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rationality and emotions - Adarsh Badri

Emotions, Rationality, and Descartes’ Error

In his Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio discusses the role of emotions in rationality, presenting the case of Phineas P. Cage.

The case of Phineas Gage in the summer of 1848 was so strange that the daily tabloids ran news for days in New England. Gage worked for the Rutland Burlington Railroad and was responsible for the group laying rail track.

One not-so-fine afternoon, when Gage was working with gunpowder, accidental fire struck his left cheek. The fire pierces through the left eye, traverses the front part of his brain, and exits from the top of his head. However, that incident did not kill Gage—miraculously still, it did not even harm his rational facet of the brain and his decision-making ability.

Gage had lost an eye, but he talked rationally. He was “willing to answer questions” directed by his physician, Dr John M. Harlow. He even went back to work. He was as rational in his decision-making ability as earlier.

Phineas Gage and the Emotions Factory

However, there was something amiss about Phineas Gage. He had grown profane towards women, calling them out in foul language. Once a gentleman and well-behaved worker, Gage was now callous and could care less about the future.

After the accident, Phineas Gage was no more the same old Phineas Gage. He had lost the ability to observe previously acquired social norms and rules of societal behaviour.

Connection Between Brain, Mind, and Body

This story tells us more about ourselves, our brains, our mind, and body. It tells us that there is much more to rationality—or the rational aspect of our brain—to make us who we are. It tells us that there is something more to us than just the reason for us to be social animals.

Gage’s example tells us that “something in the brain was concerned specifically with unique human properties, among them the ability to anticipate the future”. Since his death and the subsequent efforts at the preservation of his head skull, Gage has become a case study for neuroscientists and neurobiologists for centuries.

emotions and rationality

For them, the bigger question was: what prompted the erratic behaviour in Gage?

Antonio Damasio and the Emotions Turn

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist of repute, has some answers for us. His book, Descartes’ Error, published in 1994, presents a case about the interconnectedness of emotions and rationality. His thesis rests on the notion that “certain aspects of the process of emotion and feelings are indispensable for rationality.”

They point us in the right direction while making decisions. Emotions assist us with predicting “an uncertain future and planning our actions accordingly”—which Gage had unfortunately lost. Feelings serve “as internal guides” that help us “communicate to others signals that can also guide them”.

Damasio suggests that feelings provide a powerful influence on how our reason gets shaped. These emotions are “interwoven with [systems] which regulate the body”, enabling a human’s proper functioning. The reason is a brain’s function, but the brain also has a particular emotional regulation mechanism which guides it.

Therefore, rationality, emotions and the human body are interwoven. They exist in dependence on the other. One can partially argue that the accident in Gage’s case had affected his emotional functioning of the brain, which caused him to lose his ability to be social.

Emotions and Rationality in Living Beings

But why is this information relevant to us?

In human societies, rationality and emotions have been largely viewed as antithetical. We are often told that you need to be less emotional to make rational decisions. If emotions drive us, then we are most definitely bound to fail. Emotions blur our vision.

Leaders are advised not to be swayed by their emotional instincts but by reason. What explains this aversion towards emotional thinking? We must tread towards philosophy to gain an insight into this.

Rene Descartes and Rationality

Rene Descartes, a 16th-century French philosopher of science, split our understanding of the mind from the brain and body. He dissociated brain and body as if they were two different things. While the body experiences emotions, the brain calculates reason.

Descartes wrote in Latin, “Cogito ergo sum”, translated to English as “I think therefore I am.”

This suggests that “thinking” or the “awareness of thing” is the “real substrate of being”. Thinking, for Descartes, was an activity separate from the body, as it was merely the brain’s doing.

Damasio calls this “abysmal separation between body and mind”, Descartes’ Error. However, the Cartesian split of mind and body pervades scientific and social science research.

Damasio notes that, as humans, we evolved through consciousness. In another of his book, The Feeling of What Happens, published in 1999, Damasio proposes a three-layered theory of consciousness. These three layers are protoself, core consciousness, and extended consciousness.

I Feel, Therefore I am

Damasio argues that consciousness relies on emotion, feeling, and feeling a feeling. I feel, therefore I am. In Descartes’ Error, Damasio argues, with consciousness came the mind. Then, the thinking. After that, the ability to communicate and organise languages.

With this logic, one can argue that the being (our existence) first came, then the thinking (mind). But both are not disjunct as Descartes had once claimed.

Photo by Nik on Unsplash

When someone tells us, “follow your heart” or “go with your gut”, one may wonder what they mean. Sometimes, we may want logical responses to such questions. But Damasio tells us that those suggestions of following one’s heart may have a point.

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

Damasio proposes the somatic marker hypothesis (SMH), which argues that emotions have an active role (consciously or unconsciously affecting) in decision-making by creating biomarkers known as somatic markers. These somatic markers refer to the changes our body and brain experience while causing an emotion as a response to an external or imaginary environment.

Somatic markers are changes in muscle tone, heartbeat, endocrine activity, changes in posture, and facial expression. These somatic markers help us understand the embodied nature of emotions and rational decision-making.

Conclusion: Emotions and Rationality

Damasio, however, cautions us: “I do not believe that knowledge about feelings should make us less inclined to empirical verification. I only see that greater knowledge about the physiology of emotion and feeling should make us more aware of the pitfalls of scientific observation.”

Damasio’s assessment of the interconnectedness of emotions and rationality enables us to relook at the role of emotions in our socialisation and the persistent rational decision-making capacity. This particular view of emotions can further enhance our understanding of the world around us. As researchers, if we escape Descartes’ Error, we will better incorporate the role of emotions in our society’s structure.

Further Reading:



Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio.

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Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio.

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3 thoughts on “Emotions, Rationality, and Descartes’ Error”

  1. The Topic of History and how to properly understand a Liberal Arts history education.

    The topic of history, believe it or not, in and of itself does not interest me as much as employing history to learn aggadic mussar. History in this context functions as a precedent to better understand the present-day circumstances. The victory of assimilated Roman Statute Law, the result of the Rambam Civil War, highly interests me. The past dead, it cannot change. But learning from the past to change how a person can perceive the present – a key idea of mussar according to Rav Nemuraskii my Rav, his memory a blessing.

    For example: The United Nations now seeks to condemn the Jewish State over Samaria/West Bank. The General Assembly, it seems to me, resembles Founding Fathers and their organization of Congress, with its Representatives of the different 50 States. Nothing more destructive to a people than – Civil War. Therefore, as a law of political science: First Law (Something like Isaac Asimov’s 3 basic laws of robotics. This fictional work beginning with I Robot written in 1942 profoundly impacted my psyche.), all government leaders: their Prime Directive (Star Trek), to prevent the outbreak of Civil War within their country.

    The Book of Maccabees tells the story of a Jewish Civil War, fought in conjunction with a revolt against the Syrian Greek empire. What war strategy did Judah Maccabee employ against the Syrian Greeks? Judah Maccabbee endeavored to promote Civil War within the Syrian Greek kingdom. This tactic served the cause of the Jewish revolt quite well. Later Jews would fight two disastrous revolts against Imperial Rome. The problems and most basic contradictions of the Book of Acts caused me to reach the conclusion that the star: Apostle Paul, of that show served as an agent provocateur sent Rabban Gamaliel II, to undermine the influence of Xtianity among the Jews in Damascus and promote a Monotheistic propaganda in Rome which likewise undermined the rule of Caesar as the son of God. The Book of Acts, mentions that Paul learned under Rabban Gamaliel – the Nasi of the Great Sanhedrin.

    My studies at Texas A&M made a focus upon the subject of Civil Wars throughout history. This my focus, studied the Russian Civil War fought out between the opposing leaders of Leon Troskii and Josef Stalin. Troskii developed a political theory known as the Continuous Revolution. Stalin developed a counter theory known as Communism in One Country. Troskii served in the role of Eisenhower in WWII, during the Civil War fought between the Reds and the Whites. Troskii an excellent general but a terrible politician. Stalin, mediocre at best as a military leader, but a virtuoso of sadistic Machiavellian diplomacy & politics.

