The Logic of Irrational Emotion

a model of suffering and liberation


The Ugliness of Beauty
On Meaningfulness Itself
21st Century Money and Value
A Model of Emotions
Theory of Bliss
A Theory of Humor

The human emotional system has long been central to my cogitations -- is it not also central to yours? If I have any traction on understanding it, it might also be useful to you; thus this.

This work began its trajectory with what still seems the solid ground of A Theory of Humor (1998), through a generalization of it in my first-draft Theory of Bliss (2012). Now after another decade, given free time to write, I am ready to explain what I mean a bit more explicitly and thoroughly.

The argument will proceed at first to derive emotion from fact, then establish basic notation, restate N+V Humor Theory as an example, and state a formal model of emotion and derive its characterics. A novel characteristic, the emotional-binding function of identification, is adduced and used to explain the irrational emotions.

Evolutionary Logic of Emotion

To set context, let me refer to the ongoing apparent debate on whether values can derive from facts or not.

Entities like biological organisms, which are subject to evolutionary constraints like survival and reproduction, and which are capable of multiple internal processes and external interactions, are required to represent their environments and prioritize their different, possible responses; otherwise, their processes will fail to optimize for, and may fall foul of those constraints within those varying environments. On the margins of survival, where survival is actually difficult, it had better optimize or die. (It: a species with its variation and change.) Over evolutionary time, only the optimized will remain.

Since engagement of organismal resources is required for survival, emotion -- analytically separate from mere perception of circumstance, it includes the engagement of organismal resources for a particular successful interaction -- is essential to survival, and therefore every organism must be understood as having and implementing emotion. The space of emotion is large. It incorporates propositional attitudes toward aspects of subjectively-perceived circumstances, as well as recruitment, alignment, and management of internal resources to support a particular strategy of interaction, such as energetic engagement, adrenalin, etc. Fact and emotion are jointly present, co-penetrating aspects of perception and of response (Damasio 1994, Veatch 1998). The emotional/cognitive model underlying Veatch's N+V Humor Theory is that each representation of facts within the attentional situation carries with it an emotional assessment, whether neutral, or positive or negative, in whatever degree. Neutral is an emotional assessment; you can't escape!

Analytically, it is the task of the environmental Perception subsystem to develop useful internal representations of relevant facts, while it is the task of the emotional Assessment subsystem to derive, develop, integrate emotional assertions, attitudes, stance, or motivations.

These subsystems may be implemented together -- like composed functions in math -- and only logically or analytically separable, in automatic-response organisms. (Footnote 1.) Take the paramecium in which the biochemical cascades associated with toxicity or food detection also control cilia movements so as to move away or towards. We may not be able to differentiate perception and emotion as layers of biochemistry, but the cascade from stimulus to response, as a whole, is still logically describable both as environmental perception (classification and scaling) of toxicity and also as an inner motivational, action-driving (thus emotional) response. The chemical cascade might be a single coherent process, despite being viewable in different frames as perception, classification, motivation, or action.

On the other hand, a logician, a cognitive scientist, must separate these, analytically, and can apply the force of evolutionary requirement to each resulting characterization, because a class of organism that systematically fails to perceive, classify, act, etc., in its environment will systematically die for a sufficient, logically evident, statable reason, once understood, thus clarifying the sense behind the evolutionary survival or failure of that class of organism. Logic controls.

Whereas a so-called biologist, or worse yet, evolutionary biologist, who understands chemical cascades without understanding the logical significance of them within these separate logical frames of perception, action, etc., fails to understand why the object of study could have evolved and survived. Process or mechanism or implementation may be separable from functional logic, but the latter is not disregardable for science, which demands actual understanding of why, why there is success or failure, a question solveable at the logical level, within the overall scientific frame of physical processes/entities interacting in the physical world so as to be successful survival-reproduction engines. That frame, the frame of the inclusive long view, imposes a great deal of logical structure on the entities satisfying survival/reproduction constraints.

So, yes, emotion can and does derive from facts. In the long view.

Shall I restate the argument? Organisms without good systems for prioritizing their processes and responses and for engaging their resources toward the prioritized ends won't do so. H. So they won't survive and reproduce as well as if they could. H. Them's just facts, Ma'am. Therefore after evolutionary time organisms have emotional systems: systems prioritize and engage themselves to survive and reproduce. H. Thus emotion derives from fact. It makes sense; there's nothing irrational about it. It could hardly be otherwise. Now, having established a domain of rational emotion, we move now toward irrational emotion. In organisms with rich and multiple layers in their internal control systems, and rich and ambiguous environments to navigate, there may be levels, layers, alternative internal views and assessments of perception and emotion. An organism with rich enough internal representations to simultaneously evaluate multiple, competing, emotionally-significant interpretations, each compatible at a given moment with the developing as-perceived situation, becomes capable of humor perception.

