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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills

Emotional Scepticism

The outcome of any concerted attempt of self-knowledge could be presumed to be a deep understanding of ourselves. But strangely, the real outcome is really rather different. It appears that the more closely we explore our minds, the more we start to see how many tricks these organs can play on us – and therefore the more we will appreciate how often we are likely to be misjudging situations and our own emotions. A successful search for self-knowledge should end up with an admission of how little we do – and perhaps ever can – properly know of ourselves. It is an apparent paradox summed up by Socrates: I am wise not because I know, but because I know I don’t know.

This critical attitude towards our own minds can be given a special name: Emotional Scepticism. Emotional Scepticism involves remaining highly cautious around our instincts, impulses, convictions and strong passions. It’s not that we should hate and despise these, just remain conscious of how easily they are distorted and how readily they deviate from the best understanding of our own true interests.

Our brains are brilliant instruments, able to reason, synthesise, remember and imagine at an extraordinary pitch and rate. But these brains – let’s call them walnuts in honour of their appearance – are also very subtly and dangerously flawed machines, flawed in ways that typically don’t announce themselves to us and therefore give us few clues as to how on guard we should be about our mental processes. Most of the walnut’s flaws can be attributed to the way the instrument evolved over millions of years. It emerged to deal with threats, some of which are no longer with us, and at the same time, it had no chance to develop adequate responses to a myriad of challenges generated by our own complex societies. We should feel pity for its situation and compassion for ourselves. But we should also remain very vigilant. Here are just some of the many things we need to watch out for with our faulty walnuts:

– The Walnut is influenced by the body to an extent it doesn’t recognise:

The walnut is extremely bad at understanding why it is having certain thoughts and ideas. It tends always to attribute them to rational, objective conditions out in the world, rather than seeing that they might be stemming from the impact of the body upon its thought processes. It doesn’t typically notice the role that levels of sleep, sugar, hormones and other physiological factors play upon the formation of ideas. The walnut adheres to an intellectual interpretation of plans and positions that are, at base, frequently merely physiological. Therefore, it can feel certain that the right answer is to divorce or leave the job rather than go back to bed or eat something to raise blood sugar levels.

Tiredness can be another powerful agent that silently and invisibly perverts our judgement. The 19th-century sceptic Friedrich Nietzsche remarked: ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago’ – though crucially, it is extremely rare and counter-intuitive to judge that it really might be tiredness that is affecting our outlook rather than certain objective facts in the world. We are keener to conclude that we have developed a deep resentment against humanity than that we urgently need to get to bed.

Lust similarly plays with our judgement, leading us to ‘see’ sensitivity, kindness and a decent alternative to our current partner where there is – in truth – an exceptionally beautiful profile and perhaps not much else. As the German sceptical philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wryly concluded: ‘Immediately after copulation, the devil’s laughter can be heard.’

– The Walnut is influenced by its past, but can’t see its distortions

The walnut believes it is judging each new situation on its own merits, but it is inevitably drawing upon patterns of action and feeling shaped in previous years. This saves time, and has real evolutionary advantages, except that many situations in the present are in fact deceptive, resembling the past only enough to trigger a familiar response, while in fact having many unique characteristics that get overlooked. At moments of ambiguity, the walnut can jump to some catastrophic conclusions. It might, for example, assume that any older man who speaks in a confident way is out to humiliate them, when actually it was just one man, their father, who did this – or it will find it hard to get close to all women because one specific woman happened to be a source of trauma between the ages of 1 and 10.

– The walnut is bad at self-control and gets passionate about, and scared of the wrong things:

The walnut constantly gets excited about things which aren’t good for it: sugar, salt and sex with strangers for a start. Advertising knows how to exploit this cognitive frailty to perfection. Our confusions can generally be traced back to targets that would once have been crucial and fitting for us to focus on. Our desires used to be reliable in simpler environments, but in the complicated conditions of modernity, they cause chaos. The same holds true for our fears: in the past, fears were simply bound to things that could kill us. Fears were a good idea to get us out of genuine dangers. But nowadays, many things excite our fear systems without there being any real threat. We have panic attacks before speaking in public for no good reason – while at the same time, the real, more subtle threats of modernity (global warming or another subprime mortgage financial crisis) evade our detection radars entirely.

– The Walnut is egocentric

The walnut is primed to look at things from its own point of view – or the way of looking that is long established as normal in its tribe. It often simply can’t believe that there are other ways of considering an issue. Other people can therefore seem perverse, or horrible to it – sparking outrage or self-pity. It’s only in the last second, from an evolutionary point of view, that the walnut has started to try to imagine what it might be like to be someone else (a symptom of this is that it’s learnt to take pleasure in novels). But this is still a fragile empathetic capacity, which tends to collapse, especially when the walnut is tired, and someone is trying to persuade it of a strange-sounding idea.

Too often, we interpret the motives and psychology of other people primarily through the filter of our own concerns, histories and interests – failing to consider what else might be happening in their lives outside of our field of vision. The person who doesn’t call us back can quickly be imputed to have a desire to hurt us (rather than a busy diary or an ailing aunt) while the troubled look that passes over a friend’s face at once seems the result of something we have said (rather than the thought of their pressing morning assignment flitting across their brow).

– The walnut isn’t an independent thinker:

The walnut grew up dependent for its survival on the mood of the group or clan. It is therefore highly primed to fit in with common sense and prevailing opinion. It doesn’t generally like to use itself as a source of original data or insight. Other people’s opinions matter hugely irrespective of how foolish they might be – or indeed widespread. Because we came from small groups, one or two compliments can delight us; one criticism can sow panic. This is tricky in the age of Twitter. We get hypersensitive to what an absurdly small number of others believe.

Being more vigilant about the flaws in our walnuts gives us a range of important advantages:

– We get better at noticing the potential of flaws in our own judgement – and therefore stand a higher chance of not making them. We can only start to avoid mistakes when we know mistakes are an active possibility.

– When we deal with other people, we can ask ourselves whether they might be acting from a walnut flaw, but not know it. This will make us both bolder about disagreeing with them and also kinder and more generous in the face of their less than sensible behaviours.

– When we deal with large groups of people, we can be aware that the walnut does very weird things in packs – but that’s OK and no reason to panic if we find our ideas are meeting with resistance.

– But knowing of the flaws means we must try to act with kindness and tolerance too: we should at all times go easy on ourselves and others, for we’re trying to do some very difficult things around one another, with the use of a highly troublesome and only intermittently accurate tool.

– At heart, compensating for the faulty equipment that nature has given us is the task of what we call: education, culture and civilisation.

There are three key things that characterise the outlook of an emotionally sceptical person.

Firstly, they make a big distinction between feeling and action.

They don’t automatically act on their feelings. Because the sources of feelings are often so dark and confused, they are reluctant to trust their feelings as a guide to what they should do. They feel like leaving their partner, but they don’t think that’s necessarily something to take seriously. They feel like quitting their job, but don’t take this feeling too seriously. They feel nervous about approaching someone at a party, but they don’t think that this feeling is a good guide to what they should do. The sceptic opens up the equivalent of a demilitarised zone between emotions and actions. Having surveyed the fragilities of our minds, the Ancient Greek Sceptics recommended that we learn to develop an attitude of what they called epoche, translated as ‘reserve’ or ‘suspension of judgement’. Aware of our proclivities to error, we were never to rush into decisions, we were to let our ideas settle so they could be re-evaluated at different points in time and we were to be especially vigilant about the impact of sexual excitement, tiredness and public opinion on the formation of our plans.

The emotional sceptic is modest about rationality.

They are deeply conscious of the ways in which what seems like pure cold reason is in fact the slave of passion.  Our feelings have a big hold on our powers of Reason. We can see it happening in others. They seem to themselves to be merely concerned with facts and logic. But it’s clear to an observer that they are motivated by an emotional urgency: they are desperate to prove someone wrong, they are trying to impress someone; they are emphatically avoiding the real issue. And if it’s true of others it must – the emotional sceptic concedes – be true also of us sometimes.

It’s potentially a rather humiliating concession. It would be nice to think that our powers of rational argument were safely insulated from the influence of the emotions or from the hidden but powerful currents of fears and desires that influence our minds. But the emotional sceptic acknowledges that they can’t be sure. They become more modest, more ready to admit that there might be something to be said on the others side, more open to ideas that strike them as rather silly. Their scepticism leads them to be more generous to others and more modest in their own claims.

The emotional sceptic is open to revising their beliefs and attitudes.

They may feel pretty sure and committed just now but they are aware that they could quite plausibly change their minds. Their conclusions are provisional. They are alive to the intermittence of the mind. That is, to the odd but deeply important fact that at any particular moment we don’t have full access to everything that is in our minds. We can’t give a full account of ourselves on the spur of the moment. We can’t fully bring to mind immediately all the relevant parts of our experience, we can’t do justice at a particular instant, to the variety of thoughts and feelings we have around any particular matter.

The mind isn’t present to itself instantaneously: it unfolds in time, and therefore needs time to give its best answers. But so often we don’t have time. We say what we really do feel at this moment, but it’s not necessarily a proper reflection to what we would say if we had had the chance to collect and organise all the relevant, important bits of our our thoughts and experiences. The emotional sceptic is alive to the tragedy of the inaccessible richness of our own minds. They know there’s more in their even though they can’t access it at this moment. And that if they could access it they might arrive at a very different conclusions from the one they are now (and therefore) tentatively advancing.

Our vulnerability to emotional distortion is not our fault: it’s the result of a mismatch between the system of reasoning we have been bequeathed by our evolutionary history and the complex nature of the life tasks we are challenged by. We can’t wholly refashion who we are: we are inevitably going to be swept about by egotism, jealousy, wounded pride, projection and bursts of tired panic and anger.

In other words, we are condemned by nature to be constituted in a less than ideal way, required to address the world and shape our lives via the mechanisms of an at times catastrophically faulty brain.

But we will have gone a long way to counteract the problems of our machinery if we prepare ourselves for it; if we accept that we are highly viscous bags of saline solution who stare out at reality via a highly unreliable and distorted pane of glass and must, therefore, frequently suspend judgement, moderate our impulses, watch over our diet – and strive to get to bed early.

We will finally have learnt how to know ourselves when we have complete picture at once of what we can know – and of what we have to be properly modest about ever knowing.



One day, if human civilisation ever wipes itself out, aliens or one of our successors will cast an eye on our ruined planet and ask themselves what ever happened to homo sapiens. Their answer might look a little like this.

The root cause won’t be the specific catastrophe, conflict or devastation that eradicates us; the problem will begin with the architecture of the human brain.

This tool will be remembered for being, in part, deeply impressive, containing a 100 billion neurons capable of extraordinary computations and combinations. As aliens will note, a particular part of the mind where our most dazzling thoughts unfolded was known to neuroscientists as the neocortex – a part that in humans was many times larger than that found in any other species. This is what helped the hugely clever ape to produce The Magic Flute, Anna Karenina, Concorde and civilisation.

However, our alien friends will also note that the human mind contained another component, very influential but far less impressive, known as the reptilian brain, an aggressive lustful impulsive section of machinery, with a great deal more in common with what might be found in a hyena or a small rodent.

Because of this reptilian brain, homo sapiens ended up with three grave problems:

– Firstly, tribalism. Humans were always on the verge of developing violent hatreds of foreigners and manifested strong ongoing tendencies to slaughter strangers in vast numbers. They could never reliably see the humanity in all members of their own kind.

– Secondly, homo sapiens was fatefully prone to short-term thinking. Even when confronted by data, it could only imagine the near-term future, a few years at best, viewing the long-term as a chimerical and unreal state. Its immediate impulses were left uncontained and worked to destroy its individual and collective future.

– Lastly, homo sapiens had an especially keen fondness for wishful thinking. Though capable of immense intellectual achievement, its mind hated to reflect on itself, it couldn’t bear to submit its ideas to rational scrutiny, it preferred to act rather than think and daydream rather than plan. Having invented the scientific method, it preferred – in most cases – not to use it. It had a narcotic desire for distraction and fantasy. It didn’t want to know itself.

For many generations, these three flaws were more or less endured. Certain institutions were invented to attenuate them: the law, sound government, education, science. It worked, sort of. Humans kept wiping out swathes of their fellows, but they didn’t scupper the species as a whole. What caused the ultimate destruction was the increasing yet untrammelled power of the neocortex. This mighty tool eventually managed to capture fire, contain the elements, and give homo sapiens a godlike power over the planet – while the animal overall still operated with reflexes as serene and gentle as those of a hyena. The cost of its mistakes grew ever larger, its powers became uncontained while its wisdom remained intermittent and fragile. Eventually, its might outpaced its capacity for self-control; it became a nuclear armed rodent.

There was one thing that might have saved humanity: love, and three varieties of it in particular:

– Firstly, the love of the stranger; the capacity to see the other as like oneself and worthy of the same mercy and charity.

– Secondly, the love of the unborn: the concern for those who do not yet exist and whom one will never know but whose lives one is shaping in the selfish present.

– Thirdly, the love of the truth: the strength to resist illusion and lies and square up to uncomfortable facts of all kinds.


We don’t need to be aliens of the future to understand all this. We can see the disaster scenario only too well right now. The fate of civilisation lies ultimately not in the law courts, at the ballot box or in the corridors of governments. It lies in our ability to master the most short-term, selfish and violent of our impulses active in the dense folds of organic matter between our ears; it lies in learning how fiercely to compensate for the flawed architecture of our minds.


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