Burgess Laughlin

Rationalism

64 posts in this topic

1. What is rationalism?

2. How can one detect it in one's own thinking or in another person's?

3. How can a chronic rationalist uproot the problem?

I will address the first two questions. Perhaps others will do the same, and, in particular, address the third question.

1. WHAT IS RATIONALISM?

Rationalism is the philosophical belief that man obtains knowledge by "logically" (syllogistically) deducing inferences from concepts already inside his mind. (Forget about how they got there.)

What makes a question, position, or an argument rationalistic is not the content itself (the words used) but the approach to arriving at it. Does the approach check to see what the observable facts of reality are -- or, rationalistically, does it never question ideas already held, as givens?

For Ayn Rand's very brief discussion of rationalism, see the excerpt in "Rationalism vs. Empiricism," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 405, which comes from Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 31 (hb) or 30 (pb).

2. A RATIONALISM-DETECTION TEST: "How does this problem arise in my life?"

Speaking as a non-philosopher, I am especially watchful for two kinds of problems that might be rationalistic. First is any philosophical situation proposed to me outside what I encounter in my life. For example, I would immediately suspect any problem that begins with an outlandish setup such as: "Suppose there were eight little green men living in the crevices of a mountain range on Mars, and then ...."

In response to such a proposal, and as an antidote to possible rationalism, I would want to ask myself this test question: "Since this problem, supposedly philosophical, didn't arise in my life (which would have made it subject to my inspection), then how did it arise?"

The speaker might respond by saying, "It didn't arise in anyone's life. I just imagined it, and I was just curious about the Objectivist position on it because of what the problem might reveal about Objectivist ethics." Given such a response -- (1) it didn't arise in anyone's life, (2) it's a product of imagination, and (3) the questioner hasn't connected the problem to either the facts he knows or his value system ("just curious") -- then I would reject the problem. At best, I would ask him to restate the problem as it applies to his life. If he can't do that, then I would spend my time dealing with some other issue in my life. (A full-time philosopher or a cognitive psychotherapist might have reasons to continue working with the person.)

A second kind of problem is the kind that might initially sound plausible to some individuals, but the speaker approaches it in a rationalistic way. For example, someone might say, "I saw in the news yesterday that China is preparing to launch an astronaut into orbit. It will never happen. The reason is obvious. I learned from Ayn Rand that advanced technology comes only from capitalism; and China is a communist country; therefore there can't be any Chinese space program." (I have here adapted an example Ayn Rand discusses in Ayn Rand Answers, pp. 33-34.)

Here the speaker has certain ideas -- only capitalism produces advances, and China is communist -- in his head, but he has never tried to reduce them to reality. They are a floating "foundation" from which he deduces a syllogistically correct castle in the air. His error is in not objectively understanding the ideas which he has heard and adopted from others. He does not consider the facts of the situation -- for example, that outstanding individuals can exist even in corrupt regimes; and that statist regimes can buy, borrow, or steal the advances of better countries -- and consequently he deduces "logical" inferences that are false because the inferences are not based on facts of reality in full context.

A more abstract form of rationalism-detection test, but perhaps one better suited to professional philosophers, would be: "How does this idea or problem arise in sense-perception?" However, the advantage of my test question, for me, is that it ties the problem to what I can perceive and to what is important to me. Thus my test ties the problem to both the sense-perceptible facts and to my own values. Fact and value.

Why look for value in a rationalism-detection test? One consequence of rationalism is that the rationalist wrestles with problems that have little or nothing to do with his life -- both in fact and in value. He spends his time wrestling with "problems" that do not have a place within the hierarchy of his values (assuming he isn't repressed, and that he actually has a hierarchy of values).

In conclusion, my particular rationalism-detection test is neither comprehensive nor suitable for everyone, but it does a certain job: It leads me to look at how and why a proposed problem relates to the real world I know -- if it does.

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1. What is rationalism?

2. How can one detect it in one's own thinking or in another person's?

3. How can a chronic rationalist uproot the problem?

I will address the first two questions. Perhaps others will do the same, and, in particular, address the third question....

Thanks, Burgess, for this wonderful post. I found the answer to point 2 particularly enlightening.

Perhaps as a step towards answering point 3, permit me to ask a subsidiary question. I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

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Perhaps as a step towards answering point 3, permit me to ask a subsidiary question. I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

In "Understanding Objectivism," Dr. Peikoff gave at least a partial answer to this question which I find quite interesting. So, I'll provide my understanding of his answer below. (Any errors in presenting his position are, of course, mine.)

Dr. Peikoff said that emotions serve a crucial role in automatizing the process of concretization. E.g., in philosophical discussion about the concept "life," it is psycho-epistemologically healthy to feel emotions, since they can help remind you of and keep you tied to particular instances of the concept ("my spouse," "my pet," etc.). However, if someone were to feel no emotions, or to repress them, this could aid in detaching themselves from this world. (In this vein, it is no accident that rationalists tend to be repressors.)

How does this relate to the initial question, you ask? Because, in general, men are culturally discouraged from experienceing or "being in touch with" their emotions, whereas women comparatively are not so discouraged. Thus, to that extent, men can more easily slip into rationalism, since they have largely abandoned a crucial psycho-epistemological tool for keeping one's abstractions connected to concretes.

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Speaking as a non-philosopher, I am especially watchful for two kinds of problems that might be rationalistic. First is any philosophical situation proposed to me outside what I encounter in my life. For example, I would immediately suspect any problem that begins with an outlandish setup such as: "Suppose there were eight little green men living in the crevices of a mountain range on Mars, and then ...."

In response to such a proposal, and as an antidote to possible rationalism, I would want to ask myself this test question: "Since this problem, supposedly philosophical, didn't arise in my life (which would have made it subject to my inspection), then how did it arise?"

The speaker might respond by saying, "It didn't arise in anyone's life. I just imagined it, and I was just curious about the Objectivist position on it because of what the problem might reveal about Objectivist ethics." Given such a response -- (1) it didn't arise in anyone's life, (2) it's a product of imagination, and (3) the questioner hasn't connected the problem to either the facts he knows or his value system ("just curious") -- then I would reject the problem. At best, I would ask him to restate the problem as it applies to his life. If he can't do that, then I would spend my time dealing with some other issue in my life.

But suppose there is an immortal, indestructible robot...

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Perhaps as a step towards answering point 3, permit me to ask a subsidiary question. I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

In "Understanding Objectivism," Dr. Peikoff gave at least a partial answer to this question which I find quite interesting. So, I'll provide my understanding of his answer below. (Any errors in presenting his position are, of course, mine.)

Dr. Peikoff said that emotions serve a crucial role in automatizing the process of concretization. E.g., in philosophical discussion about the concept "life," it is psycho-epistemologically healthy to feel emotions, since they can help remind you of and keep you tied to particular instances of the concept ("my spouse," "my pet," etc.). However, if someone were to feel no emotions, or to repress them, this could aid in detaching themselves from this world. (In this vein, it is no accident that rationalists tend to be repressors.)

A small clarifying point: It is not emotions themselves that are repressed, but rather the processes -- the identifications and evaluations -- which would reveal or give rise to emotions.

How does this relate to the initial question, you ask?  Because, in general, men are culturally discouraged from experienceing or "being in touch with" their emotions, whereas women comparatively are not so discouraged.  Thus, to that extent, men can more easily slip into rationalism, since they have largely abandoned a crucial psycho-epistemological tool for keeping one's abstractions connected to concretes.

This may be true, but if it is then I think even more fundamental would be the key psychological element of repression: the lack of integration. But, I am not convinced by this line of reasoning. The statement "more easily slip into rationalism" seems to beg the question. If rationalists generally are repressors, then why would, as I believe is the case, the distance of abstract thought from perceptual reality a measure of the likelihood of rationalism?

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This may be true, but if it is then I think even more fundamental would be the key psychological element of repression: the lack of integration. But, I am not convinced by this line of reasoning. The statement "more easily slip into rationalism" seems to beg the question. If rationalists generally are repressors, then why would, as I believe is the case, the distance of abstract thought from perceptual reality a measure of the likelihood of rationalism?

Sorry, I don't follow you. Can you elaborate, or put the point you're making in another way?

In essence, what Dr. Peikoff was saying was this: since emotions can help prevent one's abstractions from floating, a gender which is encouraged to disregard emotions (men) will be more prone to rationalism. This seems pretty convincing to me, but again, please do let me know what your concern is.

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Speaking as a non-philosopher, I am especially watchful for two kinds of problems that might be rationalistic. First is any philosophical situation proposed to me outside what I encounter in my life. For example, I would immediately suspect any problem that begins with an outlandish setup such as: "Suppose there were eight little green men living in the crevices of a mountain range on Mars, and then ...." 

