My contribution to a LinkedIn discussion thread entitled, “Does Adherence to Rationality Lead to Atheism.” Kelly: Though you may be right, I do not agree that it requires some universe other than the physical, such as a spiritual universe, to explain learning, memory, thought, and emotion. Regarding learning and memory, it seems to me those have long been associated with additional connections being made among various neurons in the brain. As for the source of feelings, that’s another matter. That they cannot be explained by our present comprehension of the physical universe means to me only that science doesn’t understand everything about the physical universe, particularly at subatomic levels—and maybe never will.
But our lack of comprehension doesn’t change anything. For instance, there are not many people who have trouble believing that the sensations of hunger and tiredness are produced by the mind-body. If the mind-body can produce those nonphysical sensations, then why can’t it create the nonphysical sensations of grief, anger, romance, joy, and even that of red and blue, or of sound. (When I say that hunger or the color red are nonphysical sensations, I mean that they can be comprehended only by experience, not by demonstration—that is, if you can’t feel hunger or see the color red, then the phenomena cannot be explained.) All of these nonphysical sensations are either essential to species survival, or they optimize the species’ survivability. Biology had to stumble upon a way to create feelings and other non-physical sensations such as color and sound. Otherwise, animate life would not exist.
And what are feelings, anyhow? Here is how I look at it. Feelings reveal our body’s chemical state—that is, feelings of tiredness, anger, joy, or romance result from our body being in different chemical states. Innate awareness—the instinctive part of the brain—by its control over chemical producing glands, alters our body’s chemical state in response to our circumstances, in order to set-up the body—re-program it, so to speak—to manage those circumstances. We don’t sleep just by laying down. The body has to be “programmed” for it. And if, when in a tired stupor, instincts didn’t reprogram our body at the sight of a tiger sneaking up in the grass, we would be that animal’s dinner, for sure. That feelings such as hunger and romance exist, means only that the mind is capable of detecting the body’s chemical state, which, when put that way, doesn’t seem all that strange.
As for thinking, before any thought can occur, there must be something we want—that is, a feeling to satisfy. Thinking is simply a matter of how the mind matches our behavior to our wants. In other words, if hungry we think about where to find food, if tired we think about finding a place to rest. And if we are curious, we think about what is the best way to get over the hill, or whatever other activity or concept might be required to satisfy our curiosity.
Thinking is very closely related to feelings. Without feelings to satisfy, there would nothing to think about. Conversely, if we were unable to think, feelings would serve no purpose—we would not be able to figure out how to renormalize our body’s chemical state anyhow. Indeed, thinking is so closely related to feelings that I propose we can interchange the words “think” and “feel” in any sentence that begins with I, and not significantly disturb the meaning of the sentence. On that, I’m sure some of you will prove me wrong, but at least you will have fun doing so. Descartes wasn’t quite right when he said, “I think, therefore I exist.” He would have been closer to the heart of things had he said, “I feel, therefore I exist.” You see, a computer can think, but, because it can’t feel, it doesn’t know it exists.