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Logic and Emotion: Incongruous Mixture or Harmonious Melody?

September 30, 2019

 

You find yourself in command of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek in the midst of dire circumstances. Captain Kirk has been trapped outside the ship, the ship has limited power, and hostile enemies are attacking. Two competing voices are recommending different alternatives: Spock, the voice of reason, advises following logic by fighting the enemy to maintain your position. McCoy, the voice of emotion, urges retreat in order to protect the crew. [1] The question burns itself in your mind, “How do I decide between reason and emotion, Spock or McCoy? Does one preside over the other or are the two locked in battle, with one only gaining the upper hand for a brief second?” 

 

This question isn’t limited to the realm of science fiction but is intrinsically involved in everyday decision making. Culture sends conflicting messages, from “listen to your heart” to “think before you act.” Even on campus, we are caught between classes that call for logic-driven, fact-based solutions and those that encourage us to push beyond logic through expressive, heart-felt appeals. How should we navigate this question in order to live a good, flourishing life?

 

There are two main sides in this debate: Spock’s position that reason is the most important part of living a good life, and McCoy’s position that emotion is primary. To understand each side of the argument and the effects they have had on culture, let me allow some philosophers to make the case for their position.

 

Spock’s Life of Logic

 

The Spockian side of the debate has roots in the Stoics view of the good life. In their view, the good life is ataraxia or tranquility, a state of being unperturbed by the world around them. For the Stoics, the way to be happy is to maintain tranquility by cultivating reason directed toward virtue. One Stoic, Seneca, states, “the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason,” [2] as reason can guide us through misfortune by controlling our reaction to those difficulties. However, not only do the Stoics emphasize reason as one important trait, but they also present it as the important trait. Epictetus, another Stoic, states, “Socrates became fully perfect… by not paying attention to anything but his reason in everything that he met with.” [3] Epictetus asserts that desire should be eliminated, “since if you desire something that is not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate…” [3] In this view this view, reason and emotion take on the roles of ruler and subject respectively; reason rules the body, while desires and emotions are completely subject to its rule.

 

This view is not limited to these ancient philosophers but still affects society and especially academia today. Vern Poythress, in his book Logic, states, “In almost every sphere, universities today rely on reasoning—in natural sciences, medicine, historical studies, law, economics, political science, language study, literary analysis, mathematics. Academic work aspires to conduct its reasoning rigorously. And logic is a model for rigor.” [4] Even beyond the academic sphere, it is logic that keeps us from making grave mistakes and helps us to correctly predict the results of our actions before we make them. We rely on logic for even the most basic reasoning, such as, “High-speed trains kill wayward bicyclists, and I am a bicyclist with a knack for getting off track, therefore I may be killed by a high-speed train.” There seems to be nothing in this world that the hand of Spock’s logic does not touch; we cannot even conceive of a reality in which logic does not operate. 

 

McCoy’s Life of Emotion

 

The second side of the debate, as exemplified by McCoy, has a compelling historical representative in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau presents an alternate definition of happiness: the balance of desires and the power to attain those desires. This means that if our desire for something exceeds our ability to obtain it, we will be unhappy. On the other hand, if our desire is far beneath our abilities, we will leave a portion of ourselves underutilized and idle, which would also prevent us from being happy in our whole being. [5] Rousseau believes that happiness is achieved by relying on the primitive nature. Because the mind is what awakens desire and allows power and will to become unbalanced, we must look instead to our natural emotion, which informs morality and determines good desire. [5] Rousseau states, “To exist is to feel; our feeling is undoubtedly earlier than our intelligence, and we had feelings before we had ideas.” [5] Thus, I would characterize this view of logic and emotion as one of foundation and superstructure; the emotions form the foundation upon which reason resides.

 

Again, this view has far reaching effects on our culture. Whether explicitly stated in songs like the Beatles’ “All you need is love” [6] or hidden in the magic of Disney’s princess movies, the message bleeds through: we need to be true to ourselves and authentic to what we feel. This affects not only art and philosophy but also our value systems. We value those things that have the most emotional significance. As Helen Keller posits, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” [7] Emotion also allows us to connect with people around us, not just respond to external stimuli. As Rousseau would say, “Apart from the [conscience, instinct], I find nothing in myself to raise me above the beasts - nothing but the sad privilege of wandering from one error to another, by the help of an unbridled understanding and a reason which knows no principle.” [5] Without using McCoy’s emotion in understanding a situation, logic would have no foundation upon which to rest.

