You’d think the importance of emotions & empathy would be of obvious importance to any movement

If you’ve got an hour, you might find it worthwhile to listen to this podcast by Thomas Smith, Emotion is Critical to Reasoning. There’s good stuff in there about this myth of über rationality by Libertarians and some atheists — you can also hear about in Julia Galef’s talk about The Straw Vulcan, also summarized here. I’m finding that there’s no one more emotional than an alt-right supremacist getting challenged on their cherry-picked and distorted “facts”, while the lefties are usually quite happy to acknowledge that their values are a product of their emotions, specifically empathy.

I listened to it while I was grading papers this morning, and found that I was more charitable in evaluating their work. I expect the students will henceforth insist that I can’t listen to or read anything by creationists or right-wingers, because it might make me much more critical.


  1. doubtthat says

    It’s sad to watch this crap filter down into the real world.

    My high school class made a facebook page for the coming reunion. Our high school mascot is the “Indians.” Someone posted an article about the controversy with the commentary, “Can you believe this crap.”

    The most vocal supporters of keeping the offensive mascot were insanely aggressive and hostile in making their case (not surprising for internet, in general, but it was sort of shocking given that it was among people who knew each other). Several of them were just howling about stupid liberals and their emotions. ALL YOU HAVE IS EMOTION. DON’T FUCKING CHANGE THE MASCOT!!!!

    So, of course, irony in the fact that you’re angrily hollering about people being emotional, but what I found more amusing was their total inability to justify keeping an offensive mascot for any reason beyond nostalgia – “it would be like stomping on our memories.” It’s not hard to hear the echo of, “It’s our culture and heritage…”

    On the positive, the success of science and reason and skepticism is such that people want those terms and tools on their side in an argument. Sadly, these “hyper rationalists” use the terms in a cargo cult manner – just deploying them without understanding.

    Also, want to take a bet at the level of interest my classmates screaming about rationality had in logical reasoning while we were in high school?

  2. mykroft says

    I think perhaps empathy would be more important than just emotion. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where black people were infected with syphilis to study the long term course of the disease, must have appeared logical to the people who ran it. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone else and feel their pain, that is what is needed to inform reasoning when conclusions impact the lives of others.

    Unfortunately, our current president lacks both the ability to reason as well as to empathize, and has created an administration in his image.

  3. mykroft says

    Correction: People were not infected with syphilis during the experiment, they were simply not treated so doctors could observe the progression of the disease. The experiments lasted until 1972, long after antibiotics were discovered.

  4. justawriter says

    I think one of the underappreciated aspects of Trek canon is that Vulcans are not emotionless. I can think of a couple of episodes that made clear that early in their history they suffered from raging emotions that nearly destroyed their species. They had to develop a philosophy and mental practice to hold those emotions in check in order to build a civilized society. Spock’s difficulty with emotions, I think, stemmed not from his human emotions but from the from the human brain’s difficulty in maintaining the mental discipline needed to maintain his Vulcan conditioning. In the movies following the series, he only finds peace by learning to balance his emotions with his intellect, not letting the latter control the former, finally being able to say, “I feel fine.”

  5. hemidactylus says

    If I recall Eagleman’s brain documentary ok, emotions help with evaluative choice in places as mundane as a supermarket. Lacking an emotional backdrop would render us as helpless as Buridan’s ass.

    I’ve heard argued that moral decisions come from gut reaction followed by confabbed rationalization. Reason IMO plays a better role than an after the fact mop up. And if Pinker (I know bleck) is right in invoking Singer as he does reason helps us up the escalator of concern where parochial biases get swamped by global emphases.

    Empathy is important. Lacking empathy coupled with lack of consequentialist fear makes one sociopathic. Yet reasoning may come into play in helping differentiate empathy and projection of ones own preferences in place of another’s true needs. Experience and reason could also help some figure options of how to best help another. But the initial spark requires empathy.

    The syphilis experiments in Guatemala involved deliberate infection.

  6. latveriandiplomat says

    Vulcans valued things like fairness, curiosity, compassion, art, education, honesty, peace, and diversity. What logic demanded of them was that actually live their values. It’s part of what made the Vulcan way so demanding.

    There’s no doubt emotional commitments are useful (at least for humans) for establishing and prioritizing values and goals.

    Logic can’t help with this. It’s just a tool. Garbage in, garbage out.

    But emotion can cause error, overconfidence, fear, and selfishness are the source of many, many errors.

  7. rietpluim says

    What do people have against Vulcans? I like Vulcans. I wish people were a bit more like Vulcans.

  8. seachange says

    I am interested in what he has to say about what PZ wants to talk about.

    Anyone have a guess as to when the subject of emotion/reason shows up in this podcast? Dude says Myth-stuff blah blah blah won’t take long blah blah blah. So I pick up the needle and drop it a few times. One third of the way in still talking about it. Bored now.