The role of irregular verbs in argument

I wrote this column for the Freethinker. In it I take issue with the idea that emotion is the opposite of reason.

I don’t mean that people arguing or writing articles about moral or social issues should be in a heightened emotional state themselves; I mean they should not pretend the subject is a matter of pure logic or number-crunching or engineering.

Above all, what we should not do is claim that our argument is Pure Reason while that of our opponent is nothing but emotion. It won’t work, for a start, and it’s not likely to be true, and it’s toe-curlingly arrogant. It helps to remember that we all have enormous built-in cognitive flaws, and that it’s never safe to assume we’ve managed to correct or avoid all of them at any given time.

In any case it’s pointless to pretend we can think and talk about moral or political issues with emotion neatly extracted, because the reason we want to argue about them in the first place is because we care about them. They matter to us. We don’t bother to argue about things that don’t matter to us. Morality is rooted in feelings – we want some things and want to avoid other things. Morality comes in when we extend that to other people –

And then things get complicated.




  1. kevinalexander says

    There’s a scene in the latest StarTrek movie where the schoolboy Spock is taunted by other boys into losing his temper thereby proving to them his inferior status as an emotional half human.
    But why do they care? Weren’t they just giving in to their emotions of hatred and disgust for ‘the other’? It demonstrates the failure of the idea that Vulcans are pure reason. What rational purpose could there be for the other boys to attack him?

  2. kevinalexander says

    I just now got the Pinker thing you did in the title. Very clever.
    It made me think of Antonio Damasio’s ‘Self Comes to Mind’ where he does an interesting thing in that he makes distinct the definitions of the words emotion and feeling which most people use interchangeably. Inputs from the environment (which includes the brain itself) trigger the release of various hormones which affect different brain systems in different ways. What the brain does under the influence of these ‘drugs’ is thinking, rational or not and these thoughts are what Damasio calls feelings. Just the wash of neurochemicals below the level of thought and before they begin he calls emotions. So in this sense emotions are the foundation of thought though they don’t do any thinking themselves.
    The trick is to manage the emotions and this turns out to be possible since much of the environmental triggering for the emotions comes from the brain itself and so through a feedback loop you can rationally cultivate your emotions if you know how.
    I think that George Lucas buggered an entire generation when he had Obi Wan say “Trust your feelings, Luke” It’s a recipe for romantic disaster. What he should have said was “Luke, examine your feelings”

  3. says

    Heh. I actually didn’t intend the Pinker reference, and didn’t notice it until I was about to push the “Publish” button. What I intended was a very covert (that is, not spelled out) reference to irregular verbs as cited in Yes Minister – I have an independent mind, you’re eccentric, she’s round the twist. I didn’t spell it out mostly because I’ve mentioned it so often before.

  4. screechymonkey says


    This thread is probably not the place for a prolonged digression into Star Trek nerdery (maybe The Withdrawing Room), but:

    1) Technically, I think Vulcan’s don’t claim to be “pure reason,” they claim to strive for it. Supposedly Vulcan had an ugly past that only turned around when they dedicated themselves to emotional discipline and an emphasis on logic. Of course, they now tend to take it too far, at least from our human perspective. I think of Vulcans like a particular variety of recovering alcoholic, the one who’s a little too fond of his 12-step program and thinks everyone else has a drinking problem but is in denial: you’re happy that he’s a better person than he used to be, but he’s now rather annoying and self-righteous.

    2) There’s a tendency to take everything the “good guys” on Star Trek say at face value. I think they’re as full of shit as people are in our time. Oh, the Federation is a peaceful, noble society — and we know this because, uh, high-ranking Federation military officers say so! And sure, the occasional corrupt admiral aside, most of the Starfleet officers were meet are good people who no doubt believe every word they’re saying about the Federation. But there are high-ranking U.S. military folks today who wax rhapsodic about America being a shining beacon of liberty and justice, and we know the truth is a little murkier than that. Klingons go on and on about honor, but their political system is riddled with corruption and deceit, and even Worf eventually has to admit they’re a disappointment. So when Spock, or Tuvok, or any other Vulcan starts telling us what Vulcans are like…. it would be prudent to replicate some sodium chloride. As your example points out, they often fail to live up to their stated values.

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