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Emotions are the Axioms of Thought

by Niklas Haas on May 9, 2020

Tagged as: philosophy, life.

I’ve been slowly coming to the realization and acceptance of the reality that the very concept of ‘rational thought’ is a bit inherently flawed. There’s no purely logical or rational reason to even think anything, let alone try to prove something. Any argument I can possibly construct is ultimately based in some human desire or emotion in the end - the only possible purpose of rational thought is to be used as a tool for figuring out what it is that makes me happy and how to achieve it.

In essence, it boils down to the simple reality of there being no such thing as divine providence. Rather, you could say that my own emotions are my divine providence. Human brains are just sufficiently advanced learning machines, and any machine needs some sort of operational rules. What is it that makes us learn to think one way rather than another? The answer is extremely straightforward: We have our own built-in reward functions, given to us by evolution. My entire system of values, beliefs, ethics, morals and all higher purposes I can come up with in life are just elaborate contraptions on top of the core tenets of “what is it that makes me happy?”, and my brain is trying to steer my behavior in accordance with its best model of what actions will lead to my happiness.

In attempting to take this realization to its logical conclusions I stumbled upon a number of interesting corollaries:

First off, it directly implies that there’s ultimately no way to convince somebody else of anything unless you happen to already agree on it. No matter how objective and neutral, any logical argument you construct for something you believe in also has to be perceived as logical with respect to the system of axioms that the person you’re discussing things with has built into their system, for them to be able to subscribe to it. Either you agree or you don’t, there’s no such thing as “convincing” somebody of a core belief.1 At best, “convincing” is something you do on a much higher level: inherently only possible if you already want the same thing, but disagree on the methods best used to achieve it. (Fortunately, I think that this is a relatively common source of disagreements)

More interestingly, this all becomes rather bizarre when you try focusing on the word ‘me’ in that sentence. What does me even mean? Is the person living in 30 years that happens to share the same name as me, and whose body derives from mine by the evolution of physical laws, the same person as me? This is an important question because my ability to think long-term hinges on its answer: if I don’t self-identify with my future, then I can’t derive emotions (either good or bad) based on what will happen to that future person. It’s for this reason that I suspect the concept of self consciousness and self identity even exists: as an evolutionary answer to the question of how we get ourselves to think long-term rather than short-term - by making us happy now about the prospect of “ourselves” being happy in the future.2

Taking this a bit further, why draw the boundaries there? What justification am I using to even demarcate myself from, say, my (hypothetical) children? Or my children’s children? Do they not arise purely from my acts in much the same way as my future does? What about the people whose minds my words reach? Whose brains continue thinking my thoughts, forever becoming mixed with my own identity? (And arguably, therefore, my perception of consciousness?) Are they not parts of me, too? At some level, I have to self-identify with them, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to act in accordance with their happiness, and would seek only to destroy the world in pursuit of my own happiness. But the fact that we can even conceive of a world in which our children should be happy is living proof of the fact that, at some level, this thought generates positive emotions in us - we empathize with future people who have never existed, because at some level, nature gave us the ability to identity with them.

But why stop there? Why not self-identify myself with the animals living around us, sharing our planet? Why not self-identify myself with the bacteria crawling on my skin? Why not self-identify myself with the RNA chains floating in our oceans? Why not self-identify myself with the entire concept of life? The fact that people even care about, say, animal rights, is again, living proof of the fact that, on some level, we (or at least some of us) have the ability to empathize with them, which implies some level of ability to identify with ‘life’ as a more general concept.

But why stop there? What justification do I have for even calling some collections of electrons “alive” and others not? Why not self-identify with the “non-living” things my atoms are constantly interacting with? Why not self-identify with the hydrogen atoms in the sun giving us life? Why not self-identify with the supernovae whence our heavy metals, essential to our survival, came? Why not self-identify with the supermassive black hole that drew together the collection cosmic dust we call our galactic neighbourhood? Why not identify with it all?

These are questions you can’t answer using logic. Or, well, you can - but like any other form of logic, you need to start with some system of axioms. Either I self-identify with it, or I do not. Does it create happy feelings in me to self-identify with those things? If it doesn’t, there’s nothing I can argue for doing so. If it does, then there’s nothing I can argue against doing so. I either experience some level of empathy for them or I do not.

Lastly, the most worrying conclusion is that it seems to imply there’s nothing I fundamentally can do to change the person I am. Which is worrying, because if I don’t like the person I am, it would imply that there’s nothing I can do about it except accept it. Continue to suffer under the weight of conflicting emotions that I’m cursed to constantly arbitrate between in order to prevent either one from getting out of control. On the other hand, it raises the important question of how it can be possible for me to not like the person I am. What logical argument am I using for convincing myself that the things I want are bad, if it should be impossible for me to argue that anything I want is bad?

I think the answer is that it boils down to the fact that I can desire conflicting things. Logic breaks down in the face of inconsistent axioms. I want people to like me, but at the same time, I seem to like things that necessitate people not liking me. Although this, surely, is just an error in my judgment - or so my therapist is trying to convince me. That being said, I take her words with a grain of salt, for I subscribe to the notion that I’m guilty until proved innocent. The only thing that can convince me that I’m worth love is somebody loving me, and as that remains to be demonstrated, I cling on to my belief. Probably a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point, but I also don’t suppose that realization alone helps me change an emotion I can’t change with logic. Oh well.

This whole ‘living’ thing really is rather a bother, isn’t it?

  1. That said, I do believe it is possible to essentially influence what makes us happy, as evidenced by e.g. cognitive therapy. In a nutshell, changing the way we perceive the world changes the emotions we experience. So by logical extension, it should also be possible to influence what makes somebody else happy, to the point where they will eventually agree with your arguments. I just wouldn’t call it convincing, it’s more akin to “subjugating”, and at some level it requires stomaching the idea of taking on that much authority over somebody else’s liberty. Despite this, I suspect we do it all the time, not by choice, but because it makes us unhappy to see others disagree with us (or act in ways that cause us to suffer). In essence, a lot of ethics debate, social justice, political discussion and so forth is centered around the idea of trying to change other people’s beliefs in order to make yourself happier, no? (Apart from the more naive aspects of “things you already agree on but disagree on the best methods to accomplish”, which I can only assume are probably not those disputes that last centuries)

  2. On the opposite side of this coin, emotions such as greed, impatience, denial and so forth are evolution’s answer to how to get ourselves to think short-term rather than long-term, to prevent us from being so focused on long-term happiness that we forget to focus on what’s right in front of us. Both aspects were surely beneficial for our past survival, otherwise we wouldn’t have them. (Although this doesn’t preclude the possibility that our balance may need to change as our technology, society and capabilities evolve, for our survival in the present and future!)