Advanced Search

What is emotional suffering?

What is emotional suffering? I know that I feel that I suffer, but in what sense am I suffering? I cannot place anywhere, the source of emotional suffering in any causal terms from the external world. The external world can bring me physical pain through physical action, but it seems absurd to think that external objects can also cause emotional pain. Does this mean that emotional suffering is generated from within me? Am I the cause of my own suffering? If so, does this mean that one can choose not to suffer?

Saying just what emotional suffering amounts to wouldn't be easy, but there may be no need. Even if we find it hard to spell out what it is, all of us know emotional suffering from the inside. Some emotional suffering may be internally generated -- endogenous, as it's sometimes put -- but whether or not we understand the mechanisms, it's clear that things in the outer world can cause emotional pain. When you think about it, this isn't really so strange. Our emotional states are deeply dependent on the states of our brains, and our brains, after all, are physical things, in interaction with other physical things. We simply accept this for perception: our perceptual experiences are caused by the interaction between things in the outer world and our perceptual systems, including (not least!) our brains.

The details of how all this works are best left to the scientific experts, but for example, if I see someone I care about being hurt, and if I can do nothing about it, feeling distressed would seem the most natural thing in the world. That's a garden-variety example of things in the outer world causing emotional suffering. It would be odd in a case like this to say that you are the cause of your own suffering.

All the same, it's plausible that sometimes we do have some control over our suffering. Most of us tend to tell ourselves stories about what's happening to us, and sometimes those stories are not really very plausible. We may, for example, tell ourselves that a friend who didn't say "Hello" must have stopped liking us. In fact, our friend may simply have been preoccupied. To some extent, we can learn to notice when we are over-interpreting and reacting out of bad cognitive habits. This sort of pausing -- stepping back -- can sometimes lower our level of distress. Cognitive behavioral therapy calls such unproductive reactions "automatic thoughts," and seems to be able to help people by helping them learn to recognize when they are reacting that way. Buddhist approaches to emotional suffering have something of the same flavor.

So in short -- the fact that outer events can cause emotional distress isn't really any more puzzling than the more general fact that the mental is intimately related to the physical. Sometimes some of our emotional distress arises from the ways we react to things, and we sometimes have some degree of control over those reactions. However, this hardly means that we can simply "cure" all our emotional pain by ourselves, and worrying about whether we are "responsible" for our suffering may well not be very productive.

If determinism is true, can I still allow myself to feel "good" about reaching

If determinism is true, can I still allow myself to feel "good" about reaching accomplishments through hard work and self-discipline? If I spend years learning karate, and eventually become a karate master, is it unethical to feel proud? As opposed to saying "that happened to me while I was alive."

Yes, you can and should feel good, feel proud, feel accomplished, regardless of whether or not determinism is true. You worked hard, you made hard choices, you did things rather than just let things happen to you. And all that is true even in a deterministic world. (For some discussion of what determinism means and entails, see my response to question 3004 here.)

Of course, I'm a compatibilist about free will and determinism, so I think determinism is irrelevant to these issues. However, some incompatibilists also think that even if determinism ruled out the sort of free will required for genuine moral desert, we could still legitimately feel proud of our accomplishments.

My view is that to think determinism rules out our ability to feel proud (or guilty) for what we do is to misunderstand what determinism means. It is to assume that determinism--the view, roughly, that everything that happens is complete caused by prior events--means that we are somehow bypassed by events that "happen to us" or that the causal forces in the universe work "around us" rather than "through us." If instead we recognize that determinism does not involve such bypassing, then it looks like the efforts we make, the decisions we make, the accomplishments we achieve, were possible only because of what we did, even if what we did was ultimately brought about by things that preceded our existence. I see no reason to think that determinism drains away the significance of what our selves do.

Is determinism rational? Since there is no evidence to prove/disprove the

Is determinism rational? Since there is no evidence to prove/disprove the existence of 'fate', is it rational to have a determinist point of view? Or is there evidence and I am merely ignorant on the subject?

