The Nature of Emotion

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 13, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) In the last two posts, we examined the nature of reason. Now we examine the nature of emotion under the worldview of metaphysical naturalism.

Carrier begins by pointing out that we do not just have the five commonly-cited senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. For example, we also have a sense of balance, and “touch” actually conflates three or more separate senses (pressure, heat, and pain). But emotion, says Carrier, is another sense of perception:

Rather than recognizing patterns in sensory data sent in from outside the brain by… organs like the eyes orĀ  ears, our experience of emotion is the perception of a brain-state by the brain itself. These brain-states are a form of pre-rational computation, having developed in mammalian brains long before higher forms of reason were developed, as a form of practical intelligent. Emotions are largely chemical… [and] are typically caused by certain stimuli the brain has learned… to associate with the need for a particular behavior.

An emotion, then, is a pre-rational evaluation of a given stimulus. It is the brains “opinion” of that stimulus, before it has time to rationally examine it. Let’s say you hear a loud bang; if your brain’s immediate “opinion” is that you are being shot at, emotions will instantly arise that motivate you to avoid injury and perhaps, to fight back. But if your brain’s immediate “opinion” is that the loud bang is just the chorus of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”, then you will probably just keep dancing and bounce your body to the music.

But a stimulus could also be a thought, like realizing that you are going to die. Whatever your brain’s evaluation of this thought is, that will be your emotional reaction.

Now there are many ways that an emotion can be mistaken. You may have false beliefs, or your internal perception of a true belief may be faulty. But even if your perception of a true belief is correct, your evaluating criteria may be wrong:

The brain’s mechanism for evaluating circumstances involves what we call “values”… And these are not mere arbitrary computations. Fear indicates that something is valued as dangerous, for example, and whether something is dangerous is an objective fact about the world, not our mere opinion of it. But most of our internal “values” are shaped during childhood, and it can be hard to rewire our brain’s values in adulthood…

…It is in this way that you can learn to experience false guilt for violating a tribal taboo, even when doing so to save a human life; or violent anger at a nonviolent offense like blasphemy; or pointlessly crying at losing a job.

And that is why it helps to use reason to re-evaluate our brains’ values, and mold them if possible, “for only then will your values ever become really yours rather than just what you ended up with.”

But reason is the servant of desire. Reason is a process, not a motivator. Our desires are the result of our emotions, and it is our desires that motivate us. For example, if you love someone, you may desire their happiness. And then you can employ reason to figure out how best to fulfill those desires. Or perhaps through reason you will learn that you had some false beliefs about the person you loved, and you will stop loving them, and this will change your desires. So reason can inform your desires.

I will skip Carrier’s section on the nature of love and next discuss Atheist Spirituality.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk November 13, 2009 at 6:11 am


DV November 13, 2009 at 7:11 am

I found Carrier’s book to be rather amateurish, and not up to the standards of good analytic philosophy. He is certainly not the best advocate for naturalism or its implications. Furthermore, I also found much of his arguments to be false, if not actually antithetical to what a robust naturalist would or should argue for.

Though you may do as you wish, personally, I wouldn’t devote time or space to this project any longer. Counter-apologetics and atheology is a better use of time here.

Why not, instead, devote a series of blogposts to critiquing all those pro-genocide arguments made by the Christian philosophers at the Notre Dame conference?


lukeprog November 13, 2009 at 8:01 am


Carrier’s book is not an attempt in rigorous analytic philosophy! It is more like ‘a brief introduction to some naturalist ideas.’ How could one possibly be rigorous while covering the problem of universals in 12 pages or the naturalism of the mind in 25 pages? There are plenty of arguments for and against Carrier’s perspective, and I very much doubt he will still agree with the main points of this book by the time he is 70 years old. What Carrier is trying to do, and what I am trying to do with this series, is not to “settle” these issues, but rather to provide a sketch of naturalism for those who are interested.

I certainly will be considering the pro-genocide arguments of Christian philosophers… when I get the time.


John Quincy Public November 13, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Interesting sidebar to using reason to permanently alter emotion: Pathological narcissism is simply an emotionally driven coping mechanism. And by emotional I mean that it is driven primary by the chemical bath. On the assumption that narcissism can be altered it is considered to take an average of 10 years active therapy to accomplish. Most often it cannot.

I mention that not for its success rates nor its treatment time, which is average for various coping disorders, but because it is directly related to coping with social taboos. And that it requires active treatment. So for those that lack der wille zur macht it will take a decade long application of new social taboos from a very cohesive peer group to beat it out of them. Methods aside, this is the goal you seek in Desirism.

All shorter term applications are going to be, for lack of a better term, tactical rationalizations. Which are, themselves, coping mechanisms for dealing with chemical baths; be they internal or driven by taboo.


Lee A. P. November 13, 2009 at 8:37 pm

It seems kinda douchey to have to read the words “handy world-view-in-a-box” over and over again but I suppose it is helpful for new readers.

Plus, who am I to judge? I once shit my pants as a full grown adult. Not just a shart, but full-on soil.

I’ve known about this book for a while but ethics is not the most exciting of the theist vs. non-theists debates to me, even if it is perhaps one of the most important issues. These excerpts are intriguing.


lukeprog November 13, 2009 at 9:41 pm


Many of my series require a quick introductory note. I had assumed that those familiar with the series will just skip the first paragraph.


Ben November 14, 2009 at 2:27 am

lukeprog: I had assumed that those familiar with the series will just skip the first paragraph.

I do. :D


Lee A. P. November 14, 2009 at 11:26 am

I read it. Every time.

What is the definition of insanity again?


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