Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Role of Emotions in life

  1. Positive emotions are the reward for living.
  2. Emotions motivate us to act to gain or keep values.
  3. Emotions are a mechanism whose goal is to safeguard our life.
  4. Emotions are crucial cognitive aids.

  1. First and foremost: Emotions, positive emotions - are the reward for living. They are the reward for every action, every effort we put in to achieve something.
    Falling in love, enjoying some activity, person or object, Feeling relaxed, joyous, entertained and the rest of the pleasant emotions are the reward for living - they are what make life worth maintaining. Psychologically - there is no escape from the fact that enjoyment is the fuel life requires. The only purpose of life compatible with the human nature is happiness.
    To quote Ayn Rand: "It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it."

  2. Emotions are motivators for action. Pleasure motivates us to gain values and unpleasant emotions motivates us to protect values from danger. Without emotions we would not even care if a danger was staring us in the face. Without holding in mind the enjoyment promised by having money, or the fear of being homeless - there would be no motivation to work.

  3. Emotions are mechanisms aimed at helping our survival (helping to achieve and keep values).

    "In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death." (Ayn Rand, The virtue of selfishness)

    Emotional pain (such as sorrow, fear, anger) by its nature, indicates a danger to a value; such as fear of losing our wallet or anger at having a piece of property taken away from us.
    Because emotional pain is experienced as unpleasant it motivates us to avoid that feeling, which in action is achieved by protecting our values and trying to regain what is lost or threatened.
    Emotional pleasure is a result of achieving a value; such as enjoying a stack of money, a comedy act or Relaxing at the safety of your home.
    Since these emotions are experienced as pleasurable, we are motivated to achieve them by achieving values: Earning money, going to see a comedy act or building a home.
    Happiness results from achieving values, and therefore indicates a successful state of being - a success in living.

    Overall emotions as a mechanism safeguard our values. Values are things which our life require - and therefore emotions safeguard our lives.

    [One important note to add here is that values still need to be chosen by every person. Wanting a house or money is not automatic. But once a person chooses to live, these other values are what is required to sustain that choice. If a person thinks correctly he will end up holding these things as values].

  4. Emotions are cognitive aids in several ways:

    • They provide a quick summary of your subconscious evaluation of something based on vast amount of knowledge. Emotions are experienced as an emotion, but what the feeling is based on is some intellectual calculation. For example: when you feel fear at reading a piece of news that may affect your stock value negatively, Like a person for holding certain fundamental ideas you agree with, or enjoy a new cellphone.
      In all these cases there is a lot of knowledge that you are not directly aware of when you experience the emotion which is involved in generating the emotion.
      In the first example I gave: you subconsciously understand how the piece of news will affect your stock value, how much money you put into that stock, other assets in your life that may be in danger if you loose a certain amount of money, or the threat to your dream vacation you were planing to pay for with the money. The threat to these values is what triggers the fear - even though you are only directly aware of the newspaper article (at least at the first moment of grasping the issue).
      Unlike reason - which is a more precise tool, but is much slower than emotions, which are lightning quick calculations of how something relates to you, based on all of your knowledge.
      Because of that they provide very important input for you to consider and can help make a thinking process faster and based on more of your knowledge.

    • Certain class of emotions are devoted to the value of knowledge, and they help our thinking by providing feedback about our process of conscious thinking. This class includes: Confusion, clarity, unclarity, certainty, doubt, surprise, suspicion, boredom, curiosity.
      To see the significance of these emotions to your thinking, try to imagine how the process of learning a new subject would go if you didn't have the emotions of confusion or unclarity. You would not know when to ask questions because nothing would indicate to you the need to ask, because you would never feel that something is unclear or confusing. Furthermore, the motivation to avoid an intellectual state of confusion will be gone. Confusion is an unpleasant emotion which motivates us to straighten out the facts so that we are clear on a subject.

