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.

Holding positions rationally

Many people seem to think that rationality consists of holding certain positions that are justified (shown to be true or probably true) – justified true belief. For example, you are supposedly rational if you think that life evolved by natural selection and creationists are irrational. Why? One common answer is that there is lots of evidence for evolution. Thus evolution is not just a theory it is a proven scientific fact or something like that. If you don’t look at this story too closely, you might think it makes sense. There is a lot of evidence that is relevant to the theory that life evolved on Earth by common descent from a single ancestor. However, the idea that positions can and should be justified – justificationism – is a gross misrepresentation of science and rationality more generally.

If you were looking for flaws in justificationism, it wouldn’t be difficult to find them. Newtonian mechanics was not contradicted by the vast bulk of experimental evidence before the 20th century – that’ two hundred years of positive experimental results. But Newton’s theory was replaced by quantum mechanics and general relativity, which contradict one another so they can’t both be true. We don’t know what the replacement will be and it may be the case that there is stuff physicists have badly misunderstood at the foundations of both theories. If physicists are almost certainly misunderstanding a whole load of stuff and don’t have a consistent worldview then it can hardly be said that physics is justified. So by justificationist lights, the whole of physics is irrational.

I picked physics, but I could have picked many other subjects. In biology we don’t understand what sort of complexity DNA can be used to create as a result of natural selection. Would it be possible to evolve creatures that travel through space and colonise other planets purely by natural selection among genes? Human beings haven’t created knowledge about space travel in that way. Rather, we have created a lot of that knowledge through evolution of ideas. And we have virtually no understanding of how evolution of ideas is instantiated in the brain.

And then there’s everyday life. Let’s take brushing you teeth. Can you justify brushing your teeth? People seem to end up doing stuff that is widely recognised as irrational when they undertake activities like politics, personal relationships, work, money, drugs, food, exercise and other stuff. But a lot of it is the same old shit people have been doing for centuries. So what’s the hold up? Why hasn’t it been justified yet and so made rational? Many people will say that such stuff is necessarily irrational. Why? Because we’re apes or something comes the vague reply. This reply doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t explain why all this stuff should be irrational while science is supposedly rational.

Rationality isn’t about the content of your positions, it’s about how you hold them. Justification is not any part of rationality, because justification is impossible. Any argument has to start with premises, so if the premises are not justified nor is the conclusion. And if you try to justify the premises then you need another argument, with more premises that have to be justified.

“Aha!” I hear you cry, “I have got you. For I can look out of my window right now and see lots of stuff like a white van. I can base my worldview on these observations.” This is a terrible argument. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. People often misunderstand stuff they see quite badly. They make up stories to try to explain what they see after the fact and this can change what they think they saw.

And people don’t understand the vast majority of what they see. For example, there are some rain drops on my window. Those raindrops are refracting the light from the scenery in front of the window: they bend the path the light takes away from a straight line. I can see colours in each raindrop because it takes the light from some piece scenery and bends it in such a way that it enters my eye and I see it. The optics of visible light for an object as large as a raindrop is fairly well understood. Given enough time I might be able to reproduce what I can see through the raindrops. Most people couldn’t do that calculation since they don’t know the relevant physics, and I’m just not going to do it because it’s not interesting. Now, think about how much stuff in everyday life you don’t understand at that level of detail and you’ll begin to see a problem in taking what you see as totally unproblematic.

So if justification is impossible how can we think and act rationally? What’s needed is a way to try to sort bad ideas from good ones. The way to do that is to take your ideas seriously as descriptions of how the world works and look for problems with them – anything that seems unsatisfactory. You then propose solutions to those problems and look for problems with the solutions until only one is left. Then you start on another problem. Rationality is about solving problems and then moving on to new problems you prefer to the old ones. It’s not about fixing some particular idea in stone. Rather, it is about improving ideas

To the extent that we have succeeded in creating knowledge in subjects like physics and biology, it’s because people have found lots of flaws with their past ideas and discovered new ideas that don’t have those flaws. They have other flaws that are more interesting.

By contrast, it is notable that when it comes to things like politics and personal issues people seldom admit error and almost never look for explanations. For example, when people get married they become dependent on one another to some extent because their finances are bound together, unless they specifically stipulate otherwise in a prenup and prenups can be overturned. But why should two adults be financially dependent on one another? Most of them could afford to rent  or buy an abode on their own. Food is cheap. Lots of people could live near to where they work and to shops so they wouldn’t need a car. Many people say marriage is good for raising children, but lots of married people get divorced and hurt their children in the process. There is a lot of stuff here that just doesn’t add up at all and very few people are looking for alternatives.