What Data meant by “emotionless”: The mind and body of feelings

When John and I sat down and watched all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the thing that most consistently strained my suspension of disbelief wasn’t the faster-than-light travel, the plethora of humanoid aliens, or the idea of Wesley being allowed on the bridge.

It was Data the android. Not because he was an intelligent machine, but because he claimed to have no emotion.

He functioned, in all the most important respects, exactly like any creature with emotion. He made efforts to preserve his own life. He showed loyalty toward some people and distrust of others, and seemed to prefer the company of certain people. He was constantly motivated to seek new and interesting experiences. And on top of it all, he said, outright, countless times, that he had a desire to feel emotion.

At the time, I couldn’t find any way to spackle this gaping plothole. Desire is typically considered an emotion– one of the strongest and most important.

In fact, if you’re a conscious being, capable of making your own choices, you have to have the emotion of desire. That’s because all choices are caused by desire. I’ve analyzed hundreds of the choices I’ve made, and every single one was made because I either wanted it, or wanted something I could get by doing it.

I don’t often make absolute statements, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to make a choice for any reason other than desire.  Even if you do something because someone has a gun to your head, you’re still choosing to do it because it’s a means to the end of staying alive, which is something you presumably want. Even if you did something totally pointless that gained you nothing, just to prove you could, it would still be because you wanted to prove it.

So, I thought, if a creature that behaved like Data truly had no emotion, then he would not be a conscious entity. He’d be an automaton, programmed with an assortment of stock responses to an assortment of types of situations that his creator imagined he might face. Complicated, yes– it would take an enormous number of pre-programmed responses and simple algorithms working together, to simulate sapience as well as he does. But not truly conscious. The choices he made would actually be the choices of the person who programmed him. The prosecutor in “The Measure of a Man” would have been right about Data: he would not be a sentient being.

Even when depressed people enter a phase of “emotionlessness,” they still have the basic emotion of desire, on a few of the most fundamental issues. When they are unable to feel most of the emotions in their day-to-day lives, they can get bored and exhausted with this life of doing things they don’t care about. Sometimes the desire to stop the pointless routine becomes so strong they commit suicide. Sometimes they press onward and keep going through the motions anyway, because they want to avoid making other people sad– which is also a desire.

If you were capable of conscious thought, and not controlled by anything, but you were incapable of feeling desire… then you would do nothing. You wouldn’t go to work, because you’d have no desire to make money and keep your home. You wouldn’t respond to requests, encouragement or commands from other people, because you’d have no desire to please them or avoid their retaliation. You wouldn’t eat or drink, because you’d have no desire to stop being hungry or keep being alive. You’d die soon, but you wouldn’t actively kill yourself, because you’d have no desire to die. If you had no desires, you would absolutely not give a crap either way about anything.

But maybe desire isn’t always an emotion.

How do we define “emotion”? Lately I’ve realized that, for my whole life, I’ve been defining it as “any state of mind that can be described using the word ‘feel.'”

I’ve been using the word “desire” for the condition where your chest feels tight and you have to force yourself to breathe and your muscles are cramping with the effort to hold them back from trying to grab what you want… and I’ve also been using it for the condition where, rationally, you realize that the thing you’re reaching for is more likely to contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals than the alternative.

In either case you can say that you “want” the thing, or “feel a desire” for it. But maybe those two cases aren’t just different degrees of the same emotion.

What is emotion? It’s partially a mental condition. Mentally, you realize that you want something– to run away from danger (fear), to fight your enemy (anger), to be close to your loved ones (affection). It’s like a thought, but one that’s not necessarily put into words.

Usually, you don’t give conscious thought to why you want the thing. If you analyze it, you’ll almost always find that you want it because you think it will make you more happy than the alternative– “happy” being perhaps the only emotion that isn’t a form of desire.

Then again, maybe sadness isn’t a form of desire, either. It goes along with a wish for things to be better, but the sadness itself is focused on the feeling that things are bad right now. Most feelings involve motivations, but the mental portion of happiness or sadness could be described instead as an opinion: it’s the opinion that things are bad right now, or the opinion that things are good.

