• On Human Emotions

    I am really pressed for time for various reasons just now. Here is a post from my old blog:

    In reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, which has been a slow burner (both in terms of time taken to read it and time taken to get into the really interesting stuff [Now long finished]), I have just started to read about the importance and ontology of emotions. I came to a realisation, explicitly, that emotions are fundamental to our lives. Fundamental by way of giving us the reasons and desire to do all that we do. In fact, without emotion, we wouldn’t get anything done, and would undoubtedly not exist as a species, or as this species.

    When we talk of purpose, we usually derive our life meaning, our purpose back to some sense of happiness, as many utilitarian philosophers have set out. But what is interesting is that without the emotional dimension to this, happiness would be pointless. This is rather tautologous because happiness is good since it makes you happy, as it were. The emotion of happiness, and the pain of sadness, and the emotional pain of (physical) pain itself mean that the key drivers for our sense of purpose are our emotions themselves. It is our ‘head’, our rational minds which go about codifying this and thinking of sensible ways in which to obtain this emotional happiness.

    Perhaps Pinker describes this better (p. 375-6):

    The brain strives to put its owner in circumstances like those that caused its ancestors to reproduce. (The brain’s goal is not reproduction itself; animals don’t know the facts of life, and people who do know them are happy to subvert them, such as when they use contraception.) The goals installed [by natural selection] inHomo sapiens, that problem-solving, social species, are not just the four Fs [i.e., fight, flee, feed, mate]. High on the list are understanding the environment and securing the cooperation of others

    And here is the key to why we have emotions. An animal cannot pursue all its goals at once. If an animal is both hungry and thirsty, it should not stand halfway between a berry bush and a lake, as in the fable about the indecisive ass who starved between two haystacks. Nor should it nibble a berry, walk over and take a sip from the lake, walk back to nibble another berry, and so on. The animal must commit its body to one goal at a time, and the goals have to be matched with the best moments for achieving them…. Different goals are appropriate when a lion has you in its sights, when your child shows up in tears, or when a rival calls you an idiot in public.

    The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting. Because the goals and means are woven into a multiple nested control structure of subgoals within subgoals within subgoals, no sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa (notwithstanding the century of debate within psychology over which comes first). For example, fear is triggered by a signal of impending harm like a predator, a clifftop, or a spoken threat. It lights up the short-term goal of fleeing, subduing, or deflecting danger, and gives the goal high priority, which we experience as a sense of urgency. It also lights up the longer-term goals of avoiding the hazard in the future and remembering how we got out of it this time, triggered by the state we experience as relief. Most artificial intelligence researchers believe that freely behaving robots (as opposed to the ones bolted to the side of an assembly line) will have to be programmed with something like emotions merely for them to know at every moment what to do next. (Whether the robots would be sentient of these emotions is another question, as we saw in Chapter 2.)

    Fear also presses a button that readies the body for action, the so-called fight-or-flight response. (The nickname is misleading because the response prepares us for any time-sensitive action, such as grabbing a baby who is crawling toward the top of a stairwell.) The heart thumps to send blood to the muscles. Blood is rerouted from the gut and skin, leaving butterflies and clamminess. Rapid breathing takes in oxygen. Adrenaline releases fuel from the liver and helps the blood to clot. And it gives our face that universal deer-in-the-headlights look.

    Thus it is these physical and mental expressions of emotion (one could argue the mental expressions are merely conscious expressions of the more fundamental biological and physical processes) that drive us. We are simple animals, really…?

    Category: FeaturedNaturalismPsychologyScience


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • mikespeir

      “…the four Fs [i.e., fight, flee, feed, mate]” Why is he so nasty-nice about the last F? There’s nothing offensive about “fool-around!” ;-)

    • Seek Find

      You blaspheme (no surprise – you want to – you think it gives you power). Our emotions are from an emotional God. He is joyous. He is angry. He is jealous. He is wrathful. He is tender. He is forgiving. He feels pain. One day, will personally get to experience his bank of emotions. I hope to be there on the front row viewing his rise of emotion when you stand before him. Which emotion do you suppose your life and your life’s work will evoke from an emotional God? Can’t wait to see. (I already know what my emotion will be at that moment!)

      • Is this a serious comment? On a philosophical and theological blog?

        Just wondering how an a-temporal, non-corporeal, non-spatial entity so clearly has such emotions.

