Symbols are vessels of meaning. Nature produces some few intentional symbols – like flowers that attract bees with certain colours or shapes, or the vivid cautionary hues of poisonous frogs. But only humans can learn and create symbols arbitrarily, and in fact need to do so. Mankind produces and utilises a volume of symbols that vastly exceeds that of nature.
A little while ago I read Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?”, and found it quite compelling. I had read a few reviews beforehand, which were critical of the religious element, and this lowered my expectations somewhat. However, upon reading it, I found that Tolstoy’s conception of religion is very different to most, and is compatible with a materialist and determinist worldview. It seems to me that perhaps the real reason some people did not respond positively to this essay was its uncompromising moral consistency, which could perhaps be mistaken for religious zealotry.
There are two conflicting views of the world, one that I will call egocentric and another that I will call narcissistic. Both of these views have associated urges – deep-rooted reasons related to the functioning of our minds that might drive us to instinctively adopt one view or the other. These views seem to me to have some explanatory power in the realm of politics, as they affect how we view the world. Everyone engages with both of these views to some degree, but I think each end of the political spectrum favours one over the other.
In this essay I use the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘mental state’ interchangeably. I think they are largely the same thing, the commonly recognised emotions are simply the clearest and most consistent mental states people experience.
I have recently become interested in the idea of exerting control over my mental state. Most people live their lives entirely responding to outside stimuli, having their emotions and behaviours dictated by the events they are subjected to. But it has become clear to me that we have a lot more control over the state of our own minds than we think, and that this concept is rarely mentioned in our society.
It seems only natural that we respond emotionally to the things that happen to us, but thinking about emotions and their Darwinian origins have made me realise that they serve a few basic functions.