Reason vs Emotions: A never-ending battle with a clear favorite


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This is my first post. As a person who read The Fountainhead 3 or 4 times cover-to-cover, starting in my youth, I can confidently say that it has shaped my life. I'm now in my late 40s. So going straight to the point:

I agree with everything the book describes, when it comes to Rand's philosophy: Integrity, Self-Esteem, Rational Egoism, Capitalism, Self-Interest, Work Ethics, Purposeful and Uncompromising life, and so on. What I don't agree with, and that comes from my own life experience, from observing myself and others as they grow old, is that Reason (with capital R) triumphs over emotions. It certainly did for Roark, who is a fictional character. In real life, any intelligent human being can use reason in a variety of situations to avoid making emotional decisions. That's great. But my critique is how realistically someone can sustain a life commanded only by reason without being heavily influenced by his/her emotions. I believe this is impossible to attain, for the reasons below:

  1. Subconscious: A lot of our actions and decisions, specially when we quickly react to a stimulus, are governed by our subconscious. For example, when you are having a bad day and engage in road rage, this is not a rational behavior and it is not something you can easily control. My point is that we will react emotionally in a lot of situations, and you have no rational control over that.
  2. Depression: Unless you have depression, you cannot understand depression. Like unless you have sex, you cannot understand sex. As someone who has had depression, I can assure you: Reason breaks out completely. How can you win the lottery and be unhappy about it? It is so outrageous and unreasonable that one of the biggest problems with depression is the guilt feeling a depressed person will feel for his/her nonsense feelings and emotions. Just to be clear I did not win the lottery, it is just a metaphor, but being sad after you won the lottery is just as irrational as 2 + 2 = 3. For an intelligent human being, having 2 + 2 = 3 on his forehead generates a lot of pain and guilt. Is depression a disease? I don't think the medical sciences have figured that out yet, but we all know that it is a realistic human condition on all levels for a lot of different people. My point is: isn't the plethora of psychiatric conditions present in the world a direct indication of the unrealistic nature of a pure rational life? Sure, there are people who will never be depressed, and will never have any psychiatric condition, but I wonder what Ayn Rand would have thought about her pure rationalism approach to life if she had depression later in life.
  3. Addiction. I have never had a drug addiction. But who can naively say that they don't have any kind of addictions? I could be wrong but I would think that as long as you have dopamine in your brain, you must have some kind of addiction, on some level (low, mild or severe). Go ahead and tell a smoker to rationally quit smoking. Or go ahead and tell an overweight person to rationally eat less. Or go ahead and tell a kid to rationally quit gaming. Or go ahead and tell an adult to rationally quit sex/porn. My point is: you can be as rational as you want, but at the end of the day, your dopamine will have a huge influence on you. For example, Ayn Rand was irrationally a smoker as she most certainly knew the health consequences or perhaps just chose to deny it so that her rational framework could have been sustained.

So in closing, in my opinion, Objectivism is not bad, it is not wrong. It is just unrealistic to expect that someone can lead a life purely based on reason while avoiding all the traps above. That will certainly lead to frustration and failure in the long run. I still love The Fountainhead, but I wish someone had told me that when I first read it.

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Joas,

Welcome to OL.

I agree with you on all your conclusions.

With one small caveat.

It's a small point, but I hold a correct critique has to come from correct identification. If not, one ends up evaluating something else, not the thing one mentions. (I calls this cognitive before normative in evaluating complex things.) So please forgive my nitpicking.

I'm not sure Rand ever pitted reason against emotions like in a contest where one triumphs over the other. I have read most all of her writing and I don't recall that kind of proposition. I do know she used a lot of rhetoric about this, though. Even rhetoric that is misleading at times.

(btw - Have you noticed how much war is involved in her rhetoric? She is always waging a war, an ideological battle, blasting an idea to pieces, characterizing the philosopher as the general, and so on. :) )

Rand's idea was always that emotions are not tools of cognition. So when she talked bad about emotions, if you look, you will generally see she was talking bad about the use of emotions for arriving at issues where reason was the correct mental process. For instance, a person cannot design a rocket ship based on feelings. He needs reason, that is, math, logic, observation, and so on.

That said, I disagree with Rand on her view of the human mind as tabula rasa with emotions tagging along as some kind of inconvenient necessity for simply being there. What's more, with proper value choices and art, one can make their emotions not conflict with their reason. That is true for some cases and not true for others.

Also, the way the brain works, emotions and storytelling do most of our identifications. And they didn't, we would literally have no time to use reason. We can use reason to correct wrong identifications coming from the lower brain, though, and that is where my cognitive before normative process is useful.

The best metaphor I have found for this is a rider on an elephant. The rider is reason and the elephant is the rest of the mental processes. If the elephant wants to go somewhere and feels strongly enough about it, there is nothing the rider can do about it except ride. Maybe jump off. :) However, over time, the rider can interact with the elephant enough to coax it in directions the rider wants to go. And even then, not always.

Sorry for rambling, but I love this stuff...

 

Among the things you mentioned, subconscious, depression and addiction, I personally can speak to all three from my own experiences.

