Thursday, October 31, 2013

An emotion in need of further study

This post by Helen De Cruz at NewAPPS rubs me the wrong way, but I'm not quite sure why (or whether) it should. I've been asked to give a lecture next year on Peter Winch and the idea of a social science, so I'm starting to think more about psychology's status as a science, and this seems like a good opportunity to get some practice.

De Cruz asks:  "Why do we sometimes delight in natural disasters? And is it morally appropriate to do so?"

My initial response is something like the following: We don't, and of course not. But that on its own won't really do. Why does De Cruz think that we sometimes delight in natural disasters? She mentions Miyazaki's Ponyo (which I don't remember well enough to comment on) and says that several times in the movie he expresses his "aesthetic delight in natural disasters." She also links to this article which talks of the Japanese as celebrating nature in spite of (my emphasis) its destructive power (not quite the same thing as delighting in disaster) and quotes Miyazaki saying that natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes are a given in Japan and must be accepted as part of life. Again, this is a long way from celebrating disaster. De Cruz also says that Turner's painting of a steamboat in a storm is done "with gusto," which strikes me as an inaccurate description of the painting. Turner has a sense of awe, an important concept for De Cruz, but I don't sense any relish in his portrayal of the boat's fate. If he is enthusiastic at all it isn't about what is happening to the boat, let alone to the people on it, but about the amazing power of the storm.       

De Cruz goes on to discuss the sublime and awe:
The prototype model of awe by Keltner and Haidt suggests that awe - the emotion most commonly associated with the sublime - is elicited by stimuli that are vast and that prompt a need for psychological accommodation. Keltner and Haidt see awe as an adaptive emotion that arose in our primate ancestry, in particular, in the need for lower-status individuals to recognize the status of higher-status individuals within the group: by feeling awe for an alpha individual, one would desist in fruitlessly trying to challenge his or her authority, which would have been adaptive. Keltner and Haidt propose that the primordial form of awe is the emotions a low status individual feels towards a powerful one.
As she says, "To me, this is quite a stretch." 

Rather than propose an alternative theory she raises the questions: why do we feel awe, and is it morally objectionable to do so? Here's an example (from Job) of which she says that, "One cannot help but feel how insensitive and morally objectionable Elihu is when he says this":
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
    he does great things beyond our understanding.
 He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’
    and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’
 So that everyone he has made may know his work,
    he stops all people from their labor.
 The animals take cover;
    they remain in their dens.
 The tempest comes out from its chamber,
    the cold from the driving winds.
 The breath of God produces ice,
    and the broad waters become frozen.
 He loads the clouds with moisture;
    he scatters his lightning through them.
 At his direction they swirl around
    over the face of the whole earth
    to do whatever he commands them.
 He brings the clouds to punish people,
    or to water his earth and show his love.

Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.
Do you know how God controls the clouds
     and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised, 
     those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes 
     when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
Can you join him in spreading out the skies, 
     hard as a mirror of cast bronze?   

One can help feeling that this is insensitive and morally objectionable, even if one knows that Job's house and children have been destroyed by the storms and floods being described. I agree that it could be very objectionable to tell sufferers that their loss is all part of God's plan or that whatever doesn't kill them will make them stronger. But Elihu's words are powerful, and spoken to a man who does not want to give up his faith in God. I don't see things the same way, but I don't find these words objectionable. Delighting in disaster qua disaster is obviously no good, but seeing a disaster under some different aspect and delighting in, or just being impressed by, that is surely OK. Imagine you see a volcano erupt and enjoy the spectacle, but later find out that someone was killed by it. Your previous enjoyment doesn't suddenly become wicked (assuming you weren't reveling in the thought of someone's possibly being killed by the lava or a hail of rocks).

One way to understand the question "Why do we feel awe?" is to take it as asking what it is about a particular phenomenon that is awe-inspiring. This calls for aesthetic criticism and careful attention to the phenomenon in question. De Cruz means something else though. She wants to know why human beings evolved to feel awe. This calls for little attention to particular phenomena (although examples and counterexamples must be considered) and requires us to try to fit awe into an existing framework that accounts for emotions. What could be wrong with that?

There are several possibilities. One might reject the framework (evolutionary psychology). One might reject the project of trying to fit emotions (or 'mental states' in general) into that framework. Or one might reject the idea that this emotion, awe, fits the framework. Or all of the above. And perhaps more as well.

