This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

2 thoughts on “Incandescence

  1. Not so much sceptical, more challenged and a little troubled. There is no doubt that the passions are an intrinsic part of who we are, as you say.
    However, there are three immediate “buts”, not interconnected or identical tables neatly stacked one on top of the other, but nonetheless all part of why I am challenged:
    – The Kindle screen can’t change the picture it retains when you switch it off, so it is static and cannot process or respond to changing external stimuli. From my very scant understanding, I’d argue that the brain is not like that – while the neurones may be passive, the external stimulus of new or different data immediately reactivates them.
    – The Aquinas logic of ira as forms of reason is intuitively right. However, the licence that appears to suggest discounts the context and the interlocutor. It may be fine for the expressor but who can guess of the impact it will have on the other party (parties) to the interaction.
    – Going with the gut is often good, and this seems to be the logical conclusion of the argument. But going with the gut may be even better when it is a conscious choice, leaving aside what the head is telling you.

    So, I think where I net out on this is that Aquinas is onto something very appealing in arguing that the passions are forms of reason, but that doesn’t necessarily take us inexorably to where you have been suggesting in terms of immediate, intuitive and passionate response to a situation. Just because something is a form of reason, it isn’t necessarily right, appropriate or effective. But that said, it isn’t necessarily wrong, inappropriate or ineffective. It’s a choice. So I will take your sage counsel about showing a little more ira a little more often. But in moderation. And with some reflection and attention to context and impact.

    1. Passions must be governed by virtues before we can completely trust them – a life’s work I suspect. Aquinas, as Aristotle, urges us to err towards caution in all cases with anger. The weight of good sense and sensibility is with you on anger; use sparingly if at all, in proportion to the incitement, with justice as the only justification.

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