If only someone had said this to Stoic!Teenaged!Leah

I’m still at Rationality Camp, and I’ve noticed that a subset of classes all fall into a category of something I might call “Mitigating How Weird You Are.”  There are some people talking about body language, clothing style, and other ways to smooth your relations with other people that LessWrongers could probably do better.  I read Tom and Lorenzo, so I’ve got a pretty good data base to induct heuristics from.

The discussion in this genre I liked best so far was called Emotional API.  (An API is an Application Programming Interface — when Twitter lets people make third party apps, they release an API to developers so the app can talk to the Twitter software with capacities that go beyond the user interface).  The talk was about using your emotions as data, a kind of inside track to understanding and/or modifying your behavior.  It was a rebuke to the “Straw Vulcan” model of a strong rationalist — someone who can be confused, frightened, or defeated by emotion.

That wasn’t exactly my problem, but I did have strong Stoic tendencies when I was younger.  My tendency toward deontology made me very worried about being swayed by emotion instead of duty, so I relished any opportunity to practice disengaging from an emotional response.  (There was also an extent to which I liked Stoicism because most people found it hard, and I was equating effort and discipline with goodness).  Ultimately, it was just hard to believe that emotions were very useful.  They might be nice to experience, but they didn’t have a trustworthy signal to noise ratio.

I ended up moving on from this stance, but I still default to feeling a bit suspicious of strong feelings.  There were two comments during the lecture that I found quite helpful and think might have made an impression on younger!me.  I don’t think they would have changed my general disposition, but I think it would have made me thing more about strong emotions as something to be studied, not just withstood.

The first point the instructor made that resonated with me was that the limbic system is responding to different information than your more logical brain is analyzing, and it can parse its data faster.  This is part of what always made me suspicious; I was worried my passions could outrun my judgement.  But what I realized during the lecture was that, if I could access the analysis of the limbic system outside of my brain, I’d be interested in reviewing that data and factoring it into my decisions.  That meant I really ought to do more to integrate those instincts into my decision process, instead of quarantining them.

The other helpful comment was that it made sense that most of us had a shuddery reaction to needing to send all our cool, super abstract thoughts through such a buggy, antiquated piece of machinery for implementation.  The instructor reminded us that we all do most of our typing through QWERTY keyboards which are really not optimized for typing speed.  There might be a better way for us to interface with the world, but big, awesome ideas weren’t choked off or damaged by passing through this chokepoint.  It made much more sense to decide what parts of emotional instincts really needed guardrails than to assume a kludgy mechanism couldn’t be useful on net.  After all, a big, jerry-rigged mess seems as appropriate a description of my mind as a whole as my hindbrain.


I’m not sure how applicable this is to the general readership, but these reframings would have been a big help to me when I was an even-more-absolutist-than-now teen, and I figure I’m weird, but I’m not weird enough to be totally sui generis.


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  • Steve

    You might consider reading ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ & ‘The Righteous Mind’ both by Jonathan Haidt. There might be a bit of delving into political commentary, but he touches on a number of these points, especially with his ‘Elephant/Rider’ metaphor.

    • Aaron

      Or ‘Descartes’ Error’ by Anthony Damasio (who is cited in ‘Righteous Mind’ as as supporting evidence). Both are saying essentially the same thing via different methods…very interesting books.

  • Pieter

    What does to analyse “outside of my brain” mean? Is that something real?

    And do you mean by sending thoughts through your emotion-system that you basically judge your thought intuitively? Or do you mean something else?


    • Suzanne

      She’s saying that intuition, however illogical, is recognized as a command prerogative.

    • leahlibresco

      I actually meant, if I could receive this information outside myself (i.e. instead of getting signals from the way my hair was prickling, I was reading text on my iPhone) I would think of it as information worth having. But having it outside myself gives me a greater feeling of control over what I do with the data than when it’s being processed subconsciously.

  • deiseach

    I have troubles with this, because even today I still tend to reject any statement that starts off with “I feel…” as my instinctive (hah!) reaction to that is “I don’t want to know what you feel, tell me what you think and back up your case!”

    So yes, definitely need to do more work on being socially clued-in. As an aside, even though I hate it, people do seem to like sitting down and talking to me about all manner of things – the amount of little old ladies at bus stops who have started chatting to me about their families and their operations and so forth, you wouldn’t believe – so I must look sympathetic or friendly or something.

    • jenesaispas

      Must be the Holy Spirit!

      • Ted Seeber

        This response is less ridiculous than it might look on a newly-converted-to-Catholic’s blog. And since text is a particularly autistic media immune to transmitting sarcasm, it may even be significantly less sarcastic than intended.

        I’d suggest that deiseach stop talking and start listening. He might learn something new from people who are entirely random.