I'm not qualified to comment on the merits of evolutionary psychology, but it certainly has its critics, and Wittgenstein's skepticism about psychology as a science might be a source of additional criticisms. As far as I know psychologists today mostly study brains and behavior. Presumably brains evolved: animals with brains that helped them survive would tend to survive longer and reproduce more, and their offspring would be expected to have somewhat similar brains. Behavior seems like a different matter. I don't inherit my parents' behavior in the way that I might inherit their curly hair or straight teeth. But we're talking about emotions, so perhaps behavior is not really relevant. Wittgenstein thinks of emotions as something like aspects of human life or modes of our complicated form of life. Does it make sense to think of such things as evolving? In some sense it must, I think. Anything self-destructive is likely to die out, and anything life-preserving is likely to thrive. But, again, I don't inherit emotions from my parents in the way that I inherit purely biological traits. And if an emotion or form of behavior dies out it does not do so in the same literal way that a species of animals dies out. Animals die, behavior does not. Nor do emotions. So there are questions to be asked about the very idea that emotions are part of evolution. That's all I'll say about that for now. (By which I don't mean to imply that there is no more to be said.)

What about the project of fitting emotions into the evolutionary psychology framework? Part of me thinks this cannot possibly be wrong. It's like a game, and if you don't want to play it you don't have to. But it's possible to disapprove of certain games. And this one asks us to adopt a certain perspective on such things as awe, wonder, and love. This could be regarded as a kind of blasphemy. It could also be regarded as dangerous, as likely to undermine ways of thinking, feeling, and living that are important. It might, for instance, trick us into thinking that we understand more than we do (e.g. what love really is), or that what we value is actually not so special after all. A dangerous game is not wrong per se, of course, (it's possible to gamble and win) but we still might object to its being played.  

And in the particular case of awe we might well feel that there is something both misguided and dangerous about the attempt to fit it into a pre-existing theoretical framework. For one thing, the fact that we have a word does not mean that we have a thing for which that word stands. And awe seems like an especially pronounced case of this. It surely isn't a Cartesian entity, and I can't really imagine someone feeling awe except in the presence of something properly awe-inspiring. Drug-induced awe, for instance, would not (it seems to me) be real awe at all. It only make sense to talk of awe in certain kinds of context, and that makes awe unlike standard objects, including heritable biological traits. Perhaps the biological basis that gives us the ability to feel awe is heritable, but that's a different matter. We might have evolved to have this capacity for reasons that have nothing to do with awe.

Why do we feel awe? What evolutionary advantage might it have given us? If awe combines fear of dangerous things (which sounds like a useful emotion) with a funny kind of pleasure at the thought of great power then this doesn't seem so mysterious. Power is a useful thing, so contemplating power that does us no harm might well trigger a positive reaction. But all this seems like a strange line of inquiry. Why turn away from the awesome to think about the evolution of awe? It's like pointing to some fantastic sight and finding your audience looking at your pointing finger. I think that's what feels wrong about De Cruz's questions. It shows a preference for the uninspiring over the inspiring, like a student choosing to major in something 'practical' rather than something that really interests them. It's a bit depressing. And the question doesn't only show an interest in the wrong things. It also directs our attention towards those things (our awe or its biological basis) and away from the awesome. And that seems not just depressing but bad.

I don't mean to exaggerate. De Cruz is not a monster, and her questions are in some sense legitimate (how generous of me!). But I think it is thoughts along the lines that I have sketched above that make me less than enthusiastic about her project. If we're going to study psychology I much prefer this kind of approach (h/t dmf). It may not be about the awesome directly, but it is about people behaving in interesting ways, and it's quite different from the evolutionary psychology approach to explanation of such behavior. It keeps everything within the human sphere. Attempts to explain the human in terms of the non-human seem to leave out everything that really matters. Which I suppose is the kind of point Winch might make.


  1. seems to me that the weather-channel (and all of the local news risk your life to send us your phone-video of the tornado bearing down on you copycats, plus history channel, national geo., etc) is making a lot of money off of the shock & awe-some effect/affect that many people get from watching storms wreck havoc on people/structures, and fear and trembling are not foreign to the history of awe in religious circles, also why would drug induced experiences of awe not be "real" awe? But yes in general her work leaves out much to be desired (much of what occurs in life) and at the same time makes huge, and often just puzzling, leaps in terms of both framing and evaluation, another field of endeavor caught up in the tyranny of the means and the idiosyncrasies of the participants as far as I can tell. And yes please let's stick to the all-too-human "merely" anthropological side of things.

  2. Some people certainly like watching havoc being wreaked, but that seems straightforwardly bad to me, not something that raises an interesting ethical question.

    Drug-induced awe doesn't seem like real awe to me any more than drug-induced feelings of love would be real love. This is, I suppose, an intuition, and I'm not sure how to argue for it. The authoritative (jk) defines 'awe' as: A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might This sounds about right to me, and it means that a feeling isn't awe unless it is a response to authority, genius, etc. It cannot be chemically induced, by definition, in other words.

  3. by definition all of those responses are also matters of alterations of brain-chemistry, many people find not just beauty, sublimity, and might in drug experiences, but also aspects of genius and authority, not sure how this is so different from the research on people being taught to hear gods via books and tapes, do we need them to be right about what/who they are hearing to credit them with real/proper awe, similarly with the storm-chasers, are they so different from Job, and are they 'really' wrong about their experiences (isn't that akin to being wrong about pain?) or is this a matter of taste?

  4. I wouldn't say that emotions are matters of brain chemistry by definition. Presumably brain chemistry is involved, but that's something we discovered empirically, not an analytic truth. Or so it seems to me. Maybe it has become analytic, but I don't think so.

    On finding beauty, sublimity, etc. in drug experiences I think it depends what you mean by this. If drugs open the doors of perception so that you come to see beauty to which you had previously been blind, then yes. But if drugs just make you think that something is beautiful or sublime when, once the drugs have stopped working, you realize that it is nothing of the kind then no. That is, drugs might reveal the truth but they might also make you hallucinate. If what makes you feel 'awe' is a hallucination then I wouldn't call it real awe. It's difficult to make the right distinctions here, but I think that there are distinctions worth making. Awe can be real without being a response to the One True God, but I don't think that everything that feels like awe has to be considered a genuine case of awe. It might not matter, but I want to leave open the possibility that someone could say "I thought I knew what awe was but that wasn't the real thing." It doesn't make much sense to say of a storm-chaser that they are wrong about their experiences, but I think it would make sense if one of them said, "I thought I was feeling awe but now I realize it was just a shallow thrill."

    It is somewhat a matter of taste. I want to be able to make a distinction between real awe and faux awe, just as I would like to distinguish between real love and infatuation. But if someone else wants to use these words to refer only to a particular kind of feeling, so that if you think you feel it you do feel it, then that's not wrong in any logical or grammatical way. The disagreement is aesthetic or ethical.

  5. aren't the people who learn to hear gods via various mediums/media also experiencing the powers of suggestion/imagination?
    If I fall out of "real" love was it never really love after all?

    1. Yes and maybe. In the case of hearing gods I would want to be able to judge each case individually. Basically shallow cases wouldn't count but deep ones would, and of course judgments of depth will vary.

      It is possible to fall out of real love (I think--others might disagree, and this need not be a disagreement about the facts). But sometimes when you fall out of "real" love you realize that it never had been real.

  6. A lot to think about in your post and I'll only offer a few hesitant observations (which is usually a cue for me to bore on at great length).

    1. Regarding De Cruz's initial question, I understand your criticism of it, but I also see (I think) what she's getting at. For me it's connected to the fact that for most of us our main experience of major disasters is a curiously detached one: we see them on the news. The vivid images involved are neither a warning nor a cry for help; they are simply there for us to gawp at. And it's hard to escape the feeling that, therefore, they are there to entertain us. That's not to see that they make us roar with laughter or feel cheerful. Often the images are appalling and frightening - but so are the images in a horror movie or a weepy novel. Yet those are still (amongst other things) forms of entertainment. There is something "unreal" both about the event itself and the feelings it stirs in us. We watch it, feel pity, horror, etc. Then we wonder what's for dinner and how our team will get on in tonight's game. Imagine that the same disaster was happening at the bottom of your street and you can see at once (I think) how everything changes.

    And that detachment, that "unreality" is linked to another feature: it is much easier to be fascinated by the aesthetic element of what's going on. Because neither we nor (hopefully) anyone we know is directly involved it's much easier to find the whole thing strangely thrilling. I can remember watching the towers go down on 9/11 and feeling uncomfortably precisely because I was conflicted. On the one hand I knew this was terrible and that real people were dying as I watched, and yet on the other hand there was something undeniably awesome - even beautiful - about what I was seeing. I'm sure that if I'd been living in New York at the time and not 5000 miles away my reaction would've been considerably different.

