How far should we rely on our emotions and feelings as a source of knowledge?

It is tempting to assume that reason is better than emotion as a source of knowledge. After all, the use of deductive logic gives us certain knowledge if the axioms or premises are true and the argument is valid. Mathematics which uses deductive logic lays claim to more certain knowledge than say the arts.

This would be to make the mistake of stereotyping reason and emotion. In fact assuming that reason and emotion are alternatives at opposite ends of a spectrum sets up a false dilemma. In IB TOK, it is important to make connections between the different ways of knowing. There may be degrees of rationality to our emotional response; and there may be emotional aspects to the rational choices we make. In the following quotation Aristotle implies that responding emotionally with anger can be appropriate and rational even if it is difficult:“Anyone can be angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy.” Aristotle (384-322BCE)

Let’s consider the idea of emotion as a source of knowledge; it could be the key to unlocking an understanding of who we are. Our feelings govern many of the choices we make. Who our friends are is often based on how they make us feel. The food we eat is often linked to comfort. The university course we choose may be based on how we feel about the experience of going on an open day visit. The school subjects we enjoy may be based on our feelings; does the teacher make you feel confident or inspired? These things are not rational calculations.

So the relevant knowledge issue here is, how do we know if emotion could be a source of knowledge? Edward de Bono identifies six styles of thinking; ‘red hat’ thinking involves feelings, intuition and emotions. You may be unaware of why you like or dislike something but your feelings exist nevertheless and the red hat gives you permission to articulate those preferences.

Our emotions may complement the rational choices we make. The psychologist Antonio Damasio mentions a patient, Elliot who has lost the ability to make decisions following damage to the emotional centre of his brain.  The implication of Damasio’s ideas is this is that our emotions function to narrow down our options so that we can make rational decisions. So here our emotions make rational choices possible by limiting the possible number of options available to us.

So if we want to find knowledge of who we are, we cannot ignore our emotions and assume that reason is superior. For example, the feeling that life is meaningless is best summed up in Shakespeare’s words: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Shakespeare (1564- 1616) Alternatively Paul of Tarsus’ observation that our actions are not always in tune with our feelings: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Paul of Tarsus (5 BCE – c.67 CE)

This points to the idea that often our rational choices defy our feelings; there is an assumption that the two are in conflict. Therefore the complexity of human nature can only be grasped by due consideration of our feelings and the relationship they have with rationality. But this also raises more questions about the nature of our freedom and the sense in which we have free will; is our feeling of freewill an illusion? If it is how would we know?

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