Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Teleology of Emotions

During my most recent one-on-one Tutorial for OAC class (the subject of which was my last article), Dr. Ghate introduced a very interesting formulation about the function of emotions that I would like to share here. As far as I know (and he knows), the formulation is unique to him, so: the Kudos Delivery Man is making his way to your house, Onkar!

In my paper, I described the function of emotions this way: “They give one an automatic, instantaneous response to percept(s) or imagination, based on previously formed judgments that are stored in the subconscious.” Dr. Ghate did not object to this sentence, but he asked if I could describe the function of emotions from a philosophical, rather than a psychological, perspective. I am used to thinking about emotions from a psychological perspective, so I wasn’t sure what he was looking for. To help clue me in, Ghate said, “Think about it this way. What is the function of the subconscious?” (To be clear, for the purpose of this article, when I use the term “subconscious,” I am referring to the aspect of consciousness that stores and retrieves data in the form of concepts.) Now this question, I had an answer for. I devoted a paragraph to the teleology of the subconscious in my article on Mind-Body Integration. I reproduce it below:

“The teleology of the subconscious must now be considered. Man is able to deal with vast quantities of information because his subconscious provides him information related to whatever his mind is focused on at any particular time. If one's mind is well organized in a hierarchical fashion, then the subconscious will provide information stored close by within the hierarchy. Conceptual units may be interrelated and cross-classified in a variety of ways, and the subconscious aims to provide the focal awareness with related information. For instance, if one is thinking about snakes, his subconscious will send him units related to snakes, like reptile, or animal, or some memory of an encounter with a snake, or some emotion related to snakes (like fear), etc. The information provided depends both on the organization of one's mind and the context in which the idea arises in the focal awareness.”

I gave Dr. Ghate some approximation of this paragraph (including the snake example) during our conversation. Once again, my tack on the question was much more psychological than philosophical. With more prodding from Ghate, I was able to reduce it down to a more fundamental point: The function of the subconscious is to make one’s knowledge immediately available to him. Now how does this relate to emotions? Dr. Ghate finally gave me his answer.

The function of emotion is to make one’s values immediately available to him. This formulation sounds similar to the one I started with, but the comparison to the function of the subconscious opens up more avenues of thought.

The subconscious provides one with an instantaneous stream of data related to whatever he is focusing on. If one is having a discussion about nationalized healthcare, for instance, his subconscious may stand at the ready with data about economics and capitalism generally, the pharma industry in particular, and a variety of related concrete examples. During the discussion, a rational (non-insane) man’s mind would not respond with information about puppies, black holes, and the Illiad, because these things are not directly relevant. This has survival value, because the data stored in one’s subconscious can become vast over a lifetime. If one had to manually sort through every piece of knowledge he ever acquired for each new process of thought, he would be utterly paralyzed.

Because the functioning of the subconscious is automatic, it cannot do one’s thinking for him. While one is discussing nationalized healthcare, his mind will provide him with many different items of knowledge. But one must choose which ideas to focus on, how to organize them in his focal awareness, and how to present them in conversation. If one were to simply blurt out everything that his subconscious brought to mind, he would be unable to utter a complete thought. He would wander from subject to subject, never completing a sentence, never communicating anything effectively, neither to himself nor anyone else. (Those who have known me for a while may recognize this as an exact description of the 17-year-old Dan trying to explain Objectivism :)

Also, even a healthy mind may provide data that are seemingly relevant, but which do not in fact lead one in the right direction. In thinking about the ills of government-sponsored health insurance, one’s mind may wander to whether or not he paid his insurance premium this month. One must keep his mind focused in order to filter out data that is nonessential in any particular context. One has a crucial epistemological responsibility to separate his conscious and subconscious mind, and always to organize and evaluate the ideas that are automatically provided by the subconscious.

Emotions, too, have survival value because they reduce one’s values into an instantaneous response to whatever one is focusing on. Just as one’s knowledge becomes vast over time, so one’s evaluations become vast. If every is implies an ought, then there are as many (implicit) evaluations stored in one’s mind as there are items of knowledge. If one had to manually sort though every judgment he ever made, or could make, before choosing a course of action, he would be paralyzed.