In response to such a proposal, and as an antidote to possible rationalism, I would want to ask myself this test question: "Since this problem, supposedly philosophical, didn't arise in my life (which would have made it subject to my inspection), then how did it arise?"

The speaker might respond by saying, "It didn't arise in anyone's life. I just imagined it, and I was just curious about the Objectivist position on it because of what the problem might reveal about Objectivist ethics." Given such a response -- (1) it didn't arise in anyone's life, (2) it's a product of imagination, and (3) the questioner hasn't connected the problem to either the facts he knows or his value system ("just curious") -- then I would reject the problem. At best, I would ask him to restate the problem as it applies to his life. If he can't do that, then I would spend my time dealing with some other issue in my life.

But suppose there is an immortal, indestructible robot...

I do not see how this can be a valid objection to Burgess' comments. In The Objectivist Ethics, Miss Rand says "To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot ..." She does not propose this at the beginning of the inquiry into ethics and value, but only later after already establishing the intellectual base, and then even just as illustration, "to make this point fully clear." That is far from the approach of the rationalist that Burgess outlined. In fact, of the rationalist Burgess specifically says "the questioner hasn't connected the problem to either the facts he knows or his value system." That certainly does not characterize Miss Rand's approach or example with the immortal robot.

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Sorry, I don't follow you.  Can you elaborate, or put the point you're making in another way?

Okay. But, before going further, would you agree that the liklihood of rationalism is proportional to the distance of the abstract thoughts from perceptual reality? In other words, metaphysics and cosmology, for instance, are more ripe for rationalism than, say, plumbing.

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Okay. But, before going further, would you agree that the liklihood of rationalism is proportional to the distance of the abstract thoughts from perceptual reality? In other words, metaphysics and cosmology, for instance, are more ripe for rationalism than, say, plumbing.

I would think so, sure.

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Okay. But, before going further, would you agree that the liklihood of rationalism is proportional to the distance of the abstract thoughts from perceptual reality? In other words, metaphysics and cosmology, for instance, are more ripe for rationalism than, say, plumbing.

I would think so, sure.

Then if the identifications and evaluations that would reveal and give rise to emotions are repressed, why would they effect metaphysics more than plumbing? Does not repression more usually affect personal issues, issues more related to relationships, fears, etc.? In other words, where is the direct link between repression and the abstractness of thought associated with rationalism?

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Then if the identifications and evaluations that would reveal and give rise to emotions  are repressed, why would they effect metaphysics more than plumbing? Does not repression more usually affect personal issues, issues more related to relationships, fears, etc.? In other words, where is the direct link between repression and the abstractness of thought associated with rationalism?

I'm not sure I understand you, but as far as I do, I never claimed that there was a "direct link between repression and the abstractness of thought associated with rationalism." Rather, I (or Peikoff) simply claimed that there was a link between those who are rationalists and those who repress (or, at least, those who just do not pay attention to their emotions). The content of what they are thinking about when they repress (e.g., metaphysics or plumbing) is not relevant here, because it all applies mutatis mutandis. I.e., other things being equal, no matter what subject one is studying, someone who engages in repression is more likely to be a rationalist than someone who does not engage in repression. And, if men are more likely to be repressors (or, again, simply ignore their emotions) than women, then Dr. Peikoff's position remains very illuminating for me.

I don't know if that helped, but I hope it did...

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...I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

What else can you say about the men you've noticed rationalsim in? Do they have anything else in common?

I'm particularly wondering if they tend to be from particular professions: for instance, are scientists and mathematicians more likely to be rationalistic? And if they are, how do the men and women in those professions compare with each other?

I have noticed that rationalism is very common among people in my profession of software engineering. Given that there are so many more men than women in this profession, this means that, among these people, I've seen rationalism in a lot more men than women. But thinking about it just now, I believe that if I compare only the men and women software engineers of comparable ability, these particular men aren't any more rationalistic than these particular women.

I'm thinking that people in fields that require more abstract thinking are more likely to be rationalistic, because the concepts they have to deal with are farther removed from perceptual reality: therefore, it's easy for those concepts to end up being floating, and not tied to reality. And it happens that men are more commonly found in such fields.

Of course, that would still leave open the question: are these men rationalistic because of the influence of their particular field, or is the choice of their field somehow related to an already-existing rationalism?

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For Ayn Rand's very brief discussion of rationalism, see the excerpt in "Rationalism vs. Empiricism," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 405, which comes from Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 31 (hb) or 30 (pb).

But that discussion refers to the Rationalist school of philosophy, which is not the same thing as the error in the method of one's thinking that, for instance, Peikoff discusses in Understanding Objectivism.

