Friday, February 12, 2016

Emotion, Desire, and Life Choices

If you don't get it, read on...
For this post I'm taking off my academic philosopher hat to gloss over fine distinctions I might otherwise make. I want to do philosophy for las masas. Wherever I use 'emotion' in this entry, don't think of it in a technical sense. I just mean any of drive, passion, emotion, strong motivating desire, and so on. The context throughout should make it clear. 

Emotions activate the imagination and enable us to see a world where we commit ourselves to embracing the spirit of that emotion in perpetuity. Let me give you an example. When I took my first philosophy class ever, I fell in love with the content. But I didn't see myself as ever being a philosopher or teaching. 

It was my second professor that opened my imagination to a career in philosophy. We've all experienced such moments and it's nearly impossible to put into words. That moment where you're utterly filled with awe and passion for something. When it hits, it hits hard. You see your entire life vividly unfolding along that new path as though it were actually happening. 

I was just a second year student. But I saw myself in the classroom teaching philosophy. I saw my students--both fascinated and perplexed by philosophy. I saw myself as I saw my professor: wise, kind, and patient. I saw myself fulfilled everyday. I saw the possibility. I saw a possible world. I felt what it was like to live there. I was there. 

In the context of important decisions, this is the value of emotion: It shows us our possible lives in a way a spreadsheet never could. But those lives only remain possible to the extent that we nurture the original emotion and sense of awe that first opened the window to them. 

(Note: I'm using positive emotions to illustrate but negative emotions have just as much value in the same respect: Negative emotions can show us what worlds to avoid and why. They show us what worlds await as the consequence of certain choices. I'll stay with positive emotions for simplicity.)

Let's go back to the familiar Sartrian tale of the young student who, during the German occupation of France, must decide between joining the French Resistance to avenge his brother's death or staying with his mother who lost both her husband to treason and her only other child to the Germans. How does he decide what to do? Make a spreadsheet of the 'pluses' and 'minuses' multiplied by their respective probabilities then weigh the outcomes against each other? Suppose, instead we tell him to look into heart. What do you feel? Is it the love for your mother or is it the thirst for revenge?

The respective feelings give him insight into the world he'll inhabit when he choses according to one or the other. 

If the thirst for revenge overwhelms but he stays with his mother, he'll resent her and they'll both be unhappy. He is estranged from the world he wants to inhabit. If his love for his mother overwhelms but he leaves seeking revenge, he'll be miserable thinking of his poor mother on her own. Again, he finds himself alienated from the world he desires. He must act according to, not against his emotion. 

Is that it? you ask. Is this is the culmination of hundreds of hours of studying philosophy? The bullshit platitude "Just do what you feel, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan"? I could have spent $2, 000.00 on a special weekend with some new age self-help guru hack and learned the same thing without having to actually read anything. Why are you making me read? Just give me the answers! Stop making me work! ...

No, that's not it. 

For an emotion to have lasting value as a decision-maker it must continue to be nourished--not merely in thought but in action. The possible world into which it first gives a glimpse must be manifested through action. Otherwise, the emotion--that world's progenitor--wilts along with it.

To repeat: the emotion lets us see what is possible. But that possible world closes when it lingers only in the imagination. We are left standing in a barren landscape drained of passion. The path leading back to the original fork, unrecognizable and concealed. To say that an emotion guided us rightly we must live according to that emotion.

And so the relationship status between decisions, emotions, possibility, and guidance reads "it's complicated". An emotion guides my decision by revealing the possible. The possible becomes real and is sustained through action in accordance with the original emotion. I say I was rightly guided when I live according to the original emotion and embrace that world I construct in its spirit. 

The emotion, however, doesn't sustain itself. I must sustain it through actions characteristic of it. I must build that possible world as it was revealed to me. And as the possible becomes manifest I choose to sustain the original emotion--and hence my commitment to the world I'm constructing. 

Or I respond with a new emotion, one that reveals new future possibilities and the new forks they bring. 

There is no guarantee my future self will feel what I feel now about the world constructed in my current emotion's name. It's a matter of probability. I can't know beforehand. To speak plainly, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. And so, emotions, as I have been speaking of them, ought not on their own be appealed to. This much seems obvious. They are valuable in that they give us the best available insight into what a decision in one direction could be like. Our choices are presented to us in a way a spreadsheet never could. But then we are faced with the impossible task of knowing whether our desire for a possible world will be sustained once it is manifest.

This may appear an insurmountable task and will no doubt be a probabilistic affair. But probabilistic isn't the same as random. All of us have some sense of what sorts of things have enduring value. If an emotion encourages us to a world devoid of such values perhaps it's a world we ought not to construct...although in some cases it might be fun for while! (See: Ami's pre grad school life) Indefinitely honoring an emotion that sustains one such world is a mistake but feeling otherwise once we are there is a good thing. Our new emotions show us a way out...or at least tell us to get out. And hopefully we learned a thing or two while we were there. That counts for something. Right? 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Injury Prevention In the Gym without Giving Up Gains or Intensity

It's time for my annual fitness post. This year's topic will be injury prevention in the gym (without diluting the intensity of your training). This was a particularly bad year for me in terms of injuries so I had to find ways to do the best I could. Hopefully some of my experience will help you get through any injuries that you have or will have. And if you're over 30, you will get injuries whether you exercise or not! 

