Do You Feel It?
I recently wrote a three part mini-series. Part one was on the self. Part two was on knowing other people. Part three was on Santa Claus. The connecting thread was the fact that these are three things that are experienced, but it is unclear (to say the least) in what sense they are real. I think of myself as a self, but what does that mean? How can we ever know another self? When we talk about Santa, what are we talking about?
The last post, the one about Santa, got a comment. I had speculated on three ways in which Santa might be real: social reality, Platonism, and Popper’s Three Worlds. The commenter said, “Add a number 4 – what you feel. I really do feel happier playing Santa. The whole Christmas, Santa, and just holiday season feels different than the rest of the year.” I thought this was a good idea. Feel has a big role to play in how I think about things and a big impact on all three pieces. So, I thought I’d write sort of a coda where I talk about how I think feeling should be used in reasoning.
When I do philosophy, I often talk about feelings. Things feel right or wrong. Things feel reasonable or unreasonable. I also use the word “satisfying” a lot. It’s basically the same thing. When something is a satisfying answer, it feels right. When something is not satisfying, it feels wrong. But, how is that any way to do philosophy? Isn’t philosophy all about reason and logic? It’s not religion or mythology after all. Did Mr. Spock teach us nothing? I guess you could say that I learned more from Dr. McCoy.
Before explaining what I believe and why, I think it might be helpful to talk about some things that I don’t believe. I am not an epistemic relativist (I’m not a moral relativist either, but that’s a different topic). I believe that true is true and false is false. I don’t think that something can be true for you and not be true for me. 2+2=4 is universal and climate change and evolution are real.
I am also not an intuitionist. Intuitionism is the idea that basic truths can be known intuitively. I understand the appeal of intuitionism, especially for someone coming from the Cartesian tradition of clear and distinct ideas. I just think that our intuitions are too easily influenced by bias and I think we really don’t have any intuitions about a lot of things.
Finally, I am not solipsistic nor an idealist. I believe in an external world made of matter and energy (or particles and waves). I believe that world exists even without any minds to experience it. And I believe that there are objective truths about that world.
Now, to explain why feelings are so important to my reasoning. First, feelings are real. It’s hard to break that down into anything simpler. If you are feeling something, it cannot be the case that you are not feeling it. You can’t think you’re feeling something, but it was just an illusion. The feeling exists as long as it is being felt.
Next, you can’t be deceived about your own feelings. Of course you can deceive others about your feelings, but not yourself. It doesn’t make sense to say I feel happy, but I’m not really happy, I’m mistaken. If you feel happy, you’re happy. It’s as simple as that.
All knowledge is based in experience. Or, to put it another way, experience is fundamental for knowledge. Experience is where everything starts. No one could explain to you that 2+2=4 unless you have at some point observed two things added to two more things resulting in four things. That’s a gross over-simplification, but you need to experience addition before you can know how to add things. Concepts and definitions need experience to be meaningful.
Finally, feelings are one of the primary ways that we experience the world. Experiences feel a certain way. That feeling is real. It is part of the objective world. Why on Earth would we want to discard it when trying to learn about the world we live in?
So, when I’m thinking about the self, it feels like I’m thinking about a thing rather than a bundle or a loosely connected bunch of memories. There is a thing-ness about it. When I get to know a person, I feel a connection. It feels different than reading about the person. And, when I think about Santa, it feels Christmasy.
I know that feelings don’t tell us the ultimate nature of the world, but they guide us. When looking at the self, the feeling of thing-ness tells us something. It tells us that to know the self, we need to find a thing. If we can’t find a thing and we want to say that the self isn’t a thing, we need a really good explanation of what is causing the feeling of thing-ness. Since the feeling is a real part of the experience, it has to be explained by the explanation.
As far as I know, it’s impossible to reason or experience without feeling. We shouldn’t fight it. Of course, we don’t want to take it too far, but embracing those feelings will give us a more honest picture of the world we live in.