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Allan Powell: The problems with 'thinking from the gut' should be obvious

August 02, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

In a very animated speech given in early May of 2012, Glenn Beck, a conservative political analyst, made a plea for people to work their way through intellectual puzzles by “relying on the message we get from the gut.”

If this was a lone opinion, we could dismiss it and consider the source. However, it appears in popular usage enough to be a concern to those with some respect for reason.

“Thinking with our gut” is a course of action for lazy minds waiting for an accident to happen. When the inevitable price has to be paid in the catastrophies that follow, they blame everybody but themselves. They would have been much better served if, early in life, they had cultivated the habit of pausing to assess each situation in a deliberate way. While this is easier said than done, this capability — the power to think and reason — is what elevates us over all other creatures.

We do not need a course in Freudian psychiatry to observe a constant struggle is going on within each person between some very raw emotions, a sense of what is appropriate and the ability to detect the reality of the situation. We can quickly see that each person has a different perception and ability to cope with that tripartite makeup in the human psyche.

Given that volatile mix, it would seem obvious not to encourage people to lean on the most unstable element in their personality for guidance. The gut is devoid of rational controls and moral choices.

We live in a culture dominated by hedonism. It is a youth culture that demands speed, noise, action, explosion and a dread for silence and contemplation.

Immediate gratification is the rule and this encourages quick — “from the gut” — responses. All of this smothers the will to pause and think of long-term plans.

Often I have pondered over the fact that I was raised in a relative degree of poverty. We knew that it was folly to ask for a nickel for a piece of candy. The gadgetry in the hands of the average child today was unknown and unimagined during our childhood.

When we wanted even the most inexpensive treat, we had to scrounge around to find any menial job available to earn small change.

Poverty helps focus the mind and we all found ways to survive. In a way, this has been a blessing in disguise. We were forced to plan, struggle, work hard (and regularly), and hope for better times.

Not everyone is overawed by the power and beauty of reason. Western culture has had a variety of dominate values. From the Greeks, we inherit a respect for reason and should thank Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and others for their gifts of the mind.

Later, we experienced what has been called the age of “faith” in which religious institutions emphasized belief without evidence. Still later, science came into its own with a call for empirical methods and reason in tandem.

With such progress and demonstrated success, it is a wonder that anyone in their right senses would give Glenn Beck even a distant glance.

Life is a tough run even if we use thought and reason and try hard to follow Socrates who called for an “examined” life. To “rely on the message we get from the gut” is sheer folly.

If Mr. Beck were honest, he would admit that some of his biggest mistakes were made when he did not rationally set the costs of his action against the benefits as a means to weigh the merits of his options.

If David Hume is right, and “reason is a slave to passion,” we would be wise to use all of the reason we can muster to check the invasive power of the passions.

It may turn out in the end that the heart does not have a mind of its own.

The German philosopher, Gotthold Lessing, had it right when he wrote, “A man’s worth does not consist in the truth any one man may happen to have in his position, or thinks he has in his position, but in the honest endeavor he has brought to bear in his attempt to discover the truth. For it is not by the position of truth but by the search for the truth that his powers are enlarged, which alone go to make for his ever increasing perfection.”


Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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