First of all, for liability reasons I should make clear that I am not a registered homeopath or energy healer. I don't have a psychic connection with the Truth and so you should be skeptical of my evidence-based approach to health fitness. I get a lot of my information from pubmed, professional trainers/athletes, and medical professionals rather than from the universe whispering the Truth to heart.  

To be fair, my starting point is always personal experience. I've had many many injuries and tried all the wrong ways to avoid and rehabilitate them.  

The Most Important Fitness Goal After Age 30 (Not an Exaggeration)
After age 30, the single most important fitness goal--the central organizing principle of all your physical activities--must be to avoid getting injured. I'm not kidding. If you do this one weird trick (that they don't want you to know about) you stand a significantly greater chance of staying in shape and healthy.

Why? Because when you're injured you can't train. When you can't train you lose momentum, enthusiasm, and whatever gains you're holding on to.  I like to think of it this way: It's better to train at 85% 100% of the year than to train at 100% 75% of the year.

A common scenario: You're doing relatively well with your fitness and diet. You've established your routine. That is, you've finally developed your exercise habit to the point where the inertia that used to suck you back into the couch when it was time to work out is no longer as powerful. In short, after many a battle with yourself, exercise and a (relatively) healthy diet are now habits!

Alas! Out of nowhere you somehow injure yourself exercising. Maybe you didn't warm up enough. Maybe your body wasn't feeling right but you pushed yourself anyway. Maybe you tried to lift too much. Whatever. The point is, now you're injured.  

Whereas a youngster heals fairly quickly from all but severe injuries, each year past 30 equals an almost logarithmic rise in recovery time. Conclusion, even for a minor sprain it's gonna take a few weeks (at best) to heal. 

Depending on how bad the injury was you may or may not have a legitimate excuse not to exercise. Your routine stops. Instead of going to the gym, you are sedentary. Your eating habits start to slip. The momentum is gone. Worst of all, your healthy habits are being undone. They are becoming unhealthy habits. 

You survive psychologically and eventually get back to the gym. But it's different now. You've taken at least 2 steps back. All that work that you put in before is undone. Psychologically you ask yourself "what's the point if I'm just going to get injured again and I'll lose all the work I put in this time." Not to mention all the hard work getting back to where you were. 

To summarize, after age 30, injuries are your worst enemy. They break your good habits. They make you depressed while you can't train and while you watch your hard work wilt away. They're psychologically difficult to come back from. 


What does this entail?
(a) Warm up 1: If you're lifting weights, don't even touch them until you've spent 10-15 min on a cardio machine to get your heart rate up and blood in your muscles. Never lift cold.

(b) Warm up 2: For your first and second exercises do as many warm up sets as you need until you feel warmed up. I usually do at least 3 before I go to my working weight. 

(c) Listen to your body: If either during your warm up or at any point your body "doesn't feel right"--that is, the weight feels heavier than normal or there's pain or irritation where there usually isn't--either stop or reduce the weight. Usually what I'll do when this happens is I'll drop the weight by about 20% and finish the rest of my sets there. I finish the workout uninjured and return the next day. 

(d) Leave one in the chamber: Don't push for that last rep. I know, back in the day it was all about squeezing out the last rep--going to exhaustion. However, as I've learned more times than I care to remember, this is the most common reason for injuries in the weight room. In fact, I'd say 80% of my injuries occurred when I pushed myself past exhaustion (it's an anecdote, therefore counts as science). This doesn't mean you need to lift like an over-cautious nervous nelly. It just means that you don't go past failure in individual sets. Throw in an extra set or two into your workout if you still have energy but don't push individual sets to failure. If you do, understand that it comes with risk.

(e) Lift technical not heavy: There are two important aspects of technical lifting (that are relevant here). First, is use correct biomechanics. In plain language, to avoid injury always use correct form. If you can't complete your repetitions with perfect form, you're lifting too heavy and are putting yourself at risk of injury. Second, focus on the contraction rather than moving the weight. This is often referred to as mind-muscle connection. If you don't feel the contraction in the muscle you're supposed to be working, stop and reassess how you're doing it. For bodybuilding and fitness the goal is to work particular muscles in particular ways. Moving a weight up and down is merely a means of doing that. Don't mistake the means for the end. Consciously meditate on the muscles you're engaging throughout each repetition. 

(f) Use negatives and TUL: 'Negatives' are the non-lifting portion of the exercise. I.e.., it's the downward part of the movement. Most recreational lifters don't give this portion of the movement much thought. They just lower the weight into position for the lifting phase. However, the trend in the current and best literature is that negatives are where major gains can be made. To do negatives, slowly lower the bar to the lifting portion of whatever movement you're doing. That is, fight gravity. Then lift. 

