Monday, April 13, 2009

A skirmish with an old enemy

Today, for whatever reason, I've been thinking about the divide between the rational and the emotional. We're raised from birth with this idea of the two halves of our mind, the left brain and the right brain, the analytical and the creative, and so on. This has several implications, the most serious being that the various range of human mental activities can be classified as one or another, or perhaps on a sliding scale between the two. Painting, singing, writing fiction, "self-expression" sit solidly on one side; solving puzzles, conducting experiments, programming, learning facts belong largely to the other. From this it follows that talent in one is linked to lack of talent in the other; overly analytical people can't make or appreciate art, overly creative people can't do math, etc., and if they can, then clearly these are two separate talents, a case of unusual gift in not one but two unrelated areas.

At this point, of course, I point dramatically and shout "objection!" I've done my best not to make a straw man of this argument, but it still looks like it's full of holes to me. In what sense are these two categories different? At the bottom level, thought is just brain chemistry; at the top level, it's impossible to disentangle "rational thought" from "emotion". As a computer scientist, I can assure you that plenty of emotion, and yes, even creativity goes into solving problems classified as technical; as an amateur sociologist, I can purport that the appreciation of arts such as music, literature, and video games is inextricably linked to analyzing the material in terms of one's social context. Fields like music and architecture are sometimes brought up as rare cases where the two tendencies intersect; I think this is the tip of a broader recognition that the two are intermingled in *every* area of thought.

I think I'll leave it at that for now; I have a tendency to rant, especially on this topic. Rest assured, dualism, we *will* meet again!


  1. FYI, this is not what people typically mean when they use the word "dualism" in the context of philosophy of mind - it usually refers to the mind/body problem.

  2. Yeah, I know. I was thinking less about Cartesian dualism and more about the tendency of people to think of things in terms of two separate, opposed categories. (Yes, that's a very broad definition of dualism.) That's the "old enemy" I was referring to.