The New Humanism


More Than Logical

Rick Heller

A Place for the Emotions in Humanism.

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by Rick Heller

"Feelings are essential to human flourishing and optimal decision-making. Emotions, especially joy, have a place in Humanism.

He's devoted to logic and rarely influenced by emotions. Is Mr. Spock the ultimate Humanist? Setting aside that he's half-Vulcan, a fictional character, and has pointy ears, is he someone we should emulate? No, given the way our brains are built. If we relied solely on logic, we would sacrifice a great deal of our intellectual power, and that wouldn't be logical.

Many of the organizations that represent nonbelievers use words like "reason" or "rational" in their titles. That serves us well as a counterpoint to "faith." However, as some dictionary definitions equate reason with logic, one might gain the impression that we reject emotions as well. In fact, feelings are essential to human flourishing and optimal decision-making. Emotions, especially joy, have a place in Humanism.

The strict dichotomy opposing logic and emotion reflects a view of reason that has lost ground among researchers in recent decades. One tipoff that logic alone isn't as powerful as imagined has been the struggle of computer scientists to create intelligent machines that can outperform humans. Herbert Simon's 1957 prediction that a computer would defeat a human chess expert came true, but only in 1997, when IBM's Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. This victory, impressive as it was, occurred in a narrow domain with 64 squares and strictly defined rules. Most of life is more ambiguous than that.

Antonio Damasio is a neurologist on the faculty of the University of Southern California. In journal articles and popular books, he has argued that people can't reason effectively without emotion. We simply don't have the brainpower, according to Damasio. Emotions help us set limits to our rational calculations. In his book, Descartes' Error, Damasio discusses patients with damage to parts of the brain necessary to feel emotions. Free of emotion but with their logical faculties intact, one might expect them to make cool, efficient decisions. Instead, his ultra-rational patients suffered from a sort of "analysis paralysis." They dithered, exploring rational choices beyond the point of diminishing returns. To know what you want, you have to have feelings.

Logic tells us that two apples are better than one--if we accept that more is better. Logic cannot tell us whether an apple is better than a tomato, and it's entirely debatable whether two Brussels sprouts are better than one. Logic helps us maximize what we value, but it cannot tell us what we value. Even being rational has a feel to it. Those who enjoy math feel delight when they prove the theorem, and distress upon uncovering an error in their work.

Basic human motivations can hardly be said to be rational in the narrowest sense. Feelings of desire and satisfaction are the outcome of trial-and-error learning that takes place in the brain's reward system. This is centered on a cluster of neurons called the basal ganglia that respond quickly and sometimes automatically. These neurons have a kind of memory, but one that cannot be accessed through conscious introspection. As a result, we can sometimes guess why we like apples, cute animals, or lovers, but we can't explain it logically. It's true that a young Charles Darwin made a written list of pros and cons about whether to marry, including among the pros, "Charms of music and female chit-chat," and among the advantages of not marrying, "Conversation of clever men at clubs." But analyses like Darwin's can only drill down so far before they rest on evaluations--like how much one values conversation and music--that can only be answered by feelings.

Just as our desires are non-logical, so are our aversions. Prominent in aversion is a brain area called the insula, which is involved with the feel of the body, especially the gastrointestinal system. While desire motivates us to approach objects, disgust pushes us away from them. And yet, even if non-logical, there can be informational content to gut feelings. In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes international art experts who felt an "intuitive repulsion" when viewing an ancient Greek statue. This unexpected emotion led them to question its authenticity, and a subsequent audit of acquisition records showed it to be a modern forgery.

The art experts' feelings originated from visual pattern recognition. The thing just didn't look right to them. UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has proposed that intuition can also result from recognizing patterns in time sequences. We can sometimes tell when a person is not being honest with us, for instance, when their behavior departs from the expected give-and-take. Lieberman cites evidence that our ability to anticipate events depends on the reward-prediction and error-correction functions of the basal ganglia. Because this brain area works below the level of consciousness, we can sometimes make useful predictions without being able to articulate reasons.

