How do we define/explain emotions

(Andrew) #1

In my book study supporting Christian university students, we discussed the problem of emotions. According to one of the students, her professor defined emotions as solely a physiological response to external stimuli (he was an athiest evolutionist, obviously).

How does Christianity define emotions? Do they have a purpose outside of the realm of physiological necessity? I feel like they do, but I’m not exactly sure how to respond to this evolutionary worldview.

(SeanO) #2

@akorevaar I think we must remember that in the Christian worldview we have both a soul/spirit and a body. We are embodied, but we are not only a body. Naturalism attempts to reduce everything down to the physical, but that is reductionistic. Yes, our emotions are tied to our physical state, but we are more than mere emotions - we can command our emotions - we can make decisions in spite of our emotions - we can guide our emotions. We have a will.

One approach is to talk about our consciousness. We have no explanation for the human experience of self-awareness. Some scientists believe it is due to quantum activity in the brain, but this is still a very far fetched guess. @CarsonWeitnauer may have some further material to share on that topic.

But ultimately we can recognize that in the Bible we are embodied, but we are more than a body.

1 Peter 1:13-15 - I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.

I hope those thoughts are a good start to our discussion. The Lord Jesus grant us wisdom :slight_smile:


Some thoughts from @CarsonWeitnauer on how consciousness is different than mere neural activity in our brain.

The four illustrations of this principle when it comes to the difference between consciousness and neuronal activity are these:

  1. Consciousness is a first-person perspective on the world; that of being a subject and not an object.
  2. Consciousness includes private beliefs and feelings which are inaccessible to others without us revealing them
  3. Consciousness includes the experience of “qualia”: to use a technical term, for instance, the ‘ouchiness’ of pain.
  4. Consciousness makes possible intentionality. Intentionality is the ability to deliberately direct one’s attention to various features of one’s inner life or of the outer world.

All four of these features are essential components of what it means to have consciousness. But none of them are scientific descriptions of a brain.

Therefore, we have good reason to think that our brains are not the same as our consciousness.

Spirit/Soul and Body


(Carson Weitnauer) #3

Hi @akorevaar,

Thank you for your question - it led me to do some exploration. I think this article offers some helpful starting points for reflection:

Most fundamentally, it seems to me that the existence of emotions is dependent upon the existence of persons. In Christianity, we believe in a Triune God - one God in three persons. The Bible is quite clear that we are made in the image of God. Therefore, Christians have rich theological resources for understanding what it means to be a person, and giving due weight to the emotional realities of our lives.

In the framework that you have hinted your professor holds too, ultimate reality is non-personal. Personhood might be an emergent property of complex physical systems, but it is all reducible back to matter, energy, and space-time. This framework, it seems to me, will struggle to legitimate the substance and importance of emotions. It is unclear to me how an “emotion” like joy could be entirely reducible to neuronal activity. (Though of course there may be interesting correlations).

(Stephen Wuest) #4

I also agree that the biblical picture of a human being includes both a physical body, and a spirit. Although many (modern) Christians accept this language, we are not used to asking the question “What of me exists on the physical nature, and what of me exists on the spirit?”

I suggest that the language of the New Testament reflects first century belief that the mind lives on the spiritual side (not the physical). I could make a coherent argument for this, but this comment is not the place for that.

I suggest that New Testament Greek presents the physical side of us, as not including the mind. Emotions seem to be heavily physical, and the New Testament presents the virtue of self-control as the mind controlling the emotions, and keeping them in check. The ancient philosophers also viewed this relationship between the mind, and the physical body.

There is no usage in New Testament Greek, for the meaning of the “flesh” as a summary of what is evil and prone to sin, in us. (!!) This concept seems to be a later concept, used by those who didn’t really understand how the biblical language views the relationship between the physical and the spirit. We get verses that point to the problem of living only according to our physical urges, because in the New Testament Greek, the mind lives on the spiritual side of our being, not the physical side. And our conscience and moral consciousness and our knowledge of God’s will, live on the spiritual side of our being. If we live, bypassing our moral consciousness, then we are living solely “in the flesh.” And this becomes a description of someone who is living as though they had no functional conscience.

Note that the New Testament includes interesting phrases, such as about Jesus, when he was living “in his days in the flesh.”

NIV Hebrews 5:7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
RSV Hebrews 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.

Some of our translations hide this use of “the flesh,” perhaps because some denominations think that “the flesh” must indicate sinful urges.

Some of the classic passages in the NT about our struggle to do what is right, involve this first century language that the mind must impose its will on the physical body. And Paul tells us to get a renewed mind, and be disciplined, to do this. Some of the later theologians sometimes miss that this language is talking about the inherent differences in direction, of the mind and the physical body.

This topic needs a lot more discussion, by Christians.