Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is rationality a virtue worth emulating?

I recently read an article "Mr. Jekyll and Dr. House: The Reason-Emotion Split as Manifested in House, M.D." on the TOS about TV series House, M.D. (first two seasons), a part of which I had read some time back but read the whole thing only now (subscription-based). The article analyses the portrayal of the lead character Dr. House.

I have been a big fan of the TV series House, M.D. and have been intrigued and at times puzzled by the portrayal of the Dr. House (brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie). The series focuses on both his professional and personal life. There are no ambiguities where his medical abilities are concerned; he coolly analyses his cases ignoring emotions of the patients and gets to the root of the problem. He decides on a course of treatment-with inputs from his team- with supreme confidence and expects it to be executed without any ifs or buts.

Just like the author, I have always thought that a good doctor has to be like a good detective. He has to study the case, look for clues in not so obvious places and be knowledgeable in interpreting those clues and solving the case. This reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes case where he says that "I am puzzled by the dogs". When Dr. Watson says that the dogs didn't do anything, he says it's exactly what puzzled him-why didn't they bark if there were intruders around? This comparison is even more apt for the extreme case handled by Dr. House but also holds true for slightly more complex cases routinely handled by most doctors. Dr. House is a master medical investigator and finds clues of mysterious illnesses in unlikeliest of places with ease. The creator has blessed his character with rationality but the problem is that he doesn't seem to think that is is worth emulating.
Creator David Shore describes his brilliant, cynically sarcastic medical Sherlock as “a character who firmly believes in rationality over emotion at all times,” with all that presumably implies. And what, in Shore’s conception, does it imply? That House is “nasty and he’s cold and he’s heartless, and everything he does is to make the patient better.” This indicates Shore’s conception of rationality, or at least the brand of rationality he ascribes to House.
Shore seems split on his own evaluation of House’s character, warning apologetically, “I created this character, and I love him, and you might think I’m saying, yeah, we should all be like that. No! We actually shouldn't be like that.” But, one is tempted to ask, if his rationality saves countless patients’ lives, isn't it in fact a virtue worth emulating? Or is it indeed a lovable sin, deserving of sympathetic scorn, since it dooms him to a life of lonely success?
The creator goes on to show the personal life of Dr.House which is sad, confusing, lonely, and attributes this to his rationality and draws the unwarranted conclusions. Is it so hard to believe that a rational person can be happy? It is this belief which deprives us of a perfect hero.

Episode after episode puts us through the torment of seeing a gloomy, tortured House return to his dark, lonely apartment and pump himself full of Vicodin to numb his own pain, after sending his patients home happy and smiling, holding the hands of loved ones who rejoice with them at a seemingly miraculous recovery...
So it is no wonder that House is unhappy, since happiness is an emotion—and House tries to steer clear of emotions at all cost..
So if, like House, you choose to regard the rational quest for truth as your sacred calling, you (allegedly) must abandon all hopes of emotional fulfillment. But rationality—real rationality—does not lead to any such plight; indeed, it leads to the stark opposite. If House were as rational about emotions as he is about medicine, he would not be miserably successful; he would be successfully happy.

Gena Gorlin goes on to explain the importance of the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness.
Emotions are not impervious to reason; they are responses to what we regard as true (given our prior knowledge and reasoning, or lack thereof). If we change our minds, our hearts eventually follow..
If one grasps the nature of the relationship between rationality and emotion, House’s split personality becomes easy to diagnose: He is rational in his dealings with human illness, but irrational in his dealings with human emotion. If David Shore has set out to portray a man who truly “believes in rationality over emotion at all times,” he has failed—by failing to understand the actual nature of both rationality and emotion...
Such critics once again fail to realize the proper role of emotion in relation to rationality. If House were to allow baseless pangs of doubt, or the emotional appeals of patients and fellow doctors, to interfere with his rational conclusions, he would not be the good doctor that he is...
Just as emotions are consequences of one’s conclusions, so rationality is the means of achieving emotionally gratifying values.
The character of John Galt said in Ayn Rand's epic novel "The Atlas Shrugged" that "happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death. Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions".

In spite of all the irritating contradictions of the series, I like to focus on the positives and I like what Hugh Laurie writes, in praise of his own character: “This is a guy in search of truth. Incidentally, that truth one day could save your life or the life of someone you love. That’s a heroic thing.” Millions of people love the witty and heroic Dr.House which according to the author is a positive symptom and that it suggests that people’s admiration for the virtue of reason is still alive and kicking. The thought makes me feel good.
Read the full article here.