 

Examining the Extremes

 

First, let us examine Spock’s logic. Can one be completely reasonable without emotion? Consider this scenario: Elliot is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after a successful surgery, he seems to have fully recovered, scoring highly on IQ tests and doing well on psychological tests. However, his life soon begins to fall apart because of his poor decision-making. It is discovered that his amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotion, is damaged. Thus, he no longer has feelings. [8] Elliot can reason his way to many possibilities, but he cannot decide on one due to his lack of emotion. This situation resembles Aristotle’s thought experiment, in which a reasonable man is placed equidistant between food and water with an equal desire for each, but dies of indecision because there is no logically optimal option. [9] These scenarios demonstrate that reason without emotion cannot be the answer to the good life.

 

The psychology case of Phineas Gage also demonstrates the extreme of emotion. Gage was a kind and temperate man who suffered a tragic brain injury to his prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain associated with reasoning. Although he was physically healed, his personality changed significantly and he “had the animal passions of a strong man.” [8] Possessing the emotions of a man with the reason of a child ended up costing Gage his work and friends; his intuition alone could not lead to a good life, revealing that emotion without reason cannot lead to happiness.

 

These two presentations seem diametrically opposed, but it is our attempt to separate and oppose them which creates this perceived paradox. Instead, reason and emotion must somehow work together, interdependently. 

 

How should we handle this apparent paradox? 

 

We may attempt to balance the two, maintaining both with a recognition of the failings of either, but this would not solve our introductory dilemma of deciding between them when they conflict. I will endeavor to show that there is indeed a connection between the two that can explain this apparent paradox and then address the question addressed in the introduction.*

 

To that end, let me lay out some of the requirements implicit in each side of the debate and then see what brings these two ideas together. First, we examine logic. The laws of logic are at their very core truth claims; they make conclusive statements about what is possible and what is not, what is a valid argument and what isn’t. For example, the law of noncontradiction says that if I am in class, I cannot simultaneously be out of class. Also, logic must hold for all space and all time; the validity of the proposition about class can’t change if I move to Sweden or go back to the middle ages. The laws of logic cannot be physically seen but are evidenced in the world by their effects. All of these attributes (truthful, eternal, immutable, invisible, and immaterial) highlight that logic is a reflection of self-consistency. But to turn to the emotive side, logic is an expression of rationality which is an inherently personal attribute; a world without persons would not have rationality. [4] Also, without the motivations of love and hope, logic would have no object to accomplish besides the useless proliferation of facts.

 

A similar argument can be made for emotion. Emotion is connected to belief and is therefore propositional. [10] For example, a person can be sad that it is raining only if they believe that it is indeed raining.  Also, emotions can be intentional, meaning that they are directed at an object, whether a person - “I am angry at my roommate” - or a thing - “I am excited about finals being finished.” These directly relate to the propositional nature of logic. Without the self-consistency of logic, emotions such as love and compassion could not be acted upon, because we could make no inference about the actions necessary for expressing those emotions. Similar to logic, we again see the requirement that emotion is personal.

 

These reflections reveal that logic and emotion do necessitate each other; logic relies on the motivation and direction of emotion while emotion relies on the self-consistency of logic. But even more fundamentally, each is rooted in personality, requiring a concept of personhood in order to exist. If the nature of these two faculties and the combination of the two is to be justified, their existence and function must be rooted in a person, not just an ideal. I contend that all of these attributes can only be found in a robust view of the Christian trinitarian God. If logic must be personal, truthful, eternal, immutable, invisible, and immaterial, as we saw above, then the basis and originator of logic must also possess those attributes. If emotion must be personal and have the capacity for love and compassion, then the justification for the existence of any emotion must also possess those attributes. If love exists and God is eternal, then the only way that love can exist in God is for him to be able to love within himself. Since love always requires an object, the only way that this kind of love can exist is in a trinitarian God, a God whose very nature can explain the unity and diversity we see in the world. Without a trinitarian God, there would be no basis for a God that can be both transcendent and immanent, powerful enough to be the foundation of all truth claims and yet loving enough to express emotion by being present with us in our everyday lives and having a relationship with us. 

