Heart and Mind


Today in a first year seminar investigating what the future will be like, we dealt with AI – artificial intelligence.   There are a host of interesting issues that arise – can a machine actually become a life form?  Will we someday give way to a new, superior machine race?   What does it mean to be conscious?

One fact really stood out to me though: AI of the sort that can learn, adapt and make decisions on its own (e.g., not just follow a rote program) requires emotion.  The reason is that without emotion, decision making is impossible.   People who have had injuries where they lose their emotional capacity can’t even make an appointment, they have no way to choose a date and time from a host of alternatives.

Emotion gives us the capacity to value something, to prioritize, to make things meaningful.   This has a profound implication for an enlightenment culture that puts reason and rationality first.  We are supposed to make decisions rationally, not being “misled” by emotion.   We use reason to build ethical systems and political ideologies.  Yet in reality, it’s always the heart that is necessary for a decision of any sort.

But where do emotions come from?   Except for instincts, which are biologically programmed, they seem to come from experience – suggestions from ones environment that cue certain emotional responses.  What you think about politics, religion and ethics is based on what you feel rather than the result of a logical analysis.   In fact, we probably use reason mostly to rationalize believing what we feel – that avoids cognitive dissonance.

Sci-fi may get AI wrong - emotion is necessary!

Sci-fi may get AI wrong – emotion is necessary!

What does this mean for academia?   When we talk about issues in class, people are told to be logical, use evidence and reason.  Saying “this doesn’t feel right” seems like a cop out.   But really, the feeling is the guide, reason is its servant.

To me this leads to an indictment of our culture.   On the one hand, the industrialized West is the most advanced, enlightened, liberated culture in the history of the planet.   We are moving forward with technologies that once seemed out of reach, we have expanded material wealth to more of the population than ever, our market based economy promotes innovation and initiative.  Conceptions of human rights and liberty are more advanced in the West than anywhere on the planet.

On the other hand, colonialism was a force that destroyed whole cultures and left a void in its wake, too often filled with corruption and conflicts in states that exist in name only.   The ideologies of capitalism and communism justified inhumane treatment of people.   Luckily capitalism’s emphasis on liberty meant that the British were free to be horrified by the conditions and over the course of a century gradually change the laws so that 6 year olds didn’t have to work 14 hour days six days a week, and the life expectancy of factory workers could get above the early 20’s.  Communism had a longer and more onerous impact.

We also have had little regard for the environment, have in our past WWI, WWII, the holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons and interventions in conflicts that usually lead nowhere good.   No culture has been more violent and destructive, even though hopefully we’ve put most of that behind us.

My theory:  the benefits brought about by reason and rational thought were not properly tempered by sentiment and emotion because the latter were mistrusted — even “feminine.”   One could abstract and objectify others, using reason to rationalize inhumane behavior.   When a young German was sent by his father (a wealthy factory owner) to find out why the British factories in Manchester were doing so well, he was shocked.

Living conditions were horrid (10 or so to a room, no indoor plumbing, filth, humans treated worse than animals).  He reacted emotionally – disgusted, and was driven to use his wealth to help another come up with a reason based reason to oppose the British factory owner’s reason.  “They’re free to leave, I just offer them a job at a set pay and they accept it, that’s liberty.”

Friedrich Engel’s friend Karl Marx succeeded in building an enlightenment style reason-based theory of communism.  Again, the human experience was abstracted, and the theory was later used to justify seeing the human experience as important only in so far as it supported the ideological goals of the state.

In that, reason is a remarkable tool.  It can be used to create, support and rationalize anything from Communist totalitarianism, libertarian England’s inhumane working conditions during the industrial revolution, to why I decided to have my kids go to bed at ten.  But in reality, the core values we hold are from the heart, not the head.

When a conservative and a liberal (in US terms) look at the political world, they make decisions about where they stand from the gut – what feels right.  Each can use reason to build a very sophisticated interpretation of reality that makes their own perspective seem obviously true.   If they really want to avoid cognitive dissonance, their ideology takes on the role of a kind of secular religion.

Perhaps the next step for poets and thinkers should be to bring sentiment back in, to a place it rightly belongs, tempering reason and showing its limits.


This also is important for individuals.   If we follow our gut, we’ll react to events based on what experience has primed our emotions to do.  Since we want to avoid cognitive dissonance, if our choices are bad, we’ll use reason to simply rationalize them.  We’ll go through life a prisoner of how past experience has programmed us to react.   Yet if we recognize that we fool ourselves with our rationalizations; that our beliefs and reactions are driven by sentiment built on past experience, we can change.

That requires introspection, an ability to be self-critical, to accept the possibility long held views may need to be changed, and to be reflective.  Live without introspection and life is just a series of reactions, highs, lows, but almost on autopilot.  Live with introspection and we can better understand ourselves, and why we feel as we do – because our feelings give us our values.  With introspection, reason and sentiment can be in service of each other.

  1. #1 by List of X on October 2, 2015 - 17:07

    I don’t think you could blame colonialism for corruption, at least not entirely: Russia and China that have never been anybody’s colony (at least not in many centuries) are just as corrupt as many former Western colonies.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on October 2, 2015 - 22:01

      What the Europeans did in Africa was create false borders, splitting ethnic groups between states, or mixing rivals. Nigeria has over 200 tribes and languages, and at least five major groupings. So when independence came, the state was untenable and ethnic groups would vie for power. Moreover, it destroyed the pre-existing political culture (which had been stable and effective – Africa 800 years ago was as well off as Europe). So with no real political culture, divided between groups, and having been used to service the imperial economies, the conditions set them up for failure.

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