But emotions are also automatic, and they cannot be used as a substitute for thinking. When discussing nationalized healthcare, one may experience a negative emotional response, clueing him in to the fact that it is evil. This emotional response is based on a variety of related evaluations: the value of health care, the value of free trade, and the disvalue of government intervention, to name a few. But one must use his focal awareness to determine which evaluations are relevant in the present context. One’s emotions may conflict with his conscious evaluations, in which case only reason can resolve the conflict.

Also, even a healthy mind may provide automatized evaluations that are seemingly relevant, but are in fact nonessential. For instance, imagine that a doctor is having the nationalized healthcare discussion with a new acquaintance whom he judges to be fundamentally rational, but who retains some bad ideas. And this acquaintance is defending nationalized healthcare partially as a devil’s advocate. The doctor, who is intimately familiar with the evil effects of socialized medicine, may experience an overwhelmingly negative emotional response. He may feel himself growing very angry. But he is angry at the idea and its consequences, not at this new acquaintance who is honestly trying to unravel the issue for himself. It would be wrong of the doctor to lash out at his potential new friend. Again, one must keep his mind focused in order to filter out data that is nonessential in any particular context.

I think this comparison of the subconscious to emotions is brilliant, and I want to thank Dr. Ghate for the formulation. I must add that, while I think that Ghate would agree with most of what I wrote here, he only presented the formulation in general terms. The examples and extrapolations are all mine.

The broader point, and the one which I wish to develop further in the future, is that the mental mechanism for the subconscious and for emotions is the same. I believe that the mind treats automatized concepts, memories, physical motions, evaluations, and emotions as interrelated units. One can follow the development of this theory by reading The Psycho-Epistemology of Acting, Mind-Body Integration, and The Psycho-Epistemology of Sexuality (especially part III.) I’ll get around to writing a book about it one of these days.

Thanks for reading,

--Dan Edge

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Rational Man's Approach to Emotions

This assignment was written for my "SARPO" class at the Objectivist Academic Center, and is the property of the OAC. It does not necessarily represent the views of the OAC or the Ayn Rand Institute. I reproduce it here with permission.


Explain, by means of an example(s), the “crucial epistemological responsibility” [OPAR p.161] which follows from the fact that emotions are not a means of grasping reality. What is a rational individual’s approach to emotions and their role in his life? Explain in some detail.


Objectivism holds that reason is man's only means to knowledge, i.e., his only faculty for identifying reality. Emotions, by contrast, are not tools of cognition, but are a derivative response to automatized evaluations. In OPAR, Dr. Peikoff argues that one has a "crucial epistemological responsibility" to "grasp the distinction between reason and emotion." This short essay will discuss how a rational man ought to view the role of emotions in his life.

Emotions are one's psycho-somatic response to his automatized evaluations about the world around him. They give one an automatic, instantaneous response to percept(s) or imagination, based on previously formed judgments that are stored in the subconscious. For instance, one will be saddened by the news that an old friend has died. One does not have to think about all the good times he spent with his friend, or about the many virtues his friend possessed, or about the value one places on friendship as such. All of these judgments and memories are stored in the subconscious, and when one hears that his friend has died, sadness is the immediate, automatic response. On the other hand, one will experience joy when he perceives some aspect(s) of reality that he believes is good for him, like an admissions acceptance letter from his college of choice. In both cases, one's emotions are responding to something he perceives, as evaluated by automatized generalizations stored in his subconscious.

It is crucial to acknowledge that emotions -- as an automatic, derivative response to previously formed judgments -- do not provide direct evidence about reality. Emotional responses are not volitional. Without the use of reason, one has no means of determining whether his emotions are responding to valid or invalid evaluations. Emotions can never be used as a substitute for logical thinking.

The "epistemological responsibility" to maintain a proper distinction between reason and emotion is necessary because it is not always clear to what, precisely, one's emotions are responding. For instance, one could see a woman on the street and get a bad feeling about her, but be unable to identify the source of his emotion. Perhaps she resembles his mother, whom he secretly hates. Perhaps she reminds one of himself, whom he loathes. Perhaps she has the shifty manner of a thief. There could be any number of reasons why one may get a bad feeling from looking at someone, some rational and some irrational. The only way to tell the difference is to explicitly identify the source of one's subconscious evaluations -- and to evaluate them using his full focal awareness.