 

But in a world of order and consistency, is this amalgamation of two seemingly paradoxical ideas some strange anomaly? Is there any beauty or elegance in this answer? Within Christianity, this is no surprise. As G.K. Chesterton presents in Orthodoxy, it is this very fact that allows Christianity to explain the complexity of the world around us. He states:

 

“We want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy... I need not remind the reader that the idea of this combination [of paradoxical ideas] is indeed central in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.” [11] 

 

Chesterton goes on to explain how virtues such as courage, modesty, and charity are all in their essence paradoxical. Christianity explains how we can love the martyr and hate suicide. These paradoxes exist all around us - truth and grace, justice and mercy, human responsibility and God’s sovereignty, logic and emotion.

 

The Rule of Truth

 

The skeptic may respond that this sounds ideal in a purely abstract realm, but how can this function practically, especially when the two seem to conflict? I agree that there are situations in which these two faculties appear to lead us in opposite directions. However, I maintain that one faculty is not subservient to the other, but instead both are subservient to something higher: truth. If something higher than both of these faculties is guiding their function, then, when faced with these obstacles, we need only follow the one that aligns most closely with truth. Human emotion may feel that I deserve an A on my exam, but logic says that since I incorrectly answered all the questions, that feeling is not leading me to truth. Logic may say that I should spend all my time pursuing academic success, yet emotion shows that personal interactions and friendships are a necessary part of life. In these situations, true reason and emotion are not actually in contradiction, but our perception is instead skewed by a finite knowledge of facts.

 

Though the struggle between Spock and McCoy is real in the sense that there are situations in which logic and emotion drag us in opposite directions, we must hold these two faculties in tension. Placing reason as paramount to emotion cannot promise a good life and neither can placing emotion before reason. These two faculties must be held equally together and require each other. This tension can only find its resolution in a robust trinitarian perspective of God, and the nature of both logic and emotion point to this perspective. Through this lens, we see that the forces of culture may push us to one extreme or the other, but if each finds its place under the rule of truth, Spock and McCoy can come to a consensus. As Captain Kirk’s advice to Spock in the episode indicates, it is not just a balance of both faculties, but a full use of emotion and logic that can lead the USS Enterprise out of danger. As Kirk states, “Use every scrap of knowledge and logic you have to save the ship, but temper your judgment with intuitive insight… Seek out McCoy, ask his advice.” [1] Logic and emotion need not be an explosive mixture but instead when held together in tension, they can weave a harmonious melody.

 

*This is not completely ignored by philosophers, and some, such as Aristotle I would argue, do hold a view approaching the view I present here.

 

References

1. Marc Daniels, M. C. (Director). (1969). "The Tholian Web" Star Trek Original [Motion Picture]. CBS.

2. Seneca, L. A. (2017, April 27). On the Happy Life. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from Aeon.

3. Epictetus. (1999). Encheiridion, The Handbook. In C. Guignon, The Good Life (pp. 53-72). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Campany.

4. Poythress, V. S. (2013). Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought. Wheaton,              Illinois: Crossway.

5. Rousseau, J.-J. (1999). Emile. In C. Guignon, The Good Life (pp. 204-210). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

6. McCartney, P., & Lennon, J. (1967). All You Need Is Love [Vinyl record]. Los Angeles: Capitol Records.

7. Shaler, S. P. (1921). The Masters of Fate: The Power of the Will. New York: Duffield and Company.

8. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' Error: Reason, Emotion and the Human Brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam Berkley Group, Inc.

9. Aristotle. (1999). Nicomanchean Ethics. In C. Guignon, The Good Life (pp. 22-41). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

10. Price, A. W. (2018). Emotions in Plato and Aristotle. In P. Goldie, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion (pp. 1-24). New York: Oxford University Press.

11. Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane Company.

 

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