Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Emotion and Reason.

Last night, for too long a period and before I got out of the discussion as well as I could without appearing rude or overly disdainful, I got dragged into a verbal interchange that reminded me clearly why I don't have philosophical or political discussions with people, whose views differ greatly from mine. The reason is that, by and large, there is no point to such discussions—not at least insofar as it pertains to any effort to ascertain what may be 'true' and what may not be.

These discussions are useful to determine what the content of a particular person's opinions are, of course, and as such they have what you might call 'personal' value; providing elements contributing to understanding another person's motives and getting some notion of what drives them to do what they do and say what they say. But as for 'the determination of truth' about the issues being discussed these exchanges are next to useless; for people seldom look for truth, but usually want validation of something they've already decided is true. Last night's discussion proved that with limpid clarity, and reminded me why, if you want to communicate anything to anybody who doesn't agree with you, the best thing is to slip it in under the radar in a good narrative.

Last night's discussion also confronted me yet once again with an exponent of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a decrepit system of thought known as 'Objectivism'. When you strip all the mummery and rhetoric from this philosophy you end up with a system of thought based on the premise that its is possible, in principle and realizable action, to determine, using something called 'reason', what is 'right' and 'wrong'—as applied to life in general, as well as any given situation one might encounter in said life. Hence 'Objectivism', expressing the notion that there is a way, over and above purely subjective judgment, to determine what amounts to 'truth'. Within that framework the individual, if s/he is to lead a worthy and valuable life, must use his or her 'reason' to determine said 'right' and 'wrong' and decide to act accordingly.

Objectivism thus exhorts 'reason' and decision making, and is, at least superficially, diametrically opposed to 'collective' thinking, representing as it were, the opposite end of the political spectrum—the extremists on the other side, so to speak. For the decision have to be made by an individual and an individual alone; thus making Objectivism into the ultimate philosophy extolling the virtues of individualism and free choice—based on 'reason', of course, and let's not forget that.

Free, informed choice with the 'right' decisions following. The wet dream of every misty-eyed utopian.

Free choice? Hmmff. Only if we ignore the fact that Objectivism is, at its core, profoundly authoritarian. In fact, you couldn't get it much worse, not even in your average religion.

How can I say that? Especially I, who spends a lot of time and effort in my novels extolling the virtues of individual decision making and its essential nobility?

Well, just because the words and the grammar are the same, it doesn't mean the semantics is. And just because Objectivism seems to share some aspects of what it considers valuable with, for example, Libertarianism, it doesn't mean it's the same thing, or even related. Libertarians, like the good folks at Reason magazine, don't actually understand that, since they, too, confuse the map (words) with the territory (that which words describe). A common failing, which is a chink in the shiny armor of Libertarianism, proving yet again that political philosophies are always flawed, possibly because they are political philosophies. Ayn Rand once delivered a rant (pun intended) against Libertarianism—in an essay the source of which I don't have the time to find right now, but feel free to find it yourself; otherwise take my word for it. This showed clearly that she at least was aware just how much Libertarian philosophy was opposed to Objectivism. That Reason editors and contributors should continue to conflate Objectivism and Libertarianism demonstrates only their philosophical naivety.

However, I digress. Why, I asked to begin with, would I label a philosophy extolling the nobility of individual choice as 'authoritarian'? Why indeed would I go even further, as I do, and call it 'ideology'?

Among the less logically stringent are these. It is an extremist philosophy, and all extremist philosophies are inherently authoritarian because of their position in the political spectrum. Also all of them are grounded in an 'idea'—some notion about what is or should be, and which cannot be assaulted, this being, if you will, the 'Garbage In' part of 'GIGO'— which ultimately is used to explain whatever else the philosophy propounds. Objectivism's basic philosophical premise has the status of such an 'idea'. 'Authority' within any such framework derives from the degree to which any given individual has a status, through his thinking and/or actions, that derive in some way from his or her relationship to the central idea and whatever flows from it. Thus Ayn Rand would, no doubt, always have considered herself the ultimate 'authority' on her particular philosophy. If she ever disclaimed it, I would like to suggest that said negation was almost certainly disingenuous.

