The slave of the passions

There’s an interesting article on David Hume I’ve chanced on recently. It’s well worth reading generally, but one thing stood out to me, his dictum ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’

I am, I have to admit, very much a rationalist. Indeed, I struggle not to be a reductive scientific-rationalist materialist, i.e. someone for whom everything is ultimately reducible to physics, and physics is best expressed in mathematics. I was, let’s face it, once planning a career in Physics, and have a degree to prove it, which has been useful since then mainly in meaning that I’ve been asked to change plugs and fuses everywhere I’ve worked – and my response that it was Theoretical Physics, and I am thus qualified to tell someone else how to change plugs but not to do it myself hasn’t generally been appreciated… OK, in fact the experience I got in labs did end up facilitating one of my various part-time occupations since retiring, namely being a sort of research assistant doing research Industrial Chemistry, but until retirement? Plugs and fuses.

A number of things hold me back from the completely reductionist materialist position. The first is, I suppose, the old dictum “To a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Science has a toolkit for explaining things (with the assistance of mathematics, which, it has been said, is unreasonably effective in modelling the real world), and anything which is not amenable to the methods of science may be being ignored.

The second is a form of epistemic humility – there is no viable reason I can see justifying the idea that the whole of what exists can be effectively modelled using human brains. Of course, these days I need to modify that, and substitute “human brains assisted by supercomputers”, and to add that there are now supercomputers whose functinality is not actually understood by those who built them. The principle remains, however.

The third is the observation (perhaps linked with the previous one) that, in order to produce scientific explanations for phenomena, we have always simplified situations so that an intelligible mechanism can be proposed. We have then complicated those explanations where necessary, but some measure of simplification may not be able to be eliminated (and what if the basic mechanism is not reducible in this manner?).

The fourth is the fact that physics now appears to have demonstrated that, at root, everything we see is based on uncertain ground (with thanks to Heisenberg’s Unicertainty Principle) and that whatever it is which is matter (or energy) at the smallest scale we can observe (which, due to the same uncertainty principle, may well be the limit of how small a scale will ever be observable) is, to say the least, weird. The maths works, by and large, but actually conceiving of what the things are which the maths describes has so far defeated physicists.Though there are physicists who would argue the point.

The last is the observation that “some really odd things do occasionally happen”. My scientific instincts rebel at this – it seems too much like the “God of the gaps”, who has been progressively vanishing as science explains more and more of what we observe, and the set of observational defects humanity suffers from (many of which appear in this list) could, maybe, explain the rest. There is, however, no reason to state dogmatically that science can explain everything – back to epistemic humility.

All this having been said, I still expect everything to be rationally explicable, at least in principle, and Hume’s suggestion that reason is, and even should be, the “slave of the passions”, which are pretty much immune to reason, is very difficult for me to swallow.

However, it’s easier for me to swallow following my recovery from a 17 year depression which, for at least six years, more or less completely demolished my ability to have passions. The technical term is anhedonia. It is difficult to explain this adequately to someone who has never suffered it. I have joked that it isn’t a matter of, as t-shirts sometimes state “Spock was too emotional”, but “Data was too emotional” – and, for those not versed in the Star Trek world, Data was an android, a completely synthetic being ostensibly without the mechanisms of neurology which, in us and many animals, produce things like pleasure. It led to me trying to make decisions, and while I was largely just as able as before to work out what the potential consequences of any course of action would probably be, there was no reason to prefer one outcome over another. I wouldn’t, for instance, “like” having money to spend more than I’d “like” suffering a traumatic injury. This may seem really difficult to understand – but insofar as I had any input from emotions, it was “it’s all horribly WRONG”, and beside that, the contemplation of a traumatic injury seemed insignificant. This extended even to really trivial things – on one occasion my wife was in hospital, and returning from going to see her, I noted that I hadn’t eaten that day. It seemed that a rational person would eat at this point, so I called in at a Chinese takeaway on my way home – and was confronted with a menu with at least 60 dishes to choose from. And I couldn’t. I could remember that there were some dishes which I’d had in the past, but there was no memory of “liking” that dish associated with seeing it on the menu, and no anticipation of “liking” it if I were to eat it now. Eventually, after maybe half an hour, the counter staff bullied me into making a choice, and I duly bought the dish I’d plumped for more or less at random, took it home and ate it. And didn’t enjoy it. But then, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed anything else on the menu either.

[This inability to remember liking things (or, indeed, anything connected with strong emotions in the past) seems not to be a standard feature of anhedonia; it is generally labelled as a defective autobiographical memory. It seems to have persisted to some extent after the depression, and the anhedonia, lifted; I am still having difficulty remembering past events as if by reliving them, and am sometimes surprised when some such memory does surface.]

In the light of this, I can see that reason has to be at the very least assisted by “the passions”. Otherwise, there’s really no basis on which to do anything, other than a set of rules (I was hugely assisted during that period by two things, some rules of behaviour which I adhered to because that’s what reasonable people did (and which I’d always tried to adhere to in the past), and by considering what a reasonable person with emotions would be likely to do in various circumstances). I admit that I still recoil at “slave of”, though. I did from time to time experience my reason being truly the slave of my passions before the depression reached it’s deepest point, and that was a little like having the rational side of me tied up in the back seat of a car driven by a lunatic – all it was able to do was to suggest slightly less unreasonable ways to reach the objective on which the lunatic, i.e. the emotional side of me, was fixated – and not inevitably being listened to. There’s a strong possibility in my mind that it was experiencing the negative results of this inability to exercise any rational control on my actions which resulted in me suppressing emotion to the extent that it was inaccessible – hence the anhedonia. It’s just an idea, though – I don’t know of any psychological backup for the theory.

I can do without reason being the slave of passions – but I can’t do without there being some emotion. Aside anything else, it is just too time consuming and exhausting trying to work out, without the aid of autobiographical memory, what the right thing to do is. The better course, and one I’m now able to pursue, is that reason and emotion should inform each other, but neither should completely shut out the other.

One result of this experience is that I find suggestions that there should be a purely logical basis for morality or ethics slightly laughable. It now seems to me that pure logic is never going to be able to give answers in these fields.

Another is a worry I have that true artificial intelligence may be just unfettered rationality, if it can exist at all, given the very probable lack of endorphins, seratonin and oxytocin, or anything remotely like them. And I know from personal experience what unfettered rationality can mean.

I just hope the set of rules for living for any future AI is very complete…

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