Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Subproject 5: Existential Feelings and Evolutionary Theory

After the philosophical and empirical investigation of existential feelings in the first two subprojects, and the discussion of evolutionary explanations of basic emotions in the third and fourth subprojects, it stands to reason to consider, in the fifth subproject, the evolutionary status of existential feelings. Due to the fact that, on the one hand, concrete theories of existential feelings are largely not available, and on the other hand, evolutionary explanations are notoriously problematic in the area of psychology, the attempt of a fruitful connection will surely not be easy. But it would be a mistake not to make this step after having done a maximum amount of preliminary work in the first four subprojects. We will round up the animal emotionale II project by collectively analyzing the general possibility of an evolutionary approach to the understanding of existential feeling. Based on the theoretical work of previous subprojects, we will try to develop concrete adaptive explanations. In order to do so, especially two alternatives have to be considered: (1) Existential feelings could be adaptations which are specifically human, namely solutions for adaptive problems which only emerged in the evolutionary environment of homo sapiens, or (2) existential feelings could be phylogenetically older adaptations, which already had a crucial evolutionary purpose for our animal ancestors and which should therefore be detectable in animals, at least in a rudimentary form. But it could also be the case that existential feelings are just an epiphenomenon of other cognitive and affective abilities of humans, for which there never was a selection pressure. Before we ask these questions about the evolutionary status of existential feelings, we have to clarify whether existential feelings or functionally equivalent precursors can be found in animals. Here, the question arises whether the relation to our self and the world, which is characteristic for existential feelings, requires far-reaching conceptual capacities, which in principle cannot be attributed to animals.


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