I'll review the N+V theory of humor perception after setting down some notational conventions.

Mathematical Notation

I will use the following logical & functional notation:
logical equivalence   <==>
logical implication =>
logical AND
logical NOT ¬
overlap or identity ==
there exists one or more
there exists no
function composition ∘ "after", "on": f ∘ g <==> f(g())
; "before", "then", in "diagrammatic" order, :  g ; f <==> f(g())
and the following empirical predicates:
yields, develops, brings forth =≻ (different from =>)
assessment as Normal, Benign N(.)
assessment as a Subjective Moral Violation V(.)
Time, Simultaneity T(.), (.)+(.)
Humor H(.)
Perception P(.)
Evaluation E(.)
Assessment A(.)
Identification I(.)(.)
Execution, Implementation X(.)
emotion: Bliss, Serenity

Humor Theory: N,+,V

Certain general emotional processes can be expressed in a logical/mathematical notation, as we do here, following Veatch 1998.

Humor perception, according to "A Theory of Humor" (Veatch 1998), comprises opposite emotional interpretations of being (N) Normal or benign, as well as being (V) a Violation of the subjective moral order, which both are simultaneously (+), persuasive to the perceiver. Let s represent the situation, and p the perceiver. Let Hp(s), Np(s) and Vp(s) represent the humor perception and benignity and violation judgements asserted within the perceiver p's emotional assessment subsystem (i.e., inside the E =≻ A process) regarding the situation, s. Let T() represent the time of something, to a precision that the organism is capable of resolving. Then within the context of a perceiver p's internal process, Veatch's Theory of Humor can be summarized as

1. Hp(s)     <==>     Np(s)   ∧   Vp(s)   ∧   T(Np(s)) == T(Vp(s))
or briefly as
N    ∧    V    ∧    N+V
Veatch 1998 states and elaborates this "N+V" theory, which has since been widely taken up, but the formal expression of it, restated as (1) above, seems to have been ignored, which could have clarified and corrected many misunderstandings. I hope to enumerate and clarify separately.

In 2012 Sean Guillory then at Dartmouth, noticing my distraction, invited me to give a talk responding to and comparing current alternative humor theories. In preparing that talk I realized that taking seriously the elements of N+V Humor Theory enables a powerful generalization, a theory of both emotional binding and unbinding, which explains many aspects of our worlds: emotional, moral, religious, and spiritual. That statement, published on my website in 2012, is a first draft of what is formalized and elaborated here.

We are getting close to Bliss Theory.

Math of Emotion

The human emotional system has the job of figuring out how one is to feel about circumstances. It seems to have three logically separate parts: #1, P for Perceive, which figures out the circumstances, #2, E for Evaluate, which maps circumstances to non-factual, subjective, moral assessments, stances, feelings, etc., and #3, I for Identify, which decides whether those circumstances apply to oneself (or not). Of course #5, X for eXecute, the emotional implementation system, following on the previous steps, is partly the internal-response or perhaps behavior-preparation and -support system, and partly the external-response or action/behavior system, both of those being consequences of, driven by, controlled by, one's emotional commitments within perceived circumstances. The novelty in this approach is to focus on #3 and add a step #4.

So let's put down some consistent, minimal symbolic notation to formalize the aspects of this process. This may help us to reason about subtle matters, to identify how things expressed differently in English might actually be the same thing and, not least, to more easily identify actual errors.

Emotional Binding Process
Subsystem Formal Process Description
#1.a  perceptual Pp => sp Perception by perceiver, pb, develops, yields, brings forth, an internal representation of the situation, sc, within the attentionally circumscribed circumstances.


#2.d  emotional assessment Ep(s)=≻Ap(.) Evaluation. The emotions according to perceiver, p, appropriate to circumstances, s are developed into an emotional assessment, A, which can apply to some bearer, b. "Ap(b)" would reference b as whoever bears the burden of being bound to the emotional assessment A, which might be nobody or be unbound where not specified. Ap(b) means assessment Ap applies to some specific bearer b. Ap(.) means no bearer has yet been assigned by p.
A() is the super-category of all emotional assessments; its main subdivision into subcategories would be between N and V -- according to N+V Humor Theory; these may be further subdivided and ramified into all the richness of emotional possibility.


#3.e   cognitiveIp(s)(p) Identification. The assertion Ip(s)(p) is carried out by a cognitive subsystem of perceiver or person p in view of the circumstances s. It is the thought that the circumstances, s apply to self; i.e., that s limits the meaning of "I", "me", or "mine". It is an attribution of aspects of the situation to oneself. It is the psychological event or action of identification (as being characterized and limited by s). Three not-so-equivalent notations may provoke insight:

Ip(s)(p) <==> I==s (meaning p's internal first-person-pronoun referentially merges with s; but does one indeed forget one's other qualities?) or
<==> p believes s(p) (read, s applies to p; but is this believing part the same part of us that believes every other proposition of perception or inference?) or
<==> within p's Inner Judge process, p holds that s characterizes p (so far, my favorite).
The three are the same if indeed humans are emotionally stupid and immediately forget all our other qualities when making an attribution of some currently-apparent qualities to ourselves, and if we are unitarily rational, the part that believes the attribution is the same believing part that believes everything else we believe, or at least requires itself to be consistent among the different parts. Perhaps people differ. What do you think?


#4.f, g, h  binding Ap(.) ∧ Ip(s) (p) => Ap(p) (cognitive) Identification yields, or is equivalent toi (emotional) binding. The unbound variable, ".", normally available for binding or attribution to some bearer b, is hereby bound to (the perceiver's representation of) the perceiver, and therefore the emotional assessment developed previously now becomes a requirement to be implemented by the emotional system of the perceiver.

Incidentally, B is the emotional state in which there is no such binding. But I'll get to that later.


#5.i  emotional implementation Xp(Ap(p)) Execution. p carries out the emotions A.



The perceptual subsystem is the link between environmental reality, with all its complexity and concreteness, and the internal states of the organism. If you don't have a strong, efficient, useful link here, the organism will surely fail, evolutionarily.

This emotional and binding process is carried out by, and is subjective to, the person or perciever, as it goes on within the psychological system of an individual. I emphasize this subjectivity by using the subscript or argument, p, referencing the perceiver, person, or process within which this develops, with their personal limitations of information, perceptual apparatus, emotional prejudgement, attentional focus or perspective, and cognitive and emotional capabilities. Subscript p could be removed as redundant, if the reader will understand this and later steps as indexed to, since occurring within, a subjective processor.

The relevant inner representation of the circumstances is denoted s, but this is a bit of a cover term representing a variably reduced summary of the innumerable facts. At some point it may reduce to a dramatic role, an attribute of character, or a single proposition describing virtue or turpitude. I have not elaborated what is where since perception always reduces to the relevant subset of what is perceived, and if one wants to zoom out to perceive the many again in the one, organisms with rich sensory and representational systems can always do so, sticking their tongues once again into the fountain of sensory flow so to speak. Relevance is of course subjective as well as dependent on purpose, level of attention, etc., and to for those who assume relevance implies circumscription, sometimes it is relevant to open eyes widely and take in all possibilities, to search for what unknown thing might be present. Perception can be a relatively large, inclusive field, as much as it can be an occasional drip through a narrow filter. But when Ip(s)(p) applies, s would tend to be a narrowing or limitation, in this attribution of some role or quality to oneself. Here s is considered as a limitation on the person.

The emotional assessment system may largely be derived from the needs of biology: survival and reproduction appearing more and less achieveable leads to specific and appropriate emotional and motivational states, and the many-branching tree of requirements from metabolic to social, each bearing their good bad and neutral vibrations linked to, perhaps, controlling subpersonalities driven by distinct complexes of hormones and particular classes of seek-and-acquire plans which themselves feed back to the perceptual and action systems. Deep in the social branches of this tree of requirements may be any number of socially subjective or culturally specific metrics of value, ruling out miscomportments and misdemeanors in one society or one position therein that are benignly tolerated in others. Just because a requirement is learned or cultural doesn't mean it has no bearing on your survival or reproduction and isn't therefore evolutionarily relevant.

In internally asserting Ip(s)(p), the emotionally-connected cognitive system is carrying out an optional action. Identification may SEEM automatic and may be trained into us early by yelling parents or socialized guilt, but it is NOT a required, necessary step in the emotional evaluation of situations. If someone loses their phone, and it's not your phone, you don't have to be THAT upset, and in general if you don't take situations personally, then you don't have to be as reactive to them. And you don't have to take things personally.

I first wrote #4 as Ap(.) ∧ Ip(s)(p) => Ap('p'). My intent was that, on the one hand, p is the actual perceiver and agent of this drama; on the other hand, 'p' is p's internal representation of him or herself. 'p' and p are not-so-subtly different. Efforts are often made under the pressures of avoiding cognitive dissonance to bring 'p' into consonance with p by behavior which fits with p's perhaps more-idealized representation of him or her self. But until then p might find a mismatch, and might not always, immediately and completely resolve it, so p and 'p' are different at least in principle. I considered whether p's emotional assessment A applies to the represented person 'p' rather than the actual person p, but the point of emotional binding is that an actual person, finding themselves assessing an emotion to be appropriate in certain self-identification-bound circumstances, is tightly bound to that emotion, and it's not a representation of themselves that is bound to that emotion, but the person's own actual emotional state and feeling that is bound (and is required to be implemented by the automatic emotional implementation system). That's actually the point. So it's Ap(.) ∧ Ip(s)(p) => Ap(p).

