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,