    Important to remember that Italy like Germany did not unify into a nation till the late 19th Century. The Republics of Italy compare to the ancient Greek Republics or City States. These warring Italian ‘city states’, they first developed the idea of allied states sending ambassadors to other designated Italian city states. This Italian political innovation has profoundly influenced and shaped how present day nation states conduct foreign policy at an ambassadorial level.

    The Star Trek movie the Wrath of Kahn, Spok observed that Kahn limited his tactics to a 2 dimensional frame of reference. Kirk employed the Z dimension, got under and behind Kahn’s warship, and destroyed his enemy. The study of history for me compares to the depth tactics Kirk employed to defeat Kahn. My Russian history teacher at A&M, emphasized this very approach methodology of how to study history. This methodology, in Hebrew: sh’itta, directly influenced how I learned the Talmud and enabled me to break out of the statute law box, that had jailed Jewish Talmudic scholars for some 1000 years. Post the Rambam Civil War, all Jewish scholarship on the Talmud ceased to study the Talmud as common law.

    At Texas A&M, developed a political theory of revolutions which I call shattering the ethical containment force. Observed that the French, Russian, Nazi, and Iranian revolutions all share an identical common denominator/צד משותף in Hebrew. These revolutionaries did not just obliterate the government leadership, they equally obliterated the moral authority of the church. The Catholic church, replaced with the Church of Reason in France; atheism replaced the Greek Orthodox Church in Russia, the Nazis destroyed Parliamentary Democracy together with the Judao-Xtian traditions; the fall of the Shah of Iran came in conjunction with the rejection of modern Western European social cultures and customs.

    Another observation, the 2nd verse in Chapter One Genesis: all these societies exploded into chaos and anarchy. The collapse of one society quickly spread to other countries in the region. Troskii’s political theory known as the Permanent Revolution. The Arab Spring in our own times supports this political revolutionary theory. Civil War has spread from Lebanon, to Egypt, to Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya.

    Another observation, when a society collapses into chaos and anarchy (1:2 בראשית/Genesis), other countries jump into the conflict. Examples: the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, to the Syrian civil war today. Other countries jump into the political chaotic collapse of a society like flies attracted to fresh cow manure. This depth analysis of history, serves to understand the interests of European states which promote the TWO STATE SOLUTION in the Israeli Arab/Balestinian\ local dispute, conducted in the UN General Assembly right now.

    Interesting that the current Biden Administration invests 100s of billions of dollars in the local Russian/Ukraine border dispute. Second Law: nations confronted with internal divisions and conflict prioritize foreign policy over domestic policy. From my perspective sitting in Israel, American society, highly volatile and unstable. News has degenerated into opinion piece attacks, together with irrational ad hominem denunciations and condemnations of political leaders & personalities. The slogan Let’s Go Brandon serves as a direct example of the descent of American society into chaos and anarchy.

    This stream of consciousness style of writing compares to Jame Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The Talmud too employs this style of writing. Rav Nemuraskii spoke in Yiddish to describe it, as haltn glezl\holding cup. His ability to teach utterly amazes me to this day. When I first met Rav Nemuraskii, I spoke little Hebrew and virtually no Yiddish. He spoke no English at all. Yet within a few days I understood his instruction. Imagine that! Have never met any other teacher who can teach complicated ideas while speaking in a foreign language and yet the listener can understand!

    Rav Nemuraskii hands down a great Rav. He studied under Rabbi Shalom Eliashiev, the halachic posek/decider of Ashkenazi Jewry. A tradition in the Yeshiva world, the Chief Rabbi, in this case Rabbi Eliashiev, picks the best student to clean his shul before Shabbat. Rabbi Eliashiev had the whole of Jerusalem Yeshivot to choose from, and he chose me. Later, after getting married, erev Yom Kippur, when hundreds approached Rabbi Eliashiev for a brokah/blessing, I too approached the Rabbi. He stopped and requested that I give him a ברכה! Cleaned that shul every Yom Sheshee/ 6th day\ prior to getting married for 7 years. Rabbi Eliashiev’s two sons and myself would discuss questions on the Talmud which I introduced. Both sons danced at my wedding.

    The best student of Rabbi Eliashiv and I got into a Talmudic debate one day. I opened with a difficulty on the Baali Tosafot’s commentary on the Gemarah of Eruvin. The Gemarah: Rav Ashi, one of the final redactors of the Shas Bavli, in a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yose HaGelili. (The rule that whenever Rabbi Akiva – father of the פרדס Pardes logic system which explains the Oral Torah – debates with another lone rabbi, that the halacha follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiva.)

    Yet in this case Rav Ashi violated the general rule and ruled that the halacha follows the opinion of Rabbi Yose HaGelili. The grandchildren of Rashi – known as the Baali Tosafot – debated this contradiction and could not explain how Rav Ashi switched the halachic ruling in favor of Rabbi Yose HaGelili! This problem I publicly debated with the Top talmid of Rabbi Eliashiv.

    Rav Nemuraskii, who had studied the whole of the Shas Bavli with Rabbi Eliashiv 8 times, had taught me a trump card, not taught today in the Yeshiva world. The Yeshiva world, stuck in the box thinking of Roman statute law since the disaster of the Rambam Civil War. In Hebrew the term ירידות הדורות/descending generations describes the victory of Statute Law over Jewish Common Law. The interpretation placed upon this abstract term ירידות הדורות: domino effect. The Rambam’s statute law codification, it appears to me, produced a devastating ירידות הדורות. Rav Nemuraskii required that I learn the Aramaic Targum/translation of the Chumash/5 Books of the Written Torah known as Uziel. The Yeshiva world today does not study this Primary Source of Chumash Aggaditah.

    The fact that the Talmud splits on the axis Halachic and Aggaditic discussions. Would have to learn the whole of the Shas Bavli some 18 times before the realization hit me; the sages of the Talmud read the stories within the T’NaCH as aggadic mussar stories and NOT history stories. This concept of Aggadita views history as mussar applicable to the present-day situations of living, rather than past events. This sharp distinction of perspective, it separates the two opposing ways Man can view and understand the world.

    I answered the difficulty of Rav Ashi switching the halacha away from the opinion expressed by Rabbi Akiva to that of Rabbi Yosi, which the Baali Tosafot could not understand nor explain, by saying that the Baali Tosafot did not have access to the Targum Uziel. I showed that Rabbi Uziel, the top talmid of Hillel the Elder, that he too favored the halacha as expressed by Rabbi Yosi. Argued that Rav Ashi saw the Targum Uziel and therefore switched the halachic ruling in favor of Rabbi Yosi. Because this dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yosi also included Rabbi Uziel! Never again would the top talmid of Rabbi Eliashiv consent to debate me in front of the Shul again. A baali t’shuva kid from Texas had cleaned the floor of Rabbi Eliashiv’s shul.

    The proposed TWO STATE SOLUTION which the EU and UN seeks to ram down the throat of Israel. It ignores the required population transfer of some 1 million Jews from Samara. My moving company moved families out of Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. This decision negated property legally acquired through contracts. It uprooted some 5000 families. And I watched in horror as the nation came to the verge of Civil War over this decision by Sharon and carried out by Olmert. Not the first time that Israel stood on the brink of Civil War. The murder/assassination of Rabin too took Israel to the brink of social chaos, anarchy and organized violence.

    The factorial difference between the forced withdrawal of 5000 families to that of 1000000 people, does it not strike you that not any Government Leader or any News organization across Europe, Russia, and the US, not even one, ever addresses the possibility of Israel falling into its own “Arab Spring“; consequent to the population transfer required to accomplish a 2-state solution. Never addressed the attempts by foreign powers, the least of which the UN General Assembly and ICC International court, that foreign states like France and Britain, can determine the borders and Capital City of the Jewish UN mandate protectorate?!

    Israel, the only “member” of the UN not recognized by the UN as a member state of the region of countries known as the Middle East. No other UN member excluded recognition as part of their region of nation states. The UN General Assembly passed the now infamous: Zionism is Racism. Yet the UN exclusion of Israel as a country of the Middle East, not a single ‘Great Power’/Security Council nations, all of which promotes the 2-state solution, denounces this UN travesty as racist?!

    1. Agree, this is partly due to our own desire to remain rational. It can only be possible when you reject that emotions do cause reasoning in humans. This absolutely is false.

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