The heart versus the head: a false dualism
Posted by robertpriddy on June 15, 2014
One of the most influential ideas in religion, especially when it would defend its irrational ideas and beliefs, is that of ‘the heart’. It is held that acts done ‘from the heart’ are superior to those merely motivated by ‘the head’ (representing reason, logic, and thought as opposed to emotion. Religious or ‘spiritual’ conceptions of the human heart as the ‘seat of emotions’ and human feeling are always vague, never defined in any practical or precise way, but always assume the heart is a driving force in human affairs. In one sense it is, being the playground of the desires, longings, hopes, ambitions or wishful thoughts and hence is regarded as the breeding ground of will power. The word ‘heart’ has many literary and poetic uses and connotations, nearly all of which are inimical and often directly to well-founded intelligence, experiential insight, pragmatism, rational understanding and scientific knowledge. In short, the impulses and longings of the heart are basically non-rational. So there is much confusion about the so-called ‘heart’, and much conflation of terms altogether in talk about it. It is based on an antiquated and highly erroneous belief of its importance to our supposed soul or spirit, but in fact, the heart is of course nothing but an organ of pumping blood through the body. The usage of ‘heart’ as a vital innermost core of the human being is so ingrained that one can only hope to modify the understand of the fallacies involved in applying it as if it were a real (but invisible, subtle) organ of personality. It is obvious today that desires and the emotions arise in the human mind, which is to say the brain (with the most instinctual perhaps arising in the cerebral cortex).
The tendency is to identify the heart with positive values like forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and altruism, as in modern usages like “have a heart”, “from the depths of my heart”. Whenever the heart is invoked to support romantic notions or religious faith, it is assumed that the human heart is always of a righteous nature and is on the side of the good, the righteous and against ‘the heartless’. This conveniently overlooks the fact that the heart is also perceived in negative ways, as shown by the words black-hearted, hard-hearted, evil-hearted, and is where reside human envy, spite, enmity and all negative emotions. As the supposed ‘organ’ from which will power springs, the heart cannot be only a fount of goodness, because of course the most terrible evils have been and still are visited on humanity by the strong will of despots, criminals and those who wish to dominate or eliminate their fellow-men. A cardinal fact to remember is that our emotions and all those values we consider to belong to the heart rather than the brain, are entirely generated and expressed by means of the brain.
Douglas Hume famously and notoriously wrote: “Reason Is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” and he saw human will as “the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind” (T II.3.1 399). “If the will did not determine a person’s actions, we would have no way to trace those actions to their springs in character, which is the prerequisite for forming moral judgments.” In this, he certainly overlooked the nature of many crucial human decisions and actions, which are a result not merely of desire and emotion, but are based upon a wide-ranging understanding of the many circumstances and consequence that determine the conditions of life, health, security and happiness. The will may require a personal subjective motivating feeling or desire, but it is often directed and formed to a very large extent by pragmatic concerns and rational knowledge. Human history and experience teach us that when this is not so, the consequences can be serious and even disastrous.
The progress of civilisation is not driven only or mainly by desires and non-rational motivations, but by increased understanding of the world, of society and oneself. Humankind sees to view the spectrum of warring desires and ideals so as to reconcile them where possible and find ways of weighing and planning the optimal course to take. This arises overwhelmingly through worldly experience, the sciences and human invention aided by incisive critical thinking, rational philosophy and literature, taking account of the conflicting human ‘passions’ that may be involved.
Religions tend to praise the heart as being what makes human beings human and even holy in nature (whatever such divinity may really mean and imply). But the heart is not special to humans. However, from ancient times the crucial nature of the heart to life was soon observed and it was variously concluded that it is the organ that houses the life force. It was believed to be the seat of human emotions because it beats faster when excited or fearful and so on, and when it stops, we die. It was a short step to thinking it is where the personality resides. Some religious doctrines and philosophies held that there is a strict dividing line between humans and animals, a divinely ordained difference. Evolution and modern biological sciences shows there is no such thing. Of course, all animals have hearts and the higher mammals’ hearts are little different from ours and it is increasingly being shown that they have a number of the same or very similar emotional reactions to our own, all according to the level of their physical and neurological evolution.
‘The head’, on the other hand, is regarded by many more fundamentalist religions and cults as a main cause of the endless illusions (Maya) and miseries, considering the human mind as the seat of the ego and so as at root of all the ills that beset mankind. The cure advised are such rituals as worship, prayer, and other thought-destroying practices like the constant repetition of mantras, holy names, singing ritualised praises of deities or gods, which are presented as a way of ‘following the heart’ to develop true values and seek faith in some imagined God. Such blind faith ignores the achievements of the human intellect and its sciences and technologies, its social contracts and humanistic values.
