Emotion=soul?

So, not long after I put up a post about deconstructing arguments, I find an example about arguments that really don’t need it, because they weren’t even constructed in the first place. Over at RichardDawkins.net, we get to see a classic example of what passes for journalism these days, where some nitwit named Giles Fraser attempts to address a non-issue and derive some kind of non-statement from it, without ever bothering to understand what it is he’s writing about. Clueless journalists, however, aren’t the topic of my post here, any more than saying the sky is blue. At comment 6 following the article teaser, we have someone making the reply:

“What is the reasoning behind humanism? Why should we attach value to humans who are just a collection of molecules, according to the atheistic worldview?”

… which not only means he couldn’t even be bothered to look up “humanism,” but that he believes atheists deny the existence of emotions as well as gods, as if there’s some connection.

I have to admit, I have never seen any such statement from or about atheism, not even close, and nothing that can possibly be construed this way, from even any tenet of philosophy. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution makes no statement or inference to this effect – about the best that can be said is that humans are only one of many related animal species, distinguishable in no significant way from the rest of the animal kingdom. This has nothing to do with emotions, since many species possess them, but there does seem to be a prevalent misunderstanding that every species except humans operates as an automaton, slave to their instincts and “feeling” nothing.

I’ve faced this same style of argument personally, most amusingly following the complaint that most atheists never addressed the more “nuanced” aspects of religion. There are definitely times when I wished that I could discuss religion with someone who actually examined their arguments first, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The amount of time that is wasted over a debating point that’s a construction of fallacies, ignorance, and outright lies is frightening.

Perhaps the commenter is basing his opinion on misconceptions of Nietzsche’s ideas – too many people feel he espoused both nihilism and immorality, never grasping the idea that this would only be the case if one felt morality and purpose came solely from religion. Or maybe the commenter thinks Ayn Rand’s absurd idea of objectivism forms the backbone of atheist attitudes. The idea that Rand, and perhaps Nietzsche, were atheists somehow makes them atheist role models to those who can’t be bothered with details; humanism has little to do with either of them.

Regardless the misconceptions about humanism and atheism, the basic alternate viewpoint proposed by many seems to be that emotions are what defines our contact with the divine, not just something that sets us apart (supposedly) from other species. I honestly don’t know where this comes from either – I’ve found no scripture, no tenet of faith, not even a popular homily (such as “life begins at conception,” which is far more recent in origin than most suspect) that provides even the basis of this idea. Anyone that has spent any time at all around other species can see that emotions aren’t saved for humans. Nor are they all that hard to understand, any more than an orgasm is, or feeling tired after exertion, or hungry when it’s been a while between meals. It almost pains me to have to point such things out.

But emotion is tied very distinctly into religion, as well as most aspects of new age thinking, and plays no small part in the art world either. Feeling emotional about something is what makes it significant, apparently, and I’ve heard this given as the “proof” of a god more often than I can count. As I’m fond of pointing out, this line of argument must mean that sports have some kind of cosmic significance, since you often don’t see better examples of emotional extremes anywhere else.

And this is why I promote critical thinking above atheism, or alien conspiracy debunking, or anything else; being aware of what constitutes a good argument, and what destroys an argument, simply makes for more reasoned decisions. This is also why we have the scientific method that we do. Feeling strong emotions in connection with rather inane and pointless subjects like “The Pennant” doesn’t really support the idea that these are transcendent in any way; seeing excitement, distrust, or frustration from a family pet means you have to explain these in some way other than “emotions” if you want to keep believing these are things that only humans possess. Watching someone wax rhapsodically over the wonders of tofu or the music of Jimi Hendrix is only another nail in the coffin. Every theory is only as good as the amount of time someone has spent examining the supporting factors, and searching for those factors which effectively disprove it. If such counter-argumentative factors are as easy to find as this, then obviously not much effort was made to ensure that emotions are both human and transcendent.

We have a remarkable, and fairly common, body of knowledge about emotions now – the portions of the brain that activate during certain emotions, the endorphins released, the link to memories, and even the stimulating effects from foods such as chocolate. While we may not have a complete understanding of how the brain works, it’s not like we don’t know what emotions are or where they come from. To connect them to some kind of transcendence makes no sense.

One could argue that strong emotions must have a purpose, and this would work for either an evolutionary or theistic viewpoint. But it’s an example of falling for misleading wording. “Purpose” and “function” are not necessarily the same thing. Most especially, “purpose” is usually taken to denote something that was intended, or consciously guided. But something can have a function without a purpose, like a tree. Moreover, when used in relation to natural selection, it shows a further misunderstanding: selection does not provide solely for function, and it is possible for any species to possess traits that serve no purpose, or which function in non-specific manners. The entire concept of natural selection is that it isn’t guided at all, and relies on survival and reproductive advantages. I’ll address this some more in a later post.

Strong emotions very often provide an advantage, and as such can be said to have a function, but “advantage” is another tricky word – it doesn’t mean “all the time,” or that every time we feel particular emotions there is good reason. We have aggressive, protective tendencies too, using the emotion of anger to ward off predators and protect our families – but fighting over a parking spot has only the tiniest of connections to this, and is pretty pointless from a survival standpoint (or any other.) Emotions can and do spring up from weak causes. Ever cry over a movie? Why? It’s a freaking play, an open lie on the face of it! It does not become mystical because we reacted – it simply exploited our traits towards sympathy. If we can feel affection towards an actor because of the part they played, or hatred towards a politician solely because of their party affiliations, obviously emotions aren’t exactly a foolproof method of divining importance.

Don’t get me wrong – emotions have their uses, and are at least partly responsible for the cultures that we have established. They’re pretty effective in their own way. But the same can be said for any tool, any function, any species on the planet (except fire ants) – this does not make any of them particularly special or potent. Most especially, if we are to make claims of great importance for feelings, we should at the least establish that they’re not so trivially easy to fool, manipulate, or provoke with pointless events.

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