Saturday, 18 October 2014

Heart and Mind

So, yet another topic from Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind". Although, I think the psychological insights the book has to offer are really great, there are some parts that I thought were a bit weaker. In particular, let's look at the conclusion about Reason vs. Emotion derived from the studies in Chapter 2.

Three Approaches

David Hume
Haidt builds for us a 3-way model based on Great Thinkers and their thoughts on the interaction between "Mind and Heart".

    1. He begins with David Hume(An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, 1777) "reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."
    2. On the other end of the spectrum is Plato(Timaeus), which Haidt paraphrases as "The passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume's formulation."
    3. Finally, Thomas Jefferson, presents a more balanced approach in a letter to Maria Cosway, which Haidt summarizes as "reason and sentiment are(and ought to be) independent co-rulers."

Having set up this three-way model, Haidt then describes his Psychological studies. Based on his Harmless Taboo interviews, he concludes:

"These results support Hume, not Jefferson or Plato. People make moral judgements quickly and emotionally.  Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made."

The Limits of Science

Ignoring the hubris to think that one is going to resolve one of the great philosophical debates of all time with some well thought-out psychology interviews, what Haidt is breezing over is his assumption that "are" and "ought to be" are one and the same. That may be true, according to his own secular materialistic philosophy, but many people would disagree. The Torah perspective, certainly, is that we have free will and must strive for an ideal which is often hard to achieve fully in practice.

This brings us to a topic that we've touched on before: the limits of Science. The scientific method is great at determining "what is". On the other hand, it's a rather weak tool in determining "what ought to be". Philosophy, on the other hand, with it's own methodology, is much better at this. In fact, the Plato and Hume quotes above are chiefly concerned with this question. Plato feels the need to argue for more intellect because he is acutely aware that people often make bad decisions from following their hearts without thinking rationally. Even in the Hume quote above, which explicitly mentions what is, his major point is not that, in practice, people follow their hearts, rather it is his assertion that doing so is a good thing.

In Defense of Rationalism

Thomas Jefferson
There's another point in favor of the intellect that Haidt never makes, that I'd like to touch on. It may be true that, when confronted with various stimuli, we generally follow the quick judgements of the intuitive part of our brain, rather than engaging in a long process of rational thought. It also seems likely that Haidt is right that this is necessary, since there is usually not enough time to consider the all the possibilities rationally before we act.

But that doesn't make it true, as Haidt asserts, that the intellect is of secondary importance. How is it, as we grow and develop, that our intuitions become such efficient decisors? It is not merely our raw experience which teaches our intuition those lessons. That experience must be filtered through the scrutiny our our intellect, reflecting on past experience and drawing non-trivial conclusions. Only then can we convert experience into learning. As such, I much prefer Jefferson's model. Intellect and Intuition are co-rulers, whose interaction produced the wonderfully dichotomous intelligence that is Man.

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