The Emotional Substrate Beneath Bloated Ontologies

We are most fundamentally emotional creatures, and the most fundamental realm of meaning is that of emotion. From the time we are infants, our emotional brains are busy sorting through these needy emotions and attempting to carve out a social identity, a set of things we can call “true”, and a code of behavior. But there is nothing as subjectively real as our emotions.

So we are compelled by these emotions to construct an edifice that can comfortably house our emotions by providing psychological, epistemological and moral frameworks over which we can then drape image, and respectably present ourselves to society.

Because the goal is to cloak our raw and muddled emotions under more presentable walls of definition, this enterprise is inherently illusory, and is most commonly self-delusional. Yet by the time we reach adulthood, we have constructed an elaborate edifice that, if matching the expectations of society, can assure our social well-being.

I’d like to deconstruct the various walls of meaning to expose the raw emotions that we often do not want to admit lie at the foundation of being.

  • Identity. This is the most transparent. Many realize that identity is static only where it is thought static. Personhood can change significantly over a lifetime. We say “this is who I am” at our peril. Constructing rigid walls of identity lock us into a self that forfeits a more colorful and fuller life. But, to avoid the swirling and persistent uncertainty and fear, our adolescent minds forge an identity that we often find hard to later modify. We begin to see the image that we have constructed upon our emotions as a rigid entity, and prior to our emotions. This self-delusion serves to maximize predictability and minimize risks, but it often leads to marginal lives. If we can recognize that it is emotions that are the substrate to our identities, and take measures to directly address those emotions rather than merely repainting the peeling facade the same color from time to time, life can become much more dynamic and enriching.

  • Knowledge. Philosophers have long argued over epistemological frameworks that might enable us to say “I know x.” They start with the assumption that knowledge must somehow be an objective notion upon which we can map our confidence. I’d like to argue that the emotion of confidence is all there is to knowledge. Mapping various epistemological theories over this emotion of confidence lessens the discomfort of doubt by adding an artificial validation, but the raw emotion of confidence remains the more fundamental subjective reality, and this emotion has no necessary correlation to the objective evidence resulting from scientific inquiry.

    Let me elaborate. The accumulation of evidence is largely linear. Yet belief and disbelief tend to be bivalent. Once we determine there is a 60% probability of a fact, for example, we find it difficult to apply a 60% degree of confidence to that fact. We find it uncomfortable to straddle epistemological fences, so we tend to choose a side. This tendency does have survival benefits, and a commitment to one side or the other makes decisions easier and provides definition to identity. But it frequently perverts truth. Some have sanctified this emotion by calling it a virtue and tagging it “faith”. The simplicity of bivalent thinking is usually quite appealing to the masses who employ this “faith” in defense of many unsubstantiated but comfortable religious and ideological positions.

    This tendency towards a bivalent epistemology is powerful throughout adolescence. As we grow older, we often take more nuanced positions that better reflect the balance of the evidence. Those engaged in science often have many opportunities to develop this skill of mapping confidence to the balance of evidence. The basis of scientific inquiry is one of minimizing subjective bivalent beliefs, and attempting to approximate a position of confidence that maps well to the balance of evidence. This is done by training individual scientists to ignore their very human impulses to commit without warrant to one side or the other. It is also accomplished by taking scientific inquiry out of the hands of a single scientist, and distributing the task of assessment across many scientists who cooperatively attempt to approximate truth through convention.

    The history of the pursuit of a consistent epistemology testifies to its elusive nature. I’m suggesting that it is elusive because no rigid epistemological framework can very well survive the shifting substrate of the emotions upon which it must settle.

    I therefore do not often employ the word “knowledge”. It is legitimate only when discussing logical or mathematical proofs. Instead of saying “I know x“, I simply say “I (dis)believe x” or “I tend to (dis)believe x“, and try to quantify my level of confidence when possible. And I do say “I don’t know” far more often than when I was a dogmatic Evangelical. The discomfort of not knowing is now a minor emotional hum in the background that simply provides the motivation to continue the search, rather than an impetus towards an unwarranted position. And the resulting sense of integrity is most certainly a fair trade for the former cognitive dissonance of an epistemology based on self-delusion.


  • Morality. The other elusive hound chased endlessly by philosophers has been morality. Countless moral systems have been introduced to attempt to capture what many feel certain is the essence of an objective morality. For how would we know how to conduct ourselves if this objective morality did not exist?

    Here again I want to suggests that all our notions of moral right and wrong, when stripped of cultural and ideological artifacts, are emergent of mere emotions. Our feelings of disgust, anger and a sense of justice demand that we construct a framework for behavior within which we can constrain ourselves and others. Yet, the more fundamental subjective reality are these emotions. Just as with epistemology, the difficulty in framing a universally accepted moral edifice is that the foundation is nothing more than the soft clay of changing emotions. These emotions generate values. The values produce cultural mores, and the moral frameworks that arise from cultural mores differ dramatically between cultures. But moral philosophers persist in their attempts to capture some moral formula that will capture universal and objective moral truths.

    In my opinion, if humanity can admit to the fact of this emotional substrate, we will be in a better position to mediate between competing emotional interests without an appeal to what is “moral” or “immoral”. We can acknowledge that, under the skin of our egoistic self-interests, there remains a highly-functional altruistic organ that can inform the way we treat those around us.


So, largely through the application of parsimony, I’ve discarded several notions related to immutable identity, absolute knowledge and objective morality. We humans will persist in bloating our ontologies by constructing elaborate and unnecessary edifices over the substrate of our emotions. But it seems to me that doing so consciously, in an honest acknowledgment of the subjective foundation of our emotional core is essential to developing the dependent realities of a healthy sense of identity, warranted beliefs and a framework for altruistic behavior.

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