This article is part of a series on Philosophy of Emotion. See also:
1. Guilt; 2. Love; 3. Emotion

This is a philosophical and psychological study of emotion. Where did it come from? How does it change humankind? What, finally, are the ultimate ramifications of these changes?

Emotion originated in a biological need to overrule logical judgments. This capacity to transcend logic, now, plays a central role in establishing perceived human free will. Growing from this emotional freedom, finally, we’ll encounter flavor, purpose, and life itself. Let’s begin.


Emotion, I argue, evolved biologically as a mechanism for the annulment of logic.

Humans and other animals are equipped with a standard library of tools for logical decision-making. These include weighing costs and benefits, anticipating consequences, and designing means to particular ends.

In certain recurring biological situations, our standard library might fail us, consistently leading to evolutionarily inferior decisions. Emotion, in these situations, forces us to act otherwise. “Many evolutionary biologists… acknowledge some emotions primarily for their survival function,” writes Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson in When Elephants Weep [1]. “For both animals and humans, fear motivates the avoidance of danger, love is necessary to care for the young, anger prepares one to hold ground” (1). This theory seems to hold water. The situations in which logic most seems that it would fail are precisely those in which emotion exists.

This theory encounters only some minor philosophical challenges.

On what basis can we claim that emotion is distinct from logic in the first place? First, well, emotion feels different – emotional and logical states have different qualitative characters – though this subjective assertion might seem unsatisfying to some. Additionally, though, we often recognize the simultaneous presence of both emotional and logical impulses. “I know logically that I should cease thinking about her,” a love-struck youth might quip. “But I can’t.” Because these reasoning systems simultaneously push us in different directions, we must conclude that they’re distinct.

Why couldn’t evolution simply have modified our logic, instead of adding emotion? Logical facilities, presumably, adhered to some non-arbitrary, objectively consistent set of reasoning principles. Modifications could have undermined this logic’s overall effectiveness, or, more subtly, its internal credibility. Behavioral economists would be quick to point out that our logical system is not without its flaws. Perhaps, then, evolution did indeed shape our logic, though only in small ways. Finally, evolution is not perfect and our present outcome could have simply been a mistake.

Emotion, then, originated as a mechanism for the transcendence of logic.


Emotion plays an important role in human identity, formalizing our rejection of logic and facilitating our sense of freedom.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground [2], the narrator envisions a world where perfect logic reigned. “All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms,” he imagines. “I say, gentlemen,” he suggests later, “hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!” Dostoevsky is onto something very important.

The rejection of logic seems fundamental, not just to survival, but to human freedom. This conclusion is plausible: perfectly following logical laws, we’d feel constrained by them; constrained by these decrees, we’d lack a sense of agency.

Emotion “institutionalizes” our rejection of logical laws. We could, of course, choose to reject logic even if we didn’t have emotion. Emotion, though, makes this rejection consistent. It makes it an ineradicable part of us. Our tendency to follow emotion has a broader, deeper, and more philosophical consequence: it preserves our sense of freedom.

Why can’t we exercise our free will by following, and not breaking, logical laws? We could, I think – at least for a while. But this would soon become a paradoxical game. We’d act as if we were machines, though assuring ourselves all the while that we were free. The mental tension would build. Eventually, we’d find ourselves desperate simply to “prove” to ourselves that we were indeed free. Lacking a regulated emotional release, in fact, we might be forced – recall the psychopath’s “boredom” – to eschew reason in more destructive ways. The need for this freedom-confirming release seems inescapable.

Why don’t humans take things a level further, and, perceiving emotional dictates too as obstacles, strive to supersede them? Emotions are too poorly understood – too seemingly anti-logical – to threaten our sense of autonomy. Logic threatens our freedom because logical solutions are definitive and unique. There’s precisely one answer. Emotion, though, lacks this structural rigidity. Emotion’s prescriptions aren’t definitive and unique, but indeterminate and open-ended. They don’t constrain our freedom in the same way. Emotion pushes us in the direction of release, without forcefully doing so.

Emotion acts as a regulatory mechanism for our freedom-permitting rejection of logical laws.


On top of all this – would you believe it – emotion offers us incredible flavor and meaning.

Emotions can range from painful to pleasant. The ability to experience these flavorful feelings, though, seems vastly more important than their content. This assertion seems true, and I believe it. The role of logical philosophy in convincing you of it, though, seems to be waning, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. This brings me to my next point.

Emotion also plays a central role in permitting larger meaning. In contrast to passive free will, I refer here to active meaning: relationships, values, and philosophical understanding. Emotion, often in the face of logic, forms the primary basis for many of these important convictions. “If we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists,” observes William James, “the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial… If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits” [3].

Raskolnikov’s seven years become a mere seven days. Petrarch’s tormented life takes on a hue of shining glory. Religious experience becomes possible. The world takes on flavor, purpose, and life.

The reason is emotion.

  1. When Elephants Weep, about emotion in animals.
  2. Notes from Underground, full text
  3. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience

4 comments on “Emotion

  1. Josh says:

    Your argument seems to present a dichotomy between emotional and logical decisions. “Emotion evolved biologically as a mechanism for the annulment of logic,” you argue. Decisions are either logical or emotional; emotion helps us make decisions where logic alone would fail.

    This doesn’t seem to paint a complete picture, though. Plenty of times, emotion agrees with logic. “I know she’s a great catch—and I love her, too!” (Note that, here, your description of emotion as that which opposes logic falls out the window). Other times, our logic alone might be correct, but emotion actually drives us towards a sub-optimal choice. Gambling, anyone?

    Today in PSYC 440 Cognitive Neuroscience, I asked what qualitatively distinguishes thoughts that arise from reason from those which arise from emotion. Dr. Tjan replied that I might be asking the wrong question. Why must reason and emotion be distinguished in the first place? Reason and emotion are orthogonal, he argued, not mutually exclusive. Emotion is a complement to reason, not an alternative.

    We might envision a coordinate plane on which all decisions can be plotted. On the x-axis is emotional involvement in that decision: decisions can range from unguided by emotion to heavily-guided by emotion. And on the y-axis is logical soundness: decisions range from very sound to very unsound.

    A decision might end up in any of the four quadrants of the plane. Your essay primarily concerns those decisions which are both emotionally-motivated and logically-sound (but which would have wound up unsound without emotion—perhaps what the decision would have been without logic could be a third axis in our coordinate system).

    In any case, I think we’re reaching a more complete framework for emotion’s role in decision-making. So here’s where it gets interesting. The standard motif for emotionally-influenced logic that you describe, in which emotion sways a choice from logical unsoundness to logical soundness, is actually very common, and this can be tested scientifically. Emotion does, indeed, help us make correct choices where logic alone would fail. In the Iowa Gaming Task, subjects are allowed to draw 100 cards from four decks. Each deck contains an assortment of prize and punishment cards, which win and lose subjects money, respectively. The qualifier: two decks contain larger prizes than punishments, thus producing a positive expected value and an overall advantageous deck. The other two decks are disadvantageous. Note, though, that the disadvantageous decks tend to have larger prizes than the advantageous decks (though the punishments are huge).

    Iowa Gaming Task in VMPFC Patients

    In the above study, patients with Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC) lesions, along with controls, performed the Iowa Gaming Task. VMPFC lesion patients are said to be incapable of experiencing emotion—and this is verified by the fact that physiological arousal, as measured by skin conductance, was low throughout the task. (Here, we have a better means for distinguishing emotion and reason: only one necessarily produces physiological arousal!) The result was fascinating: VMPFC lesion patients performed much worse at the gaming task! It looks like emotion really does help us make logical decisions.

    Decisions might fall anywhere in the four quadrants of our coordinate plane. But the data shows that those decisions that are emotionally-motivated also tend to be logically-sound! A positive correlation between these two variables emerges.

    Dr. Antonio Damasio (whom I had the pleasure of seeing speak today in PSYC 440) proposes the somatic marker hypothesis of emotion, in which emotional involvement is actually the independent variable in the above-mentioned coordinate plane. That is, emotional arousal comes first, and logical decisions are permitted by this emotional arousal. Emotion is far from the enemy of and distractor from logic that many have made it out to be.

    • Josh says:

      A few more points: emotion leads us towards decisions that are logically-sound. However, note that this notion of logical soundness works at the level of the gene, not the individual. Emotion might lead us to a decision that hurts the self but helps an immediate family member. This provides an explanation for altruism (which is discussed in-depth in When Elephants Weep). Emotion creates a brighter world for the individual, and also helps ensure the survival of the species. Note, though, that this could come at the expense of the individual’s survival.

      As for the Underground Man: my feeling is that he didn’t rebel as much against logic alone, but more against the fact that emotion so often corroborates logic. “I want to be rich, popular, and successful, since it’s logical to want those things. But I’m sick of wanting what’s logical!”. Emotion is complex and flexible enough that a more powerful emotion (the desire to escape the tethers of standard emotional desires) can trump less powerful ones (standard emotional desires).

    • Ben says:

      I don’t think that my “description of emotion as that which opposes logic” has fallen out of any windows, or, for that matter, that it ever existed in the first place. I claimed that emotion can override flawed logic, and that it evolved to serve this occasionally important role. I didn’t argue that emotion must contradict logic, and I certainly didn’t argue that it’s defined in terms of this role. Similarly, I didn’t argue that emotion could never contradict logic incorrectly. Emotion, sometimes, correctly overrides flawed logic. It evolved for this reason. That was the scope of my claim.

