The Argument from Emotion

The Argument from Emotion is one of the most powerful against rationalist atheism, at least from the point of view of someone not versed in rationalism. As such, it’s quite dangerous to the truth. It ought to be questioned, and found false, which is what it most certainly is. This document is my stab at the issue.

The Argument

A rationalistic atheist such as myself will dismiss the idea of supernatural because there isn’t evidence to support it, and so Occam’s Razor requires us go with the simpler explanation. The Argument from Emotion is an attempt to show that there are things commonly agreed to exist even when there is no way to prove that existence. The basic form of the argument is as follows:

Do you agree that you have emotions? If so, emotions must exist. Prove that you have emotions. If you cannot, you will have accepted at least one thing to exist which you cannot prove to exist. Hence, such things can exist. God is also one such thing.

The same argument can be made with anything internal to our thoughts, of course. The argument was popularized by the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name.

The rebuttal

First, emotions and thoughts are states of one’s mind. They are information going about in our brain, not physical objects. Hence, they in fact cannot exist in the normal, physical sense of buildings, people, planets and air. They exist only in the sense of culture produced by us, the sense in which numbers or, more generally, mathematics, can be said to exist. Thus it is perfectly legitimate for a strong atheist to say that, indeed, in this sense God too exists. Few would claim that hallucinations do not exist, even if it’s patently clear that attributing physical reality to their perceived objects would be fallacious. In this context, God is one collective hallucination, existent as a part of our culture, but lacking physical existence.

Second, there are indeed reasons to believe emotions as subjective experiences exist and are felt similarly by separate individuals. The evidence comes in many forms, some of which are:

And so on. There is also similar evidence for the existence of God: religious people’s actions and approximate state of mind can often be inferred from a theory postulating God and religion as mindstates of the individual. If such an interpretation supports anything, the existence of God purely as a human construct.

We’ll have to remember that the actual experince of believing in a supernatural entity is akin to perceiving a color or feeling angry. As yet there is no way to be sure what it’s like in other people’s case, or whether the experience is anywhere near what you might or might not feel. It’s a reasonable assumption that the subjective state of mind evoked by direct perceptions are similar across individuals because of the physical makeup of our sensory apparatus. But in the case of religious belief, we always have to resort to allusion and parallels (It feels just wonderful!), and take the description on a person’s word. The same goes for the subjective experience of atheism or a given color, too. Having experienced such a state cannot be proven, even if the existence of such states in general can be. This applies to supernatural entities only as far as they are considered on par with hallucinations.

Thus, a real argument can be made for separating objective existence from its provability in a particular case. This isn’t a problem with emotion, as we’ve seen. The difference in the case of God is that believers postulate Him as a physical, acting entity. Such an entity would necessarily generate physical evidence. If it doesn’t, we might as well assume it doesn’t exist—it won’t make a real difference either way. If we take this interpretation of religious belief, we also have to note that the existence of the supernatural has absolutely no bearing on any of our everyday activities—it isn’t a part of the physical, and so do not have anything to do with our inescapably physical nature.

In any case, in matters not provable, that is, not subjective to objective scientific inquiry and deduction, it is also always correct to presume the nonexistence of said phenomena. It might be such beliefs are useful to the individual, but since they cannot be discussed or tested rationally, it’s perfectly fine to subscribe to a different model if that seems to explain one’s environs better. For instance, it is perfectly permissible to say that experiences do not carry any fixed emotional content if some other theory works better. I certainly apply this sort of reasoning every day—I don’t think music can carry unambiguous information or emotional content, for instance, and rather rely on an interpretation of emotional responses evoked by music which relies only on learning and association. Hence, no music is sad, but there are certain people who interpret certain kinds of music as being sad. If we apply this reasoning to religion, there is no God, but there are certain people who explain things in their physical environment by reference to a theory involving a supernatural being.

The cinch is, that sort of theory is pretty much useless compared to the comprehensive materialistic viewpoint. If the viewpoint gives one pleasure or solace, fine. So could a one ascribing everything of significance in the world to the Venerable, Pink, Invisible Dinosaur Fred. In any case, it’s easy enough to see such subjective theories do not have the objective qualities evangelists purport them to have. They don’t do one a lot of good, either.

I’d rather do without, anyway.