A Note on the False Dichotomy between Head and Heart

DEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN

No matter how we look at it, the counsel to "follow your heart, not your head" is a confused and absurd proposition that is entirely unworkable.

Most students who have been introduced to Philosophy will have come across the typical self-refuting character of the claim "There is no truth". If "there is no truth" then the claim that "there is no truth" itself cannot be true. Once students see an obvious self-contradiction like this, they often try to discover more self-refuting propositions.

It is not long, for example, before they see that the claim at the root of Scientism is a self-refuting starting point: "The only valid knowledge worthy of the name is that which is derived from and verified through empirical investigation". This claim was not derived from, nor can it be verified through, empirical investigation. It is self-refuting.

A favourite of mine was handed to me by an atheist friend who despises philosophy, but loves mathematics: "Without the predictive precision of mathematics, any claim to truth is illusory. If you cannot express your knowledge in mathematical form, you may know something; you may have the beginnings of knowledge, but your knowledge is inevitably of a rudimentary and incomplete form." Nicely said, but what he claims to know here must be illusory, for it was not, nor can it be, expressed in mathematical form.

Another self-refuting proposition is the well known dictum: "Follow your heart, not your head". It is self-refuting because the counsel that one ought to follow the heart, not the head, is a counsel of the head, not the heart. It is the intellect (head) that understands that one ought not to follow one's understanding, but one's heart. And so the exhortation to follow the heart, not the head, is contradictory on a practical level. One is following one's head in counselling others to follow their hearts. Moreover, one is appealing to their heads in order to persuade them of the benefits of following their hearts over their heads.

If one were to be consistent, one would have to say nothing, because in communicating the counsel one is communicating an idea that comes from the head (mind) and enters into the head (mind) of the listener. The injunction to "Follow your heart, not your head" is clearly self-refuting.


What does it mean to "follow the heart"? Does it mean "follow your feelings"? Or, does it mean "follow what you love"?

Since most of us readily understand that feelings can be very misleading, let's begin with the latter: "Follow what you truly love". A problem arises, however, if a person genuinely loves "truth". In that case, to counsel such a person to follow his heart is to counsel him to follow his head, which perceives the truth. Since his heart is fixed on the truth, and it is the truth that he loves to follow, "follow your heart" means follow the truth.

If one believes that truth is a Person, namely the Person of Christ, then for such a person to follow his heart is for him to follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. So, in the end, follow your heart means "love Christ and follow him". But the head has been telling such a person precisely that all along. The counsel to follow your heart is thus superfluous.

A further problem arises when we are dealing not with a person who loves truth, but with a person who loves himself more than he loves truth. To counsel such a person to follow his heart is to counsel him to follow no one other than himself. In that case, "Follow your heart" means "Don't follow Christ, but be your own god".

So if we have three such people in a room (one who loves truth, another who loves himself above all things, and another who loves evil), the counsel to "follow your heart" will mean three different and contradictory things.

A more serious problem arises when we are dealing with a person who loves evil. To counsel such a person to follow his heart is to counsel him to follow the dictates arising from his own malice. In this case, our suggestion to such a person is no different than the suggestions he receives from the Evil One, who always suggests a malicious and destructive course of action. In other words, Satan also counsels certain others to follow their hearts.

So if we have three such people in a room (one who loves truth, another who loves himself above all things, and another who loves evil), the counsel to "follow your heart" will mean three different and contradictory things, and our words would only engender conflict and confusion – if all were to act on such counsel.

If "follow your heart" means "follow what you really believe is right", then we are counselling others to follow their own heads and not listen to the counsel of others who may have a different suggestion. But that is also self-refuting on a practical level. We are counselling another not to receive the counsel of others, sort of like saying: "Listen to me when I tell you not to listen to others".

No matter how we look at it, the counsel to "follow your heart, not your head" is a confused and absurd proposition that is entirely unworkable.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Deacon Douglas McManaman. "A Note on the False Dichotomy between Head and Heart." CERC (October 17, 2011).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

THE AUTHOR

Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He maintains the following web site for his students: A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Douglas McManaman




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