Real vs. Pseudo-emotions

This was written several years ago and does not necessarily reflect my current opinions.

In recent days I have become obsessed with a particular issue within the sphere of the philosophy of the mind. One could even say that this issue will determine whether I prosper or am ruined—not in the sense that my thoughts on these issues, nor the truth regarding them, will necessarily have a direct impact on me, but rather that these issues bear on severe problems in the emotional realm from which I suffer and which often prove crippling to me in a way the people around me seem immune to.

This issue is the issue of real versus pseudo or “fake” emotions. What constitutes an emotion, and what properties distinguish it from something which might seem outwardly similar? Most people seem to have little difficulty with this, assigning emotions willy-nilly to anyone who shows certain outward signs. Yet I have noticed two disturbing facts regarding my own emotions, and these things have been almost tearing me apart:

  1. I can make a good enough semblance of an emotion to pass off as having it to the average person's standards if the situation demands it, without what seems to me the intrinsic “feel” of that emotion. My own opinion is deeply divided as to whether this should be considered a genuine emotion or not.
  2. Even in situations where I do believe I have a genuine emotion, I am constantly bombarded with obsessive thoughts that these emotions are not genuine. This would seem to be merely a problem with obsessive thoughts, but in fact runs deeper, since it seems that on every occasion when I try to, I can just turn the emotions in question on and off at will!

Of course one could claim that the ability to make a decision to attempt to turn an emotion on or off alone implies that the emotion is unreal, but this has the problems that it does not seem to accord very well with people attempting to suppress their emotions (something which, I think, it is generally acknowledged does happen), and that in this case, it would seem that every emotion which I have is of this genre of “pseudo-emotion”—that I have no genuine emotions at all.

I find the idea of a thinking entity as complex as a human being, yet totally unassuaged of emotion, implausible, at least on the face, and I certainly do not believe myself to be totally without emotion. There are impulses which I find it truly impossible to resist, but almost none of these would I describe as emotions—they seem to be more raw physical symptoms, such as when my blood sugar becomes low (since I am diabetic.) Furthermore, I have found recently that even in many of these cases I am hit with doubts, though I seem to overcome them in these cases.

It is often said that emotions can cause one to act irrationally. While this may or may not be true, I think one claim that is almost undeniable on any reasonable account of emotions is that they can cause one to act imprudently. Doubts regarding the veracity of my emotions are often strongest when it seems to the rational part of my mind that the emotion, if followed blindly, would cause me to act imprudently. Strangely enough, in probably the majority of these cases I find myself still acting in the fashion that the emotion would dictate (although completely without the compulsion to do so which I take to be the essential characteristic of genuine emotion)! It seems that my desire to have “real” emotions is so strong that it overrides my prudence and makes me act as if I had the emotions for which I do have the preconditions and from which I do suffer the costs, yet which lack what seemed in the past to be the very core of their emotionality.

Based on examination of those around me, I conclude that I must be some sort of pathological case. The most obvious possibility seems to be that I suffer from obsession of some kind. The average person simply does not suffer doubts about the veracity of his emotions on almost every occasion on which they come up. Yet is this any proof? Many people have believed, and continue to believe, that the mind is of an altogether difference substance than the body (sometimes the mind is called the soul, though “soul” is a word which has been used in almost every possibly way by someone in philosophy and religion). Yet I certainly do not accept this belief (despite the fact that many scientists might be inclined to call me mystical, I do believe that, at bottom, the universe is made up of only one fundamental kind of “stuff”.) So mass opinions, even regarding things with which one might assume people would be intimately familiar, cannot serve as proof, but at best as evidence.

Following traditional psychological lines, I—whether accurately or wrongly—often project my circumstances onto others. I question whether others genuinely feel the emotions they claim—even the emotions they evidence. On the rare occasions when I have mentioned this specifically, these people have shown no inclination to become doubtful of their own emotions. But is this any evidence either? Perhaps they suffer from delusions regarding the emotional phenomena going on in them, and truly all it would take is the mere thought that they could let go of their emotions before they would actually be free of, or at least begin to question, a great deal of them.

Yet they do seem truly unable to take what I am saying and apply it. True, they may admit that certain of their or others' emotions are manufactured (as I think it is pretty obvious that they are), but they will emphatically deny that such is the case for the emotions from which they claim to suffer at that specific moment. Yet I have a legitimate alternate hypothesis which would explain this behavior. This is that emotions are effective in modifying the behavior of those around one precisely because they appear to be unmalleable and not really under the control of the one experiencing them. Therefore, that person has a vested interest in maintaining the beliefs of others that his emotions are genuine, since they will cease to have much useful effect on others and merely pull him around like a gusting wind otherwise. Indeed, I myself sometimes attempt to make my emotions appear genuine (albeit deliberately in my case, not at an instinctive level) for precisely this purpose.

Kenn Hamm
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Last modified: Fri Apr 13 01:14:47 EDT 2001