But for any feeling, in addition to the opinion or motivation itself, there are all the physical symptoms that go along with it.

When I try to imagine what fear feels like, my sensory memory supplies a pounding heart, cold limbs, muscles on a hair-trigger, ready to run or jump, and a slight tingly pain on the skin from the rush of adrenaline. Love feels warm, with a relaxed sensation, a swelling of the chest, and a different skin tingle that seeks touch. Anger is tight-chested, with pressure in my head and an ache in my cheeks and eyebrows, and the reflex to clench every muscle.

But what is an emotion, aside from a motivation or opinion and the body’s response to it? Is there anything beside those components?

I try to define what fear feels like, besides the opinion that I’m in danger and the motivation to save myself. Besides that, all I can think of are the physical sensations, ebbing and flowing in response to my thoughts about whatever I’m afraid of.

Every time I analyze a particular part of how an emotion feels, I realize that it’s a sensation of the body, not the mind. The only parts that aren’t physical are the thoughts that the situation is good or bad, and that I need to do something about it.

Maybe that’s what emotion is: the synergy of the mind’s part and the body’s part. Maybe the Tin Man was right: maybe you do need a heart to feel love.

Maybe it’s no accident that we use the word “feel” for both emotions and physical sensations.

I think Data had the “opinion and motivation” part of emotion. Probably he was programmed to have it. He considered some situations bad and some good, and he tried to seek out the good ones. And that couldn’t have been based only on logic, because if you try to base your desires only on logic, you eventually reach a question you can’t answer.

Why do I want to fight that alien monster?
Because if I don’t, it could kill my captain.

Why do I want it not to kill my captain?
Because he is valuable to the Federation.

Why do I care if the Federation loses a valuable captain?
Because anything that weakens the Federation threatens the political stability of the galaxy.

Why do I care about the stability of the galaxy?
Because instability could kill millions, including me and everyone I know.

Why do I care if everyone dies?
Because that would be terrible.

Why do I consider it terrible?
…I don’t know. I just do.

Logic is a way of deducing conclusions from premises. It can’t choose which premises you start out with.

Data seems to have had a few basic motivations, probably programmed into him by Dr. Soong, from which he reasoned all his decisions and conclusions. Basic motivations like “I must protect life.” He couldn’t logically explain why they made sense to him; he felt them in the same way we feel an instinct. But despite this, he still didn’t consider himself to have emotions.

Maybe it was just because he didn’t have an organic body. When something bad happened and he recognized that it was bad, his brain couldn’t respond by pumping his body full of the hormones of fear or anger or sadness.  He couldn’t feel the part of emotion that goes beyond opinion and motivation: the accelerated heartbeat, the tingles, the muscle tightness, the building of tears in the eyes. I think that was what he meant when he called himself emotionless.

Maybe the “emotion chip” he eventually got was a simulator that fed his brain the sensory feedback of an emotional body.

I was thinking about all this because I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I see something terrible in the news and don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it– because it’s too huge to process, or because I’ve been desensitized by reading so much news, or whatever causes those unfeeling moments I have.

But even when that happens, I still have the opinion-and-motivation part of emotion. I believe that what happened is bad. I experience a desire for it not to happen again. I do what I can to help prevent it.

And maybe that’s enough.

Data didn’t have the physical component of feeling. But he was a moral person. If a crewmate died, he didn’t feel a pang in his heart, a tightness in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes. But he still did everything he could to prevent their deaths. His desire to save them wasn’t physical, but it was strong– he prioritized it above other, less important things that he also valued.

So, if you do good things not because you love it, but because you believe you should… if you help others and protect civilization because you believe it’s the right thing to do, even if your heart doesn’t hurt when imagining the alternatives… if you see tragedies on the news and you don’t react by crying or clenching your teeth, but you still donate to charity or call your congressman to fight against those tragedies… then you don’t need to feel ashamed at not feeling the expected emotions. Data was one of the good guys, and you’re at least as good as he was.

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