Emotions as the meaning of life

And so we continue our search for the meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passions offered an interesting take on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to our experience the world.

When I first came across this idea, I thought it was strange, but really it does make sense. Emotions have a strong effect of perception. Perception heavily influences our understanding of reality and thus has an impact on the meaning we attribute to things, life itself being one of those things.

Emotions are probably the strongest mental phenomena, built of thoughts and feelings – and very importantly, ultimately resulting in action, as the name suggests. Emotions are the driver of behaviour. My entrepreneurial soul was quite impressed when I heard that every sale is a promise of a future state. Emotions rule us, so we may try to be a little bit more aware – and perhaps less disrespectful to them.

Solomon argues that emotions are judgements rather than plain feelings arising from bodily reactions. Emotions tells us whether something matters – or is meaningful. Solomon also argues that emotions are in a sense chosen, sort of along the lines of stoic philosophy. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unintentional and unconscious, but we are still responsible for evaluating and changing them if that’s warranted.


According to Matthew Ratcliffe, Solomon sees emotions as the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal-directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:

“I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life.”

emotions are the meaning of life robert solomon
Everything looks better in the sun

As someone who has spent some time studying emotions, I occasionally hold out hope that one day science succeeds in transcending the prism of bias and emotion and we are able to see the world without the emotional projections. Being that little bit pragmatic though – and seeing people like N. Taleb do it, I realise that we have to give up on overintellectualising and accept our limitations – or rather break up with our illusion that we are so above our lowly emotions.

The interesting thing about Solomon’s writing is that he emphasises the existential aspect of emotions: this our experience of being present.

The other interesting aspect is how neuroplasticity affects our perception: any time we experience an emotion a certain pathway gets potentiated and the next time we perceive similar inputs, the fact that we experienced an emotion relating to it previously will have changed the way we see the world. There is positive feedback here.

Neuroplasticity affects everything, but a lot of it is mediated through emotion. My personal working theory is that the meaning of life is the impact that you have (appreciating that that’s very vague, but the point here is that it’s different to the en vogue “the meaning of life is happiness”). But how do I decide what is full of impact? I need to feel that it has meaning. The exact values I consider to be full of impact may in theory be independent of emotion, but in reality they are completely affected by emotion. That warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment has to flow through me to know that what I am doing is meaningful. I usually only arrive there through what would look to an outside person as a silent CBT session with myself, so it isn’t entirely detached from intellectualising, but it has to feel right in order for me to know that it is right.

What if I do find something meaningful? It is going to invoke strong emotions. The common denominator of meaning does seem to be emotion.

Solomon drew a lot of Martin Heidegger’s concepts of mood. Mood is probably a more more precise word for what Solomon was talking about. The weather (emotion) matters less than the climate (mood) when we decide on the meaning of things around us. Our moods probably invoke the exact brands of biases and focuses of those biases that will allow us then to form our ideas on the meaning of what we see. Heidegger has an interesting definition for mood: it is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world. That’s kind of like saying that I, as an object, have a relationship with all these other objects and I am trying to evaluate the condition of that relationship. “Sun’s out, so everything is good” or “Nobody is replying to my emails, so I feel like sh*t”. This certainly describes my mood a lot of the time, but then I slap myself and go back to a more Stoic/Nietzschean attitude to evaluating my own actions rather than the world’s response to me.

Reality is real no matter how we perceive it, but meaning is pretty personal.

P. S. I wrote a Haiku while sitting on a beach in Dublin:

An old dog,
once black, now wiser,
at sunset.

Here is the culprit:

robert solomon the passions emotions as meaning of life

P. P. S. I also drew something mighty odd. Feel free to indulge in the madness mindfulness and colour it in.


Download PDF: psychedelic seagull with snail beak

Ok, very last thing. If you liked this, you may also like Footnotes to Plato, specifically a post on the why one would develop a philosophy in life.

Friday’s cognitive curiosities: a trip to the book shop in the age of unenlightenment

My first curiosity is an essay from the Financial Times. I have mixed feelings about the FT. It’s pretty impossible for a paper like that to be neutral, but the FT doesn’t even try. I am constantly disappointed with its sneaky political undercurrent. At the same time, I cannot find a news outlet that would be as well presented and lack the dogma. Anyway, the essay is titled The age of unenlightenment, written by Robert Armstrong.

