Emotions

I have been reading Nelson Pike’s Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism. As the title suggests it is a philosophical approach and he is very clear; asks very sensible questions and takes nothing for granted. His problem, and I think it is a problem generally, is that he does not give enough attention to emotions. This is understandable. Emotions, like mystical experience, are entirely subjective and are not available to others, unless mediated symbolically through art, music, language and metaphor. Ideas and concepts can take on an objective existence of their own. They become what Popper called World 3 objects. As such they can be studied and they can be evaluated according to the criteria available to World 1 and World 3. But this does not get us very far. Towards the end of the book, after pages of exhaustive analysis, Pike comes to the conclusion that ‘theistic experience is possible’.

Although emotions are not available for objective study we cannot leave them out of the equation. Somehow they have to be integrated into the various human ‘sophies’ and ‘ologies’. Because ultimately it is emotions, feelings, which bestow meaning and significance. We know this. We have always known this. If something does not feel right then no amount of thinking, rational logic, will make it right. Now, the question is – why should subjective, ephemeral feelings be the arbiters of meaning rather than ‘eternal’ truths? When feelings endorse what we believe to be true there is a harmony and a sense (feeling, again) of unshakeable certainty. The resulting sense may be of peace and security, or it may be of the pointlessness and futility of human existence. But there is a solidity, a certainty which is not easily shaken. When feelings and beliefs conflict then there is discordance, a disharmony which may result in worry and anxiety, and in the suppression of feelings, or in the suppression of beliefs. Either way, all is not well.

Whatever else it means, being human means being a psychosomatic entity, a unity. Platonic and Cartesian dualism, just from my own limited experience, are not valid options. My body has a far greater impact on my mind than the other way round. Dualism provides a solution to the problem of existence after death. The death and decomposition of the body simply means that the more important spiritual element can migrate to another body, or to another mode of existence. But if one is a psychosomatic unity then death presents a problem. There is no arguing with the finality of death and the decomposition of the body.

This is where dualism is so handy. It provides a neat, simple and readily understandable solution. It offers hope in the face of the terrible reality of death of the body. There are all sorts of supporting factors. People have out of the body experiences, near death experiences, mystical experiences in which the body is somehow transcended. It is even possible to visualise an existence apart from the body, as a mind aware of all that is going on. But, and this is where the problem of the emotions makes things complicated, emotions are physical. They are bodily feelings that emerge in the amygdala and proceed to the neo-cortex. They impose themselves on the rational mind. They are almost entirely independent of the rational mind and very little affected by it however much the mind might want to impose its will on the emotions. According to Joseph LeDoux

Neuroanatomists have shown that the pathways that connect the emotional processing system of fear, the amygdala, with the thinking brain, the neocortex, are not symmetrical -the connections from the cortex to the amygdala are considerably weaker than those from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why, once an emotion is aroused, it is so hard for us to turn it off at will.
(http://www.cns.nyu.edu/ledoux/overview.htm)

Two questions emerge – to what extent are emotions the result of physical factors? This is important because if it were possible for the mind to exist apart from the body would it be able to feel emotions? The idea of existing in a blissful state of apatheia is not satisfactory. (Anyway bliss is a feeling.) If it is emotions which convey meaning and significance what is the point of existing as a passionless centre of awareness? One might as well be a computer.

The other question is – what is a person? Do the two alternatives, an embodied spirit, or a conscious psychosomatic unity exhaust all the possibilities? My feeling (feeling again) is no. Both of these possibilities reify what is more a process than a thing. A person is never a fixed entity but a constant process of becoming. Secondly, neither take into account the extent to which a person is constituted by relationships. To be human is to relate. I, as a person, am not circumscribed by my skin. My being extends into the being of others as does theirs into me. And not just other persons.

But enough. The more I write the more I realise how little I understand. There is a gulf between between the rational arguments of people like Pyke and LeDoux and the experience of countless others. How kind of Pyke to acknowledge the possibility of theistic experience, something that for so many is an undoubted reality. And do we now fully understand the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of emotions and feelings? One of the Upanishads says somewhere, “He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak.”

Leave a Reply