Nov 7, 2012
I think it is possible to think in an emotionally engaged way that doesn’t contradict logic, and to think in a logical way that does not contradict emotional insight. I also think it is possible to move fluidly between these two modes of thinking, allowing us to form thoughts that combine analytic and empathetic modes of understanding. You can see that in great speeches and great writing. This is wisdom—the difficult trick of interweaving these two modes of thought.
The trade-off between analytic and empathetic thinking is particularly important when it comes to religion. It has been shown in a number of recent high-profile studies that people who think more analytically tend to believe less in God. But that is only half the story. We also need to ask: What draws us to spiritual beliefs? We are soon to submit a couple of papers, each with numerous studies, which show that compassion for others is linked both to belief in God and to belief in the soul. The tendencies to think analytically and to be empathetic have independent and opposite effects on these spiritual beliefs.
Of course, to be high functioning, you really want to be high both in empathy and analytic intelligence. That is difficult. We see a small trade-off between those two capacities in the population. But it is possible, and something we can work toward. People who are high in both analysis and empathy tend to have spiritual beliefs, but don’t tend to have the false sense of absolute moral certainty that some people express (e.g. religious fundamentalists and militant atheists). My own view is that balancing these two ways of thinking is just too complex and dynamic for there to be one right way to do it. We should strive to respect logic and to respect emotional insight, and realize there is no end to the subtleties and nuances of how we might combine the two. Our neural structure creates a kind of cognitive instability that means wisdom will always be a quest, and never an end point.
Anthony Jack is a professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology at Case Western Reserve University.