Monday, 8 March 2021

About emotions. And rationality.

It's a common contradiction: emotions vs. rationality. Do you listen to your feelings? Or do you make your decisions using facts, numbers and reasoning? Perhaps you try to balance both? But is the contradiction between the two even real? And how does rational decision making actually work? That's what I'd like to explore in this article.

Let's start with an example. You want to buy a new car that costs € 10.000,-. You can save € 500,- a month, but you also strongly feel like taking a holiday. How do you decide?

If you want to make a rational decision, you take the following steps:
  1. Define your goals
  2. Perform a reasoning, taking into account all available facts and evidence
  3. Arrive at a conclusion that achieves your goals as well as possible
If your goal is to buy the car, then you shouldn't use your money on a holiday. Being rational is hard, because you really want a break.

But let's examine why you want that break. You want a break because you've been working hard, you feel stressed and you need some time to relax. In other words: taking a break will improve your emotional well-being. Emotional well-being can't be quantified, you cannot turn it into a measurable number. Does that mean that it cannot be a goal? Fortunately, logic is not math! Math needs everything to be a number, logic does not.

So, you add emotional well-being to your goals. If you have multiple goals, you have to give them priorities, in case they contradict. After all, you can only spend your money once. The priority of a goal may depend on how well the goal is achieved. For example: it might be very important to get that car within the next three years, but less important to get it within the next two years. We call this "scaled priorities".

You now have a list of goals, each with a (possibly scaled) priority. Step 2, however, might prove challenging, because it's very difficult to reason about how to accomplish a goal like "emotional well-being". If you have it, you "just know". Also, after trying to reach a conclusion as best you can, you're not satisfied with your planned holiday and you don't have any time or money left to spend with your friends.

These issues can easily be addressed by adding a final step to the process: evaluation and adjustment. You judge how happy you are with the outcome and adjust your goals and/or the reasoning. In this case, "spending time with your friends" is added as a goal (step 1) and you make the holiday a few days longer (step 2). You keep repeating this cycle until you cannot improve the result any more.

You can see that you don't need to turn emotions into numbers in order to reason about them! If you have goals that involve emotions, you can simply try to fulfill them as well as possible, using your own feelings to judge how well they've been accomplished. At the same time, you can include any other goal into your reasoning. This leads to a proper balance between emotional and non-emotional goals and enables you to use logic and reason to improve your emotional well-being. It works no matter what kind of person you are. Whether you have a lot of emotional needs, or very little. Whether you have a lot of material goals, or none at all. You always get the best possible decision. What does this say about rationality?

It's not an opinion or view

It's not a mindset

It's not a philosophy

It's not a way of life

It is a skill!

Like reading and writing, you can simply learn to make decisions rationally. This 4-step cycle might feel cumbersome at first, but with practice, you'll get used to it. People with a strong emotional side often think that rationality is not for them. This stereotype about rationality is reinforced by our culture and language. In movies, "rational" people are often emotionless geeks and the "contradiction" between reason and emotion is often expressed in phrases like "with emotions running high, he kept his head cool and used stone cold reasoning to come up with a solution". We never hear: "with emotions running low, he turned up his brain and used some explosive reasoning to make everyone happy again!"

Emotions are very important. You can trace them back to biochemical and neurological processes in the brain, each with a distinct evolutionary origin. Not to make them "more rational", but to show that they are an inherent part of you, just like your arms, legs, muscles and bones. There is no contradiction between rationality and emotions. One is a skill that can be used to achieve the best possible decision, no matter what goals you have on your list. The other is an integral part of yourself, that should always be on that list.

Things that are irrational
If emotions are not irrational, which things are? And how do they affect our emotions?

Irrational things are things that start with step 3 instead of step 1. These things are called dogmatic, because a dogma is a conclusion that is (falsely) considered to be true, without having a solid reasoning behind it. A few examples:

So, what are beliefs really? We use the word all the time, but if you believe something, then what does that even mean? Let's say that you believe that eating lots of vegetables is good for your health. That could be true, or not. But does it depend on what you believe? If eating lots of vegetables is good, then it's good, no matter what you believe. And if it's not good, then it's not good, no matter what you believe.

Whether vegetables are healthy or not, is therefore a thing of fact. It is either true, or not. Of course, it could be somewhere in between, but the point is that the truth does not depend on what goes on in our brain. It does not matter what we think. We don't change the health benefits of vegetables by believing things about them.

How about placebos? Some people seem to benefit medically from the belief that they've been given a real medicine. It is, however, not the belief itself that positively affects their body, but rather the mental process that is triggered by that belief. Mental processes can indeed affect the workings of the body, as Wim Hof famously demonstrated. He also showed that you don't need a false belief to do this. You can simply study the biochemical processes behind this skill and apply that knowledge. That too, is a thing of fact. Beliefs don't turn placebos into real medicine.

