The Emotional Sense: Reclaiming the Voice of the Spirit
A good deal of enduring philosophical quagmires, ethical questions, and human conundrums can be resolved by an alternate understanding of the human emotional system. Although emotion remains scientifically undefined and historically neglected, neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology judges it as an outdated vestige of our animal heritage (“ill-suited to modern exigencies”). Further compounded by lingering Cartesian dualism (not to mention a Freudian cauldron of dangerous desires), social scientists still suggest that emotion - and its inherent “selfishness”- should be suppressively regulated by the rational mind. Eastern traditions point to craving and aversion as the source of all suffering, and advise us to deny, limit, or otherwise transcend “the self” in order to vanquish its hedonistic impulses. Western traditions suggest human nature itself to be defiled, equating emotions with Deadly Sins and suggesting that goodness demands selfless obedience to divine supernatural authority.
My own theological and scientific views are the opposite: That emotion is actually regulating us, controlling and guiding us from a far deeper, wiser, biophysical - indeed naturally spiritual - authority. In fact, my work suggests that “emotion” can only be understood when it is defined much more broadly and reframed as an entire sensory system, perhaps the first to have emerged in living systems. I call it our “self-regulatory sense” as it provides the first feeling perceptions of “self” in time and space. It is a sense that yields the ubiquitous pattern of approach and avoid “hedonic” stimulus response behavior, a pattern observable across organisms from bacteria to the complex human. Rooted in an elegant coupling of positive and negative feedback control processes, it comes freighted with binary information - an elegant self-regulatory code - one central to the self/not-self distinctions of the immune system, the on/off epigenetic switching, and the natural positive/negative reinforcers in all conditioned learning processes - the Yin and Yang of self-organizing systems and self-regulatory behavior.
The emotional sense offers not one but three levels of information encoded in such common feelings as joy, sadness, pride, shame, gratitude, anger, admiration, envy, love, and hate. This informational trilogy reflects the triune structure of the human brain, with the most rudimentary level – our hedonic “affective” cravings and aversions – associated with the brain stem and bodily regulation, the ancient digital code carried forth via pleasure or pain. From there, associated also with the limbic structures of the midbrain, the basic emotions of joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear offer universal information about the conditions (ecological “affordances”) in the external environment, as contrasted against the physiological needs of internal milieu. Then, over the course of child development, like primary colors these basic emotions take on blends and shades unique to each person’s genetic potentials, life experiences, and sociocultural and linguistic colorings yielding the complex feelings associated with the cortex, offering self-regulatory information about the mindscape as well. All told, emotion provides nothing less than an innate moral compass, offering deep universal meaning for the species as well as personally tailored behavioral guidance within each feeling perception – serving optimal integration, health and well-being of the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of identity.
Humanity has missed the boat on this naturally endowed emotional guidance, and supplanted it with a man-made value system centered on the false dichotomies of “good” versus “evil” and “us versus them”. The ancient self-regulatory code within pain and pleasure mediates two right and good evolutionary imperatives, universal values of all sentient creatures – those of self-preservation and self-development. The latter purpose has been almost completely overlooked in evolutionary theory, yet it is embodied by the complex positive emotions, those that inspire and rewire, broaden and build our mindscape and our empathic boundaries to enfold all “others” within our sphere of self-relevance.
The implications for this new view of emotion are manifold. Most particularly, for science, it inverts the logic behind the time honored “naturalistic fallacy” suggesting that the “is” of emotion is the only biophysically justifiable grounding for “oughts” as well as any semantic concepts such as good, bad, right or wrong. Morality, however, then becomes an issue of public health, as the emotional sense reflects physical eustress and distress, underlies our “cardiac/emotional reactivity” and serves as the mechanism for “biological sensitivity to context” – how experience gets under the skin. It concerns the health of the living being and is truly universal in its evaluative wisdom.
For religion, it asks us to give precedence to the Book of Nature, challenging us to rethink the confounding moral dichotomy of good and evil, and to rehabilitate pleasure and pain as the creator’s natural link to right and wrong states of balance between two potentially oppositional purposes. It also debunks the traditional notion of selflessness as virtuous and selfishness as sin, both of which are unbalanced states. It points out how both sin and virtue represent deficits and optimums in emotional self-regulation, if not serving as direct stand-ins for the feelings themselves. It not only restores respect for the basic pains, but also gives nature due credit for the biblical “fruits of spirit” and such theological virtues as love, compassion, courage, trust, gratitude, forgiveness and faith. In terms of constructive theology, this model of emotion allows us honor Gordon Kaufman’s constructive theological method, to posit a naturalistic theology based our most salient and meaningful human experiences.
For atheists, who may otherwise use science to deny natural human experiences described as “spiritual” or “mystical”, identifying the emotional sense, with its informative and behavioral manifestations and groundings in core feedback dynamics of complex systems, offers a thoroughly mechanistic version of vitalism - the old idea of an animating and guiding force known colloquially as spirit or soul. It also acknowledges that “selfish gene” -in-tooth-and-claw scenarios are outdated in light of the revelations about epigenetic mechanisms, as well as evolutionary forces of adaptive development and group selection,, honoring the role of emotion in cooperation, reciprocal altruism, game theory, and economic decision making. Furthermore, it also answers the atheist challenge for science to buck the naturalistic fallacy and to create a moral system based on “conscious [sentient] creatures,” one that unites science and religion on the grounds of evolutionary theory, and one that holds promise for a global ethic in times when fundamentalisms are on the rise. And finally for moral philosophers, this new view of emotion unites the moral sentiments approach with the consequentialist and deontological rule-driven approaches of the rationalist tradition, and with its simple binary self-regulatory logos, it yields empathic guidance worthy of the Kantian categorical imperative.
It is true, however, that this new view of emotion inverts our traditional approaches and tips nearly everything we think we know about morality on its head - a controversial if not heretical proposal to be sure. Nonetheless, in its day Darwin’s theory of blind natural selection prompted outrage with a similarly “strange inversion of logic” that called the Divine Watchmaker into question. Nonetheless, it is my hope that – eventually – this new story of emotion can deliver similarly positive and lasting benefits.
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Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science