Are feelings real? On Valentine’s Day, they’d better be

Humans tend to be confused about reality. Scientists, on the other hand, are all about reality. The question becomes, “Are scientists human?”  Well, I think they are, and they are just as confused as everyone else. This might seem like an extravagant claim. What? Which claim? That scientists are human, or that people are confused about reality?

C. S. Lewis pointed out that humans sometimes say things like, “That wasn’t real. It was just a feeling you had because of the music, the lights, the company and the wine.” In this case, the word “real” refers to an actual physical experience and feelings are just a bunch of endorphins or related hormones. On the other hand, someone might also say, “You don’t understand what it was really like to be hanging out of a second-story window and being shot at.” In this case, reality is the feelings one has while being shot at while hanging from a second-story window. 

Why were they hanging from a second story window, I wonder. Did it have anything to do with the music, lights and wine?  By the way, the quotation marks above simply indicate the things people might say. They aren’t direct quotes from C.S. Lewis, who, I am sure, made the point more eloquently.

With this kind of loose semantics, though, how is a person to know how they are really feeling? When someone asks “How are you?” I’m thrown into a vortex of confusion. If I don’t reply that I am good, does it mean I need to repent? Is feeling good the same as feeling well? Why are feelings not real if they are caused by real things like endorphins?

Personally, as pleasant as some feelings may be, I’m not sure I trust them all that much. Think about it. Sometimes I feel happy. Other times I feel sad.  Sometimes I feel like working hard. Most of the time I’d rather write a column. Sometimes I feel incredibly patient with idiots. Other times I don’t feel very patient with everyone because everyone else is an idiot. Feelings come and feelings go. Life, based on feelings, doesn’t seem to be a consistent way of living. 

I guess this is why science isn’t very useful on Valentine’s Day. One can identify, and even quantify, endorphins. However, their actual effects seem unpredictable and mysterious. One needn’t look far to see the baffling results. For example, my wife is intelligent and attractive, but she seems to love me. At least, she’s still around. 

Valentine’s Day is all about feelings, which is why there is some question about whether or not scientists are human. This may not seem urgent to most of you, but I can assure you that on Valentine’s Day the smart scientist should try to act like feelings are real even if he or she is confused about the matter. I know this is much clearer to non-scientists. 

I think a better basis for living life is simply to make love a decision. Then if the feelings change, the obligations one undertakes in the name of love don’t. “I’ve decided to be a good husband to you forever” probably doesn’t sound too romantic. But it’s a lot more reliable than saying “I will love you forever.” Because I have to continue to be a good husband even if I don’t feel like it sometimes. 

What is interesting is that one of the best ways of changing our feelings is simply to decide to change our feelings. If we wait until we feel like changing our feelings we may never feel like it. Or we might feel like changing the feeling of changing our feelings. Then where would we be? I have no idea!

The questions remain. Are feelings real, and are scientists human? No, wait! Was it, are scientists real and are feelings human? I don’t think I feel like talking about this anymore.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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