So, do you really believe that vegetables are healthy? Or, do you suspect it? Suspecting is fundamentally different from believing, since suspecting means that you try to find the truth about something. Believing means that you think you've already found it.

Believing is admitting that one cannot deal with the uncertainty of suspecting

Now let's have a look at what those words do to our emotions. When two people have opposite beliefs, they tend to clash. They tend to become defensive and, if confronted with evidence that goes against their beliefs, instead of changing them, they tend to double down on them. All the while they experience negative emotions, related to feeling attacked and dislike of people with opposite beliefs.

What if we use the word "suspect" instead? If one person suspects that vegetables are healthy and another suspects that they're unhealthy, what do they feel when confronted with one another? Exactly! The urge to find out! Instead of focusing on their own beliefs, they focus on finding out the truth! This urge is not only very constructive, it's also a very pleasant, motivating emotion. And even when you find out that your suspicion was wrong, it doesn't feel bad. Instead, you get another positive emotion from having learned something!

I'd rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief

- Gerry Spence -

Suspecting automatically leads to understanding, whereas believing makes understanding unnecessary. For example, do you know that the Earth is round? If you think so, do you understand why it's round? Or do you merely believe it? If you understand it, then there's no way a flat-earther could persuade you otherwise. If you merely believe it, well, why not believe something else?

For those interested: it's round because gravity pulls everything towards a single point.

I know I'm pushing things a little with this one, but, strictly speaking, opinions don't exist. You either know something, or you don't know something. And, if it's somewhere in between, you suspect it. This applies to everything that is a thing of fact, where the truth does not depend on what we think.

But what about things where the truth does depend on what we think? For example, I may like a pizza, but you may not. In that case, what is the truth? Is the pizza nice or not? Are there two truths?

Multiple realities and truths are nice for science fiction, but in real life, there is only ever one reality and one truth. In this case, the pizza is not nice. It also is not bad. Instead, I find it nice and you find it bad. And those are things of fact. It is a fact that I like it and it is a fact that you don't. Since they are things of fact, you can speak about them as such: "I know that I like it", "I suspect that you don't like it".

If I speak in terms of opinion ("It's my opinion that the pizza is nice" or simply "The pizza is nice"), then I'm making a statement about the pizza! In reality though, the fact that I like it, has more to do with my brain than with the pizza. If I speak in terms of fact ("I know I like this pizza" or simply "I like this pizza"), then I'm making a statement about myself!

The emotional effects of this are similar to the effects of beliefs. If confronted with someone who has an opposite opinion, we experience negative emotions, after all, they're talking down my delicious pizza! If, however, someone states the fact that they don't like the pizza, well, why would I care?

Most opinions are actually suspicions, and ultimately, often falsehoods

On a metaphysical side note: I suspect that every single thing can be expressed as a thing of fact in one single reality. The simplicity of this principle is beautiful! It always works, even when confronted with quantum mechanics, where you cannot determine the exact position of a particle. After all, nothing prevents you from including probabilities in your statement: "I know that this electron has a 30% chance of being at position x at time y". Every single thing that exists is part of the single reality. Are there multiple universes? Perhaps, but if there are, then they are all part of the single reality. Some facts we humans will never know about, some facts we'll forever suspect, but in the end, they're all facts nevertheless.


Most people have principles in order to spare them the effort of thinking

- Fliegende Bl├Ątter -

Principles are shortcuts that lead to people making certain decisions "just because". They don't need a reason, they just do it "out of principle". This is not advisable. If you have principles, it's better to think about why you have them and translate those reasons into goals. For example: let's say you never lie, out of principle. This might seem positive, but what if you know that certain people will misinterpret the truth? Or what if a grave injustice will be done if you don't lie? If you stick to your principle, you won't be able to handle these situations. However, if you state the reason why you don't want to lie, for example, because you want things to happen according to facts and as justly as possible, then you can add those reasons to your list of goals. If people will misinterpret facts, then tell them something that they will interpret according to the facts. If you want justice to be done, then say things that will help that along.

Principles also make a lot of people quite defensive about them. As if they're an absolute truth that needs to be defended at all costs. Thinking about underlying reasons removes those negative emotions and replaces them with positive emotions related to achieving your goals.

It's easier to fight for principles than to live up to them

- Alfred Adler -

Morals & Ethics
It sounds like a bad idea to abandon morals and ethics, but in reality, they are just specialized versions of principles. As such, you really don't need them. It's more constructive to focus on the underlying motivations of certain moral or ethical "rules", especially when you involve emotions!