        • It is quite funny that you would suppose someone who receives the confidences of little old ladies at bus stops to be a “he”. Maybe you should “listen” better.

  • KC

    Your article got me thinking about something I had recently studied. Have you ever read what St. Thomas wrote about emotion or what he called the sensitive appetites? He said, “since the sensitive appetite can obey reason […] it belongs to the perfection of moral and human good, that the passions themselves also should be controlled by reason,” he also said that, “it belongs to the perfection of the moral good, that man should be moved unto the good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite.” This is important in the development of virtue where people, not only do and will the good, but they also enjoy moral goodness. These people are also more inclined toward moral goodness. However, vice can cause people to be more inclined to and enjoy what is morally wrong – I think this is where emotions are often given a bad rap. For this reason it is important for people to train their sensitive appetites (emotions) to follow the intellect. So emotion can be something useful for choosing the good, but like so many other things it has to be trained to desire the good.

    • grok87

      I’m not sure one can train one’s emotions to follow one’s intellect. That sounds wrong to me. They are a different part of ourselves that are not generally or not always going to behave as one’s intellect would want them to. They are going to do their own thing sometimes/often. But I do agree that one can try to train one’s emotions. They too are God’s creation and as we follow Jesus, we follow him both with our hearts and our minds. But sometimes our emotions lead and the intellect follows. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”

      • Oregon Catholic

        The will should be in the driver’s seat. Emotions shouldn’t be denied, they also shouldn’t be blindly followed. Denying our emotions or always relying on emotions makes us one dimensional. They are just one piece of information to consider. They may be either a good or a bad indicator of what to do. The better we know ourselves (being honest with ourselves) the better we know where our emotional imbalances or potential landmines are. Virtue is essentially right-will over emotions, and being in control of carnal feelings/urges – not letting them control us but not trying to deny they exist either. That can lead to mental illness.

      • Well, Stoicism can allow for a more nuanced idea of emotion than is commonly thought. Part of this is due to the confusion between passions — which is what the Stoics actually talk about — and emotions as we talk about them today. It is absolutely true that for the Stoics passions meant something more like emotions than like how we use passions today, but that doesn’t mean that all emotions or uses of that term are what the Stoics were against. Humean “calm passions” which he argued were required for reason would not be a problem for the Stoics.

        And then you can move on to Seneca, who I favour. He argues, essentially, that the feeling of the emotion isn’t wrong but that trusting it is. If the emotion hasn’t been vetted by reason then you shouldn’t trust it, and so you certainly shouldn’t blindly follow its advice. This fits in nicely with the Stoics’ ideas of conditioning responses to promote having the RIGHT emotions in these cases instead of incorrect ones.

        So, using emotions as data isn’t really a problem for the Stoics. The problem is that emotions do more than just provide information. They filter your perceptions and suggest actions. That filtering and those actions are, in fact, frequently incorrect. If you want to do the right thing, you really don’t want to just follow your emotions. We all know about the advice to, when you’re angry, to count to 10 before acting on what your anger is suggesting you do. Seneca tells a story of a military leader who had a soldier disappear and who had another soldier charged with his murder. Outraged, he ordered the “murderer” executed. However, the soldier who was purportedly murdered just happened to be on leave, and so returned. An officer, now knowing that the “murderer” was innocent, ordered the execution stopped. The leader, still enraged, ordered the execution continued and the officer disciplined for disobeying orders.

        Emotions aren’t reliable. They are, however, fast, which is one thing that I did want to maintain in considering Stoicism. Sometimes, you just have to act quickly. But the idea there, it seems to me, is to condition your emotional responses to kick off quickly and right most of the time, which still subordinates them to reason, and to always consider what your emotions are telling you in the light of reason if you have the time. Emotiions aren’t evil, but they aren’t reliable. You have to make them as reliable as you can, and trust them only when you have to.

        Note that under the Stoics instincts would likely come under a different category than emotions, although they’d still have to be checked for reliability.

        • Oops, this was meant to be a general and not a specific reply to KC. Sorry about that.

        • Oregon Catholic

          I’m only familiar with Stoicism in a superficial way. Based on your description the difference I can see between Catholicism and Stoicism when it comes to emotions is that Catholics say it’s OK to feel a certain way – feelings aren’t moral or immoral – but you don’t have to act on your feelings and shouldn’t act on them or nurse them if it leads you to do wrong. Stoicism says you should try to change your emotions to bring them in line with your intellect. Is that about right?

          Catholics define love as a matter of will, not of feelings. And ‘conditioning’ or attempting to change our feelings isn’t required nor do I think it would be considered a mentally healthy thing to do. Unhealthy emotional responses to stimuli can and do change over time however. The best way for that to happen is to give them only the attention and weight they deserve. But like naughty children, ignoring them, refusing to deal with them, or forcing them tends to only make them act out in inappropriate ways. I wonder if Stoics don’t suffer from a higher rate of depression.

      • KC

        I think that you are right that one cannot train their emotions to perfectly follow reason, however one can train their emotions to mostly or somewhat follow reason. Also, St. Thomas said, “the reason, in which resides the will, moves, by its command, the irascible and concupiscible powers, not, indeed, ‘by a despotic sovereignty,’ as a slave is moved by his master, but by a ‘royal and politic sovereignty,’ as free men are ruled by their governor, and can nevertheless act counter to his commands.” Emotions can be unreasonable, however, because of man’s intellect and will, he can – in a sense – reason with his emotions and lead them to desire what he has intellectually understood to be good. One can also train their emotions through some mortification (e.g., fasting, self denial, etc.). Another way that reason can control emotions is by avoiding the near occasion of immorality that would inflame emotions. For example, a drunk would control his emotional desire for alcohol by not going to a bar. Also, someone who does good, but is angry cannot be considered as good as one who does good and is happy about the good he does. Likewise, someone who does bad and is unhappy about it is not as evil as one who does evil and enjoys it. And when emotions lead one to act, his acts are either less moral/immoral, if at all, since morality is contingent on a human act actually taking place, which requires an act to actually be willed. So although emotions cannot be enslaved by the reason they can be trained – similar to a trained dog who will obey his master, at times more and other times less.

        • Zac

          Emotions (passions) are rational in another sense though: in that they respond consistently and coherently to perceived goods and evils. They are not random or irrational.
          Eg. desire is our natural response to a perceived good. Joy is our response to the good, when obtained. Love is our response to the good in and of itself. Show me a piece of cake and I will experience ‘love’, accompanied by ‘desire’, which culminates in ‘joy’ when I finally get the cake.

          But show me something ‘evil’ and I will instead experience ‘hate’ for the evil thing in and of itself (‘I hate pineapple on pizza’), ‘aversion’ to the evil when it is present, and ‘sorrow’ when the ‘evil’ cannot be averted.

          But this all hinges on whether we perceive goods and evils correctly or incorrectly.

        • grok87

          I get what you are saying and I like the Aquinas quote. I guess I’m not completely convinced though. I think a balanced approach is needed. Sometimes the intellect leads and emotions follow. And sometimes emotions lead and the intellect follows.
          One of the things I really like doing these days is praying the Divine Office:
          In particular the psalms. Now these were people who were in touch with their emotions on a very visceral level. Sometimes they prayed for God to smite their enemies and grind them into dust!
          Today’s Psalm 55 from the Office of Readings is another example:
          “O God, listen to my prayer, do not hide from my pleading,
          attend to me and reply; with my cares, I cannot rest.

          I tremble at the shouts of the foe, at the cries of the wicked;
          for they bring down evil upon me. They assail me with fury.

          My heart is stricken within me, death’s terror is on me,
          trembling and fear fall upon me and horror overwhelms me.”


  • Brandon B

    I’m still not entirely certain how to engage with my emotions when making decisions, but I know there’s useful information there. In particular, when “discerning” whether to go to law school (that is, trying to figure out what God thought about it, rather than just what I thought about it), I had a fair number of rational thoughts in favor of doing it, but also enough rational doubts that I could have stayed in indecision forever. However, once I felt “at peace” with going to law school, the process was over, and my decision was made.

    I guess the assumption (which I didn’t really analyze at the time) is that God was engaging with my emotions in a different way than he engages with my conscious reasoning. In my case, that turned out to be important, because my conscious reasoning often got caught up in “Well, I can’t predict the future, how do I know what’s best?”

  • grok87

    Hi Leah,
    IMHO today’s gospel is interestingly related to your idea about the two systems of knowledge, the rational brain and the limbic system (The first point the instructor made that resonated with me was that the limbic system is responding to different information than your more logical brain is analyzing, and it can parse its data faster. ).


    “The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Why do you speak to the crowd in parables?”
    He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven
    has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
    This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

    ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see.
    Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears,
    they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted
    and I heal them.’

