it is due to Russel's impression I have on me.

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