While emotions and reason are naturally in harmony, they can sometimes seem to be in conflict. Reason and emotions do not in fact conflict, they only seem to do so. It is ideas that conflict. There are no contradictions in reality, so if one's reason and his feelings appear to be in opposition, then either his conscious or subconscious evaluations are flawed, and he must use reason to resolve the conflict. For instance, one may feel anxiety as his young business grows. The cause for this may be that, on some level, he does not believe that he deserves success. On the other hand, perhaps he is anxious because, despite his current success, he is letting things lapse in the business (like proper accounting practices or quality control).

In the first example, the man's emotions are reacting to an irrational premise in his subconscious. There's nothing actually wrong with his business's success, but he feels as if it's a bad thing. He feels this way because of a false, unchecked idea stored in his mind: that he does not deserve success. If he focuses his mind on the source of his anxiety, he can (given time) discover this unchecked premise and work towards expelling it from his subconscious. But only reason can identify the source of the emotion and determine whether or not it is valid. The feeling itself provides no automatic guidance to evaluate its cause.

In the second example, the man's emotions are reacting to rational premises, and are warning him about dangers that he has failed explicitly to identify. Success in business cannot last if one allows his accounting practices and quality control to lapse. But in the excitement of the moment, one's failures in these areas could be overlooked. If he endeavors to discover the cause of his anxiety, he will find that his subconscious is giving him a reasonable kick in the butt. Again, the feeling itself provides no automatic guidance to evaluate its source -- only reason can provide such guidance.

If one experiences a reason/emotion conflict in an emergency situation, then he must act according to his best (reasoned) judgment in the moment, without full knowledge of the nature of the conflict, and then work to resolve it as soon as possible after the emergency is over. For example, a battered woman thinks that her life will be in danger if she stays with her husband. But she still loves him, and does not want to leave. If in her best judgment, she truly believes her husband is a threat, then she ought to leave and try to untangle her mixed emotions for him after the immediate danger is over.

In all these cases -- and in any case where reason and emotion seem to conflict -- the rational man uses reason as the final arbiter of truth, and the ultimate guide to his actions. He does this because reason is his only connection to reality. Emotions are automatic responses to previously formed generalizations, some of which may be mistaken, or left over from childhood, or simply forgotten about. Reason and emotion are naturally harmonious, but this harmony is only possible to the man who acknowledges reason as his only means of knowledge.

Reason/emotion conflicts are not always the result of vice. Their source can be perfectly innocent, like irrational premises left over from a bad childhood, or simply honest error. But it is not enough to acknowledge that the conflict should not exist. One must explicitly identify the source of the error and correct it. Sometimes there are a web of errors tangled up in one's subconscious, and deciphering them can take years. While one is working towards bringing his reason and emotions into harmony, he must keep in mind the continual need to make the implicit explicit.

For the rational man, there are no "bad" emotions. Emotions are neither good nor bad -- they are automatic, and cannot be evaluated as such. Of course, one can evaluate the ideas behind the emotions, but this does not mean that an emotion that responds to an irrational idea is "bad." This is an important distinction, because some people wrongly ignore what they judge to be "bad" emotions. For instance: after a young Objectivist has sex for the first time, he feels dirty without knowing why. But he knows that there is nothing wrong with sex. The young man believes that he isn't supposed to feel dirty after sex, so he simply ignores the emotion, and discards it as unimportant. This is a serious error, as it leaves the fundamental psychological conflict unresolved.

It must be stressed that Objectivism does not advocate emotional repression. The rational man does not ignore his emotions, he uses them as a guide to his own psychology. But this is not the same thing as using emotions as tools of cognition. Emotions have survival value because they provide an immediate awareness of one's automatized evaluations. Such information can be useful in helping one decide what he ought to focus on. Consider the example above about the man who feels anxiety when his business starts to succeed. This feeling of fear, whether rationally justified or not, gives one a clue that something is wrong here. Whether his feelings are responding to a fundamental lack of self-esteem or an actual problem with his business, one is prompted to look at the conflict and untangle its cause. If he strives to identify and fix the problems, whether they are problems with his psychology or his business, then either way he will have become a better man.

Only the rational man can experience a life rich in emotional depth. When one's subconscious is free of contradictions, then his emotions are undiluted by conflicts. All of his values, explicit and implicit, are in unison. A deep, intense feeling of happiness is the rational man's reward for a life well-lived.

--Dan Edge