Tuesday, April 10, 2012

the passions

Wow, it’s been ages since anyone has posted here.

I flip flop between which two different perspectives on the passions I find more interesting: generally Stoic and generally Cartesian.

(Point of clarification: I think they’re both false when measured against human experience, but that’s consistent with being fascinated with them. I’m fascinated by false things all the time.)

For the Stoics, passion was assimilated to a type of false belief. The goal of a good life is to eliminate them from the cognitive architecture, because it’s always better to have fewer false beliefs. (My psychologist friends would here press me to define “better.”)

For Descartes, the passions are classes of divinely engineered response functions that, when operating at peak efficiency, move us to act appropriately given the appropriate conditions. They are like the trigger mechanisms for what V.S. Ramachandran and S. Blakeslee call the “vigilant self.” The goal is not to get rid of them. Rather, the goal is to bring them under the authority of reason. What does it mean for them to be under the authority of reason? For Descartes it means that they are under the control of the will. Perhaps someone can dispute this, but I don’t know how else to interpret what it means for reason to be sovereign in each and every token of a joint action between reason and passion. I say this because of the connection Descartes draws to disinterest or disengagement. In every particular decision tree we encounter, reason tells us what we ought to prefer (pace Hume), yet we should be, strictly speaking in terms of our passions, detached from the actual outcome. Reason then informs the will to prefer noble decision branch X and tells the passions, “Sic ‘em!” Thus is born a fully rational, intentional action. (Okay, these last two sentences are clearly rhetorical overkill.)

At the end of the day, I find both of these proposals both fascinating and hopelessly naïve. The former turns humans into cyborgs. The latter retains the passions but at the (huge) cost of a homuncular view of the self.

But I also think they’re two of the coolest views on the block. Why are all the cool views false?

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