In 2003 I started looking at the science of emotion in order to determine if it would be useful for robots.  When I had to do an English paper that year (middler year writing @ Northeastern University) I decided it would be something about emotions, but I wasn't sure at first what the specific theme would be.  One question I had was, why do people often associate emotion with spirituality (or do they)?

Is it simply that some people never bothered to consider how emotion works, so it just gets classified with other mysterious phenomena like spirits?  Or is it because religion has laid claims to human emotion?


I figured it wouldn't hurt to talk to a religious leader (not sure if the leader himself was religious, but he should at least would be more knowledgeable than me in religious matters).  I was aware of the Unitarian Universalist church which is a strange mixture of various faiths.  I had a meeting with the pastor (or minister? whatever he's called) at the Unitarian Universalist church in Harvard Square.  I didn't record the meeting unfortunately (I couldn't afford recording devices back then) but he seemed to be familiar with some of the emotion books I was reading back then by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

One interesting thing that I remember him telling me is that the word "spiritual," or the modern usage and popularity of it, is actually relatively new.  I'm not sure about its popularity, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [1], "spiritual" has been used in most of its current senses since at least the 1300s (based on the quotes OED provides).  The exception is the sense of "spiritual home":

(with no religious connotation), a place or milieu, other than one's home, which seems especially congenial or in harmony with one's nature, or to which one feels a sense of belonging or indebtedness.

OED's earliest quote of "spiritual home" is from 1932.  As an aside, it's too bad that the usage of "spiritual" to mean "Of transcendent beauty or charm" is obsolete (according to OED):
1481    Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ii. iv. 69   Ther ben yet plente of other places so delectable, so swete, and so spyrytuel that yf a man were therin, he shold saye, that it were a very paradys.

The word emotion cropped up in 1579.  Historically these now-obsolete usages occurred:
  1. "A moving out, migration, transference from one place to another."
  2. "A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense)."
  3. "A political or social agitation; a tumult, popular disturbance."

Then we get to a modern usage:

Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

And some quotes:

  1660    Bp. J. Taylor Dvctor Dvbitantivm (R.),   The emotions of humanity..the meltings of a worthy disposition.

1762    Ld. Kames Elem. Crit. ii. §2. (1833) 37   The joy of gratification is properly called an emotion.

Then we get to an even more modern usage of emotion from psychology:
A mental ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’ (e.g. of pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, surprise, hope or fear, etc.), as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. Also abstr. ‘feeling’ as distinguished from the other classes of mental phenomena.
The quotes for that start in the 1800s:
1808    Med. Jrnl. XIX. 422 greatly under the dominion of emotion.
1841–4    R. W. Emerson Friendship in Wks. (1906) I. 81   In poetry..the emotions of benevolence and complacency..are likened to the material effects of fire.
1842    C. Kingsley Lett. (1878) I. 61   The intellect is stilled, and the Emotions alone perform their..involuntary functions.
1871    J. Tyndall Fragm. Sci. (ed. 6) II. xi. 231   He..almost denounces me..for referring Religion to the region of Emotion.
1875    B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) I. 249   The..emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances.

I'm leaning towards the premise that most people don't care how emotions or spirituality work and use them as umbrella terms to cover a wide range of stuff without much regard for details or theories. 

But was there ever a thread in history that that really tried to associate human emotions (even if that word wasn't used) with intangible spirits or gods?

I suppose the other frail connection that might exist in people's minds between emotion and spirituality is due to the never-ending attempt to preserve something special or divine about humanity.  Some will always grasp for some lifeboat that is supposedly unique to humans and not available (at least not as much) to animals or machines, such as "emotion" or "feeling" or "intelligence" or "winning at Jeopardy"...

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011.

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Comment by Carlos Lopez on April 11, 2011 at 3:45am
I like the explanation of Michael Shermer about the mind and brain. Basicly he says that the brain is real while the mind is only a word that we use to describe what the brain does, and conciousness is only another word that we use to describe the characteristics of the mind. The rest is only fantasy and wishfull mind (this quote is mine).
Comment by Tiago Martins on April 11, 2011 at 4:58pm
It's somewhat ironic, really. Emotions where probably, along with rationality, the best thing evolution gave us. Yet the same emotions where what made us bypass our rationality into wishful thinking, so that we could "feel" special.
I find it fascinating how the brain can make such complex processes that makes itself think there is something more...


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