Feeling Rational

Since cu­ri­os­ity is an emo­tion, I sus­pect that some peo­ple will ob­ject to treat­ing cu­ri­os­ity as a part of ra­tio­nal­ity. A pop­u­lar be­lief about “ra­tio­nal­ity” is that ra­tio­nal­ity op­poses all emo­tion—that all our sad­ness and all our joy are au­to­mat­i­cally anti-log­i­cal by virtue of be­ing feel­ings. Yet strangely enough, I can’t find any the­o­rem of prob­a­bil­ity the­ory which proves that I should ap­pear ice-cold and ex­pres­sion­less.

When peo­ple think of “emo­tion” and “ra­tio­nal­ity” as op­posed, I sus­pect that they are re­ally think­ing of Sys­tem 1 and Sys­tem 2—fast per­cep­tual judg­ments ver­sus slow de­liber­a­tive judg­ments. Sys­tem 2’s de­liber­a­tive judg­ments aren’t always true, and Sys­tem 1’s per­cep­tual judg­ments aren’t always false; so it is very im­por­tant to dis­t­in­guish that di­chotomy from “ra­tio­nal­ity.” Both sys­tems can serve the goal of truth, or defeat it, de­pend­ing on how they are used.

For my part, I la­bel an emo­tion as “not ra­tio­nal” if it rests on mis­taken be­liefs, or rather, on mis­take-pro­duc­ing epistemic con­duct. “If the iron ap­proaches your face, and you be­lieve it is hot, and it is cool, the Way op­poses your fear. If the iron ap­proaches your face, and you be­lieve it is cool, and it is hot, the Way op­poses your calm.” Con­versely, an emo­tion that is evoked by cor­rect be­liefs or truth-con­ducive think­ing is a “ra­tio­nal emo­tion”; and this has the ad­van­tage of let­ting us re­gard calm as an emo­tional state, rather than a priv­ileged de­fault.

So is ra­tio­nal­ity or­thog­o­nal to feel­ing? No; our emo­tions arise from our mod­els of re­al­ity. If I be­lieve that my dead brother has been dis­cov­ered al­ive, I will be happy; if I wake up and re­al­ize it was a dream, I will be sad. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be de­stroyed by the truth should be.” My dream­ing self’s hap­piness was op­posed by truth. My sad­ness on wak­ing is ra­tio­nal; there is no truth which de­stroys it.

Ra­tion­al­ity be­gins by ask­ing how-the-world-is, but spreads virally to any other thought which de­pends on how we think the world is. Your be­liefs about “how-the-world-is” can con­cern any­thing you think is out there in re­al­ity, any­thing that ei­ther does or does not ex­ist, any mem­ber of the class “things that can make other things hap­pen.” If you be­lieve that there is a gob­lin in your closet that ties your shoes’ laces to­gether, then this is a be­lief about how-the-world-is. Your shoes are real—you can pick them up. If there’s some­thing out there that can reach out and tie your shoelaces to­gether, it must be real too, part of the vast web of causes and effects we call the “uni­verse.”

Feel­ing an­gry at the gob­lin who tied your shoelaces in­volves a state of mind that is not just about how-the-world-is. Sup­pose that, as a Bud­dhist or a lobotomy pa­tient or just a very phleg­matic per­son, find­ing your shoelaces tied to­gether didn’t make you an­gry. This wouldn’t af­fect what you ex­pected to see in the world—you’d still ex­pect to open up your closet and find your shoelaces tied to­gether. Your anger or calm shouldn’t af­fect your best guess here, be­cause what hap­pens in your closet does not de­pend on your emo­tional state of mind; though it may take some effort to think that clearly.

But the an­gry feel­ing is tan­gled up with a state of mind that is about how-the-world-is; you be­come an­gry be­cause you think the gob­lin tied your shoelaces. The crite­rion of ra­tio­nal­ity spreads virally, from the ini­tial ques­tion of whether or not a gob­lin tied your shoelaces, to the re­sult­ing anger.

Be­com­ing more ra­tio­nal—ar­riv­ing at bet­ter es­ti­mates of how-the-world-is—can diminish feel­ings or in­ten­sify them . Some­times we run away from strong feel­ings by deny­ing the facts, by flinch­ing away from the view of the world that gave rise to the pow­er­ful emo­tion. If so, then as you study the skills of ra­tio­nal­ity and train your­self not to deny facts, your feel­ings will be­come stronger.

In my early days I was never quite cer­tain whether it was all right to feel things strongly—whether it was al­lowed, whether it was proper. I do not think this con­fu­sion arose only from my youth­ful mi­s­un­der­stand­ing of ra­tio­nal­ity. I have ob­served similar trou­bles in peo­ple who do not even as­pire to be ra­tio­nal­ists; when they are happy, they won­der if they are re­ally al­lowed to be happy, and when they are sad, they are never quite sure whether to run away from the emo­tion or not. Since the days of Socrates at least, and prob­a­bly long be­fore, the way to ap­pear cul­tured and so­phis­ti­cated has been to never let any­one see you care strongly about any­thing. It’s em­bar­rass­ing to feel—it’s just not done in po­lite so­ciety. You should see the strange looks I get when peo­ple re­al­ize how much I care about ra­tio­nal­ity. It’s not the un­usual sub­ject, I think, but that they’re not used to see­ing sane adults who visi­bly care about any­thing.

But I know, now, that there’s noth­ing wrong with feel­ing strongly. Ever since I adopted the rule of “That which can be de­stroyed by the truth should be,” I’ve also come to re­al­ize “That which the truth nour­ishes should thrive.” When some­thing good hap­pens, I am happy, and there is no con­fu­sion in my mind about whether it is ra­tio­nal for me to be happy. When some­thing ter­rible hap­pens, I do not flee my sad­ness by search­ing for fake con­so­la­tions and false silver lin­ings. I vi­su­al­ize the past and fu­ture of hu­mankind, the tens of billions of deaths over our his­tory, the mis­ery and fear, the search for an­swers, the trem­bling hands reach­ing up­ward out of so much blood, what we could be­come some­day when we make the stars our cities, all that dark­ness and all that light—I know that I can never truly un­der­stand it, and I haven’t the words to say. De­spite all my philos­o­phy I am still em­bar­rassed to con­fess strong emo­tions, and you’re prob­a­bly un­com­fortable hear­ing them. But I know, now, that it is ra­tio­nal to feel.