Logic and Emotion as Bases of Beliefs

It is a basic premise of Western thought that we should decide our beliefs based on logic. This is not the only option that we have. The primary other option that I will consider is that of deciding our beliefs based on our emotions. (These two options are obviously not mutually exclusive.)

Why would we decide our beliefs based on logic? The justifications fall into two primary categories.

The first category of justifications are the logical. These justifications say, in essence, “it is logical to decide my beliefs based on logic, and it would be illogical to do otherwise. Logic tells me to follow logic.”

The second category of justifications are the pragmatic. These justifications say, in essence, “it is useful to decide our beliefs based on logic. Doing this works; it brings about positive, practical results.”

Why would we decide our beliefs based on our emotions? Again, the justifications fall into two primary categories.

The first category of justifications are the emotional. These justifications say, in essence, “my emotions tell me to follow my emotions.”

The second category of justifications are, again, the pragmatic. Does deciding our beliefs based on our emotions bring about positive, practical results?

The logical and emotional justifications are, as we can see, somewhat circular. This, however, does not detract in any way from their power. Logic and emotions have the inherent power to sway us, and do not need to call on any power outside of themselves to accomplish this.

I argue that there is no objective, universal law which says that we should always decide our beliefs based on logic. This is not a law, but a belief. One can accept or reject this belief. Some choose to accept it; others choose to reject it. It is very popular to accept it; even people whose beliefs are not based on logic tend to attempt to make it appear that their beliefs are based on logic.

I am thus making an unpopular choice in choosing to reject the belief that my beliefs should always be based on logic. This choice may seem wrong to some people. I argue that it is not wrong, but merely unpopular.

I am familiar with all of the standard things which make people believe that we should decide our beliefs based on logic. I know about the scientific method, Occam’s razor, deductive logic, and the whole bit. I know about all of the times that people have followed logic and been right, and about all of the times that people have followed their emotions and been wrong.

I am highly fortified with all of the tools that would tend to make me accept the belief that I should decide my beliefs based on logic. And yet I reject it. Why? Because of mysticism. I cannot pursue mysticism while basing my beliefs on logic.

Mysticism is what gives meaning to my life. There are powerful emotional and pragmatic considerations which lead me to hold mystical beliefs. These considerations are simply powerful enough that they overwhelm the conflicting logical considerations. That is all there is to it; it’s a matter of what is capable of exerting more force on my psyche.

To explore this further, I will take one belief in particular which I hold based on emotional considerations. This is the belief that the universe is ethical. In other words, everything that happens should happen; nothing happens that should not happen.

One can argue that I do not really hold this belief; that I merely want it to be true. I feel good about the idea of the universe being ethical, and I feel bad about the idea of the universe being unethical, so I say that the universe is ethical. But this is not what is happening.

I actually do believe that the universe is ethical. I can attempt to explain the psychology of this. I think about the possibility of the universe being unethical, and if I think about it long enough, I reach a point where I think to myself, “no, that can’t possibly be true.” I try harder to make myself take the idea seriously, and I feel progressively worse until I once again reach the point of firm rejection. Stewing for long enough in the emotions which the idea inspires in me eventually causes me to reach a point of absolute denial of the idea. This doesn’t feel like a dislike of the idea; it feels like a real certainty that the idea is false. Once the point of rejection is reached, there is no longer any negative emotion; there is just a calm feeling of certainty about the way things are. So I don’t merely want to believe that the universe is ethical; I actually do believe that the universe is ethical.

The process I have described is perfectly repeatable. I am perfectly capable of doubting that the universe is ethical. When I engage in such doubting, there is a predictable onset of negative emotions. I can drag out the process for as long as I like, by continuing to prod myself with skepticism. But at some point I stop actively doubting, and some time after this happens, there will come a moment when I reach the point of firm rejection. Even having described the process, I seem to be unable to change its course. It predictably follows this sequence, no matter what I do, with a deterministic inevitability that amazes and vaguely frightens me. I’ve tried to get out of the idea via exceedingly clever mental gymnastics, but nothing makes it go away. I literally can’t not think this.

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  1. #1 by antitheology on August 9, 2011 - 8:25 am

    Hey, I just managed to disbelieve it for about ten minutes! I found a new way to do it, by pointing out to myself that the idea itself is fairly unclear and ill-specified.

    So then I tried to make a more specific example. I took the belief, “after we die, we will all be horribly tortured for an infinite length of time.” I think that I can’t believe this. (Not because of materialism, but for emotional reasons.) So I spent a while trying to force myself to accept this as a possibility. I couldn’t maintain an acceptance of this as a possibility. But I also couldn’t see how to go from that fact to demonstrating the fact that I can’t accept the belief that the universe is unethical. So then I thought, “well, maybe I’m not actually stuck in this belief, given that I can’t even say what the belief is.” But then, *click*. The belief popped back into place. So now I’ve found that I can’t even rigorously explain what the belief is, and I still can’t deny it! WTF?

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