    • Emotions help keep concepts concretized (This idea is taken from Leonard Peikoff's audio course "Understanding Objectivism" ). A concept like "life" or "rights" when accompanied by the right emotions helps keep in mind what these words mean in reality: "life" is not merely a definition of biological function, but it means your life, the existence of people you love, the difference between the fun you had with a pet when it was alive vs. lack of it after it is gone. "Life" then means something real. Similarly "justice" means the difference between wasting one's life in jail because of injustice and not merely a dictionary definition. One can stay indifferent about a dry intellectual definition of the word justice, but one cannot stay indifferent about spending time in jail while being innocent.
      A great example of that would be something I heard in sociology class long time ago: After extensive research, two sociology researchers found that a clear connection exists between feelings of distress and suicide.
      For a normal person, the idea of suicide is concretized by an understanding of the negative emotions involved. Nobody thinks that a man takes his life without feeling some emotional distress. But for the researchers, it was a purely statistical intellectual matter - which is why they saw the need to conduct a research for what every idiot on the street could tell them right away.

This has been a rather condense discussion of the role of emotions in life because it was connecting the topic of emotions to many different subjects.
I'd appreciate your feedback if something was left unclear and whether or not it was too condense to keep all the conclusions in mind.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Selfishness in relationships

It is a common view that the interests of two people involved in a relationship collide. To take a romantic relationship as the leading example: She likes Ballet, he likes baseball, nobody likes to do the dishes - therefore many times, one has to sacrifice and suffer while the other enjoys. The relationship, therefore, by this view, necessarily has internal battles, and selfishness is a threat to the relationship - something that pulls away from the "together" and builds a wall. 

The exact opposite is true, when "selfishness" is understood correctly. 

To explain what I mean, let's take the common notion of "selfishness" to its extreme: The ultimate selfish person would be the one who could make his girlfriend into a slave. She will cook for him, massage his feet, clean his apartment, and if needed, open beer bottles for him with her teeth. 
Most people will not dispute that this is the ultimate selfish person - concerned with nothing but his own “ass”. The other end of this idea of "selfishness" is the sucker - the woman from this example, who never gets what she wants and is always busy pleasing her man. 
One thing that’s obvious about this allegedly selfish person is that he acts to satisfy his immediate needs. But this is not the essence of selfishness.

To explain why, let's consider a whole different type of a relationship: a relationship where each one enjoys making the other person happy and cares about their partner's well being. 
In action, this means occasionally spending hard-earned money buying presents for the partner, giving them massage when they're tired, making food for them when the time and mood is right and giving them support and encouragement in their career.  

Are they "suckers" or "selfless" for doing such things for their partner? Similarly, is a mother taking care of her kids, paying for their college, instead of training them to be house slaves - a sucker, who is not concerned with her own well being? 

It is precisely their happiness and well being that the person from my example (and the mother) is motivated by, while the so called "egoist" I first discussed is not concerned with happiness at all - especially not in the context of the relationship. One cannot seek happiness in a relationship with someone one tries to enslave. And a person who prefers a beer over a happy relationship with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) is not concerned with his enjoyment. He does act to satisfy his immediate wants, but he does not seek the best possible for himself in life. 
The person who seeks the best for himself, tries to find ways to get out of a swamp – instead of occasionally scratching his bottoms when the swamp water irritate it. He does not adjust or accept the swampy in his life – he acts to change it.

Investing in those one loves gives tremendous value. It is ultimately one's “ass” that one looks after when investing effort in supporting a loved one. The smile on their face gives pleasure, their good mood is fun to be around and their psychological and physical well being is required to enjoy their company.

The other type, who cares best for his beer (to choose a random example) is looking, at best, for some sort of comfort from how much his life suck, but it is not enjoyment or happiness that he seeks in the relationship.  

To use an example to make this even clearer: If a person grows a plant, and spends time nurturing it – is he a selfless sucker, or is he acting selfishly? After all, he is working for the benefit of the plant. Wouldn’t he be selfish to say “the hell with it, I’m not going to enslave myself for the good of a plant”? 
It is easy to see that this thinking is ridiculous – a person nurturing a plant is doing it to enjoy it (for the fruit or the aesthetic value). The fact that it benefits the plant is irrelevant. 
Same thing is true if you replace the plant with a human being. 

Investing in your partner is ultimately investing in your own happiness. It is part of acting to make your life happy – and because of that it is selfish.  

Does this mean that meeting your partner's every requirement is always centered around one's well being? No. Investing in someone else as means to one's own enjoyment depends on one's mood, tasks for the day, personal interests, etc'.  

