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Introduction | Feelings (δ) | Beliefs (γ) | Facts (β) | Ideas (α) | Conclusion

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Delta (δ): Feelings
Emotion without reason

"Migrant mother"
California, 1936
Dorothea Lange
Far from being an annoyance best dispensed with, feelings are the foundation on which a person is built. It is safe to say most of our recognizable ancestors basically felt their way through the world, and only recently did nature begin to add some basic thinking ability to our lives. In other words, we are guided much more by feeling than by thought. This is both a blessing and a curse.

The power of feelings cannot be overestimated — they are the engine that drives us, the part of our lives that is hardest to share with others, and the companion of last resort. Every noble cause — and every crazed mob — lies dormant in our feelings.

It is the power of feelings that is most intriguing to religious leaders and politicians. A leader that manipulates passion can sweep reason from his path. This is why the great and terrible events in human history include at least some element of this conflict between feeling and reason.

To repeat a point I have made before, as individuals pass through the four levels from feelings to ideas, in a few years we take the same tentative, halting steps taken by our species over thousands of years. We make the same mistakes, get stuck in the same places.

We can read the histories of people who tried to move from pure feeling to reason, but who got stuck along the way as a persuasive leader enlisted their feelings in service of his cause. In my opinion, it is better to remain in the realm of feeling than to begin a journey toward reason that stops at belief. All great tyrants of history have been able to stir the emotions of a few travelers along this intellectual path, stop them in their tracks, and fix their attention on him.

Some may think feeling stands opposed to reason, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many artists, writers and scientists report the most wonderful mixture of intense feeling and creative thought as they shape their personal gift to the store of human knowledge. Nobel Prizewinner Richard Feynman said, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature ... If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.” Many scientists say similar things — they see no conflict at all between the highest intellectual levels and the most profound emotions.

Some creative people are able to appeal directly to feeling, without any translation required. Music and poetry are just two examples of arts that possess this property — they appeal directly to emotion, largely bypassing the human brain's "higher" centers. Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a number of pieces of music with just this quality — a direct, rich appeal to human emotion. Rachmaninoff's intensely emotional work "Vocalise" is a good example, one I regularly recommend to students of classsical music.

It is important to realize many works possess emotional content we don't consciously understand, even while we are experiencing it. Much of modern advertising relies on this effect — advertisers do all they can to tell you to buy something without actually telling you. How many people, when told they cannot afford not to own brand X, simply say, “Oh, yes I can!” Or, when they hear, “It's on SALE!” can say “Well, I'm not!”

But the most important thing to understand about feeling is that it is an individual experience. If we all listen to a piece of music, or read a poem, each of us may have a different personal experience. Even when we think we are having the same feeling, we can be mistaken. Here is a joke about such a mistake: An optimist and a pessimist decide to have a debate. The optimist jumps up and says, “This is the best of all possible worlds!” The pessimist says, “Yeah!” Both think they've won the debate, so they go home.

This is why feeling alone cannot sustain a human being — it is entirely subjective. This is why feeling can only be the foundation on which a complete structure is built. This is why it is the first of four levels.


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