The Thinker

The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason

(Before there was blogging I created a little subsite off my home page called Deep Thought where I published the following essay. This was written in the autumn of 1997. I will probably come back and relook this entry at some future time. Enjoy.)

(Updated March 17, 2o14. Considering how many hits this post has gotten over the years, including recently, I’ve corrected some grammatical mistakes.)

Most people would probably agree that the polarity between the belief groups is the root cause of much of our civil strife. Most belief systems tend to assert the absolute correctness of their beliefs. This, of course, typically implies that other belief systems are either partially or fundamentally flawed.

Certainly one doesn’t have to look far to find examples of these conflicts: Palestinians vs. Israelis; anti-abortionists vs. pro-choice advocates; Communists vs. Capitalists (thankfully resolved, but at a horrendous cost); racists vs. non racists; and Ulster Unionists vs. the Irish Republican Army, to name but a few. Even when done without resorting to violence, the philosophical battles can certainly be vicious, as Washington D.C. certainly demonstrates.

What interests me is to examine these beliefs and see the foundations they rest upon. Most claim to rest on the highest of foundations (typically God itself, the ultimate trump card). And yet, these are also areas which are the most impossible to independently prove. Therefore, it seems curious to me that we invest so much energy defending beliefs which have no solid underpinnings. How could one expend so much of their time and energy to champion causes that are largely unproven and unverifiable?

The answer, as unpopular as it may be, is that most of us are born into a belief system that we wholeheartedly adopt and then propagate as parents. Why else would so many of us practice the very same religion our parents did? Christian parents instill Christian beliefs in their children. Muslim parents instill belief in Islam to their children. Humanist parents instill humanism in their children too. I suspect the main reason we speak with such utter certainty about these core beliefs is because they come to us, as children, from our most god-like source: our parents. By the time we develop the ability impartially examine our parents’ beliefs, it is largely too late to change our basic nature, which is now largely formed. These beliefs form the absolute center of who we are and are the basis for our behavior and personality. By the time we are grown adults these beliefs become extremely difficult, if not impossible to change. Often the cost of change is enormous emotional turmoil where it becomes difficult to believe in anyone or any idea again.

When I look for the source of our conflicts then, I begin by going back to when geography separated groups of humans could form their own divergent belief systems generally free of outside influence. As we traveled and propagated our species, it was easier for these cultural differences to cause problems. It does not surprise me then that in modern times we have witnessed barbarity on such an enormous scale.

But if one shopped for a belief the same way we shopped for a car, what would one look for to distinguish a quality belief from a silly belief? To me the test of a good belief is to examine it and see if it has roots more substantial than mere blind faith. Many faiths, for example, celebrate the virtue of love. God is assumed to be the source from which all love flows. I dispute this conclusion as a hasty and unthinking. My understanding of evolution suggests that love has always been a characteristic of our humanity. It certainly predates monotheism and even polytheism. Indeed, I think a convincing case can be made that love is most likely the manifestation an evolutionary trait of mammals which mammals use to help our species survive. It seems most probable to me that the roots of love are more in our animal past rather than our “civilized” present. Consequently I believe it is more likely that love is a product of our evolution rather than a gift from God. However, my belief that love has evolved, rather than having come from God, does not diminish at all its almost mystical powers on us humans, nor our need as human beings to both get and receive love to live happily and fully. I pick love as an example, but there are many more attributes of our humanity for which this logic should apply.

I assert our beliefs should evolve along with our increased understanding of our universe. At one time the notion of an earth-centered universe seemed perfectly reasonable, based on our understanding of the physical world. When Copernicus proved this was not the case, it was reasonable to abandon the notion. Copernicus’ equations describing how planets orbited the sun proved not entirely correct, but a better working model. The subsequent discovery that planets’ orbits were actually ellipses turned out to be more correct. Newton’s Laws and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity have brought us to an even closer understanding of our physical universe. I contend that beliefs which have a rational basis rooted on scientific understanding are inherently more viable than beliefs based on faith only.

It would be silly of me to claim I have discovered final answers, or to even claim with certainty that I am on the right track. I can only optimistically assert that my beliefs are a closer approximation of the truth that actually exists. I use aspects of the scientific method in judging a believe because when I do I find that my beliefs then have some substance to them. A belief that rests wholly on faith really potentially rests on sand, and the next scientific discovery can easily make them seem absurd. And it would indeed be silly to spend my life advocating beliefs that are untrue and may turn out to be counterproductive to humanity.

