Reason is a tool of emotion

David Hume
David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
David Hume

Reason, logic, is a tool.  It is a means to an end.  It is never an end unto itself, never the goal.  It is the journey, not the destination.  When we use reason, we use it in pursuit of some goal.  That goal may be truth, it may be self aggrandizement, or it may be rationalizing an intuitively held opinion.

Our goals come from our instincts, our intuitions, our emotions, from the base programming that evolution has given us.  First you feel the motivation, then (maybe) you deploy reason in pursuit of the motivated goal.  Reason may have informed your instincts.  It might have played a role in the formation of the urge, but it didn’t itself create it.

Without instinct, you wouldn’t get up in the morning.  You wouldn’t seek food, or a mate, protect your friends and family, or strive to survive.  Reason may help with identifying intermediate goals, such as career ambitions, but the ultimate goals, such as survival, having a family, being famous, come from instinct.

Of course, we have several instincts.  Those instincts can often clash, with some being stronger or weaker than others.  And the balance can shift depending on our state of mind, with some being stronger when we’re calm, and other being stronger when we’re we’re excited.  Some operate over longer periods, while others surge briefly.

We tend to feel that service to ones we feel longest and strongest, in lieu of the weaker or briefer ones, is obvious, “self evident”.  Except that not everyone has the same balance between different instincts.  And that is often very difficult to remember.  Indeed, it is often very difficult to even comprehend.

When we say that someone is rational, what we are usually saying is that they deploy their rationality in pursuit of the same goals that we do.  When we call someone irrational, or accuse them of rationalizing, what we often mean is that they’re deploying their rationality toward outcomes we disagree with.

Data (Star Trek)
Data (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In some ways, Star Trek has done the world a disfavor by implying that the idea of a purely logical being is a coherent one.  The Vulcans in Star Trek, when they seek to be logical, are really seeking to be logical in pursuit of higher goals, of higher instincts.  When Data in the TNG series seeks to have emotions, he is really seeking human emotions, human programming, instead of the programming he has.  But his very desire for human emotion is itself an emotion.

Now, this doesn’t mean that reason is useless.  Just because the goal, the things we value, are not themselves the result of reason, doesn’t mean we can’t use reason to figure out the best path to satisfy them.  And when we disagree, reasoning can help us understand the real reason for the disagreement, which often boils down to different intuitional frameworks.

But we should understand the limits of what reason can do.  The very desire to be reasonable, to be logical, is itself an emotion.  If I have an emotional commitment to truth, then reason is useful for seeking it.  If I have an emotional commitment to loyalty to the tribe, then my reason will be used for that goal, and I may seem unreasonable to someone with truth as their overriding goal.

This is something we should remember when trying to persuade with reason.  Reason will only work if they have the same, or similar, emotional commitments that we have.  If our commitment is to scientific accuracy, and their commitment is to emotional comfort, tribal loyalty, or some other impulse, then reason is unlikely to be persuasive.

60 thoughts on “Reason is a tool of emotion

          1. Well it is deep and philosophical. there is no wisdom without sacrifice. samadhi is a philosophical death. as you kill off the ego (ignorance) you die a little each time. Maha samadhi, the ultimate attainment arrives when you drop the last veil the carne veil. the veil of the flesh.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. I personally have a hard time disentangling my reason from my physical self – I suppose that’s why I’m so attracted to Catholic theology, in spite of the fact that I’m not Catholic. I’m just sucked in by Augustine’s inability to understand either in isolation. I think there’s more to reason than just mere conceptual abstraction, but also (in a weird way) less to it than that.

    I’d love to say this more neatly, but I guess that’s why I’m still in grad school – I haven’t figured out how, yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find you are very articulate. However, I’m not quite sure I’m following on this one. If Augustine argued that reason can’t be separated from emotion, then I think I’d agree. Although it probably depends on how you define ’emotion’.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. For some reason, you reminded me of this wonderful movie

      I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.

      — Derek Zoolander


      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to vote no on this one too. To start, emotion is not defined nor supported as being different than reason. Reason does not seem to be seen here as an integral part of the machine that is our brains.

    Things left unstated are the cause of emotions, why reason in basic form or similar is not at the core of how our brains function.

    There simply is not enough definition here to agree or not, but given commonly used values for the under-defined terms I cannot agree with this assessment, specifically that reason and emotion are not inextricably intertwined – enough so to call them two sides of a single coin.

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    1. Hmmm, maybe I wasn’t clear. I never meant to imply that reason is outside of the mind, only that it’s not the source of motivations. I see that coming from emotion, which I’m equating with instinctive impulses. Some people reserve the word ’emotion’ for strong impulses, using the word ‘intuition’ for the milder ones. For purposes of this post, I just lumped them all together.


      1. To me that leaves the basic processes of mind/consciousness without the ‘mechanics’ of reason or the underpinings of what we call reason. To consciously reason is one thing, to presume that the subsconscious mind does not also reason is unfounded. To further say that emotion is attached to the older animal brain is to say hunger is an emotion or pain is an emotion. Clearly we do not think of these at emotions but states and from there can deduce that emotions are simply states of sensory/data comprehension. Fear is an emotion and you feel it without conscious thought as well as with only conscious thought.

        Emotions seem to be an assessment of the state of mind because you can wake up grumpy/sad having had no interactions with anything. Like depression I opine that they address the operating mode of our consciousness for no unconscious person is said to have an emotional state.

        They would be neither motivation nor tool.

        How then do our minds create motivation? If we are motivated to do well, have we not already reasoned that to do well will bring about a pleasurable state of affairs? To arrive at the conclusion that this would be so we have had to reason many times previously enroute to this conclusion. We can grossly state that given inputs A and B and related data C, D, E we reason that the outcome of A and B will be X. If D were different we might reason that the outcome would be B. Such reasoning happens in the unconscious mind as well as conscious mind and so I hold that reason as we understand it is mostly a complex layered set of reasoned statements for which we do not necessarily need conscious thought, and that such lower levels of reasoning are in fact the impetus for motivations.

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        1. As I say in the piece, I’m not arguing that reason is completely isolated from emotion. Reason definitely loops back and influences what we have emotions about.

          But consider, why do we fear? I don’t mean what causes the fear, but why do we fear things that ought to cause us fear? (Or even, why do we fear things that shouldn’t cause us fear?) Why do we want to survive? What reason is behind wanting to survive? Behind wanting our friends, family, and children to survive?

          For me, the answer is that we have these urges because any ancestors that didn’t have them perished long ago. But does that count as something we reasoned in our mind? I don’t think it does. But maybe I’m missing something crucial here?


          1. And ‘engage’…. 😉
            To fear you need a reason. A young child than does not know a lion will kill you is not afraid of a lion in person simply because it is a lion. We need a reason to fear… you and I fear lions because we have knowledge that they will eat humans and there is no 6 inch glass wall between us and the lion. Now all I have to do is run faster than you do.

            There are many ways to die. Most of them include pain and the thought of separation from what we know almost always causes us a kind of pain in our minds. In either case it is an undesirable state, death is. We fear it because of pain. A painless death is not feared, such as death while asleep.

            There are biological reasons we strive to survive. Our bodies will go to great lengths to survive.. shock when injured, flight/fight reactions. There is biological drive for survival though it can be overridden by thought. In all cases except while sleeping death occurs while we are conscious and that means that both conscious and subconscious minds are working. We are evolved to avoid harm/pain. Through life experience we learn the reasons to run as fast as possible when a lion comes charging – avoid pain and not lose the good things we have… or… avoid pain, seek pleasure. that basic design will build up the logic/reasoning needed for us to learn to survive in an area where there are lions.

            Note that adrenaline causes more excitement in some than the ability to consider the cost of losing/death. Thrill seekers do this and it has been shown that their brains work differently. If a change of brain function causes their evaluation of threat versus pleasure then it is a good assumption that both are mostly brain functions to begin with.


          2. But again consider, once we know that a lion may eat us, why do we fear that?

            I agree with your biological reasons for the urge to survive. But those are reasons outside of our mind. We didn’t reason them. They were coded into our being by evolution. (We can override them, but only with great effort, and powerful motivation. It happens rarely enough to always be a notable occurrence and usually involves a threat to a child or loved one, or earnest belief in an afterlife.)


          3. Suicide is a powerful motivation, but opposite of what you mention.

            I spent a bit of time explaining pain and why/how we seek to avoid it. Death is almost always pain. We don’t fear dying in our sleep because it has no pain attached. Enough pain will drive us to suicide… my grandfather did exactly that to avoid the unending pain of black lung death.

            It is all about avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. at the basic biology level this is finding food and avoiding harm. There is recent news of a guy at MIT who has figured out the chemical formula for why this is – to most efficiently channel entropy. This basic chemical process drives all that is built upon it. Even raising offspring. A recent theory from a guy at MIT explains cell splitting and multicell from single etc. all to channel entropy


        2. Regarding the lion analogy, it seems that our ability to reason is related to the ability to establish connections between events and ideas. It’s the same mechanism which makes the Pavlov’s dog to salivate when it hears a bell. There is no “cause-effect” connection between the bell and the food. But when the two appear simultaneously, the brain connects the two events and comes up with “reasoning” if BELL, then FOOD. I think, that’s what reason is — complex conditional reflexes. And reflexes, of course, can be subconscious.

          But why does the dog want food? If it didn’t want food, it wouldn’t salivate, with or without the bell. It wouldn’t even pay attention to such nonsense as bells and food. So, what causes the dog to salivate isn’t the connection between the bell and the food (reason). You may say that the dog seeks the pleasure of the food. Or you may say that the dog is driven by survival instinct. But whatever it is, the dog seeks food not because of reason. Otherwise, we will need to call amoebae reasonable creatures.

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          1. you nailed it: if bell then food… for natural hunger the bell is internal and for humans it is ‘rumbly tumbly’ which replaces the bell. It’s a signal from the stomach which signifies that its processes require more food which can be driven by the body draining energy and signalling for more energy down to an individual cell in your left thigh trying to acquire more energy and so on. Our brains learn as babies that the ugly feeling which causes us to cry is sated by food.


          2. One more thought. The “bell–food” connection (reason), perhaps, exists between the neurons in the brain. But the signal to get more energy (hunger) may even bypass the nervous system altogether and use, for example, chemical signaling — weary muscles producing some chemical triggering secretion of a certain hormone that would affect certain brain areas and trigger certain behaviors. This is how fear (and other emotions) seem to work


            It’s a response on “hardware level”. The “software” (reason) does not even have time to “boot”. By the time we realize what’s going on and able to rationalize it, the body has already reacted. Talking about “emotions” is just a convenient way to describe these complex reactions of which we may not even be aware. Certainly, Hume could not have known these mechanisms. But I think, his “high-level” conceptual description is quite insightful.


      1. Understood, but I don’t think reason or logic ever claimed to be about anything but mechanism. Dr. Searle is smiling I think. He seems to think that the relationship between meaning (which is motivating) and representation must remain a bit of a mystery. I think that relationship is explainable (in the way you outline), which is a little different than being reasonable or logical, and that’s what counts.


  3. Very interesting — enjoyed your writing style on this one; great stuff. It seems you are with Hume on the idea that our motivation comes from a believe that ‘if x then y’, where y is desired so x is performed. Reason then enters the picture as to how to perform x in order to ensure y. At least, that is what Hume thought. But doesn’t it seem like reason was involved in the formation of the belief that ‘if x then y’? I suppose it could have been empirically acquired.

    I’m just curious about some further thoughts on the matter, though, as it seems like you think we can be motivated by just having a desire. I think that’s roughly true, although part of me suspects there must be some hidden belief motivating that desire. But my main question, for now, is: do you think it possible to be sufficiently motivated by a belief, and without any particular desire?

    I ask, because I wonder if the evolutionary instincts we have discussed in the past could lead to the formation of beliefs that create motivation without any felt desire for an end. In other words, pace Hume, can we be motivated to act without a desire in the way mentioned about (means/end belief + desire for end = motivation for means), but by just a belief, if that belief is caused by evolutionary instincts? Or do these instincts only function as felt desires? I’m curious because it seems many evolutionary psychologists say that we can explain altruistic actions by our evolutionary instincts, which seems a hard pill to swallow if these are expressed as desires, because it seems to the layman that desires are felt and subjectively observable in a first-person manner, and these instincts that the evolutionary psychologists attribute to us don’t have these qualities. If it is possible to explain these instincts as dormant beliefs then it might be an easier pill to swallow. Then again, maybe not — the idea of unrecognized beliefs sounds contradictory. Still, perhaps you would reject the idea of evolutionary instincts as creating beliefs for a different reason, so there might still be something to be gained by me asking the question.

    Again, great writing, would enjoy seeing more philosophical treatise-like entries like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words. You ask a very interesting question. Language is difficult here, so I hope I don’t this comes across as coherent.

      I think it depends on what we mean by ‘motivate’. Surely, if I believe someone is trying to kill me, I will be motivated to take action. But why will I be motivated to take action? Why would someone trying to kill me motivate me? I have a desire to continue living. If I didn’t have the desire to keep living, would the belief that I’m being attacked still motivate me?

      Research implies that we have an inborn, instinctive fear of snakes. Is that fear a belief (snakes will harm me), or a belief coupled with the desire not to be harmed?

      I think I’m coming down on beliefs not being motivations in isolation by themselves. It seems like a belief has to trigger some primal desire in us for motivation.

      BTW, this was meant as a primer for the post we discussed a day or two ago. Hopefully I’ll get that out soon. (I’m trying to break my posts up into smaller chunks.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the response, I ask because I find this area of debate on Humean scholarship interesting but I haven’t come to any firm conclusions as to whether or not beliefs are sufficiently motivating by themselves and so am interested to hear the thoughts of someone obviously influenced by Hume.

        Looking forward to that post!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Pop over to Cultural Criticism and linger a bit. I take a more long-form style and incline to analytic on Agency, discuss instinct and reason at some length.

      I share your pleasure in reading here, quite balanced and inquisitive…a good ‘instinct’ for equitable thought and expression, even sense of broaching wonder behind the scenes.

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  4. I agree so very much on this. This is why I try not to call the religious irrational anymore. They are making use of their rational faculties, it’s just that their intuitive responses are wrong.

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          1. Depends, do you have to do the math each time to find the answer, or do you just know because you’ve internalized it.


  5. By far the most interesting idea I’ve come across pertaining to reason:

    “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” – Jonathan Haidt

    ‘Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory’, Mercier & Sperber 2011

    Click to access arguments_for_an_argumentative_theory.pdf

    ‘The Argumentative Theory – A Conversation with Hugo Mercier’

    “Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic, and reason, but survival.” – James Alcock, ‘The Belief Engine’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! As you know, I’m a Haidt fan, although I’m not completely in alignment with that quote. (To be fair, neither is Haidt himself.) It implies that all reasoning is actually rationalization. I’d agree with that for much of it, but I do think real reasoning is possible, although determining which is which can be elusive. Someone using real reason in pursuit of a goal we don’t share may seem unreasonable to us, but they can still be completely logical toward achieving that goal.


      1. I think he’s speaking strictly to origins as he later continues:

        “Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We’re sitting here at a conference. We’re reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there …”

        I screwed that up – the quote is from the Mercier article, the 2nd link.


      2. My apologies, I should have stated that I don’t see Haidt implying that all reasoning is rationalization and was confused by your stating that he wouldn’t agree with himself.

        I do think I agree with your last several sentences though I’m probably way out of my league here as this feels like it’s getting dangerously close to philosophy 🙂


        1. No apology necessary. My apologies for not responding to your previous comment. (The WordPress comment email system has been a little screwy lately, and I’ve been busy as heck.)

          I think we both understand that Haidt’s views are nuanced, which is often challenging to catch in quotes. My reply was really for anyone else reading the thread. Oh the challenges of language and brevity 🙂


  6. Full agreement! Even before reading Hume, I had noticed this and wondered how Vulcans (whom I admired anyway) could possibly exist, or even how Data could “want” emotions when wanting was an emotion. Both of those had numerous contradictions that were revealed in the episodes, showing the incoherence of that concept.

    I guess one could argue for emotionless reason if one considers emotions to require feelings towards something, and instead replaces that feeling with a raw “compulsion”, gravitating towards something, but with no feelings. Even then, I’m not so sure that makes a whole lot of sense 🙂

    In fact, a life of reason or logic seems to be just another emotional life, where the emotions at play are the pleasures of achieving one’s definition of reason, and the shame of being “emotional”. Less emotion vs. reason than choose your emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Unapologetics and commented:
    Thanks, SelfAwarePatterns, for posting this.
    Why am I reblogging this? Because I agree with it. And why do I agree with it? Because I find it reasonable. And why do I find it reasonable? Because I agree with it. OK. Time to stop… The whole rationale comes down to “because I like it” (an emotional statement).

    A lot of people believe these days that we need a reason to believe something. But I don’t understand the reason for such belief. For example, Steven Pinker in the video below, tries to demonstrate how unreasonable was human sacrifice in ancient societies by providing possible reasons for such practices, which, he believes, are wrong reasons. But he cannot say that this behavior was “unreasonable” because he himself has just provided reasons for it. He believes human sacrifice was unreasonable, likely, because, human sacrifices cause negative emotions in people and not because human sacrifice lacked any reasons behind it.

    One of the criteria for truth is coherence — lack of self-contradiction. A good way to check for coherence in logic and hypocrisy in morality is to apply the statement to itself. I find this Hume’s idea coherent. It does not lead to self-contradiction, unlike the belief that all beliefs need reason which contradicts itself. Hume’s thesis is also coherent with my fundamental belief that fundamental beliefs do not need reason or evidence.

    And I like it because it’s a liberating thought. I can believe whatever I like to believe! (Within reasonable limits, of course).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for the text and for your clear style. It is hard to disagree with the basic sentiment of yours. But isn’t it a bit funny that what you talk about is something that is becoming very well known, yet no one seems to know it? We state all the time, that we are a product of our environment, that our opinions do not come from reason etc. Yet still, we do not fully take this to heart – and the reason is exactly reason. We acknowledge this with reason, but this knowledge is only a knowledge of reason – we do not “feel” it. At least not when it comes to ourselves.

    The consequences of it are not drawn. The re-evaluation and de-evaluation of ideas, beliefs and attitudes that it calls for – where are they?

    Besides, this issue is suffering by a great mishmash of terminology. Motivations, desires, emotions, intuitions – all are very similar and at the same time very common terms to describe the different manifestations of the same entity. Let’s call it the unconscious. (Unfortunately, Hume lived a bit earlier than Freud and Jung.) The reason is a puppet of different influences – yes. But what exactly is it influenced by? Are these only pre-historic bases like instincts – or also the impacts of society, which once went through the reason and became the patterns of the unconscious?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard to study the subconscious because to study something we need, at least, to be aware of it. And once we are aware of something, it’s not subconscious anymore, is it? It’s like turning on the light to study darkness. I have a feeling that comprehending what Hume has said, actually, “turns the table” and gives reason control over emotions diminishing the truth of the saying.


      1. I think I understand what you mean, but I have to disagree. Having an understanding of our subconscious or unconscious would not give our reason control over it. It would give us some more control, yes, but mostly understanding. Just because we can say “this emotion I have now comes from this and that” would not make the emotion disappear or our reason opportunity to change it. But, I do not think we can separate reason and unconscious. They all work together. When we attain such understanding, our unconscious will react to it, and so a change will happen, but it will not be made by reason, I believe.

        So what am I saying: reason can affect the unconscious if we gain conscious knowledge of the workings of it, but this is not control per se, as reason, conscious and unconscious are not separated entities in our mind, but a web.


        1. I agree. Understanding alone does not seem to give control. E.g. if we understand how the universe work, we don’t gain control over it. The word affect with respect to our own psychology might be more appropriate. It’s a topic for a separate philosophical investigation, what constitutes control and whether we can control anything at all considering that our own free will seems to be just an illusion. I haven’t thought about it seriously, but it would be interesting to understand the difference between control and affect.


      2. Absolutely! The darkness of unconscious is not the easiest object for the light (and Hume, unlike the most part of the other enlighteners, had guessed where exactly should the light be directed to). But we are so afraid of darkness, that, holding a torch in our hands, we are even unable to turn it on, admitting that unconscious is impossible to study by definition. And I prefer to use “unconscious” instead of “subconscious”, not only because I like Jung more than Freud, but because “unconscious” is less hermetic towards conscious – fortunately, we have access to it even without a help of psychoanalyst.

        As you said, once the light is there, it is not unconscious anymore, but a new part of ourselves, reconquered from the darkness.
        What do you say, is it possible to make such a conquest?

        What I want to say is that we can be much more efficient in the accession of ourselves if we study the darkness within us instead of impersonal studying of the external one, like the canonical science usually does. If our unconscious is not the only possible object of study.

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