I had read an article a while back about the fact that political partisans mainly use emotional centers of the brain when analyzing statements and claims of various politicians. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” The title of the article states “Democrats and Republicans Both Adept at Ignoring Facts, Study Finds”
Ok this article clearly condemns these partisans when it comes to their political thinking. The underlying assumption we all hold is that if you are using the emotional part of your brain to draw conclusions instead of the reasoning parts then your conclusions will be unreliable. Is this just for politics? What about science, math, religion, or morals?
Well I don’t have all the answers or really the full answer on any of them. But I think it is quite clear when it comes to morals we say the opposite of politics. That is when people don’t primarily use emotional centers of the brain when drawing moral conclusions their conclusions are unreliable.
Where is the evidence? It is coming in droves thanks to the use of MRI scans of the brain. In particular when we compare the psychopaths brain with that of normal people. There have been numerous studies of psychopaths. Psychopaths are people who distinguish themselves in society by at times behaving horrendously immorally. It’s not only the murders, but also the extensive lying, and lack of guilt for their actions, that help separate them out. MRI studies have found that they lack certain emotions that normal people experience. It is not necessarily a complete lack of emotion but it is shown to be substantially diminished in test after test. (although it does appear they can turn on these emotions when they want)
However generally as a group psychopaths do not lack any ability to reason. In fact, they seem to use the reasoning portion of their brain more than normal people. So for example when psychaths were compared with normal people and asked to determine the emotional state of a protagonist they both were equally able to determine that person’s emotional state. But psychopath used reason where as normal people used more of their emotional brains.
The study stated in its abstract: “The results emphasize that although psychopathic patients show no deficits in reasoning about other people’s emotion if an explicit evaluation is demanded, they use divergent neural processing strategies that are related to more rational, outcome-oriented processes.” This article discusses this study and others.
There are other philosophers who have drawn similar conclusions: http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/PsychopathsFinal.pdf http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/mrvargas/Papers/VNFinal.pdf
One of the best known psychologists to draw this conclusion is Dr. Haidt. He published an article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”, 14 years ago. His thesis seems to be continually bolstered by later mri testing.
In the end I still maintain that reason and logic can play a part in moral decision making. But the empirical evidence is quite overwhelming that, for most of us, we are primarily basing our moral views on emotional mechanisms.
Why is this relevant to Christianity? Well mainly I think it is just interesting in it’s own right. But also if you have read my other blogs you will see there is a view held by some that our moral judgments are the result of reasoning processes just like the reasoning that brings us scientific advances. They argue that since our reasoning is a reliable mechanic to truth finding, we can rely on our “moral reasoning” for moral truth. Well as it turns out this idea of “moral reasoning” is for the most part a myth that science is debunking every day.
I would maintain that if naturalism is correct we shouldn’t think emotional responses will bring about truth beliefs in morality any more than it will bring about truth in politics. If however, you think God wrote the moral law on our hearts, then you have a good reason to trust your moral emotions. The fact that our moral views are driven by emotions fits quite well with Christian thought.