Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Logical thinking in difficult circumstances and difficulties arising from logical thinking alone

This post over on Art-of-Persistence got me thinking:

...But notice that when confronted with concrete situations, it is not our intellects that are immediately engaged, but our emotions. So is trying to deal with these sorts of situations by appealing to logic alone really logical? No.

I agree, and would argue that by exclusively viewing situations from a logical standpoint can lead to madness and worse, however it certainly has its uses. Assessing difficult situations exclusively from a "logical viewpoint", or clinical thinking, can be employed to set a boundary between the heart and the immediate dysphoria and sorrow that, for all its beauty, envelops this world. A Suffering, that should we face it square on, staggers the mind, heart and soul.

"Overwhelming" hardly covers it.

Clinical thinking is a powerful tool and is useful in many circumstances, the necessary mind-set of pediatric physicians working with terminally ill children, being an obvious example. To maintain a high level of functionality during emergent situations, we need to keep our feelings in check. It is equally necessary to then pick up and deal with the emotions we've previously put on hold, or suffer the ill effects of ignoring them. Our feelings will out. Who can remain unmoved when watching the interviews from Band of Brothers, as aging veterans relive the suffering of terrible events in a youth spent at war?

The "problem" is that we are not really logical or rational creatures. We are emotional beings, driven to a large extent by our endocrine system (and heredity, diet, environment, et cetera ad infinitum.) Failing to honor this reality causes great damage to the psyche. While we cannot and should not trust our feelings, neither can we ignore them. Our biology makes this difficult if not impossible to get away with, no matter the desire of the classicist to practice stoicism or the geek to emulate Spock.

To achieve stability, we need balance. (A Blinding Flash of the Obvious, to be sure.) Reliance on emotion, without switching on the logic circuits, causes us to make profoundly bad decisions. Taken to an extreme, letting the emotions rule can completely paralyze our lives producing endless chaos, crisis upon crisis, or worse yet, an appearance on "reality" TV.

The reverse, however, is perhaps more troubling. Reliance on clinical thinking alone without engaging the heart, diminishes of our capacity for empathy. Without empathy, it is all too easy to view others as "less than" ourselves, not as fellow humans, but as objects. We run the risk of slow cardiac lithification, producing in ourselves a monster by degrees. The extreme end result is a seared conscience, utterly devoid of empathy, and with it the capability to commit the most inhuman atrocities. Certainly, there are other routes to this unfortunate end, but thinking about Rich's post led me down this particular rabbit trail.

It seems to me that an exclusive reliance on clinical thinking, when coupled with an ideology* (which, it seems, is clinical thinking writ large, and invariably defines a group of "Others" as "less than" the group holding said ideology,) explains the darkest chapters of 20th Century history. Is our age of genocide an end result of an abuse of the power of clinical thinking? Did this useful tool, a product of the age of reason, when combined with the technological advances of the resulting industrial revolution, as well as the rise of ideology, become a wicked instrument of unleashing intentional, unprecedented slaughter? It's certainly part of the equation, but there's a lot more to this.

Explaining and truly understanding the darkest motivations of human behavior is hardly a simple task, let alone a pleasant one. It is beyond the scope of a single life time, let alone a single post on an deservedly obscure blog. But the Church Fathers had a succinct definition for it: sin.

*This little construct of mine only holds as long as we are talking about secular ideology. Religious ideology doesn't really live inside this house that I've finely crafted from the choicest straw. That would be the subject of another post.

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