Feelings: What Are They and How Does the Brain Make Them?
The human mind has two fundamental psychological motifs. Descartes’s proclamation, “I think, therefore I am,”1 illustrates one, while Melville’s statement, “Ahab never thinks, he just feels, feels, feels,” exemplifies the other. Our Rationalist inclinations make us want certainty (objective truth), while the Romantic in us basks in emotional subjectivity. Psychology and neuroscience recognize this distinction: cognition and emotion are the two major categories of mind that researchers study. But things were not always quite like this.
I hate to break it to you, gentle reader, but fake facts are nothing new. We are designed by evolution to invent fake facts, fervently believe in them, and even defend them to the death. Still, there is something about the current epidemic of fake facts that should scare us into action.
Imagine grading everything you ever said according to two criteria: 1) How well it corresponds to what’s actually out there, and 2) what it causes you and others to do. These can be called factual realism and practical realism, respectively, and they are so familiar that we use the word “realistic” in both senses without needing to think about it. If we’re at an art gallery and I comment on how a portrait is realistic, I mean that it corresponds closely to the person being depicted (factual realism). When you outline your latest get rich quick scheme over lunch and I call it unrealistic, I mean that it probably won’t work out well for you (practical realism). All of us are experts at toggling between factual realism mode and practical realism mode as warranted by the situation.
There is a vast body of literature on how to do well, how to be happy, what to do and choose for one’s own benefit and that of others. This body covers a range from the vulgar to the great moral philosophers. We are not short of such analyses or guidance.
In contrast, the body of work which considers our failure to do well and be good is decidedly smaller, and also, it must be said, rather lamer, particularly in its power to explain why we fall into foolish beliefs, make bad decisions and commit hurtful acts. We remain opaque to others and to ourselves, thinking, acting and responding in ways which are harmful, counter-productive and baffling. Most baffling of all is our propensity to continue in these patterns, to compound error with error and throw good vigorously after bad. [Source]
Most young men of the time could only fantasize, but Charles Darwin experienced the overt drama of his century’s archetypal episode in the personal story we now call “coming of age”: a five-year voyage of pure adventure (and much science) circumnavigating the globe on H.M.S. Beagle. Returning to England at age twenty-seven, Darwin became a homebody and never again left his native land, not even to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, his subsequent life included two internal dramas for more intense, far more portentous, and (for anyone who can move beyond the equation of swashbuckling with excitement) far more interesting than anything he had experienced as a world traveler: first, the intellectual drama of discovering both the factuality and mechanism of evolution; and second, the emotional drama of recognizing (and relishing) the revolutionary implications of evolution, while fearing the pain that revelation would impose upon both his immediate family and the surrounding society.
The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.