Reason and Intuition – Chicken and Egg

by Paul Buller

I’ve been wrestling a lot, lately, with the proper relationship between reason and emotion. Part of the motivation for this conflict in my own mind is because I know people who gravitate to one or the other of these, and they often look down upon whichever of the two they do not gravitate toward. But I find myself drawn to aspects of both, and repulsed by the overemphasis of either. I see value in emotions, even though I see how they can be unreliable and lead to wildly inaccurate beliefs about reality (and completely pointless or harmful actions that are based on those beliefs). Conversely, I obviously hold reason in high regard (as you will know if you’ve read Arguing with Friends or poked around my site for a bit), yet I can see how rationalism can seem cold and heartless, and that some of the most horrific atrocities in human history have had surprisingly coherent reasons behind them.

I see merit in both and I see drawbacks in both. How am I to understand their relationship?

Two legs to walk with

As I have described at another blog, I see reason and emotion as two legs to walk on. If you use only the one leg then you are hopping, not walking. Hopping may allow you to get by in life, in one sense, but using both legs is clearly advantageous. The seemingly obvious answer to the question of how reason and emotion relate is that they must be balanced. Easy, right? Not quite.

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While we need them both they often seem to be in conflict with each other. In some cases what seems rational is emotionally horrifying. In other cases what seems emotionally appealing is completely irrational and frankly out-to-lunch. Even though I clearly affirm that there is a role for both to play, how am I to resolve these apparent conflicts? Should reason trump emotion? Do our emotions ground our reason? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Reason is basic

For a while I worked with the idea that reason was the more basic of the two. Consider if I say something like, “I like cats.” That is an “emotional” expression (in a sense), yet it rests on rationalism. How so? Language is rational through and through. When I use the word “I” the word does not reference you, my sisters, they guy who lives down the street or the former president of Turkmenistan. The word “I” has a clear meaning and it identifies the subject of the sentence. This is an application of the law of identity, one of the classic laws of thought. Language is rational, logical.

Or, consider the word “like.” I used that word as opposed to “not like” or some other word. One can either like cats or not like them, but one cannot both like AND not like cats. When I say that I “like” cats I want to convey a specific idea and not its opposite; I implicitly affirm the law of non-contradiction. Again, more laws of thought and more examples of reason in action.

The reality is, every expression of language is utterly reliant on reason. So it seemed to me that it was only proper to acknowledge that reason was the basis upon which everything else, including our emotions, rested…


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