Friday, October 19, 2007

Rand's Theory of Emotions Examined

The most critical part of Rand's view of man is her theory of emotion. Upon its validity rests not merely her vision of the "ideal" man, but also her philosophy of history with its rather implausible eschatological implications. The plausibility of Rand's moral and political theories also rests heavily on her view of emotion — perhaps more so than is generally recognized. So important a theory, yet Rand provided no systematic exposition of it, only a few ex cathedra statements, intolerably vague to the understanding. The closest we can find to a systematic presentation of it is in Peikoff's OPAR, which offers the theory that emotions are automatized "value-judgments." But where do value judgments come from?
Value-judgments are formed ultimately on the basis of a philosophic view of man and life — of oneself, of others, of the universe; such a view, therefore, conditions all one's emotions. If, for example, a man's basic mental set amounts to the idea that he is a helpless incompetent caught in an unknowable jungle, his will affect his value-judgments in every department of life.... By contrast, if a man holds that his mind is efficacious and the universe intelligible, he will form radically different values and, as a result, experience radically different wants, likes, and dislikes [Emphasis added.].

Note the emphasized words. In Objectivism, the ambiguity of words is sometimes used to present two versions of a theory: a strong version and a weak version. The strong version is grossly improbable and cannot to be taken seriously. The weak version, on the other hand, at least enjoys an aura of plausibility. In regard to the Objectivist theory of emotions, the weak theory is the view that one's philosophical views "condition" or "affect" one's value-judgments (and hence, by implication, one's resulting emotions as well). The strong theory, on the other hand, asserts that value-judgments (and the emotions they produce) are entirely (or almost entirely) the product of philosophical views. Which view does Peikoff uphold? Well, in the passage quote above, he seems to lean toward the weaker version, saying that philosophical views only "condition" or "affect," one's value judgments; they don't, presumably then, determine them. But when later we reach the grand conclusion of Peikoff's presentation we are startled to find that following assertion: "Ayn Rand ... holds that man can live exclusively by reason. He can do it because emotions are consequences generated by his conclusions."

Now this assertion depends on the strong version of the theory, and loses whatever logical force it may have without it. For if one's conclusions only "condition" or "affect" one's value-judgments, then, presumably, that would still leave room for other causes, such as innate causes or causes relating to physiological desires. Such causes could affect how one reasons, thereby compromising the claim that "man can live exclusively by reason."

There is yet another problem, and this one appears to be conclusive. It is this: How do individuals go about choosing the philosophical views that determine their value-judgments and their emotions? We know Rand's answer: "Your conscious mind." And if you "default," if your conscious mind doesn't make a concerted effort to form “proper” philosophical views from which rational value-judgments can be deduced, then "you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted."

This view of emotions, reason, and consciousness has been refuted by research done in cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. These sciences have discovered that animals (including human beings) have "primary emotions," which are "innate" and "preorganized" and which depend on limbic system circuitry in the brain. They have discovered that emotions are critical in thinking, so that the notion that "man can live exclusively by reason," when accompanied by the additional notion that "emotions are not tools of cognition," misrepresents what actually happens in cognition. Human beings are not blank slates. Their emotions are not programmed into their “subconscious” by their conscious minds. That view is no more credible than would be an astrological view of emotions. On naturalistic assumptions, emotions are and must be the product of evolution. They are tools of survival, forged in the evolutionary furnace.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Come on guys, I know you can write better criticisms of Objectivism than this.

Here is what you call the "weak version of the theory":

"Value-judgments are formed ultimately on the basis of a PHILOSOPHIC view of man and life — of oneself, of others, of the universe; such a view, therefore, conditions all one's emotions."

(Note my emphasis.)

And here is the conclusion that you say requires the "strong version of the theory":

"Ayn Rand ... holds that man can live exclusively by reason. He can do it because emotions are consequences generated by his conclusions."

