Is consciousness nothing more than a veneer of our biological underpinnings?

I’ve long wondered this question, albeit only from various smaller fragments when I was much, much younger, but I’ve never been able to precisely describe what “it” was (the conscious emotional experience) until fairly recently, so here goes...

Setting aside all aspects of our conscious experience, our social drives, emotional desires, morals and the like, in truth we are really nothing more than fancy vessels for our genetic material. Emotions, customs, social laws, desires, and other heuristic trappings of our society are nothing more than fancy constructs or “rules of order” that we deem as “morality”, whether “religiously ordained” in nature (as subscribed by the religiously minded) or secularly embraced as a non-theistic underlying principal.

What I wonder is this, given enough time (hopefully) religious belief will eventually be superseded by a more rational one, and when that happens what will the value of emotions be?

After all, in the simplest of terms, emotions aren’t exactly the best guide for helping us to wrestle with most of our more pressing issues of the day. However, so often I hear the emotional language religiously inclined people enjoy using to describe their day-to-day experiences about God (or life), because to them God is the basis of all feelings and social enterprise. It's why we hear about how “God Loves this” and “God hates that”, whereas atheism reason doesn’t need to use emotion to provide a convincing argument for anything having to to with the functionality of the world, we just look at the facts (with a healthy dose of skeptical insight when needed) or use some form of deduction to come up with a more sound conclusion. But do emotions really have a role in helping us to live more healthy or productive lives? When all is said and done, in the future will love really have any meaning aside from the quaint “Shakespearean” descriptions of our current age or ages gone by?

Now please understand, I’m not trying to say that in the future when religiosity has given way to secularism our society will comprise of lobotomized ‘emotionally dead’ homunculus, or that future civilization will all consist of Spock-like clones. I’m sure that without the religious stigmata of our current age we’ll finally be able to plumb the depths of emotional experience much more thoroughly (that is, we’ll finally have a better “emotional language”). But when I look at the future of our social thresholds it makes me wonder.

For example, back in the 60’s there was that uproar about maintaining “traditional” marital values when it came to inter-racial marriage. Today we’re having the same “snit-fit” about same sex marriages which of course will also make it possible for transgender’s to seek similar recognition. I’ve also heard the argument made (many times) that pedophilia is also a ‘gender’ (a view I do not support BTW). So it could be argued that emotions are nothing more than a instinctual default state for our personal prejudices.

Anyway, so in conclusion I have to wonder, will emotions serve any real purpose in the future or will emotional displays be looked upon as rude in what might be described as a truly “civil” society.

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For example, back in the 60’s there was that uproar about maintaining “traditional” marital values... pedophilia is also a ‘gender’ (a view I do not support BTW).

One thing that must be remembered is that analogy is useful, but not a complete argument. At some level, every analogy does not fit. Just because you can phrase "because X, then Y" does not necessarily make it true. This is a concern in the slippery slope worries in law. One law opens a concept, a few years later another one is proposed based on "we aready do X, this is just extending it".  Occasionally it works toward things we favor, often it works against us (witness the government's continual encroaching on privacy, and redefining the 4th amendment.)

At some level, every analogy is wrong, and it becomes necessary to pull the plug on it. Unfortunately people have differing opinions as to where that point is.

Now, as a matter of principal, I support equal rights for gay people to form families like everyone else. But the comparison to the racial restrictions (which actually existed for a very short historical time and in limited areas) is not a full match. Biologically a white man is virtually identical to a black man, mixed race marriages are as old as human history. So it cannot be directly applied as an argument for same sex marriage. There are better arguments, like the fact that people should be allowed to define their family structure, not the government. Of course (and I support this too) this would include polyamorous families. But not because of a questionable analogy.

Emotions, rights, moral views, etc. will change in the future according to what has been known or learned and experienced by us in the past. Our god view will change and what is today deemed mythology is a proof of this. A future god concept could be something to do with mind. If it comes about in the right way we will still be on track. If it comes about in a wrong way we might be worried about where we are going when we die, or if we are worshiping the right deity and worshiping in the right way. The futuristic god might be mind or consciousness itself. Let's hope we do not ascribe a physical body to that and turn it into a "being."