Determinism is the thesis that a complete description of the universe at one time and the laws of nature logically entails a complete description of the universe at any later time. Though this definition does not talk about causation, determinism is also often understood to mean that every event in the universe is completely caused by a set of prior events, in accord with the laws of nature. I don't think this definition of determinism should be equated with 'fate' since fate suggests that certain things are going to happen no matter what anyone does and perhaps also that some power, such as God or gods or the Greek Fates, has control over fate (and hence what happens to you)--so, Oedipus was fated to sleep with his mother, no matter what he tried to do to avoid that fate and it looks like the gods imposed that fate upon him. Determinism, on the contrary, does not entail that certain things will happen no matter what. On the contrary, it suggests that what happens on the future depends on what happens in the present, including human actions--i.e., future events would happen differently than they actually do if earlier events had been different. And determinism does not entail that any power is in control of what happens (nature and the laws of nature are not controlling things if we assume that control requires an agent who aims to bring about certain ends). Finally, determinism is not, by definition, the opposite of free will. Indeed, most philosophers think that determinism is compatible with free will.

OK, so do we have reason to believe determinism is true? Probably not. The most prominent interpretation (Copenhagen) of quantum physics suggests that micro-physics is indeterministic. That is, certain events are not logically entailed by or sufficiently caused by prior events; rather, given the exact same causal conditions (e.g., as an electron hits a barrier) and the laws of physics, there is an objective probability that more than one outcome (effect) will occur (e.g., 50% that the electron will penetrate the barrier and 50% that it will be reflected). Nothing determines or causes which of those events occurs (though prior events cause that one of the events will occur). Some, however, think quantum physics can be interpreted in a deterministic way (Bohmian interpretation). And some think that even if the micro-level is indeterministic, the macro-level including human behavior, is deterministic. (I think that view is implausible since quantum events likely 'percolate' up to have some macro effects, perhaps in chaotic systems in which large differences can be produced by small differences.) So, the evidence is not in. Some philosophers think determinism cannot be proven or disproven, but I don't think we should assume that.

If part of what you were asking is whether a belief in determinism is somehow self-contradictory, and hence irrational, I think the answer is a resounding no.

The other day when work ended, rather than go to my car and drive home as I have

The other day when work ended, rather than go to my car and drive home as I have every day for the last four years, I just sat outside the building for no reason at all. Maybe I didn't want to go home just yet; maybe I was tired; maybe this maybe that. I sat for about 30 minutes, almost without moving, before finally leaving. I was thinking and thinking about why I did it, and then I started to wonder why I felt anxious about not being able to answer the question. Is it possible we've all been brainwashed into accepting the - if I remember this correctly - "principle of sufficient reason" (assuming this states that all things happen for a reason). Is it possible I sat down for no reason at all?

Professor Silverman is right about the PSR and how it relates to your question (though I'm not sure I agree that "it certainly seems that everything we observe does have a sufficient reason"). But perhaps you were also wondering if your action (or inaction) happened for no reason in this sense: it was caused by factors that you were unaware of and you would not think of as reasons at all (much less good reasons). Maybe it was caused by some random thing a co-worker said to you or by some unnoticed aroma or by some neural glitch. In these cases, it might be right to say you sat down "for no reason at all" (even if something causally explains the event).

Another possibility is that nothing causally explains the event. Quantum mechanics gives us a model for probabilistic causation, such that given exact conditions X (e.g., electron being shot at barrier), there is some objective chance A will follow (e.g., electron being deflected) and some objective chance B will follow (e.g., electron penetrating barrier) and nothing explains why A rather than B happens or vice versa. It is not implausible that something like this can occasionally happen in large-scale events, such as human actions, perhaps because quantum indeterminism occasionally influences large-scale events.

For instance, it just might have been that your exact condition X involved a very complex neural state that had some objective chance of leading to A (your getting in car) and some objective chance of leading to B (your sitting down) and nothing explains why B happened rather than A.

While some people (e.g., Robert Kane) have used this sort of model to ground a theory of free will, I think such indeterminism would not help secure free will (it gives us no more control or responsibility over our lives than without it), though it might put some pressure on the principle of sufficient reason.

Can our social perceptions or cognition be subject to ethical judgement?