    Now, maybe it's a stretch to say this represents "delight" at a disaster, but it doesn't seem completely divorced from it. Delight's second cousin, perhaps.

    Is it wrong to feel like that? Well, what can I do about my spontaneous emotional reaction? It seems to me to be less a case of heartlessness on my part than a function of the way the incident is presented to me. It doesn't spell direct danger to me, nor is their anything immediate I can do to help. What else can I do except gawp and say "wow"?

    On the other hand, it's at least noteworthy that I do feel uncomfortable about this reaction. But (I think) that is not me dimly realising that I've fallen short of what a "decent" reaction should be. Rather, it's me feeling uncomfortable at the whole idea of other people's genuine suffering being offered up to me as a form of entertainment.

    I wanted to say something (sort of) in defence of evolutionary psychology, but, as predicted, I've already gone on too long.

  7. Thanks, Philip, and sorry for the delay in replying.

    There's a lot to think about in your reply, but I'll mostly just say that I agree with almost everything you say. A few other points:

    I agree that watching disasters can be thrilling, but I think what's thrilling is the energy or power displayed, not the disastrousness itself. I've never really watched the film of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, but I can imagine enjoying scenes like that in a disaster movie. But in that case you're focusing on the explosions, the force of the impact, and so on. You aren't thinking: "Cool! Lots of people are dying!" When it's closer to home and you know people involved you probably won't see it as if it were a scene in a movie, but that's always possible. And I think even the people directly involved in disasters do see them like this at times. But only when they are able to detach from what's going on. (And being able to detach doesn't guarantee that you will detach, of course.) This is, I think, what you mean when you talk about being fascinated by the aesthetic element of what's going on. This means seeing what's going on another way, under a different aspect or however you want to put it. You can say "wow!" without this being a response to the disaster qua disaster.

    2. What's wrong is either being thrilled by the disaster qua disaster (e,g, going to car races in the hope of seeing a crash, buying a DVD of 9/11 to watch for entertainment) or else insensitively focusing so much on the aesthetic element that you forget the disaster element. But of course I can't say how much sensitivity is enough.

    1. I suppose an example of delighting in disaster qua disaster might be when a religious figure claims that some earthquake or flood is God's judgement on a sinful people. You could imagine such a person watching footage of the disaster with genuine delight and approval. For him it is an awe-inspiring example of God's direct intervention in the world.

      Now, obviously I'd say such a response was morally wrong - appalling, in fact. But he would say I was mistaken. How could it be wrong to delight in God's justice?

      Against this I would use all sorts of arguments - many involving the precepts of the very religion he claimed to espouse. But I don't think I could prove anything. All I could do would be to express my attitude as forcefully and persuasively as possible and hope that others agreed with me.

      So in that regard, the question "is it morally wrong?" comes down to "do you find it morally wrong"? And once I've answered that, the next question (which I think is the important question) is: what should be done about people who disagree with you?

    2. this was Richard Rorty's position that at some point when our spades have hit bedrock, like if I have to try and explain to you (and or show you) why torture is bad/unacceptable, philosophy/justifications/explications will always have to give way to politics.

    3. Against this I would use all sorts of arguments - many involving the precepts of the very religion he claimed to espouse. But I don't think I could prove anything.

      Rorty's right, but of course it depends what you mean by 'prove'. Nothing guarantees successful persuasion, not even the most rigorous proof. I think that if you use all sorts of arguments, many involving the precepts of the person's own religion, then you have done all you can. And it might be quite reasonable to call this proof. Whatever we call it, though, the result is the same. Someone can be unchanged by what we do to try to change their mind. I still don't find the question whether delighting in disaster (qua disaster) is morally wrong any more interesting than the question whether torture is bad though. I think Rorty would agree with that too. We probably all agree on this, actually, so I don't need to spell it out.

      What should be done about people who disagree? We could try shaming or public embarrassment. Whatever works, basically (within reason).

    4. I think "politics" might be open to misinterpretation. For me it's more a case of the fact that discussions about morality are necessarily bound up with action. (And "action" here can range from a mild expression of disapproval right up to killing anyone who behaves in a certain way.) But, yes, it does often involve getting others on your side and using their support as a power-base to affect change. And that is political with a small "p".

