But how? Part eight: Getting emotional

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 8

This is an extension of some thoughts that came up from doing this post, and highlights a sudden realization that I had. While I’m embarrassed that I never tumbled to it before, at least consciously, it’s also something that I suspect a lot of people never recognize. I’ve made it part of the “But How?” series because understanding it requires doing away with a perspective that fails to adequately explain it; by understanding the biological basis, so much of our behavior makes a hell of a lot more sense. So let’s look at emotions.

While it’s not particularly subtle, many people never realize that religion is heavily tied to emotions, so much so that emotional reactions are actually used to prove that god exists – epiphany, awe, euphoria, and so on. And there’s a common conception that science somehow dictates that emotions shouldn’t exist (at the bottom of that list.) I suspect the latter stems from a misunderstanding, which I’ll cover shortly.

My approach with these posts is to show how a world without a creator or intelligent guiding force actually makes more sense, and serves to explain numerous aspects that we can readily witness. Those who believe in a soul, or a special detached sense of self apart from the mere physical existence of our brains, always refer to emotions of one kind or another as demonstrations of this mind/brain (or body/self) duality. Yet, we know that emotions can be provoked in simple ways, and altered even more easily – drugs, for example, and pain, and there’s even support for chocolate contributing to this (great – now I’m hungry.) And emotions make perfect sense in a biological entity, provided that no one tries to elevate their function into something transcendent. When a bird seeks a mate and starts their courtship displays, have they been taught to do so? No, we understand that this is instinctual – but the mistake that is often made is that the bird is doing this as an automaton, performing actions without any thought behind it. This is partially because we believe that conscious thought sits entirely apart from ‘instinctual’ demands. Yet the bird, when danger threatens, abandons such displays in favor of taking flight. Both of these are simply encouragements in the brain towards certain behaviors – not the brain acting as a puppet master per se, but making suggestions that this would be a good thing to do, and often providing rewards for doing so. That’s what emotions do.

When we finish a puzzle or solve a mystery, we’re pleased, sometimes even elated. Why? What purpose does this serve? When we see an attractive person, we get a positive boost, even when our relationship situation is stable and quite satisfying. Why? This makes no sense. When someone takes our food from the work fridge, we’re pissed – even though it amounts to only a mild inconvenience. Feel free to construct the elaborate mechanism that permits religion to explain these while we proceed.

All of these reactions within prod us towards behavior that helps us survive. They’re not what we consider cognitive thought, yet they’re inextricably tied to such, because they provide the motives behind our behaviors and decisions. Nobody sits down weighing the options of when it’s a good time to reproduce; instead, we weigh the factors that say, “Not now,” because the drive to reproduce is near-constant. We hear a baby crying, even when it’s not ours, and have the compulsion to stop it, though it serves no advantage to us – except perhaps for our nerves. But then again, why does this get on our nerves? ‘Instinct’ is the name we often give to the internal chemical reactions to certain external stimuli. We don’t think, in these cases, we react. Demonstrate, in any way that you like, that this is different from the courtship display of birds.

As indicated above, we don’t follow these blindly, and often countermand their influences when our conscious thought recognizes the limitations of following them. This is the important distinction that needs to be made when we speak in terms of the biological ‘design.’ Natural selection helps promote the beneficial changes that occur to existing biological structures, because that’s all that it can do, and no goal or end product is in sight – only what helps the organism survive to pass on those traits. It’s inexact, especially when conditions change far faster than genetic variations can be accepted throughout a populace (e.g., the last couple thousand years of ‘civilization.’) Biologists and sociologists that discuss the tendencies towards polygamous [one husband, multiple wives] behavior in humans run into a lot of mental resistance to the idea because our cultures dictate otherwise now, but eons ago when our survival was highly questionable, it was perhaps a very functional urge to possess. That it no longer applies now is not a condemnation of any existing tendencies; nor is it indicative that this is what we’re supposed to do. Yet if we recognize this heritage, we understand why, for instance, men and women often display different attitudes towards relationships (I hasten to add that this particular topic is still speculative to a degree.)

Emotions, however, are basic things. The simple criteria that provokes them means that they can take effect at times when they serve no purpose, and might even be counterproductive. Remember, evolution provides a net gain, not necessarily a constant one. Feeling emotional over something could be important, or it could just as easily, perhaps much more likely, be a ‘misfire’ from the simplicity of the triggers. Cute animals mean absolutely nothing for our survival – but cute babies do. Getting aroused by an exotic dancer is distinctly pointless, but it’s useful if they really do want to have sex – at least, from the perspective of the several million years that we had to survive before we’d created dollars to stuff into garters. While emotions are important overall, they’re not important every time they arise.

And yes, they compete sometimes – when triggers are simple, it’s easy to find something that can trigger more than one emotional reaction, even when they seem contradictory. It’s safe to say that people struggle with such things frequently, as the feelings that we have to obey parents fights with the drive to be independent, or have sex. Perhaps it arises with the realization that something is wrong clashing with the desire for community cohesiveness, and the negativity over standing out, which may prod someone towards not addressing the problem (think “cult” if it helps, but it happens much more often than that.) Emotions aren’t much of a guide in such situations, but someone who allows their feelings to take precedent over their rationality not only puts themselves into a conflict that might otherwise be easy to resolve, they’re also likely to be following something that does not apply to the situation, based on a sense of false importance.

