Tag Archives: intellect

Angels on a pinhead, and other philosophical games

It’s good to ask questions, to ponder, imagine, daydream, reinvent. Most human achievement comes out of thinking, while acts born of stupidity and ignorance are frequently not a good thing. But does this make all questions equally valid or useful? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking questions will not make you into a wise old philosopher of the future, unless the questions you throw yourself into have some capacity to foster wisdom within you. Any question about some facet of your life, will have some use. Why do I do this? Could I do differently? Better? Less? More? What makes me happy? Is this working for me? You can poke around such issues at length to good effect. And subjects like politics where you have scope to contribute to a process makes sense as well. Many other potential examples spring to mind but the commonality is that seeking answers engages us with life in a meaningful way. Even when we can’t hope to find answers – what happens after death, is there a god? In the process of asking we consider the implications and explore how we want to live.

There are some questions that do not give us this. Imagine, for example, spending hours of dedicated thought creating what you imagine to be the perfect educational system. Now imagine that you do not work in education, are childless, and are not a politician. You have no intention of sharing your vision with anyone. It was an intellectual exercise. It may indeed have given your mind a workout. However, untested as it is, never offered up for criticism, never explored in practice, it sits inside your mind as ‘proof’ of an intellectual superiority that could be sadly lacking. It’s noticeable that ivory tower academics at least tend to talk to each other, and argue with each other. The issue of the angels on the pinhead was one people debated. At the very least that gives it an interesting social component.

Then there are the questions that cannot be answered well because they are loaded. “Why is my product better than anyone else’s?” “Why are you losers worshipping hedges and fields?” A question based on misunderstanding is not one that can lead directly to good answers. Asking good questions is a skill in its own right. Are you shutting down the options, or enabling genuine feedback? Is the question reinforcing an assumption? If we ask why children who drink cola do better at school we haven’t actually established that children who drink cola do better at school. It’s a crude example. In our own heads, we may be asking “Why am I such a failure?” “Why am I always wrong?” “Why does nobody love me?” without questioning the premise of the question.

There are questions that serve to divide and irritate and which cannot give us much that is productive. The vast majority of exchanges I have ever seen between atheists and theists would fall straight into this category. When the point of asking questions is not to share knowledge but to establish superiority, you’re never going to find good answers. The only good answer in that scenario is to escape from it.

Abstract thought can be interesting, and can lead to concrete consequences. However, I think it’s important to question how much time we pour into intangibles, hypothticals and imaginaries as opposed to real life. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? What on earth difference does that make? Yet people will debate such questions for hours. If we had no big questions needed brain time, then the intellectual exercise would be justification enough. While we have disease, hunger, crime and extinctions, Superman and Batman need to shuffle their overly muscled arses down to the back end of the queue.

What we think about matters. The inner worlds we create inform who we are and help shape our life choices. If you pour hours into working out how best to lead your imaginary army across the Roman Empire, again, that is part of who you are. If you poured just a little bit of that time into contemplating how to get on better with the people around you, how to reduce your consumption levels, or help a local charity, you’d be an entirely different sort of person. Making the hypotheticals important while the real is allowed to suffer, is not, I think, a very good life choice.

Some lines of questioning will bring you insight, soul and a richer life. Some will enable you to twiddle your brain cells. The latter may make you feel clever (you did conquer Rome, after all!) and important (your design for a new education system would surely have solved everything!) but they don’t make you real. Ask how much good you can get out of today, and let the angels on the pinheads take care of themselves.


Rational Female

This is an answer to Alison’s feedback on Facebook feminism.

I have no idea how long my own culture and those similar to it have been tending to view rationality as masculine and emotion as feminine. I think it’s an idea that is receding in influence, a bit, but we’ve a way to go. It’s a bloody stupid idea. It reinforces ideas of gender difference, underpins all those arguments that for so long kept women out the workplace, politics and anywhere else involving power. It’s also a thought form that encourages us to raise our sons not to cry, or acknowledge pain. Anger is about the only emotion some men feel allowed, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Plenty of very serious, sensible, rational people who I have met along the way firmly believe that emotion itself is irrational. The only rational thing to do with emotion, is to squash it, Mr Spok style. I have had plenty of encounters with both men and women where the expression of emotion has been treated as evidence of my irrationality. I have also had plenty of people tell me to my face that I’m cold hearted, unfeeling, and an ice queen for not expressing my feelings in a suitably feminine way. I’ve been told that when I do occasionally show how I feel, others consider this suspect and assume I am just trying to manipulate them. I can’t win.

Everything that happens inside our heads, be it ‘intellectual’ or ‘feeling’ involves the same brain, the same brain chemistry, the same little electrical impulses. Emotions involve hormones, physiological reactions created by all our history of evolution. They are not separate and ‘other’ but intrinsic to being human. Most importantly, emotion is not irrational. Emotion can be discussed, explored, contemplated, understood, harnessed, celebrated. We have emotional intelligence. This desire to separate things out goes with a long history of dualism. Mind and body. Body and soul. Introvert and extrovert. Stable and neurotic. Thinking and feeling. These are methods for putting people in boxes and positioning them on charts: Human creations that are arbitrary in many ways, and reduce our sense of our own natures.

I am a stable, rational, introverted thinking, feeling unstable, irrational extrovert. Most people are.

It is the fear of our emotional selves that makes us comfortable calling it ‘irrational’. If we label feelings as irrational, we can invalidate them and never have to think about what they mean. Depression isn’t a reflection of all that is wrong in the world. Grief and fear are not reactions to abuse. Anger is not a reaction to oppression. That’s a very convenient dismissal that does us far more harm than good. Our emotions are reactions to life as we experience it. If we ignore our own, innate reactions, we ignore what’s happening to us. We live in denial, powerless to make any kind of meaningful change. People who placidly accept may look rational and pragmatic, but they are also far easier to control than one who protests. People who cry are a challenge to those who do not want to engage with anything. People who are enraged to the point of taking action do not necessarily uphold the iniquities of the status quo.

The irrational repression of our emotional lives keeps us prisoner. The irrational belief that emotions are silly makes us weak. The idea that to be rational and able to think in a logical way is unfeminine, is just another way of disempowering ourselves. To be fully human is to be both thinking and feeling. It is to be able to think logically about the implications of our feelings and to be able to respond with emotional insight to intellectual ideas.

Autumn commented on one of my justice blogs that many people are in prison because they just did something, in an unpremeditated way. Crimes of uncontrolled emotion, born in the moment. People who are, I assume, unable to think about their feelings and who consequently have no control over their own actions once their emotions are engaged, or once alcohol or similar has made that easier. Being overwhelmed by emotion should never be an excuse for a dishonourable action. But until we collectively embrace the idea of being able to handle emotion rationally, the idea that an emotion can ‘make us’ do something, will hold sway. And until we can recognise the validity of what our emotions tell us, we remain easily led by anyone who wants to bully us whilst mocking us for the irrationality of our feeling hurt by this.