Sherlock, emotions and rationality

Many people have a false model of how emotions work and in particular a false model of the relationship between emotions and rationality.

To see this model in action, you need only watch programs like Sherlock in which the hero is supposedly rational. The hero is said not to have any emotions except when he is doing something stupid. So when Sherlock wants a cigarette he acts like an idiot, not just in the sense of wanting to poison himself in a way that could shorten his life and end up with him dying of lung cancer, but also in the sense of him being angry with people who get in the way of him smoking. In Episode 2 of Season 3, Sherlock gives a terrible best man speech in which he claims that Watson saved his life in more than one way. In other words, if Watson was not his friend he would be miserable or something like that. And we are told that Sherlock isn’t good at dealing with emotions. So the model is that rationality and emotions are antithetical.

The way most people with emotions is that they have some particular interpretation of those emotions that they never bother to question. It doesn’t matter what the interpretation is because absolutely any such rule is bound to be completely broken and lead to disaster. And by disaster I don’t mean driving your car off a cliff, I mean chronically failing to solve problems. An emotion is just a kind of sensation, so any interpretation of that sensation that you don’t criticise is going to be wrong almost all the time. Imagine if you stopped moving every time you saw something red because you thought it was a red traffic light and you will have some impression of just how bone headed this idea really is. Actually I’m understating the problem. Imagine every time you saw a red light, you decided to chain yourself to the first person you saw when the red light was on. That’s basically what people do when they get married, as Godwin pointed out:

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falsehood. They are led to conceive it their wisest policy to shut their eyes upon realities, happy if by any perversion of intellect they can persuade themselves that they were right in their first crude opinion of their companion. The institution of marriage is a system of fraud; and men who carefully mislead their judgments in the daily affair of their life, must always have a crippled judgment in every other concern. We ought to dismiss our mistake as soon as it is detected; but we are taught to cherish it. We ought to be incessant in our search after virtue and worth; but we are taught to check our enquiry, and shut our eyes upon the most attractive and admirable objects.

Sherlock acts like an idiot when he deal with emotion because the writers don’t have any other model in mind for dealing with emotions other than turning off all their critical faculties and enacting a ritual that has nothing to do with rationality or reality.

There is a common saying that you can’t criticise an emotion. This is sort of true only because emotions are so lacking in any worthwhile content  that they aren’t worth criticising if you divorce them from the context in which you are having them. If you look at them in context you can often criticise the package deal of which they are a part: a set of emotions, preferences and ideas about how the world works or should work. For example, if you feel happy when you’re with somebody you might think you should have sex and get married and that sort of thing. The way you ought to think goes a bit more like this: “Why am I happy when I am with this person? She looks attractive, she smells nice and she cooks me nice food. To get the same services I can buy air freshener, porn and a cook book. I don’t need to get married or even have sex with this person.” Why don’t people do this? Part of the problem is other bad ideas, like the idea that dealing morally with other people requires mutual sacrifice, so you should sacrifice stuff by getting married and agreeing to do stuff your dislike with your spouse. But it’s kinda difficult to criticise that idea without first realising that your emotions are just sensations and that they should be treated as being part of a wider context.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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