Uneasy Feelings

Think about the last time you bought something frivolous, for yourself and no one else. Or, how about your car? What did you go through in selecting that vehicle? Did you only care that it had 4 wheels and an engine? Or did you think about its color, inside and out? Did you imagine what your friends would see as you drove it to their house? Speaking of houses, there is generally no greater investment we can make. Do you know of anyone who would buy their house without having good ‘feelings’ about the purchase? Or would they remain totally rational and objective?

The answers are obvious to most people. Feelings, whether you are buying that special watch, a car, or your house, will probably be one of the biggest factors in your decision. Your feelings matter, in a very big way. And feelings come in many shapes and sizes.

For instance, there is one feeling that, among us humans, we call premonition. Something terrible is going to happen says the gnarly character as dark music swells. Sharp eyes pierce yours, and chills go up your spine. In the movies, something terrible does happen; that’s the controlled horror we pay for. In reality, we don’t have the ability to predict the future, yet many people abide their premonitions.

Ah, at this point, Gentle Reader, you may be thinking “Hold it right there.” You may even say out loud, “This site is about the scientific approach to studying behavior.” And you are quite correct.

However, science is not all black and white, it is not only yes or no. Science itself is a form of behavior, and as such it must obey whatever laws of behavior there may be. It helps me to think of science as another form of expression, much like painting with oils. There are aspects that are fixed, methods which must be followed so that the final outcome is called science. For everything else, the full range of creative expression and human interpretation is allowed. It is just these sorts of creative versus rigid aspect of science that recently deceased biologist Francois Jacob described as day science and night science. [1]

Jacob defined day science as a linear progression of observation and scientific design leading to a viola conclusion. Night science is how the discovery process really happens, a messy, intuitive, questioning progression where we construct and then demolish hopeful hypotheses, “fighting a lot with yourself.”

Which brings us to the point. Feelings are important to understanding our behavior. Yet, Western science denies the importance of feelings. Whether for good or bad isn’t relevant, feelings simply aren’t as important as other factors. In all the natural sciences, from math and physics to chemistry and biology, one can easily argue that there is absolutely no room for feelings. In the social sciences, the best incorporation of feelings comes from psychology, being directly dealt with by Freud, and economics, indirectly incorporated into the observations of Malthus. In each case, modern versions of psychology and economics try to deal with feelings as best they can; but their success is highly debatable. Psychology most often incorporates feelings into social psychological research, with highly dubious results. Economics, more to its credit, has constrained the use of feelings to ‘consumer confidence’ measures; but the contribution of this to understanding the economy is suspect.

Talking about feelings makes me feel uneasy, because feelings are not well defined. So let’s make a stab at a definition. My feelings are purely subjective states that influence my behavior. Your feelings do the same thing, but the only way I can ever know your feelings is to listen to you tell me about them (oh, please do!), or to infer them based on your observable behaviors.

Here’s what Darwin and Spencer said about feelings without referring to them as such. In his book, Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals, [2] Darwin defines emotions negatively by drawing on Spencer’s definitions from 1863. Feelings come from two sources: Emotions or sensations. The difference between emotions and sensations are that sensations are generated in our corporeal framework. The implication is that emotions are all in the non-corporeal framework, or “in the mind.”

But as we know, studying what goes on in the mind, and knowing what our corporeal sensations are telling us can be very difficult. In fact, we may still not know the extent of our corporeal senses. A good and fairly recent example has to do with our sense of taste. It took a while, but besides sweet, salt, sour and bitter, we now have umami on our tongue. [3] Is that the final answer?

What about the major sense categories? These 5 are arbitrary in themselves, created by men to categorize the senses we can ‘see.’ For instance, what is the true difference between taste and smell? And what of the senses we can’t see? Birds can detect magnetic fields using slightly magnetized bacterial cells, thereby migrating thousands of kilometers annually. Sharks sense their mouthful of prey using electrical potentials. And there may be others for which we have no inkling.

What goes on in our minds? Even that is difficult enough for us to report on ourselves, let alone trying to discern what might be going on in someone else’s head. The upshot is this, instead of confronting this problem head on, modern science has decided to simply ignore feelings. Is this a bad thing?

It may be. Perhaps we’ve been ignoring feelings for so long that it’s backfiring. Our forward- thinking scientific society is creating a generation of science doubters. There does seem to be an increasing number of people who doubt science so much that they are fighting to go backwards. How many school boards try to incorporate creation as science?

More importantly, is it impossible for science to even study feelings? Is it possible that these subjective mental states are beyond our capacity to observe and study? Is it even possible that these things called feelings don’t even exist?


What doesn’t exist is our ability to properly handle the concept and treat it more objectively. But, as any night science must, we must continue this argument… with myself.

And part of this argument goes like this. There are strong feelings out there, in the wilds of society, that point to the direction our society is taking. I am only a single surveyor, but it appears to me that there are too many people feeling things aren’t right.

What people? Our people, friends and relative people. Passing acquaintances and chance stranger people. People on the far left and people on the far right. Even people in the center.

My Saturday breakfast buddies are a collection of old men gathering year round celebrating eggs and aging. The core of conversation is guns and cars (good) and women (generally bad), but the spice is invariably politics. And it’s here that they agree, as staunch conservatives, that things feel wrong – mismanaged – going the wrong way.

At the same time there are my liberal friends, not quite so organized as the SBB, also decrying the lack of progress, the rise of ultraconservatives, and general disappointment in leadership.

All these feelings may not be relevant, but they exist, and as astute observers of behavior we must at least acknowledge them.

They are feelings, and there may not be a rational model generating these moods, there may not even be words to express the fundamentals of their foreboding. Still they persist.

Taken all together, these feelings anticipate a darker future. We can only wait and see what the future holds, before we can ascribe anything to today’s feelings. I only hope that part of that future also contains a behavioral science that is able to handle all our feelings.



[1] Science magazine, published by AAAS. Issue of 24 May 2013, p 939.

[2] Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, by Charles E Darwin, originally published in 1872. The Spencer work is referenced on page 27 of the edition published in 1979 by Julian Friedmann, London.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami