The intellect and emotions: making sense of life

Hey Matt,

Thanks for a great introduction. I’m going to keep my comments on the Preface itself to a minimum (you covered it really well), and instead share a couple of general introductory thoughts as well as responding really briefly to your post.

First, let’s talk motivation for doing this whole thing. We both want to know the truth and live by it, that’s a given. But from my perspective, the things that I believe are true bring a certain level of urgency. So [full disclosure to all readers – Matt already knows this] I desperately want you to become a Christian. In fact, I want anyone who’s not a Christian and who reads this blog to become a Christian. I think Christianity is true, and I think it’s the best way to live. I think it makes the best intellectual sense and the best emotional sense of the world, of the facts of history, and of my life. And as far as I’m concerned, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Two very different experiences of eternity hang in the balance. Your response to all this isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me; I have a lot of skin in the game. And even though you don’t share the same passion, it’s worth saying from the beginning that I totally have an agenda here. I’m unashamed of the end goal, and I hope it’s seen an expression of love. Penn Gillette, an avowed atheist, captured it well.

Second, a quick response to your comment about the place of emotion in all this: “emotional factors, and intuition in particular, are terrible things to rely on when drawing conclusions.” I agree with the main point you’re trying to make, and it’s a good one to make up-front: we’re looking to figure out what’s really true and really right, not just what feels true or right to me. Just because we don’t like the truth doesn’t stop it from being true. As the saying goes, emotions are a great servant but a terrible master.

But I also want to raise a side point that’s related: I’m not sure how easily we can separate our emotions and our intellects in all this. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we can be totally objective about something this impactful and important.

Aldous Huxley once said: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning—the Christian meaning, they insisted—of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.”

Huxley was a smart enough guy, but he admitted that his intellect followed his emotions—not the other way around—and that’s exactly how he wanted it. Humans have a great intellectual capacity (some more than others!), but we also have a great capacity to let our emotions influence our intellect, or to justify our desires and preferences intellectually. That’s what Huxley was describing, and maybe this is what’s driving Keller’s point about the emotional and cultural resonance of Christianity. I’m certain he’d never want debate about Christianity to be less than intellectual; but I think Keller would also argue (at least I know I would) that it’s always going to be more than intellectual. I’m not claiming that any of this favours atheism or Christianity right now; I’m just saying that our emotional and personal preferences may well shape the intellectual conclusions we reach. I suspect that’s a big part of why Keller’s book will address the intellect and the emotions, and I think it makes sense for us to value both.

Lastly, I liked Keller’s description of the hypothetical ‘truly secular state’, and I think it’s an apt description of what we hope this blog will achieve. Keller describes the kind of society he longs for like this: “a place where people who deeply differ nonetheless listen long and carefully before speaking. There people would avoid all strawmen and treat each other’s objections and doubts with respect and seriousness. They would stretch to understand the other side so well that their opponents could say, “You represent my position in a better and more compelling way than I can myself.” He then admits that such a space does not exist, but that he wants his book to be a small step in this direction.

It’s a great summary of what I hope this blog will be about.

One thought on “The intellect and emotions: making sense of life

  1. I think that even for religious people who are wholeheartedly following their faith, apathy still creeps in to decisions at time because of emotions. And on the other side of this, many people are religious largely for emotional reasons too.

    As far as agnostic and atheist reasons for non-belief go, I agree that a lot of people seem to leave religion for exactly that reason of gaining personal freedoms. But a lot are also very thoughtful and they would follow it if they saw reason to.

    I believe that we can never be fully aware of how our emotions, assumptions, and even some of the deep patterns built into our minds genetically are affecting our judgment. But we can limit that a lot too, for the better. One part of this is trying to notice our biases. Another part is being gentle with the emotional side of ourselves so that it works in a calm way and cooperates effectively with our rational side. This is true regardless of our beliefs. We could think of our emotions sort of like a child. When we become very rigid and impose rules on ourselves that ignore, resent or try to silence our emotional side, it doesn’t feel heard and chaotic feelings start to build up, until in the end that inner child is so loud and wild that it takes control…we start to make our choices impulsively and disregarding the voice of wisdom in our heads. But if we allow that wisdom voice to mediate between the rational and the emotional, finding a way to live deeply by our values while also acknowledging and satisfying our emotional needs in reasonable ways, then there’s going to be a lot more balance and cooperation between the different paets of the brain and body and theur various strengths. The value of this for truth seeking is that by connecting with and nurturing our emotional side in ways that fit with our ideas and values, we can reduce those emotions’ ability to override the entire process.

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