Philosophy and Science of Emotions

    Folk Theories of Emotion

    Philosopher Robert Soloman, who made studying human emotions the work of a lifetime, states the following "myths" about emotions in his book True to Our Feelings, and demonstrates the ways in which these ideas are untrue or oversimplifications.  The "myths" include:

    1. Emotions are ineffable.
    2. Emotions are feelings.
    3. The Hydraulic Model -- the idea that emotions are like a fluid that builds up automatically and must be "released".
    4. Emotions are "in" the mind.
    5. Emotions are stupid (they have no intelligence).
    6. Emotions come in two flavors, "positive" and "negative".
    7. Emotions are irrational.
    8. Emotions happen to us (they are passions).

    Anger (and Emotion) in Religion and Spirituality

    The status of anger in most religious and spiritual traditions is problematical.  It is essential that such traditions have provided ways for people to understand and manage this basic human experience.  However, the result has often become deadening, oppressive, or led to lopsided human development.

    The concept of Spiritual Bypassing (a term coined by John Welwood in 1984 -- see [1] [2] [3]) refers to:

    ...using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional "unfinished business," to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.

    Yes and no are expressions of desire and aggression—two life energies that philosophers, saints, and psychologists, from Plato and Buddha to Freud, have considered particularly problematic. Unfortunately, many spiritual teachers simply criticize passion and aggression instead of teaching people to unlock the potential intelligence hidden within them.

    The intelligent impulse contained in the yes of desire is the longing to expand, to meet and connect more fully with life. The intelligence contained in no is the capacity to discriminate, differentiate, and protect oneself and others from harmful forces.

    Aspects of spiritual bypassing include:

    • Exaggerated detachment
    • Emotional numbing and repression
    • Overemphasis on the "positive"
    • Anger-phobia
    • Blind or overly tolerant compassion
    • Debilitating self-criticism about one's emotional pain / shadow side
    • Delusion or pretense of having achieved a "higher" level of being

    Behavior, Biology, and the Brain

    I've been watching a video lecture series on Human Behavioral Biology given by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University.  The combination of psychology and brain sciences confirms some folk theories (and fashionable scientific models) and refutes others. 

    • There are a lot of different theories of human emotions in general, and aggression in particular. 
    • The phenomenon of aggression is intertwined with and hard to separate theoretically or biologically from other processes such as sexuality and foraging / eating.
    • Studying the brain does not mean emotions and behaviors can be reduced to simple mechanical structures and rules, neurons and chemical pathways.
    • The concepts of "mind", "emotion", "objective", "subjective" (etc.) are conventional categories for talking about human beings and their experiences.  These don't really exist as things or even as processes -- they can't be located, measured, or separated out from the rest of what's going on.
    • In the brain, the cortex (previously associated with cognitive thinking) and the limbic system (previously associated with emotions) function as a single, closely linked, dynamic system.  Neither can possibly work without the other.  There's no separation of cognitive thinking and emotion in the working of the brain.
    • The functions of the brain are intimately linked to the physical and social environment and to culture, and reflect their complexities.
    • Alcohol consumption does not "cause" or "release" aggression or other inhibited behaviors in any fixed biological or cross-cultural way.
    • "Displaced aggression" takes place in humans and other animal species, lowering tension for individuals and presumably playing a role in the structuring of social hierarchies.
    • Moral reasoning is often an "after the fact" rational justification for decisions that were constituted on a more emotional level of functioning.

    At the MIT Media Lab and other places, research is developing the idea (along with a theory called "honest signals") that the human mind -- including behavior and emotions -- is inherently social in nature.  It's as if humans have two "minds" working in parallel, an individual mind and a social mind, each for the most part unaware of the other.

    Tag page (Edit tags)
    • No tags
    You must login to post a comment.
    Powered by MindTouch Core