Category Archives: America

Emotions, Public Reasoning and Logic

Disagreements about hot button topics are not only about ideas. Even more basically they are disagreements about emotions. In particular, about the emotional stance one should adopt to changes in society.

There are many policy differences between Trump and Hilary Clinton. But at root the disagreement is about emotional comportment regarding recent decades, and especially the Obama years. Were they good or bad? Is anger about them justified, or were they a move in the right direction? Or about the older days: Is it good we are leaving them behind as Clinton suggests, or should we reclaim them as Trump suggests?

Trump is not an intellectual. He doesn’t need to be to get his points across, because those points are mainly one of mood – of how one feels about this or that aspect of our society.  The power and grip of his points don’t require he defend them theoretically – maybe someone later will come along who will do that better. But for now his grip over his supporters comes from him not budging from his emotional state. What looks petulant to his opponents, looks strong to his supporters. Same with the Clinton, or the Bernie Sanders supporters, or anyone.

Our public discourse is not effective right now. It’s because before people can talk to each other, they need to acknowledge each other’s emotional states. Need to acknowledge that they have different emotional responses, before jumping into whether those responses are good or bad. If I can’t say to the other person, “Yes, I understand how you feel“, and he can’t say that back to me, then we are not going to be reason together.

Hence a primary condition for public reason is emotional equanimity. The ability to hold conflicting emotions in one’s consciousness without letting one’s own emotional response overwhelm one.

My emotional response to global warming is anxiety and concern. Most Trump supporters’ response is lack of concern and a sense they are being hoodwinked – global warming as just a ploy to steam roll them. If a dialogue is to be possible, and before we can get to a debate about the scientific facts, this difference in emotional outlooks has to be dealt with.

It is natural to bemoan the sorry state of debates on cable news. The screaming and the preening and posturing, instead of focusing on the ideas. But the cable news debates are not meant to be intellectual debates – even if the cable stations falsely, in their confusion, pitch them as such. Rather, those “debates” are useful and productive in bringing out the emotional disagreements that underlie the intellectual disagreements.

Where the cable news debates fail isn’t in upholding the standards of intellectual debate. They fail rather in the way a counselor fails to help a couple listen to each other during a fight. Were Ross and Rachel (from the TV show Friends) really on a break when Ross cheated on Rachel? The argument about the fact of the matter goes nowhere because it doesn’t address the core emotional disagreement, and each doesn’t acknowledge the other’s feelings.

The problem with cable news debates isn’t that they are not intellectual enough. If that were the problem, then presumably if a Trump supporter and critic were more like academics, then the problem would be solved. But the problem won’t be solved! For the academics are faced with the same situation.

In academic philosophy, what should be the emotional response to the direction of the profession? For some the right response is alarm, anger and nostalgia for the past that is being lost. For others it is a measured optimism that things are getting better. For still others it is anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal that the profession is still rooted in the past status quo. Here are a couple of recent examples of these emotional battles (one at Daily Nous, and another at the Electric Agora that involved me, where I got caught up in my emotions).

In a way, the academic philosophy battles are puzzling. They involve philosophy professors, graduate students and ex academics, all of whom probably have taken introduction to logic at some point, and some even teach it. Given that logic is the study of reasoning, why are people who studied it nonetheless not able to reason effectively about their disagreements regarding the profession?

The cause lies in the difference between emotional equanimity and setting aside emotions. Most introduction to logic courses do the latter – they treat reasoning as if it doesn’t concern emotions at all. As if reasoning consists simply in making inferences correctly, and being able to spot logical fallacies, and where we don’t have to worry about emotions – those pesky “irrational” forces of the mind. I am no expert in logic, ancient or modern. But this aemotional way of conceiving reasoning does seem to have its roots in  the modern treatment of logic as basically the same kind of inquiry as mathematics.

I took intro logic at Cornell. And the next level logic course, covering Godel’s theorems, at Harvard. I could follow the second level logic class enough to begin to appreciate the strange, self-referential beauty of Godel’s theorem. But mastering it was beyond me. It was clear there are vast realms of reasoning of which I could have only the dimmest sense – like my understanding of most areas of physics or math. Godel, Tarski, Kripke: they are geniuses in a field that is important and fundamental to human life.

But that importance isn’t related to fostering better public reasoning.

In most intro logic courses it is left mysterious why humans fall for logical fallacies. But it is obvious why. Most of the time in daily life the inability to appreciate another’s argument isn’t rooted in the intrinsic difficulties of the topic being discussed (people scream at each other about global warming not because global warming science is hard, though as a science it must be). Rather, it’s because we fail to appreciate the outlook of someone with a different emotional comportment than ours.

It is part of having an emotional comportment on a topic that any other emotional response to that topic feels irrational. In this sense, emotions are more like pains than like ideas. If I just entertain the idea “my leg is hurting”, then I can entertain the opposite idea just as easily. But if I am in pain and my leg hurts, then I can’t in that moment entertain the opposite idea. That defeats the point of the pain, which is to get me to act to help my body. Pain is experienced as calling for action; not for deliberation about whether the pain is real.

Emotions are similar. Especially strong, potent emotions. If I feel threatened by the other person, the emotional state of feeling threatened is experienced as calling for the action of shutting down that person, or distancing myself from them. Just as when in pain the knife which is thrust into my leg is experienced as to be removed, so too in the midst of emotions like anxiety or feeling threatened or betrayed the ideas of the person who is threatening is experiences as to be rejected. As not meeting the standards of rationality.

Hence often in public debates which go nowhere the conversation devolves into each side marking its boundaries, and drawing the other side as occupying the irrational camp. Knowledge of logical fallacies doesn’t help avoid this self-protective mode of interaction. For that knowledge itself just gets used as a weapon: it is the other side which is making all the fallacies, and my side which is resolutely seeing the right inferences.

If there is to be progress in the midst of such distrust, then the first condition will have to be for the participants to cultivate equanimity. To be able to observe their own emotions without jumping to action as the emotion calls for it – and from the space of such stillness, to be able to see the other person’s emotions as plausible, or at any rate, as where that person just happens to be, and so where, if I want to talk to them, where I have to begin with them.

This kind of cultivation of equanimity is not taught in our introduction to logic classes. But it should be, if the aim is to help those intro students reason better with their fellow citizens. It would be logic which concerns not just the relation between propositions, but a logic which concerns the interactions of people in a complex world.

Does this reduce logic then to therapy or counseling? No. Cultivating equanimity is not just therapy. It is something else very close to the hearts of philosophers: wisdom. Like philosophy courses in general, the introduction to logic courses have become separated from the concept of wisdom.

If we want to foster better conversations, we need to bring the concepts of rationality and wisdom back together in order to deal with our emotions.

Fatherhood, Spirituality and America

In May I am about to become a father for the first time. As I prepare for that, many thoughts pass through my mind. But one line of thought in particular is close to my heart. This new phase of my life is also the end of an old phase.

That old phase began when I was 16, when the idea of being a monk, in spirit if not in actual practice, gained a powerful foothold in me. I was convinced the middle class life of the American dream – presumably the reason my family moved here – was not for me. Instead I was captivated by the image of a Shankara or a Vivekananda dedicating themselves to a spiritual life. I assumed that was my life – or ought to be. I uneasily accepted the scenic privileges of Cornell and the prestige of Harvard, feeling uncertain whether I really belonged there. At college wide faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, while faculty debated how much of a pay increase we should get, I argued we should take a salary cut to highlight the spiritual vocation of academia which I feared was being lost. My colleagues looked at me with bemused annoyance, rightly thinking I didn’t have a mortgage and kids to worry about.

Why was I so drawn to this idea of a monk? It’s an interesting question. I never actually even visited a monastery, or do a retreat at one. It was the concept that held me enthralled, and the actual practice left me unmoved.

If asked at the time to explain the importance of the monk idea for me, I would have said: “I want to dedicate my life to God. I want to help raise society to a higher level of consciousness. If I am married and have kids, I will be too focused on my local concerns to think about the bigger picture. Marriage and kids are good. But at least some people ought to make humanity their family. That is what I want.”

This view marked a deep disagreement between myself and my father. He was my first philosophical interlocutor, my first philosophy teacher. In his youth he too had pondered taking the path of a monk, but – as was his style – once he decided to pursue marriage and the middle class life, he committed to it fully. Without feeling that in any way he had to sacrifice his spiritual life. By the time of our conversations, he had become convinced that in fact being married was the best way of being spiritual, since he felt it challenged one’s emotions in a way that a Buddha or a Vivekananda didn’t have to experience.

There is of course no such thing as the path of spirituality, as if being married or not determines how far one gets. I see now that my father also didn’t think it mattered too much. His vehemence about the importance of marriage and kids to spirituality was probably more a reflection of his love as a father for me. He must have wondered, “Why is my son so resistant to the middle class life? What is the pain behind that?”

I have wondered that too. I got married ten years ago. A couple of years ago I bought a house in the suburbs. Now I am about to be a father. The middle class life I resisted from ages 16 to 31, now I have fully embraced at 41. I feel my father’s experience is now my own. This progression into American suburbia doesn’t make me feel less spiritual. To the contrary, it makes me feel more spiritual, closer to God, confident that this is the path God has for me.

So, psychologically and sociologically, why did I resist the American middle class life so much? That too when my father didn’t?

