Emotions & Heuristics

2 min. read Submitted 21/02/2021 Last Edited 23/03/2021 #writing #philosophy

So, emotions right? What a heckin' experience! Certainly one of the more attention-grabbing features of the human condition. But what even are they?

Something that I think is dangerous when building a philosophical system is a fetishization of a lack of emotion. Emotionless detachment certainly has its uses, but there are rich and deep colours of the tapestry of human experience that one deprives oneself of. Does the unwise stoic cut a piece from themselves in order to pursue their system? Is it worth it? Not to me.

What I protest against most deeply is the view that emotions are in contrast to intellect - that feeling is something opposite and incompatible with reason. Some even go far as to want to completely silence some separate emotional voice, to become voices and minds solely of emotionless reason. I believe strongly the opposite, but the nuance of that belief requires more specificity.

Emotions are an involuntary mental experience as a response to stimuli. Something scary happens, so you feel fear. Something beautiful happens, and you feel joy. The involuntary yet contextual responses we feel suggest that it is our subconscious minds causing these feelings to happen. And, critically, these responses are almost always very fast. Being startled is certainly the fastest, but a wave of pride moves quite quickly as well.

It is these observations that have led me to think about emotions as heuristics. So, what is a heuristic?

A heuristic technique is any approach to problem solving that uses a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, but is sufficient for reaching an immediate goal. 1

Huh? Plain English? Well, a heuristic is basically an imperfect shortcut we can take when we're solving a problem that is correct a lot of the time.

Consider the problem of walking somewhere in your nearest city. Before the days of GPS, people had to depend on their sense of direction. If you were in a new place, you might just have a general sense of the direction you needed to go in. This general direction is the heuristic you use to progress along your route, deciding which street you turn down next. Maybe it fails you sometimes and you have to double back, but it is generally correct and certainly faster than exploring every corner of the city to find your destination.

I hope it is becoming clear why I bring up this concept. Emotions are your mind's heuristics. The universe moves fast and the slow ape gets eaten. Your subconscious mind is built on these involuntary heuristics, and rejection of emotion is a rejection of your subconscious. I don't believe that these heuristics can be shed so easily. You can stare at an optical illusion for as long as you would like, study the neurology that makes the illusion possible, even map out the full connectome that defines the experience of seeing the illusion - but it will persist.

True rationality, I believe, is not defined by the rejection or silencing of emotion. It is within plunging yourself into the full experience of an emotion while maintaining your presence and enough control to do no harm. But pay attention to your heuristics - they exist for a reason, and they're a part of being alive, and maybe one day they might tell you something you need to know when time is of the essence. It is very easy to obfuscate those heuristics with mental structures that you may build for yourself to suppress them, but that only obfuscates their influence, it does not remove it. It is better to drag your heuristics into the light, experience them, acknowledge them, and correct for when those heuristics are inaccurate.