There’s an essay in today’s New York Times by a philosopher named Robert Burton on how we all seek meaning in life, and how this relates to our reliance on reason. Early in the essay, he writes, “a visceral sense of meaning in one’s life is an involuntary mental state that, like joy or disgust, is independent from and resistant to the best of arguments.”
What a remarkable claim! If it’s not grounded in reason, your sense of meaning is just a gut feeling, something you produce involuntarily. Burton goes all in: “Reason provides an after-the-fact explanation for moral decisions that are preceded by inherently reflexive positive or negative feelings.” It’s just a short step to the old arguments about how free will is an illusion—which in fact is where he goes.
The flaw here is assuming that the mind is nothing more than a machine for generating rational arguments. Interfere with the workings of the machine, and you get sub-optimal performance. A sense of meaning is caused by one of those malfunctions. It’s philosophically uninteresting.
What’s missing here is a sense that there’s more to the workings of the mind than reason on the one hand and gut feelings on the other. It reminds me of the recent kid’s movie Inside Out, where we are introduced to a twelve-year old’s mind and find anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and joy.
Is that it? What about loyalty, compassion, love, kindness? To name a few.
But I’m not trying to push a particular psychology. My point is that philosophy sells itself short when it becomes the noble defender of reason keeping the emotions and other nasty visceral feelings at bay. Philosophy is about who we are and what makes us tick. It has its own ways of asking those questions that have nothing to do with it’s kid sister, psychology. If it buys into a kind of simple-minded either/or way of thinking, it misses its calling.