<BR> Human Rationality and Emotions -- Eric R. Pianka

Human Rationality and Emotions

© Eric R. Pianka

"You don't have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily." -- Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

"The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul." --Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

Development of verbal language allowed us to exchange and expand ideas and concepts better, no doubt facilitating control of our environment, and thereby our survival and reproduction. However, language is a double-edged sword: words help us formulate concepts, but at the same time, they limit the directions our thought processes can take. The ways in which we can envision the natural world around us are constrained by the words we develop, especially by the different meanings, attitudes, and emotions they can convey. Words, nouns in particular, can have very different referents between humans. For example, the word "mountain" means something quite different to someone raised in western Colorado versus someone raised in Georgia. Precise definitions or universal agreement are needed to insure accurate passage of understanding. It is a tribute to human intellect that we even have words like eternity, infinity, and hypervolume, all concepts totally alien to our limited existence in time and space.

Humans explain events and phenomena in two very different ways. One approach to knowing (common sense) involves thinking and is objective, based on making repeatable observations that allow us to predict nature and future events -- this rational logical approach to knowing led to scientific methodology. Another, very different, non-objective mystical approach to "knowing" (faith-based) is based primarily upon the invocation of supernatural explanations, often bolstered by religious authorities who claim to have special access to supernatural sources. This irrational non-scientific approach, championed by religions of all kinds, has helped many humans accept and cope with things they have no power to change or difficulty understanding rationally, such as unexpected deaths, other misfortunes, or natural disasters. Unfortunately, the power conferred on religious leaders has often led to serious abuses and resistance to accepting the rational understanding of the functioning of nature as demonstrated by new scientific discoveries. These two diametrically opposed ways we interpret and "know" about our environments have contributed to the regrettable past and present day conflicts between science and religion. Irrational belief and/or non-belief systems are now being pitted against rational views in an effort to erode public confidence in science.

Human intelligence has also evolved so that we have remarkably good abilities to detect intentions of other humans in social interactions. We seem to have a propensity for superstitious mysticism and a tendency to emphasize explanations that invoke intention over those based on sheer mechanism, situation, or circumstances. Indeed, humans may be predisposed to see intentions in their friends and enemies. Similarly, we attribute conscious thought and intention to the actions of non-human animals (anthropomorphism). For example, predators want to kill us and prey want to escape from us. We even look for meaning and purpose in inanimate things such as the climate or the universe. Thus a destructive storm is interpreted as having occurred because people strayed from religious tradition or did something wrong and needed to be punished.

Everyone, religious or not, relies on objective rational thinking to handle problems encountered in everyday life. Thus, we all know we must eat to stay alive, things fall down not up or sideways, we seek to avoid collisions when driving, balance our budgets, etc. Remarkably, many people switch back and forth between rational knowing to mystical faith-based "knowing" with ease. Natural selection has organized our brains in ways that promote such duality (Morrison 1999, Trivers 2011). Natural selection molded our emotions and instincts, including setting aside the right half of our brain for storage of subconscious irrational information. Rational logic and common sense reside in the left half of our brain along with speech. Morrison (1999) argues that this duality effectively gave the irrational right side of our brains invisible control over the rational left side:

"To properly accommodate this vital streak of insanity in an increasingly rational brain it was first necessary for people to perceive, quite accurately, that their genetic imperatives -- instincts, feelings and desires -- represented a source of considerable wisdom and 'super-natural' power; and second, to believe, less accurately, that this inner source had its roots in an invisible world of super-intelligence, a mystical world that lay beyond rational comprehension."

"Under the spell of our carefully programmed 'spirituality', we cannot help falling in love, earning for idealised sexual gratification, nurturing our children, forging tribal bonds, suspecting strangers, uniting against common enemies, and on occasions, laying down our lives or family, friends or tribe." (Morrison 1999).

I once had an interesting conversation with an intelligent young Arab man named Thursday who asked me "how could our spirit be explained except by devine providence?" I tried to explain Morrison's arguments to him but encountered stiff opposition. Like many people, he was convinced that, unlike other animals, humans have a soul, a God-given spirit that lives on eternally.

People enjoy fantasy and thrive on mysticism as illustrated by the huge success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Super heroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder woman, and Spiderman are everywhere and adored by small children. We train our kids to believe in age-specific mythical creatures, starting with the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus ("Papa Noel" in Brazil). One father decided it was time to break the news to his 12 year-old boy who still believed in Santa Claus. When he told his son there was no Santa Claus, his smart kid got a gleam in his eye and said "Oh, I get it, there's no God, either!" Then, Daddy had to backtrack quickly and reassure his boy that God was indeed real. Kids are expected to outgrow their belief in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus, but not the cherished myth of one or more omnipotent deities. Everybody wants to believe that they have a soul, a caring god, and an afterlife, as comforting and irrational as that may be. Religions occupy a very special place in the irrational right side of our brains adjacent to our carefully programmed but irrational feeling of 'spirituality'! Any challenge to a devoutly religious person's faith meets with adamant opposition, even outright physical hostility.

Religious folks abandon reason on a regular basis, especially on Sundays -- such people entertain irrational faith-based systems of belief. They are comfortable with "proofs" based on ancient mythology. People who "know" something or "believe" in "proof" are dogmatic and closed minded -- they are mired down intellectually, unable and/or unwilling to use logic to comprehend reasoned alternatives and cannot improve their limited understanding without substantial changes in their thinking processes. Such "certainty" is a dangerous illusion.

Interestingly, music resides in the irrational right side of the brain in the homologous place where logic, language and speech reside in the rational left side (Broca's area). No other ape has invented music. Music can be soft and soothing but can also be loud and alarming. Music evokes powerful emotions in humans and is exploited by our leaders to arouse us into action: thus national anthems evoke patriotism and are used to inflame our tribal instincts as we go into conflicts or insane wars. Religious and political fervor are exploited similarly as deluded religious and political groups are pitted against each other. Sports fans form similar opposing groups using their team's theme song to elicit passion.

We are born into a given skin color, nationality, language, social and political culture, and religion (including our God or Gods) -- all are accidents of birth but have profound effects on our lives and the societies we live in. Indeed, taken together, they determine which side you'll be on in the next war! Few people are able to shift from their birth group to another. The rules of a level playing field dictate that people will always want to migrate from an impoverished birth group into another that enjoys a higher standard of living. Governments discourage illegal immigration. Oceans and border patrols reinforce boundaries and maintain heterogeneity and disparities between national groups.

Adamant insistence on faith-based "knowing" coupled with careless use of words like "believe" and "truth" have provided numerous opportunities to foment confusion and have allowed science to be deliberately maligned and misrepresented by those who stand to lose from changing sensibilities. Scientists do not claim access to "truth" and their belief system is based on rational observed phenomena. Creationists are fond of demeaning science by saying that it is "just another belief system" and that evolution is "just a theory". A scientific theory is not "just another theory" but is a well-supported explanation of an aspect of the natural world that incorporates facts, laws, inferences, repeatable observations, and tested hypotheses.

Religious leaders have often rejected new scientific evidence when it reduced the domain of processes over which religion could claim authority. As a result, scientific investigators have sometimes been vilified as Galileo was during the Spanish Inquisition -- scientists have even been tortured and executed because their views conflicted with mystical belief systems. Humans are all too good at being irrational and defending superstition. Denial must have been favored by natural selection: a cave man or woman who worried too much about cave bears must have been in a useless state of anxiety. Our uncanny ability to refuse to face the menacing reality of overpopulation but instead go into denial may well prove to be our undoing.

Accurate knowledge of basic principles of community organization and ecosystem function are essential for wise exploitation of both natural and agricultural ecological systems. An understanding of basic parasitology is needed to control epidemics in human populations. The continuing existence of all the denizens of this poor beleaguered planet, including our selves, will ultimately depend more on our ecological understanding and wisdom than it will on irrational mysticism or future technological "advances." We cannot rely on technological solutions. Technology, the abuse of science, is what got us to this precarious situation in the first place. Rather, we must obey natural laws of nature such as the laws of thermodynamics, reorganize society, and change our own lifestyles. Unless everybody plays his/her part, humanity is doomed.

Burning fossil fuels of any sort, and using energy in any way even via nuclear reactors only adds insult to injury because such activities produce waste heat that cannot be dissipated (Hansen 2005). Hence we are actually speeding up the rate of global warming by all our efforts to find and use more energy, fracking included. Our steadfast refusal to live by the rules of thermodynamics is rapidly shortening the time left for us and all life on planet Earth.

        Mr. President: Despite what the energy barons tell you,
        there is simply no such thing as "clean energy."

Any thinking person can see that we surely must convert to a sustainable system where each of us leaves the planet in the same condition that it was in before we were born. This will require much less extravagant lifestyles. We won't be able to move around so freely and we will have to go back to walking and riding bicycles or horses. In addition, humans will have to live without big cities. Before it is all over, if we are going to endure, we will have to overhaul our entire existence.


Religions like to claim they hold some sort of a monopoly on morality. However many agnostics and atheists dispute this, claiming to be highly moral people. Indeed, morality is probably an ancestral condition among all great apes, perhaps among mammals in general. Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees are highly intelligent, emotional creatures living in complex social groups: "it isn't only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought and emotions like joy and sorrow."

Goodall observed human-like behaviours including hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and tickling. She argues that such gestures reveal "close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community, which can persist throughout a life span of more than 50 years." "During the first ten years of the study I had believed . . . Gombe chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings. . . . Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal -- that they, like us, had a darker side to their nature."

In his book "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates," Franz de Waal recounts hundreds of observations of the most humanoid great ape, bonobo chimpanzees, that reveal empathy (de Waal, 2014). Mirror neurons in our ape brains elicit empathetic responses: when another individual is hurt, a bonobo will come to its aid and console the injured party. Similarly, when a buffalo or an elephant falls down, others will come to its rescue and try to help it get back up on its feet.

Last updated 15 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka