How Can We Understand Emotions and Other Inner Experiences?

 In The Mind

There is a multitude of emotions that one can experience. One’s experience of emotion is determined by the innate functions of the brain that are triggered by one’s senses, reasoning, and memories. One can in some situations gain knowledge from the experience of emotions that they could not gain from any other experiential element, including any sensory experience. For example, if one becomes angry then this experience allows them to understand what it feels like to be angry. Since a person can only have knowledge of being in an emotional state from experience, this kind of knowledge must be empirical.

The inclusion of such knowledge as empirical is a controversial matter among philosophers. Admittedly, this would be different from the conventional notion of empirical knowledge because it is not about something in the external world. Since one’s emotions could never be experienced by anyone else, the feeling of fear, exhilaration, surprise, etc. could probably never be understood objectively. But we know that we have these experiences, and so we will need to expand the definition of empirical to include forms of self-knowledge such as this.

Some people also report having experiences that are mysterious and difficult to objectively assess. Perhaps such experiences could be reduced to the emotions, but it is not that simple. At the most basic level, everyone has experiences and gains knowledge from these experiences. Modern science seems to explain the nature of experience as merely a function of sensory data along with reasoning and emotions. If one is able to gain knowledge from an experience that is not reducible to any known sense or emotion, in other words none of the aforementioned knowledge-forming phenomena, then this could potentially be considered a distinct sense.

Utter certainty is possible for someone who has direct and immediate sensory experience, but what any of it means or represents is much less certain. It might not be very easy to figure out what one’s sensory data means or refers to, but the raw sensory data itself does not need any justification beyond the fact that it is directly experienced. The same goes for any experiences that one might have that do not fall into the standard list of senses. If one experiences emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, hunger, despair, etc. then they know perfectly well that this is the case. Likewise, if one has any other clear and unambiguous experiences that are quite different from any objectively known sense, then these cannot be dismissed out of hand. Such experiences would probably deserve to be studied further.

For example, sometimes people will attribute some of their beliefs to spiritual experiences of some sort. Such people might insist that such experiences are distinct from other senses that they are not the product of reasoning, emotions, or claims. This type of phenomenon might prove to be reducible to the emotions and/or to hallucinations, but it might be worth a more thorough analysis to determine if there is something else to it. This would require phenomenology, which is a disciplined approach to the development of self-knowledge, and will be the subject of future posts.

For now, it is worth explaining how self-knowledge is possible by expanding on the computer vs. mind analogy from an earlier post. There are some computers that can monitor their own internal components and their own internal operations to some extent. Such features are actually common in modern computers, since this provides visibility into how well the machine is performing and whether the components are functioning properly. Humans also have the ability to observe certain aspects of their own selves, which can include reflecting on what seems to be going on within any part of the body. This can even involve one reflecting on what they are thinking and taking special consideration for how they are feeling at any given moment. This would all be considered empirical knowledge, but based on a more expansive “radical” notion of empiricism. Radical empiricism will also be covered in a forthcoming post.

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