Self Control

This post is in response to Caprice.

It is also a continuation The Calculus of Decisions.

I want to comment on a couple of themes that have been appearing on this blog. The first, of course, is active philosophy. How can our thoughts influence our actions in a positive way? This is the goal. This is what we are trying to achieve through this film and in our daily lives.

I think that we have all realized through reflections that building a cohesive, progressive, and active philosophy is difficult both individually and socially. All of the below posts have presented frustration, confusion, and a general lack of understanding as to what degree of control humans have over their actions: Caprice, Faith, Knowledge, Existential Crisis, Frustration, Restricted Infinite Freedom, and Change.

It is obvious that a certain (sense of) control is necessary for converting thoughts to actions. Thus as a starting point for achieving goals it is worth answering the question:

How much control do we have and how are we going to use what amount of control we do have to control the way we make decisions?

The more I think about and research this topic and the more I seem to conclude a difficult, yet manageable reality; I think that Freud is correct in saying that the subconscious dominates the conscious. This is similar to Wikipedia quote on Spinoza’s philosophy from caprice;, “he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion.”

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to bundle reason with the conscious mind and emotion with the subconscious mind.

I think that it is very important to realize both the qualitative and quantitative values of both rational and emotional thinking. I thought about this after watching Stephen Colbert’s interview with Jonah Lehrer, who is the author of “How we decide.”

Although I have never read the book myself, I thought the general conclusion (as concluded by Lehrer in the short interview) of the book was very useful and poignant to active philosophy. His general conclusion is that it is necessary that we use both rational and emotional decision making.

To be fair, I would say that all decision making is a combination of both rational and emotional thinking (i.e. no decision is either purely rational or purely emotional). However, it is often the case that one type of thinking dominates certain decisions. The key to optimizing a decision making strategy is to know when each of your decision making modes (rational and emotional) is appropriate. Depending on the situation, we can tailor our thought process to allow either component of our decision to dominate the decision (so that the decision is optimized). Lehrer gives two examples of each type of thought being useful.

He did research on people who are essentially incapable of experiencing emotion have a very difficult time with basic human functions like grocery shopping. Since their rational mind dominates every decision, they are incapable of making simple decisions. He cited that many of these people will have trouble choosing the type of cereal at the store, because of their in ability to assign an emotional value to a particular taste or kind of cereal. Clearly a purely rational, emotionless thought process is limited.

On the other hand, Lehrer points out, that decisions made by pilots (especially in emergency situations) must not be based on fear, but rather calculated rationality. Pilots actually undergo extensive fear training to help condition their minds to ignore fear during rationally demanding situations. Thus he shows that one, the subconscious does not (completely) dominate the conscious.

Although Freud contends that the subconscious dominates the conscious and Spinoza, “utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion,” I don’t think that decision making is so black and white.

There does exist self control.

Although reason maybe not be able to “defeat” emotion it certainly can make meaningful and active contributions to one’s day to day decisions. The goal therefore is to develop a strategy for decision making that is based on self control. Self control does not mean that you “control” your subconscious mind; it means that you understand when it is appropriate to focus on your rational mind versus letting your emotional side make important decisions.

Emotional decisions are more influenced by “uncontrolable things” like physiology, physical situation, and circumstance. It seems that “quick thinking” his heavily influence by subconscious thinking, because it picks up on so much more of the environment. They generally are better suited for short term decisions. However, on some level it is possible to communicate with and understand one’s emotional side, so that it does not constantly dominate one’s decision making process, yet is used when appropriate.

Secondly, I believe that the rational thought process is something that can be strengthened like a muscle. One can use education, experience, and thoughts to help build a rational foundation from which to construct a rational thought process. Thus by actively strengthening this center in our brain’s we can help tailor our decisions making process to be more acute and relevant to the situation at hand.

-The emotional/subconscious mind more heavily influences our actions than does the rational/conscious mind.
-Both play important roles in the decision making process.
-We have less control of it, it is possible to “improve” our emotional thought processes.
-We have more control of our rational thought processes, it is helpful to exercise this part of out brain’s so that we can maximize its utility.
-Yet again it seems like the middle path provides the most dynamic and relevant solution.


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4 Responses to Self Control

  1. deadondres says:

    This will be a fruitful avenue for future discussion.

  2. billythekid says:

    I think so too.

  3. Pingback: Baruch Spinoza, Part I - or, Don’t Blame God for Religion « Active Philosophy

  4. Pingback: Caprice - Part II « Active Philosophy

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