27 January 2013

Thinking it Through

I haven't felt the urge to blog lately because I've been caught up in various things. At the same time I've been involved with a desultory discussion about the value of inter-religious dialogue with Elisa Freschi on her blog. In response to something I wrote, Elisa responded:
"But I do not think that one's religious beliefs are tantamount to the degree of psychological "biasedness" or to one's lack of insight. What about being sincerely trying to think through one's beliefs?
Don't you believe in the possibility of theology (i.e., rational thinking within the framework of some key beliefs)?" 
My reply is the comments on that post, but I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on my answer. My response consisted of a critique of the idea of "rational thinking". I began by invoking a paper by Daniele Cuneo (who is currently working on the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project at Cambridge University). In Thinking Literature: Emic and Etic Approaches, Daniele makes an interesting point about emic and etic viewpoints. Most people who study religion will be be familiar with this distinction which might be summed up as "insider" and "outsider" views. We will almost certain be familiar with the idea that Buddhism cannot be understood from the outside and one must practice it to understand it. I'm no longer convinced of this and why this is so may become clear as I proceed.

Daniele makes the excellent point that when we study a religion or a textual tradition as an outsider (and etic approach) we tend to project our own emic assumptions onto the subject. For instance we may refer to Buddhist literature, but "literature" is an emic concept for us. It comes loaded with cultural baggage. It is never the case that we can stand outside a tradition and study it objectively, we can only stand outside it and study it in terms of other traditions. There is no god-like positionless position. Or in other words we always make assumptions when we interpret information.

What I said about "rational thinking" was that it is an emic concept. Rational thinking is an idea about how humans process information that owes a great deal to the European Enlightenment. It's a modernist concept. But in recent years that very idea of rational thinking has come under heavy fire (to invoke the argument is war metaphor) from rational thinkers. I'm interested in at least two strands of the arguements against the idea of rational thinking - both of which have featured heavily in blogs of the last few years. The first is from neuroscience, particularly (for me) in the popular works of Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger (though I've delved into Metzinger more deeply as well).

Antonio and Hannah Damasio have both looked at the consequences of damage to the medio-ventral prefrontal cortex (MVPC: see my blog here) and discovered that minor damage disrupts out ability to make certain kinds of decisions. The theory is that we don't just judge how true a proposition is, but that we judge how important it is to us (or at least how important it is to the decision at hand); which is to say we judge the value or salience of the information. And we experience the value of the information somatically as emotional states or feeling. When MVPC is disrupted then the link between information and its value or salience is disrupted and thus while we know what is true, we can no longer decide which true facts are more important than others. Thus we lose the ability to make decisions. It is my informal suggestion that we generalise this - that we experience the salience of all kinds of information as emotions.

Allied to this is something that a highly successful advertising expert once told me: "People don't make rational decisions, they may emotional decisions and then rationalise them." It doesn't take too much deconstruction of the adverts of top companies to realise that they all behave as if this were implicitly true. And if it wasn't their ads would not work. Pragmatism suggests that there is something in this - whatever Myers and Briggs say.

The second strand of critique of rational thinking comes from philosophy. I usually confess that I don't like philosophy and have not read any. This is not entirely true. I did have a period of reading the books of Geroge Lakoff and to some extent his coauthor Mark Johnson. Lakoff is a philosopher of language whereas Johnson is a philosopher of the mind (more or less). The thesis here is that language reflects embodied consciousness. They argue for instance that all abstract thought is metaphorical in nature, and that the metaphors we use draw on our physical experience of being embodied and interacting with the world. To give a very simplistic example or their very sophisticated idea: when we say "things are looking up" or "I'm feeling down" we invoke a spatial metaphor related to our bodies orientation in space. "Up is good" because when we are alive, healthy and alert we are upright; "down is bad" because when we are dead, ill or unconscious we are prostrate. Lakoff's more indepth work on categories in the wonderfully named "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" shows that we tend to construct categories based on how we physically and mentally interact with the world; and we tend to understand relationships between members of categories metaphorically based on our own embodied experience. The broader category for these ideas (more associated with Johnson I think) is Embodied Cognition.

