On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.
Primary and secondary emotions
It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?
It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.
It seems likely to me that both of these theories have some traction. In either case we’re dealing with mechanisms of information processing. In one the information is transmitted in a rapid-somatic movement whilst in the other we’re catching things in order to appraise and attribute. A rough and ready application of an evolutionary explanatory framework would question to universal validity of the Stoic theory of emotion. It is unlikely that a cognitive-evaluative approach to complex would have evolved for the processing of information rich, and dynamic moving targets like people and/or threat detection systems.
A contemporary Stoicism would have to accept the basic framework of Darwinism, even if it’s adherence had post-Darwinian ambitions. At the very least the fact that those in the nonstoic camp includes neuroscientists provides us with an incredibly telling idea about whose views are more likely to correspond to abstract reasoning and whose to the faulty error prone intuitive systems. That these neuroscientific approaches tend to be successful when they focus on detecting the neural signatures of individual affective circuits means that it’s likely that such generalized statements as “all emotion is somatic” or “all emotion is cognitive” redundant. It may be that the cognitive theory of emotion accompanies much later developments in our social hominid psychologies.
In the debates around the meaningfulness of things we sometimes get caught up in the senses of meaning. It is as if when you put forward the meaninglessness of things people thought you were talking semantically. But what we mean is that a meaningless life is one that can inspire no great passion. It’s a dead life. Those who assert that life is meaningful will tell you that such meaning can be found in work, in politics, in helping others, in raising a family or in our friendships, our love affairs, or in the progress of literature and the passions of science.
These are lives well lived: happy and accomplished lives. These are lives that correspond to some vision of eudaimonia. Human flourishing, as though we were a species of flower whose only reason is aesthetic… to be beautiful. So in this sense at least we can say that the question of meaning or of value sometimes comes down to the question of what feels meaningful or valuable. The reason nihilism is so violently denied is that it tends to go against our intuitions, at least when we are not depressed. And it has even been pointed out by all kinds of apologists for structural slaveries that “the happiest people can often be found among the poor”. The truth doesn’t bear this out, but whatever.
The dead life is the life lived in the cold light of meaninglessness. It is the life cut off from affirmative eudaimonic visions of human flourishing. This isn’t to say that it is the life of depression and despair, although it certainly might be. The Stoics offer us a picture of a life that continues after the capacity to value life itself as meaningful has been dispensed with. For the Stoics life has never had its own immanent value and has never been meaningful. To put it otherwise it has never been emotionally salient. The life of the cognizing individual was just one more indifferent, defined as material externals that though more or less preferable to internals.
In the Stoic disciplining of desire we turn away from attachment to externalities and focus on the internal environment in a mood and practice of autonomy. The ultimate aim for the Stoic was a life lived in accordance with reason, and if this became impossible for any reason one had the right to forfeit one’s life. Continued biophysical survival had absolutely no value in the Stoic system if it didn’t allow one to further the pursuit of a rational form of existence. Likewise, sickness and chronic pain were seen as things we would prefer not to have but they weren’t considered bad in themselves. For Epictetus nothing has immanent normative weighting except in our cognitive appraisals of them.
The Stoic theory is one that occupies a space of psychopathic realism. By this I mean that it realizes that evaluation and the object of evaluation are entirely separable. This can be seen in extreme situations that we usually regard as psychopathological: the eating disordered severs the biological valuation of food and turns towards a cognitive valuation wherein eating outside of strictly restrictive amounts and types is in contradiction with the ideal for living. I am not seeking to perpetuate the mistaken view of the Stoic as emotionless by referencing the psychopath. In fact neither the Stoic nor the psychopath is emotionless, although both are caught in attempts to regulate their emotional existence so as to diminish dysregulative intrusions and perturbations. This is cold language for a cold world.
For the Stoics a meaningful life is identical with a rational life. This isn’t a life without joy. The are numerous places in their texts that they speak of joy. It isn’t for me to defend the emotion lives of the long dead. Still less those who felt it of utmost importance to write manuals and journals about how to could with emotions and their excesses. Only those bleeding from their naked bodies dream of moats and ramparts.
Instead of absolute detachment the Stoic space of psychopathic realism is that in which normativity is the result of cognitive appraisals. Recalling the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, and my quick addition that emotion has evolved, and like any evolved trait emotions will have aided in our survival, we have to state that normativity itself is the result of evolution. We judge right and wrong based on a physiological set-up geared at getting through the day. The only real guide our bodies have for right and wrong is emotion. Killing is wrong because it feels wrong. Cheating is wrong because it feels wrong. At least we are in agreement that it feels wrong, and that agreement is usually enough.
