Created by WS-71, 2015

Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge?


This essay discusses issues associated with emotions and knowledge and how they are related, specifically with the aim to establish, if we can trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge or not.

The following analysis will be conducted using the information collected through the appropriate books and from own experience, by contrasting History and Natural Sciences, not forgetting the relationship between the ways of knowledge, emotion and reason.

The following terms are defined for the purpose of this essay: Emotions can be categorized into negative emotions, such as pain, sadness, fear and shock, and into positive emotions such as happiness, curiosity and joy. “… they make us preoccupied with some things and oblivious to others. Emotions draw on a personal and interested perspective.” (Department of Philosophy, 1997). We know that we have emotions because we feel them, this happens due to personal introspection which provides us access to our own feelings. Here, emotions are also defined as a result of our senses, for example when someone gives you a compliment (you heard it – part of body senses), you become happy (emotion), thus your senses sent a message to your brain and the result is an emotion. On the other hand, the term knowledge refers to information gotten through own experience that one believes to be true and can also be justified.

This question already limits us to believe, that we can trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge to a certain extent, thus is it really that way? The answer to it is somehow ambiguous and leaves the reader with two possible answers: yes or no. If yes, is there a pre-defined time to believe emotions (e.g. from Monday to Friday / or only in situations of negative/positive emotions) or are they always reliable?

From about 400 B.C. onwards, philosophers explained and enlightened the world. During this time, a group of Milesian philosophers in from a Greek colony of Elea in Southern Italy believed in the existence of a single basic substance, as the source of all things on Earth. Relating this thought to our question, these views can be adopted:

Parmenides (Milesian philosopher) was a rationalist; constructing his thoughts relying on his reason rather than on his senses (not emotional). He believed that “our senses give us an incorrect picture of the world, a picture that does not tally with our reason.” (Gaarder, 1995) In other words Parmenides suggests that emotions do not have any connection with reason. Parmenides did not believe in anything he saw, and what he saw he called a form of perceptual illusion. Our emotions as the result of our senses, cannot consequently give us a right picture/view of the world around us in any way in the point of view of Parmenides. He goes further by saying, with his reason, that things cannot change (though he saw that things changed with his senses) - once “motion and change are impossible” (Gaarder, 1995) our sensory perceptions must therefore be unreliable. In some way his thought was not completely absurd. How could they transform a stone in something completely different? In this way, emotions cannot be a reliable base to pursue knowledge. By means of this information, the essay question must be rejected.

Notwithstanding, Heraclitus (also one of the Melisian philosophers of that time), was against Parmenides and believed that everything changes and our sensory perceptions are reliable as a consequence. Two different types of persons, one a rationalist and the other emotional, with completely different beliefs and perspectives, brought Empedodes (another Milesian philosopher, 490-430 B.C) to deeply analyze these two theories and to reach a conclusion.

On that account, he agreed with Parmenides in one of his premises that nothing changes arguing that “Water cannot change. Pure water will continue to be pure water.” (Gaarder, 1995). On the other hand, he also agreed with Heraclitus in his second premise, that our sensory senses are reliable. This way he needed to conclude, that the problem of the two was the basic idea from which both build up their theories - that a single basic substance created everything on Earth. Based on the quote “The source of nature cannot possibly be one single “element”” (Gaarder, 1995), emotions can not only be the single base of Knowledge, there needs to be more basis. Hereby we can trust our emotions, though we need to take into account other basis in the pursuit of knowledge. Only when the other entire bases that build up the motivation to pursue knowledge are balanced and trustable in one’s own perspective, someone can acquire knowledge. As it is with colors, if we have yellow, red, blue and black we can obtain dozens of other different colors. By means of this information, it is possible to conclude, that the question is true and that we should always trust emotions.

From about the 21st Century on, data defined the world and so the scientific method and scientifically proven changes on earth became more credible for most people than the past discoveries based on observation and reason without the scientific material to prove it. This way, approaching our question scientifically, the following was the result:

In our present time, we tend to make up distinctions between emotion and reason, encapsulating them into complete dualistic accounts of human nature. We think that emotional actions are irrational impulses that prevent us to think rationally and to pursue knowledge.

Some think this way because we are human beings with five senses (touch, taste, sight, sound and smell); these get in contact with reasons which later translate the message into knowledge. With these thoughts of events occurring inside our minds, we fall into the tendency to believe, that reason can completely operate alone and that emotions are only there to help reason to work properly. However, there is existent evidence to prove that this is not the case.

As mentioned before, the hundreds of rumors about feelings and emotions spreading through our society led people to rely on reason to make decisions most of the time. When we are confronted with a car accident, the first thing we learn in driving school is to carefully assess our options and slowly process the situation so we can help (Emotional actions are not preferred rather a rational attitude is recommended). Despite of this, in the last few years, as Lehrer wrote in 2012, scientists suggested that the “unconscious brain is better suited for difficult tasks than the conscious brain” and that our emotions are classified as unreliable by society (generalizing) but might, in some situations, be the most efficient until today. To prove that point, some experiments have been carried out. Taking the example of the lab of Michael Phalm at Columbia Business School, in which undergraduates were asked to predict some outcomes on who would win the BCS championship game. As a result, the persons that had trusted their feelings where 41 percent right in predicting the winner, whereas the ones who chose to be more rational (Spock-like cognition), were only 24 percent right.

In this case two “possible bases” for pursuing knowledge were tested. The ones who were more rational had fewer right answers so it is possible to say, that if, relating to a real life situation, the ones who would be more emotional would obtain more knowledge because their answer was right in most cases (emotional oracle effect). By means of this information, it is clear to say that the question has some fundaments of truth. Though it is important to include that the people already had some knowledge of the subject matter before the experiment, although they thought they knew nothing, the brain knew something. This way we can only rely on our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge, according to Pham, when there is already an initial basis of knowledge. In this case the knowledge acquired would not be new, thus only an improvement of the existent knowledge.

To conclude this analysis, a concrete answer to the essay question cannot be provided since it depends of one’s perspective and way of reacting in different situations to know when they should trust their emotions in the way to pursue knowledge. As an intentional analysis of distinct areas of knowledge has been provided, with the ambition to show that in a generalized form, our society can be divided into two groups of people, the ones more susceptible to humanities (as we define has a tool for history) and the others with more tendency to science, it is possible to conclude that even between these areas there are some that will follow rationalist-philosophers which do not believe in any form of knowledge through emotions, others that follow a philosopher who believes that emotion is part of one essential base to pursue knowledge and that emotions should hereby only be trusted when all the bases that complete knowledge are balanced. And even others who believe in scientific-experiments, that we can only trust knowledge if there is already an existing base of beforehand knowledge.

All in all, though it is not possible to answer in which time intervals it is possible to trust our emotions, it can be said that the question itself can be already accepted as having limited the reader already into believing, that we can trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge to a certain extent in the two areas studied: History and Natural Sciences.

References:

Alchin, N. (2006). History and The Natural Sciences. In: Alchin, N Theory of Knowledge. 2nd ed. London: Hodder Education. pp. 188-202; 14-28.

Bick, M. Rotenberg, L. Dombrowski, E. (2007). Theory of knowledge (course companion). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 49-83; 187-220.

Gaarder, J. (1995). The Myths. In: Gaarder, J and Moller, P Sophie's World. Great Gritain: Phonix House. pp. 18-32.

Lehrer, J. (2012). Are emotions prophetic?. Available: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/are-emotions-prophetic/. Last accessed 28.01.2013.

Palmer, J. (2012). Parmenides. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parmenides/. Last accessed 27.01.2013.