Related question: why isn't there an explicit discussion of rationalistic thinking in Ayn Rand's writings? If I recall correctly, UO was given within a couple years of Miss Rand's passing. Was the issue of rationalism one Peikoff developed on his own?

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But that discussion refers to the Rationalist school of philosophy, which is not the same thing as the error in the method of one's thinking that, for instance, Peikoff discusses in Understanding Objectivism.

Related question: why isn't there an explicit discussion of rationalistic thinking in Ayn Rand's writings?  If I recall correctly, UO was given within a couple years of Miss Rand's passing.  Was the issue of rationalism one Peikoff developed on his own?

The bad thing about lectures is that I can't give page numbers.

UO is from 1984.

There is an example Peikoff gives in it that was illustrating that the issue he was covering was largely unknown at the time, and that the lectures were largely a result of his long struggles with rationalism in trying to understand Objectivism.

I believe the example (the lectures are replete with examples) was of when he had finished a chapter of the Ominous Parallels, and gave it to her to read. He thought it was the best, clearest thing he had ever written, and she said she couldn't understand any of it.

Another reason is simply that she couldn't solve or even discover all the problems. No sweat though, Peikoff got the topic down. I think that may have been a tough one for her to even recognize; she certainly could not have got it from introspection. At least not as a systemic problem.

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What else can you say about the men you've noticed rationalsim in?  Do they have anything else in common?

Yes, an inordinate lack of ability to introspect. Which is, I think, the real fundamental underlying rationalism. Extrospection, though varying in degree and acuteness among men, is a somewhat more natural process than introspection. Identifying one's mental processes, maintaining a high level of self-consciousness, requires a learning process of directed effort. I think that, in general, young women are taught to look inward to a larger degree than young boys are taught. And, a failure of introspection leads quite naturally to an undercutting of extrospection. Hence, the more abstract the subject matter, the more removed from perceptual reality, and the easier it becomes to overlook both looking inward and looking outward.

I have heard from many women (and Betsy has been quite vocal about this), how they have a sense of starting to walk off a cliff if they take too many mental steps before checking with reality. Few of the men I have met who are not rationalists, rarely express such a sense, though I am convinced that such a process has become an automatic part of their thinking. Women seem to be more introspective, generally, and develop a better sense of self-consciousness earlier-on. A person's ability to act on the automatic command "look out at reality" is enhanced by their ability to look inwards.

I have also observed that more men than women are comfortable starting with a general principle and then learning the facts and the interconnections that led to the principle. Women seem to be more comfortable starting with the facts. Both may eventually spiral back and forth and cover the same ground, but one approach seems more comfortable than the other. Mathematics is often presented by stating the principle first, and developing the method or technique that explains or validates the principle. This might be one reason why, generally speaking, women are less enamoured by math than men. And, I think the underlying fundamental for all this has to do with the degree of introspection and level of self-consciousness.

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This has got me thinking about the similarities between rationalism and emotionalism. I would define emotionalism as the habit of acting on emotions who's causes have not been identified through introspection, and/or the refusal to allow one's emotions to be guided by or integrated with one's knowledge of reality.

Women seem to be more often accused of this. But, like rationalism, it seems to have its conceptual root in floating abstractions-- and there's an element of evasion.

Many people (including men) who are guilty of rationalism seem also to be guilty of emotionalism (ie, Kant.) Do the two necessarily go hand in hand?

I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

1. WHAT IS RATIONALISM?

Rationalism is the philosophical belief that man obtains knowledge by "logically" (syllogistically) deducing inferences from concepts already inside his mind. (Forget about how they got there.)

What makes a question, position, or an argument rationalistic is not the content itself (the words used) but the approach to arriving at it. Does the approach check to see what the observable facts of reality are -- or, rationalistically, does it never question ideas already held, as givens?

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This has got me thinking about the similarities between rationalism and emotionalism.  I would define emotionalism as the habit of acting on emotions who's causes have not been identified through introspection, and/or the refusal to allow one's emotions to be guided by or integrated with one's knowledge of reality.

Women seem to be more often accused of this.  But, like rationalism, it seems to have its conceptual root in floating abstractions-- and there's an element of evasion.

Many people (including men) who are guilty of rationalism seem also to be guilty of emotionalism (ie, Kant.)  Do the two necessarily go hand in hand?

I do not see the necessity of this. Rationalists are quite 'heady' and usually have at hand a multitude of reasons to explain their views and their actions. The major consequence of their lack of introspection is that by not monitoring their mental processes some of the ideas that they hold are not connected to reality. I think it is true that a rationalist could also be an emotionalist, but then some of his ideas become more like rationalizations formed as justification for what he feels. But this goes more towards motivation, whereas the real hallmark of the rationalist is ideas disconnected from reality due to a psycho-epistemology which is not very reflective on the self. In other words, I do not see rationalism and emotionalism as being exclusive, but they do not necessarily "go hand in hand."

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I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

I think that, in general, young women are taught to look inward to a larger degree than young boys are taught. And, a failure of introspection leads quite naturally to an undercutting of extrospection. Hence, the more abstract the subject matter, the more removed from perceptual reality, and the easier it becomes to overlook both looking inward and looking outward.

What are yours grounds for presuming thinking processes are gender indifferent? There are numerous examples of sexual dimorphism in the brain, both anatomically and neurochemically - in structures thought to be of great importance with regards higher cognitive functions. Having said this, I think that gender specific learning attitudes and cultural conditioning play the stronger role in biasing a particular way of thinking. I just think its worth due consideration, for the ratio of factors here is an unknown.

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To go back now and give my direct answer to Burgess' question in point 3 ("How can a chronic rationalist uproot the problem?"), I think the most important antidote to rationalism is a heightened sense of introspection of one's mental processes, and developing in general a psycho-epistemology enhanced by a greater degree of self-consciousness. Rationalists are not necessarily evaders, but rather their rationalistic ideas are disconnected from reality because they lack self-awareness of the source of their ideas, ideas that are not necessarily emotionally based. It is just as if the idea suddenly "popped into my head," which is a refrain often heard from rationalists in explaining their insight. I think that, in a real sense, the rationalistic idea really "popped" into existence, an automatic integration perhaps of loose thinking, accepted uncritically due to lack of proper introspection.

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What are yours grounds for presuming thinking processes are gender indifferent? There are numerous examples of sexual dimorphism in the brain, both anatomically and neurochemically - in structures thought to be of great importance with regards higher cognitive functions.

These are regulators of physical processes, not the functional equivalent of thought. Thinking is a function of conscious processes, not neural processes.

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These are regulators of physical processes, not the functional equivalent of thought.  Thinking is a function of conscious processes, not neural processes.

But are not conscious processes a function of neural processes?

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These are regulators of physical processes, not the functional equivalent of thought.  Thinking is a function of conscious processes, not neural processes.

But are not conscious processes a function of neural processes?

No. They are a function of consciousness.

Charles, if you want to pursue this issue, I suggest you start a separate thread, or append this to a thread where we have discussed this issue before.

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1. WHAT IS RATIONALISM?

Rationalism is the philosophical belief that man obtains knowledge by "logically" (syllogistically) deducing inferences from concepts already inside his mind. (Forget about how they got there.)

What makes a question, position, or an argument rationalistic is not the content itself (the words used) but the approach to arriving at it. Does the approach check to see what the observable facts of reality are -- or, rationalistically, does it never question ideas already held, as givens?

Something which may help when it comes to the question of rationalism and its relation to emotionalism is an identification of the epistemological base of rationalism.

Upon what view of concepts does rationalism rest?

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I wish it did, but I am left still seeking an answer to my original question. Thanks anyway.

There's a timely article in the November 4, 2005 issue of Science, pp. 819-823, that I found very interesting, titled "Sex Differences in the Brain: Implications for explaining Autism." It definitely touches on relevant issues regarding male/female brain and cognition differences, looking at the issue in terms of the "E-S" theory:

"The E-S theory proposes that psychological sex differences are defined by the difference between the dimensions of emphathizing (E) and systemizing (S), and its categorizes individual brain types as type S (S > E, more common in males), type E (E > S, more common in females), or type B (E=S, in those who are equally proficient at empathizing and systemizing.)"

Some additional, surprising (to me) things stated there: "... When 1-day-old babies are presented with either a live face or a mechanical mobile, girls spend more time looking at the face, whereas boys prefer the mechanical object."

Anatomically, the article also states that, on average, the cerebrum of males is 9% larger than in females, mostly in the white matter of the brain. This is especially true of autistics, further emphasizing the difference. As a result, the corpus callosum, the neural bundle connecting the hemispheres of the brain, is actually smaller in males (lack of room?), resulting in diminished inter-hemispherical communication. Perhaps that explains why men would have a harder time integrating thoughts with emotional feedback.

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