But you're talking about strong and weak version of TWO DIFFERENT THEORIES. The equivocation could not be more pronounced:

Yes, the first excerpt states a "weak" version of a theory about the PHILOSOPHIC causes of emotions: philosophic views merely *condition* ones emotions.

And yes, the second excerpt depends on a "strong" version of a theory about the COGNITIVE causes of emotions: all of one's emotions are caused by one's conclusions.

These are entirely compatible. It can be true that all of one's emotions are consequences generated by conclusions, without it's being true that ALL of those conclusions are philosophic. This is precisely AR's theory. True, she thinks that all emotions are the products of value judgments, but value judgments are merely conditioned by one's philosophic world view. They are also conditioned by lots of other conclusions about lots of other subjects, like one's self-esteem, and one's history and basic observations about one's circumstance.

Now maybe you still want to question the strong conclusion about the source of emotions: that all emotions originate in some conclusions of the mind. Fine. But don't say that Peikoff is playing fast and loose with concepts here. His writing is remarkably precise. Seriously, from this post and previous posts (as well as your book), I think you could really learn a thing or two about the art of charitable interpretation. Too many straw men!

As for the points you actually mention about whether emotions do indeed originate in cognitive causes: you say that science has discovered that animals have primary emotions that have no basis in conscious cognition. So what? Ayn Rand's thesis is about human beings, not non-human animals. Philosophers have known for centuries that animals exhibit such emotional reactions, without the need for special scientific investigation. And hey, what do you know, you don't even need to be a charitable reader of Peikoff's OPAR--just a thorough one--to notice this in footnote 3 of chapter 5:

"Infants and animals experience certain emotions because they can evaluate objects on the sensory or perceptual level of consciousness. Philosophy, however, is concerned with man qua rational being, not with perceptual-level analogues of his attributes (which are studied by psychology or biology)."

Anon

Neil Parille said...

Anon,

I don't have time to discuss this topic now, but I've noticed that at least twice you've accused Greg and Dan of not being "charitable" in their interpretations of Rand or Peikoff.

I find this an interesting argument coming from an Objectivist (I take it you are one) given that Objectivists (in particular Rand and to a lesser extent Peikoff) have a very poor track record of charitable intepretation of philosophers such as Kant, Augstine and many others. (Rand of course doesn't provide much reason to think that she studied these people in detail.) Even Aristotle's ethical theory -- which in many ways is similar to Rand's -- gets misrepresented in The Objectivist Ethics.

Anonymous said...

Even if you're right and Objectivists are uncharitable, so what? Let's not add the tu quoque ad hominem fallacy to the straw man fallacy, please. If you want a discussion of AR's views on the history of philosophy, let's discuss that on a separate post.

Anon

Paul said...

"Infants and animals experience certain emotions because they can evaluate objects on the sensory or perceptual level of consciousness."

I have yet to see any empirical evidence as to the validity of this statement.

On the other hand, neuroscience has pinpointed emotions to various areas of the brain, as well as hormonal and both conscious and unconscious states, even in adults. Reasoning itself seems to have little, if any, bearing on the formation of emotions themselves. Merely because Ar or Peikoff asserts otherwise does not make it so.

"Philosophy, however, is concerned with man qua rational being, not with perceptual-level analogues of his attributes (which are studied by psychology or biology)."

On the contrary, infants and many mammals have ALL of the primary emotions that adult human beings do, regardless of levels of reason. Even 'secondary emotions' come about as a blend of the primary emotions, not out of thin air or solely from the 5% of our thought that is conscious.

And lest we forget, reason and logic are also neural in origin and subject to the scrutiny of science.

Paul said...

It should be noted that I don't think that reason and ideas have NO role in emotions, but merely a secondary role in support of their efficiency. Even if reasons are subject to other aspects of cognition, no empirical evidence or theory supports emotions being ENTIRELY formed by ideas and reason.

Neil Parille said...

