Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 7

Emotions as tools of cognition. "Emotions are not tools of cognition," states Rand in For the New Intellectual. Is this view in accord with cognitive reality? Not according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who has discovered that emotion plays an important role in thinking:
[E]very experience of our lives is accompanied by some degree of emotion and this is especially obvious in relation to important social and personal problems. Whether the emotion is a response to an evolutionarily set stimulus ... or to a learned stimulus ... does not matter: positive or negative emotions and their ensuing feelings become obligate components of our social experiences.
The idea is that, over time, we do far more than merely respond automatically to components of a social situation with the repertoire of innate social emotions. Under the influence of social emotions ... and of those emotions that are induced by punishment and reward ... , we gradually categorize the situations we experience — the structure of the scenarios, their components, their significance in terms of our personal narrative. Moreover, we connect the conceptual categories we form — mentally and at the related neural level — with the brain apparatus used for the triggering of emotions. For example, different options for action and different future outcomes become associated with different emotions/feelings. By virtue of those associations when a situation that fits the profile of a certain category is revisited in our experience, we rapidly and automatically deploy the appropriate emotions....
I accord special importance to those [emotions/feelings] that are associated with the future outcome of actions, because they come to signal a prediction of the future, an anticipation of the consequences of actions. This is a good example, incidentally, of how nature's juxtapositions generate complexity, of how putting together the right parts produces more than their mere sum. Emotions and feelings have no crystal ball to see the future. Deployed in the right context, however, they become harbingers of what may be good or bad in the near or distant future....
The revival of the emotional signal accomplishes a number of important tasks. Covertly or overtly, it focuses attention on certain aspects of the problem and thus enhances the quality of reasoning over it.... In brief, the signal marks options and outcomes with a positive or negative signal that narrows the decision-making space and increases the probability that the action will conform to past experience. Because the signals are, in one way or another, body-related, I began referring to this set of ideas as "the somatic-marker hypothesis."
The emotional signal is not a substitute for proper reasoning. It has an auxiliary role, increasing the efficiency of the reasoning process and making it speedier. On occasion, it may make the reasoning process almost superfluous, such as when we immediately reject an option that would lead to certain disaster, or, on the contrary, we jump to a good opportunity based on a high probability of success.
Our research team and others have accumulated substantial evidence in support of such [emotional] mechanisms. The body-relatedness of the operation has been noted in the wisdom of the ages. The hunches that steer our behavior in the proper direction are often refered to as the gut or the heart — as in "I know in my heart that this the right thing to do." ...
Although hardly mainstream, the idea that emotions are inherently rational has a long history. Both Aristotle and Spinoza obviously thought that at least some emotions, in the right circumstances, were rational. In a way, so did David Hume and Adam Smith.... In this context the term rational does not denote explicit logical reasoning but rather an association with actions or outcomes that are beneficial to the organism exhibiting emotions. The recalled emotional signals are not rational in and of themselves, but they promote outcomes that could have been derived rationally." (Looking for Spinoza, 146-150)
To sum up: thinking, even "rational" (or efficacious) thinking, is emotional from the start. Sometimes emotions influence or guide thought for the worse, sometimes for the better: but they always do guide it. If Damasio is right, emotions tend to do a better job guiding thought when those emotions have been trained by experience. This explains, for example, why the intuitions of experts can be so amazingly insightful: because their emotions have been trained, through intensive experience, to give immediate signals illuminating the point at issue, so, for example, an expert on Greek sculpture can intuitively determine whether a statue is a genuine or a fake merely by looking at.


Anonymous said...

Rand is normatively correct, or should humanity move in an emotionally retrograde direction? So what, if some elements of our emotions exist by an element of predisposition, does that mean we have no choice but to cave into them? Of course not, unless one wants a justification to drop responsibility for one's thoughts and actions. Which is to deny free will. "I couldn't help it, I was built that way."

When the subjects and the author of a study have never seen what it is to subordinate emotional reaction from proper conceptual decision making, one can hardly accept the conclusions. Such willful acceptance of genetic Determinism is just another deception drawn from the ARCHN quiver of pseudo-intellectual scams. Perhaps Barnes's million year genetic lineage developed 'genes' for attacking reason using contrived 'reason'. Stealing concepts through misunderstanding is one thing; doing it on a purposeful and consistent basis is deliberate Kantian evil.

PhysicistDave said...


