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 . “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 , 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” .
The reason is emotion.
- When Elephants Weep, about emotion in animals.
- Notes from Underground, full text
- William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience