Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain completes the trilogy begun in 1994 by Antonio Damasio, M.D., chairman of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center. Although Damasio is a neuroscientist par excellence, Looking for Spinoza also completes the classic structure of a philosophy, moving from What is our nature? (metaphysics) and What is our means of knowledge? (epistemology), to What should we do? (ethics) and How should we live in society? (politics). In truth, Damasio has been a philosopher all along, a philosopher of our biological nature and destiny.
In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994), Damasio argued that our feelings are essential to our rationality. He displaced the centuries-old concept of reason as lofty, isolated contemplation, reliable only when uncontaminated by feeling, with a powerful case that feelings make reason possible by rooting our thought in a network of biological systems that provide information about our values as living creatures. Feelings, in effect, anchor reasoning to the self, its needs, its experience, its relationship to the world. As praise poured forth for Descartes’ Error, the most common description of Damasio’s demonstration seemed to be “astonishing.”
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt, 1999) aimed to do nothing less than explain the origin of consciousness in the representation of the body in the brain. Feelings, again, were the core—not because they are all, Damasio argued, but because they had been systematically excluded from the understanding of the nature of consciousness as profoundly biological. Feelings are the mental representation of emotions; they are the means by which the myriad changes in our body and brain states reach the level of conscious awareness to be factored into our process of thought.
Now Looking for Spinoza completes the trilogy with Damasio’s answer to the question: What can neurobiology contribute to our understanding of the good and the just?
Excerpted from “Neurobiology and Ethical Behavior” in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio. © 2003 by Antonio Damasio. Published by Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Ethical behaviors are a subset of social behaviors. They can be investigated with a full range of scientiﬁc approach- es, from anthropology to neurobiology. The latter encompasses techniques as diverse as experimental neuropsychology (at the level of large-scale systems) and genetics (at the molecular level). The most fruitful results are likely to come from combined approaches.
The essence of ethical behavior does not begin with humans. Evidence from birds (such as ravens) and mammals (such as vampire bats, wolves, baboons, and chimpanzees) indicates that other species can behave in what appears, to our sophisticated eyes, as an ethical manner. They exhibit sympathy, attachments, embarrassment, dominant pride, and humble submission. They can censure and recompense certain actions of others. Vampire bats, for example, can detect cheaters among the food gatherers in their group and punish them accordingly. Ravens can do likewise. Such examples are especially convincing among primates, and are by no means conﬁned to our nearest cousins, the big apes. Rhesus monkeys can behave in a seemingly altruistic manner toward other monkeys. In an intriguing experiment conducted by Robert Miller and discussed by Marc Hauser, monkeys abstained from pulling a chain that would deliver food to them if pulling the chain also caused another monkey to receive an electric shock. Some monkeys would not eat for hours, even days. Suggestively, the animals most likely to behave in an altruistic manner were those that knew the potential target of the shock.
Here was compassion working better with those who are familiar than with strangers. The animals that previously had been shocked also were more likely to behave altruistically. Nonhumans can certainly cooperate or fail to do so, within their group. This may displease those who believe just behavior is an exclusively human trait. As if it were not enough to be told by Copernicus that we are not in the center of the universe, by Charles Darwin that we have humble origins, and by Sigmund Freud that we are not full masters of our behavior, we have to concede that even in the realm of ethics there are forerunners and descent. But human ethical behavior has a degree of elaboration and complexity that makes it distinctly human. Ethical rules create uniquely human obligations for the normal individual acquainted with those rules. The codiﬁcation is human; the narratives we have constructed around the situation are human. We can accommodate the realization that a part of our biological/psychological makeup has nonhuman beginnings with the notion that our deep understanding of the human condition confers upon us a unique dignity.
Nor should the fact that our noblest cultural creations have forerunners imply that either humans or animals have a single and ﬁxed social nature. There are varied kinds of social nature, good and bad, resulting from the vagaries of evolutionary variation, gender, and personal development.
Nor should the fact that our noblest cultural creations have forerunners imply that either humans or animals have a single and ﬁxed social nature. There are varied kinds of social nature, good and bad, resulting from the vagaries of evolutionary variation, gender, and personal development. As Frans de Waal has shown in his work, there are bad-natured apes, aggressive and territorial chimpanzees, and good-natured apes, the bonobos, whose wonderful personality resembles a marriage of Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa.
The construction we call ethics in humans may have begun as part of an over all program of bioregulation. The embryo of ethical behaviors would have been another step in a progression that includes all the nonconscious, automated mechanisms that provide metabolic regulation; drives and motivations; emotions of diverse kinds; and feelings. Most importantly, the situations that evoke these emotions and feelings call for solutions that include cooperation. It is not difﬁcult to imagine the emergence of justice and honor out of the practices of cooperation. Yet another layer of social emotions, expressed in the form of dominant or submissive behaviors within the group, would have played an important role in the active give and take that deﬁne cooperation.
It is reasonable to believe that humans equipped with this repertoire of emotions and whose personality traits include cooperative strategies would be more likely to survive longer and leave more descendants. That would have been the way to establish a genomic basis for brains capable of producing cooperative behavior. This is not to suggest that there is a gene for cooperative behavior, let alone ethical behavior in general. All that would be necessary would be a consistent presence of the many genes likely to endow brains with certain regions of circuitry and with the attendant wiring— for example, regions such as the ventromedial frontal lobe that can interrelate certain categories of perceived events with certain emotion/feeling responses. In other words, some genes working in concert would promote the construction of certain brain components, and the regular operation of those components, which, in turn, given the appropriate environmental exposures, would make certain kinds of cognitive strategy and behavior more probable under certain circumstances. In essence, evolution would have endowed our brains with the apparatus necessary to recognize certain cognitive conﬁgurations and trigger certain emotions related to the management of the problems or opportunities posed by those conﬁgurations. The ﬁne tuning of that remarkable apparatus would depend on the history and habitat of the developing organism.
The history of our civilization is, to some extent, the history of a persuasive effort to extend the best of “moral sentiments” to wider and wider circles of humanity...
Lest it be thought that evolution and its baggage of genes has simply made things wonderful by bringing to us all these proper behaviors, let me point out that the nice emotions and the commendable, adaptive altruism pertain to a group. In the animal world, these groups include packs of wolves and troops of apes. Among humans, they include the family, tribe, city, and nation. For those outside the group, the evolutionary history of these responses shows that they have been less than kind. The nice emotions can easily turn nasty and brutish when they are aimed outside the inner circles toward which they are naturally targeted. The result is anger, resentment, and violence, all of which we can easily recognize as a possible embryo of tribal hatreds, racism, and war. This is the time to introduce the reminder that the best of human behavior is not necessarily wired under the control of the genome. The history of our civilization is, to some extent, the history of a persuasive effort to extend the best of “moral sentiments” to wider and wider circles of humanity, beyond the restrictions of the inner groups, eventually encompassing the whole of humanity. That we are far from ﬁnishing the job is easy to grasp just by reading the headlines.
And there is some more natural darkness to contend with. The trait of dominance —like its complement, submission—is an important component of social emotions. Dominance has a positive face in that dominant creatures tend to provide solutions for the problems of a community. They conduct negotiations and lead the wars. They ﬁnd the path to salvation along the roads that lead to water, fruit, and shelter, or along the roads of prophecy and wisdom. But those dominant individuals also can become abusive bullies, tyrants, and despots, especially when dominance comes hand in hand with its evil twin: charisma. They can conduct negotiations wrongly and lead others to the wrong war. In those creatures, the display of nice emotions is reserved for an exceedingly small group made up of themselves and of those that sustain them most closely. Likewise, the submissive traits that can play such helpful roles in reaching agreement and consensus around a conﬂict also can make individuals cower under tyranny and hasten the downfall of an entire group by the sheer overuse of obeisance.
As conscious, intelligent, and creative creatures immersed in a cultural environment, we humans have been able to shape the rules of ethics, structure their codiﬁcation into law, and design the application of the law. We will remain involved in that effort. The collective of interactive organisms, in a social environment and in the culture such a collective produces, are as important or more so in the understanding of these phenomena, even if the culture is itself conditioned to a large extent by evolution and neurobiology. To be sure, the beneﬁcial role of the culture depends, in large measure, on the accuracy of the scientiﬁc picture of human beings the culture uses to forge its future path. And this is where modern neurobiology integrated in the traditional fabric of the social sciences may come to make a difference.
Largely for the same reasons, elucidating biological mechanisms underlying ethical behaviors does not mean that those mechanisms or their dysfunction are the guaranteed cause of a certain behavior. They may be determinative, but not necessarily determinative. The system is so complex and multilayered that it operates with some degree of freedom.