The author is thinking of why it seems that we are getting dumber.

the age of unenlightment robert armstrong
Spring is in the air, finally. West Pier, Dún Laoghaire Harbour

I used to think that older generations always denounce younger ones because it is a kind of tradition. However, given that the human brain is indeed getting smaller (and chances are we aren’t getting smarter), maybe there is some merit to their nagging?

A book by Sloman and Fernbach entitled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone offers clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy. In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that’s too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.

Granted, I am trained as a doctor, however I knew 80% of the basics about how the body functions before I went in to college. It never fails to impress me that most people haven’t a clue about how their body works, but they really think they do. Women endlessly discuss what’s good for their skin, but seem to miss the crucial detail that virtually non of the miracle co-enzymes and ultra-proteins in their creams get absorbed past the epithelium. Guys in the gym would authoritatively discuss the benefits of “fast carbs” immediately after a gym session and how to prevent “knots” forming in muscle tissue, but ask them about insulin or myosin – and they haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean they don’t know the terms, but they just don’t understand the basics. A much more florid and familiar example is of people who love talking about geopolitics. They rarely know where the “enemy” actually is on the map.

Robert Armstrong continues:
Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students don’t, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom. Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.

I agree with all of the above. There is a sense in the above lines that it was different in another time. I sincerely doubt that it was. However, I do feel that the rate at which raw information is becoming available is rising. Still, as few people know what to do with it as back in the proverbial day. It seems Mr Armstong’s conclusion is that the books he has read on the matter (listed below) focus more on the problem than on proposing solutions. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that was any good that proposed solutions. Observing what’s going on in plain sight and asking the right questions is usually more than enough. Here are the books:

  • The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, Macmillan
  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press
  • #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli review
A fine Friday afternoon in Dublin

While we are speaking about books, I’ve been into the book shop and looked over the newest books in the psychology section. I sat in Hodges and Figgis’ leather chair and flicked through a few books. I always do that before I decide to read a book: I’ve bought too many “recommended” books that turned out to be either poor quality (as in, I couldn’t even finish them) or insidiously venomous making me wish I hadn’t come across them at all. In any case, I tend to really engage with the books I read, so there is a courtship ritual before I commit to reading the entire work. It went like this:

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

“The Art of Thinking Clearly by world-class thinker and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.”

Mmm, it’s a very practical rewrite of Daniel Kahneman’s and Nassim Taleb’s thoughts. I would have thought that the former were practical enough. The back of the book featured praise by Sam Harris. I found Harris interesting initially but soon was uncannily repelled from his lopsided philosophy. I would be more careful in my choice of allies than Mr Dobelli. Could be a light read for someone unfamiliar with cognitive biases, but if you have any respect for your little grey cells, go straight to Kahneman. My (binary) rating for this book is: Nay.

Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck review
The sun setting over Howth
  • Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck

“After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with agrowth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed”

Psychology classics retold – and not in a very compelling way. Nay.

  • Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In Against Empathy, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

I thought there was some merit in this book, but Daniel Goleman said a lot of the same stuff better. It may seem that he proposes the opposite to what this book is about, but that’s only an illusion. Perhaps, given the denigration of the intellectual and analytical approaches in the media, this books attempts to restore the balance and say that a quest for empathy isn’t going to solve our problems? It’s a nay from me, though the tone of the book is pleasantly contrarian.

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom review
Hopefully, I will find a yay in my next book shop trip

P.S. If you want to see some beautiful nature photos and are interested in travel, my friend Charis blogs about the island I was recently on – Cyprus. I was there with her for some of the trips she describes. I will write more about my escapade to the Eastern Mediterranean at some stage.

Can we live without evil?

Black or white?

What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.

Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.

My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.

Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.

Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.

I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.

how do you tell good from evil
Grim but beautiful. Wicklow mountains

A Darwinian life

Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.

Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.

In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.

In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?

why can't we live without evil
You can have perspective even when its cloudy. Kerry mountains.

Happiness and accomplishment

This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.

A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.

I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.

My working hypothesis is that to feel happiness one need to experience or perceive change and have perspective. Perspective is largely a set of cognitive judgements. I don’t want the reader to think that absolutely any event can be rationalised into being perceived as good when it was first thought of as bad or evil.

I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.

I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.

Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.

If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.

can we live without evil
Grey’s a happy colour. Mizen Head