Curiously, "bound" is a word occurring in two seemingly unrelated contexts. In Hindu and Buddhist psychology it references the pathetic unhappiness of the unliberated, somehow emotionally enslaved, "bound soul". In the mathematics of lambda expressions, which are foundational to computer science, a variable within an expression may be bound to or by an external variable to which the lambda expression applies, as in:

"y: λ(x) F(x)" <==> F(y) because x is bound by y.

It is no mere coincidence but of deep significance, that both those meanings are evoked here. The bearer b of the emotional burden A(b) is bound to the person p, in the same way lambda binding binds. At the same time it is through this very process, this very step in the process, that come into being the forms of human suffering pointed out by those subtle emotional psychologists of Hindu and Buddhist traditions: the rigidity of emotional requirement, the inescapability of situational misery, or you might say, the judgements of conscience, the subservience of experiences of the heart to harsh or even positive self-judgement. The two meanings here are indeed the same.

There is a distinction between process and logic to be observed here:

X =≻ Y vs.X <==> Y
X yields Yvs.X is equivalent to Y
processing from X develops Y as a result.  vs. X is logically the same as Y

Identification might be logically separable from Binding, but both painful and happy observation suggests to me that they are empirically inseparable in actual psychological process.

The emotional implementation system seems more or less automatic, out of your control. Subject to hypothalamic prioritization of competing needs and urges, it decides to, and does, pump the adrenalin or other hormones, ready the body for action as appropriate, refocus the attention recursively, modify the comportment of your facial expression and bodily posture. Supplied with a response or action plan it provides a suitable level of motivation, and drives you through the execution of that action plan.

The novelty in this model is in the separation of identification and binding from perception, assessment, and implementation. Objections?: First, an organism that contemplates stuff irrelevant to self wastes limited cognitive resources. Second, all these processes, even Ap() is subscripted with p, the subjective perceiver; naturally, since they are carried out within the organism itself and thus subect to its limitations of perspective, intelligence, time, etc. Third, a separation between circumstance and assessment may be pointless in an organism designed to respond quickly to save its life; (the internal representation of) the abstract difference between fact and value is not a design requirement inside a simple, often-correctly-reactive organism.

Still, Logic is Queen, and a cognitivist model with separate logical layers distinguishing different problems attributed to each layer, is not wrong if survival is impacted by failure to solve the separate problems, each best understood in its own layer. A given organism's internal mechanism might be simpler than the cognitivist model asserts, yet its survival function is not simpler, and our task is to understand the logic of survival. This model does assert that the human emotional mechanism can logically distinguish this layer of identification and binding, and discussion will show survival benefits are thereby obtained. How that is implemented in biochemistry and neurology is an added, separate question.

To summarize: Identification binds us, emotionally, to the assessed emotion of the situation. It is an action, a sort of deep-emotional-level mental assertion, an internal speech act, but the trick, the point of all this math and elaboration, is that if we believe it, if we carry out that optional action of belief, namely identification, then we are stuck with the consequences (#4). We are emotionally regulated, down-regulated: bound. We cannot escape, cannot soothe ourselves, cannot feel better, as long as we identify with that role, attribute, or circumstance.

Bliss Theory:    (∄s | Ip(s)(p))   =≻  Bp

Let me translate the above-titled logical notation into English in different ways.

If there exists (∃) no (∄) circumstance, s, that a perceiver, p, identifies with (Ip(s)(p)), then bliss emerges for p (Bp).

Freedom from limited identification yields emotional flow or unregulatedness.

If there is nothing that you identify with, then you feel bliss.

It is emotionally liberating to take nothing personally.

If all (emotionally relevant, limited) situations are such that you fail to identify yourself as part of them, then the emotional system yields bliss.

Or finally,

Bliss arises from not identifying with circumstances.

This is a single bit different from the Emotional Binding Process given above. There, attaching yourself to the idea that certain circumstances apply to you (Ip(s)(p)) given that you know what those circumstances feel like (Ep(s)=≻Ap(.)), binds you to having those feelings (Ap(p)). There is no escape from the feelings, so long as you feel the circumstances are yours.

