Reason and Intuition – Chicken and Egg

I’ve been wrestling a lot, lately, with the proper relationship between reason and emotion. Part of the motivation for this conflict in my own mind is because I know people who gravitate to one or the other of these, and they often look down upon whichever of the two they do not gravitate toward. But I find myself drawn to aspects of both, and repulsed by the overemphasis of either. I see value in emotions, even though I see how they can be unreliable and lead to wildly inaccurate beliefs about reality (and completely pointless or harmful actions that are based on those beliefs). Conversely, I obviously hold reason in high regard (as you will know if you’ve read Arguing with Friends or poked around my site for a bit), yet I can see how rationalism can seem cold and heartless, and that some of the most horrific atrocities in human history have had surprisingly coherent reasons behind them.

I see merit in both and I see drawbacks in both. How am I to understand their relationship?

Two legs to walk with

As I have described at another blog, I see reason and emotion as two legs to walk on. If you use only the one leg then you are hopping, not walking. Hopping may allow you to get by in life, in one sense, but using both legs is clearly advantageous. The seemingly obvious answer to the question of how reason and emotion relate is that they must be balanced. Easy, right? Not quite.

While we need them both they often seem to be in conflict with each other. In some cases what seems rational is emotionally horrifying. In other cases what seems emotionally appealing is completely irrational and frankly out-to-lunch. Even though I clearly affirm that there is a role for both to play, how am I to resolve these apparent conflicts? Should reason trump emotion? Do our emotions ground our reason? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Reason is basic

For a while I worked with the idea that reason was the more basic of the two. Consider if I say something like, “I like cats.” That is an “emotional” expression (in a sense), yet it rests on rationalism. How so? Language is rational through and through. When I use the word “I” the word does not reference you, my sisters, they guy who lives down the street or the former president of Turkmenistan. The word “I” has a clear meaning and it identifies the subject of the sentence. This is an application of the law of identity, one of the classic laws of thought. Language is rational, logical.

Or, consider the word “like.” I used that word as opposed to “not like” or some other word. One can either like cats or not like them, but one cannot both like AND not like cats. When I say that I “like” cats I want to convey a specific idea and not its opposite; I implicitly affirm the law of non-contradiction. Again, more laws of thought and more examples of reason in action.

The reality is, every expression of language is utterly reliant on reason. So it seemed to me that it was only proper to acknowledge that reason was the basis upon which everything else, including our emotions, rested.

Emotions are basic

But anybody familiar with logic will understand that a logical argument is made up of premises and conclusions. There are all kinds of laws of logic and fallacies to help us comprehend how people break those laws. In many ways it may seem rather mechanical and deterministic. Indeed, if you put certain premises into the “reason machine” and properly obey the laws of logic then the outcome is in some ways a foregone conclusion.

The question then becomes, what premises do you put into the machine? For instance, a classic argument is:

P1 – All men are mortal

P2 – Socrates is a man

C1 – Therefore, Socrates is mortal

The conclusion follows, necessarily, from the premises. But where did we get those premises? Are they required by reason? Absolutely not! They may be true (I’ve never heard of anybody denying the premises in the example) but their truth is not a result of reason. Rather, reason is what is applied to the premises; reason is not the basis for the premises. In this case it would seem that reason is not basic at all, but reasons acts upon and works with something even more basic than itself, our a priori assumptions (premises).

Even with the “I like cats” example, the entire exercise of using the rationalism of language to convey the idea assumes there is, in fact, an idea there to be conveyed. I need that emotional attachment toward cats in order to ever use reason in the form of language to express my emotion.

Intuitions, not emotions

Part of my wrestling has involved the realization that I’ve been framing the discussion improperly in my own mind. Instead of thinking of the “adversary” of reason as emotion, I should more properly consider this entire discussion as a question of the relationship between reason and “intuition.” I’m not even certain “intuition” is the right word either, but I think it more closely captures the right concept. I have certain emotions that relate to things in my life, and these emotions can form the basis of my reasoning. However, I also have a variety of other intuitions that form the basis of my reasoning. These intuitions play a very similar role as my emotions but are not necessarily emotional in nature. I have intuitions about morality. I have intuitions about the reality within which I exist. I have intuitions about my own nature (i.e. all men are mortal, etc). I have intuitions about knowledge, the past and even reason itself.

That last one is a bit of a surprise, but frankly I use reason because I believe it works, not because reason told me so. I cannot use reason to prove that reason works. Consider this; if reason is a reliable guide to truth, then reason will lead me to conclude that reason works. However, if reason is NOT a reliable guide to truth, then reason will FALSELY lead me to conclude that reason works. Either way, reason will lead me to conclude that reason works so it cannot be relied upon as a basis for believing reason.

But there are those who dismiss reason by working with an entirely different set of intuitions. Intuitively, though, I know they are wrong. Reason works and cannot be discarded so easily. My intuition tells me so, therefore reason works and is here to stay.

Reason and intuitions, in summary

I have come to think that reason and intuition must be finely balanced with neither taking absolute priority over the other. In one sense they both dictate to the other, and in another sense they are both subservient to the other. Without some intuitions about the world, reason has nothing to act on. We need premises for reason to act upon before reason can give us any conclusions. Furthermore, if we reach a conclusion with our reason that is utterly intuitively false (whether morally horrifying or just plain absurd) then it is not our intuitions that are the problem but our reasoning process.

And, quite naturally, there are some intuitive truths about reality that reason simply does not touch. That it is good to listen to beautiful music and read a thought-provoking book is intuitively obvious and reason doesn’t come within a mile of either the premises or the conclusion.

On the flip side, though, our intuitions do not get a free pass. We cannot simply believe whatever “feels right” and forego any careful analysis. Some intuitions are wildly popular these days, yet are flatly irrational and ought to be abandoned. The idea that “there are no absolutes,” for instance, falls on the sword of being self-refuting. It may sound appealing, and seem to be the kind of philosophy that will help us all get along (a noble goal), yet reason steps in and puts a stop to that rather quickly.

As another example, some philosophers will embrace all kinds of wild theories about reality, such as the theory of solipsism – I am the only being who really exists and everybody else is a figment of my imagination. Of one such philosopher his students would say that they take very good care of him because “when he goes, we all go!” Regardless of how perfectly rational the reasoning behind such philosophies might be, they are intuitively bizarre and should not be embraced.

So I have come to the conclusion (for now, I keep reflecting on these issues) that the only error one can make in this whole discussion about reason and intuition is choosing one over the other as your guiding philosophy in life. Whichever one you choose, you are wrong. The right answer seems to require both at all times. Whatever conclusions we arrive at via reason must be subjected to the scrutiny of intuition. Whatever intuitions we hold as the basis for our reason must be subjected to reason itself to see if it holds water. This is no easy task, and there is no single right way to engage in this, but nobody said being human was easy.


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