Here's an excellent example and explanation of why it works: Video
Here's another version for shoulders emphasizing the negative even more. You can use this technique for any exercise: Video (5 count for the negative)

Why does this reduce likelihood of injury and increase gains? TUL: Time Under Load. Apart from weight, the most important variable for determining whether a muscle will grow is the time it's under a load. We can use this principle to reduce injuries because if I lift more slowly, I'm not going to be able to lift as much weight. The higher the working weight, the greater the chance of injury.  So, when I work out, I actually don't lift very much (relative to other lifters my size) but I move the bar slowly in the negative portion of the movement. When you calculate TUL, it's at least equivalent to what it would have been had I used heavier weights but allowed gravity to do the negative for me. In short, my muscles are doing just as much work as if I'd lifted heaver weights but because I'm using about ~20% less weight, my risk of injury goes way down.

(g) Use pauses at the top and bottom of each movement: Using pauses as both the top and bottom of a movement also exploits the TUL principle.  The length of the pause is just enough to stop any 'bounce'--this means about a two count. By pausing at the peak and bottom of each movement my muscles' TUL is at least equivalent to what it would have been had I used a weight about ~20% heavier. I get the same stress on the muscles but with a lower risk of injury. Also, I find that pausing at the bottom of each movement really helps me to mentally focus on which muscles I'm engaging in the movement. It's important to note that when I pause at the bottom of the movement, I'm not relaxing the muscles. In fact it's quite the opposite. I'm loading the tension in my muscles like a spring. When I feel everything's aligned, I release the 'spring' and explode out of the pause. Try pausing at the bottom of your squat or straight-legged dead lifts. You'll love me in the morning when you can't get out of bed (TWSS).

Regarding pausing at the top, the idea is the similar to the bottom pause. My muscles are not disengaged. They are at their point of maximum contraction and I hold it for a count. 

Here's a video of lifters using a pause at the bottom of a front squat (You can use the technique for any lift): Video
Here's 4X Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler using a pause at the top: Video

Although this was a particularly bad year for me regarding injuries, I'm sure it would have been worse if I hadn't employed these techniques in the gym. (My neck injury was from the one time in a few years I didn't warm up properly). To recap everything: 

1. After 30, your number one goal going into the gym is to walk out of the gym without any injuries. 

2. You can do this in a way that doesn't compromise your workout's intensity.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Defense of New Year's Resolutions (That THEY Don't Want You to Know About)

Around this time of year my news feed is infected with click-baity articles or facebook statuses about how New Year's resolutions are stupid or bad or whatever and "I'm better than people who make NY resolutions because I recognize that every day, NAY! every second! is an opportunity to redefine myself for the better. So there, you philistines! Shield thine eyes from the light of my transcendence!" 

Anyway, here are a few counter click-baity responses to internet self-righteous anti-NY resolution sentiment. 

Reasons for NY Resolutions THEY Don't Want You to Know About
Reply 1: Fuck you. Get over yourself. 

Reply 2: This may seem odd coming out of a philosopher's mouth but maybe it's cuz it comes from experience: Too much reflection on how to live can be a bad thing. It takes you out of 'just living'. While you're thinking about how you ought to live, life is passing you by--one missed experience at a time (#gradschool). Descartes himself--of the Meditations--reprimands Princess Bohemia for being over-reflective. (Of course in this case it was cuz she had a devastating challenge to his philosophical system that he couldn't answer, but let's pretend, for the sake of this blog entry's narrative that it was for some other reason). 

Also,  didn't Socrates famously say that the unexamined life is not worth living? True. But it doesn't mean you need to examine it all the time. You have to have experiences to examine in the first place.

OK, so there you have it. Too much navel-gazing can pull you out of your life. You emerge from your contemplative state only to find you've missed out on living. 

Where was I going with all this. Ah, yes. It's actually not a good thing to be reflecting all the time and so having culturally agreed upon reminders to do so is helpful. No need to do it all the time. You'll be reminded at least once a year to do so and you'll probably do it on your birthday too--especially for each birthday after 30 (e.g., "Where the fuck did I go wrong?""How do I undo this mess?"). 

Make Resolutions and Keep Them Using This One Weird Trick! (Motivational Speakers Hate Me!)
Having resolutions as a social practice leverages the social resources that will make us more likely to keep them. (I said "more likely", not "guaranteed".) Many scienticians agree that the most powerful motivational forces are social forces and NY resolutions engage these forces in various ways. 

First, choosing your goals is a combination of an individual and social act.  The goals we choose are individual to us but they are also often the result of social feedback we've been getting over the year. If you're a student and your professors keep telling you that you need to work harder, this might be a sign that you should work harder. If your friends keep telling you that you don't hang out enough with them, maybe this is sign that you could be a better friend.  If people seem to avoid conversations with you this might be a sign that you need to be a better listener or need to consider your words more carefully. I'm not sayin'....I'm just sayin'...

Resolutions are also social in that we look to others as possible models for the types of behaviors and goals to pursue. It doesn't mean we're going to mimic someone else exactly. Looking to others we admire (or despise!) gives us a point of departure to craft a goal suitable to ourselves and our particular circumstances. It's a way to activate our imagination such that we can see possibilities for ourselves.

As I mentioned, many scienticians agree that the most powerful motivational forces are social. If you publicly declare your goals (to friends, family, to every damn person on social media, or all of the above) you won't want to look like a dumbass by failing. Social pressure can be used to your advantage. Fear of shame is an excellent motivator. But fear of public shame isn't the only possible benefit from publicly declaring your new goals. If you aren't surrounded by a bunch of assholes, some of the people to whom you declare your goals can (gasp!) offer you encouragement and actually help you stay on track in those moments where your own willpower subsides. Confiding our resolutions to (carefully selected) others creates a support network that can help us actually achieve our resolutions.

Of course, some of you are thinking, "I don't need nobody to help me with my goals. It's all about survival of the fittest and I can handle my shit."  Ok, maybe you can. Good for you. You're Jesus. Now, go back to reading your Ayn Rand books in the corner.

The bottom line is that while it's true in theory ("here goes the philosopher with his got-tam theory...") that we can reflect on our attributes and projects at any moment, in practice (that's the science part!) most of us don't. The collective tradition of doing so around New Year's provides a periodic reminder for us to reflect on our past year and the things we'd like to change or accomplish in the upcoming year. A healthy practice to my mind...

I Know I'm not Perfect But How Do I Pick My Resolutions? Use These THREE Weird Tricks!!!!!
For the most part, I think most of us, upon even the most cursory reflection, are aware of where we need "work". It is mostly a matter of committing to the change you want to see. That said, here are a couple of general ideas inspired by a few philosophers for how to pick some resolutions. The first involves self-directed resolutions and the second is other-directed resolutions. 

1. Aristotle: For Aristotle and most of the ancient Greek philosophers, virtues were not only a means to a good life, they were necessary components of a good life. That is to say, you can't have a good life unless you develop your virtues. Quick aside, for the Greeks, a good life meant a "flourishing" life. So, if a flourishing life is something that grabs your fancy, think about a virtue or two that you could further develop. Here's a list of the classic virtues: courage, temperance, liberality (generosity), magnanimity, proper ambition, patience/good temper, truthfulness, friendliness, and modesty.

2. Sartre/De Beauvoir: Sartre says we construct meaning in life through our projects. So, what's to prevent me from creating meaning through morally abhorrent projects? Nothing. You can derive meaning from evil projects, but this wouldn't be an ethical life. The ethical constraint on life projects for Sartre and De Beauvoir is that they must be in the service of freedom. To understand what this means in practical terms we need to take a quick step back and ask why freedom is important in the first place. 

Without going too deeply into it, freedom is morally important because it is necessary for self-actualization. And self-actualization is necessary for a shot at a life worth living. If your own opportunities and resources that are helpful for self-actualization are morally important than so are those of others (unless you think there's something metaphysically special about you). This means that your life project ought to involve in part helping those with fewer opportunities and resources for self-actualization than you. People who live in poverty or don't have access to a good education or healthcare, etc have on average greater barriers to self-actualization. An ethical life is one that includes both working toward undermining those barriers and helping the individuals affected by the barriers. 

In terms of a NY resolution, Sartre and De Beauvoir would say you ought to resolve to include in your core life activities efforts towards helping others gain access to the resources that facilitate self-actualization. In short, find a social cause to include in your life project. Resolve to serve others.

3. Suzan Wolf: We all want a life that is worth living but what does that include? Whatever it is, it requires activities that are meaningful and fulfilling. We might think that if an activity is meaningful it's also fulfilling and vice versa. Suzan Wolf argues that meaningfulness and fulfillment can come apart. 

Let me illustrate. You can have a career that is very meaningful yet not personally fulfilling. Perhaps your parents groomed you to be a doctor or something. You were too young to know how you'd feel about actually being a doctor so now that you are one, you do it. It's meaningful work. You save lives. You cure the sick (contrary to what the idiots at Alt Mama or TinFoilRUs say). Yet, strangely, you don't feel fulfilled. The idea is that despite the fact that an activity or career is meaningful, not everyone will find it fulfilling because of differences in our individual constitutions. 

Conversely, you can find an activity fulfilling yet it is not meaningful. I love to watch UFC. I find it really fulfilling. I feel great after watch people knock each other unconscious.  Is this a meaningful way to spend my time? Probably not.  

So here's an idea for a resolution. Try to align your life projects in terms of meaningfulness and fulfillment. If your career or some central aspect of your life is meaningful but unfulfilling, find a way to make it fulfilling. If you can't, think about finding a new fulfilling activity that is also meaningful. Conversely, if your job or some aspect of your life is fulfilling but isn't meaningful, see if you can make it meaningful. Sometimes this won't be possible and so you might consider changing to an activity in which the two attributes align. 

What I've suggested is no easy task, it means fundamentally rearranging important aspects of our lives. But if we seek a life worth living, it's hard to see how such a life is possible without consistently striving to fill our lives with activities that are both meaningful and fulfilling. This requires making room for them by letting go of those activities where both qualities don't overlap. It won't happen over night. It's a process and an approach to living that requires careful reflection on the various ways we fill our days. 

And New Year's is as good a time as any to start....

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

YOU are a Philosopher (Sometimes)

When people talk to me about studying philosophy, I’m usually met with similar questions. What’s the point of doing philosophy? When can you even use it? Here’s a lengthy paraphrase of what I sometimes say.

You already do philosophy all time and it’s the single most important activity in your life. You just don’t realize it. Every single reflective decision you make is an act of philosophy. Philosophy can be described as the activity of finding reasonable beliefs (then hopefully acting on them). When you decided to eat one thing over another, in so far as you reflected on your choice, you engaged in philosophy. 

Why eat one thing over another? Does taste matter more than nutritional content? Does price matter more than quality? Does one meal look better than another? How important are aesthetics in your choice? None of these questions can be answered scientifically. No amount of beakers and Bunsen burners can tell you whether, forced to choose, you should eat the sandwich or the cookie. What informs your choice are reasons.

You might say, well obviously you should eat the more nutritious item. Maybe. But again this is a philosophical choice. If, in your food choices, you value health above all else, then yes. But should we value health above all else whenever we choose what to eat? Although perhaps trivial, this is a matter of philosophy and it’s something you do with every conscious decision you make. Philosophy is everywhere.

Which courses did you choose for next semester? What career are you pursuing? Do you pursue the higher paying job that you won’t enjoy  yet allow you to live the lifestyle you want outside of work or the job that pays less but fills your life with a sense of purpose? Again, not even the most powerful microscope in the world can tell you what to choose. Your choice will depend upon weighing various reasons—that is to say, engaging in the activity of philosophy.

Which political candidate do you favor? Which political issues matter to you? Why these and not others? These are philosophical choices. Science can’t tell you what to value. In deliberately making choices in these respects—choosing some politicians over others, some issues and positions over others, you’ve done philosophy. 

Do you believe in God or gods? Which one(s)? In so far as your answer is a product of weighing various reasons, it was a philosophical decision. The same is true if you don’t believe in any gods.

So, what’s the difference between taking a philosophy class and the philosophy I just told you that you do every day? Think of it this way. You also exercise every day: You walk to class, you walk to your car. You clean your house. You are exerting yourself physically and expending energy. You are exercising, albeit unconsciously. In the same way, you engaged in philosophy when you chose to read this article instead of watching another cat video on youtube. 

When you go to the gym, exercise isn’t unconscious. It’s structured, it’s systematic, it’s rigorous, and there are determinate goals. Today is leg day. 5 sets of squats, 6-8 reps each and then on to deadlifts.  It’s the same for philosophy class. We’re doing the same thing you already do every day unconsciously except it’s structured, systematic, rigorous, and there are determinate goals. 

This month we’re studying free will. First we’ll read Strawson and systematically evaluate his Basic Argument. Then we’ll read Frankfurt and his compatiblism. Then we’ll look at the Libet experiments and the various interpretations of the results. Even if we get a bit tired we keep going, just like you don’t quite after the 3rd set of squats. You gotta keep squatting if you want good glutes. You gotta keep reflecting and reasoning if you want good reasons to believe one thing rather than another. The more you do it the better you get at doing it and slowly but surely people start to notice your gainz. You get into a debate and you flex your philosophical muscle. People notice. You notice. You critically evaluate some of your old beliefs and realize they’re founded on weak reasons. You change your beliefs. You’ve taken one step closer to Truth by discarding false beliefs. Dem gains are showing. It feels good, and so you continue. Welcome to philosophy. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Training Guide for Dogs

Training Guide for Dogs

Suppose you want a treat but your human is frantically trying to get his work done thus not paying attention to your usual manipulations. (Oh, did you think this was a guide for how to train dogs? No, no, no, silly human. It's a training guide for dogs to train their humans) Here’s the one trick THEY don’t want you to know: 

Go stand by the door and whine like you have to go to the bathroom. Your human will have to get up cuz he thinks otherwise you’ll pee in the house. (You already did but he didn’t catch you, lol!). 

Next he’ll let you out, you pee a little to make it look like you had to go then run right back into the house. As you come back in, run over to the treats cupboard and do whatever your usual manipulative behavior is. Your human’s concentration is already broken at this point so he’ll give in and give you a treat just to get you to stop.

In testing this technique I discovered that using it every 5 minutes doesn’t work so well because after a while, the human catches on. Who pees every 5 min? AmIright? For best results I recommend using this trick no more than about every an hour or so. After an hour they’re more likely to believe that you actually have to pee.

For more advice on how to train your human, please submit requests to this blog,


This is how to get treats!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Repressed Emotions: What Are They Supposed to Be? Part 1

Introduction and Two Theories of Emotion
You'll often hear the term 'repressed emotion' bandied about in the self-help industrial complex. In this alt-world, if you have a mental or physical illness, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's caused by a repressed emotion (usually from your childhood).  The concept is often used as the cause and explanation of everything. I'll argue in Part 1 that the concept of repressed emotions as it's used in the self-help industrial complex is unintelligible. However, it does have more respectable pedigree in Freudian psychoanalysis. In Part 2, I'll take a look at the more sophisticated Freudian account.

A Tale of Two Theories of Emotion
Let's set aside repressed emotions for a moment. Before doing a preliminary evaluation of the concept we'll need to take a quick look at the two basic theories of what emotions are. 

I'll begin with what I'll call the cognitivist account. On this view, an emotion is made up of two elements: it's a conjunction of (a) a judgment/appraisal and (b) a feeling/sensation. For example, when I experience anger, the emotion is comprised of 

(a) a judgment or evaluation that person x is disrespecting me or treating me unfairly, and
(b) the phenomenological sensation of anger (tension, heat, etc...).

Or, for example, when I experience fear the emotion is comprised of 

(a) the judgment or evaluation that something is dangerous to me/can harm me, and
(b) the phenomenological sensation of fear (racing heat, strange feeling in the stomach, etc...)

In sum, the cognitivist account requires that emotions have cognitive content (i.e., beliefs, concepts, judgments, appraisals) as well as a phenomenological 'feel' (i.e., a 'what-it's-like-ness'). The ability to distinguish feelings from emotions marks one of the advantages of the cognitivist theory. The difficulty to explain how animals and pre-linguistic children can have emotions counts against this view because it would require ascribing to them sophisticated concepts and beliefs.

The other main theory of emotions argues that emotions are simply a kind of (i.e., a sub-class of) feeling. On this non-cognitivist theory, emotions don't have cognitive content, they are just specific kinds of 'feels'. For example, being angry just is feeling a certain way. Being scared just is feeling a certain way. To have an emotion you needn't have made any appraisal or judgment or have any beliefs about the object/person/situation causing your feeling. It's all in the feels...

A major advantage of this view is that it's easier to ascribe emotions to animals and pre-linguistic children. Making judgments and appraisals requires complex concepts, something not easily ascribed to infants and animals. A problem attributed to this view is the inability to distinguish kinds of feelings. For example, the 'feel' in your stomach when you are scared and when you are angry might be the same. The feeling theory has to say they are the same emotion. There's also the problem of 'an explosion of emotions'. For each slightly different feeling there is a different emotion since what defines an emotion is its feel. Different feel=different emotion.

I won't get into the debate between the two accounts of emotion. There are ways (i.e., there are volumes of articles) that proponents of each view try to respond to the various challenges and criticisms. I merely want to point to some of the advantages and disadvantages with each and provide a framework in which to give a preliminary assessment of 'repressed emotions'. If we're going to say something is a 'repressed emotion' we need some general idea of what an emotion is first...

First Pass: Repressed Emotions Don't Make No Damn Sense
The Cognitivist View: Let's suppose for a moment that the cognitivist view of emotions is correct. An emotion is the conjunction of a judgment/appraisal and a feeling. Suppose my local self-help guru tells me I have [insert illness] because of repressed anger (from my childhood--of course). First of all, on this view, part of having an emotion requires that I have made an appraisal or judgment about some situation or person. This implies that I have a belief

Mysteriously, when the guru asks me if there's anything about my childhood I'm angry about, nothing comes to mind (cuz everyone had perfect childhoods and never got angry about anything).  So, of course he doesn't name anything specific but encourages me to look deeper because there must be something. Why else would I have [insert illness]? 

Here's the thing. If I have an occurrent belief that situation x made me angry as a child, it's not a repressed belief. It's occurrent. So, that can't be the anger that's causing my [insert illness]. The belief has to be buried. It's a belief I can't access--yet it's there! Somehow, I believe something I don't know I believe! 

At this point, some charity is in order. The mind is not totally transparent, and subconscious and unconscious thought and belief are fairly widely recognized phenomena in psychology. So, let's grant for a moment that I have some subconscious belief that I was treated unfairly in situation x as a child. We'll set aside the strangeness of having a belief that you don't know you have.

At this point in the session, the guru will prod me with more questions, getting me to search my mind for instances where I might have believed myself to have been unfairly treated. As though by magic, I find a memory of an instance of being upset as a child! I judged my treatment as unfair when blah blah blah... 

Here's a question: Is this a judgment I formed as a child that I'm now recalling, i.e., is it a judgment buried deep in my consciousness until now, or is it a belief that I have formed now, after much suggestion and prodding? (Because "surely there was something in your childhood that upset you, otherwise there's no other possible way to explain your [insert illness]"). Also, consider how memory works. It's not like retrieving a file in your hard drive. When you "recall" something you are actually recalling the last instance you thought about it then reinterpreting in light of your life's current narrative. How likely is it that what you are recalling from so long ago is actually what happened? (Hint: Not likely).