My argument in this Theory of Bliss is that if you can shut down this optional identification step I()() (or I, for short), or you might say, get your Inner Judge part to just shut the f*** up, then you get to have non-downregulated, or uninhibited, emotion, what we might call bliss, serenity, the flow state, "lightness of being", etc.

That is, if you fail to identify with limited circumstances, then you fail to impose an emotional regulation requirement on your emotional implementation system, and your emotional system is therefore unregulated. Not to say dysregulated, since that means typically upregulated in service of panic and social disaster. But unregulated in the sense of free, flowing, unlimited, unconditional feelings like love, delight, expanded delight, unconditional gratitude, serenity, etc. Bliss being here a cover term for these: B(p).

This insight defines the high virtues of humility, service, trust, forgiveness, and unconditional gratitude, as well as core doctrines of the great religions, as I will show below.

If you don't do that attribution to self, then the feelings are remote at worst. They have the character of lightness or humor or calm, they aren't serious, you can have any other feelings that flow through you, you are emotionally liberated, free.

Emotional significance

The basic claim is that attribution to self is the binding operation of emotion.

I claim that what we identify as "ours" is what we use to regulate our feelings. Self-attribution, cognitively, equates to regulated feelings, emotionally.

If you have the thought that this is me, whether "this" is a role in a story over time or a static property or quality, AND if your semi-rational emotional mapping system maps that quality to a feeling, then your commitment to or identification with the thought is equal to your entanglement by the feeling. If you believe "this" about yourself, then you're stuck with that feeling too. You are bound.

A competing theory is that attribution to self is an emotional multiplier. For example, if someone steals a horse, it's a bit of a shame, but if it's your horse, the magnitude of the distress is much, Much, MUCH greater. (Once I estimated 1000x, but now I forget the justifying example.)

It seems to me, binding cannot be derived from magnification, but magnification can be derived from binding. You may know the emotional significance of a circumstance without it binding you and controlling your behavior: if the power of it is suddenly multiplied, does it bind you? No, that's like something bad happening to a crowd of people instead of one, you get an intensified experience of empathy (not much according to fund-raising experts, who notice that more donations come for a single child tragedy than for two or two thousand); whereas it's entirely different when you experience the entrapped and intense feeling of something bad happening to you yourself.

On the other hand if it binds you, does it multiply? Well, yes, because now it controls your emotional responses.

So binding predicts magnification, not the other way around, thus the theory calls it emotional binding rather than emotional magnification.

On E =≻ A

Emotional assessment, formalized as E(p)(s) =≻ A(b) in Step #2 above, seems like a somewhat irrational system. It is not simply a reasoning from immediate facts to a necessary conclusion; it is a subjective, somewhat arbitrary, often equally assertable as the opposite, emotional conclusion that one should feel this way or that about the circumstances, which might lead to these actions, or those. In this way fact and emotion are considered separate, as for example one might differentiate between the furniture in the kitchen on the one hand, and the path to the milk on the other, comprising a motivated frame of hunger yielding a directed sequence of movements around obstacles to the fridge and a decision to follow that path to one's goal. Emotion, or in this case motivational framing, colors the world of fact, renders infinite, rich, and factual data into few, simple, and meaningful/useful tools and obstacles, asserts goal, and projects currently non-existent futures in the form of a path to goal satisfaction.

Russell's paradox ("this statement is false") forced logicians to restrict the universe of application of languages for logic. Frege's logical symbol-system ("Begriffsschrift" or "concept-script") had to be divided into levels or hierarchies like first-order, second-order, etc. Sentences about reality, sentences about sentences about reality, etc. You can avoid paradox at one level by not talking about your own level in the hierarchy. And these have been ramified and generalized as type and category theories, in the foundations of mathematics and of computer science. But the most basic distinction here is between reality and language; language is capable of a lie, a self-contradiction, a paradox, but (we believe) reality is what it is.

Therefore truth, and the requirements of logical consistency, apply to actual reality, that reality in which stopwatches and measuring tapes can be used -- and I do admit believing that we are part of, and we live within, that single actual reality -- but the subjective experience of it (which exists inside actual heads in the actual world) is more like an animated cartoon, colored in with desire, utility, and aversion, and the requirements of logical consistency and non-self-contradiction do not apply in our colored, animated, multiply-subjective worlds. We made them up! Hopefully these abstracted representations are useful, but it doesn't mean they have to be consistent or true.

What is E, this function or process which maps circumstance to emotion? I first thought of it as an associative map, or a lookup table: insert such-and-such circumstances, out comes the such-and-such feeling. Stub the toe, time to cry. It might be an irrational, arbitrary association between the attribute and the feeling. But the association might be quite rational if you consider that survival and reproduction are rational for evolved organisms, and that social support is rational for socially evolved organisms. That association is itself the id, perhaps, or the unconscious map acquired in the traumas and joys of childhood.