After reading this section in OPAR, a couple things jump out at me:

1. Peikoff doesn't present any proof for his theory. Like the Objectivist theory of concept formation, it should be amenable to study. The fact that Rand and Peikoff claim to be doing philosophy rather than biology or psychology doesn't let them off the hook.

2. There are certain obvious counterexamples that Peikoff doesn't discuss, such as fear of flying. A person can know that there is minimal risk to flying and also that many things he does in during the day are riskier, yet still fear flying. This suggests to me that there are not philosophical (or any other) conclusions that are causing the emotion. Another example is homosexuality which is now widely believed to be innate by Objectivists.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "And yes, the second excerpt depends on a "strong" version of a theory about the COGNITIVE causes of emotions: all of one's emotions are caused by one's conclusions. "

That's all I wished to establish in regards to the Rand's theory. Anon seems under the illusion that I'm trying to argue that there's a contradiction between the weak and strong versions of the theory. I could care less whether there is or not. My concern is merely to show that there is a strong version, so that apologists of Rand can't wiggle out of it by claiming that the weak version is the real theory. I thank Anon for agreeing that the strong version is an fair representation of Rand's position.

Anon: "[Y]ou say that science has discovered that animals have primary emotions that have no basis in conscious cognition. So what? Ayn Rand's thesis is about human beings, not non-human animals."

Anon complains that our criticisms of Rand are uncharitable, but what are we to think of his criticisms of Rand's critics? He suggests that the evidence I am refering to is only valid to animals, not to human beings. As a matter of fact, the lion's share of the evidence is from studies involving adult human beings! The inclusion of animals is only important for theories of emotion arising out evolutionary pscychology. But we could throw out all such evolutionary theories and base our case solely on evidence compiled by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, neurobiologists, and cognitive scientists. The evidence, taken from a wide array of studies and experimental tests, makes it fairly clear that emotions, whether in human adults, infants, or animals, are not solely generated by the conclusions of the conscious mind. (The generation of emotions is much more complicated than this. While some emotions are probably affected by "conscious cogitation," the notion that all (or even most) adult emotions are generated through conscious thinking would not be taken seriously by any of the sciences involved in empirical studies of human emotion.)

Note: one of the leading researchers in this field is Antonio Damasio, who has formulated a very rich and sophisticated theory on feelings and emotions, backed by an impressive array of experimental studies, in Descartes Error and Looking for Spinoza.

Robert L. Campbell said...

Anon has drawn attention to one of the worst defects in Leonard Peikoff's account of emotions:

Anon says:
As for the points you actually mention about whether emotions do indeed originate in cognitive causes: you say that science has discovered that animals have primary emotions that have no basis in conscious cognition. So what? Ayn Rand's thesis is about human beings, not non-human animals. Philosophers have known for centuries that animals exhibit such emotional reactions, without the need for special scientific investigation. And hey, what do you know, you don't even need to be a charitable reader of Peikoff's OPAR--just a thorough one--to notice this in footnote 3 of chapter 5:

"Infants and animals experience certain emotions because they can evaluate objects on the sensory or perceptual level of consciousness. Philosophy, however, is concerned with man qua rational being, not with perceptual-level analogues of his attributes (which are studied by psychology or biology)."

My reply:

Well, yes, I did notice this footnote--the first time I read Dr. Peikoff's book. I put two exclamation points in the margin next to it, along with the notation "off-loading time."

First, Dr. Peikoff's note assumes the correctness of the Randian distinction between conceptual knowledge and perceptual knowledge--with the implication that adults of other species, as well as human babies, are "all perceptual." I don't see how that could fly, just given the further Randian presumption that perception is error-proof.

Second, it is improper to suppose that perception is the subject matter of psychology and biology, whereas conceptual knowledge and reasoning are the exclusive subject matter of philosophy. Biology and psychology have as much to say about the latter as they do about the former.

Third, it is not as though Dr. Peikoff faithfully adheres to his own stricture. He does not restrain himself from making "philosophical" pronouncements about infant perception--indeed, he quotes Ayn Rand approvingly on that subject right on his page 1.