Can our social perceptions or cognition be subject to ethical judgement? I am thinking of a particular case here; let's assume, for instance, that in a certain country black people are extremely negatively portrayed by the media, in a stereotypical way. If somebody sees a perfectly innocent black person who has never done him harm, but because of widespread stereotyping sees him as dislikeable/dangerous/guilty, can we argue that he is morally responsible/guilty for such perceptions? Is the act of perceiving an innocent person as guilty immoral or, in terms of virtue ethics, unfair? What I'm wondering here especially is: since we can only be morally responsible for what is within our control, do we have enough control over our perceptions to consider them subject of moral judgement?

What's outside the agent's control is, I think, somewhat narrower than what you call "perceptions or cognition." Suppose new DNA evidence reveals that a black man on death row is actually innocent. And suppose the jurors who declared him guilty say that they couldn't help seeing him as guilty when he was brought before them. I think we should be most reluctant to accept this excuse. Perhaps they could not have avoided a certain negative emotional rection to the accused (given the racism of their society and upbringing). But perceiving a person as guilty (of some crime) involves a good bit of judgment on the basis of testimony and other evidence. And here we can examine whether the jurors weighed the evidence carefully, deliberated thoroughly, and so on. As a juror one is not bound to let one's emotional reactions prevail. One can, and one ought to, try one's utmost to put these reactions aside and to judge the case on the basis of the evidence alone.

Now let's look at the narrower question whether we can be morally responsible for our immediate emotional reactions, for the "gut" dislike we sometimes experience for people with certain characteristics. Your argument for a negative answer -- such reactions are not sufficiently under our control -- is plausible when one considers merely the time at which the emotional reaction occurs: at this moment one indeed cannot avoid having it. But when you take a larger time frame, then the reaction is avoidable: when one finds oneself disliking people of a certain kind, then one can make an effort to get to know some of them, for example, and to try to form relationships and friendships that may gradually transform this emotional reaction. (Or may not: you may never be able to shake off your negative emotional reaction to educated people who manifestly don't care about their over-sized ecological footprint.) Those who never make such an effort can be morally responsible for their unwarranted negative emotional reactions.

Consider this parallel case. A driver hits a child that is running across the road. The driver says that he should not be held morally responsible for the accident because, given how fast he was going and how much alcohol he had consumed, he was simply not able to prevent his car from hitting the child. Even if we agree with this driver about the facts, we won't agree with him about his moral responsibility. He could have avoided the accident earlier: by drinking less, by taking a taxi instead of driving himself, or by driving more slowly. Similarly for racist (and analogous) emotional reactions: even if they are unavoidable at the time they are experienced, they may well have been avoidable earlier and are then morally attributable to the person.

How do you know that you are consciously making the decision and not just

How do you know that you are consciously making the decision and not just consciously acknowledging the pre-determined direction give to your body by your brain depending on the factors which are affecting it.

This is an interesting question, and one that has been discussed quite a bit by philosophers and by scientists, some of whom suggest that there is evidence for the sort of picture you describe--i.e., first the brain initiates a decision and only then do we become aware of having made a decision. I think it is possible that our non-conscious brain processes do all the interesting deliberative work and form decisions and then our conscious brain processes simply become aware of the final product and perhaps make up some stories (rationalizations) for why we made the decisions we did. But I don't think the evidence has shown that this account is actual.

First, we need to avoid a common mistake, which is to think that if our brain does it, we don't. It seems very likely that in some sense, we are our brains (our mental processes are very complicated neural processes), and we do not have non-physical minds that make decisions and then "send them" to the brain. Once we understand the mind in this naturalistic way, then when our brain does it, it is our minds doing it.

But even on this picture, it's possible that the conscious processes of our brains don't do much or do it too late in the way suggested above. And this may happen sometimes, perhaps more than we think (of course, it's a good thing it happens for many things, since being conscious of too much would be a bad thing!). At a minimum, however, I think it is very likely that when we have important or hard decisions to make and we deliberate carefully about the various alternatives for action (humans are likely unique in our ability to consciously visualize possible futures--e.g., "if I do this, that would happen, but if I do something else, then that would happen, etc."), and then we come up with decisions about what policies or plans we want to guide our future, then that conscious mental activity has crucial causal influences on what we end up doing (perhaps sometimes what we end up doing without then thinking much about it at the time of action).

If you've ever prepared a lecture or just thought about what you want to say to a friend in need or such, perhaps your experience is like this: you thought hard (and consciously) ahead of time about what to say and then you basically let yourself (your non-conscious brain?) go and ended up saying basically what you wanted to (consciously adjusting things along the way).

Some names you could google to see discussion of all this include scientists who raise the worry you ask about, such as Benjamin Libet, Daniel Wegner, John Dylan-Haynes, John Bargh, and Jonathan Haidt, and a philosopher, Alfred Mele, whose new book Effective Intentions responds to some of these scientists (as do I in some of the papers on my website).

Suppose that you believe in determinism, how could you live with that? Sometimes

Suppose that you believe in determinism, how could you live with that? Sometimes everything seems clearly determined by circumstances (science...), but it's hard to believe that someone who has murdered someone is not really guilty - 'it's the just the circumstances that influenced him to do such an act'. Or is there some kind of determinism where it is possible to be guilty? I hope you can help me out here.

It is an open (and contentious) philosophical question whether determinism entails that we are not morally responsible for what we do. Many philosophers (the majority, I would guess) actually believe that moral responsibility is perfectly compatible with determinism. For such philosophers (often called compatibilists), whether you are blameworthy does not depend on whether the causal chain leading up to your action can be traced back to events that seem to have nothing to do with choices you've made. (After all, if determinism is true, all of your actions have such external causal origins.) Instead, according to compatibilists, whether you are blameworthy is a function of the particular shape that the causal chain leading up to your action takes. Of course, different compatibilists identify different features of the causal chain as the relevant ones, but they all agree that my action's being determined by antecendent events does not settle the question of whether I am morally responsible for that action.

Hobbes and Hume were two famous compatibilists. For an accessible and influential defense of compatibilism written by a well known contemporary philosopher, take a look at Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room.

I am not schooled in philosophy but do enjoy thinking about philosophical

I am not schooled in philosophy but do enjoy thinking about philosophical questions. In the gaps of time I have in my ordinary day-to-day existence, I have given some thought to better understanding human behavior and have come to believe (or, more accurately, am trying to further refine my basic belief) that human beings "can not but act in their perceived best interests." I believe that each decision that an individual makes represents the sum of that individual's accrued experiences, which informs that individual's "decision" (and I believe the concept of "decision" to be a bit of a fiction, but I will use the term because I do not know a better term). I believe that, when confronted with a decision, an individual weighs, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the gravity of the decision and the individual's degree of experience, sophistication, intelligence, etc., the sum of his/her experiences and ultimately makes a decision based on his/her perceived best interests at the time. I believe this...

Procrastination and weakness of the will (as when people continue to smoke and to eat a lot of red meat even while they understand the health risks and want to lead a long healthy life) are obvious problems for the view you are entertaining. Another problem is moral and altruistic conduct. You are kind to a stranger, or generous to a rival, at some cost to yourself -- are you acting in your own (perceived) best interest? Not in any ordinary sense. Agents themselves will often deny that they decided on the basis of what was in their own best interest: "Here I tried to act in his best interest, not my own."

Now you can simply always overrule such agents. You might say that an agent's conscious conduct necessarily is conclusive evidence that she must be taking herself to have some interest that she takes this conduct to promote -- perhaps an interest in being regarded (by others or at least by herself) to be kind or generous, or a strong interest in smoking, eating red meat, or procrastinating. But if you say this, your point is in danger of disengaging from empirical reality. It is then no longer a proposed insight into human behavior (which can be empirically investigated and supported or refuted with evidence), but becomes a stipulation or axiom of your thinking which is wholly immune to empirical assessment (and indeed, you once call your point a premise).

Insofar as you are interested in understanding human behavior, you want to avoid interpreting your point as a stipulation. You want to interpret it instead as an empirical hypothesis. You then need some empirical criteria for the predicate "believes at time t that doing X is in her own best interest". And you can then empirically investigate whether indeed, whenever a person decides at time t to do X she also believes at time t that doing X is in her own best interest.

You ask for an accessible read for a busy salaryman. I would recommend Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, and there especially the long discussions of the self-interest theory (attractively named "S") in Parts I and II. This is not an empirical theory about how people decide, but a normative theory about how they have most reason to decide. Nonetheless, you will learn a lot from the differentiations and difficulties Parfit discusses in regard to what it means to act self-interestedly. You will see how very hard it is to give clear meaning to your phrase "acts in her perceived best interest".

