I Question That Emotion

"Analogies prove nothing, that is quite true, but they can make one feel more at home."
How can you ever really know what someone else is feeling? Claiming empathy is all very well, but how can you know that what they call "sad" is the same as what you call "sad"?

At first glance this might seem to be the same problem discussed in the last entry, in which I concluded that qualia, the basic thingness of stuff, didn't actually exist, our experience of, say, red being linked to the wavelength of light hitting our retinas, our brains' processing of that data and any associations we have linked to it. There is no ur-red of which our experience of the skin of a tomato is but a pale reflection.

The reality of emotions may be a different facet of the same problem, albeit one with a different conclusion. It's much more difficult to put your finger on an emotion. Whilst Patient A can say to Patient B "That's red" and point at a tomato, she can't point at happiness. She can't measure its wavelength either. All she can do is describe it, but just like red it is very difficult to describe without referring to something else.

Emotions are also very difficult to describe without using other emotions, which is equally as unsatisfying. Unlike colours or other experiences there's nothing to measure and just like them when it comes down to it any verbal description is next to useless.

We still don't really know what emotions are. We know what can cause them. There are many causes; chemicals, both natural and unnatural; physical changes to the nervous system and, perhaps most importantly, external stimuli.

Something happens in the outside world to make us happy, sad or furious. What changes within? Our knowledge about the world and our position in it, meaning that the insanely complex and yet impossibly ephemeral human consciousness changes shape. When it comes down to it, emotions are how we experience the shape of our minds, of our consciousness. Just as when we've eaten too much pasta and feel fat and bloated, experiencing something can twist our selves into new uncomfortable shapes. The answer in both cases can be to go and lie down for a while.

Emotions are therefore far more likely to be a continuum rather than a series of discrete states; analogue rather than digital. Two people may both be feeling sad but it's very unlikely that they're both sitting at exactly the same point on the sadness spectrum. What's more, seeing as no two people are the same, they're probably not even on the same spectrum. Everyone has their own unique emotional waveband.

Empathy is on a hiding to nothing really. The only way you can be sure of what someone else is feeling is by being them; and if you are them you're not you, so you can't experience it. For all you know everyone else is pretending and you're the only one who actually feels anything. And in a way this is true; there is no-one else on your emotional spectrum. You are unique.

And so am I.


Good stuff Chris: "All she can do is describe it, but just like red it is very difficult to describe without referring to something else." This is true for all language, words being a set of collectively agreed meanings, defined as you say in terms of other words, themselves defined in terms... (sure there's some mathematical term with this like recessive or regressive something or other).

Having said that, if you look at thesauruses, there seem to be far fewer synonyms for the basic emotions, than for other words such as drunk or chastise. Yet all literature concerns itself with pursuing emotional intelligence in its characters and yet writers are so poorly served in terms of the relevant vocabulary, forcing us to resort to metaphor, allusion and all points indirect.

I have always viewed pain as utterly unshareable and beyond genuine empathy. Perhaps you are right about emotions, at least qualitatively, I'd never made that association before.

Linguistically - and this is something I've explored in my novel - there is a continuum of words for states/levels of "Happy", but the spectrum for "sad" I think is bifurcated - those where the sadness is purely internalised and those which are attributed to external causes (flecked with anger/bitterness as you proceed further along the scale of sadness caused by said outside agency).

One might have hoped/imagined/anticipated that in the 21st century, with all the science, with the back-catalogue of artistic investigation, we might know more about human emotions that the Jacobean model of humours and imbalances between bodily fluids such as phlegm, blood, yellow and black bile... But we don't seem to


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