Again, for the sake of argument, I'll be charitable. Suppose the guru has managed to get me to retrieve (the memory) of this old appraisal about how I was treated. Ok, so far I have one half of what makes an emotion an emotion. I have a judgment/appraisal. 

There's still a problem. If an emotion is made up of a conjunction of a belief and a feeling, I need to 'find' the feeling part. But how can you have a feeling that you don't feel? How does that make sense?

If my repressed anger is indeed an emotion then by definition it has an affective/phenomenological component. It has a 'feel'. But if it's repressed, I don't feel it...otherwise it wouldn't be a repressed emotion, it would just be an emotion that I'm experiencing

Simply put, either you feel a repressed emotion or you don't. If you feel it then it doesn't make sense to call it repressed because you're feeling it. If you don't feel it then how is it an emotion if emotions are constituted in part by a sensation? 

At this point, a proponent of repressed emotions could reply that when I bring the appraisal of my treatment as unjust to my conscious awareness then the feeling will follow. But this reply doesn't seem to work. It looks like the feeling of anger is being caused by the belief. In other words, I didn't have a repressed emotion, I had a repressed belief. When I dredged the belief out from my unconscious mind and onto the main stage of the theater of my mind, I reacted to it (in light of my current circumstances and coaching). The feeling and the belief weren't unified when there were in my subconscious which is what is needed in order for them to count as an emotion (on this view).  

Here, the repressed emotion theorist could give up on justifying the phenomena in terms of the cognitivist view. Maybe emotions just are feelings and I've buried my anger somewhere (?) and that's why I have [insert illness].

Non-Cognitivist View: The argument against repressed emotions under the second theory follows the same logic as above. If emotions just are feelings (and don't involve any appraisals/beliefs/conceptual content) then you have to explain how it makes sense to have a feeling that you don't feel. That's no emotion at all because there's no feeling and the feeling is what makes the emotion what it isLet me repeat that. If what makes an emotion an emotion is that it is a feeling, then it makes no sense to say you have an unfelt feeling. No feeling=no emotion. 

On the non-cognitivist theory, the notion of repressed emotion makes even less sense. 

It looks like if the notion of repressed emotions is going to be intelligible at all, we'll need a more sophisticated account. This means leaving the realm of the self-help industrial complex, going back to Freud himself and examining what he said about the concept. 

In Part 2 I'll look at Freud's own account of the concept. 

Aside on Philosophy
Often non-philosophers will criticize (and mischaracterize) philosophy as being all about asking people "well, what you mean by x?". In some contexts, this philosophical practice can be extremely annoying and not always useful. Allegedly, incessantly engaging in this practice is partly how Socrates got himself killed. 

But, as I hope you can see from above, there are cases where asking this sort of question is useful. Someone postulates a theoretical entity (i.e., repressed emotions) and a philosopher will naturally ask, "well, what do you mean by that?" Spending some time getting clear on our concepts helps to avoid postulating unnecessary and incoherent theoretical entities. 

That said, the more sophisticated Freudian account of repressed emotions won't be so easily dismissed. I don't know yet where my analysis will take me. Anyhow, there is value in carefully analyzing the contents of a concept and placing it within the context of major theories to see how well it fairs. 

Another thing philosophers make much ado about is whether a concept is "doing any work." If you can give an account of a phenomena with existing concepts and without appeal to a new concept, there has to be good reason to add the new theoretical entity. In Part 2, I'll pay more attention to the work Freud intended 'repressed emotions' to do in psychology and psychoanalysis. If there's no other way to capture the phenomena he refers to and do the theoretical work, then it might mean that the theories of emotions themselves have to change to accommodate repressed emotions. 

Until then, keep repressing your emotions.  They can't hurt you cuz they don't exist. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Gun Control Policy in Public Spaces

Can you write something about guns in the US of A without pissing off a large portion of your audience? Not likely. But let me try to propose a policy that has elements that both sides might endorse (excluding the most extreme ends of the spectrum).

A little auto-biography
As a Canadian born to pacifist parents, the American fascination with guns has always been mysterious to me. Most of the world probably shares this sentiment regarding Americans and their gun fetish. Why would you want to own something that can--with the simple tug of your finger-- kill another human being? Clearly there is something psychologically wrong with such a person. 

Anyhow, after living in the US of A since 2007, I've come to see that it's not just crazy True Patriots that like guns, it's a lot of "normal" Americans too. In fact, many of the people I've become friends with (and with whom I share political values in every other domain) loved them some guns. This softened my "judgy-ness". Some people just like to shoot things for fun or go hunting. "Piew! Piew!" It's not for me but I no longer see much harm in it. The demographic my friends represent certainly don't own guns with the delusion that they'll someday get to be a vigilante super-hero. 