      Your professor’s response that “Reason and emotion are orthogonal” scarcely settles your question regarding how to distinguish them. If they’re orthogonal, they’re still, of course, different, and we must still explain how they’re different. “Orthogonal” is not the opposite of “distinguishable”! Later, you offer a few proposals: you suggest, for example, that “only [emotion] necessarily produces physiological arousal!” This is closer. But I think we can do better.

      We might do well to resist the temptation to define emotion in terms of its physiological correlates altogether. Where can we proceed? Let’s perform a miniature anthropological study on the English language. When we say the word “emotion”, what do we mean? You’d be hard-pressed to argue that English speakers, saying the word “emotion”, refer to a collection of brain activities systematically associated with physiological arousal. Absolutely not! The word “emotion” refers, instead, to a special handful of subjective conscious states which feel a certain way. Why should we expect something as complicated and poorly-understood as subjective conscious states to trivially reduce to physiology? If they did, moreover, why would we seek to perform this reduction? Defining emotion, indeed, we should consult our intuition. Let’s extract a natural meaning.

      Your decision, I believe, leads you to a conceptual misdirection in the next paragraph. You cite evidence suggesting that what you’ve here defined as emotion — i.e., a certain unspecified collection of brain activities which produces physiological arousal — improves performance in logical tasks. This is correct, and I accept this. But does your claim — that emotion as physiologically defined supports logical decision-making — support my claim — that emotion as intuitively defined supports logical decision-making? This would follow if, say, physiological emotion were a (not necessarily strict) superset of intuitive emotion. Is it?

      Well if it’s a superset, it’s certainly also a strict one. The physiological “emotion” associated with skin-conductance has been implicated in tasks as trivial as picking a color out of two. We should view with suspicion a definition of “emotion” which includes something as trivial as, say, “the feeling of choosing red”.

      Does “intuitive emotion” also support decision-making? I think so.

  2. Josh says:

    Let’s sum up all the conclusions we’ve made so far.

    It may be inappropriate to equate physiological arousal as measured by skin conductance to emotion, but the former is necessary for the latter. Indeed, VMPFC patients, who exhibit low skin conductance, also tend to exhibit shallow emotions in the intuitive sense. The link from physiological to intuitive emotion is strengthened by this observation. In any case, though, the best discussion might be fostered by using the word emotion in its intuitive sense, not its physiological sense.

    A decision might be motivated by emotion, or logic, or both, or neither.

    We’re left with the task of differentiating these two “decision-promoting factors”. Well, emotion and reason are certainly qualitatively different. Emotion is a state, while reason is a process. The process of reason might be carried out without the influence of emotion, or under the influence of one or many emotions.

    Before we go further, we should look closer at this notion of reason. Reason can be applied on different scales. Standing on the shores is rational to the individual. Jumping into the river to save a drowning sibling, on the other hand, is rational to the family. What about returning a stolen wallet found on the sidewalk? It doesn’t help the individual or the family. But it helps the group as a whole, and many people would willingly help the group. Even at the individual level, the scale of reason varies. Going out for drinks is rational at the level of the night, but staying in to ace tomorrow’s job interview is rational at the level of the year.

    This dichotomy between shortterm and longterm rationality is evident in the Iowa Gaming Task. Picking the advantageous decks was certainly rational in the longer term, since the expected value was higher. But choosing the disadvantageous decks could be said to be rational in the short term, since the prize was higher on cards that did win ($100 instead of $50). Thus a winning card produces a greater thrill in a disadvantageous deck.

    Perhaps the better question to ask is not is a decision rational but rather on what scale is that decision rational. After all, it seems incredibly rare that anyone would make a choice with no rational basis.

    Now, let’s synthesize everything. Psychopaths, who exhibit limited and shallow emotions, are described as callous and destructive, and are less likely to make choices that we would consider rational at the family or group level. Psychopaths are also described as reckless and impulsive, and tend to favor shortterm reasoning over longterm reasoning at the individual level. Unsurprisingly, VMPFC lesion patients, who exhibit classic short-term reasoning, also tend to exhibit traits associated with psychopathy. On the other hand, an intact VMPFC and high skin conductance permit longer-term reasoning in the Iowa Gaming Task (and certainly elsewhere as well). Furthermore, emotion tends to motivate altruistic actions, including kin and group selection. Putting it all together, we can make the claim that choices made under the influence of emotion will tend to be rational on a larger scale than those choices made outside the influence of emotion.

    Smaller-scale choices tend to be more destructive, while larger-scale rational choices might be said to be more constructive. Thus, emotion helps one lead a constructive lifestyle. Note, though, that those constructive decisions might sometimes sacrifice the individual at the expense of the family or group.

    Next questions: might one apply reason more thoroughly towards emotion in order to achieve certain ends? Relevant article:


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