Fourth, when Dr. Peikoff declares that "value-judgments are founded ultimately on the basis of a philosophic view of man and life" (p. 156), he has to be able to account for the earlier periods of every human being's development, during which the "philosophic view" would have to be largely to entirely implicit. Where is his theory of human development? What evidence or reasons does he think make it preferable to a different theory? How can his theory be purely philosophical, as opposed to biological or psychological?

Fifth, blandly declaring the emotions of adult raccoons or human babies to be mere "analogues" of the emotions of more developed human beings won't suffice. What makes this a better explanation than the view that adult raccoons, human babies, and human babies all have pretty much the same primary emotions?

Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell

Robert L. Campbell said...

Sorry, that last sentence should read,

What makes this a better explanation than the view that adult raccoons, human babies, and human adults all have pretty much the same primary emotions?

Michael Prescott said...

>He suggests that the evidence I am refering to is only valid to animals, not to human beings. As a matter of fact, the lion's share of the evidence is from studies involving adult human beings!

Shouldn't the lion's share of the evidence come from studies involving lions?

... Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hi there ARCHN guys,
I'm a long time reader and occasional commenter and I love to read your blog. I'm thinking of starting an Ayn Rand themed blog of my own but haven't had the time so far (I'll defintely let you know if I ever do)

Do you guys have instant messengers? I have google talk, msn and aim, and I would like to chat sometime if you are amenable to that.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey anon

why not drop me a line at estigon2001youknowthesymbolyahoodotcodotnz

cheers
Daniel

Jay said...

My emotions are definitely influenced by my value-judgments.

For instance, I had Fox News on the other day in the background as I worked. When I heard the reporter talking about anti-WTO protestors saying "Down With Corporate Greed", I instinctively slammed my fist on my desk. Not hard or anything, but I have internalized the belief that there is way too much unjustified hatred of profit and that makes me feel a certain way when I see it unfold.

Jay said...

Also, on a similar note to my comments in the previous post.

I'm pretty much in accord with the Objectivist idea of love, ie, going by the trader principle and seeking others for their virtues and not their flaws. That's why (in addition to me liking this girl) it makes my skin crawl to see my friend cling to a guy who denounces her for her success and tries to make her feel guilty that he isn't more accomplished.

No, that is not an exclusively "Objectivist" way to feel, but I feel that way because I consciously choose what my idea of love is and have strong emotional reactions when it is violated.

gregnyquist said...

"My emotions are definitely influenced by my value-judgments."

To say your emotions are "influenced" or affected by your value judgments is eminently plausible. But are they exclusively determined by your value judgments? No, not if the scientists are right.

There is another consideration to keep in mind here as well. Where did the value judgment come from? Just from the "reasoning" mind? Well, not according to the cognitive revolution and its theory of the modular mind. Emotion, desires, interests, sentiments, all of which have innate components, play a role in the original "value-judgment."

Jay: "I have internalized the belief that there is way too much unjustified hatred of profit."

But what about the people who have "internalized" hatred of profit? Why did they do so? Here we touch upon one of the main reasons why I oppose Rand's theories of human nature and history. If Rand is right, people who oppose free markets do so solely because they have internalized bad premises. Biological prediliction has nothing to do with it. I believe this is flat out wrong. There are innate factors involved in opposition to the free market. Men's predispositions were moulded, through evolution by natural selection, by the hundreds of thousands of years when human beings existed as hunters and gatherers. These primitive predispositions do not accord well with the demands of the extended order of a global free market. People in whom these predispositions are stronger than normal will hence be biologically predisposed against free markets.

Jay said...

It is an interesting theory, no question, but those biological urges do not alter the facts. Free markets are manifestly superior to controlled economies, for reasons you and I probably don't disagree on.

Even if emotions are not 100% determined by our value judgments, wouldn't you agree that every step we take toward squaring our emotions with our conscious thinking is a good thing?

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