A Discussion of Elliot Temple’s Essay on Emotions

(adapted from an email exchange on the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group)

My initial email (with quotes from the essay being analyzed)


Comments on this essay: http://fallibleideas.com/emotions

Emotions

Emotions embody traditional knowledge which we don’t have a full, conscious understanding of. Emotions are also fallible and possible to change.

If we feel good or bad about something, we might be mistaken. But it’s not irrelevant. There is, in general, some reason the tradition causes people to have that emotion in that situation. When in doubt, it’s better to use traditional knowledge, which has been criticized and improved a lot, than to make something new up from scratch.

Is it even really viable to try making up a new emotional reaction from scratch, as a conscious policy? If so what does that look like? What are some examples of people doing it?

I would think what tends to happen is something like: people try and suppress their existing emotional stuff, badly, but lack any alternatives cuz they haven’t created any knowledge of replacements. And then they suffer later down the road when the suppression fails.

Here is a rational way to use emotions in argument: “If doing that would be good, why do I feel bad about it? Do I have any ideas to change it slightly so that I’ll feel good about it? If there is no way to change it to be more emotionally appealing, why isn’t there?” This doesn’t assume the emotion is true.

This argument notes the violation of the traditional knowledge behind the emotion and uses that as a criticism. Any idea which violates an emotion needs to have an answer to this kind of questioning and criticism. If there’s no answer that’s bad; if you have a good answer then it’s OK.

This would apply to even like very mild emotional reactions such as: trying to read something part of you thinks would be good to read, but then you feel bored while trying to read it. Don’t assume the solution is that your boredom reaction is wrong, and try and power through anyways. Instead try and address the boredom. This could be as simple as taking a short break and coming back.

Here are two ways to resolve emotional conflicts. First, if following an emotion would cause a problem, then you shouldn’t want that. That’s a good reason to change your mind and look for an unproblematic alternative (possibly a different way of following the emotion, or not).

I think somewhat philosophically aware people get stuck following certain behaviors (like doing romance say) cuz they like the emotions they have from doing them. They have some crits of romance but have a hard time remembering the crits and integrating those crits into their thinking on the issue. So there’s on ongoing conflict.

What specific advice do you have for this issue?

BTW I think part of what may get some people stuck is, there whole life is oriented around having certain emotional reactions and building a lifestyle to accommodate having those emotional reactions. So it’s like very scary to reconsider these things cuz they literally don’t know what else they would do, and it threatens a lot of their existing stuff. And people don’t wanna like reconsider their lifestyle about as much as they don’t want to reconsider certain emotions they currently like having so…. yeah

Second, if you have extensive knowledge about the issue and have a really good idea, which you’ve scrutinized extensively, you could be happy to try it (and not conflicted).

Sometimes we find our emotions are unhelpful or cause problems in a repetitive way. In those cases, it’s important to change our emotional makeup so that stops happening.

Sometimes we find we make decisions while emotional and regret them later. This is a flaw, but we can improve and fix it.

Sometimes people get angry and then they assume that if they are angry the other guy must have done something to make them angry. They take their anger as justification of their own anger, which is invalid. Worse, some people believe they had no choice but to be angry. It’s not their decision, it’s just anger which is a natural, biological force. Thus they bear no responsibility for their anger, only the victim of their rage is to be blamed.

Yeah.

This comes up a lot with people claiming to be offended and using that as an excuse to want to control others.

You can shirk responsibility but you can’t completely evade it. If you don’t take responsibility for your own reactions, you give that responsibility to other people (not morally — you’re still responsible morally — but in terms of how you think about the issue and lead your life. You’re not the actor anymore — you’re a REactor).

Can We Change Emotions?

Some people are pessimistic about their ability to change their emotions. They think that emotions are biological or natural, and that emotions aren’t ideas, knowledge or traditions. They think it follows that emotions can’t be changed anymore than we can change our hair color.

Looking at the cultural differences in how people react to things seems like it should be enough to refute the idea that emotions are biological.

Like one super sad example is the stuff that goes on in Palestine e.g. this

But people either are very unaware of what life is like outside a tiny circle of people they interact with, or they systematically deny that anybody else is much different.

This prevents them from seeing some evidence which contradicts the “emotions are biological” theory (and causes other problems too).

Being at least a bit familiar with a variety of cultures and ways of thinking about life is pretty important, I think.

Of course, although hair color is genetically determined we can change it: it just takes dye. Similarly, if one is born without legs that is a big problem. But it’s also a changeable, improvable situation. One can get prosthetic legs or a wheel chair. Genetic causes do not mean we’re helpless.