For example, if you are so bored with ballet, that if you go with your girlfriend to see it, even though her mood might be good afterwards, yours will be so low, you won't be able to enjoy her company at all - obviously in this situation it is not selfish to go see the ballet show with her. But, to give another example: if your time is free, you don't mind or like cooking, and your partner comes home exhausted and hungry - it increases your enjoyment to cook something for them and it is therefore selfish.  
About doing the dishes – assume two people living together, both equally busy, both finding the task annoying. Is it selfish to try to make the other person do it? Essentially, is it selfish to act unjustly to your partner to get away with doing dishes? 
It is not selfish for a few reasons: One is that you will be damaging your relationship – nobody likes to be treated like a slave – it is a certain romance killer. To prefer avoiding dishes over a happy relationship is not pursuing happiness, but the opposite. And the second reason is that being just to other people is a requirement of self-esteem (but I won’t get into it now). It is in both the partner’s interest to reach some just agreement to handle dishes in this case. Their interests do not collide when both of them have their best self-interest in mind. 

To further expand this understanding, consider the case of a battlefield: Is it selfish to stay in your hole, never sticking your neck out to shoot an enemy or help your fellow soldiers? No, it's stupid. Your fellow soldiers alive and well means more firepower. Cooperating with your fellow soldiers (such as providing backup) means you act in the most efficient way to defeat the enemy thus securing your own survival. The guy sitting in his hole doing nothing is escaping the reality of the situation - not acting to support his life. 
What will he do once all his other teammates are dead? His death will follow too. Cooperation with his team is required for his survival.

Does this mean you should do nothing but provide backup for your teammates? Obviously, this would be putting other people’s life above your own. The soldier in this situation has to primarily look out for his own well being, which in turn requires cooperation with the others, and helping them to the extent it serves one's cause (in this case, survival). 

In summary – the selfish person seeks happiness in life – and nurturing a person he loves is an extension of that. Selfishness is therefore a requirement for a good relationship – not a wedge. 
The interests of two such people in a relationship do not collide so long as they do not ignore reality. 
And the common view of selfishness is completely wrong – reversing the meaning of self-interest by presenting laziness and exploitation as selfish behavior, when in fact just cooperation with people is selfish. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thoughts about death and life

Fear of death is a powerful and helpful motivator to take actions to keep us alive, such as treating a medical problem or fighting efficiently in a physical battle.

However, in this post I want to analyze the fear of death as an abstract idea (not as a fear of some immediate, concrete threat). Just the fear that someday you will die.

I'll start with some analysis of scary thoughts about death, and whether they are rightfully scary or not:

  • Dying as a painful experience and as "the end of me".
    Death is just your consciousness ceasing to exist. When you die you do not experience "yourself" as not existing - you simply experience nothing.
    Worst possible option is some pain before death, but it's not a big deal - it lasts a short while - no more big of a deal than the pain felt under injury or some disease after which you get better. Sure, it hurts, but we can all take some amount of pain (even if severe) bravely. So strike out pain as a big issue regarding death.

  • The disgusting idea of your body turning into a rotting corpse: Well, you're not there to witness that. The whole process takes place after you are no longer conscious. the disgusting physical aspect is only a problem for you regarding other people's death - but usually in today's society you can easily avoid the view of the dead body, let someone else take care of the funeral arrangements, and just keep in your mind the memory of the person as he was when he was alive - and this is what other people you know will experience in regard to you - so really us humans only experience one another in the nice clean form of moving, thinking, living people - and we have very little touch with the ugly side (except for undertakers). Seeing that this is the case, there is no point thinking of the ugly side, since you won't deal with it anyway - and just act like for you it doesn't exist (because it is actually true for your life - unless you're an undertaker/grave robber).

  • Fearing the thoughts before death - about whether or not your life has been good.
    My answer to this is: Why fear that time? This will be a feeling that could last, say, I don't know, a few moments or a few days. You have numerous days to have all the other variety of feelings. It is senseless to spend all those days now preparing yourself for a single short moment in the future.

So given that these three options are struck out - what else is left to fear about death? All it is, is just your consciousness stopping, like what happens when you're under full anesthesia (or sleeping). Suppose you don't wake up from either one - no pain will be involved. There will simply be nothing but the cessation of life. Death is meaningless - it is simply the absence of everything. Life is what counts.
And when you realize that this is all death is - all that is left is to focus on living - on the enjoyment you can achieve while alive. Wasting time thinking of death is utterly useless (other than the time required to understand this fact) - all it accomplishes is wasting the time you do have on negative feelings. It will be the equivalent of going on vacation and spending all of it worrying and crying about the time when it will end.