Most people that feel emotional at christian revivals assign great significance to these feelings, despite the fact that a muslim attending doesn’t feel a thing. If emotions were special indicators, it stands to reason that they should take effect throughout the species, doesn’t it? And why should they take effect in a revival rather than while brushing our teeth? If strong emotions are indicative of something, then rock concerts and celebrity appearances are important, right? The Tarheels going all the way is a sign, then? Well, sure – they’re all a sign that emotions can be provoked from tribalism, community interaction, and even expectations. Getting soppy over a romantic movie, a blatant work of fiction intended to exploit emotions, shows us the strength of the drives we have to relate to one another, and to associate ourselves empathetically. These tendencies are useful for tribal cohesion – but completely misplaced when it comes to mere entertainment. In effect we’re knowingly, and happily, fooling ourselves in lieu of real romance.

This differentiation is where science gets a bad reputation sometimes. While centuries of experience with emotional blindness has demonstrated that interpreting facts and test results accurately is better served by detachment, many people take this to mean that science dictates that emotions are bad. What it really means is that they are not dependable guides – no one has ever, to my knowledge, argued that emotions should be eradicated, and it would be impossible to do so. But the wicked tendency for humans to believe there are only ever two sides to anything doesn’t permit the concept of inaccurate emotions to punch through – “Are they good or bad?” demand the drooling troglodytes with simple brains. They are neither; they just exist. The actions that we are incited to by them are the only things we can consider good or bad.

And that’s indicative of another common mistake. Emotions are goads towards behavior, not ends to themselves. All too frequently we chose to indulge them to receive the internal rewards, as if these are the goals we should be seeking. We are a species of drug addiction, including alcohol, because it provides good feelings, however fleeting. We engage in constant activities that serve no purpose except to spark some reaction, whether it’s skateboarding or chasing loose women or nature photography. Emotional rewards are what we live for, which is fine, but fooling them is fraught with the danger of leading to destructive behavior as well. The very frequent argument that religion is important because it makes people feel good is just as applicable to drug use. And of course, the large number of people that religion doesn’t make feel good somehow isn’t part of the equation. More ironic, however, is the amount of time spent arguing that religion promotes good behavior, which is directly counter to the idea above that religion itself provides the satisfaction. That anyone could engage in good behavior and receive satisfaction from that, eliminating the middleman of religion entirely, doesn’t occur to enough people – probably because the satisfaction isn’t from doing good, but only from bearing a label of such provided by their religion automatically, like a Medal of Honor awarded for joining the club. That, in itself, indicates that emotions are too easy to fool.

Science fiction is riddled with the idea of the thinking robot or machine, a sapient construction that possesses emotions like we do. And it’s not just science fiction, because many people believe this should be the goal of artificial intelligence. It’s pointless in this respect, because emotions are systems that guide us towards a beneficial outcome, something that has already been established when it was decided that a machine needed to be made to accomplish it. Machines have no need to feel if they are tasked only with accomplishing the goal that our feelings have to prod us towards. We think an emotional machine is a high achievement, but this is probably only because we have emotions to relate to what’s similar to ourselves – we’re happier with the idea of an emotional robot than an emotionless machine (or even an indifferent universe.) That this is an emotion in itself that helps keep our attention directed towards our own species is rarely considered. Another bit of irony: since we’re more likely to trust the advice of a ‘feeling’ machine than an unfeeling one, we stand the chance of having to fake emotions in a machine for no reason other than to satisfy our own emotions. If this seems farfetched, tell me what voice your GPS uses…

The most difficult part of all this is determining how and when the influences of our emotions result in behavior that is actually detrimental. Their positive feedback within our thoughts, the very nature of emotions, means that part of our minds already says, “this is good,” and it takes careful examination to determine that it’s not – something that we’re not inclined to do unless we see obvious problems. I don’t have a simple answer to this, save for my experience in pursuing critical thinking and seeing the changes that it made. The knowledge that emotions can be inaccurate is a great start, reducing the idea that they’re important. What might also help is remembering to stop and examine one’s motivations before embarking on any major undertaking. Once we see the flaws in something, the emotional attachment often reduces or vanishes entirely.

Again, this should not be taken to mean that emotions should be disregarded – we could never accomplish this anyway, but even if we tried, we wouldn’t achieve what we’d like. We’re motivated to pursue anything that we do because of emotions, and in many (most?) cases this has positive effect. Everything is, to some extent, self-indulgent – even working our asses off in third-world countries is provoked by empathy, and guilt over unfairness. But even self-indulgence that provides no benefit to others isn’t harmful, as long as it provides no detriment to oneself or others either. There’s nothing bad about feeling good, it just shouldn’t be at the expense of someone else; that we’re so bad about recognizing and following this simple criteria is another example of how emotions aren’t as useful as they should be. But overall, provoking good feelings by building a stronger community, in whatever fashion, is a goal that cannot be argued against.

I need to add something. There is no end of people who see a beautiful sunset, or the elaborate structure of a beehive, and translate their awe into “evidence of god’s touch.” That this was an answer that they wanted to arrive at is obvious, just as obvious as fobbing off terrible things as an ultimately good plan that we cannot fathom, those old “mysterious ways.” However, scientists (and even just those who are really curious) take the same awe from witnessing the same subjects and say, “I wonder why it’s like that?” And then, perhaps, they spend the next five years trying to find out. Every last bit of knowledge that we have was sparked by exactly that kind of awe and curiosity. While the religious person got their personal affirmation, the curious and driven person provided knowledge to the entire race.

So you tell me: who made the most of their emotions?