In general, genetically determined problems are actually easier to deal with than problems of knowledge and ideas because they are a fixed target. Genetically determined problems don’t change or get harder over time. They have a limited amount of complexity and only need to be solved once and they stay solved.

When it comes to ideas, things can be harder. Sometimes we unconsciously use creativity to maintain our current personality. Trying to change it may not just involve working against a static obstacle. It may be an adaptable obstacle that tries to avoid being changed.

This is a very big/important point.

I think one implication is that if you don’t use the right approach/methods, you can basically be stuck forever, since you’ll be unconsciously self-sabotaging yourself.

Another outcome might be making veeeeeeeeeery slow progress on dealing with some emotion for a long time. Which is also not optimal given the goal of making progress in general and also given current lifespans! :/

In any case, nature or nurture, there is no reason for pessimism. There are reasons why we can expect to be effective at changing our emotional makeup, our passions, and our habits, if we make an effort. Here are some reasons:

Many people think sexual lust as something they have almost no hope to change because they can’t imagine being in control of it (compared to, say, getting angry, sad or happy, which they know that sometimes people manage to have some control over). But William Godwin explained that sexual lust is a matter of ideas that we can make choices about. He pointed out that sexual pleasure is actually fragile — people will go to great lengths to avoid being disturbed because it ruins the pleasure and they “lose the mood” (in modern terminology).

Yeah. There’s a lot of ritual in sex. It’s a very fragile thing.

Is the fragility and ritual involved any sort of indication of irrationality?

Cuz on the one hand, I would maybe think that if someone is motivated to do something by like, enjoyment of the use of their rational faculty, the creative process, etc., then maybe their interest in whatever they are doing would be less fragile.

But OTOH there’s counterexamples of people who do creative work but are very picky about the conditions under which they can work, stuff like that.

He also pointed out that if someone is having sex, and as immersed in that experience as can be, he will still forget about it and sober up, in seconds, if you just inform him that his father has died, or anything he considers significantly more important than sex. He will stop in the middle if his reason tells him something else matters more.

I had someone flat out deny this once! People believe very strongly in the overwhelming power of sexual desire. It’s a very strong view central to how they think about life.

While sexual lust is a fragile thing, easily defeated by reason, most emotions are much more so. People will stop being angry if they see clearly that they were in the wrong (I don’t mean you give them what you consider to be a decisive argument, but rather what they consider a decisive argument so that in their own opinion they were clearly in the wrong.)

Lots of people don’t really discuss ideas much, and don’t know that there’s much of a difference between what they consider to be a decisive argument, and what should convince other people. So they think if other people are not convinced, maybe they are dumb or stubborn or something. That there could be a deficiency in their argument doesn’t really occur to them…

Happiness is fragile if you just tell someone about a sad event. Sadness is fragile if you inform someone that they won the lottery.
People sometimes make changes in their life — such as becoming more optimistic or becoming a Christian — and then find they are happier more often. That is another well known example of taking control and changing one’s emotional personality.

Yes.

Though it seems like there’s not a widespread movement about trying to improve your life and get happier with rational philosophy.

And there’s also a lot of BS like self-esteem movement.

Some people say they aren’t responsible for emotions, and have no control over them, because they are scared of taking responsibility and failing. But the truth about whether our emotions can be changed does not depend on how much we’d like to dodge responsibility.

Emotions, genetic or not, must go through multiple layers of interpretation before they are meaningful to complex, high-level world views. Whatever the origin, the final result, as manifested in human behavior, is going through some layers of interpreting in one’s mind. That means that even if the initial emotion is never changed, how one interprets it, reacts to it and uses it can all be changed within one’s mind.

Consider drunk people. They often claim the alcohol gives them a new personality. That’s ridiculous. Beer doesn’t have much information in it. The new way of acting was already in the person himself and all the beer could have done was activate it in some way. In fact, people sometimes take on their drunk personality without actually drinking — beer isn’t necessary to activate it. This illustrates that significant changes in demeanor are not only possible but commonplace.

Yeah this is a good example.

People literally don’t understand how complicated and nuanced various human behaviors are. They lack perspective on their culture and their life.

They also have the influences model of behavior. Like, they think something like, maybe you’d only very rarely get into barfights or dance on tables at the bar if you were sober (like 2% of the time) but somehow alcohol pushes that percentage way higher.

How is never explained.

Nobody really considers that maybe it’s just a (responsibility-shifting) ritual.

How To Change Emotions

Here is my advice about how to change one’s emotional makeup:

First, be calm. Take your time, there isn’t as much rush or pressure as it feels like. Emotional reactions are often immediate. Instead, act thoughtfully and slowly; think things through; don’t react until you’re ready.

Second, be self-aware. Pay attention to, and keep track of, what you do and think and feel, and compare it to your values and how you want to be, and whenever it doesn’t match then think about what would match and at least form a quick guess at how to do better next time. Replay conversations and events in your head and look for things you could have done better, and things you wish you hadn’t done. Look for emotions you felt, and any problems they caused. You can also look for emotions you didn’t feel but would have liked to. Don’t worry too much about changing; just notice everything, pay attention, and form some ideas about what’d be better and guesses at how to do it, and try imagining yourself acting in the new way.

I think lots of people avoid doing these steps cuz they want to fool themselves about being better than they are. Ironically this leads to them being stuck forever.

Very sad!

With practice you’ll learn to notice things faster. Instead of hours later while reflecting, you’ll notice minutes later. You’ll have ideas what to do better, and spot things you wish you didn’t do or feel. Then with more skill, you’ll start to notice in seconds.

If you can notice within seconds, and you act and feel slowly, you’ll be able to notice before you’ve done or felt anything. Then you can do something else! Now you have better control over your life.

That is great progress. But it’s not the end of the journey. Now you can think of new policies for how to live, and how to react to things, and you can actually try them out to see how they work. And many won’t be great, but a few will be improvements. Now you’re learning. You’re conjecturing how to live better, and trying out the conjectures. You can also consider your conjectures critically, that way if you notice a problem with one you won’t have to try it out. Over time, the old bad habits and emotional reactions that you didn’t want will fade with disuse, and new ones will form as you find ways of acting that you don’t see anything wrong with.

There’s a strong contrast here with some cultural stuff that tries to help people get better.

For example lots of people do stuff to help with alcohol/drug “addiction.” But the approach of these things is very different than something compatible with the above (which might be like — gradually try and find drugs/alcohol boring and figure out better stuff to do with your life). The more conventional stuff typically treats drugs/alcohol as super dangerous/seductive things and resisting them as a lifelong struggle.

None of this is disrespectful to emotions. It doesn’t assume they are all wrong, or worthless, or don’t contain knowledge. It’s the same sort of approach one should take to ideas in general: criticize their flaws, conjecture ways to improve them, and gradually move forward. Sometimes people go wrong by trying to ignore their emotions without replacing them. People sometimes do the same thing with ideas. This doesn’t work because we have ideas and emotions for a reason. They solve some problem. At the least, a certain emotional reaction gives guidance about what to do in a certain category of situation. Some replacement is needed which solves the same problem by giving you an idea of what to do instead in those situations.


Elliot’s reply


Comments on this essay: http://fallibleideas.com/emotions

In any case, nature or nurture, there is no reason for pessimism. There are reasons why we can expect to be effective at changing our emotional makeup, our passions, and our habits, if we make an effort. Here are some reasons:

Many people think sexual lust as something they have almost no hope to change because they can’t imagine being in control of it (compared to, say, getting angry, sad or happy, which they know that sometimes people manage to have some control over). But William Godwin explained that sexual lust is a matter of ideas that we can make choices about. He pointed out that sexual pleasure is actually fragile — people will go to great lengths to avoid being disturbed because it ruins the pleasure and they “lose the mood” (in modern terminology).

Yeah. There’s a lot of ritual in sex. It’s a very fragile thing.

Is the fragility and ritual involved any sort of indication of irrationality?

Cuz on the one hand, I would maybe think that if someone is motivated to do something by like, enjoyment of the use of their rational faculty, the creative process, etc., then maybe their interest in whatever they are doing would be less fragile.

But OTOH there’s counterexamples of people who do creative work but are very picky about the conditions under which they can work, stuff like that.

I think the people who are really fragile about their work are pretty irrational. They have carved out this one thing they are good at. But they aren’t so good generally. And their narrow area of skill does NOT include everything relevant to doing their work. Like they aren’t great or rational about dealing with distractions.

There are costs for interruptions. But I don’t think being super fragile about it is related to being a creative, productive guy. I think that’s just that they are good at one thing, not two things.

With practice you’ll learn to notice things faster. Instead of hours later while reflecting, you’ll notice minutes later. You’ll have ideas what to do better, and spot things you wish you didn’t do or feel. Then with more skill, you’ll start to notice in seconds.

If you can notice within seconds, and you act and feel slowly, you’ll be able to notice before you’ve done or felt anything. Then you can do something else! Now you have better control over your life.

That is great progress. But it’s not the end of the journey. Now you can think of new policies for how to live, and how to react to things, and you can actually try them out to see how they work. And many won’t be great, but a few will be improvements. Now you’re learning. You’re conjecturing how to live better, and trying out the conjectures. You can also consider your conjectures critically, that way if you notice a problem with one you won’t have to try it out. Over time, the old bad habits and emotional reactions that you didn’t want will fade with disuse, and new ones will form as you find ways of acting that you don’t see anything wrong with.

There’s a strong contrast here with some cultural stuff that tries to help people get better.

For example lots of people do stuff to help with alcohol/drug “addiction.” But the approach of these things is very different than something compatible with the above (which might be like — gradually try and find drugs/alcohol boring and figure out better stuff to do with your life). The more conventional stuff typically treats drugs/alcohol as super dangerous/seductive things and resisting them as a lifelong struggle.

oh yeah that’s really bad. if you wanna get over alcohol/drugs/cigarettes you need the attitude that by quitting you aren’t giving up anything important. if you think they are a big deal, then quitting is a big loss, which is hard. if you think they aren’t so important, then quitting is easy.


My reply to Elliot’s reply


Many people think sexual lust as something they have almost no hope to change because they can’t imagine being in control of it (compared to, say, getting angry, sad or happy, which they know that sometimes people manage to have some control over). But William Godwin explained that sexual lust is a matter of ideas that we can make choices about. He pointed out that sexual pleasure is actually fragile — people will go to great lengths to avoid being disturbed because it ruins the pleasure and they “lose the mood” (in modern terminology).

Yeah. There’s a lot of ritual in sex. It’s a very fragile thing.

Is the fragility and ritual involved any sort of indication of irrationality?

Cuz on the one hand, I would maybe think that if someone is motivated to do something by like, enjoyment of the use of their rational faculty, the creative process, etc., then maybe their interest in whatever they are doing would be less fragile.

But OTOH there’s counterexamples of people who do creative work but are very picky about the conditions under which they can work, stuff like that.

I think the people who are really fragile about their work are pretty irrational. They have carved out this one thing they are good at. But they aren’t so good generally. And their narrow area of skill does NOT include everything relevant to doing their work. Like they aren’t great or rational about dealing with distractions.

There are costs for interruptions. But I don’t think being super fragile about it is related to being a creative, productive guy. I think that’s just that they are good at one thing, not two things.

I recently saw an article about how GRRM was dropping EVERYTHING ELSE until he finishes WINDS OF WINTER.

And then I thought about how Brandon Sanderson talks about how stuff like writing novellas or even 3-4 book series as SIDE PROJECTS to his HUGE EPICS is part of his “process.”

Is interesting. The GRRM stuff was written up as him like getting serious and “buckling down.” But compared to what Sanderson does, it seems like GRRM is failing badly.

People don’t like making those kinda judgments with regards to people’s “creative process” though, which is considered this super mysterious thing that you shouldn’t judge or criticize.

Lincoln Called For Dixie (Because He Liked It)

This seemed relevant to the current push to purge our culture of symbols associated with the Confederacy. The New York Times, February 7, 1909:

LINCOLN CALLED FOR DIXIE: Had It Played After Richmond’s Fall Because He Liked It

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6.—Joseph Nimmo, Jr., one of the few surviving close personal friends of Abraham Lincoln, today took issue with President Schneider of the Chicago Board of Trade, who is reported to have forbidden the singing of “Dixie” at the Lincoln centennial as treasonable.

“This I am prepared to deny from my personal experience,” said Mr. Nimmo.

“Early one morning in the month of April, 1865, the news reached Washington that Richmond had been evacuated. There was a rush to the White House led by a band. I accompanied the crowd. Soon Mr. Lincoln appeared at the window over the front entrance. He replied to the demand for a speech. I well remember his closing words, which were as follows:

There is a song or a tune which I used to hear with great pleasure before the war, but our friends across the river have appropriated it to their use during the last four years. It is the tune called “Dixie.’ But I think we have captured it. At any rate I conferred with the Attorney General this morning, and he expressed the Opinion that “Dixie” may fairly be regarded as captured property. So I shall be glad to hear “Dixie” by the band.

“Ever since then ‘Dixie’ has been regarded as a National air beloved by the people of the North and South. The tune of ‘Dixie’ was composed by Dan Emmett, a Northern man, who wrote the words and music. For years before the war it was sung at the North and at the South, and will remain for all time a truly National song, made so by the good-natured humor of Abraham Lincoln.”