Chapter 3: When Are Feelings Illusions?

Hovering over the question posed by the title of this chapter is a larger question: What the hell are we talking about here? Illusions are things that seem to be true but aren’t—and what would it even mean to say that feelings are “true” or “false”? Feelings just are. If we feel them, then they’re feelings—real feelings, not imagined feelings. End of story.

There’s something to be said for this point of view. In fact, one of the take-home lessons of Buddhist philosophy is that feelings just are. If we accepted their arising and subsiding as part of life, rather than reacting to them as if they were deeply meaningful, we’d often be better off. Learning to do that is a big part of what mindfulness meditation is about. And there are lots of satisfied customers who attest that it works.

Still, saying that it works isn’t the same as saying that it’s intellectually valid. Just because being less reactive to some of your feelings makes you happier doesn’t mean it brings a truer apprehension of the world. Maybe this less reactive stance is like a narcotic: it dulls the pain by insulating you from the real-world feedback that your feelings pro-vide. Maybe it’s meditation, not your ordinary consciousness, that puts you in a dream world.

If we want to see whether meditation does, in fact, bring you closer to the truth, it helps to ask whether some of the feelings it can liberate you from would otherwise have carried you away from the truth. So we need to try to get a handle on this admittedly unwieldy question: Are our feelings in some sense “false”? Or “true”? Are some false and some true? And which are which?

One way to approach these questions is to go back in evolutionary time. Way back. Back to when feelings first arose. Sadly, no one knows exactly when that was, or even approximately when that was. Was it back when mammals appeared? Reptiles? Squishy blobs floating in the sea? One-celled creatures such as bacteria?

One reason it’s hard to say is that feelings have an odd property: you can never be absolutely, positively sure that anyone or anything other than you has them. Part of the definition of a feeling is that it’s private, not visible from the outside. So I don’t know for sure that, say, my dog Frazier has feelings. Maybe that wagging tail is just a wagging tail!

But just as I seriously doubt that I’m the only human with feelings, I seriously doubt that my species is the only species with feelings. I suspect that when my cousin the chimpanzee writhes in seeming pain, it is writhing in actual pain. And if, from chimpanzees, you go down the ladder of behavioral complexity—down to wolves, lizards, even jellyfish, and (what the hell) bacteria—I don’t see an obvious place to stop assuming that there are feelings.

Anyway, regardless of when feelings first arose, there is a rough consensus among behavioral scientists on what the original function of good feelings and bad feelings was: to get organisms to approach things or avoid things that are, respectively, good for them or bad for them. Nutrients, for example, keep organisms alive, so natural selection favored genes that gave organisms feelings that led them to approach things containing nutrients—that is, food. (You may be familiar with such feelings.) Things that harm or kill organisms, in contrast, are best avoided, so natural selection gave organisms feelings that inclined them to avoid such things—feelings of aversion. To approach or to avoid is the most elemental behavioral decision there is, and feelings seem to be the tool natural selection used to get organisms to make what, by natural selection’s lights, was the right decision.

After all, your average animal isn’t smart enough to think, “Hmm, that substance is rich in carbohydrates, which give me energy, so I’ll make a habit of approaching and ingesting it.” In fact, your average animal isn’t even smart enough to think, “Food good for me, so I ap-proach.” Feelings arose as proxies for this kind of thinking. The inviting warmth of a campfire on a freezing night means that staying warm is better for us than freezing. The pain caused by actual contact with the fire means that there’s such a thing as too much warmth. The job of these and other feelings is to convey to the organism what’s good for it and what’s bad for it. As the biologist George Romanes put it in 1884, twenty-five years after Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared, “Pleasures and pains must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

This suggests one way to think about whether feelings are true or false. Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our envi-ronment. Typically these judgments are about whether these things are good or bad for the survival of the organism doing the feeling (though sometimes they’re about whether these things are good or bad for close kin—notably offspring—since close kin share so many of our genes). So we could say that feelings are “true” if the judgments they encode are accurate—if, say, the things they attract the organism to are indeed good for it, or if the things they encourage the organism to avoid are in-deed bad for it. We could say feelings are “false” or perhaps “illusory” if they lead the organism astray—if following the feelings leads to things that are bad for the organism. †

This isn’t the only way you could define true and false in a biological context, but it’s one approach, so let’s see how far we get with it….