Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Not Between Two Horses


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I was looking for something I have previously written on Hume and the Reason vs. Desire dichotomy and I did indeed find a section on Hume from my essay: Evolution, Altruism and Ethics, and whilst it is relevant it's also very 'academic' and embedded in a very different context.

The basic idea is that Hume challenged a dichotomy put most eloquently by Plato story of Phaedrus the charioteer. Phaedrus represents the soul of a man who is constantly pulled by two forces in different directions. One horse named reason, and the other named passion.

However, a closer examination of human decision making reveals that nothing can be done without a desire / passion to do so. Reason only has the power to examine how effective one's course of action may be in achieving their desire. If I desire to eat a bar of chocolate then eating this chocolate shaped poison would be a very unreasonable thing to do...

So why does the dichotomy exist? Well it helps to explain why we take courses of action that are at times completely irrational. A heat of the moment, a loss of willpower, a feeling of our reason being subjugated by our writhing selfish passions. How can we feel guilty after such an action if we only do that which we desire?

The answer is simply that a person can want more than one thing at once, even completely contradictory things. I can want a healthy, stable and monogamous relationship with my wife, but I can also want to have a quickie with my secretary on my lunch break. Both of these are desires, but one seems to be more informed by reason than the other. This is quite accurate and has to do with the dichotomy of the human brain.

Consider the fact that reason is a recent addition to the cognition of mammals. Underneath it in the primal brain is instincts and more complex instincts. Reason is an abstraction device that allows us to think of things that don’t actually exist, they are long term, non-concrete usually idealistic kinds of things.

How can you fulfil the desire of a healthy, stable, monogamous relationship with your wife? You can’t really, it’s a never-ending desire, the only moments of gratification probably come at anniversary and all the times you thought about but didn’t go through doing something else.

Immediately gratify, sensuous and emotionally driven desires on the other hand are very easily and quickly satisfied. These are powerful forces, forces of nature or forces of selfishness or Satan if you subscribe the religious/cultural mythology Phaedrus has gotten us into. If you exalt reason as the pinnacle of man’s achievements of nature and the natural world, the paragon of animals etc. then it is no wonder you feel a great deal of guilt when you follow these ‘base’ desires.

I don’t think willpower is what the issue is here, we’re talking about a reprogramming of how you view your desires. Faced with the choice of fulfilling the immediate desire and the never-ending desire it’s a contest with a serious handicap.

I think to even up the match a little you need to replace your never-ending desires with concrete ones. If you want a healthy marriage the feeling of having not done something to destroy is nowhere near good enough. In doing this you are focusing on the thing you wish to avoid and fixating on your own weaknesses. Instead think of actions you can do right now that fulfil your abstract desire. Write an e-mail, buy flowers, write a poem whatever…

Only by giving your abstract desires a concrete failure are you giving yourself a real choice. A choice between conflicting passions not between two horses.

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Blogger Kayelene Murphy said...

I agree with the notion that decision making is is dualistic process, and that reason and desire are not mutually exclusive in this process. That's kind of the gist that I was using in my post, only, I symbolised this process with Satan vs God, which is a common theme in the religious description of morality (which is also a dualistic process of abstract decision making. I hadn't heard of Plato's story of Phaedrus though.

2/08/2006 10:29:00 PM  

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