What is an emotion, and how does this influence my understanding about the relationship between reason and emotion?

I wrote at length in the last blog post about the stages of linguistic understanding, and the last stage I talked about was emotional processing. After now having covered the topics of reason and emotion in TOK, I am inclined to think that an emotional reaction in itself has its own set of processes that go on within the body and the brain. I will also look at how my perception of the meaning of emotion can influence my ideas about the relationship between reason and emotion.

As far as I see it (and as far as I wrote in the last blog post), emotion is a response to a stimulus. While there is much variability in the emotions that we experience, they generally give us a sense of whether something is positive/good or negative/bad and, therefore, whether we want to engage in the thing or action again. These emotional reactions are and have been essential to the survival of the human race, aiding us in detecting threats and navigating the social scene, for example. Scientifically, emotions are said to be produced through chemical reactions in the brain and body. For example, the chemical formula for love consists of dopamine (C8H11NO2), serotonin (C10H12N2O) and oxytocin (C43H66N12O12S2). Many people, though, will probably be slightly peeved to hear that a complex feeling such as love can be manufactured without much difficulty in a chemistry lab. So, does this mean that the meaning of an emotion is too complex for reason to explain, or that we humans are beings simple enough (in the grand scheme of things) that something like this seems complex to us? Going back to my definition of an emotion as a response to a stimulus, or possibly the thing that leads to a response to a stimulus, could this mean that things we wouldn’t imagine to feel emotion could possibly be capable of responding to stimuli in this way, and therefore feeling emotions? For example, in science class, we are often told that atoms cannot “want” to bond with other atoms (in order to have us stop describing them with emotive terms). However, if an emotion is a response to a stimulus that results in the desire to achieve a certain outcome, could it be said that an atom really possesses the “desire” or “want” to create bonds with another atom? We may not perceive it as the same complex enigma of feeling that governs human emotion, but, if one were to zoom out and see us humans as part of the Solar System, or the galaxy, or even the universe, our troubles would indeed seem petty and insignificant in comparison.

While it is arguable as to what extent emotions are experienced in the body or the brain, I have devised a set of processes (to describe how we experience emotions) that may be helpful, regardless of what one’s opinion is on this matter. The first step is experiencing the stimulus through our senses, followed by a recognition of the stimulus (whether it be familiar or not). After this, it is arguable whether we experience physiological sensations associated with the emotion first and then signals from the brain, or vice versa. We may then experience understanding of the sensation we are feeling. On the other hand, though, we may lack understanding or experience of either the emotion or the stimulus, which most commonly leads to the emotions of fear and/or excitement (maybe even as well as the emotion we are experiencing at that time). This process of detecting a stimulus, processing it and then understanding it is very similar to the process of linguistic understanding I talked about before. The question is: could this set of processes be applied, to an extent, to any of the areas of knowledge covered in TOK? Maybe I will know the answer to that question in the future.

It should be interesting to see, now that I have established a definition of emotion, how this can be applied to the idea of the reason-emotion divide (or the lack thereof). I do now believe that reason and emotion are needed in conjunction in order to function optimally as a human being. There are many situations that one may come across in which a good balance of reason and emotion/instinct are needed. For example, if an earthquake occurred with no notice, the work of our emotions and intuition would be needed to immediately recognise that we were under threat. If we simply relied on our conscious reasoning, we would possibly be seriously harmed in the time it took to identify the threat and react appropriately. However, our conscious reasoning and background knowledge would be required lest we be guided by our emotions to do something that would get us, again, seriously harmed, such as taking cover near a cupboard or a mirror (or in a building likely to be destroyed in the earthquake). There are also certain subjects or ways of knowing that require a good balance of reason and emotion. One example that I can say I am familiar with is music (and, more specifically, in this case, the composition of music). Undoubtedly, a good sense of reason and a wide knowledge of music theory is helpful in order to employ patterns (e.g. rhythms, chords and melodies) that are pleasing to the ear and, therefore, succeed in being a “good” piece of music. Equally, a good sense of intuition and emotion in relation to music can be useful in instinctively knowing how to deliver meaning through certain aspects of the music, as well as being able to identify things that sound “good” by ear and use these things in the music. However, too little sense of intuition can lead to the music lacking meaning, and possibly sounding emotionally incoherent or even without meaning. However, too much disregard for theory can lead to technically incoherent pieces that may sound dissonant or unpleasant to listen to. This has been seen with music of a more experimental genre, which, as a trade-off for its entirely emotionally-governed nature, is often not a pleasant listening experience. The “best” music, in my experience, has a good balance of intuitive and technical aspects. In the module about personal and shared knowledge, we looked at personal knowledge through the example of Herbie Hancock’s extensive understanding of jazz. When talking about the piece “Watermelon Man”, he likened the main idea in the song to riding (in a vehicle of sorts, I can’t exactly remember) on a cobbled road. The song is said to represent his experience as an African-American. Here, he is talking in quite a metaphorical and, arguably, emotive way about his music. Through using a foundation of intuition/emotion, he uses his unarguably extensive knowledge of music theory to bring his idea to life. His work is extremely highly regarded in the jazz scene as well as outside of it, and, as shown, this is one of the many reasons for his success.

This post has become quite long, so, in conclusion, it has been shown that emotion has a very important role in the life of most human beings, and can not only be used to ensure better chances of survival and happiness, but also in more academic or creative endeavours. A good balance of conscious reasoning and subconscious emotion/intuition is useful in a wide range of different situations and actions.

First thoughts – what constitutes “good”?

In order to answer the question of whether knowledge, or indeed anything, is objectively good, it is vitally important to know what is meant by the word “good”. The easiest way to answer this initially is that the word “good” can be used to describe anything that brings a mutually favourable outcome or a benefit to those involved – i.e. if something is good for a person, it will most likely cause them to feel ‘positive’ emotions or increase the longevity of their life, for example. Therefore, what we personally make out to be ‘good’ could be said to be good.

This doesn’t answer, however, why we view certain things as good (truth, knowledge, life, happiness) and some as bad (falsehoods, death, sadness). (It also doesn’t answer what counts as a benefit or favourable outcome). Human instincts (and indeed the instincts of most organisms) are geared towards increasing the longevity of our lives in order to contribute as much as we can to our societies and surroundings, which explains why we tend to view these ‘good’ things as favourable and these ‘bad’ things as unfavourable. However, if one was to look at it from a nihilistic point of view (i.e. from the perspective that there is no point to our existence), and therefore no reason why anything should be classified as favourable or unfavourable to us, the word ‘good’ (as well as the concept of preference/favourability) would be rendered entirely meaningless. This means that for the word ‘good’ to hold any meaning, we must believe that our lives have some sort of purpose.