Nihilism and the Emotion Machine

By Jin-yeong Yi

Manga emotions

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shellfish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations, going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see the kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

—W. V. Quine

In c. 1935, analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote:

“[T]he fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur. So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists, we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”[1]

About 76 years later, literary critic S. T. Joshi echoed this analysis in his critique of Sam Harris’s updated scientific approach to morality:

All ethical judgments are expressions of a preference. They may be based on facts (or falsehoods), but they are not in themselves facts (or falsehoods).”[2] 

He also effectively explains how having preferences (i.e., not being indifferent to outcomes arising from cause and effect) is consistent with not believing in moral absolutes:

“D’Souza, in What’s So Great about Christianity, maintains absurdly that I would have no reason to object if D’Souza punched me in the face, because I would simply have to maintain that he and I share different moral standards based on our education, upbringing, etc. But my objection would stem from my preference that people not be punched in the face without reason; it violates my moral code even if that code is not itself a fact but a preference. I happen to like my preferences and, in certain circumstances, will go pretty far in defending them. 

Having accepted that there are no intrinsic “ought”s, that there is no inherent reason to favor one outcome over another, one eventually arrives at an unsettling and uncomfortable conclusion: the emotions that drive us are not absolute. While there are natural ways to feel about some things, there is no correct way to feel about anything. We don’t need to feel proud when we overcome an obstacle or achieve something. We don’t need to feel guilty about lying, cheating, or stealing. We don’t need to feel indignant when someone slanders us. We don’t need to feel jealous when a lover or spouse cheats on us. We don’t need to feel envious when a friend wins the lottery. We don’t need to feel horrified when we hear of a murder, rape, or genocide. We don’t need to feel afraid when we are told that civilization will self-destruct tomorrow or next week. Indeed, we don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this conclusion in the first place. It is natural to have these feelings, and it is certainly not “wrong” to have them, but there’s no inherent necessity, no obligation, no reason why we “ought” to have them.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, philosophers Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God on BBC Radio. At one point, the Jesuit priest drove the atheist humanist into a corner:

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

In the end, the absence of objective morality does not change the fact that we are driven by our strongest motives. We act on them and make choices not so much because we are somehow “obligated” to do so, but simply because—we do. Because we are emotion machines. To have reason and nothing but reason is to be a computer. To have reason and emotions is to be human.

Somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Catholic priest and closet atheist Jean Meslier penned these words to conclude his antireligious manifesto:

“After this, let people think, judge, say, and do whatever they want in the world; I do not really care.
Let men adapt themselves and be governed as they want, let them be wise or crazy, let them be good or vicious, let them say or even do with me whatever they want after my death: I really do not care in the least.
I already take almost no part in what is done in the world. The dead, whom I am about to join, no longer worry about anything, they no longer take part in anything, and they no longer care about anything.
So, I will finish this with nothing.
I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.”

To be indifferent is to be dead. To care is to be alive.

“It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion; and that impulse, had it operated alone, would have been able to produce volition. Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well as hinder any act of volition. But if reason has no original influence, it is impossible it can withstand any principle, which has such an efficacy, or ever keep the mind in suspense a moment. Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature


[1] Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer

[2] The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi


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