Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Dichotomy of Reason

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus were both sons of the might God Zeus. Apollo is the God of the Sun, Lightness, Music and Poetry, while Dionysus lords over wine, ecstasy and intoxication. In literary context, the stark contrast between them symbolizes the principles of individualism versus wholeness, light versus darkness, and civilized society versus primal nature.

In a contemporary context, Apollo and Dionysus represent a philosophical dichotomy of Reason and Rational, versus Irrational Emotion and Chaos. But, the Greeks never considered the two Gods to be opposites or rivals. The Apollonian is based on reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts. The content of all great drama of life is based on the conflict created by the interaction between these two.

Historically, Reason was assumed by ancient philosophers to be superior to Emotion – it was what made humans human. The contrast and dominion of the two Gods cannot be more starkly prevalent and visible across domains today. The new era of Internet, Google, facts figures and data at your fingertips, saw a segment of the populace make Reason dominate their lives. But in some areas Emotion seems to have been elevated over Reason – one only has to think of the endless portrayals of anger, greed and sex in Hollywood films, the psychology-driven tricks of spin doctors in the political game or the heart-wrenching efforts of marketers soliciting for the philanthropic dollar.

The past few decades of industrialization and corporatization saw the relationship between emotion and reason as a challenging one. But the latest thinking and dynamic environmental factors contests that assumption. The gap between emotion and reason is narrowing – and to some, there no longer is a gap. A large body of research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that emotions are not the enemy of reason, but rather are a crucial part of it. 

We are often faced with rational decisions that involve a great many conflicting and confusing alternatives. We usually decide on which course to take by weighing up the options, and deciding which one is most beneficial to our well-being. But when it is unclear which one this may be, our powers of reason are insufficient in formulating an answer. In situations like these, our emotions take over.

The idea that emotion impedes logic is pervasive and wrong. The key is to identify the emotions and their associated potential outcomes on rational thinking. For example, anger can lead to prejudiced decisions and a feeling of certainty about them. But sadness has been linked to more careful decision-making and less confidence about them.

We do struggle every day to manage unruly emotions with cool, clear intellect. We know now that thinking has both emotional and logical components. Moral judgements do originate in the more primitive, emotional parts of our brain. What we think of as rational choices are more often simply unconsciously driven decisions rationalised after the fact. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for Reason. Elevating Emotion over Reason is dangerous. It allows clear reign for irrational thinking, driven by spontaneous emotions, unmediated by reflection. Fight or flight, kill or be killed. But elevating Reason over Emotion doesn’t work either. It ignores what we now know about how the mind actually works, how we make decisions that lead to action.

We know Reason and Emotion are inextricably intertwined. The trick is to get people to understand how, and why it’s important to ensure we don’t take the less energy-intensive route of giving in to our spontaneous emotions, or go to the other extreme path to allow pure logic to ruin our spirit. Maybe the solution lies in better education in the area of Introspection, Reason and Reasoning from an early age of life.

As J Krishnamurti beautifully summed up, “The highest form of human intelligence is to observe oneself without judgement.”