What kind of scientific evidence, if any, could prove that free-will does not

What kind of scientific evidence, if any, could prove that free-will does not exist?

This is an interesting question, in fact, so interesting that I am writing a whole book about it (Rediscovering Free Will). As Miriam says, much depends on how you define free will. Let's not begin with the problematic assumption that free will requires a non-natural power to transcend the causal interactions in the natural world, though I think we can begin with the idea that free will involves our powers to control our actions in light of our deliberations about what to do, such that we can be properly held responsible for our actions. In that case, we should not begin with the assumption made by some scientists writing about free will: that increasingly complete scientific (naturalistic) explanations of human decision-making thereby rule out any role for free will. Rather, it may be that neuroscientific and psychological explanations of human decision-making can help to explain--rather than explain away--our capacities to deliberate about our reasons and to control our actions accordingly. Here is a very brief summary of what I think science might say about human free will:

1. Scientificevidence for determinism would not prove that free will is anillusion. This is because determinism does not properly entail most ofthe things people take to be intuitively threatening to free will, including the things that scientists have recently been talking about when they say they are showing free will is an illusion, such as the idea that our "conscious will" plays no role in our actions (e.g., Libet, Wegner, etc.). Determinism, properly construed, is consistent with our conscious deliberations and intentions influencing our actions. And these purported scientific threats are also consistent with indeterminism. (By the way, neither neuroscience nor psychology is going to show determinism is true--i.e., that given certain causal antecedents, certain effects necessarily follow. Only fundamental physics has a hope of showing this to be true, and the current interpretation of quantum physics suggests determinism is false.)

2. The scientific evidence for epiphenomenalism--i.e., the causal irrelevance of conscious mental states--is not there. The claims that non-conscious processes are sufficient to cause our actions, while our conscious awareness of our intentions comes too late to play a causal role, are not supported by the evidence, especially if one considers conscious deliberation, planning, and intention formation that occurs well before action, which is the sort that seems most relevant for free will. It's more important that my thoughts today about what I want to do tomorrow (or with my life!) affect what I end up doing than that my thought about which finger to move in a second affects which finger I move.

3. However, this doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet. There is some worrying evidence from psychology that we often do not know why we do what we do and are influenced by factors we would not want to influence us if we knew about them (advertisers certainly know this!). To the extent that is true, it seems we have diminished free will, because we are unable to act on the reasons we have accepted in prior deliberation--or even that we would accept if we did deliberate about it. I don't think the evidence goes as far as some suggest, but I think it may suggest we have less free will than we tend to think (I take free will to be a set of capacities we possess and exercise to varying degrees, rather than an all-or-nothing thing).

So, in my view, once we work out a clear conception of free will--preferably one that is amenable to empirical investigation--then the sciences of the mind have the potential to inform us about how it works (e.g., how the brain subserves it) but also to show how it is limited.

Hope this helps!

I remember an argument against determinism saying that we are not just able to

I remember an argument against determinism saying that we are not just able to make free choices but it is actually necessary to. For example if you have the option of cake or salad for dinner and just sit there expecting all the events leading up to this situation to make this decision for you then nothing will happen. One has to actively choose the course of action to take to move from past events to the future. I was wondering if there was any pacticular philosopher who put this forward?

I don't specifically recognise this argument as having been put forward by anyone in particular: but I'm having trouble seeing why it's supposed to be an argument against determinism. If anything, the notion that it is "necessary" to "make free choices" seems to be tending more towards compatibilism: that is, the theory that determinism and free choices are both real, and that they can comfortably coexist together.

Determinism doesn't imply that you should "just sit there expecting all the events leading up to this situation to make this decision for you". Rather, it implies that those past events will cause you to make a certain decision. The decision itself might be predetermined, but that doesn't take away the fact that you are the person who is formulating it. By contrast, if things are indeterministic, wouldn't the right attitude be to say: there's no way of predicting what I'm about to do, because my behaviour doesn't fit into the normal causal structure of events, so I'm just going to have to sit back and wait and see what spontaneously happens?

Pages