Why do we have feelings?

david-detailGrowing up I used to watch Star Trek.  Both the original 1960s series and the 1980s Next Generation series feature main characters who supposedly have no emotions: Mr Spock and Mr Data.  Spock considers emotions to be a weakness and actively suppresses them so as to be more logical; meanwhile Data has an apparent desire to fulfil his creator’s wish to build an android that is as human-like as possible, so Data seeks to have emotions.  While as entertaining as these characters are, the series never actually explored emotions, what they are, why we have them, and what their meaning is in any depth.  Rather, one gets the impression at times that the sole purpose of emotions, as far as the creators of Star Trek are concerned, is for personal amusement; they make life interesting but we don’t really need them.  However, emotions are far more important than just mere novel reactions of our nervous systems to particular stimuli; they are what makes life alive beyond the organic/material level.  Consider that each individual cell in your body is a living organism in its own right, additionally, the collective activity of the billions of cells that make up your entirely body is a secondary level of life, and finally the thoughts and feelings that make up what we call, for lack of a better term, “our mind” is a third tier of life built on top of the previous two tiers.  But why do we have feelings at all?

Just so we can get an idea of what it is like to not have feelings at all, let us consider something that can act and respond to the world that doesn’t have any emotions: computers.  When I was young, computers all ran a command line interface called DOS.  At my school, we used to tell computer-naïve kids to type the command “fdisk” and to delete their partitions, a procedure that would completely destroy everything on their hard drives instantly.  I remember using fdisk one time to erase a disk and start over again, and I thought to myself that in a way I am telling the computer to destroy itself.  I pondered if perhaps the computer could somehow feel afraid of what was about to happen – all its memory was about to be erased; it would “forget” who it was forever.  I wondered if perhaps the computer would “come alive” and refuse to execute the command that would cause it to erase itself out of existence.  However, as expected, the computer always carried out the command to destroy itself without resistance or hesitation.  This is because without emotion, the computer is merely a mindless slave, completely at the mercy of doing what it is told.  Without emotion, the computer is not alive at all.  It is a  “soulless” automaton.

People are surprisingly compliant, as was demonstrated by psychologist Stanley Milgram in his eponymous experiment on compliance with instructions given by an authority figure.  40 volunteers were instructed by an experimenter in a lab coat to administer electrical shocks of increasing intensity to another person until they reached a fatal shock.  26 of these volunteers (65%) administered what they believed to be a fatal electrical shock to another person.  18 variations of this experiment were carried out with a different variable each time.  The level of compliance with delivering the fatal shock ranging from 10% to 92.5% of people carrying out the immoral instruction.  This experiment demonstrated that there is an innate desire in people to be compliant with other people, especially with an authority figure’s desires.  However, not everyone obeyed the instruction to kill another human being.  What was it about these people that allowed them to push back against the instruction to kill?

To say simply that the answer is emotions would be too simplistic.  Who hasn’t felt a desire to try to please an authority figure?  Perhaps you have feared failing to please an authority figure… in which case, would you be in the group who pushed that button to electrocute an innocent person?  Emotions can easily pressure one to be more compliant, so they do not always operate in opposition to other people’s wishes.  However, many people resisted the command to murder another person, they typically felt what they were doing was wrong and refused to carry out the instruction given.  They may have felt fear of doing the wrong thing, guilty for electrocuting someone, or angry at being told to do something against their interests.  Whatever the feeling felt, it is inconceivable that in the absence of a strong emotion a person would have resisted the instruction to carry out murder.  Feelings tell us something very important: what matters to us and what in our lives has meaning to us.

My perspective on emotions is that they are a sense organ, much like sight or hearing: Our eyes can detect different colours, our ears different frequencies, and our “hearts” different feelings.  Our eyes tell us useful information such as whether a traffic light is red or green, while our emotions tell us useful information such as whether we like the person in front of us, or despise them.  While eyes are sensitive to light, our feelings are sensitive to relationships: what is my relationship with this strawberry? I like it.  What is my relationship with this locked door? I feel frustrated by it.  What is my relationship with my girlfriend?  I love her.  Emotions tell us where we stand with everything in the universe.  They do this quickly and efficiently.  Whether we are bored by maths or excited by it has a big impact on our lives and the choices we make.

Consider the emotionless computer.  It cannot know if it likes classical music or death metal, nor can it know if it prefers being switched on or switched off.  Without any feelings it cannot know itself, and it cannot desire anything.  In the absence of feelings, it is inert unless acted upon by an operator.  A mentally healthy person is in touch with their feelings and able to articulate and express them easily.  A person who cannot figure out what they like has no idea what they want to do: should I go to the gym or read a book?  Should I date the smart man or the stupid man?  Detached from their feelings, a person makes life decisions like a blindfolded person in a maze.  Considering how many decisions people are faced with just on a daily basis, leaving decision making to random chance or to the direction of other people is certain to lead to a miserable life – simply because it is a life that suits someone else, not yourself.

This is why we have emotions.  So we can know ourselves.  So we know what we like, and what we hate.  So we can take the guesswork out of decision making.  So we can push against other people who try to control or manipulate us.  Indeed, emotions make it impossible to be controlled or manipulated indefinitely.  Consider how compliant your computer is with instructions, then consider how resistant to following your instructions your computer would be if it had feelings!  Strength of character is about being in touch with your feelings and ironically for the Star Trek characters of Mr. Spock and Mr. Data, they actually had to have emotions, and be in touch with them, for them to demonstrate their particular strengths of character that were apparent throughout the series.  Perhaps the 26 people who administered fatal electrical shocks in Milgram’s original experiment wouldn’t have done so if they had spent some time in philosophical therapy getting in touch with their feelings and learning to honour them?  Feelings are what make us ‘us’.

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