Emotion, Spirituality, and Words

Posted in culture on April 11th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

In 2003 I started looking at the science of emotion in order to determine if it would be useful for robots. When I had to do an English paper that year (middler year writing at Northeastern University) I decided it would be something about emotions, but I wasn’t sure at first what the specific theme would be. One question I had was, why do people often associate emotion with spirituality (or do they)?

Is it simply that some people never bothered to consider how emotion works, so it just gets classified with other mysterious phenomena like spirits? Or is it because religion has laid claims to human emotion?

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk to a religious leader to get the theological point of view. I was aware of the Unitarian Universalists which have a mixture of various faiths and “spiritual” members that aren’t hardcore religious. I had a meeting with the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church of Harvard Square in Cambridge MA, who at that time was Dr. Thomas J.S. Mikelson. I didn’t record the meeting unfortunately (I couldn’t afford recording devices back then). I was pleased to find that he seemed to be familiar with some of the emotion books I was reading back then by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

If I remember correctly, Mikelson told me that the word “spiritual” is actually relatively new. Or perhaps the modern usage and popularity of it are new. I’m not sure about its popularity, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [1], “spiritual” has been used in most of its current senses since at least the 1300s. The exception is the sense of “spiritual home”:

(with no religious connotation), a place or milieu, other than one’s home, which seems especially congenial or in harmony with one’s nature, or to which one feels a sense of belonging or indebtedness.

OED’s earliest quote of “spiritual home” is from 1932. As an aside, it’s too bad that the usage of “spiritual” to mean “Of transcendent beauty or charm” is obsolete (according to OED):

1481 Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ii. iv. 69 Ther ben yet plente of other places so delectable, so swete, and so spyrytuel that yf a man were therin, he shold saye, that it were a very paradys.

The word “emotion” cropped up in 1579. First we see these now-obsolete usages:

  1. “A moving out, migration, transference from one place to another.” (1600s)
  2. “A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense).” (1600s-1800s)
  3. “A political or social agitation; a tumult, popular disturbance.” (1500s-1700s)

Then we get to a modern usage starting in the 1600s:

Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

Here are some quotes:

1660 Bp. J. Taylor Dvctor Dvbitantivm (R.), The emotions of humanity..the meltings of a worthy disposition.

1762 Ld. Kames Elem. Crit. ii. §2. (1833) 37 The joy of gratification is properly called an emotion.

Then we get to an even more modern usage from psychology:

A mental ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’ (e.g. of pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, surprise, hope or fear, etc.), as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. Also abstr. ‘feeling’ as distinguished from the other classes of mental phenomena.

The quotes for that start in the 1800s:

1808 Med. Jrnl. XIX. 422 Sea-sickness..is greatly under the dominion of emotion.

1841–4 R. W. Emerson Friendship in Wks. (1906) I. 81 In poetry..the emotions of benevolence and complacency..are likened to the material effects of fire.

1842 C. Kingsley Lett. (1878) I. 61 The intellect is stilled, and the Emotions alone perform their..involuntary functions.

1871 J. Tyndall Fragm. Sci. (ed. 6) II. xi. 231 He..almost denounces me..for referring Religion to the region of Emotion.

1875 B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) I. 249 The..emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances.

It’s interesting to see how the concept of emotion seemed to come from movement and disturbance, changed into personal mental disturbances, and then became distinguished from conscious cognition.

I’m leaning towards the premise that most people don’t care how emotions work or why there’s a concept of spirituality and use them as umbrella terms to cover a wide range of stuff without much regard for details or theories.

But was there ever a thread in history that that really tried to associate human emotions (even if that word wasn’t used) with intangible spirits or gods?

I suppose the other frail connection that might exist in people’s minds between emotion and spirituality is due to the never-ending attempt to preserve something special or divine about humanity. Some will always grasp for some lifeboat that is supposedly unique to humans and not available (at least not as much) to other animals or machines, such as “emotion” or “feeling” or “intelligence” or “winning at Jeopardy”…

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011.

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I Will Not Be Told: Stephen Fry’s Speech at Harvard

Posted in culture on February 22nd, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

I just attended Stephen Fry‘s acceptance of the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, given by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

His speech was quite different than the one he gave for the Intelligence² Debate. The main theme tonight was “I will not be told.”

To be told is to wallow in revealed truths. Bibles and similar religious texts are all about revealed truths which cannot be questioned, and the origins of which require the readers to make many assumptions. And it was even worse in the dark times of religious book control and illiteracy in which you might not even be allowed to read the book—you have to get the mediated verbal account from someone supposedly holier than you.

Discovered truths, on the other hand, are not told. Of course somebody could tell you a discovered truth, but if you don’t trust them you can question it. Discovered truths can be discussed. They are questioned and tested.

Fry suggests humility before facts—reason or sounding reasonable is not enough. Back to question and test. And so on.

Stephen Fry then fumbled through a quick version of history to describe how the Greeks had some free inquiry and attempts to discover truth around 2000 years ago, but that was almost extinguished for 1500 years by the Christians. But not all hope was lost, and then the Enlightenment brought discovered truths back into action. Science kicked into gear, the United States was born, and so on.


Later on, Fry was discussing Oscar Wilde’s adventures—somewhat like the Beatles, Wilde was not well known in England and then burst onto the scene in America in large part just by being an interesting character. When somebody asked him how America, born from the greatest ideals of freedom and reason, could have disintegrated into the Civil War, Wilde responded that it’s because American wallpaper is ugly.

The concept is that violence breaks out when people have no self worth because, which in turn is assisted by ugly artificial habitats.


Stephen Fry says how he used to see posters of Che and Marx in college dorms mixed in which pictures of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. People thought that revolutionary politics and rock music could change the world for the better. But they can’t. The posters he prefers to see on people’s dorm walls are Einstein and Oscar Wilde—the life of the mind instead. Fry then said something about the Oxford way to “play gracefully with ideas.”


Stephen Fry tells us (note this is not verbatim): “It’s not humanists’ job to tell religious people they are wrong. However,” and there is a pause as the crowd laughs, “it is none of their fucking business to impose their revealed truth on the wonderful world of doubt.”

Amidst anecdotes of Oscar Wilde, Fry repeatedly asserted his second theme, which is that humanists should not tell other people how to live. In fact, he accepted the award on the condition that the Humanist Chaplaincy would not try to convert religious people and smugly tell them they are wrong. It’s all about showing vs. telling.

As Fry so splendidly puts it: “You can tickle the minds of others, you can seduce the minds of others, but don’t try to own the minds of others.”


The high point of the question and answer session, which Fry compared to a KGB interrogation, was a serenade by a young lady with a ukulele, in which she offered the homosexual actor her baby-making apparatus in no uncertain terms.  “I have all the tools that you require to breed / So send along your seed.”

Molly the Ukelele Girl

Molly the Ukelele Girl

Update: I found the name of the Ukelele girl: Molly.  She also was playing humorous songs about Wikipedia and Facebook in the beginning before the introductions.  Looks like the Stephen Fry song was premeditated:

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

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Dennett’s Future of Religion Part 2: Transformation

Posted in culture on November 14th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Just posted on my Science 2.0 blog:

Dennett’s Future of Religion Part 2: Transformation

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Daniel Dennett’s Super-Snopes and the Future of Religion

Posted in philosophy on October 12th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

“We’re all alone, no chaperone”
—Cole Porter

Despite his resemblance to Santa Claus, Daniel Dennett wants to disillusion the believers.  If we’re all adults, why can’t we reveal the truth that God(s), like Santa, are childish fantasies?

Earlier tonight I attended Dennett’s talk “What should replace religion?” at Tufts University, which was kindly hosted by the Tufts’ Freethought Society as part of their Freethought Week.

Atheist groups will have to compete with religion in the realm of social activities such as church services.  People won’t leave churches if they don’t have something else to give them the excitement, the music, the ecstasy, the group affiliation, the team building, the moral community, etc. that churches provide.  Many churches already contain atheists who go for all the other stuff besides the doctrine.  In fact, some of the preachers themselves do not believe the doctrine.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett @ Tufts, 11 Oct 2010

I won’t go over the entire talk, but I’d like to talk about the truth segment.  Dennett pointed out the various citizen science (although he didn’t use the term citizen science) projects going on, in which random people voluntarily collect or analyze data, such as for bird watching and galaxy classification and report that to central repositories.  But certain other data collection activities have gone down—the mundane types of things such as goings-on in a town.  Town newspapers are dying, and nobody is there to take notes in local affairs (such as education, politics, etc.).  And this lost data might be important, because it is oversight.

The Internet has democratized evidence gathering while also promoting the abuse of misinformation.  So, Dennett proposes, some organizations could start projects as preservers of truth—or perhaps a church replacement could convert lovers of God into lovers of truth.  But it wouldn’t be unconditional love of truth.  The privacy of your own thoughts, for instance, may contain truthful information, but it doesn’t necessarily have to become public.  A scientific (in a broad sense of the word) organization that loves truth would compete with religion’s typically “imperfect” handling of truth.

A serious project of truth preservation could become a sort of Super Snopes.  Snopes is the famous website which debunks and/or proves true various urban legends and the like.  When you get one of those emails such as certain bananas will eat your flesh, check it out on Snopes first before continuing the hoax chain.  Dennett doesn’t define Super Snopes in detail, just that this is a kind of project that would be like Snopes or Wikipedia on an even more massive scale.  And there could be similar or overlapping projects that operate on local scales—perhaps reinstating the town/neighborhood oversight that is now missing.

Of course, something this vague has a chance of happening in the future.  But how it happens could be, as usual, an imperfect evolution from what we have now.  Hopefully secular groups, as Dennett makes the call for, will try to architect and create these projects as soon as possible.

I speculate that the projects that end up working in the future as far as truth preservation will make use of software agents (autonomous programs).  For instance, if people are not interested in taking notes on every little issue in your town/city, especially the mundane ones, then a computer can do that.

Of course, one person’s boring task is another’s hobby.  Some people enjoy collecting the data that they contribute to a central database.  But some will be able to use software agents to act as their minions—the citizen truth gatherer becomes a node, in which they are a small local central repository, which then sends data to the next biggest node, and so on.

The truth needs to be available to people whenever they want.  So the other major part of the technical aspect will be the interfaces and filters that allow humans to digest information, and to choose what streams to digest.  Of course, various web technologies have been increasing this capability (of filtering and choosing streams) for the entire life of the Internet.

Here is my question: could a (or perhaps several) Super Snopes ever evolve beyond truth preservation into actual civilization preservation, for instance like Asimov’s fictional Foundations?

(Cross-posted with Science 2.0.)

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