It All Comes Down to Feelings

Posted June 11, 2018 6:10 p.m. EDT

In “The Strange Order of Things” Antonio Damasio promises to explore “one interest and one idea … why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how our brains interact with the body to support such functions.”

Damasio thinks that the cognitive revolution of the last 40 years, which has yielded cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, has been, in fact, too cognitive, too rationalist, and not concerned enough with the role that affect plays in the natural history of mind and culture. Standard stories of the evolution of human culture are framed in terms of rational problem solving, creative intelligence, invention, foresight and linguistically mediated planning — the inventions of fire, shelters from the storms, agriculture, the domestication of animals, transportation systems, systems of political organization, weapons, books, libraries, medicine and computers.

Damasio rightly insists that a system with reason, intelligence and language does nothing unless it cares about something, unless things matter to it or, in the case of the emerging world of AI, things matter to its makers. Feelings motivate reason and intelligence, then “stay on to check the results, and help negotiate the necessary adjustments.” In an earlier book, “Looking for Spinoza," Damasio developed the concept of conatus — drive, will, motive, urge — as the taken-for-granted force or catalyst that puts reason, creative intelligence and language to work. If there were no feelings, he adds now, there would be no art, no music, no philosophy, no science, no friendship, no love, no culture and complex life would not aim to sustain itself. “The complete absence of feeling would spell a suspension of being.”

Feeling or affect for Damasio names a vast and heterogeneous set that includes feelings of pleasure and pain, drives like thirst and hunger, emotions like fear and anger, as well as complex desires for power, prestige, revenge, elevation, awe and transcendence. Feelings motivate, and feelings check the answers provided by reason and creative intelligence. Feelings “are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense. They can stir us subtly, in an intellectual sort of way, or intensely. … Even at their most positive, they tend to disturb the peace and break the quiet.”

To bring the central role of feelings to the fore, Damasio undertakes nothing less than a reconstruction of the natural history of the universe — “the strange order” of his title. For the first 9 billion years after the Big Bang there was no Earth. Once Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, everything that happened on it could be explained in the language of physics and inorganic chemistry. Then 3.8 billion years ago simple unicellular life emerged by way of processes still not entirely well understood, involving nitrogen, ammonia, methane, electricity and water. The first life unconsciously “sensed" or “registered" states of affairs — dangers, the integrity of its boundaries, temperature and light sources — and made adjustments to sustain itself. Once there is life, we need concepts of organic chemistry and biology like metabolism and homeostasis to explain it all.

These unicellular organisms evolved into multicellular organisms and eventually gained nervous systems. Then, 600 million years ago, organisms that experience things, creatures with feelings, appeared.

The emergence of subjectivity in the form of integrated sensory images of bodily boundaries and position, as well as states of affairs in the external world accompanied by evaluative, “valenced" feelings, offered such a major advantage — a “dramatic leap” — over the simple unconscious “sensing” and “registering” of the first life-forms that sentience proliferated. With the emergence of subjective experience, new concepts, those of psychology, are needed to explain the phenomenon. “We can think of feelings as mental deputies of homeostasis,” Damasio writes. “Feelings are for life regulation, providers of information concerning basic homeostasis or the social conditions of our lives."

In creatures like humans, feelings provide the individual with feedback about general well-being, a sense of how specific regions of the body, the gut, the nose and throat are faring, as well as an awareness of social relations. According to Damasio, subjectivity bound by feelings and memory produces what we call consciousness.

Despite the fact that Damasio is a famous neuroscientist he has always worried about “traditional neuro-centric, brain-centric, and even cerebral-cortex-centric accounts.” This was one of the central arguments of his earlier book “Descartes’ Error,” in which he bemoaned “the abyssal separation of mind and body.”

Feelings are essential and they involve the entire body. This is one reason Damasio is skeptical of both “the prevalent view … that subjectivity is unlikely to have emerged in any creature besides sophisticated humans,” as well as the search among fellow neuroscientists for the specific place in the brain where consciousness happens. Consciousness is a global, organismic property, not a local brain property, he argues, and it is ubiquitous. All mammals are conscious. Birds have experiences. Octopuses do not have spines or centralized brains but have feelings, and some social insects might well have them, too. Feelings are an evolutionary solution nature has come up with as a way of preserving life. Some philosophers will wonder why Damasio doesn’t dwell on and repeat endlessly, as they do, that consciousness is a mystery, that no one has offered a satisfying account of how feelings, experience, subjectivity and consciousness emerged, and how experience is produced. Yet “satisfying” and “satisfactory” are different concepts, and no matter how intuitively puzzling a fully naturalistic theory of consciousness may seem, we have every reason to think that Damasio has the right idea about how experience emerged. The design of nervous systems provided organisms with a unique, private, subjective perspective. The system is designed to deliver certain information in an experiential format to its owner, and only to its owner.

Late in the book, Damasio wonders whether we can expect feelings to help us through our current cultural crises. His answer is that humans will always aim for homeostasis, and feelings will provide the guide for regaining equilibrium. But he points out that “the physiological rationale and primary concern of basic homeostasis is the life of the individual organism within its boundaries. … Basic homeostasis remains a somewhat parochial affair, focused on the temple that human subjectivity has designed and erected — the self.” This problem, the problem of self-interest, is not a scientific problem. Calling attention to it is a suitable way to end this brave and honest book. We are gregarious social animals. The homeostatic imperative seeks stability for itself and those near and dear. If recognizing this worries us, it is thanks to the fact that we are conscious beings who feel and care, including about the costs of feeling and caring in the self-centered, parochial way we do.


Publication Notes:

‘The Strange Order Of Things

Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures’

By Antonio Damasio

336 pp. Pantheon. $28.95