For example, you might say that using physical violence against someone is immoral or unethical. But what if a person is hurting another person? Is it then still immoral to use violence against the aggressor? Some people try to solve this by creating a very complex system of ethical or moral rules, trying to take every situation into account. But systems like that always contain contradictions and fixing those makes them even more complex and therefore prone to even more contradictions.

It's much simpler to define a goal involving the emotions of empathy and guilt. When deciding what to do, you state the goal that you don't want to feel guilty about using violence, but also that you don't want to feel sorry for the victim. After prioritizing those goals (with scale, because feeling a little guilty or sorry isn't as important as feeling very guilty or sorry), you think them over and decide what to do, using your feelings to judge whether you're happy with your decision. Not only is this much simpler, it also treats each situation individually, instead of applying a "one size fits all" approach.

Morals and ethics can also lead to people doing certain things that, if you think about it, aren't right. I'm sure we can all come up with an example of this. Because morals and ethics are a form of dogma, people don't think about whether something is right. They just do it, because it's how it was always done.

It's amazing what you can make people get used to, just by pretending that it's normal

Back to emotions and rationality
In the first part, we saw how the skill of rationality can help us improve our emotions by taking them into account when making decisions. In the second part, we saw how using rational language to talk about things can actually generate positive emotions, whereas irrational language often leads to negative ones.

We saw that when we fully embrace our emotions rationally, we don't need beliefs, opinions, principles, morals and ethics anymore. Without these, our emotions become even more important! They become our main guide for making decisions.

In fact, emotions may be the only reason we do things at all! When someone does something, you can ask why. If they give a reason, you can ask why again. Why walk? To cross the street. Why cross the street? To get to work. Why work? To make money. Why make money? To provide for my family. Why do that? Because it makes me feel satisfied and secure.

Even when our actions lead to negative emotions, there's often still another emotion behind it. If we go to work every day and it makes us stressed and angry, we still do it, because we feel love for the family that we provide for, or we feel guilt for not going to work. This does not always have to be a very explicit emotion like joy or excitement, it can also be more of a "knowing that things are right", but it is definitely something that we feel.

If the why-train does not end up at something we feel, then it usually means that we do things for no reason at all. Because we're used to it, or another cause, but no reason and no why.

This, of course, is exactly why emotions and feelings evolved in the first place: to make us do stuff! Evolutionary beneficial stuff, back in the stone age. Now, those benefits may or may not apply anymore, but the mechanism is still very much there.

If you acknowledge that there is no objective meaning to life, no greater purpose, that "the universe does not care", then in the end, the only meaning that we have for life is the meaning we give it ourselves. If you keep analyzing that meaning, emotions and feelings is where you end up.

Nothing we do matters
There's no grand plan, no big win
And if nothing we do matters,
Then all that matters is what we do

- Angel -

Does everything have to be rational?
When you're actively thinking, you might do that for various reasons: to draw conclusions, to gain new information and insights or to make decisions. Using the skill of rationality really leads to the best possible way of active thinking and once you're used to it, it becomes the only way of active thinking.

However, you're not always actively thinking. When you're walking through nature, playing music or doing sports, it could very well be that you're experiencing, observing, feeling, but not thinking! No conclusion needs to be drawn, no decision needs to be made. In such cases, rationality has nothing to offer. Remember, it's not a philosophy or mindset, merely a skill. Therefore, it's definitely not the case that "everything needs to be rational".

So, whenever a rationalist tells you that emotions aren't rational, then they really don't understand rationality. And whenever an emotional person tells you that rationality is cold and close-minded, then they really don't understand it either. Rationality actually leads to the most open-minded way of thinking, because it makes it impossible for you to refuse a concept or thought just because it conflicts with an existing concept or thought. After all, if suspicions conflict, we investigate and find out the truth of it.

In the end, rationality is a skill that enables you to always make the best possible decisions and achieve a high level of emotional well-being. It eliminates a range of negative emotions and who knows, it might even give you an answer to the meaning of life!

Thanks for reading and if you have any feedback, let me know!


  1. You assume there is always a most "optimal" decision based on eliminating negative emotions and measurable emotional well-being. In contrast, it should be: rationality helps to make well-informed decisions which increase the possibility of a favorable outcome measured in emotional well-being. Moreover, you suggest rational philosophy is the "solution," which in itself is a belief; I recommend reading up on Heidegger's notion of "Being-in-the-world."

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    Well, it's "most optimal" given the available facts, the available reasoning skills and the available reasoning time, of course. This might indeed not be the most optimal solution overall.

    I don't suggest that rationality is a philosophy, in fact, I explicitly state it as a skill, not a philosophy. And I *suspect* that it indeed is a good solution for finding optimal solutions, I don't *believe* it ;-)

  3. I did change "most optimal" to "best possible", because "most optimal" is an incorrect phrase. After all, there's only one "optimal" solution, it can't be "more optimal" than another. Thanks for this tip!