Child stubs toe, looks around, everyone ignores him, he whimpers a moment and then plays on. Alternatively, child stubs toe, looks around, everyone jumps and looms over looking worried, crying Oh My Dear!, and when the child tentatively cries Ouch, his reference audience approves and makes plenty of space for, and sympathetically mirrors, his expression of suffering, and he learns to make an even more dramatic event of it. Not just in the gathering but in his memory, where pain is to be developed, enhanced, held on to, and explored with all imaginable melodrama. One entry stored into the id's table of emotional mappings, which can be elaborated from toe stubbing to cuts or falls to social offenses of many kinds. Isn't it quite like a lookup table, where we get our emotional response knowledge from?

The associations may derive directly from biological requirements of survival and reproduction, and in a social-support-dependent species, requirements of possibly arbitrary social convention. So far so logical, since an organism with said properties had best be emotionally organized to nail those objectives successfully and reliably, QED and H.

Yet it grows more complex, as emotional mappings may be all more or less instinctual at some level and at another also more or less learned and particularized, even ramified into story-specific sub-plays or interactional-sequence-schemata, in ways that are micro-socially conventional and developmentally appropriate; these being essential contents of experience (i.e., both tracked and felt, experientially) and of what is stored into emotional memory. Later in life those "lessons" may remain actively present though no longer very prosocially functional, and may require some calm unlearning. Generally I don't think those learnings are that irrational; people seem to have pretty good rationales for the emotional lessons they draw from life. It is others, who don't see the person's internal context of interpretation, that think they are so irrational.

On Ip(s)(p), the emotional role of identification

Identification! How else?, might you ask, O seeker. Well obviously you don't HAVE to believe "this" about yourself, or at least spend your time being busy believing it. Do you need to look at the stands while you're still running the race? Obviously people ARE up there cheering for you, or against you, or ignoring you. But does it help you run the race to spend your limited mental capacity on reviewing and elaborating your knowledge of the fans and mapping their attitudes to how that might make you feel if you win or if you lose? Obviously not. What a waste of time, of mental and emotional energy, what a direct path to poor performance, what a way to defeat yourself! Isn't it quite optional, though? They might or might not even be there. You certainly don't have to be thinking about it. Similarly you may have lost a particular fight but you don't have to spend your mental energy repeatedly rehearsing and reviewing your loser status and hunching over as the dominated one.

But the emotional consequences of factual understanding are as strict as your grip on those facts when that grip includes the assertion "this is me". Did I make no sense at all?

Here's my model: it's like each person has at least two computers in them.

Not actually a computer, because what a biological bit is within a human or even any biological system is very much unlike what a bit is in transistor logic. But still I don't mind saying we have something partly like a computer in us (two of them), it collects and processes information somehow, communicates with others somehow, and controls its attached external actuators, somehow. One of these two looks at what's going on in the world, and seems to be more conscious; the other looks at the first one, and decides how to feel about things, and thereby makes itself known indirectly but isn't exactly conscious in the same detailed way. The second computer has a limited form of rationality whereby it decides how to feel about things based on something like a memorized library of learned experiences which it used in the past to know how to feel about things, and its job is to figure out which of those things in the past is closest to what's going on now. Then the first computer looks at some circumstances, and the second computer figures out how to feel about it perhaps by analogy with past feeling-generating experiences. Both computers are making assertions about the way things are. The first one is making assertions about matters of fact, and the second one is making assertions about how to feel, and actually implementing those feelings by focussing the mind of the first one on certain things, and pumping the adrenaline or whatever suitable hormones are needed to actually feel the feeling it decides is appropriate. The second one is faster in general and also often smarter if things are in its wheelhouse, but it's not so thoughtful and conscious and flexible and capable of planning and verbalization, so the first one can potentially make a positive contribution, if it's not making a negative one.

Now if the facts being considered are facts about the container, about this very person itself, then the assertions about how to feel made by computer number 2 are much more compelling and powerful than if the facts pertain only to someone else. If a bad thing happens to someone else's property, it's not as big a deal as if the same bad thing happens to your own property, or to you, those being three levels of degree in how much the same bad thing might pertain to you. Same for good things. You get to feel a lot less controlled by the bad and good things that are happening if they are happening to someone else, but as soon as you believe they are happening to you, then the full-on feeling applies in its complete rich and full-flavored form to you.

ATTRIBUTION TO SELF ties the emotional consequences to yourself, and the tighter the attribution, the tighter the emotional binding. If you don't actually identify with it, then the facts can be good or bad but you remain relatively indifferent, or perhaps involved like a more or less detached and bored spectator of a drama rather than a participant with skin in the game.

In the case of humor perception, a bad thing happening to someone else might be remote enough that you recognize it as a subjective moral violation, but you can still view the situation as benign or normal at the same time. Stories that don't actually apply to you are so much less catastrophic and more fun.

First, the id's emotional lookup table irrationally, even axiomatically, says that a certain feeling is associated with a certain kind of circumstances. Second, the assertion of self-identification makes that feeling irrevocable and intense, because that circumstance now applies to you. There is plenty of rationality in analogizing the current circumstances to the ones of memory, and there is also rationality in this vast strengthening the feeling because of it applying to you. The irrational part is the perhaps conventional, but still capricious and arbitrary quality of an emotional lookup table: in principle, anything could be associated with anything. The possibility of therapy lies in the learning, changes, and growth that can be done with it.

So in this way, the assertion, "this is me", is like salt on beans, it makes the flavors richer and more intense. Some might think that's why we do it, to enjoy the drama of life more intensely. As the Shiva Sutras (not Panini's phonological Shiva Sutras but the Kashmir Shaivism enlightenment tradition Shiva Sutras) say, Shiva (or consciousness itself) is a dancer, an actor on its own stage. Nice to think it's only a role we put on and play voluntarily, because then we could turn it off too.

But the curious mixture of memory and knowledge, of conscious and unconscious, makes it so that we remember our role having some emotional valence and when we think 'this is me' along with the assertion that we KNOW it, which is a hard, tight, rigid degree of assertion, then suddenly it changes from a chosen dramatic role to an emotional prison which offers no choice and no escape. In this we encounter its pathological aspect, whereby we are captured by our story, and cannot break free to have any relief at all.

As a society we make use of this when we send people to prison for long years: Why? to emotionally capture them in the story of their guilt-worthy behavior, so they will spend years contemplating their sinful nature, possibly to aim higher next time. In the same way humans generally are in the prison of their own self-conception. So am I, so are you.

Yet this inner prison has no lock on the door, we can leave any time we want. How to escape? Just don't carry out that activity of saying "This is me", and you're free from the feelings that are tied to that story or that quality of a person.

When I was the CEO of Sprex, Inc., my one or two member internet speech technology company, which has now some remnants again working at, like MyWord, or Teachionary, well it started early and ended late but it was an internet bubble company even so, and a failure after a decade that had to be closed down, after which I was just terribly miserable and unhappy. It was my identity, that was me, and I was in hell, because I was a failure despite my ambition and sense of entitlement, and I couldn't reconcile it. I could feel so very terrible for just as long as I wanted to, and believe me it took weeks and months of torture in my Sprex colored world, before finally I said, okay, no, let me just imagine, I'm not actually CEO of Sprex Inc., that's not me after all. In the exact same instant, the suffering ended. Weeks and months of hell, poof gone, at the same instant as I let go of my own identification with that role.

So yes, as I said, the emotional consequences of some factual understanding are exactly as strict as your grip on those facts, when those asserted facts include the conviction that they apply to you, yourself.

So I hope by now I made a little more sense.

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What is Emotion

As a theoretical linguist and a cognitive scientist, I basically came at the world of emotion starting from an emotion-bleached, pure-fact-communicating, informational or propositional approach to language. Every utterance represents some propositions, assertions about the facts in the world. "The sky is blue" makes an assertion about the world. Language in this view communicates mere information.

A devastating critique of this comes from Norma Mendoza-Denton (P.C.): This defines 'the meaning of a "skankly hoe-bag" as the set of all things that are skankly intersected with the set of all hoe-bags'. Obviously such contention-bleached, objectivist pretensions are heartless, repugnant, and if not wrong then at least so partial as to miss the point, if taken as representing the meaning of such subjective and contentious claims.

From such a beginning it comes as a great advance to discover performatives and propositional attitudes. In a performative, like a promise, or in Islam a divorce (accomplished by three utterances of the word talaaq): a spoken utterance is an event that itself creates new facts and relationships in the world, it changes the world. Similarly in speech acts, saying something is itself an action in the world, usually between a speaker and an audience, which might have short or long term consequences both regarding observable facts and unobservables. So far it's still just about facts, maybe in the future, or as modified by the events of saying things.

In the case of propositional attitudes, however, a person who says I believe X or I want Y, expresses a relationship to the fact X or Y, which might start to drift off into emotionality, certainly into subjectivity. Belief, based on one's subjective, partial knowledge, is fallible, and requires non-omniscient subjects who might believe things without knowing them, but it's still about facts, states of affairs, circumstances, relations between descriptions and reality, like The earth is flat, which as we believe, someone else might falsely believe.