Let's get to my policy suggestions...

Deez Nuts
The Liberal Media (controlled by Jews who, according to esteemed historian Ben Carson, didn't fight back) loves nothing more than to run stories involving True Patriots accidentally shooting themselves or their friends. While the specific numbers vary between studies, the trend is the same: for every time a gun is legitimately (and successfully) used in self-defense, proportionately more people are killed accidentally (between 100-400% more, depending on the study you look at and the inclusion criteria). If you include accidental non-fatal shootings, the numbers are much higher. 

A significant portion of the anti gun-control lobby sincerely believes that if they were in a public-shooter-type situation they would be able to save the day or at least have a positive impact. This is pure fantasy.  While I don't doubt that a combat marine or special forces operative could "take down" a shooter with minimal "collateral damage", it is only because they have years of combat training

I don't care how good a shot you are in a shooting range (or on your Xbox). There is a massive difference between trying to shoot a stationary target vs a moving (suicidal) target that is trying to kill you. Without training you have no idea how you're going to respond. You may simply freeze up. You may panic and shoot everywhere. You will likely be trembling from either fear or adrenaline undermining your capacity to aim. In a crowded area, failure to have perfect aim may result in further deaths--the exact thing you're trying to prevent.

Trained professionals (military, police, various security agencies) go through thousands of hours of training to condition themselves to deal with high stress situations. I don't care how badass you are in your fantasies: if you aren't trained for using your weapon when someone is trying to kill you, you will not perform the way you think you will. You are either going to have no effect on the situation or you will end up shooting innocent people in your panic. Merely owning a gun does not a brave or competent person make. 

The typical argument you hear from True Patriots is that if everyone is armed in a public place, suicidal shooters won't be able to do the damage they do. This is only possibly true if the people carrying weapons are trained to use them in high stakes situations. It is not true if they have never been in any situation remotely resembling a live fire fight. 

So here's the proposal: Anyone who wants to carry a gun in a school or similar public place can do so provided they have the relevant training. This would include at minimum (a) a one time course that provides training equivalent to what a SWAT team, marine, or comparable operative receives for live fire-fight situations; (b) mandatory annual training refresher course. 

Regarding (a) the big political issue will be who decides how much training is enough? Easy. Ask the marines or some other respected military/police institution to outline what they consider to be the minimal training required to send someone into a live fire fight. After all, these institutions know better than anyone else what's required. That is to say, we let the experts rather than politics decide. (Crazy. I know.)

Regarding (b) the answer is the same. Knowing how to react effectively in a live fire situation is a perishable skill and so there must be retraining if we want gun-carriers to be more likely to help then harm a situation. After all, that's the goal, right?'s my right. First of all, rights are not unrestricted. They are commensurate with capacities to exercise them. Second, no one is saying you can't go to shooting ranges, keep a gun in your house, or go hunting. This is about carrying a gun in a crowded public place. 

Although there may exist other arguments, the primary argument given for why fire arms should be permitted (or even encouraged) in public spaces is that True Patriots with guns will be able to diminish the casualty and fatality rates. This argument rests on a false assumption that mere possession of a gun is sufficient to, on average, accomplish this outcome. For the argument to have any chance at soundness a premise needs to be qualified. It isn't merely armed True Patriots that can reduce casualty and mortality rates in mass shootings but True Patriots with sufficient training. Otherwise, True Patriots will, on average, probably be a net liability or have no effect at all. 

Loose Ends
1. Gun control is not the same thing as the government coming to take your guns. Why do we always hear this straw man? 

2. As far back as the mid 90s, the NRA sponsored a law in congress (which was passed and repassed) that prevents the CDC from collecting and using any data on gun violence. The law reads that "[any data collected by the CDC] may not be used to advocate or promote gun control.” WTF?  If unrestricted gun ownership and lax gun control laws (and enforcement) really weren't related to higher gun death rates, as the NRA claims, then why does the NRA lobby against collecting the data? What are they so afraid of? If they're right, why not use the data to show it? And more importantly how can we have good policy without good data? To me the reasons are fairly obvious but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

3. Gun control vs gun rights arguments usually go like this: 

    (a) War of empirical evidence. Continued disagreement for a variety of reasons having to do with biased interpretations and different quality of evidence being given equal credence, methodological disputes.

    (b) Normative: "Fine, I don't accept your studies and you don't accept mine. It doesn't matter anyway. Gun ownership is a right."  So, here's the thing I've always wondered...and if you are anti gun control proponent maybe you can let me know in the comments what you think.  Suppose the empirical data indicated fairly strongly that lax gun control laws (and enforcement) actually do lead to significantly higher rates of homicides and accidental deaths, ceterus parabus. Would you be willing to oppose gun control legislation despite the fact that more people will die and get injured? At how many preventable deaths per year might you change your mind? 100? 200? 1 000? Is there any number? Or is an unrestricted right to own a gun more important than any number of preventable deaths?