Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 5

“Emotions are not tools of cognition.” Rand elaborates as follows:


An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception....

Where is Rand's evidence for this view? Again, we have nothing -- merely her own say-so. In Objectivism, emotions are equated with mere "whims"; to allow one's judgment to be affected by emotions is tantamount to committing the horrible crime of "whim worshipping." This, of course, is an argument ad hominem with no scientific standing whatsoever.

Cognitive science has discovered that emotions play an important role in decision making:

Recent research suggests that emotions are just as influential as cognitive processes when it comes to decision making. This is interesting because emotions are often considered irrational occurrences that may distort reasoning. According to Sayegh, the conventional way of thinking about decision making is to banish emotion from its decisions entirely. According to them, the decision makers should act using a “cool head” where decisions should come only from rational and cognitive processes to obtain the best results. The implications of emotions during decision making processes have only recently been discussed in some detail. With the growing body of knowledge on emotions in decision making, researchers have proposed various theories to help further our understanding of what influences the decisions that we make.


One of the most important theories illustrating the role that emotions play in decision making is the Somatic Marker Hypothesis:

The somatic marker hypothesis is a very relevant theory when discussing emotions in decision making. It states that bioregulatory signals such as feelings and emotions provide the principal guide for decisions where individuals, when dealing with a judgement, will assess the severity of the outcomes, their probability of occurrence and their emotional quality to provide their decision. According to Dunn,“the somatic marker hypothesis proposes that ‘somatic marker’ biasing signals from the body are represented and regulated in the emotion circuitry of the brain, particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), to help regulate decision-making in situations of complexity and uncertainty”. Therefore, in situations of complexity and uncertainty, the marker signals allow the brain to recognise the situation and respond quickly.

As mentioned earlier, there is an intimate connection between emotion and cognition in practical decision making. Damasio used somatic marker hypothesis to explain how emotions are biologically indispensable to decisions. He suggested that when choosing between options that differ in relative risk, a somatic marker (for example, a “gut feeling”) feeds back to the brain and influences cognitive appraisal. Thus emotions often unwittingly form the basis of many of our decisions and the conventional belief that cognitive processes alone run our decision making processes has been disregarded. It is in fact an interplay between emotions and cognition that helps us during decision making processes.


Now whether right or wrong, at least the Somatic Marker Hypothesis has a body solid evidence that can be placed in it's favor. For example, it is found that people who, through brain damage to the VMPFC, suffer from impaired emotional faculties are incapable of making the simplest decisions. One patient was unable to choose an appointment time with his neurologist because he gave countless arguments for every time that was proposed.

If Objectivists wish their view of the role of emotions in cognition to be taken seriously, they need to (1) provide scientific evidence on behalf of their view, and (2) explain why the evidence supporting the Somatic Marker Hypothesis is not inconsistent with Rand's assertions about emotion.

8 comments:

Matt Warren said...

When reflecting upon my Objectivist past, I'm bewildered at Rand's assertions regarding emotion. I am quite sure that I've never read any philosophy as boldly emotional and hot-headed as Rand. I can practically feel her disdainful spittle on my cheek when I imagine her accusations.

Yeah, she was one hell of a vulcan.

Curious Reader said...

In "Rand and Empirical Responsiblity 4" there was a poster who created a stir by claming that Rand, as a philsopher, does not need to provide evidence of her scientific assertions.

This post has much the same emphasis, once again we find that Rand's viewpoint is directly contradicted by what cognative science tells us.

As Mr. Nyquist discussed, the burden of supplying proof only applies to Rand because her assertions contradict other evidence.

However, we do normally allow a philsopher a little room more room to postulate and theorize. Rand's assertions on psychology, in her own time, were somewhat more excuseable due to lack of scientific knowledge to the contrary.

But, this is exactly the reason why a "closed system" philosphy is bound to fail as new knowledge is discovered. We now see that Rand's assertions are baseless, highly speculative, and somewhat wild.


The greeks believed that the four classical elmenents were the fundamental building blocks of existance, and they also developed a great deal of philosphy, some of which utilized this world view.

In the modern era, we do not accept philsophical premesis that were built on a fault conception of the nature of the universe.

What counterpoint can Objectivists offer to the fact that much of the basis for their philosphy is coutermanded by modern psychology?

Only that Rand was the greatest person who ever lived and was never wrong.

This would seem to me to be the killing stroke of Objectivism. If a philsophy is unwilling to try and fit itself to the known facts, then it must either be discarded or taken on faith. And this would seem to be the clear dividing line between a philsophy and a religion.