Perhaps because I am a software engineer by trade I have learned the value of abstraction. It is hard for me to look at any system without trying to abstract it to learn underlying truths. I see an enormous cost to human progress due to conflicting belief systems in our societies. To truly evolve our species must find a way to reconcile these conflicts. But after a while I see similarities in approach regardless of the beliefs being advocated. It is too tempting not to abstract these similarities and look for a more fundamental cause. And after many years I think I have found the abstraction that makes the most sense to me. Let me know if you agree.

I believe the root of humanity’s problems are not based on conflicting beliefs but rather our own struggle with reconciling reason and emotion. I suspect that the answer to our problems lies neither in emotion nor in reason, but in some place in between. What I search for, and what I believe we all really search for is a life in which we can be happy, productive and challenged. (Often this level of self actualization is not possible, and we simply must survive. This becomes an end in itself.) If we can create a space inside us where emotion and reason can reside in peace, then we may have found the basis for our own happiness and for a solution to much of our misery as a species.

I abstract further: I believe that almost all emotions are modern manifestations of our less evolved ancestors. They had to make complex choices in a difficult and scary world that would ensure their survival over the survival of other species. But their brains were not sufficiently rational to make these complex choices. Consequently emotional response became the ingrained default way to deal with difficult problems. And they in turn drove our system of beliefs. The root of our common law – our abhorrence of murder, our need for fidelity so that our children could survive to adulthood, even our need to feel hatred so we could internalize our feelings rather than take them out on other people and thus ensure our survival – has, I believe, its root in the raw emotions that come with being a human. These in turn came from the many species from which we have evolved.

To survive in the modern world we seek to find a place of peace between our emotions and our reason. But this is difficult because emotions and reason are by their nature often polar opposites. Our sense of reason suggests we must react rationally in all our actions and there is little in acting emotionally worth considering. Our emotions always lurk close beneath the surface and seem to have the upper hand over reason. It is hard to fight millions of years of evolution where emotions proved critical to our survival. When one is emotional, reason seems irrelevant. In fact emotion typically triumphs over reason and is the more powerful. It is little wonder then that statistically ninety percent of humanity claims to be religious. The appeal of religion is primarily emotional. Thus it appears to be far more natural to be religious than not, as it is more natural to be heterosexual than homosexual.

However because we are primarily emotional creatures this does not mean that living a wholly emotional life is either correct or desirable. For acting out of pure emotion can be dangerous too, and the use of reason is usually a better method of surviving today. And perhaps because reason typically works better in our modern and complex world, more of us today are drawn toward reason even though it conflicts with our emotions. This conflict often results in anxiety and inner turmoil. Both pure reason and pure emotion may be a form of natural narcotic which prevents the growth we really need as humans. And so we seek a restful place. The problem is that most of us chose either the extreme of emotion or the extreme of reason. To grow, what we really need is some place in between.

I believe one key to happiness is to understand that to experience emotions is to be human. Thus emotion should be experienced and expressed, but they must be tempered by the application of reason. Sanity and happiness come from understanding the forces and motivations of both and using each effectively to ensure your own happiness and the happiness of those you love.

So emote or remain logical as mankind has done for generations. Or I propose this new radical notion: find some happy medium in between that is right for you. But do so with your eyes open. Trust never wholly to either, but use the synthesis of both to find a place where you can live happily. And if you find that spot then you can begin a process that few humans take, because most people are trained never to leave one side or the other. Like the toddler taking his first steps, like the adolescent observing his parents as human for the first time you now have the opportunity to see the world with new eyes. Now, perhaps, you can change the world because you can affect the world as it is, rather than how others would choose you to see it. If your experience is like mine, your world will become new and the possibilities for your life, like those proclaimed for heaven itself, become as limitless as your imagination.


5 Responses to “The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason”

  1. 2:08 pm on April 19 2008, ponder said:

    “Reason and Emotions are the soul of the Universe…..on going by our continuous suffering.” rima masri


  2. 5:47 pm on March 11 2009, lynda said:

    I was reading an article the other day concerning how we humans require emotion to make good rational decisions. The embrace reason and emotion is to be whole person. There is no mystery in this, western society is out of touch with itself, as far as I can see. You might find Buddhism interesting as a religion.

  3. 9:38 pm on August 16 2009, RAGU YAMMANUR said:

    I am working on developing a non-philosophical, non-spititual, non-religious and scientic model of human nature and human interactions.


  4. 11:03 am on December 23 2010, Tony D said:

    The balance between emotion and reason has no reason to exist. All one needs to do is ponder the emotional disasters that exist in our world today. Good examples are the Muslim and other religious fundamentalist who make emotional judgments and perform their evil activities because they yield to their emotions. I don’t perceive nor can I conceive of reasoning and rationality having this inherent problem.

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