When Emotions Get the Best of Reason

Part of what makes life challenging has to do with overestimating our self-knowledge. I have many friends with prodigious intellectual qualities, but few whose behavior suggests they understand themselves as well as they think.

Indeed, I’ve been known to fall into the same confusion they do.

People find it far easier to identify the flaws in others than in themselves.

We raise a critical finger at those who vote for the “wrong” candidates, date ill-suited members of their preferred gender, and behave in a mind-boggling fashion.

Less time is spent pointing at the person in the mirror.

Why might that be? The question is complex, but I’ll offer you a simplified answer of significant, if incomplete, merit. It comes from a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who might have passed as a therapist if such a profession existed.

Can you guess his name? Of course not. Baruch Spinoza: 1632 – 1677.

Spinoza attempted a logical proof of our weakness in the face of external events and the disorganizing, confusing moods and temperaments they produced inside of us. Further, he thought our minds are easily fooled by misleading images of the nature of a universe full of things, plants, animals, and people.

Take man’s long-held opinion about the earth’s shape. Look outside, and remember everyone once trusted the absolute flatness of the planet. If you thought otherwise, no one believed you.

We now know better, I hope.

The philosopher points to several causes of our limited ability to think clearly. He considered men undercut by emotions impairing their capacity to reason. Furthermore, the ideas we form by reliance on our senses are inadequately thought out. Most of us become “slaves” to our feelings in Spinoza’s chosen word.

If we think of the world of today, examples come to mind. Many of us favor politicians who excite us to a state of blind trust. When those leaders deny the evidence of well-crafted science, their followers fall in line.

These demagogues make some “feel better” about themselves. They offer someone else to blame for their problems and, like Pied Pipers, take their “believers” toward a cliff they are unaware of.

Intellectual arguments alone don’t carry much power to alter fixed, erroneous thoughts underpinned by strong emotions. In Spinoza’s judgment, no feeling can be countered by “true knowledge” beneficial to well-being unless it carries emotional weight consistent with that truth.

I’m sure you’ve attempted to persuade acquaintances through well-organized reasoning and impressive evidence without success.

Ah, but the situation is not hopeless, indicated our friend Baruch. He believed “the more an emotion is known to us, the more it is within our control.” This argument came from Freud over 300 years later. The same ancient Greek maxim of “know thyself” arrived centuries before.

As Freud also knew, “true knowledge” or insight had to be attached to emotions to change thought and behavior. Once this combination finds its place within an individual, Spinoza tells us the person will no longer be enslaved by his feelings but become a “free man.”

In our own century, psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research confirms Spinoza’s recognition of our tendency to overvalue our intellectual gifts and discount the role of emotions in our lives.

Another point is worth underlining. The philosopher knew perfect understanding was available to no one. Perfection resided in God, according to the Dutchman, a God of marked differences from the usual definitions. Regardless, Spinoza conceived women and men as capable of improving their realistic awareness of the world as it is instead of being abducted into the bondage he described.

To end this oversimplified essay on a philosophy of significant difficulty, Baruch shows you and me the starting place from which we can improve our knack for steering clear of harmful temptations and desires: from overeating to choosing friends and mates ill-suited to our best interests.

Moreover, he predicted his recommended approach to life would enhance our contentment and reduce the number of misguided goals we seek. He meant those whose pursuit impairs us.

This long-departed man’s writings claim we cannot find fulfillment while dragged by emotions like wild horses off the path of self-empowerment.

First, however, we must accept our limited rationality and imperfect thought instead of assuming we routinely display excellent self-awareness and wisdom about what is to our advantage.

Ready to start?

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The painting of Spinoza is the work of Alexander Roitburd. It is sourced from Wikiart.org.

18 thoughts on “When Emotions Get the Best of Reason

  1. I have to re-read many of your blogs multiple times, to get a closer understanding of what you might mean, or what you are trying to get across. This is one of those that (for me) needed numerous readings, resulting in a slightly different interpretation each time. As a person, who finds herself constantly “dragged by emotions like wild horses”, I still consider myself fairly capable of logical reasoning. The problem usually comes down to, do I follow my heart or listen to my brain? Emotions win out every time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      First, thank you for your comment, Brewdun. It is always worthwhile to read your comments.

      It is a very difficult philosophy and I’ve had to read it a number of times myself. It also carries a message, as I noted, that we don’t want to believe, since it is comforting to think we are predominantly rational and therefore have a capacity to be in control of a significant part of our lives much of the time.

      Wynne Leon in her comment correctly recalls Jonathan Haidt’s statement that our (rational) brain ( or mind) is a small creature on top of the elephant of our emotions. The elephant has most of the control.

      I suppose a different way to think about the question of rationality vs. emotions is to ask oneself under what circumstances do our personal emotions get in the way of our actions, leading us to reduce our well-being. It sounds like that is what you have done in reflecting on the emotions “winning out.”

      Your statement also underlines the idea that the power of thoughts is overtaken by the power carried by emotions, at least when our thoughts are “adequate” (Spinoza’s word) but without the additional strength present in the emotions that are competing with it.

      You might enjoy watching one of Haidt’s videos, of which there are many on Youtube.

      Be well, Brewdun.

      Liked by 3 people

      • As always, thank you! Love the Haidt quote. It’s a very precise description of my heart vs. my brain. I will check out the videos you referenced.

        Liked by 2 people

      • After watching some of the Haidt videos, I stumbled across a blog regarding a book entitled “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who developed a theory that in part claims; “Every moment of every day, our brain stamps an emotion onto everything we experience. That emotion helps us project into the future and decide what to do when we encounter a similar situation again. In the book, Damasio states “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”

        NY Times book reviewer David Berreby paraphrased this in words that I think might give you a chuckle, ”We aren’t cool calculators of self-interest who sometimes go crazy; we’re crazies who are, under special circumstances, sometimes rational.”

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      • drgeraldstein

        Thank you for these, Brewdun. I know of Damasio, and he and Haidt appear to be on the same page. David Berreby put it perfectly! Much appreciated.

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  2. Yes – I’m ready to start. What an interesting and educational post, Dr. Stein. I think of Jonathan Haidt as the person who introduced me to the image of our brain as the rider on the elephant of our emotions. You’ve added such depth to that image with the words and ideas of Spinoza. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Yes, that is a phrase used by Haidt repeatedly. Thanks for your praise. I respect my readers not to talk down to them, but sometimes writing anything as complicated and hard to grasp as a sliver of Spinoza’s philosophy is more than any “thinking” writer about philosophy should do, speaking of myself!

      For those readers who wish to argue that the world is a rational place, here is something my dear friend Tom Saler will soon be publishing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is speaking of the currently embattled state of the world:

      “No one should be surprised that the brief semblance of geopolitical calm has been
      shattered. According to author Chris Hedges, humans have been at war (defined as active conflict with more 1,000 causalities) for all but 8% of recorded history.

      “Since 1900 alone, there have
      been at least 267 wars, although most are humanitarian rather than economic calamities.

      “A famous 1963 exhibit at the Bronx Zoo seemed to capture that unfortunate reality.

      “The Most Dangerous Animal in the World” read a caption over the display.

      “It was a mirror.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. drgeraldstein

    I should also add that one of Haidt’s major contributions is his finding that emotions are capable of capturing us a split second before we reach for ideas that support the emotionally based opinion. In effect, the emotions persuade us our reasons came first!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing Baruch Spinoza’s insightful understanding of the workings of our complex brain/mind. We are so ruled by our emotions that we are capable of violently killing another person in a surge of rage. True knowledge of one’s own nature, that person in the mirror, demands accepting one’s darker angels: not easy by any means.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Rosaliene. Unfortunately, it is not only when experiencing a surge of rage, as noted in my quotation from Tom Saler’s upcoming article: at least 267 wars since 1900 (see my reply to Wynne Leon). Here is a list, also courtesy of Mr. Saler: http://www.war-memorial.net/wars_all.asp

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, this is food for thought, as I sit here ruminating about an elderly family member who isn’t pursuing her Moderna booster shot and is making excuses, no matter the information I have been sharing with her. I am judging her to be foolish and stupid and it is aggravating me, and my brain is having difficulty letting it go. What would Spinoza have to say about this? I am ready for a change…at least my brain is.

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  7. drgeraldstein

    Spinoza said we are creatures who make these kinds of mistakes — all of us displaying the limitations he described as evidence of “inadequate ideas.” Spinoza’s “Ethics” explains this in considerable detail, though the book is tough to read.

    He further states we didn’t create ourselves, and therefore, the only reasonable response to folks like your elderly family member is to accept her condition and show her love. (Though he would also advise you to keep out of her way if she is dangerous to your own well-being). The “love thy neighbor” message is very much in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, he rejected most of the theology attached to it, such as the notion of a personal god who listens to our prayers or who loves us in an emotional sense. Indeed, Spinoza’s version of God or Nature (they seem indistinguishable) is indifferent to humankind and everything else.

    Spinoza would tell you that if you recognize your family member can’t be any other way than she is, you will have grasped an “adequate idea” for yourself and become less upset because of the understanding and acceptance it brings you. Good luck with this, Nancy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Dr. Stein for this as our Covid number are climbing in our area and this is bothering me very much. I am going to delve into Spinoza as I agree with his disagreement about religion and a personal god who listens to our prayers or who loves us in an emotional sense. I agree with his version of god as indifferent to humankind and everything else. I see us as no different than the other animals on this planet who live and then die to nothingness. Having difficulty in letting this go could also be part of my OCD and I will have to remind myself of this. Stay safe and thank you again.

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  8. As a follow-up, I convinced my relative to be boosted and brought her to the appointment myself. There was a scary NY Times article that talked about the present variant, and I copied and texted some quotes from the article to her, which convinced her and another family member. I feel relieved.

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  9. drgeraldstein

    Wonderful news, Nancy! Leave Spinoza for another day.

    Liked by 1 person

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