The emotional world does peek out into language in some of the propositional attitudes. "I want everyone to be happy." "I hate it that my mother is dead." "I hope I will win the game." What are "want", "hate", and "hope" if not emotions?

And now that the nut, or Pandora's Box, is cracked open, what is in there? Emotion is a vast category of things that don't seem to really be the same. Feelings. Propositional attitudes. Value judgements. Motivation and motivational frames. Conscious qualities like "focus" and "energy", bleached of particular attitudes, even positivity or negativity.

Feelings seem to be everything you might feel:

  • There are the dozen or so words used in the frame "I feel X" in Marshall Rosenberg's useful OFNR paradigm of diplomacy: mad, sad, glad, fear, hurt, humiliation, lonely, insecure, hungry, hot, cold, confused. "I feel like you're a jerk" is not a feeling but a thought, in Marshall Rosenberg's system, albeit a thought containing a value judgement.

  • Proprioception of bodily states certainly is part of feeling. "I feel my shoes crushing my feet." "I feel hot". These drift off into positive motivational frames ("I feel hungry") and negative ones (pain). Pain, defined as a non-ignoreable message from some part that that part assesses something is at a physical level not the way it ought to be, that it cares about, and calls you to attend, agree, and act; it is certainly its own motivational frame.

  • The motivational frame can be exemplified by a hormonal drive system. Hunger strikes, and all you can think about is food and how to get some. Libido strikes, and ditto. For typology, reference Maslow, alternatively the chakra system, alternatively the hormonally driven states of the hypothalamus, alternatively the prioritization hierarchy that follows from the logical constraints of evolution itself. A motivational frame is like a subpersonality; it has its knowledge, its skillset, its goals; what it picks out of the environment to pay attention to; it may even have its own, otherwise-useless anatomy (suggesting a very high evolutionary priority for it).

    And it runs, it controls the whole organismal action system to go achieve those goals. Using the same urgency as must be available for any evolved organism to survive and reproduce, using all its resources and energy and focus to align all its resources, abilities and limbs and go get that desired target, an organism with a motivational frame in charge is a formidable achiever. And in those organisms that may have subjective experience of themselves during these periods, a sense of driven purpose, a focus on the goal, a sense of frustration or pleasure when the goal is found to be farther away or closer than thought, of satiation when the goal is achieved, surrendering so that another motivational frame may take over, all these are certainly feelings.

  • Motivation within the safe and satisfied state. When everything is calm and we are fed, warm, and free from urgent concerns, we wonder where our true motivation is taking us, and maybe it seems like nothing is there. (Kids nowadays!)

  • Social drives make us need connection and community (also in judged-suitable circumstances enmity and separation or judgement and conflict) with others. When we get these needs met, we feel good. A strong motivational frame might wipe out all sense of social inhibition, though, and sophisticated organisms are able to simultaneously satisfy the needs of multiple frames, like being connected to others by maintaining positive interactions, while also getting personal needs met. The hypothalamus has a hard job, if it's not just one priority at a time, but the balancing of multiple priorities at once. And there may be priorities the hypothalamus doesn't distinguish which the rest of the system may.

These are a bunch of different types of things which we might mean when we mention "feelings". I'm not sure I've got them all. But I do get it that the mere propositional characterization of the facts in the world is a small part of the human psychological world, indeed it is a low-level tool used by the changing motivational states that take over running the human show. The gorilla experiment shows, more generally, that what even counts as a fact in your world is surely the subset of facts that are relevant and helpful or obstructive to the achievement of your goal of the moment. Attention itself follows the line between the current motivational frame and the exterior circumstances reduced to their significance for internal guidance and control.

The theoretical linguist must acknowledge that the facts are subordinate to the feelings.

The cognitive scientist, now, I hope, has traction on the relationship between them.


Footnote 1. Distinguish process from logic: in logic we may separate understanding the facts from experiencing the emotions, but in the organismal process itself, situational perception may itself map at the lowest level to motivated response, lower even than integrated situation perception, for example.

Using functional composition notation we might write DoTheRightThing = Percieve ∘ Represent ∘ Decide ∘ Act. Thus a hierarchy of analytically separable functions might be composed into a single, low-level, direct mapping, and in this way a paramecium or other simple creature which doesn't internally separate these functions can still do the right thing in its environment. In higher organisms with some separation of sub-processes, function-composition might not always be the way to represent the perception-to-action structure and steps within their process. You may guess, even with good guesses, but you can't optimally choose how to respond without knowing what you're responding to. So prioritizing response cannot always precede representing environment.

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Copyright © 2000-2021, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: October 25, 2020; July 22, 2021; October 28,2021.