Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hard choices, and a hole in the head

In the rather cheesy disaster-fest “The Day After Tomorrow” there is a very dramatic moment when the hero draws a line across the middle of the United States and tells the President 'evacuate everyone South of this line'. The President asks, 'what about the people to the North?' 'It's too late for them' comes the reply. Now, I happen to think that this film is even more implausible than most, but what this scene does is exemplify the nature of a hard choice. Sometimes we are forced to make a decision between different outcomes – to choose the least worst from a series of bad options (a bit like the general election perhaps). What comes to the fore in such situations is that we reveal what it is that we value the most and, most importantly, what we value expresses who we are. In a context of declining energy resources, who will we choose to be?


I would like to talk about an obscure railroad foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new railroad when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering just below the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he couldn't hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum's travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.



According to a modern neuro-scientist's reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves. That is, we react emotionally to certain outcomes and rule them out.


In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. What seems to be happening in some neuro-scientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that they are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions.


This is where the great religious traditions of the world come in. For each religious tradition might be better characterised as a 'wisdom tradition', that is, they are ways of educating people's emotions so that they can make better decisions. This starts very simply, such as in teaching children to delay gratification – 'if you eat up your supper you can get pudding' – or with adults, 'if you work hard for three years you will get a degree and a better job'. It expands to include all the language of virtues and vices, that is, how to cultivate in ourselves things like courage, honesty, patience, self-control, tolerance and so on. Essentially, all the things that make for a good society flow from emotional maturity.


Sadly, in our society, this truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible (and, as a corollary, that religion was all about emotionality, fit only for women and children, not the hard-headed strong rationality exhibited by manly men.) This had the sad result that we lost our ability to judge what is good and what is not. As a society we handed over our ability to assess good and evil to the scientists – who are, of course, so very rational – and now we are in a situation where the scientists say 'if we carry on like this we are doomed' – and we lack the emotional maturity to respond to this information correctly. As a civilisation, we are like poor Phineas Gage – once we knew who we were, and were competent and capable. Now we are a circus exhibit, fit only for a world of reality TV and game shows. How to get out of this predicament – and where our historic Christian faith has something to say – I will start to explain next time.

5 comments:

  1. (Your comment system won't let me fit my entire whine into a single comment).

    "Sadly, in our society, this truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible (and, as a corollary, that religion was all about emotionality, fit only for women and children, not the hard-headed strong rationality exhibited by manly men.)"

    Regarding the Enlightenment, I don't think that comment is entirely fair. But I know that view is is now considered canon in conservative circles.

    "What seems to be happening in some neuroi-scientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition."

    I would agree with this. People like Joseph leDoux and Damasia have proposed two routes for the brain to reach a decision - one via the amygdale, the brains emotional centre, and another via the prefrontal cortex, the centre for planning and conscious decision making which is also connected to the amygdale. So there is always an emotional connection. leDoux claims the prefrontal cortex can and does override the purely unconscious desires of the amygdale. I think this echoes centauries of thought such the Buddha’s concept of Mindfulness and the traditional recognition of higher and lower thoughts (virtue vs. vices etc). So I think 1) any belief system worth it's salt has to acknowledge this division (Virtue ethics makes perfect sense to me) but 2) trying to separate reason and emotion is generally unhelpful.

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  2. "This is where the great religious traditions of the world come in. For each religious tradition might be better characterised as a 'wisdom tradition', that is, they are ways of educating people's emotions so that they can make better decisions."

    Well, yes and no. Religions and ideology can also serve as blinkers to blind people to actual truth. For me, having a 'rational worldview' is as nonsensical as finding a scientific theory of everything: one single framework in which everything can be explained. The world is just too complicated for that. I frequent political forums and I see this all the time : the feminists view everything in terms of gender, the Marxists in terms of class, the liberals in terms of rights etc. In some cases, I actually know what a group of people will write because I know their ideology. I think this is crazy and a rejection of difficulty. We don’t have a nice simple manual or a recipe for life. (But that doesn’t stop people from trying to write one!) What we are left with is being forced to pick and choose between the various traditions which offends peoples need for certainty. But there simply is no alternative.

    It’s easy for a religious person to answer the question ‘How to you navigate your life?’ or ‘what do you believe in?’. They just point to their manual. For me, that’s just the lazy answer like answering a physics question with ‘God did it’.

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  3. Part of my thinking is shaped by a suspicion that 1) if philosophy is to be of any use, we should return to classical (eg stoic) conception that philosophy is not a mere intelligential exercise but a way of living. A significant portion of modern philosophy is bogged down in technical exchanges where neither side can say anything about anything and 2) seeking the objectivity of the sciences in philosophy may not always be desirable. Yes, we need the 'reality check' but there is always the subjective element of how I experience my life. For example, my ambitions or emotional needs may be completely different from another person, dependant upon our unique combination of 'nature and nurture'. Another example, I'm colour blind, and I suspect rather tone deaf, so I might enjoy art and music that is objectivity considered poor taste. But so what?

    I'm in the middle of working out what works for me at the moment. But I wouldn't claim anything I might conclude as rational or objective. At the same time, I wouldn’t push this idea into moral relativism or simply making up what I want to believe in: there are limits ! I think such needs are a property of humans and as such do not exist outside of the human mind. The world and universe don’t care what we think or want and in most cases, the struggle for meaning is the only meaning to be found.

    "Sadly, in our society, this truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed"

    Returning to this again, I think the rise of advertising, mass consumption, positive thinking, the modern obsession with potential and the ease of self fulfilment - all tied together with neo-liberal faith in free markets and modern work practices - is far more harmful than anything the Enlightenment produced.

    This Enlightenment era poem by Pope always summed things up for me :-

    Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A being darkly wise, and rudely great
    With too much knowledge for sceptics side
    With too much weakness for the stoics side
    He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest
    In doubt to deem himself a God, or a beast
    Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled
    The glory, jest and riddle of the world !

    Yeah, it’s definitely time to leave work I start writing poetry in a blog comment.

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  4. That is interesting. I know you got some of this stuff from Damasio, and when I posted about this back here ....
    http://www.psybertron.org/?p=2461
    I ended with my "meme" argument. I would say no scientist actually thinks they are the arbiters of good and evil. It's no surprise emotions are part of our decision-making process. Only a popular public caricature of science - the press - thinks science is like this - and dickheads like Dawkins. Have you listened to the first of Martin Rees' Reith lectures - he is very clear on this?

    You are feeding the meme, by turning this into science vs religion.

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