There's no real doubt that Damasio is right -- I recall somewhere reading about research on people who, for some reason, had had the "emotional circuit" in their brain broken. Rather than being cool Spock-like rational thinkers, they just didn't care about thinking rationally at all, since they couldn't "care" about anything.

And I myself, when I am doing hard work in physics, math, or engineering, routinely get a feeling “in my gut” as to which way to go – and “in your gut” is an excellent metaphor, since interest, excitement, etc. are actual bodily feelings.

Of course, this is what you would expect. Evolution does not start from scratch but uses what it already has. One would expect evolution to rope in the old “reptilian brain” in any way it can as it developed higher mental functions in primates and humans.

But, as much as I hate to defend Rand, didn’t she say somewhere something about one’s emotions being “lightning fast” calculators that gave you a preliminary read on a situation? I think it was in connection with her talk about psychoepistemology, sexuality, etc.

The real problem, as Damasio suggests and as Rand’s quote “Emotions are not a tool of cognition” indicates, is that emotions are rather blunt instruments. I don’t know about you, but about half the time my emotions tell me what direction to go in (I’m talking about technical work), they’re wrong. Now, if there are five possible directions to go in, and emotions make the right choice half the time, they’re still useful as a first guess. But they then need to be checked out by conscious, rational thought, by soliciting criticism from other people, etc.

For example, I once was in a situation in which my gut, my intuition, etc. told me that I was absolutely right on a technical issue having to do with the theory of the business cycle (how new money moved through the economy in a period of sustained inflation). I disagreed with the British Austrian economist Steve Littlechild about this publicly during a presentation at Stanford, and I quite arrogantly assured him that it was absolutely certain that I was right (I mean, how could my gut be wrong?!).

Well, I wasn’t right. Fortunately, Steve was gracious enough to explain nicely to me that my emotional certainty was not proof; he was also very gracious when I eventually admitted I had been wrong. There turned out to be other adjustments in the economy, having to do with bank profits, evaluation of bank stock values, etc., that I had ignored and which changed the final result. Incidentally, my gut feeling was not entirely wrong; it was simply woefully incomplete.

It seems to me fair to interpret Rand’s comment as referring to situation such as my experience with Steve – i.e., as a warning that emotions can be a good guide as to a first guess but should not be treated as the last word.

All the best,


gregnyquist said...


Your post an interesting critique but it kind of misses the larger point that Damasio and I am trying to make. What we are arguing is not that emotions are superior to reason, but that emotions are necessary to reason. Your faux pas concerning business cycles was caused because your reason was being directed and motivated by the wrong emotions. In other words, what both Damasio and I am questioning is the classical view of rationality which assumes that in order to get the best result, emotions have to be left out. In other words, Spinoza was right that the only way to encounter one emotion is with another.

I'll have more about this in my next post.

gregnyquist said...

rnbram: "When the subjects and the author of a study have never seen what it is to subordinate emotional reaction from proper conceptual decision making, one can hardly accept the conclusions."

This is priceless as an example of the sort of intellectual confusion and rationalistic retrenchment that Objectivism can lead to. In the first place, it is obvious that rnbram has no idea what either I or Damasio am asserting. What Damasio has discovered in his extensive research is that emotion is necessary to the reasoning process, that the common sense that you can reason free of emotions is wrong. But having got that wrong, how does rnbram proceed? He pulls out the "proper" conceptual making card, using that as a rationale to dismiss the research and conclusions of one of the worlds most distinguished neuroscientists.

We've criticized the proper concept making construct before at ARCHN, warning that it is mere license for rationalization, and here we have the proof! I would note, however, that once this construct is accepted, you can use it to dismiss anything you like. You don't like quantum mechanics? Why not accuse the scientists behind it of not understanding proper concept formation? Don't like the theory of relativity? No problem. Einstien obviously didn't know a thing about proper concept formation (never mentions it in his works!), so out goes relativity. What about the Italian theory of elites? Pareto would laugh at anyone who accused him of not knowing about proper concept formations ("What on earth is proper concept formation?" he would ask: "Do you mean proper in the sense of sexually proper?"); so Pareto's laughter (and that of other members of the Italian elite school) would be grounds for dismissing them as well. But really, this sort of scholastic form of reasoning is nothing to the point. Science doesn't proceed by quibbling about concept-making. Science is about testing propositions about matters of fact. What concepts or words are used to phrase the propositions is of no concern to anyone, beyond the simple requisite of having a definite meaning, so that other scientists can understand and test it.

JayCross said...