The supposed heart is one of the shibboleths of so-called ‘spiritual education’ as not uncommon in religions, some faith schools, and New Age substitutes today. The schism between the rational and the irrational mind of much traditional religiosity – as seen in the contrast created between sacred and profane living – is based on the fantasy of two different realities – that of (outward) worldly life and a supposed (inner) eternal spiritual realm. It underpins most religious moralism, suppression of the individual, the critical mind and not least arises with the age-old stigmatization of women.
The human heart is misidentified as having spiritual qualities: The tendency is to identify the heart with positive values like forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and altruism. (as in modern usages like “have a heart”, “from the depths of my heart”). The heart is often depicted as the seat of our emotions, vague intuitions, personal hopes and beliefs, especially in religious and transcendental faiths. Meanwhile this overlooks the common usages like “hate in the heart”, the heart as filled with envy, enmity, ill-will, even evil, ‘black hearted’ and other emotions or values regarded as negative (mistrust, loathing, lust for revenge) which have also long been related to the idea of the human heart. All this is sheer obfuscation of the true state of affairs, which is that the emotions are generated and sustained by neuron connections in the brain and they are virtually inseparably bound up with thought, arising from the brain’s established neuron pathways. Therefore, the contention that “sacred qualities” of the heart – as opposed to rationally guided worldly activities – are ‘positive in nature’ and “cannot be acquired through the study of books” since they reside in our hearts is a confused and out-dated obscurantism. ‘The heart’ as conceived in religious sentiment is not an entity, the heart is a necessary organ of the body for circulating the blood and no more than that.
From ancient times the crucial nature of the heart to life was soon observed and it was variously concluded that it is the organ that houses the life force. It was because it beats faster when excited or fearful and so on, and when it stops, we die.. and was so believed to be the seat of human emotions and related values. It was a short step to thinking it is where the personality resides. Of course, it is no such thing. Its functions are in circulating blood to convey oxygen to cells and the like so as to keep the physical body alive. It is exclusively the human brain that is ‘the seat of human emotions, thought and intelligence’. So the fanciful opposition so often quoted by those still bound up in religious views, or in language traditions and poetic iconography. Any opposition between ‘the head and the heart’ is an empirically and rationally empty, false construct. This dichotomy is very vaguely defined or explained well and can be most misleading. The premium put upon ‘acting from the heart’ in the face of pragmatic reasons and well-understood considerations has many bad consequences for those who adopt it and apply its apparent meaning to themselves, especially it is used by ‘spiritual masters’ or ‘gurus’ as a kind of doctrinal stick to induce the disciple to do otherwise than reason and best interests dictate. Since the emotions cannot easily be transformed from negative to positive – certainly not though acts of will or tricks of thought – those ‘aspirants’ who harbour negative emotions will often suffer from ineradicable guilt feelings, which the basic feelings remain in the subconscious (i.e. or “in the heart”) and will weaken self-esteem and confidence, tending to reject rational arguments about the matter and so distorting perceptions and social relations outside the sect or cult to which they adhere. Experience shows that such emotions can usually only be modified through some major shock to the awareness or else a long process of maturing or possible by rational forms of psychological therapy.
When feelings become too detached from reasonable judgement or are in opposition to the thinking mind (the ‘head)’ – they easily become deleterious and irrational. In depth psychology these impulses have been shown to arise from the subconscious mind and will often be disturbed, obsessive or compulsive and involve strong affect. Contrariwise, reasonable feelings, sympathies and antipathies— they are not irrational or unduly projective of false qualities onto others, being based on rational value judgements, on necessary or else natural desires and the concerns and cares of normal life.
The alleged difference between speaking and acting “from the heart” and “from the head” (which is seen as comparatively cold and even negative) is a miasma. That one can distinguish roughly between ‘the language of the heart’ and ‘of the head’ does not alter this false dualism. In all cases it is the brain and never the heart which controls the feelings, and which also controls the forms of expression used both for feelings and abstract thought. The prosaic and the poetic are simply different general forms of language with each their appropriate sphere. Precise language is less open to ambiguity and false interpretations than the former. The precise kind of prose such as is most used in non-fictional literature, in standard journalism, and in the many sciences are less open to wide interpretations and meaning distortions than the former. The language used from medicine to mathematics, the law to philosophy, technology to business and of course, in much everyday conversation – is neither more nor less an expression of human values than are the symbolic and emotive styles which use literary, tenuous, and sublime imagery.
A monograph on “The History of the Heart” by Ole Martin Høystad of Syddansk University (215 pages) combs through religion and philosophy from the earliest records up to modern time and charts how the heart became a symbol of our essential desires. The work is mainly historical and – though it illustrates the wide range of different and conflicting speculations about the nature of the heart as a symbol – seriously lacks sufficient critical insight into the overall fallacy which makes that non-mental and non-emotional organ into something more and ‘higher’ than the brain, compared to which it is a relatively primitive conception without any specific organ.