For the subconscious, I study modern psychology, neuroscience, storytelling, etc. I sometimes tangle with people here in O-Land because once you see these things, you can't unsee them. There is a lot out there to learn, too. What's more, Rand's view is oversimplified. Her main problem (and I can cite many examples) is that she comes up with a deep insight about something within a specific context, then she sometimes generalizes it and makes it into a universal where it does not fit. This is why, on the different examples you gave, you will not find any objections from me.

For depression, I myself have suffered from it, but also Rand did. I'm not sure you know much of Rand's history. But after she finished Atlas Shrugged and the critics bashed it to pieces, she spent two long years crying. Literal crying. Nathaniel Branden wrote about this as did others who knew her. She could not get herself motivated to do anything except mope and weep. If that is not a depression, I don't know what is. :) Granted, there was an outside stimulus, but depression is still depression. I could go on and point to other times in her life where depression engulfed her. She even wrote about it. In fact, she almost abandoned writing The Fountainhead due to a depression. Her husband, Frank, talked her through that phase somewhat in the manner a therapist talks people through their issues.

As to addiction, I have had severe problems with this in my life. First alcohol, then crack cocaine. I did them separately as serious addictions, one after another, which shows what a hard head I have. I think there is only a callous left where my nucleus accumbens used to be. :) Fortunately, I got away from it all and these days I don't use any mind-altering substances other than the caffeine in my morning coffee. Also, you are correct about how gaming and social media are addictive. This is a long topic, one I know a lot about, so we can discuss this over time if you like. 

I can't say that Objectivism helped with with that. It didn't. Rand even called addicts evil. How in hell was I supposed to cure myself by thinking I was evil for feeling these overwhelming cravings? :) I had to learn a different path and realize I needed help.

I used AA and NA. I no longer go to meetings, but I have nothing but gratitude for those people who helped me. Once in a while I will come across someone with an addiction problem. I have made it a habit to get them to help if they agree, then never talk about it. I'm saying this in general terms, but you will never hear me talk about specific people. Passing it on in the same form I received it is my way of expressing my gratitude. (You will not find this in Rand's writings. I had to learn and choose this one by living it. :) )

 

Enough. A warm welcome to OL once again.

You sound like good people.

:) 

Michael

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Thanks for your reply, that was insightful. Rand was addicted to smoking. Her Reason clearly failed to get her out of it. Addiction is a serious matter and that's the reason I've refused to try any drugs in my life, not even marijuana. I know if I like it, and I probably will, I'm in for a damaging emotional, physical and financial ride, and I don't want to risk that.

I'm a black and white person, as much as Rand was. But I know that life, and the mind/brain, is not black and white. I take the Fountainhead as a North to be followed, but taken literally it can lead to unfortunate consequences. I once read a quote that summarizes it well: "You ego will take you to the top, and it will leave you there alone." And who really wants to be alone in this world? Not even Howard Roark or Ayn Rand.

 

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I'm not sure Rand ever pitted reason against emotions like in a contest where one triumphs over the other. I have read most all of her writing and I don't recall that kind of proposition. I do know she used a lot of rhetoric about this, though. Even rhetoric that is misleading at times.

Emotion to her was a second class citizen. It has always been. Reason must always come first. Roark never made any decisions based on emotions. Or perhaps the demolition of the apartment complex was one? I would have to read that part again... He was unaffected by emotion in a very non-human way. For a mere mortal to try to mimic that behavior is silly. It just doesn't work for humans. But at the same time I totally agree that: If I were somehow able to always make rational decisions and lead my life purely through Reason, 99% of the problems and frustrations could be avoided. But then I would not be human, I would be some kind of god like Howard Roark. And I don't believe in gods :)

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5 hours ago, Joas said:

It is just unrealistic to expect that someone can lead a life purely based on reason while avoiding all the traps above.

Interesting Joas. I wonder about terms like subconscious. Beyond a college course in psychology, years ago, I don’t know the subject. But what kind of standing do the thoughts of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, John Piaget, Albert Ellis, etc., have today? And even objectivist Nathaniel Brandon’s ideas may seem “dated” today. Is there a modern Psychology based on science and not theory? Do scientific psychologists even use Freudian terms like ego and superego? 

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nteresting Joas. I wonder about terms like subconscious. Beyond a college course in psychology, years ago, I don’t know the subject. But what kind of standing do the thoughts of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, John Piaget, Albert Ellis, etc., have today? And even objectivist Nathaniel Brandon’s ideas may seem “dated” today. Is there a modern Psychology based on science and not theory? Do scientific psychologists even use Freudian terms like ego and superego? 

I don't know. I don't have the scientific knowledge about psychology and psychiatry. But my opinion is that the subconscious exists and exerts a profound influence on an individual, many times overriding the conscious mind.

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The older I get , the less I see the distinction as binary , at least as far of how ‘it operates’.

