Sunday, June 15, 2014

Emotion: Is it real or mere interpretation?

When we discuss religious experience and emotion, again the question arises whether our own emotions are realities, or merely perceptions of reality, perceptions that exist only in our thoughts and re-interpretations. When it comes to religious experience, this question matters for the perception of joy or ecstasy that often accompanies religious experience; it also matters in everyday questions such as whether love is real, or nothing more than a socially-acceptable reconstruction of a mating instinct.

In Hinman's recent book The Trace of God, he quotes someone who advocates the view that our emotions are a matter of perception, reconstruction or reinterpretation:
Are we ready to posit physiological differences, or even different states or events, to correspond to the subtle differentiation between the various forms of despair described by Kierkegaard in the The Sickness Unto Death, or even to correspond to the difference between pride and joy, or annoyance and indignation, and between the various modifications of each? Is it plausible, as Hume suggests, to think we identify these emotions by direct inspection of the qualitative difference in feeling which marks one off from the other? Psychologists have not been able to discover particular physiological states that are correlated with each of the emotions. An emotion cannot be identified at that level. (Hinman, pp 213-214, citing pp 90-91 of Proudfoot's work Religious Experience.)
Before exploring what I consider to be a more accurate explanation of emotions, I'd like to point out one thing in passing. If our emotions are a matter of reconstruction or reinterpretation, there is a pressing question: a reinterpretation of what? For love, some would say it is a socially-acceptable reconstruction of a mating instinct. But even if we assume that is true (or true in some cases), the fact remains: the mating instinct itself was already there. The person was experiencing something real, and that real experience called for the explanation. We may think that some person misinterpreted what they felt; but we would be wrong to suppose they felt nothing.

Proudfoot's argument hinges on whether we can physically or objectively detect the subtle differences between very similar states. He suggests several sets of emotions: different forms of despair; pride and joy; annoyance and indignation. If he had asked us to differentiate between joy and indignation, that would have been too easy, so he challenges the reader to distinguish one emotion from another that is very similar. But take one step back: How did he group those similar emotions together? Are those groups, then, the more basic emotions? Is there a "despair" group of emotions with all of the subtle shades that may be mentioned, a "glad" group of emotions encompassing pride and joy, an "anger" group of emotions including both annoyance and indignation? In creating those groups, has Proudfoot identified a more basic level of emotions that we can easily distinguish? From the brief excerpt I've read, it seems that he would deny the existence of this basic level of emotion that we can easily distinguish. If we were to argue, "you cannot distinguish the subtleties objectively, so we can conclude that nothing about it is objective" -- I think we would be wrong.

For the purely physical aspects of emotions, I'd make a comparison to our sense of taste when we eat. Consider the role of the tongue (not the nose) in our perceptions of flavor. It has long been claimed that the tongue only senses four different flavors. This is hugely different from our perception of taste, which adds in the smell without our being consciously aware of the addition. Where our tongue can only detect "sour", our sense of taste can tell the difference between lemon and lime and vinegar. Where our tongue only understands "bitter", we can still taste the difference between coffee and unsweetened chocolate. And how many people remember the experiment from elementary school, where someone was blindfolded and had their nose stopped, and couldn't taste the difference between an apple and an onion? But when the nose is added in, it's very easy to tell the rest of the differences. I expect that, like our tongue can only distinguish the most basic of flavors, in the same way our emotions have some broad and simple groups that we can distinguish in a basic and primary way, while the subtle differences have another mechanism which includes our reflection on the situation.

To ignore the clear perception of basic emotions, Proudfoot adopts the connoisseur's subtlety. He glosses over the broad, simple, undifferentiated basic groups of emotions. He brushes aside the large, primary groups -- comparable to the most basic tastes like sweet and sour -- and concentrates only on the "subtle differentiation between the various forms of despair", or between "pride and joy, or annoyance and indignation". Pride and joy may share the same physical reaction; the two may be given different names because of their different causes rather than their different effects. Likewise annoyance and indignation may share their physical core, and we give them different names from our evaluations of their causes. For example, it may be that indignation is a type of annoyance -- the specific type of annoyance caused by the evaluation that something is morally objectionable. So indignation is not necessarily a different emotion as such. In this case, the more basic emotion -- annoyance -- has one basis, while the interpretation "this is indignation" is added when we evaluate the cause. I'd expect that the subtleties (like annoyance or indignation) may sometimes be a matter of interpretation: that subtlety depends on how we understand the cause. But the general fact remains that we were reacting with some form of annoyance. The Proudfoot quote seems to want to deny that there are real distinctions between different emotions by limiting the discussion to only the most minor of variations. But again, if we take a step back and see the larger differences -- such as joy versus rage -- we can see that the "subtle differences" miss the larger point. Back to our "taste" comparison, it would be like denying the tongue's role in taste, once the nose's role was also understood. After we understood just how important the nose's role is to our sense of taste, would we think the tongue's role is relatively worthless? But the nose cannot smell salt or sugar ... It would be a mistake to throw out either level of analysis, or to pit one against the other as if it must be the whole picture.

I'd expect that, if we classified emotions by their most basic components, we would find a handful of primary emotional states. "Pride" and "joy" would probably belong to the same family. (To experience "pride", do we start with the basic "joy" emotion, with traces of "satisfaction", resulting from an "accomplishment"?) After we identified the primary groups, we would find other differences -- probably other kinds of differences -- to make those fine distinctions. For those secondary, subtle distinctions, it would take the analysis of the whole emotional realm to trace the causes of the other differences.

In responding to Proudfoot, to some extent Hinman proposes a difference between the emotion of religious experience and other emotions. I would hold for the validity of emotions in general without making a special category for religious experience. What is called for is not the dismissal of emotion or experience, but a better evaluative understanding of them. I would hold for the reality and validity of experiences -- such as touching a hot stove -- that may cause emotions, even if our understanding of emotions is still not entirely precise. If we say, "you cannot distinguish the subtleties apart from your interpretation, therefore nothing remains but your interpretation", that doesn't actually seem to be the case. We risk using our cleverness to handicap our own understanding.


Martin LaBar said...

Interesting discussion of the senses of taste and smell.

Weekend Fisher said...

As always, thank you for the encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF