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Reason Is The Slave Of Emotion

Here is a gentle creature who hopped onto my patio and stayed long enough for me to photograph. The red-eye, of course, is an unintentional result of on-camera flash. In this sense the photographic image lies. There are no red-eyed rabbits. (Are there?)

On a related note, I came across this remarkable paragraph about perception in a long comment by someone named “Terry5135” on one of the Progressive blogs yesterday:

“In an existence in which the very perception of physical objects can be subject to the influence of emotion, should it be a surprise that the fleeting abstraction of language should be subject to the same rules? Our mistake is in thinking that man is a reasoning creature. Our mistake is in thinking that we are ever calmer than a cauldron of bubbling emotions. We may indeed be capable of reason, but what we desire, crave, fear, or feel aversion for will always, always, always trump reason. Reason is the slave of emotion, not the other way around.”

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That's a beautiful photo, red-eye or no.

I'm inclined to believe that, in general, reason and emotion work very well as a team. Obviously we notice the points where they fight, but I think it's just because they normally work so well together that we notice those. If I see a man coming towards me brandishing a knife, both reason and emotion (fear) tell me I should either start defending myself or start running, whichever is likely to be more successful. The emotion is kick-starting the reason, but they're definitely singing off the same hymn sheet.

If you're a proto-human living out on the savannah and you find a tree full of delicious nuts that are very high in calories, then reason and emotion also unite. They both go "bonanza!" and you eat your fill. The emotions, however, weren't really designed to cope with modern lifestyles in which it is possible to become overweight quite easily; so if you are an overweight modern human being and there is a delicious high-calorie treat in front of you, your emotions are still going "bonanza!", but your reason is saying "but I need to lose weight and this won't help". In that situation, either reason or emotion may win, but what I find interesting (and, I have to say, rather depressing) is that if the overweight person eats the treat (s)he usually feels guilty, whereas if (s)he does not, (s)he feels virtuous. I frequently tell dieters, not without a certain amount of exasperation, that eating high-calorie food is not a sin. Lying is a sin. Stealing is a sin. Gluttony, indeed, is a sin; but eating one biscuit doesn't make you a glutton, and it is possible to be the soul of gluttony without ever touching the sort of foods that dieters are supposed to avoid.

I wonder, however, if this happens because there is a strong link in people's minds between reason and conscience. What is reasonable is very often the same as what is morally right. Hence the tendency to view "I shouldn't eat that" (meaning "it would be inadvisable for me to eat that because I am overweight") as somehow on the same moral plane as "I shouldn't say that about her" (meaning "if I said that about her, I would be failing in my duty of charity").

It wouldn't particularly matter, but once a person starts thinking about food in moral language, it does tend to affect how they see other people's eating habits, not just their own. I used to work with a very slim woman who was permanently on a diet in case she put on weight, and she was incredibly judgemental about what other people ate... particularly about our Head of Section, who is pencil-thin and wolfs down eye-popping quantities of chocolate. In vain did I point out that if he didn't eat the chocolate he would probably be so thin as to be invisible from the side! The idea was firmly fixed in her head that Eating Chocolate Is Bad, and it couldn't be shifted.

Anyway... a digression, but, as Seraphim would no doubt say, I hope an interesting one. :-)

An Interesting Challenge

Thanks for your comment! Plenty to chew on here. I'm viewing nearly everything these days in the context of writing a memoir dealing with my rather unpleasant childhood.

Obviously in this instance there was and remains a great deal of emotion, which obviously had and has a profound effect on my perceptions. I want to be objective, and I want to tell the truth, but given all the emotion, how can I trust my memory?

Maybe I need to settle for as honest an approximation as I can manage, because after all, pure truth is ellusive or perhaps nonexistent with the passage of decades.

It's quite an interesting challenge, though.

Re: An Interesting Challenge

My childhood wasn't particularly pleasant either, despite the fact that I had parents who were genuinely loving (even if not always very good at showing it) and who did their best. If I recounted any episode from my childhood from my own point of view, and then my parents did so from theirs, the accounts would vary so wildly as to be almost unrecognisable as the same story. Nevertheless, both accounts would be true. To reconcile them, all you have to do is think, "They did X with the (excellent) intention of Y, but to a small, powerless, highly introverted and precociously intellectual child, it unfortunately came over as Z."

So I don't think you need worry about failing to tell the truth. If your parents did X and it made you feel Z, that's nothing but the truth. Whether or not they actually intended Y may not be something you can ever find out. They may be very sorry they made you feel Z. They may not even know they made you feel Z. Nonetheless, you felt Z, and that is objective fact.


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