Black and white have their uses but I think we tend to use the rubric too universally. Reason is more like a skill or art that one uses to get a ‘better’ benefit from the faculty of consciousness as a whole , of which the ‘subconscious’ is an almost discrete aspect , but still an aspect. IMO 

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8 hours ago, Joas said:

I don't know. I don't have the scientific knowledge about psychology and psychiatry. But my opinion is that the subconscious exists and exerts a profound influence on an individual, many times overriding the conscious mind.

Right, it exerts a profound influence since it's the repository of the many of sense-experiences, once conscious (apprehended by conscious means) one earlier had and which were and are formative, later dimly recollected - or lost from direct consciousness. I believe Rand called that state the pre-conceptual mind. Because the subconscious is crucial to the automatized, "self-programing" of one's value-appraisals (pain-bad/pleasure-good) made of those sense-experiences, is why emotions may still arise, seemingly unbidden and unexplainable, due to some present stimulus. But like a flashback they each had a cause and one's (apparently inexplicable) emotions are the effects, even long after. Of course, there are the far greater, growing and more complex, ¬conscious¬ value judgments made with a maturing conceptual mind, causing identifiable, predictable and very explicable emotions. Reasoning (and evaluations) then is part and parcel of the emotional process.

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14 hours ago, Joas said:

This is my first post. As a person who read The Fountainhead 3 or 4 times cover-to-cover, starting in my youth, I can confidently say that it has shaped my life. I'm now in my late 40s. So going straight to the point:

I agree with everything the book describes, when it comes to Rand's philosophy: Integrity, Self-Esteem, Rational Egoism, Capitalism, Self-Interest, Work Ethics, Purposeful and Uncompromising life, and so on. What I don't agree with, and that comes from my own life experience, from observing myself and others as they grow old, is that Reason (with capital R) triumphs over emotions. It certainly did for Roark, who is a fictional character. In real life, any intelligent human being can use reason in a variety of situations to avoid making emotional decisions. That's great. But my critique is how realistically someone can sustain a life commanded only by reason without being heavily influenced by his/her emotions. I believe this is impossible to attain, for the reasons below:

  1. Subconscious: A lot of our actions and decisions, specially when we quickly react to a stimulus, are governed by our subconscious. For example, when you are having a bad day and engage in road rage, this is not a rational behavior and it is not something you can easily control. My point is that we will react emotionally in a lot of situations, and you have no rational control over that.
  2. Depression: Unless you have depression, you cannot understand depression. Like unless you have sex, you cannot understand sex. As someone who has had depression, I can assure you: Reason breaks out completely. How can you win the lottery and be unhappy about it? It is so outrageous and unreasonable that one of the biggest problems with depression is the guilt feeling a depressed person will feel for his/her nonsense feelings and emotions. Just to be clear I did not win the lottery, it is just a metaphor, but being sad after you won the lottery is just as irrational as 2 + 2 = 3. For an intelligent human being, having 2 + 2 = 3 on his forehead generates a lot of pain and guilt. Is depression a disease? I don't think the medical sciences have figured that out yet, but we all know that it is a realistic human condition on all levels for a lot of different people. My point is: isn't the plethora of psychiatric conditions present in the world a direct indication of the unrealistic nature of a pure rational life? Sure, there are people who will never be depressed, and will never have any psychiatric condition, but I wonder what Ayn Rand would have thought about her pure rationalism approach to life if she had depression later in life.
  3. Addiction. I have never had a drug addiction. But who can naively say that they don't have any kind of addictions? I could be wrong but I would think that as long as you have dopamine in your brain, you must have some kind of addiction, on some level (low, mild or severe). Go ahead and tell a smoker to rationally quit smoking. Or go ahead and tell an overweight person to rationally eat less. Or go ahead and tell a kid to rationally quit gaming. Or go ahead and tell an adult to rationally quit sex/porn. My point is: you can be as rational as you want, but at the end of the day, your dopamine will have a huge influence on you. For example, Ayn Rand was irrationally a smoker as she most certainly knew the health consequences or perhaps just chose to deny it so that her rational framework could have been sustained.

So in closing, in my opinion, Objectivism is not bad, it is not wrong. It is just unrealistic to expect that someone can lead a life purely based on reason while avoiding all the traps above. That will certainly lead to frustration and failure in the long run. I still love The Fountainhead, but I wish someone had told me that when I first read it.

I think you might be mistaking rationalism for "Reason" and rationality, Joas.

For a quick definition, rationalism is reason lacking or devoid of reality. I.e.: "it's all in one's head" - so to speak.

For fiction, particularly romanticist-realist fiction, it is the essentials the reader needs to take away for his benefits. The volitional, self-made virtues in action, you describe, measured against life and reality - and winning. One would believe that Roark naturally had a subconscious mind and indeed, exceptionally powerful emotions. Just that Rand chose to not explicitly expose them for that purpose. One has to use one's own mind to appreciate such a character. When one understands Roark's motivations, one learns of his values and virtues-in-action, and implicitly (on his behalf) feels his emotional states whenever his aims were defeated - or achieved. 

(That's a distinction from much modern and naturalist art, where the protagonists' emotions have to be made explcit, displayed in your face, continuously, and are often cause-less, at least for no good, discernable cause. Those don't celebrate human emotions and human values, they make them mundane and glib).

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