Not surprisingly, I believe that ethical behaviors depend on the workings of certain brain systems. But the systems are not centers —we do not have one or a few “moral centers.” Not even the ventromedial prefrontal cortex should be conceived as a center. Moreover, the systems that support ethical behaviors are probably not dedicated to ethics exclusively. They are dedicated to biological regulation, memory, decision-making, and creativity. Ethical behaviors are the wonderful and most useful side effects of those other activities. But I see no moral center in the brain, and not even a moral system, as such.
On these hypotheses then, the grounding role of feelings is tied to their natural life-monitoring function. Ever since feelings began, their natural role would have been to keep the condition of life in mind and to make the condition of life count in the organization of behavior. And it is precisely because feelings continue to do so now that I also believe they should play a critical part in the current evaluation, development, and even application of the cultural instruments to which we have been alluding here.
...feelings, especially sorrow and joy, can inspire the creation of conditions in the physical and cultural environments that promote the reduction of pain and the enhancement of well-being for society.
If feelings index the state of life within each living human organism, they also can index the state of life in any human group, large or small. Intelligent reﬂection on the relation between social phenomena and the experience of feelings of joy and sorrow seems indispensable for the perennial human activity of devising systems of justice and political organization. Perhaps even more importantly, feelings, especially sorrow and joy, can inspire the creation of conditions in the physical and cultural environments that promote the reduction of pain and the enhancement of well-being for society. In that direction, developments in biology and progress in medical technologies have bettered the human condition consistently over the past century. So have the sciences and technologies related to managing the physical environment. So have the arts, to some extent. So has the growth of wealth in democratic nations, to some extent.
HOMEOSTASIS AND THE GOVERNANCE OF SOCIAL LIFE
Human life is ﬁrst regulated by the natural and automatic devices of homeostasis— metabolic balance, appetites, emotions, and so forth. This most successful arrangement guarantees something quite astonishing: that all living creatures are given equal access to automatic solutions for managing life's basic problems, commensurate with their complexity and with the complexity of their niche in the environment. The regulation of our adult life, however, must go beyond those automated solutions because our environment is so physically and socially complex that conﬂict easily arises due to competition for resources necessary for survival and well-being. Simple processes such as obtaining food and ﬁnding a mate become complicated activities. They are joined by many other elaborate processes— think of manufacturing, commerce, and banking; health care, education, and insurance; and the numerous other support activities whose ensemble constitutes a human society with an economy. Our life must be regulated not only by our own desires and feelings but also by our concern for the desires and feelings of others expressed as social conventions and rules of ethical behavior. Those conventions and rules and the institutions that enforce them —religion, justice, and sociopolitical organizations—become mechanisms for exerting homeostasis at the level of the social group. In turn, activities such as science and technology assist the mechanisms of social homeostasis.
None of the institutions involved in the governance of social behavior tend to be regarded as a device to regulate life, perhaps because they often fail to do their job properly or because their immediate aims mask the connection to the life process. The ultimate goal of those institutions, however, is precisely the regulation of life in a particular environment. With only slight variations of accent, on the individual or the collective, directly or indirectly, the ultimate goal of these institutions revolves around promoting life and avoiding death and enhancing well-being and reducing suffering.
This was important for humans because automated life regulation can only go so far when the environments—not just physical but social—become exceedingly complex. Without the help of deliberation, pedagogy, or formal instruments of culture, nonhuman species exhibit useful behaviors that run from the trivial—ﬁnding food or a mate; to the sublime—showing compassion for another. But look, for a moment, at us humans. We certainly cannot dispense with any part of the gene-given innate apparatus of behavior. Yet it is apparent that, as human societies became more complex and certainly for the ten thousand or more years since agriculture was developed, human survival and well-being depended on an additional kind of nonautomated governance in a social and cultural space. I am referring to what we usually associate with reasoning and freedom of decision. It is not just that we humans show compassion for another suffering being, as bonobo chimpanzees and other nonhuman species can. We also know that we feel compassion, and, perhaps as a consequence, we have been doing something about the circumstances behind the events that provoked that emotion and feeling in the ﬁrst place.
Nature has had millions of years to perfect the automated devices of homeostasis, while the nonautomated devices would have a history of a few thousand years. But I see other noticeable differences between automated and nonautomated life regulation.
A major difference has to do with “goals” versus “ways and means.” The goals and the ways and means of the automated devices are well established and efﬁcacious. However, when we turn to the nonautomated devices, we see that while some goals have been largely agreed upon—such as not killing the other—many goals are still open to negotiation and remain to be established —how exactly to help the sick and needy. Moreover, the ways and means to reach any goals have varied remarkably with the human group and the historical period, and are anything but ﬁxed. Feelings may have contributed to articulating the goals that deﬁne humanity at its most reﬁned—not harming others; promoting the good of another. But the story of humanity is one of struggle to ﬁnd acceptable ways and means to implement those goals. One might say that the goals of Marxism, albeit narrow, were laudable in some respects since the stated intention was to create some kind of fair world. Yet the ways and means of the societies that promoted Marxism were disastrous because, among other reasons, they were in frequent clash with well-established mechanisms of automated life regulation. The good of the larger collective often required the pain and suffering of many individuals. The result was a costly human tragedy. The incipience and fragility of the nonautomated devices is easily demonstrated by Nazism, in which both goals and ways and means were deeply ﬂawed. In most respects, then, the nonautomated devices are a work in progress, still hampered by the enormous difﬁculty of negotiating goals and ﬁnding ways and means that do not violate other aspects of life regulation. From this perspective, I believe feelings remain essential to maintaining those goals the cultural group considers inviolable and worthy of perfecting. Feelings also are a necessary guide to the invention and negotiation of ways and means that, somehow, will not clash with basic life regulation and distort the intention behind the goal. Feelings remain as important today as when humans ﬁrst discovered that killing other humans was a questionable action.
The constitution that governs a democratic state, the laws that are consonant with that constitution, and application of those laws in a judicial system also are homeostatic devices. They are linked by a long umbilical cord to the other tiers of homeostatic regulation on which they are modeled: appetites/desires, emotions/feelings, and the conscious governance of both.
Social conventions and ethical rules may be seen in part as extensions of the basic homeostatic arrangements at the level of society and culture. The outcome of applying the rules is the same as the outcome of basic homeostatic devices such as metabolic regulation or appetites: a balance of life to ensure survival and well-being. The extension does not stop there, however. It reaches into the larger organizational levels of which social groups are a part. The constitution that governs a democratic state, the laws that are consonant with that constitution, and application of those laws in a judicial system also are homeostatic devices. They are linked by a long umbilical cord to the other tiers of homeostatic regulation on which they are modeled: appetites/desires, emotions/feelings, and the conscious governance of both. So is the ﬂedgling, twentieth-century development of worldwide bodies of social coordination, such as the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and the much-maligned United Nations. All of these institutions can be seen as part and parcel of the tendency to promote homeostasis on a large scale. Along with the good results they often achieve, however, these bodies suffer from many ills and their policies are often informed by deﬁcient conceptions of humanity that have not taken into account emerging scientiﬁc evidence. Still, their imperfect presence is a sign of progress and a beacon of hope, however weak. And there are other reasons for hope. The study of social emotions is in its infancy. If the cognitive and neurobiological investigations of emotions and feelings can join forces with, for example, anthropology and evolutionary psychology, it is likely that some of the suggestions contained in this chapter can be tested. We might get a glimpse of how human biology and culture really mesh behind the appearance, and we might even be able to guess how the genome and the physical and social environments interacted during the long history of evolution.
The foregoing, I note again, are ideas whose merits remain to be assessed. A formal proposal on the neurobiology of ethical behaviors is outside the scope of this book, and so is a discussion of these ideas in a historical perspective.
THE FOUNDATION OF VIRTUE
I wrote early in this book that my return to Spinoza came almost by chance as I tried to check the accuracy of a quote I kept on a yellowed paper, a link to the Spinoza I had read long ago. Why had I kept the quote? Perhaps because it was something I intuited as speciﬁc and illuminating. But I had never paused to analyze it in detail until it traveled from my memory to the page I was working on.
The quote comes from Proposition 18 in part IV of The Ethics and it reads: “...the very ﬁrst foundation of virtue is the endeavor (conatum) to preserve the individual self, and happiness consists in the human capacity to preserve its self.” In Latin the proposition reads...virtutis fundamentum esse ip sum conatum proprium esse conservandi, et felicitatem in eo consistere, quïd homo suum esse conservare potest. A comment on the terms used by Spinoza is in order before we go any further. First, as noted earlier, the word conatum can be rendered as endeavor or tendency or effort, and Spinoza may have meant any of these, or perhaps a blend of the three meanings. Second, the word virtutis can refer not just to its traditional moral meaning, but also to power, and ability to act. I shall return to this issue. Curiously, in this passage, he uses the word felicitatem, which is best translated as happiness, rather than laetitia, which can be translated as joy, elation, delight, and happiness.
At ﬁrst glance the words sound like a prescription for the selﬁsh culture of our times but nothing could be further from their real meaning. As I interpret it, the proposition is a cornerstone for a generous ethical system. It is an afﬁrmation that at the base of whatever rules of behavior we may ask humanity to follow, there is something inalienable: A living organism, known to its owner because the owner’s mind has constructed a self, has a natural tendency to preserve its own life; and that same organism’s state of optimal functioning, subsumed by the concept of joy, results from the successful endeavor to endure and prevail. Paraphrased in deeply American terms I would rewrite Spinoza’s proposition as follows: I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created such that they tend to preserve their life and seek well-being, that their happiness comes from the successful endeavor to do so, and that the foundation of virtue rests on these facts. Perhaps these resonances are not a coincidence.
The biological reality of self-preservation leads to virtue because in our inalienable need to maintain ourselves we must, of necessity, help preserve other selves.
Spinoza’s statement rings clear as a bell, but it does require elaboration for its full impact to be appreciated. Why should a concern for oneself be the basis for virtue, lest that virtue pertain to that self alone? Or, to put it more bluntly, how does Spinoza move from oneself to all the selves to whom virtue must apply? Spinoza makes the transition relying again on biological facts. Here is the procedure: The biological reality of self-preservation leads to virtue because in our inalienable need to maintain ourselves we must, of necessity, help preserve other selves. If we fail to do so we perish and are thus violating the foundational principle, and relinquishing the virtue that lies in self-preservation. The secondary foundation of virtue then is the reality of a social structure and the presence of other living organisms in a complex system of interdependence with our own organism. We are in a bind, literally, in the good sense of the word. The essence of this transition can be found in Aristotle, but Spinoza ties it to a biological principle—the mandate for self-preservation.
So here is the beauty behind the cherished quote, seen from today’s perspective: It contains the foundation for a system of ethical behaviors and that foundation is neurobiological. The foundation is the result of a discovery based on the observation of human nature rather than the revelation of a prophet.
Human beings are as they are—living and equipped with appetites, emotions, and other self-preservation devices, including the capacity to know and to reason. Consciousness, in spite of its limitations, opens the way for knowledge and reason, which, in turn, allow individuals to discover what is good and evil. Again, good and evil are not revealed, they are discovered, individually or by agreement among social beings.
The deﬁnition of good and evil is simple and sound. Good objects are those that prompt, in reliable and sustainable fashion, the states of joy that Spinoza sees as enhancing the power and freedom of action. Evil objects are those that elicit the opposite result: Their encounters with an organism are disagreeable to that organism.
And what about good and evil actions? Good actions and evil actions are not merely actions that do or do not accord with individual appetites and emotions. Good actions are those that, while producing good for the individual via the natural appetites and emotions, do not harm other individuals. The injunction is unequivocal. An action that might be personally beneﬁcial but would harm others is not good because harming others always haunts and eventually harms the individual who causes the harm. Consequently such actions are evil. “...our good is especially in the friendship that links to other humans and to advantages for society” (The Ethics, Part IV, Proposition 10). I interpret Spinoza to mean that the system constructs ethical imperatives based on the presence of mechanisms of self-preservation in each person, but mindful of social and cultural elements as well. Beyond each self there are others, as individuals and as social entities, and their own self-preservation, e.g., their appetites and emotions, must be taken into consideration. Neither the essence of the conatus, nor the notion that harm to the other is harm to the self are Spinoza’s inventions. But perhaps the Spinozian novelty resides with the powerful blend of the two.
The endeavor to live in a shared, peaceful agreement with others is an extension of the endeavor to preserve oneself. Social and political contracts are extensions of the personal biological mandate. We happen to be biologically structured in a certain way— mandated to survive and to maximize pleasurable rather than painful survival—and from that necessity comes a certain social agreement. It is reasonable to hypothesize that the tendency to seek social agreement has itself been incorporated in biological mandates, at least in part, due to the evolutionary success of populations whose brains expressed cooperative behaviors to a high degree.
Beyond basic biology there is a human decree which is also biologically rooted but arises only in the social and cultural setting, an intellectual product of knowledge and reason. Spinoza sensed this arrangement clearly: “For example, the law that all bodies impinging on lesser bodies, lose as much of their own motion as they communicate to the latter is a universal law of all bodies, and depends on natural necessity. So, too, the law that a man in remembering one thing straightway remembers another either like it, or which he had perceived simultaneously with it, is a law that necessarily follows from the nature of man. But the law that men must yield, or be compelled to yield, somewhat of their natural right, and that they bind themselves to live in a certain way, depends on human decree. Now, though I freely admit that all things are predetermined by universal natural laws to exist and operate in a given, ﬁxed, and deﬁnite manner, I still assert that the laws I have just mentioned depend on human decree.”
Spinoza would have been pleased to know that one reason why the human decree may take cultural roots is that the design of the human brain tends to facilitate its practice.
Spinoza would have been pleased to know that one reason why the human decree may take cultural roots is that the design of the human brain tends to facilitate its practice. It is likely that the simplest form of some behaviors necessary for realizing the human decree, such as reciprocal altruism and censure, is merely waiting to be awakened by social experience. We have to work hard at formulating and perfecting the human decree but to some extent our brains are wired to cooperate with others in the process of making the decree possible. This is the good news. The bad news, of course, is that many negative social emotions, along with their exploitation in modern cultures, make the human decree difﬁcult to implement and improve.
The importance of the biological facts in the Spinoza system cannot be overemphasized. Seen through the light of modern biology, the system is conditioned by the presence of life; the presence of a natural tendency to preserve that life; the fact that the preservation of life depends on the equilibrium of life functions and consequently on life regulation; the fact that the status of life regulation is expressed in the form of affects—joy, sorrow—and is modulated by appetites; and the fact that appetites, emotions, and the precariousness of the life condition can be known and appreciated by the human individual due to the construction of self, consciousness, and knowledge-based reason. Conscious humans know of appetites and emotions as feelings, and those feelings deepen their knowledge of the fragility of life and turn it into a concern. And for all the reasons outlined above the concern overﬂows from the self to the other.
I am not suggesting that Spinoza ever said that ethics, law, and political organization were homeostatic devices. But the idea is compatible with his system considering the way he saw ethics, the structure of the state, and the law as means for individuals to achieve the natural balance expressed in joy.
It is often said that Spinoza did not believe in free will, a notion that appears to be in direct conﬂict with an ethical system in which human beings decide to behave in a particular way, according to clear imperatives. But Spinoza never denied that we are aware of making choices and that, for all intents and purposes, we can make choices, and willfully control our behavior. He constantly recommended that we forgo whatever action we consider wrong in favor of one we consider right. His entire strategy for human salvation depends on our making deliberate choices. The issue for Spinoza is that many seemingly deliberate behaviors can be explained by prior conditions of our biological constitution, and that, ultimately, everything we think and do results from certain antecedent conditions and processes that we may not be able to control. But we still can say a categorical no, just as ﬁrmly and imperatively as Immanuel Kant would, however illusory the freedom of that no may be.
There is an additional meaning to Spinoza’s Proposition 18. It hinges on the double meaning of the word virtue, on the emphasis given to the notion of happiness, and on the many comments that follow in Parts IV and V of The Ethics. Some degree of happiness comes quite simply from acting in conformity with our self-preserving tendency, as needed but not more. In addition to urging the establishment of a social contract, Spinoza is telling us that happiness is the power to be free of the tyranny of negative emotions. Happiness is not a reward for virtue: it is virtue itself.
WHAT ARE FEELINGS FOR?
So, why do we have feelings? What do feelings accomplish for us? Would we be better off without them? These questions have been perennially deemed unanswerable, but I believe we can begin to address them now. For one thing, we have a workable idea of what feelings are and that is a ﬁrst step in the attempt to discover why feelings are and what they do for us. For another, we have just seen how the partnership of emotion and feeling plays a critical role in social behavior and, by extension, in ethical behavior. Still, a skeptic might remain unconvinced and argue that nonconscious emotion alone would sufﬁce to guide social behavior; or that neural mappings of emotional states would sufﬁce, without any need for those maps to become mental events, i.e., feelings. In short, there would be no need for mind, let alone a conscious mind. Let me attempt to answer the skeptics.
The answer to “why” begins as follows. In order for the brain to coordinate the myriad body functions on which life depends, it needs to have maps in which the state of varied body systems are represented moment by moment. The success of this operation depends on this massive mapping. It is critical to know what is going on in different body sectors so that certain functions can be slowed down, halted, or called into action, and so that appropriate corrections in the governance of the organism’s life can be made. Examples of the situation I have in mind include a local wound, externally inﬂicted or caused by infection; or the malfunction of an organ such as the heart or kidneys, or a hormonal imbalance.
