Sentiment and reason

Next week’s The New Yorker (January 17) has an article by David Brooks, What the science of human nature can teach us:  It’s actually is is an excerpt from his forthcoming book which is primarily about education, according to his description.   The excerpt, however, reads like a sequel to his 2001 Bobos in Paradise with the new upper class now described as the “Composure Class.”  The thrust of the piece is that contemporary neuroscience and evolutionary psychology tell us that human nature is not so much rational as “sentimental,” as in the Humean meaning of “sentimental.” (Brooks describes it so in his live chat today at Ask the Author Live: David Brooks on the Composure Class.) His primary point is that our connectedness – our social nature – is more fundamental than our rational nature.

But if we see sentiment and reason as dichotomous we may be in trouble and this is something that’s perhaps a flaw in my previous post.  There I say that a certain rhetoric “pushes us” away from reason. I think it might be clearer to say that as well as befuddling reason, the sort of confusion such rhetoric causes also undermines real sentiment.  Though I am not wild about David Brooks politics and his I think there are problems with some of the science that he uses (see below*), what I did like in this article was the interplay or, maybe even, looping that takes place between the rational and the emotional. 

And this brings me to Obama’s speech last night and back to the issues of the previous post.  The speech was a good one and it did several things that I think are very important.  First, he pointed out that we should refrain from belief when we do not have the evidence: “For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”  Secondly, he called for civility, without which we cannot have rational discourse.  “And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” (Quoted from the transcript on The Washington Post website.)  He combined rationality and sentiment – we want to be connected to each other and be a community and to do so we need to recognize what our goals are and how to achieve them.  But to do that we have to put aside false feeling and convictions that are not grounded in reason.  

*One particular example that stuck out for me was that he buys the evolutionary psychology story about women being pickier about who they have sex with because of the need to have a mate who sticks around to help with the child-rearing. There is an empirically equivalent story that has women being promiscuous in order to rope as many males as possible into a community of caregivers all of whom have some reason to think the child might be their. One might argue that the second explanation doesn’t jibe with the pickiness of contemporary women, but the natural response there is to point out that social factors and changed circumstances (modern society is not Pleistocene society).

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