From this perspective the same is true for meaning: the world is only meaningful for as long as it feels meaningful. Our nihilistic inheritance tells us that aside from our highly manipulable, intuitive feelings the world lacks any meaning. The dissonance generated in the cognitive contradiction of these mutually exclusive truths is what the writer Albert Camus referred to as the Absurd. He defined it as the encounter between “man” and the indifferent world. We feel that the world is meaningful but we know that it is meaningless.
What is this feeling of meaning? Does it belong to the primary neural behavioural pathway of neurones, hormones and startle responses; or does it belong to the secondary cognitive-rationalist pathway of cognitive schemas, conceptual architectonics and explicit semantic representations? Pragmatically it may be that both pathways are open to explicit manipulation and auto-intervention via any number of psycho-spiritual techniques.
What matters here is the degree to which our cognitions can intervene in how we feel so that our knowledge about how we feel provides feedback that actively shapes how we feel. If this is possible then knowing that the world is an objectively meaningless place might actually orient our emotional responses so that it also feels like a meaningless place. Whether this is a disaster depends on the degree to which we still rely on our intuitive feeling of meaningfulness to go on living. If it isn’t then we might undergo some revision in our mode of operation in the world but we would remain basically functional.
The question is whether this would resemble some THX-style dystopia. Or would it point us towards an ethics that has already been operating in this space? Is the feeling that the world is meaningless an invitation to Stoicism? From this perspective the Stoic is already the philosophical survivalist who has been standing in the empty field waiting for the rest of us to join her. But beyond this austere practical philosophy might this also an invitation to a generalized program of paradise engineering?
In fact this last suggestion is also the path from nihilism to prometheanism that has lured Ray Brassier away from talk of the end of the cosmos. In fact it might be that paradise engineering is the necessary mechanism for the eradication of this anaesthetic numb in a species that craves the feeling of meaning. Regardless of questions about the ethics and morality of prometheanism and neuro-chemico-electrical production these technologies will plough ahead, and it is entirely possible that the THX vision of an emotionless world of slaves will come to pass in a neuro-totalitarian parody of hell. Whether we like it or not we are headed for the post-Darwinian era that transhumanist philosopher David Pearce describes thus:
Natural selection has previously been “blind”. Complications aside, genetic mutations and meiotic shufflings are quasi-random i.e. random with respect to what is favoured by natural selection. Nature has no capacity for foresight or contingency-planning. During the primordial Darwinian Era of life on Earth, selfishness in the technical genetic sense has closely overlapped with selfishness in the popular sense: they are easily confused, and indeed selfishness in the technical sense is unavoidable. But in the new reproductive era – where (suites of) alleles will be societally chosen and actively designed by quasi-rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural effects – the character of fitness-enhancing traits will be radically different.
Basically, fuck nature. The Stoics would be appalled. Their ethical motto was “live according to nature”. If the Stoic were presented with a world in which phenotechnologies could deliver her unto a world with the feeling of meaning, wouldn’t she go for it? Isn’t her austere aesthetic of existence an attempt to live in the arid waste of a world without meaning? Live according to nature meant live according to reason. And this is the essence of the attempt to develop a post-nihilistic praxis and has been from its inception. Perhaps this is another illusion, another example of what near-term human extinctionists called “hopium”. In imagining we can do any better than the resolve and integrity of the Stoic are we simply entering another mode of religious thought, another desperate delusional structure to escape from the pitiless hell of living on this earth at this or any other time. David Pearce tells us that
Within a few centuries, it will be technically if not ideologically feasible to abolish suffering of any kind. If we wish to do so, then genetic engineering and nanotechnology can be used to banish unpleasant modes of consciousness from the living world. In their place, gradients of life-long, genetically pre-programmed well-being may animate our descendants instead. Millennia if not centuries hence, the world’s last aversive experience may even be a precisely dateable event: perhaps a minor pain in an obscure marine invertebrate.
Time has moved forward since he wrote “Wiredhead Hedonism versus Paradise Engineering”, but at a guess we are still some distance from the total abolition of human suffering. Even if it proves possible to mobilize a political movement against capitalism and to ameliorate the worst of climate change can we do so in time? The neoliberal consensus was built over decades. And fulfilling the aim to abolish all “suffering of any kind” would undoubtedly take even greater amounts of time.
It may be that we’re doomed, and that it is pointless trying. But this would be to remain motivated by the feelings of hope and hopelessness. And while we remain human, how could we not? Perhaps the real problem is that remain insufficiently psychopathic.