Practical point to consider: what do you do if you DO have thoughts about death? Answer: you act to eliminate them by repeatedly reminding yourself the uselessness of thinking about it, followed by shifting your focus to something else. After enough time of repeating this your subconscious automatizes this correct approach and such thoughts don't appear anymore.

[As a general rule of maximizing the enjoyment from your life: Only allow negative emotions in your life to the extent they can be used to better your life (by motivating you or helping you to correct a problem) - but do not dwell on them when they arise from a situation you can do nothing about. ]

The only legitimate scary thought about death (which is actually a scary thought about life) is to live an unhappy life without the option of anything better in the future (since death eliminates the option of having a future).
So long as you are alive and think you will remain so for a long time, feeling bad can be tolerable, because you can always keep in mind that in the future more good things await. This is why in times of feeling bad thoughts of death become more scary - because death in this case means no hope for anything better. But if your life is good, and if you know you used your time in a satisfactory way - the end of the "vacation" is easier to accept.

What this scary thought of death comes down to - is fear of unexploited life, of life without the highest enjoyment you could achieve.

It all comes down to one conclusion: Live your life the best way you can to maximize your enjoyment, and stay focused on this goal.

Friday, April 17, 2009

How do we get acquainted with the concept of morality?

We get acquainted with the idea in the form of a need for a role model as we grow up. We look at different characters around us and look for specific traits and principles of behavior that we admire, that make us feel uplifted, that give us a sense of self esteem and enjoyment in living.

Practically, emulating these traits leads to achievement and enjoyment of our values: of the things we pursue, enjoy and need: like friends, hobbies and other productive activities (like cleaning our room, or building airplane models, or painting).

Existentially, the purpose of morality and the reason men need it is because they need guidance how to live: How to survive, and how to achieve things that improve their lives.
However, a man growing up gets acquainted with the need of morality through a feeling of admiration for role models - more so than through the need for a specific course of action to achieve some value.

The reason is that someone else's personality concretizes for us the principles of behavior. It allows us to take a step back from some specific action, to look at the underlying principles that guide the hero's behavior. Like being tough and brave, direct, independent, powerful, etc', vs. telling the truth in some particular instance, or a one time instance of managing to overcome fear of spiders to whack one to a mush. 

A nice example to illustrate this, is the T.V show Survivorman. Survivorman is, I am not ashamed to say - my hero. He goes out to the wild, for 7 days, with very little equipment - to survive on his own: on his wits and strength of character. 

Nothing illustrates better than that the significance of the right personality (which means, the right morality) for a man's survival. 
In nature, he faces so many difficulties, that if he did not have the right spirit - he would surely die. 
He needs to cope with cold, rain and hunger, he needs to have the strength to go and look for food, and think how to build a shelter after 3 days of no eating. He needs to find the strength within him to continue thinking of ways to catch food or heal his worsening injury under exhaustion, and he needs to be optimistic that he can find his way out of a jungle after a night of sleeping on spiders, crawling scorpions and killer ants, after walking in the jungle for 2 days without water and thinking he may not find his way back in time. He needs to be able to enjoy the beauty of the jungle or play his harmonica to uplift his spirit when everything seems to be going bad. 

What he needs is strength of character, optimism, rationality under pressure, being action-oriented and enjoyment-oriented and not trouble-oriented, determined, and brave. 

He needs a moral ideal to literally survive, and he needs to be that ideal. 

He needs certain personality traits (which are essentially principles of behavior, or virtues).

He needs something that takes all the specific actions required for survival in various situations, and abstract the underlying principles out of them.

When we grow up, this is what we respond to - the abstract principles embodied in the personality of our role model.
Even though we may not see the connection between that personality and the achievement of our values - the connection is there, existentially, and in our subconscious. 


Monday, April 13, 2009

Ayn Rand's Philosophy - Objectivism

In the head of the blog I describe my blog as having the philosophy of Objectivism as the background for my writing.

What is Objectivism?

In this video Ayn Rand explains parts of her philosophy and what philosophy is.

For a fuller presentation I recommend her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, her non-fiction book The Virtue of Selfishness and an online lecture by Leonard Peikoff presenting the basics of Objectivism (link)

Part 2 , Part 3

Understanding Objectivism can give your life tremendous value, with the ultimate goal of being happy.