Old allegories die hard. What was god's fear in Genesis and the eating of the forbidden fruit? He was afraid that mankind would gain knowledge and "become like us," the Elohim. It was best to keep man enslaved and in fear so as to control him.

Emotions are ESSENTIAL. People with brain damage that destroys emotional response become lethargic and purposeless. Emotions provide the drive to do things (including conversing and posting things here). Things that we enjoy, we enjoy through emotions.Conversation is an emotionally driven component of our very sophisticated social instincts. We don't just exchange information, we are driven to engage with one another on a complex level far beyond simple data.Some autistic people are highly intelligent, but the concept of a simple conversation eludes them. One autistic man explained to me that he has to view every conversation like lines in a play, listening to what was said than calibrating a socially suitable response. For him it was work. Hard work.

But it's more than just drive. It's the interaction with our complex instincts. For millions of years autonomous thought process successfully helped all our ancestors and relatives stay alive. They (and most animals) succeed rather well without a complex cerebral cortex. So when homo sapiens developed this extensive additional mental machinery, instinct was not thrown away, in fact it is as important as ever. The part of our thinking where our instinctive analysis meets our logical conscious mind are our emotions. Feelings we have but can't really explain where they came from.

This is a good thing. For all its sophistication, the cerebral cortex is a pretty slow machine. It can analyze deeply, but handle only a couple of things at a time, whereas we as animals have far more than that going on, from walking and breathing, to regulating temperature, eating, looking out for danger, listening for danger, finding mates, etc. The cortex couldn't handle all that.

When you catch a ball, ride a bicycle, or drive a car, if you tried to actually calculate all your actions, it would be disastrous. But the animal brain, after sufficient training does that. It's fast, it's efficient, it keeps track of so many things at one time that your 'intelligent' mind is only dimly aware of unless the animal brain cries out 'critical! Critical' and gets your attention.

When it comes to things like ethics, our sense of right and wrong is influenced by those around us (that in itself is a spectacular evolutionary development) but most people have a sense of 'this is ok' and 'this is bad'. And the people who totally lack this sense are the psychopaths (some of whom are profoundly logical, too logical, in fact)

Jay H,

Yes it’s true that emotions are ESSENTIAL, but you do realize that is a point only applying to our temporal understanding of humanity. This says nothing about what we may become.

I find it fascinating to be living in this present era because of how our understanding of the universe (and the ‘universe’ within us) is steadily being shifted by science. I find it fascinating to be an atheist today (not that I can speak of any other time) and watch as our society is visibly being changed by this ‘understanding’, the religious scrambling like ants on a honey covered balloon trying to protect if from the needle of atheism.

Frederic Nietzsche repeatedly points out that it’s arrogant for us to see humanity as the final result, when in fact we are but a step in our process of development. Who’s to say that given enough time we might not develop the technology to engineer out the emotions for better synaptic control. Should we though?

Perhaps our future ancestors will conclude that emotions are a last vestige of our animalistic instincts, that although they were needed for us to survive against lions, tigers and bears, it’s no longer necessary.

As for the ‘slippery slope argument’, yes, I am familiar with it. Several weeks ago I was listening to some politician say we have the right to religious freedom, not the lack or absence thereof. I’m sure you know what amendment that one is trying to redress. I fear that if the first amendment is finally redefined, so to will the fourth and any other amendment so deemed socially ‘inconvenient’. And yes, I too am in support of same sex marriage. I also agree that the interracial marriage issue isn’t a very valid comparison in ‘all’ arguments, but the most Mainstream argument does appear to be coming from Christian Conservatives and their views of what constitutes a “good healthy marriage” (Ironically this is also the same group that has the highest rates of divorce and seems to be the biggest consumers of porn. But that’s another issue).

While our emotions may have developed out of instincts needed to survive against lions, tigers, and bears, we will continue to develop further because the human being mimics these animals even today simply because we exist and we are. Maybe in time humans will get "nicer." I certainly hope so.

As to your politician claiming we have "the right to religious freedom, not the lack or absence thereof" this person needs to see what he is saying. His view is like taking you by the head and shoving you face down into water until you cannot breath. I'm afraid waterboarding is not accepted here.

Interracial marriage keeps popping its head up. Although my wife of 9 years no longer lives with me, I get "thumbs down" if I ever mention our marriage on the Internet. People cannot see a message I am trying to get across and say I should have known better for "marrying a N." Most do not say the word outright but people everywhere are forever marred by the concept that "the races were not meant to be together." I've even heard preachers say that. Theists want you to turn from atheism and go listen to some fool preach and this person is telling you "god was so stupid that he did not know humans would invent airplanes." This is almost as stupid as the belief that humans would actually reach heaven if they built the Tower of Babel.

Imagine M&M candy for a moment. I'm sure the manufacturers knew they should make this as a mixed bag. If the brown, red, green, etc. were all sold separately some colors would just rest on the shelves and not be sold. That would not be good for business. If mankind was like bees and the world a bee hive little would be done if there was prejudice among the bees. Yes, but "god did not want the bees to be together."

This type of reasoning shows you exactly where the concept of "god" came from. Hopefully as our consciousness continues to develop more people will start to see this. As for me, I am developing a disdain for my fellow man.

In discussing instincts/emotions, I am looking at it from the evolutionary level. Natural selection doesn't 'care' about nice. It rewards success (which can include nice). Steven Pinker has documented quite a body of evidence that we as a whole are actually less violent than in past eras, but I don't see that as evolution, but as culture.

We have built a number of cultural systems that over time have reduced the need for violence (we still have the potential) and this part of the success of our cultural instincts. A while back I was at a dinner in Holland with some of my co workers from Europe. German, Dutch, French, English all workers for the same company, all having a good time. 75 years ago this would have been inconceivable.

Human culture is one of the crowning evolutionary successes, not that evolution defines any culture (it does not) but it provides the mental tools within us to construct cultures from the tribe to the nation state. Cultures can evolve and change in time spans of decades instead of millenia. No other animal has such successful social instincts. Human culture  has enabled vast organizational schemes (some good, some not so good) on many levels. The example of my co workers, we were simultaneously products of our national culture, as well as our shared corporate culture.

Think about how incredible this is. We have a natural tendency to synchronize our mental processes to those around us. Have you ever noticed some outsider, or socially awkward person at a party or wedding or some such do something that would be considered 'gauche' or awkward? They probably didn't break any prescribed rule, but somehow their action was perceived as outside the group norm. As they spend more time with this new group, those mistakes become fewer... they become in tune with those around ... all without any formal structure of rules or bosses. 'Peer pressure' is a phrase that is often used negatively, but all the times when it's positive (which is most of the time), people don't even think of it as such. In a socially healthy culture, invisible peer pressure helps keep us from making bad mistakes. Peer pressure, too, is a product of our evolution because it enabled tribes to function more efficiently.

Humanity has a lot of potential. We need to fix cultural functions that are bad and preserve those that are good (this is where thinking conservatives have a point, you don't trash something that works well, and has developed over centuries without damned good reason).

An interesting topic and nice piece of writing -- thanks JV.   I don't think of emotion and reason as separate things, but rather stages of thinking -- points on a spectrum.  That is, all thought begins with emotion in response to stimuli, and then a few select thoughts grow into what we consider reason.  So separating reason from emotion would be cutting it off at its root.  Whether we become more rational is largely a function of the luxury of time.  For thought to achieve the level of reason takes time, which we only infrequently have, and have in different proportions in varying circumstances.  Even the most rational among us floats in a sea of emotions, and relatively few of those emotions grow into fully blossomed reason.  We would never survive if we always waited until they did.  Perhaps we separate reason from emotion because at some point thought passes a threshold at which we become conscious of it, and it seems like a whole other thing.

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