The label 'authoritarian' also applies because by asserting that there is an 'objective' way to determine...well, let's just call it 'truth', because that's what it's ultimately all about...more authority automatically is assigned to those individuals whose thought processes have more access to or resonance with this 'objective' way of figuring out what's what. Hence—as my discussion partner tried to assert again and again—a suitable application of 'reason' would actually tell me if any given choice I might be making would be 'right' or 'wrong', on any scale that happens to be applicable at the time.

Those individuals who have such access to the objective truth are clearly superior in some way to those who don't. Those who have said access and make decisions commensurate with the 'right' and 'wrong' choices at decision time, are clearly the most superior of all.

If this philosophy ever became the foundation of a political system, it would, I dare say, be an authoritarian system that would make 'collectivism' look like paradise. It would possibly look like a benign utopia, but it would easily be the most spiritually oppressive system humanity has ever devised. Hence the grim irony of hearing a Russian sing the praises of Ayn Rand and describing her as the 'greatest novelist that ever lived' definitely wasn't lost on me. She was a lousy philosopher and and even worse novelist.

Last, but not least, Objectivism is counterfactual, as most ideologies are—meaning that they either have no basis in scientific evidence or that such evidence as exists only 'works' because it is used in a highly selective fashion and by excluding evidence that doesn't fit on the basis of reasoning deriving not from what one might call a 'scientific method' approach but from the ideologies core 'ideas'. Evidence that 'fits' is cool and relevant. That which doesn't fit either doesn't exist; is irrelevant and/or misleading; or in the case of conspiracy-theory ideologies, fabricated by said ideologies' opponents or detractors. Objectivism fits fully within that framework. Everything we actually 'know' in a scientific sense, and especially in the context of 'cognitive science', contradicts the notion of there being anything 'objective' about any judgment about 'truth' whatsoever. That would include the late Ayn Rand, I guess.

And, to hammer a firm final nail into the coffin, Objectivism ends here. The decisions by the rational individual are it. Whatever comes as a result of it is basically epiphenomenal. The process itself is the virtue and be-all and end-all. Which means, Objectivism isn't just authoritarian, but also essentially egomaniacal.

Enough said.

To add a positive and hopefully enlightening note to a blog dealing with a dismal philosophy...

During the discussion last night the person asked me (I paraphrase somewhat): "So, when you write your novels, what do you write them with? What do you use?"

And I answered, "I write them with my heart."

"Rubbish!" he exclaimed. "You write them with your reason. You make up the story and the plot and the characters and the logic of the situation [etc etc]."

"Yes," I agreed, "but I still write them with my heart."

At which point I realized that here possibly lay the crux of the misunderstanding and the irresolvable confusion inflicting almost everybody who thinks about 'reason'—as opposed, usually, to 'emotion' I guess. And I thought about In Defense of Sentimentality, which I discussed here. Robert Solomon, too, got lost in trying to find a way in which to understand reason and its relationship to emotion.

But it looks to me like the reason-emotion debate lends itself to a simple metaphor that not only describes it aptly and clearly, even to philosophical and scientific lay people, but which can also be mapped onto the inner working of our brains; and which generally provides a shitload of useful imagery to understand the emotion-reason interaction and dependency relationship.

It is this:

Think of water flowing downhill. 'Emotion' is the force of gravity that makes it flow. 'Reason' is the structure of the terrain through which it flows and which thus guides its movements.

By the way, this notion probably isn't original or ground-breaking, though I haven't actually heard it phrased like that or even closely so. But someone will almost certainly have figured this out before me. I apologize to whoever did that I cannot give him or her the appropriate credit or attribution. In the event, I did come up with it on my own. At least I think so. Who knows what I read or heard wherever and whenever that eventually coalesced into this.

I could discuss the metaphor at length, but this is a blog, not a place for a philosophical essay. I invite you, however, to map the imagery into the world of the human brain, where you will find fascinating correspondences. I also invite you investigate the ramifications of the imagery. The effect of the slope of the incline or the force of gravity. The influences of appropriate channeling of the cascading water into different configurations of constraints and what the results of that might be. And so on.

You may find these thoughts useful. However, they must be yours.

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