Since working on my passion maps with Michael H. I took on having emotion play a bigger part in my life and have been musing about what the role of emotions is in the life of this human being. Is it something natural or is it something I created or a bit of both? For me emotions were something to stifle or suppress, something to ignore and often something to enjoy. I’m probably typical of males of my generation who often were taught to suppress emotions, as in not showing fear, not showing tears of joy or sadness for fear of being thought to be a bit of a sissy. A bit of the British stiff upper lip and all that. Emotions of triumph and despair were ok, so long as they were at something like a football game. Feelings of love and lust were also ok, although you might risk being teased over displaying them. Lust was ok so long as it was accompanied by smutty language or the like. As the years went by and I did courses like The Forum, I got more in touch with where I suppressed my emotions and became quite masterful at not doing that anymore, particularly emotions of simple happiness and joy. Weeping during sad movies became something I no longer hid. Giving people a hug stopped being embarrassing. So bit by bit emotions became ok to have, but gradually fell lower and lower in my awareness and importance to me. As I aged I would say my emotional state became one of gentle pleasure about life in general punctuated with moments of real sadness when friends died and now and then huge moments of joy over how good life can be.
It wasn’t until I started going to my men’s group meetings in Taree that I began noticing that emotions lived for me in the background of my life. I kept being asked questions like “what emotion am I feeling right now and where in my body is it?” Very strange questions for me. The other guys claimed to be feeling anger, sadness, joy, confusion or whatever in their back, gut, neck, chest or wherever. I meanwhile wasn’t really feeling anything at all. Ever. Was this normal? Were they stringing me along? Did I actually have feelings and emotions happening for me but they were very under-developed, to the point of not being noticeable? Did I have emotions but just wasn’t in touch with them? I still don’t know.
Another thing about emotions or feelings more particularly is how often I’ve met people who say that they must have strong feelings about something in order to take action. They claim to use their emotions as part of their decision making process. While I’ve often noticed that I have strong emotions at times of decision-making, especially big decisions, I’ve always put the feelings to one side as best I could and looked to logic and reason to do the choosing. Fear of pain at the dentist never stopped me from making appointments to have my teeth checked. Fear of rejection never (well hardly ever) stopped me from asking a girl out on a date. And often I’ve had large fears, like fear of public speaking, and have made huge efforts to master such fears. While I never worked out what the role emotions were to play in my life, I knew bringing them into my decision-making wasn’t what I considered a wise thing to do and I would doubt that I’ve ever done anything big based on an emotional reaction to things. My motto has been along the lines of never make important decisions when in an emotional state. Have a clear head and think things through.
I’m one who thinks that emotions are there as automatic programming precisely because thinking is so slow by comparison. I think that emotions served us well in our early days when fight or flight or be still was all the action that we needed. Emotional situations are likely always accompanied with chemical injections into the blood getting us ready for battle or running. I’m sure that our earliest attempts at some form of social system came out of a need to address things like Fred whapping Peter over the head because Peter was fooling around with someone that Fred had an eye on.
Sometimes it’s not easy to pick something out as an emotion. The big ones, like fear, anger, jealousy, joy that almost sweep away everything else are not all that there is. What about something like curiosity? Is that an emotion or something else? Do we need another category? I would call it an emotion, a feeling because it comes automatically. Speaking for myself, I’ve always considered myself to be a why person with what was probably an encouraged sense of curiosity. I can’t ever remember saying something to myself like “Hey, asking questions about things I don’t know is kind of cool. I think I’ll do that more.” I could call it an instinct, something always there that I didn’t have to learn. But I’m also a bit leery about using words like instinct.
Connecting to another subject altogether, I think of Ludwig von Mises and Human Action and the premise that humans act because of an unease that they wish to resolve. This unease is a general catch all for something that would be an emotion. What the explicit unease is at the time is irrelevant for the principle of human action. It could be jealousy, curiosity, boredom, hunger… Is hunger an emotion? Maybe thirst and hunger should be put into the emotional category as the most fundamental, primal ones. One born without these likely dies soon. Like being born without a sense of physical pain.
We all have emotions. Life without emotions is likely impossible and certainly not desirable. Even to use phrases like a desirable life becomes an exercise in self-referential circularity.
So in my brief reflection and introspection on emotions would leave me to conclude that emotions are the spice of life. Perhaps ultimately emotions are the characteristic that would distinguish life from an android. Until the android experiences emotions, it is just a computer. And maybe that’s all we are: emotion-experiencing computers. This is hardly original thinking on my part, but I think it should play a vital part in coming up with a definition for what makes one a living, reasoning being.
It’s interesting to think about numerous science fiction themes that involve intelligent robots taking over human systems. Asimov went so far as to create his three laws of robotics in an intellectual attempt to show how this might be circumvented. I think two categories of thought are necessary for human progress. One is to create and agree upon conceptual definitions. For example “rational being” might include the property of emotion. Two would be to also agree to the consequential actions from our definitions and practice those agreements. For example, we would conclude that it’s wrong to use force or compulsion against rational beings and therefore would not do so. As I see it, it’s this consistent practice of the principles where we humans fall down. We are learning but somehow don’t have a simple philosophy of life that is in the mainstream that one can align with.
That all being an aside, I see emotions as being experiential and something that we share with our higher life forms. But by themselves emotions are kind of useless for much other than giving us some sort of personal weather report. They tell us what our automatic system says is happening. But they don’t tell us whether or not the report is correct. A simple remembering of the Pavlov dog experiment tells us that we can mess with our emotion-feeling-drive system and trick it. And now I think I’ll start getting into thinking.