Monday, September 20, 2004

Emotion and Knowing

I started this blog with an eye toward writing on philosophy and theology. So far I've done little of that, so I'll start trying to remedy that now.

I've often wondered what is the proper role of emotion in our noetic structure? (I'm sure that this has been treated extensively, but I'm just going to be flying blind here. Maybe someone else could point me to some resources on the topic) If we approach this question from a theistic perspective, or more specifically, a Christian theistic perspective, we have to recognize that we have emotions for a reason. When trying to settle on a single reason we find a variety of options. For instance, it could be that we have emotions simply because God has something akin to them and He wants us to mirror Himself. Or perhaps we have them so we can better relate to other people. Something most of us recognize, however, is that emotions often compel us to act against the dictates of reason. Assuming that God wants us to be reasonable, why must emotions be involved at all? Why not have two distinct modes, one in which we relate to people, and one in which we reason? It seems to me that there must be some positive interplay between emotion and reason.

My theory is that emotion can act as a sort of 'noetic glue.' Very often in listening to debates on topics, I'll find the side I disagree with has a persuasive argument; the kind which only further study and thought can counter. If I have no answer to an argument should I immediately abandon my position? I don't think anyone would advocate that. In fact, I think most people would lose respect for someone who was constantly vacillating between two positions just because they heard a somewhat persuasive new argument. In my experience, what often keeps me from going back and forth is that sense of 'wrongness' that some ideas have. This is noetic glue.

When ideas become entrenched in our thoughts they are not just placed in by reason, but also by emotion. It is difficult and often disturbing to surrender propositions central to your worldview. This is because of the effect emotions can have on our systems of thought. Not only that, but in the right 'dosage' the effect is good. This may seem strange at first because emotions so often cloud rational discussion, but I think as we reflect on it more it becomes clear. It is emotion that gives us that sense that we need to hang on to our beliefs.

It is certainly true, however, that the glue can get too thick. We've all seen those who will do anything to maintain a foolish belief of some sort because they have so much tied up in it. For instance, there are those within the Christian world who maintain that the King James is the only translation that God has ordained, and that all others are evil. There are [b]no[/b] arguments that can be mustered to support this idea, but it persists. Why? Because in there minds these men are the guardians of the truth and the truth must be defended at all costs. The only problem is that their beloved truth is blatantly false. They can't maintain it through reason, so they do it through emotional rhetoric, peppered with enough pseudo-scholarship to ease their consciences. This is noetic glue run amok. It holds fast what should never have been held in the first place.

I hope I've communicated clearly, here. I think emotion plays a vital role in noetic structure as the glue that keeps beliefs in place, even when the shadow of doubt has been cast upon them. When beliefs prove to be false, obviously the glue should 'dissolve' and we should discard the belief, but that doesn't delegitimize the role of emotion in knowing.


Brandon said...

Hi Joshua,

Great post. There's been some work on this issue, but surprisingly little. You might try Ronald de Sousa's The Rationality of Emotions; I find it to be a poorly organized work as a whole, but he says some interesting things. De Sousa's view is that emotions are "determinate patterns of salience," highlighting things as relevant. This could probably be linked to your noetic glue idea, which is original and which I haven't come across before.

Anonymous said...

I think your theory begs the question. Is noetic glue rational? If so, then emotions-as-noetic-glue are redundant. If not, then emotions-as-noetic-glue are wrong.

My suspicion is that noetic glue is not rational: if a question is close enough then one should vacillate, or (usually better) suspend judgment. If a question is not close enough then we don't need noetic glue to maintain our position. I don't see a rational role for emotions in any of that.

(As a Christian, I don't believe that Christianity requires us to ignore evolutionary psychology, which has plenty to say about why we have emotions and whether they're still useful. Even Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is still in play. But I'm confident that emotions do not have a legitimate role in reasoning properly so called.)


(Posted here.)

Johnny-Dee said...

There is a way to modify what you're getting at in this post by looking to the intellectual virtues. Virtues like intellectual tenacity, intellectual courage, curiosity, and others seem to fit roughly your role of emotions in the life of the mind. Sometimes these virtues can serve as some type of glue, although it probably isn't correct to say they are the glue that makes them stick to our noetic structure. Shouldn't that be truth?

Anonymous said...

William Meisheid

I am reminded of the Blaise Pascal quote "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways."

Pensées, no. 423, ed. Karailshemer, no. 277, ed. Brunschvicg (1670).