Although intuitions are not the result of logical problem solving, the trained intuitions of experts reflect empiricism and observation. As such, they have a place in the scientific method, at least in terms of formulating hypotheses. Creative insight is another example of unconscious problem solving, and one that seems to affirm theories of differential processing in the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman has found that insight solutions--the sort that bring on the sensation of "Aha!"--involve processing in the right temporal lobe that does not occur when solving problems using logic. Insight seems to employ a sort of fuzzy thinking that skirts around logical obstacles. Insight solutions often occur when a person is not consciously thinking about the problem, for instance when taking a shower or as in the case of Archimedes' famous "Eureka!" moment, a bath. Even after the fact, the steps taken to arrive at an insight solution may be untraceable. Author Jonah Lehrer has noted that an insight solution feels like a "revelation."

We thus arrive at a point that makes some Humanists uncomfortable. These non-logical forms of thinking resemble those that make religion so problematic. Can't we chuck them?

If we discarded emotion, we'd eliminate desire, aversion, and preference. Without the brain's reward system, we would not be motivated to eat, move, or speak. Computers are great for calculation, but they really don't care about anything--even whether they're plugged in. We need emotions to have values.

Could we discard intuition? One might try to minimize its use and lean heavily on logic in all situations. But without social intuition, we would offend others unnecessarily. People with Asperger's Syndrome have brain deficits that force them to intellectually puzzle out social behavior that comes naturally to most of us. That's not something to be envied.

Could we discard creative insight? Probably, but that would reduce innovation, because logic can run into roadblocks when critical data is missing. The enterprise of basic research can employ deliberate and logical approaches, because there is no deadline for coming up with, say, a grand unification of theoretical physics. Anything that requires immediate action requires shortcuts. Leaders in government and business, practitioners in fields like medicine, and individuals in their private lives find they must make decisions before all the facts are in. Humanism has to be relevant to all human life, not just the academy.

True, the use of non-logical modes of thought can lead to errors. But so can faulty logic. Last year's meltdown of global financial markets was sparked by the failure of exotic bond instruments that were based on complex but faulty mathematical models. If a data-rich area like finance resists mathematical modeling, there is little hope anytime soon to successfully use math to predict the course of human events.

Feelings, intuition, and insight are part of our evolutionary endowment--functions of the brain that helped our ancestors survive. They are problematic only when we rely too much on them. Demagogues like Hitler manipulate people through emotional appeals. Intuition can mislead when, for instance, it tells us that just as watches and skyscrapers are the product of intelligent design, the origin of the species might follow the same pattern. For every insight that inspires a work of genius, there are others that are simply mistaken. When experienced as revelations, faulty insights can be the seed from which dogmatic religions grow.

This is where critical thinking is essential. We shouldn't ignore emotions, intuitions and insights, but we should evaluate them critically when possible. The problem with the faithful is not that they make use of the non-logical powers of the brain, but that they fail to filter them through critical thinking.

Whole-brain thinking means opening yourself up to all the ways the brain uses information. Faith eschews whole-brain thinking by failing to examine feelings, intuitions, and revelations through a critical lens. Humanists ought not to make the opposite mistake of designating critical thinking as the only legitimate form of cognition. Faith is incompatible with reason, but emotions are not.

Humanistic concerns don't always lend themselves to measurement. When I was an undergraduate engineering student, we techies devalued anything that was not quantifiable. We were required to take one humanities class per semester, but typically gave it minimal effort in order to bear down on our math and science classes. Back then, I wondered why I would ever fall in love with anyone. What logical basis could there be for preferring one individual out of the vast array of humanity? Ironically, it was learning about the challenges faced by computer scientists in building machines with common sense that led me to a greater respect for intuition and emotion. I fell in love with my wife because she was cute and smart and we shared similar tastes in comedy. Those sound like reasons, but two of them have nothing to do with rationality. The feeling of romantic love is driven by our reward system, although like other feelings, it can be modulated by rational judgments.

The Humanist creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, understood that logic is of significant yet finite use. Mr. Spock was not the show's main character. To be at our best, we must use not only our logical and analytical intelligences but also our emotional intelligence. Freedom and equality are not values that can be deduced from the laws of physics. Even the biological sciences have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness as a guide to morality, having in the past been used to justify hierarchy and discrimination. Our deepest values stem, in fact, from feelings, like the desire to understand nature and empathy for living beings that suffer.

Positive feelings among Humanists can promote a sense of community. Even negative feelings like anger have a place, because outrage can inspire us to defend human rights when they are trampled. Encounters with Humanism should elicit feelings of joy and a desire to be a part of our movement.

Some of the intellectual discussions I have at Humanist events are so good that I feel a buzz upon leaving (without the aid of alcohol, but with, no doubt, the assistance of internal neurotransmitters). But not everyone is of the temperament to enjoy philosophical debate, so a broad Humanist movement should also appeal to those inspired by the arts or quiet contemplation. Indeed, one of the virtues of the word "humanist" is that it suggests esteem not just for science but also for the humanities. Humanist principles must, of course, stand up to critical scrutiny. But in order to thrive, Humanism must appeal to our feelings, because emotions, not reasons, are what motivate us.

Comments (now closed)

John D.

28 Oct 2009 · 05:50 EST

I like to say that we are a feeling animal that happens to think. We are not a thinking machine that happens to feel. Our brain and body functions including emotions, perceptions, and thoughts are what make us human. All these elements are part of our whole being. Check out "On Being Certain" by Burton for some insight of the topic of the emotions of decision making.

Jeff Satterley

28 Oct 2009 · 06:38 EST

I've noticed this conflation of rational and logical very often. One of the most troubling problems with this is that it gets used the opposite way to discredit people who take emotions into account as being less rational than others. I see this most often used to suggest that women are less rational than men, because they tend to be more "emotional." I just recently wrote a blog post myself about this:


29 Oct 2009 · 03:45 EST

Very nice. One point... I don't think a functional faith can be incompatible with reason. Faith is the product of several components including belief, hope and action. The hope is emotional, the belief is intellectual, and the actions are the evidence of the foundational hopes and beliefs. The hopes or desires can range from just emotionally pleasant to extremely intoxicating but it still makes sense to question their plausibility. The hopes and desires are all wrapped up in beliefs which themselves need to be tested to see if they really represent a preponderance and convergence of evidence. If the hopes are plausible and the beliefs are in line with the available evidence then action is the only step left to turn all these components into faith. It makes sense for us to question all the components of faith from time to time and especially to see if the faith is yielding expected results. The dysfunction of theistic faith can be found in all its components and in its yields. The beliefs don't represent a preponderance or convergence of evidence, the hopes are unrealistic, and the actions are often not in accord with either the hopes or the beliefs. Worst of all, the products of theistic faith are too often the very opposite of the expected results. But it's no wonder when theistic faith founds itself on the acceptance of truth claims that are never to be questioned. Credulity makes for a very dysfunctional faith. But faith built on tenable beliefs and plausible hopes producing actions in accord with both, can be very functional and can also bring you your hearts desire.

Eric Hoffman

24 Nov 2009 · 06:18 EST

Would you folks say that to be an atheist requires faith?

Peter Schogol

27 Nov 2009 · 08:20 EST

Even among Unitarian Universalists, where Humanists (often begrudgingly) accept the modifier "religious", there is a tendency to shun enthusiasm. It's as if adding any moisture to the crispness of rationalism will encourage rot rather than verdure. I'm sure many of us have spilled a lot of ink defending the possibility, if not the outright desirability, of humanistic spirituality. For me, grounding Humanism in Religious Naturalism (cf. REASON AND REVERENCE by William R. Murry) increases the field of spiritual experience by making nature, rather than humanity, the locus of ultimacy. Humanists lose nothing and gain literally everything by looking deep in the night sky for an expanded perspective. I look forward to a new Humanism based on affirmation rather than rejection, vision rather than certitude, oasis rather than bivouac. May our humanity continue to surprise and delight us.