  8. Duncan - I was thinking of "proof" in relation to an area like, say, measuring. If you say a table is 5ft long and I say it's 6ft we can measure it and find out. If it turns out that it's 6ft you cannot refuse to budge because your initial claim presupposed the validity of measuring. If you say "I still say it's 5ft" then it starts to look like you don't know what "5ft" means.

    But I don't think it works like that when it comes to morality. For example, if you assert X and I point out that you also assert Y and then claim that X and Y are mutually incompatible it is always open to you to deny this. I might find your denial outrageous (for the contradiction seems as clear as anything to me) but you don't - and, furthermore, you will be able to bring forward an argument supporting your stance. And I'll disagree with it. And so on.

    That, it seems to me, just is a feature of moral debates. It doesn't always come to that - and if it did then moral debates would be pointless. But the possibility always exists.

    1. Yes, I (think I) understand, and basically agree. But there is also the possibility of disingenuousness or unreasonableness, and I think at some point the possibility of sincere disagreement either runs out or shrinks to nearly zero. That is, there (sometimes, possibly) comes a time when the argument supporting one side is just a rationalization of something not seriously intended as moral.I think this happens quite often, so I'm reluctant to agree with your idea that the possibility of sincere disagreement always exists. In theory maybe, but in practice I'm not so sure.

    2. Yes, I certainly agree that in practice it's often possible for one side to get the other to admit it's in the wrong. I also agree that all sorts of features tend to muddy the waters: self-deception, bloody-mindedness and so on.

      But there's also this phrase: "I just don't understand how anyone can think like that". We use it when we're brought up against the disquieting fact that some people, on some issues, sincerely hold a position that seems to us self-evidently wrong.

      And in such cases winning the argument becomes less a matter of persuasion than of conversion. We are not pointing out errors within a shared "ethical space"; we are teaching them (or imposing upon them) a new set of moral values.

      This can and does happen, but usually we are not in a position to do it and so, instead, we seek to silence our opponents or at least minimise the impact of their views on society or our culture, our friends, etc.

      It seems to me that this sort of thing goes on quite a bit. And one feature of it is that we dismiss not so much the arguments of our opponents as their basic world-view ("She's a typical Tory", "Spoken like a true Socialist", etc)..

      So I'm not so sure that fundamental, implacable disagreement is as rare as you make out.

      Sorry to worry away at this but I find a lot of moral philosophy deeply frustrating. It gets caught up in intricate arguments about strange, hypothetical situations. It asks "is this moral?" and doesn't notice that it's addressing a remarkably narrow and homogeneous audience. As a result, it easily slips into supposing that its questions are definitively answerable - often while explicitly agreeing that they're not. And, of course, the answers will (miraculously) mirror the opinions of the narrow group discussing them. If only we could make our arguments more subtle or find the right form of words!

      I'm sure you're aware of all this already, but it does get my goat a bit.

    3. Oh, I agree that fundamental disagreement is real, and probably common. We might disagree about how common it is, but it would be a debate about whether it happens all the time or merely quite a bit. I do think that even these disagreements can be understood, that the values of Tories, Socialists, Christians, liberals, etc. are not that hard to understand, and that why someone might be in any one of these camps is not that hard to fathom either. But it does take some work, and some patience, and there are many opportunities for disagreement along the way ("No, no, no, I'm not racist, I just..." etc.).

      I'm tempted to agree with you on the badness of most moral philosophy, but I don't read enough of it to pass judgment. Arguments that such-and-such is or is not moral are rarely very successful, though, I agree.

  9. Though clearly an illegitimate argumentum ab auctoritate, I would no shame in saying that De Cruz cannot be al off, if she discusses things that Kant took seriously (CJ §28)... PS: If you're going to talk about Winch, social science & psychology next year, it might be worth looking at Hacker's & Bennetts The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. I don't think you would agree at all strecthes, but their position have a nice clarity to it, which you could then position yourself in relation to. I guess Hacker often serves a similiar function within Wittgenstein exegesis...

    1. Actually that's a good point about Kant. He has a different view of nature though (nothing in vain, which is not the evolutionary view exactly), as I recall.

      And thanks for the tip about Hacker and Bennett. I've been meaning to look at their stuff, and this gives me another push in that direction.