Neural maps that are critical for the governance of life turn out to be a necessary basis for the mental states we call feelings. This takes us one more step into the answer to the “why” question: feelings probably arose as a by-product of the brain’s involvement in the management of life. Had there been no neural maps of body state there might never have been such a thing as feelings.
These answers may raise some objections. For example, it can be argued that since the basic processes of life governance are automated and nonconscious, feelings, which in the usual sense of the term are conscious, would be superﬂuous. A skeptic would say that the brain can coordinate life processes and execute physiological corrections on the basis of the neural maps alone, without any help from conscious feelings. The mind would not need to know about the contents of those maps. This argument is only correct in part. True enough, to a certain extent, body-state maps assist the brain with the management of life even when the “owner” of the organism does not know such maps exist. But the objection misses an important point made earlier. Body-state maps can provide only limited assistance without conscious feelings. The maps work for problems of a certain degree of complexity and no more; when the problem gets too complicated—when it requires a mixture of automated responses and reasoning on accumulated knowledge— unconscious maps no longer help and feelings come in handy.
What does the feeling level add to problem-solving and decision-making that the neural-map level of those events, as currently described by neuroscience, cannot offer? In my view there are two tiers to the answer, one that has to do with the status of feelings as mental events in the conscious mind, another that has to do with what feelings stand for.
The fact that feelings are mental events is relevant for the following reason. Feelings help us solve non-standard problems involving creativity, judgment, and decision making that require the display and manipulation of vast amounts of knowledge.
The fact that feelings are mental events is relevant for the following reason. Feelings help us solve nonstandard problems involving creativity, judgment, and decision-making that require the display and manipulation of vast amounts of knowledge. Only the “mental level” of biological operations permits the timely integration of large sets of information necessary for the problem-solving processes. Because feelings have the requisite mental level, they can enter the mind fray and inﬂuence the operations. At the end of chapter 5, I will return to the issue of what the mental level of neural processing brings to organisms that other levels do not.
What feelings bring to the mind fray is just as important. Conscious feelings are prominent mental events that call attention to the emotions that begat them, and to the objects that triggered those emotions. In individuals who also have an autobiographical self—the sense of personal past and anticipated future also known as extended consciousness—the state of feeling prompts the brain to process emotion-related objects and situations saliently. The appraisal process that led to the isolation of the object and the onset of the emotion can be revisited and analyzed as needed. Moreover, conscious feelings also call attention to the consequences of the situation: What is the object that triggered the emotion about to do? How did the causative object affect the person who feels? What are the person's thoughts now? Occurring in an autobiographical setting, feelings generate a concern for the individual experiencing them. The past, the now, and the anticipated future are given the appropriate saliencies and a better chance to inﬂuence the reasoning and decision-making process.
When feelings become known to the self within the organism that possesses them, feelings improve and amplify the process of managing life. The machinery behind feelings enables the biological corrections necessary for survival by offering explicit and highlighted information as to the state of different components of the organism at each given moment. Feelings label the related neural maps with a stamp that reads: “Mark that!”
One might summarize by saying that feelings are necessary because they are a mental level expression of emotions and what lies beneath them. Only at that mental level of biological processing and in the full light of consciousness is there sufﬁcient integration of the now, the past, and the anticipated future. Only at that level is it possible for emotions to create, via feelings, the concern for the individual self. The effective solution of nonstandard problems requires the ﬂexibility and high power information gathering that mental processes can offer, as well as the mental concern that feelings can provide.
The process of learning and recalling emotionally competent events is different with conscious feelings from what it would be without feelings. Some feelings optimize learning and recall. Other feelings, extremely painful feelings in particular, perturb learning and protectively suppress recall. In general, memory of the felt situation promotes, consciously or not, the avoidance of events associated with negative feelings and the seeking of situations that may cause positive feelings.
We should not be surprised that the neural machinery underlying feelings prevailed sturdily in evolution. Feelings are not superﬂuous. All that gossip from deep within turns out to be quite useful. It is not a simple issue of trusting feelings as the necessary arbiter of good and evil. It is a matter of discovering the circumstances in which feelings can indeed be an arbiter, and using the reasoned coupling of circumstances and feelings as a guide to human behavior.