        Also wondering how an ontologically perfect being has anger and jealousy, especially since he knows everything and is supremely powerful.

        You simply cannot logically derive jealousy and anger from that,

      • Gandolf

        ” I hope to be there on the front row viewing his rise of emotion when you stand before him.Which emotion do you suppose your life and your life’s work will evoke from an emotional God? Can’t wait to see. (I already know what my emotion will be at that moment!) ”

        Short translation : I really cant wait to see Jonathan getting fried

      • Void L. Walker

        So your limitless, all powerful omni deity is an emotional basket case? How can you make such claims about Yahweh’s emotions without understanding Him? If such a pitiable mortal can fathom Him, how simple is God, really? Emotions are not only a human affair, either. Many other animal species have incredible emotional depth.

        So in other words, keep seeking. You clearly haven’t found anything worthy of discussion yet.

      • Luke Breuer

        I suggest looking up schadenfreude, and why it ain’t Christian.

      • “I hope to be there on the front row viewing his rise of emotion when you stand before him. Which emotion do you suppose your life and your life’s work will evoke from an emotional God? Can’t wait to see. (I already know what my emotion will be at that moment!)”

        Let’s look at what this tells me about you, and whether these traits are Christian or not:

        1) boastful
        2) delighting publicly in your own ‘brilliance’ – think about the taxman and the Pharisee
        3) Delighting in the misery of others – Schadenfreude – is just horrible. Do you think Jesus looked to people for forgiveness, or smiled at the window into hell at all those bodies writhing in pain?
        4) presumptuous – believing so forthrightly that you are so perfect as to e favoured in the presence of God.
        5) ignorant – ignorant of the philosophy of religion and the problems with an ontologically perfect entity being so badly anthropomorphised

    • Luke Breuer

      I would add Antonio Damasio’s 1994 Descartes’ Error:

      When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions. (xii)

      A second idea in the book, then, is that the essence of a feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attached to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body. (xviii)

      Longer excerpt over here.

      Also, Paul E. Griffiths’ 1998 What emotions really are: the problem of psychological categories:

      I argue that many emotion concepts will be epistemically unstable. Like traditional concepts of gender, they cannot serve their social functions once those functions are publicly acknowledged. (11)

      In the light of these presuppositions it is surprising that the most successful detailed work on the evolution of emotions—the affect program theory—classifies emotions as evolutionary homologies. (13)

      I know Steven Pinker is controversial, so I wonder how his 2009 update fits into the bigger set of literature on this issue. I have no idea whether Descartes’ Error or What emotions really are are representative or not. Suggestions welcome!

    • Jesus Christ

      As your lord, and savior, can you please make a post on bundle theory?

      • Sarah Palin

        Jesus get a life…

        • Void Walker

          Do you two know eachother? ;-)

    • Sarah Palin

      Do animals have emotions like chimpanzees?

      • is chimpanzee an emotion?

        • Sarah Palin

          I guess, I should have constructed a sentence whose syntax was simple enough that you would have understood. Being that this is the internet, and that I was only making a blog comment, I did not imagine that you would have been confused.
          The following is what my question meant when properly formed: Do animals, like chimpanzee’s, possess or display emotions?

          • Void Walker

            http://www.janegoodall.ca/about-chimp-so-like-us.php Here you go. All the information you could hope for. Intelligence, genetic similarities, emotions.

            • Sarah Palin

              Thanks, I wonder if the evidential problem of evil becomes unsolvable if primates, and our previous hominid ancestors had to suffer pointlessly?

            • Void Walker

              Oh most certainly. Actually, it’s already unsolvable! Poor theists try so fucking hard, though. Kinda sad.

            • Sarah Palin

              They tend to give what is called “skeptical theism” response, but yeah, even that is unconvincing. I think that animal suffering is one of the strongest things about the evidential problem of evil. Even if they try to appeal to original sin, animals do not share in such crime, and it makes no sense that an infinitely loving, perfectly just god, would allow so much hardship befall them.

            • Void Walker

              More importantly, blaming the descendants of Adam and Eve is logically akin to blaming the children of a murderous sociopath. Utterly nonsensical.

          • dude, I was joking. sorry, should have put a smiley face!

            • Void Walker

              Jonathan, you cruel bastard… :-p