When we immigrated to America in 1988, my father was 47 years old. His formative experiences were in India, and he came here fully formed. He was proud to be an American, and he identified fully with his new country. But culturally, he was very much Indian – in his food, his family habits, his cultural references, and ultimately, the spiritual texts he loved the most (The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads).

I was 11 when I came here. I was a boisterious fun loving kid. I got along with all of my extended family. But equally importantly, I had a thriving social life in India. Some of my most vivid memories are playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood park from end of the school day in the afternoon till sunset. I still can remember that feeling of being with friends who looked and talked like me, whose parents knew and talked to each other, whose lives were linked through the Telugu culture of Hyderabad, and of Indian culture more generally. Age 11 was the last time I experienced as a kid a seamless connection between my family life and the broader society life.

Once in America, in middle school and high school, there was a split between my family life and the school life; between how I spent my weekends with my extended family and how my friends spent their weekends, going out to dinners, movies and baseball games. Even as I remembered my cricket playing days and how central they were to my life and identity in India, I could feel it was all part of a hazy past as I stepped on to the baseball field and felt just a little out of step with the ease with which my friends played the game.

When I looked to the broader American society, and the history I learnt of America in school, my teenage mind saw a country that was mainly white and black, and Latino, and perhaps East Asian. In each of these cases, there was the assumption of the privileges of the immigrants from Europe contrasted with the bigotry faced by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. I didn’t know then of the bigotry faced by Jews, the Irish, and others in America.

But one thing seemed clear: I wasn’t like any of these people. I wasn’t white but I was also not black. My parents were not rich, but not poor either. We lived in Westchester County, one of the richest counties in America, and without really yearning for it, I ended up at Ivy League schools and then at a tenure-track job on the Philadelphia Main Line, one of the centers of old, East Coast wealth.

As a sixteen year old I looked to the broader society of my country and asked myself, “Where is my identity here, not just in terms of a job and what kind of car I want to drive, but culturally and ethically? Who am I as an American? Who can I be? Where do I belong in a land of whites and blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, of the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the Japanese who were interned during WWII?” In response I was faced mainly with silence. Blankness. Uncertainty.

What I wanted was a cohesive blend of my inner Indian life and outer American life. Where was the connecting line between the spiritual, meaningful life I was awakening to at 16 while reading the Gita and the outer American life where I was taking the SATs and watching Mets games?

Somewhere in my unconscious the link was made to how Americans thought with admiration of India since the 60s: as a land of spirituality. As I discovered that sprituality was the center of my parents’ lives, I also discovered that Indian spirituality was a dominant theme in American life since the 1960s. It was a connecting point – a thread which bound together the disparate parts of my life. 

My growth into a public identity in America became merged with having a public, spiritual identity. The way my friends or family members wanted to be baseball players or rock stars or politicians or computer scientists or doctors, I wanted to be a monk – a synthesis of India and America in which I could be whole. What I wanted first and foremost was a career or simply a way to make money, but rather a way to find myself as the American that I am.

A good part of my 20s, when I was grad school, I actually yearned for the cultural, institutional and spiritual turmoil of the 60s. I felt that in that turmoil was the root of my American identity, and that the humdrum American life of the 80s and 90s had somehow covered over the soil within which the seed of my growth was planted.

Identifying with the 60s in this way meant being basically counter-culture and counter-establishment. To look upon suburban life as comatose conformism, and even career seeking undergraduates or academics as not caring about the bigger issues of life. Ironically, the way I sought to find a home in America through the framework of the 60s actually kept me alienated from America. 

This is coming to a close now. I no longer feel the need to understand myself as an American through the categories of the 60s, with its sharp dichotomy of hippy spiritualists versus the ticky-tack house suburbanites. I am free now to find my own mode of being an American, just as I am, in my own time and in my own life. 

I had assumed that wanting to be a monk was a reflection of my spiritual yearning. But I see now that it was more a reflection of my sociological yearning. It was understandable, but now the phase of seeking that kind of a sociological grounding for my life is over. There is no more a question of what will my life as an American be. That life is here. I am living it now. I am an American of this kind – the kind that I am, and that I am being.

Freed of the link to this sociological need, now my spiritual life guides me as I am, without worry about how I ought to be spiritual. Just as I am an American as I am, so too I am spiritual where I am and how I am, with the job and the home and the wife and the kid to be that I have.

Embracing myself wholly as I am, and embracing this moment and each moment as it is, that is the sociological and also the spiritual foundation of my life. It doesn’t depend on which decade I am living through, or which country I am in, or where my home is, whether I have kids, or if I embrace a middle-class life.

There is a freedom and a life full of meaning in each moment, waiting to be found in each moment. With that sense of openness and freedom, I am looking forward to being a father.