Daniel Barnes said...

Curious Reader makes some good points. Further, when you think about it, dedication to a closed system implies a kind of faith in that system's omniscience. For we can't predict what we will learn next, and what is discovered next may contradict that system.

Curious Reader said...

Mr. Barnes is exactly correct.

I think most people would agree that as we do not know the future, or what we will know in the future, we must be open minded about evidence, and science.

That would be the "logical" or "reasonable" position.

However, like it is want to do with everything Objectivism redines reasonable from "a course of action most people would find prudent" to "a course of action Ayn rand deems prudent"

Before philisophical discussion was banned on the Sword of Truth forums (Sword of Truth is the name of the series of novels written by Terry Goodkind that draw heavily on objectivist philsophy. Its main character repeadly makes learns objectivst "lessons" about life that make him a more powerful wizard) I once got into an argument with a number of randroids that their devotion to rand was in contradiction to their claim to be living by their own reason with logic as their guiding principle.

My argument could reduced to the following sillogism

Humans is not omnicient
Ayn Rand was a human (questionable I know)
Ergo Ayn Rand was not omnicient
If Ayn Rand was not omnicient then to argue that she coudln't be wrong is illogical and unreasonable.
To be an objectivist one must both live by their own reason and logic and also believe that Ayn Rand was infallable. This is a contradiction which as an objecitivst a person is not supposed to maintain this sort of contradiction in thought.

Of course, for this I was subjected to the usuall ad homeim attacks, told that this logic was perverted and one creative individual disected the argument by claiming the following:

"here is no moral code to prevent killing nonhumans
The person who wrote that crap is obviously not human
It is moral to kill you"

Isn't internet anonymity great!

Xtra Laj said...

In Rand's defense, she might have meant that emotions can bias decision making for the worse. That is true. The real problem is that she was unable to accept that ignoring emotions can also bias decision for the worse. That's the bane of an anti-empirical rationalism - a question about whether this or that individual is better using his gut or explicit reasoning is not tested, but resolved by defining the problem tautologically.

cognitive behaviour therapy said...

People who describe having particular problems are often the most suitable for cognitive behavior therapy, because it works through having a specific focus and goals. It may be less suitable for someone who feels vaguely unhappy or unfulfilled, but who doesn't have troubling symptoms or a particular aspect of their life they want to work on.

gregnyquist said...

"I don't think there is any reason to suppose that there has been a special decrease in the number of female Ayn Rand fans."

Maybe not decrease in number of female fans, but definitely a decrease in number of female Objectivists. That's an important distinction. All kinds of people can be fans of Rand without buying into large sections of her philosophy. Indeed, they may know little of the philosophy beyond what they read in The Fountainhead. These are the same people who skip Galt's speech in Atlas and have read little, if any, of Rand's non-fiction. They may have very disparate views on religion and even politics from Rand. I know several Christians who are fans of Rand. I even once met a self-described "socialist" fan of Rand. These are people who merely read into Rand their own beliefs, or who take from Rand whatever pleases them, leaving the rest. They are in no way a part of the Objectivist movement and would not be welcome in Objectivist circles.

Jeffrey Newholm said...

Great post-completely blows up Objectivism's claim that you can set aside and control emotions in your decision making process.

Just one question:where do those emotions come from? They can't be causeless. Are they hereditary? Makes sense.

Rand never really justified her claim that emotions come from your thoughts, but at least Leonard Piekoff tried. I think he gives some good examples. His thought experiment in Objectivism the phlosophy of Ayn Rand consists of several diverse people seeing medical slides and reacting in different ways-St. Augustine thinks "Heathen!" (yeah, it's a silly example, but at least it breaks up a dry book), a reasearcher's ideas are validated and becomes excited, etc.

Peikoff also gave the example of pretending to give out pop quizzes in his classes. His students were outraged, while the auditors in the class felt nothing. Peikoff states that this only makes sense if these people were a)considering the implications of failing an exam, which they had evaluated (probably some distant time past) as bad) b) not in the class and therefore had nothing to fear; or "the surprise involved no negative value-judgement" (155).

Now I'm no Randroid. This blog has helped open my eyes to Rand's big errors in her analysis of human nature. Curious reader is mostly right on (I disagree only in his claim that Objectivists think Rand was never wrong, not quite never, but pretty darn clase--just go have a garner at aynrand.org). I'm just always going to be sympathetic because Obectivism was my gateway drug into philosophy. Objectivism definetly needs to move on from Rand-and I don't think it is, which is one of the reasons no one pays attention to it today.