Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Feeling and Being - and Naturalism

I still find myself slipping with unfathomable rapidity into thinking of feelings and sensations and perceptual experience as subjective accompaniments of cognitive processes. The slip makes it hard for me to find a home for feelings (et al.) in the natural world. The model I seem to unwittingly and relentlessly present to myself is of feelings and experiential 'qualities' as the upshots of the real epistemic business of comprehending reality contact. As if feelings, emotions, and sensations had no epistemic value in and of themselves, beyond what they provide for the mind when we make inferences about their causes.

Here is one way I try to stop this slip: to insist that my inner interlocutor take seriously the idea that feelings themselves are essential for my comprehending contact with a variety of aspects of the world. I feel hurt when you tell me you don't love me. My feeling is not, on this view, simply an affective accompaniment of a piece of understanding which could still be considered genuine without the feeling. Understanding that someone we care for no longer loves us is not - I want to urge - something which can be reached through the registering or sharing of propositions and the drawing of abstract inferences. Genuine understanding here involves a radical change in my reactive dispositions, the whole way my body is set up, the way it responds in your presence.

What counts as understanding here involves not just my ability to linguistically cite the fact of your having fallen out of love with me. The significance I must grasp is not one which can be grasped by thought alone. My entire system must adapt - the bodily and affective system of my intuitive reactive dispositions. The way I talk to you, how close I stand - this must all change in a way which does not simply flow from a merely cognitive grasp of the circumstance, but which speaks to the presence of a change in a different arena of the psyche.

The difficulty with this way of articulating the significance of feeling, however, is that it still seems to leave open the idea that the pain I feel on losing you is an accompaniment. Perhaps I broaden my reflective conception of the understanding to incorporate reactive dispositions. Yet it still seems that I must accept a divide between the 'behavioural' and the 'phenomenal'. As if someone may have the same understanding, yet not have the same feelings - perhaps not have any feelings at all. Or perhaps I try to avoid this by giving the feelings a causal role in the generation of the understanding - a role which seems to make them empirically (or even, a la functionalism, metaphysically) necessary if still somewhat extrinsic to the real goods of interpersonal comprehension. And that seems just wrong - to leave me with a chasm between comprehension and phenomenality which amounts to an intolerable dualism.

Doubtless many just bite the bullet, allowing philosophical zombies into their ontology and the possibility of radical affective scepticism into their epistemology. I can't do that - and here's the counter-thesis that I want to try to motivate. It is that ceteris paribus (without surgery or a stroke, for example) an alteration in reactive dispositions just is the feeling of, say, emotional pain. My feeling itself is my comprehension of my loss of you. Just as physical pain is (again, ceteris paribus - in normal circumstances) my awareness of bodily damage, so emotional pain is my awareness of the loss of (e.g.) love.

Armed with this understanding I feel myself better able to resist the idea that feelings are accompaniments (however essential) to understandings. To feel that pain is to start to grasp the significance of the situation. It would not be 'that pain' were it not providing this grasp. The pain is the beginnings of that shift in my reactive dispositions which constitutes my grasp of my loss. It does not cause them, and it is not (contra James) an introceptive awareness of (the bodily aspect of) the adjustment. It is the shift.

I want to end this post by commenting on two uses of language indulged in in philosophical circles which, in my opinion, carry disguised conceptual confusions. The first comes with the above-used term 'phenomenal'. This is not an everyday term but, putatively, a philosophical term of art. It is supposed to index an aspect (the 'inner self-conscious aspect') of experience. However it seems to me that it is only on philosophical theories which unwarrantedly pull apart the phenomenon of world-encounter or experience into two (subjective or inner - or phenomenal on the one hand, objective or dispositional on the other) parts which even generates a putative use for the term. Outside of the context of such dualistic theories the term has little cogent application.

The other is the related idea that we 'feel our feelings' (or sensations or what have you), 'experience our experiences'. On the one hand this seems a perfectly harmless idea - we do say, for example, that we 'feel pain'. But I think the dualistic pull into phenomenal and objective gives rise to an appearance that to say that, say, we feel a feeling could be to say something more than that we have a feeling. As if feelings were not just basic modes of our comprehending registering of our environment, but also states of which, in turn, we have an extra inner 'subjective' registering. In denying this one is often (my mentalistic inner interlocutor at least often tries to pull this one on me) made to feel like an experience-denying behaviourist. When all I am doing is rejecting an unwelcome artificially dualistic conception of experience which is being foisted upon me.