On Emotional Skepticism

A rambling scrawled one morning when I felt a bit blue.
I eventually edited it to be marginally less melodramatic.

Forks clinked against plates while morning conversation was paused or muffled by mouths of eggs. Outside the pit-patter-plang of long awaited rain echoed the kitchen’s chatter and the birch and hydrangea leaves danced in celebration of their quenching. A ribbon of fresh air wound itself through an open window, buffering a lingering onion-and-cheese-scramble-burnt-on-castiron smell that had invaded the living room.

Where once it had been smokey (not uncommon in the tinderbox of Southern California), this morning the air was filled with moss, wet concrete, and a breeze off the ocean that was notably absent of tar. Winter–or as close to winter as we get here in Santa Barbara–was settling in. I breathed the cool earthy freshness and sighed before draining what remained in my yerba mate mug and scraping clean the last remnants of my oatmeal bowl. The glow of warmth and caffeine was welcomed, and yet I too felt empty.

There had always been that lack, or at least there had for most of my life. I suspect everyone has something like it. The kind of empty space that not food nor meaningful work nor the most perfect leisure will sate, but that we all hunger to fill. On this particular morning, I felt it more than usual, for it was very recently that I had let it fill too much and too fast, only to find it just as quickly empty again.

It was an experience familiar to many: a conversation with a stranger who, after even just ten minutes, is not a stranger but someone you’ve somehow known for years. The kind of encounter that makes people believe in past lives. In those moments this empty space wasn’t some formless void but shaped.

Like her.

Most of the time, of course, this is an illusion. The universe is cruelly arranged in just such a way as to let you begin to think you actually understand what someone else is thinking. What someone else is feeling.

I did not.

She, in fact, felt nothing.

I thought for a while that your poignant smile \
was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me. \
Ah yes, I was wrong \
Again, I was wrong.

  • Billy Strayhorn

Our conversation had been marked by openness and over-sharing, but though we went deep, it was unearned intimacy.1 One cannot really know another in a single encounter, as one cannot account for the twisted calculus and emotional epicycles that another’s past brings to bear on their present. In the grand mansion of her soul, I hadn’t even stepped through the foyer.

There is a concept in philosophy called solipsism that this recent interaction brought to mind. In common parlance it gets used as a hundred-dollar word approximating “selfish,” but in the technical sense it’s a form of philosophical skepticism that holds that one cannot prove the existence of other minds.2 As far as epistemic bedrock goes, the only guarantee is one’s own perception; one could very well be entirely alone in the world. Over the years I’ve wondered if a version of this concept can explain one of the challenges in establishing deep emotional connection and companionship.

You might get glimpses of what I have in mind if you’ve ever been lost in the melancholy of a brilliantly sad song, or in the quiet stirring felt when you’ve climbed to the top of a remote and lofty overlook just in time for sunset. Your body and soul resonate at a frequency that seems as powerful as it does uniquely your own. Even if a person next to you shares a similar heart-rent love of the song, or that reverence and contented joy in the face of rarefied sublimity, you can’t know that their frequency is the same. As the significance of a moment increases, so too does the significance of both individuals’ divergent perceptions. The result is a haunting sense that you remain some distance apart in your own experience.

And so this is the problem: the possibility that you are isolated because another’s mental states exist in a radically different and wholly private way. This is no small thing, and in my more pensive moments it seems to me like that person might as well not be there at all.

In the last eight years or so I’ve laid aside Descartes, Nozick, and Wittgenstein, and traded them for Fielding, Kernighan, and Armstrong.3 That is to say, I’ve become much less the dreamy philosopher and more the stern and somewhat OCD tech nerd. The shift has made parsing degrees of emotional connection even less intelligible and even more frustrating. This recent conversation–with a person who, it turns out, is not my soulmate (who would have guessed…)–did not come with HTTP response codes, syntax linters, or neatly monitored processes that restart upon failure. I seem to have the tools to frame a problem in the starkest and most philosophically grim terms, but none to remedy it in a day-to-day practical way.

That said, there are two ways out of this philosophical funk, I think.

The first is something like realizing “there is no spoon” here. The significance of this problem is born of something like sentimentalism, ascribing inflated significance to emotional states and relying on them as a conduit to truth. In less emotional moods, I find this problem seems to collapse.

The other is embracing what challenge may actually be present: that there is risk posed by uncertainty but also great reward, that it takes work and investment in another person to begin or sustain a deep relationship, and that true connection–when you both “get it” in the same way4–is rare and mysterious and therefore valuable.

Perhaps relationships are worth pursuing in part because they aren’t governed by such finite precision, and when powerful experiences are not perfectly shared as if people were servers connected over Coax cable, that’s OK. Beautiful and transformative moments are often ineffable, not neat philosophical propositions.5

It may be that life would be a little less hard and a little less painful if it were composed of more reason and more rules. But it would also be less rich. It would also be more boring.

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1 Part of this is The First Date Effect. After a couple glasses of wine, nervous and stilted conversation gives way to a more comfortable and natural flow. But a lack of awkwardness should not be mistaken for genuine connection.

2 More on solipsism here

3 A fantastic but totally unrelated presentation from Armstrong can be found here

4 and recognize in the moment that you are both “getting it” in that way, and recognize that you recognize…

5 c.f. xkcd


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