In short all thought is embodied, all thinking involves working with metaphors that rely on our experience of being embodied. "Rationality" -- as disembodied abstract thought -- is like Harold Bloom's joke about Freudian Literary Criticism being like the Holy Roman Empire... not Holy, not Roman, and not an empire. Empirical support of these theories has been found in the form of types of brain cells known as mirror neurons and canonical neurons. Mirror neurons are part of the motor cortex that controls voluntary muscles and are active both when we perform an action and we observe someone else performing an action. The implication is that we understand our observations in part by using the same part of the brain that we would use if we were performing the action. Canonical neurons are also part of the motor cortex and they are active when we perceive an object - the theory here being that in understanding an object we assess how we might physically interact with it, how we might manipulate it.

So to sum up "rational thinking" doesn't really exist. We can't think without using our emotions to assess the importance of information to us; to assess the salience of the information for the issue at hand. Similarly we can only think in abstract terms by employing metaphors that relate to how our body feels and functions; how we physically interact with the world. When we "grasp" an idea (a metaphor also available to Sanskrit speakers) we are invoking the felt experience of grasping. When we choose one idea over another, it is always because one feels right, or more right (i.e. of more value to us, and more salient to the issue).

With regard to the issue of sincerity I reported on a BBC Radio 4 interview with creationist Malcolm Bowden (the interview is archived here). Mr Bowden is eminently sincere, and as an engineer he knows how to think, but his conclusion is that all science is mistaken: that the sun goes around an earth created in 6 days by God about 6000 years ago. Mr Bowden sounds calm, reasonable and rational. He argues his case based on a series of assumptions that I certainly do not share, but argues logically from those assumptions. He says, and I believe him, that he has examined his assumptions about the world and this is his conclusion. He acknowledges the difficulties his confession has caused him, but is committed to his view.

How can someone like me make sense of someone like Malcolm Bowden? I think the foregoing argument shows one way to do it. Mr Bowden is sincere and rational and using reason to assess the information available to him, but he is giving certain information a much higher salience than I am. I give the bible no salience as a set of facts, so it plays no role in my decision making. He places the highest value on it. I don't need to think of the man as an idiot or to feel angry about it as many people might. I do feel a bit angry, but I'm aware enough to suppress it for the greater good. On the other hand Mr Bowden could use the same argument to understand what I've just written. After all, what am I doing but telling readers what kinds of stories about experience feel right to me; what kinds of metaphors help me to grasp my situation in life; to make sense of what is going on around me. I believe what I say I believe in this essay not because it is absolutely true, but because my life experience predisposes me to feel that way. I would not say that there is nothing I can do about it, but the conditioning is both strong and largely transparent.

I think this notion of transparency is vitally important. On the whole we don't think our own thoughts, we think the thoughts of our culture. "Rational thinking" is a very good example. The concept is so transparent that we don't even see it as a social construction. "Rational thinking" is an emic concept. We just assume that there is a function we do called "rational thinking", and some people are better at it than others. But no one does rational thinking in the sense that we generally mean. There's no doubt that some people are more articulate and better at justifying their decisions; better at persuading others. But again persuasion is not a simple matter of presenting the facts and leaving it at that. Malcolm Bowden is an engineer who despite being capable of disproving his own belief, maintains a Ptolemaic view of the universe - he rejects all astronomical observation since Galileo discovered moons in orbit around Jupiter. Presumably Mr Bowden is fully cognisant of the facts. He just doesn't care about them in relation to what's in the Bible. And I would argue that though Mr Bowden is a fairly extreme example, he is not qualitatively different from any other human being.  He's doing what we all do to make sense of our worlds. And our worlds do seem to need making sense of!

So is there scope for inter-religious dialogue? Does it achieve anything? I'm very doubtful. The very nature of belief makes it difficult to discuss with non-believers precisely because of the salience problem. However in my response to George Adams (in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 47(2), Spring 2012. 282-287 [paywalled unfortunately]) I realised that I shared some fundamental values with him. I could certainly empathise with his desire to see his loved ones no cease to exist, though as I pointed out it is Adam's eternalist views that cause him pain with regard to this prospect - because he believes the only alternative to eternal (after)life is annihilation and is thus caught in the trap outlined over 2000 years ago by Buddhists. Never-the-less I felt that despite his false assumptions, poor/circular logic and unreasonable conclusions I could connect with him as a human being. But this is not an inter-religious dialogue - its only possible when we set aside our respective religious doctrines and meet as human beings who love other human beings. Religion only gets in the way of this discussion. I said that my interest in dialogue was with precisely the people I have mentioned in this essay: with neuroscientists and philosophers who help me to see through the transparent conditioning I've taken on board and thus to potentially free myself from it. Conditioning causes us to think and act in ruts. This helps us fit into a society, but it restricts and limits our ability to respond creatively to experience.

The issue I have not addressed is "insight". I may come back to this, but usually it is expressed in culturally specific forms. On the other hand I am a great fan of Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight on TED.


rkpayne said...

Dear Jayarava,
Thank you for another interesting post. Beyond a general agreement with your low expectations for fruitful outcomes of inter-religious dialogue, two thoughts, if I might--
1. the etic/emic (insider/outsider) dichotomy has unfortunate epistemological consequences, and should be abandoned. In short, as you indicate, epistemological privilege should not be given to either status. More fundamentally, however, the dichotomy is not accurate. It is not the case that people are either insiders or outsiders, but rather that they have a variety of differing modes of engagement. Indeed, sometimes the same person can have more than one mode of engagement, such as being both a Buddhist practitioner, and a scholar of Buddhism. A simple etic/emic distinction not only fails to capture that complexity, but actively obscures it.
2. While the questions regarding rational thought that you identify are of concern, I was wondering how you would address the systematic logic within Buddhism (Dignaga, for example) which in fact does share some characteristics with the Aristotelian tradition (though it is far from reducible to it). I wonder whether a principle such as the excluded middle is not in fact universal to human thought? (The purposeful mystifications of popular Western mis/understandings of koans are not relevant.) At that level, rationality is not an emic category--or should one accept being shortchanged in France because mathematics is an emic category?
Oh, and
3. It would seem that your problem in "dialoging" with Mr. Bowden would (from your summary) be more with the axioms of his position than with rationality per se.
Again, my thanks for a blog that is worth reading and thinking about.

Jayarava said...

Hi Richard

1. Yes I think you are right. I think what Daniele was getting at was that the distinction was not useful because it is itself constructed on a certain kind of bias. The old myth that we could be detached observers never was true.

2. I have kept away from Dignāga and others of that era or ilk - I have a strong preference for Early Buddhist thought and practice. But what you suggest sounds plausible - there is very little in Buddhism that is truly revolutionary. People cite things like "everything changes" or "dependent arising teaches us that things arise from conditions" as though these were profound thoughts alien to the Western mind. Which is rubbish. Both have been known since the pre-Socratics, and are ubiquitous in Western thought. And explained better in many cases.

3. Yes. I did not think that Mr Bowden was irrational. On the contrary, given his beliefs/axioms he was adopting the only rational stance. Though I suppose one could argue that in this day and age to argue that the sun orbits the earth and not vice versa is an irrational axiom. In a way I admire someone with the courage of his convictions - it's quite refreshing.

Thanks for reading. I'm sometimes astounded at who does read this stuff - especially if I have one of their books on my shelf (Tantric Buddhism in East Asia) I'm fascinated by Kūkai - which isn't exactly early Buddhism, but... he's fascinating.

Best Wishes

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Jayarava. I could finally find some time to answer here.

Part of our disagreement is probably terminological, part of is more substantial. To put it in a nutshell, my point is: we always think within a framework of reference (be it cultural, as I think, or anthropological, as you seem to do with your endorsement of the down/up example), but this is just our pre-condition. Becoming aware of it entails the possibility of no longer being just prey of it. I am using the term prey, but I would like to avoid its negative connotations. One's framework is useful and it is not only a jail, insofar as it helps us in making sense of the world. Nonetheless, we can 1) become aware of it (thus, one can be aware that, say, her diffidence against black people is due to the fact that she grew up among white ones and has, hence, nothing to do with black human beings in themselves), 2) accept the fact that new cognitions may challenge it and ultimately make us abandon it (for instance, one can encounter a nice black guy and reconsider her opinion about balck people being selfish and violent).
I have still been too busy to decide to listen to Mr Bowden's interview, but I wonder what he does of the moons of Saturn. If he has studied a plausible alternative to "our" cosmology (note the term), then fine. If not, then I cannot really think that his "framework of reference" is on the same level as, e.g., yours. He is not just adding salience to a certain interpretation of the Bible, he is also deleting all importance to other evidences. The saliency argument applies much better all else being equal. If Max is waiting for his wife to come back from work and she is late, he might decide to think that she met a friend and is still chatting with her (something which has happened already in the past) or that she had to work longer because her boss asked her to, according to what he expects/prefers to happen. In both cases, his wife would not answer to her mobile phone, thus, both explanations are equally acceptable (in fact, many more are, but this is beside the point here). In short, I do not agree with point 3 of R. Payne. I would disagree with Mr Bowden not because of the different salience we give to the Bible, but rather because he seems to be intellectually dishonest. Unless, as I said, I will discover that he has found a way to make rational sense of fossiles, etc.

Last, a minor point: you surely know that emic/etic is not tantamount to insider/outsider in the way R. Payne seems to represent it. The two terms come from linguistics and refer to phonetic vs. phonemic. In the first case, one analyses phonemes in themselves (and one says, for instance, that ca in Skt is an affricate, a composite sound), in the other, one analyses phonemes within their system (and one says that ca in Skt works as if it were a unitary sound). But this is just my fault-finder nature at work.

And now, a very minor point: you are just too intelligent to write "Damasio and his wife"!

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

I don't follow the point you are making, let alone how it might relate to the point I was making. I'm not convinced that you have understood my argument, or the basis I was making it on. And I certainly do not understand what you are objecting to or on what basis you are objecting.

My experience of the world in the last few weeks has been one of failure to connect so maybe it's just me.

And on your last point you are demonstrably wrong since I did write that.


elisa freschi said...

My experience with you is that we usually do understand each other. I am very sorry that this did not work this time. If you can pinpoint the problem more specifically, I will try to fix the obscurities/flaws in my argument.

As for your last point, my objection was: a female scientist, although married, deserves to exist as a person and not just as someone else's appendix, as it seems to be when one writes "X's wife". I am sure you did not mean it in this way and was trying to make you aware of the risk of some commonly used expressions.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

We do come at problems from very different angles. We have very different education and vocational backgrounds. But I do find you a stimulating and gracious pen-pal.

So to me the post is about the concept of rational thinking. I'm arguing that what we think of as rational thinking is not what it seems - not what our Western received tradition tells us it is.

Firstly all decision making involves emotions. Emotions are what give value and salience to facts - according to Damasio (party based on work done by Hannah Damasio and her colleagues). I'm taking this a little further than a cautious scientist might and claiming that all thought fundamentally involves emotions and thus rational thinking, divorced from emotion is not possible.

Secondly I invoke Lakoff and Johnson to try to show that what seems abstract and cerebral is grounded in the more concrete experiences of being embodied and manipulating the world. To some extent I've realised in the last few days that Lakoff takes a naive realist position that I find weak, but otherwise I think he's on to something. Thus again the concept of rational thinking is not what we think it is.

Applied to a case like Mr Bowden it provides a better explaination of his behaviour - which from my point of view is both intellectually dishonest and irrational. The thing I point out is that I understand why, given the value he has decided to place on the Bible (given the emotional intensity of that decision) how the rest can flow. The man is completely sincere, and his conclusions are rational given his starting point and assumptions. As you say the starting point is dishonest and irrational.

I don't think we gain any insight into religious belief through using the traditional category of 'rational' or 'irrational' - in effect these are value judgements. We may as well say that we don't like Mr Bowden. His position does make sense to me, but only if I employ this new paradigm of thinking about what thinking is - about the function of emotion in decision making; about the groundedness in experience.

I we wanted to dialogue with him it would be pointless to simply oppose him with facts - as say Richard Dawkins does to religious people. It ain't about facts. In order to have a dialogue we would need to look at the basis of his decisions - what does he consider salient in making such decisions (especially to try to get at the unconscious aspects of salience), what kinds of emotions were involved. What value is he conserving in abandoning the modern world? I noticed in debating George Adams in JES that I disagreed with everything he said, except where he expressed love and concern for this loved ones. That I could relate to and understand.

Jayarava said...

I don't think any of what I've said is a challenge to free-will or to the idea that our thought exists in a framework that can become conscious and change - my lifestyle is predicated on the latter idea!

Indeed Mr Bowden chose his views - I only argue that he could not simply 'think it through' in any abstract sense, but that he felt his way to a decision as we all do; and that his decision changed the balance of salience that he assigns to facts - positive and negative so that things make sense to him in a way that is unique to him.

I would hope that we all disagree with Mr Bowden but we will do so on the basis of our own belief system. And this will be constructed in much the same way: on the basis of what feels right.

However I think empiricism has an advantage here in that the facts that it does present us (and these are only a subset of all facts) are generally tested - with many caveats about the process of scientific knowledge progress. But when we cite the moons of Jupiter circling the planet (as Galileo did) there is no doubt that this is true.

And I suppose that what fascinates me is when being true is not enough, when being true is not sufficient to evoke belief; and why religious belief revolves so much around 'facts' that can never be demonstrated to be true or false. We believe in God or not, but we cannot disprove it either way. I would say that it's more like sub-natural than super-natural, but still unavailable to the senses under normal circumstances (I'm working on somethink which addresses abnormal circumstances).

And this is what makes religious belief so difficult to understand and work with for someone like me who is trained in science.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Galilean moons of Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. Sadly I did not have an opportunity to observe them long enough to establish from personal observation that they orbit Jupiter. But I believe they do.

Michael Dorfman said...

I agree with almost everything you've written here, or perhaps I almost agree with everything you've written here-- so please forgive me if I end up restating many of your points from a different perspective in order to ultimately highlight the few disagreements I have.

I appreciate that you are generally not a big fan of philosophy; I'm afraid my background and primary interest here is from philosophy. I'll make a few references to the philosophical tradition, not to drop names, but to give some pointers as to where I am coming from.

So, a few basic assumptions then. First, I am assuming that every act of communication (or reading) is an act of interpretation, and as such involves a merging of horizons, of interpretative contexts-- in the case of reading, the contextual horizon of the author and the contextual horizon of the reader, in the case of dialogue, the two speakers. When you use a word, you understand it in reference to the sum total of knowledge in your head, and I understand it in reference to the sum total of knowledge in mine, and the degree to which we understand each other corresponds to some degree to the amount of overlap between the two of us. All of this is basic Gadamerian hermeneutics.

Next, I am assuming that all systems (including "science" or "rational thought") are constrained by Agrippa's Trilemma-- in other words, that they are ultimately grounded one of three ways: circularly, via infinite regress, or resting upon unsupported axioms. It is impossible, for example, to prove the basic canons of classical logic within classical logic. This doesn't mean that logic is useless-- it just means that, as you point out, there is an element of "what feels right" in even the most allegedly rational argument.

Now, that being said: I disagree, a bit, with the statement that "rational thinking doesn't really exist." I think that one can attempt to be as aware as possible of the blind spots that arise due to the two points above, and that while no thinking can be completely rational, we can still attempt to move quite a ways in this direction.

And this is where the issue of inter-religious dialogue arises. As you no-doubt know, there arose a pan-Indian debate tradition (in the fifth century CE, approximately) whereby members of different religious groups would try to argue for the correctness of their dogma through reason alone. A variety of ground rules were laid down, the most relevant of which was that before any debate were to begin, the opponents had to agree on certain premises that could form a common foundation for the dispute, and both parties had to agree not to rely on any doctrine or text not accepted by the opposing side. In other words, if a Buddhist was debating a Mimāṃsāka, appeals to the Vedas and the Buddhist canon were off-limits.

Sara McClintock has written a fascinating book on one such debate text (the Tattvasaṃgraha of Śāntarakṣita, and the corresponding Panjika of Kamalaśīla), entitled Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason: Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla on Rationality, Argumentation, and Religious Authority which I heartily recommend. She looks specifically at their attempt to prove the omniscience of the Buddha, using reason alone, and the degree to which they at times rely on what appear to be rhetorical devices in the course of the proofs.

So, to summarize: I do believe that an inter-religious dialogue is possible, but only to the degree that one attempts to be rigorous in highlighting one's own assumptions and biases-- and this is precisely why I think such exercises can be quite useful, and thus I do believe (imperfectly) in the possibility of some kind of "theology" as defined by Elisa Freschi, if one is "sincerely trying to think through one's beliefs" as she said.

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

You say you disagree with my statement that "rational thinking doesn't really exist" and counter with an argument that appears to stay rooted in the paradigm of thinking about rationality that I am trying to escape from. But you don't say what you think is wrong with my proposition.

Do you for instance think that Damasio has observed wrongly in his accounts of medio-ventral prefrontal cortex damage? Or is your understanding that Damasio has misinterpreted the data, or added some fallacy to the mix? Or do you think that I have misinterpreted or added some fallacy to the mix? Could you, in other words, engage with my proposition and be more specific rather than just countering?

From my perspective the idea that anyone could "try to argue for the correctness of their dogma through reason alone" is simply based on false, but widely held assumptions about what reasoning is as far as I can make out with reference to the works of neuroscientists such as Damasio, but also Joseph LeDoux, and Thomas Metzinger; I'm also referencing work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on embodied cognition. What we think of as "reason alone" is never in fact alone, but always accompanied by unconscious reference to emotions to register the value of facts. The crucial point that you fail to mention is the inability to decide between facts when there is damage to the emotional processing centres in the brain. What do you make of that? What about Lakoff on embodied cognition.

I'm sure there are many deeply thought out models, some centuries old. But how do they stand up in the light of the last 20 years of neuroscience? Many of my own beliefs have changed as a result of this new information. My understanding is that traditional theories of mind have had to change.

The easy way to disprove the omniscience of the Buddha is to quote those works where he denies being omniscient. The only interesting question is why the Buddhists felt the need to project omniscience onto him. I'm preparing a paper which will actually address this issue peripherally - but it's no 3 in my priorities. But I can say that Buddhists seem to spend a lot of time establishing their corporate identity for people who don't believe in an ego ;-)

Nothing you've said has opened any doors for me - I see religion as getting in the way of dialogue. Dialogue tends only to happen when religion is set aside and commonalities apart from competing doctrines are sought. This is certainly a dialogue between people holding different religious views, but it is not really inter-religious dialogue.

If we are to be "rigorous in highlighting one's own assumptions and biases" then we need to take on board new insights into our unconscious assumptions about the process of thought. And basically our notion of "rational thought" is erroneous - it's based on rationalist assumptions that have been shown not to hold.

While I appreciate your learning and the effort to comment, I don't see you actually engaging with what I wrote.


elisa freschi said...

Hi Jayarava,
I want to apologize for getting back to the topic after a long time. However, the time made me able to focus on what is really the point we dissent about. I think that this is the following one: I would not oppose so strongly emotional and rational reasoning. I would rather think of them as a continuum and of emotion as a non-fully developed way of thinking rationally. Thus, I would not oppose the fact that "X feels right" with my later judgement about X. If you contend, as you did with Michael Dorfman, that I am not giving you neurological evidences for that…you are right. I will need to go back to Damasio's results. As my sources I am rather thinking of Stoicism and Neo-Stoicism (see M. Nussbaum).

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

No worries. Yes I rather suspected that we were talking about different bodies of thought - Michael Dorfman was doing the same.

I don't know anything about Stoicism - except what I might have picked up by osmosis. I gather they were/are stoical ;-)

I'm thinking of the empirical finding about the link between damage to the ventral-medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) and difficulties in making decisions. Damasio's proposal is that this is because the VMPC is involved in processing emotions - that without emotions to tell us how we feel about facts we cannot decide between them. It should be said that the patients with damage to the VMPF are not apparently impaired in other ways.

My reading of Damasio is that the finding destroys the duality between reason and emotion. All decisions, and thus all preferences, require both faculties operating in concert - it becomes meaningless to speak of two different faculties.

The conjecture has good explanatory power. For example all intellectuals have the same information available to them, at least in theory - there are few bars to access these days. But take for example intellectuals in the same field that really do have the same basic information, but interpret it in different ways. Why do they? There is an astounding level of disagreement between intellectuals on any given subject. Astounding both in the breadth and variety of disagreement, and in the vehemence with which views are held. But then even explaining this will bring out a diversity of opinions...


Michael Dorfman said...

Apparently I haven't done a very good job of explaining myself, for which I apologize. I suppose this is one of the examples I spoke of earlier, where our horizons of understanding are too far apart for easy interpretation. So let me try again.

You write: Do you for instance think that Damasio has observed wrongly in his accounts of medio-ventral prefrontal cortex damage?

I don't-- and furthermore, I'm not arguing with Damasio's point at all. I am in complete agreement with you and Damasio here, and I completely agree with your statement What we think of as "reason alone" is never in fact alone, but always accompanied by unconscious reference to emotions to register the value of facts. Don't take the fact that I come at this from the philosophical tradition (instead of the neuro-scientific tradition) as a sign of disagreement. In fact, I'll point out that the idea for the Cartesian model of rationality (of a geometric "proof" of all knowledge) came to Descartes in a series of dreams, ironically enough.

My goal here is not to dispute the notion that perfect rationality is impossible. However, words like "rational" have a broad semantic range-- the maximal being the Cartesian notion referred to, a more minimal being something like "committed to the probity of reason", where minimal reason is something like "if one believes 'if A then B', and one believes A, one is committed to believing B." I think most of us operate somewhere in this range, Damasio included. In fact, it is worth pointing out that his results also came about due to a process of reasoning; surely any attempt to disprove the efficacy of reason would be self-defeating.

So, let's recap, then. Perfect rationality (devoid of any emotional valence) is impossible. Even if it were possible, it would still not be well-founded, due to Agrippa's Trilemma-- it would still rest upon unproven axioms, some of which are likely unconscious. And yet, it is still possible for us to use reason, and to attempt to be aware of our emotional biases, and to make explicit our unconscious axioms.

This is precisely what Śāntarakṣita tried to do in the Tattvasaṃgraha-- he attempted to use reason alone, not dogma or canon to prove that the Buddha was omniscient, using only axioms his non-Buddhist opponent would assent to. The fact that while doing so he ended up relying, perhaps unconsciously, on rhetorical devices (which are aimed at emotion rather than reason-- this problem goes way back in both Eastern and Western philosophy) is again, ironic and symptomatic.

To close: you write If we are to be "rigorous in highlighting one's own assumptions and biases" then we need to take on board new insights into our unconscious assumptions about the process of thought, and I agree completely. We absolutely need to do that. And I would argue that inter-religious dialogues and debates can be helpful in this regard. Furthermore, you write And basically our notion of "rational thought" is erroneous - it's based on rationalist assumptions that have been shown not to hold. Again, I agree-- but only if we are taking a maximalist view of rationality. I think the fact that our process of reason can never be perfect does not mean that it cannot be adequate to the phenomena, especially if we are vigilant with regard to context. You say, "rational thinking doesn't really exist", and I say that that's true, but at the same time, rational thinking does exist, and you and I are engaged in an example of it now.

(I really do think you'd enjoy the McClintock book, by the way; she's an impressive Sanskrit scholar, the work is fascinating, and I think she's attuned to many of the issues you have raised in your blog over the years.)

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for the clarification of what you were attempting to do.

I'm not sure that I have gained from your trying to explain the situation in terms with which I am totally unfamiliar, but I imagine it was a useful exercise for you, and perhaps others may relate to it as well.

Jayarava said...

I was reminded this evening that there is no word for "emotion" as a separate category of experience in Classical Sanskrit or Pāli (As I wrote about here). Emotions are grouped with mental activity under 'citta'. This can make translating Buddhist texts quite difficult. Citta is synonymous with manas, but is often translated as heart (by Romantics) to bring out the emotions even though this does not have make linguistic sense in Pāli. Later on in Sanskrit we find the terms bhāvapradhāna and vicārapradhāna signifying a predominance of sentiment and intellect respectively.

In that post I also contemplated the basic emotions to some extent. A lot of what differentiates one feeling of arousal from another is the thoughts that go with it.

Thus from an Iron Age point of view there really is no such thing as rational thought. There is just thought tinged with feelings; and feeling tinged with thoughts.

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