I am currently reading a landmark book on the importance of emotions on rational thinking. “Descartes’ error” was written way back in 1994, but the ideas within are very new to me. Unfortunately, the writing style makes some of the ideas very hard to grasp, but those that do slip into my lumbering mind are inspirational.
The most recent of these is a concept called ‘somatic marking’; the tagging of factors in decision making with an emotional weighting. His illustrative example is well chosen – as a business man, would you take a new, lucrative business deal with someone who is an arch-enemy of a close friend? If you were to use rational thinking without emotional weighting, you would not be able to come to a clear conclusion because you are comparing very different consequences – the value of the new business to your company and the potential damage to your relationship.
Your emotions may initially draw you to visualise the impact to your friend if you were to take the deal. If this yields a somatic marker of enough weight – if you foresee too much social fallout – you may stop right there, and not even bother to look at the alternative benefit to your business. You would rationalise that your friendship was more important than the money. But it would be an emotional rather than cognitive decision, for the simple matter that you did not even start to make a comparison of outcomes.
The reason that the mind uses emotions to guide thinking and decision making is that it supplies a very efficient means of convergence to a resolution. Necessarily, it can also compromise the quality of decisions made, but humans work on a statistical basis – we take the economical route that emotions enable with a view to also minimising the risk of making a bad decision. We balance economy with quality of resolution.
With this in the back of my mind, I awoke this morning with the realisation that this concept could be applied to, and help clarify another matter that I had been thinking deeply about. I was able to combine two very different matters.
This other matter was a forthcoming discussion I am due to have with a Christian friend about God. The application of somatic marking slotted right into my line of argument, as you will see.
The starting point is the title of this article – that one of the Bible’s 10 commandments advocates that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – a simple, self-evident and powerful message. So when we encounter this moral rule, we generate a somatic marker – the emotion we attach to the indisputable nature of this plea is very strong. Just as in the book example above, in most situations, it is so powerful that it arrests further thinking. Very powerful messages are statistically so likely to be correct that we take the risk and think no more.
But I do like to think more. So I reworded the commandment to make its message tighter and more revealing :
“Avoid action if it will result in the unnecessary and premature death of another human.”
By introducing the word ‘action’, I provide a stepping stone to the key to my argument – that the following should be equally valid :
“Avoid inaction if it will result in the unnecessary and premature death of another human.”
If we look at the life and impact of Jesus, the claimed son of God, on earth, we see that he spread the message of this and the other commandments. He also ‘walked the talk’ – he did indeed stop to care for those suffering, and he did perform miracles, such is the restoration of sight in a blind man.
But his life on earth was short, and the subsequent 2,000 years has been a much longer time of course. In that time, the world has continued to be fraught with suffering far in excess of blindness. Tsunamis wipe out thousands in a matter of minutes. Diseases decimate the lives of millions. And the point here, as you may be realising, is that there is precious little evidence that God has carried on performing miracles and helping those who suffer. He is claimed to be infinitely powerful and compassionate, yet fails miserably by His inaction.
However you may describe God, with the above argument in mind, I cannot rationally subscribe to the belief that God is good and thereby worthy of worship. To the contrary, with powers that infinitely exceed all the medics and carers on the planet, he is surely guilty of reckless negligence and disinterest.