    “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.
    Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it,
    and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

    Jesus’s parables are often intended to evoke an emotional response in his listeners. For example the parable of the prodigal son. And in the quote from Isaiah he makes reference to “the heart” and that those whose hearts are not well-ordered (“Gross is the heart of this people”) have trouble seeing and understanding God’s message (they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them.’)
    The other interesting quote with this connection between the two systems of knowing that I love is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”- indeed only the beginning.
    A recent interesting book on these two systems of knowing that is interesting is Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

  • Driveby commentor

    Most animals have emotions. This suggests that there is something valuable to survival in them because otherwise, they’d have been negatively selected against. Back when we were surrounded by predators in the wilds of Africa, listening to an emotion like fear and running away even before you had a reason to be afraid might have saved your life. Pain and sadness are the amygdala’s way of reminding us that something has been lost or damaged. Anger prepares us to fight for what’s important.
    Nowadays, most of us in the richer parts of the world are safe from predators (non-human ones at least) and we’ve learned to value reason and thinking things through above emotion.
    I have struggled with my emotions. I never wanted to been seen to cry; I felt it was a sign of ‘weakness’. But as I’ve got older, I’ve learned to value emotion. After all, without it we’d just be biological reasoning machines.
    It’s a delicate balance. Be ruled by your emotions too much and you might end up with a mood disorder or damage someone in a fit of anger. Ignore them and you miss out on valuable information, as you said, as well as cutting yourself off from the full experience of life.

    I enjoyed your post. It’s an interesting perspective.

  • Ray

    “(There was also an extent to which I liked Stoicism because most people found it hard, and I was equating effort and discipline with goodness). ”

    I think you still have this problem — and it explains your conversion. You put more weight on philosophical arguments from morality (despite the fact that many people more skilled in philosophy than you or I have remained unconvinced that they work), precisely because they are difficult. In contrast, the arguments for atheism are blindingly obvious. (Which I actually think makes them stronger.)

    You may not find it interesting, but “If someone claims that a supernatural event occurred, assume they are lying, repeating unfounded speculation, or were swindled by conjuring tricks” is an amazingly successful rule. (James Randi has staked a million dollars and his reputation on it, and even Catholics will admit that science wouldn’t work without the assumption of methodological naturalism.) Further, you can cloak it in as much metaphysical language as you like, but the miracles attributed to Jesus can be described in terms of their physical effects (e.g. an empty tomb), and when seen through this lens, they look exactly like the sort of thing that James Randi debunks.

    If your world view allows you to accept the miracle stories of Jesus on face value, based on the scanty evidence available today, and if you accept the Catholic doctrine that saints continue to perform miracles even today, how come none of these saints has collected Randi’s million dollars? It may not be a philosophically sophisticated objection, but it seems like something that needs to be answered before you can even start thinking about taking the more complicated philosophical arguments seriously. (p.s. no “I can’t perform miracles on demand” — that’s what the psychics and other fraudsters say, and besides there are plenty of unpredictable and rare events that can be scientifically studied, like supernovae and Earthquakes.)

  • Mitchell Porter

    I was thinking just the other day that Stoic Leah would have been more fun to know than Catholic Leah. The irony of the thought amused me – a stoic being more fun. But Stoic Leah hadn’t yet decided to mediate her relationship to reality through a human institution. For better and for worse, she would have been even more of an individual than Catholic Leah, with no moderation of her private philosophical extremism, and no commitments other than those which her own reason dictated. Is it romanticism to think that she also would have been nobler and wiser, even if her successor has broader intellectual horizons?

    • leahlibresco

      She sure liked people less! Stoic!Leah would have enjoyed knowing you less than Catholic!Leah might.

      • Ted Seeber

        I’ve been a Cradle Catholic, an atheist, a Buddhist, and a revert. Through it all, only the atheism got me down- because I lost faith in God.

        Faith in man is something I’ve never had, and I am constantly proven right in my cynicism.

      • Mitchell Porter

        Stoic!Madonna says that life is a mystery and everyone must stand alone. But I put my faith in heroic!Leah.

  • Timbot2000

    Might I also recommend Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s study on the role of affectivity in reasoning and knowledge “The Heart”

  • jenesaispas

    I’m in my late teens but I guess I’m in the more common category of “it would be so much better if I had better reasoning skills and less or equal use of my emotions”. However if I met a lion I would rather (of course) go with my emotions/the FOF response than reasoning it out.
    Anyway, I think, emotion and reasoning go together like a horse and carriage.

    • Brandon B

      Don’t worry, the human brain keeps developing usually into our mid-twenties, so you can become both more rational AND more emotionally mature.

      • jenesaispas

        Thanks, maybe I should hibernate;)

  • Ted Seeber

    I would say your comments above apply to somewhere around 1:38 people in the general population. They call it autism now and consider it to be a mental illness.

    • Someone

      Lots of people who don’t have autism have trouble handling strong emotions. Anger management is big business, people struggle with grief and guilt, jealousy and many other emotions. The attempt to find a balance between your emotional and your logical brain has been part of the human condition for a very long time.

      • Ted Seeber

        I said they now label it as such; not that I agree with the label. When autism was 5:1000 it was a lot better defined than now when it is 1:38 and used more for bigotry than for treatment.

      • Grok87


  • laurenleigh

    So Leah, did emotions influence your conversion in any way? For example, was there ever a moment that you “felt” God, or was the decision purely intellectual?