Fair point, emotions definitely can and do clue people in to relevant factors. I think Rand would've done better to say, "Emotions alone are not tools of cognition."

For example, a girl who feels strongly for a man who abuses and insults her on a regular basis wouldn't be using cognition in deciding to stay in said relationship. It is only when your emotions generally comport with your considered analysis that you should really act on them.

Alas, Rand did not add that qualifier and this is a valid post.

JayCross said...

As another interesting aside: might this study support the idea that there doesn't need to be a formidable barrier between reason and emotion?

Anonymous said...

What it seems to me is that emotions are quick and oftentimes wrong, whereas reason is slow and always right.

If you have a lot of time, one should ignore emotions as much as is possible and get the right answer using reason.
If you need to be right but have little time, you should take into account what you feel to prune down your search for what is correct.
If you are in a situation where a bad plan now is always better than a good plan executed next week, your emotions are the only thing that will give you a bad plan that you can actually act on.

Anonymous said...

Wells: "What it seems to me is that emotions are quick and oftentimes wrong, whereas reason is slow and always right."

Most certainly not! Reason can be completely wrong, as people often don't have all the relevant information to draw the right conclusions and moreover people can make errors. Example: Peikoff's use of reason to arrive at his conclusions about physics.

As Nathaniel Branden writes: "Applying the advice to be guided by our mind isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Such counsel does not adequately deal with the possibility that in a particular situation feelings might reflect a more correct assessment of reality than conscious beliefs or, to say the same thing another way, that the subconscious mind might be right while the conscious mind was mistaken. I can think of many occasions in my own life when I refused to listen to my feelings and followed instead my conscious beliefs—which happened to be wrong—with disastrous results. If I had listened to my emotions more carefully, and not been so willing to ignore and repress them, my thinking—and my life—would have advanced far more satisfactorily."

Nathaniel Branden: The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand

Anonymous said...


To clarify, The conclusions that one gets when one uses deductive reasoning are always implied by whatever one knows. That's what I meant by one's reason is always correct. If you know nothing, your conclusions will reflect that. Your emotions would reflect that too though.

Let us take for example Peikoff's knowledge of physics. If he were to not think and guess about some topic in physics, he would get it wrong.
If he were to painstakingly add up all that he knows about physics, then expound about that same topic, he would get it wrong. The wrongness would not be in the logic though, the logic would be good.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "As another interesting aside: might this study support the idea that there doesn't need to be a formidable barrier between reason and emotion?"

Yes, it does support the view that there is no barrier between reason and emotion, but with one caveat. What is important is the type of emotions that assist the reasoning processes. Some emotions help, whereas other sabatoge, reasoning. This can be a bit troubling, because human beings have no direct control of the kind of emotions they experience. And so if they experience the kind of emotions that mislead rationality, there may not be anything they can do about it. This is one of the reasons why Rand wouldn't have accepted the notion that emotions are necessary to the reasoning process. She wanted to hold people whom she regarded as irrational as morally accountable. That's harder to do if they are irrational by emotional compulsion (particularly if the emotions have an innate component.)

Anonymous said...

I normally don't comment on such garbage as this article, but I just want to show you people how hopeless your whole anti-Objectivism propaganda campaign is: Now, anyone can go to the Arn Rand Lexicon: and find out what Ayn Rand thought about emotions:

"Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man's body is an automatic indicator of his body's welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man's consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man's values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

"But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man's body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.

"Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are "tabula rasa." It is man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man's emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

"But since the work of man's mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone's authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man's premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly."

"The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, 27.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anonymous for posting that portion of The Objectivist Ethics. I haven't read that for years, and it really drives home many of the points that this blog makes. Rand keeps making statements completely unsupported by any evidence.

Anonymous said...

RnBram: "to subordinate emotional reaction from proper conceptual decision making".

Assuming RnBram, that you are male and physically attracted to women, I'd like to ask you -- when was it that you arrived at that decision?

If you have any intellectual honesty you will have to admit that that momentous life decision was never yours. You may bask in the comfortable luxury of socially acceptable sexual preference, but you are no more than a beneficiary of a favorable role of the dice. What of those who, for example, are aroused exclusively by the sight of a certain kind of shoe? Were that to have befallen you, explain to us the method by which you would "subordinate" your predilections to "proper conceptual decision making".

You might argue that "sexual preference" and emotions are two different things. If so -- please demonstrate, in black and white (there are no shades of gray, right?), where is the dividing line that separates the two.

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