Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 17

Emotions as a form of Cognition. From Rand's writings, it is not always clear what role the emotions are supposed to play in her system. On the one hand, she asserts that emotions play no cognitive role. Indeed, given Rand's frequent condemnation of "whim worship," it's hard not to conclude that she distrusted emotions. She seems to have conceded, however, that, in the right circumstances, emotions can be a "means of enjoying life":

A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others.

Rand's moral denunciation of allowing emotions to guide one's life is not helpful to getting at the truth of the matter. It reinforces an us verses them mentality which leads to stubborn retrenchment and a mind closed to new evidence. Rand's assertions that (1) it is possible for man to have no inner conflicts and (2) that following one's emotions will inevitably lead to misery, failure, defeat, and destruction are propositions about matters of fact. To test whether they are true, one needs to look at the relevant evidence. This evidence paints a much different picture of the role emotions as imagined by Rand and her disciples. Reason and emotions are not seperate faculties that can be "integrated" as Rand supposed. They are both cognitive processes working toward the same end. As Jonathan Haidt explains:

Emotions were long thought to be dumb and visceral, but beginning in the 1980s, scientists increasingly recognized that emotions were filled with cognition. Emotions occur in steps, the first of which is to appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals. These appraisals are a kind of information processing; they are cognitions.When an appraisal program detects particular input patterns, it launches a set of changes in your brain the prepares you to respond appropriately. For example, if you hear someone running up behind you on a dark street, your fear system detects a threat and triggers your sympathetic nervous system, firing up the fight-or-flight response, cranking up your heart rate, and widening your pupils to help you takin more information.
Emotions are not dumb. Damasio's [brain damaged] patients made terrible decisions because they were deprived of emotional input into their decision making. Emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition [or "reason"] is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles. [44-45]

Not only are emotions cogntive, but many of them precede, and in general tend to predominate, over "reason," as the experimental evidence demonstrates. Jonathan Haidt has a metaphor to describe the relationship between conscious reasoning processes and automatic processes (such as emotion, intuition, etc.):

I call these two kinds of cognition the rider ... and the elephant. I chose an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger -- and smarter -- than horses. Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 400 million years, so they're very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles. When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did no rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new inexperienced charioteer. Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant. [45]

Among the evidence Haidt puts forward on behalf of his hypothesis are the following considerations:

  • "Brains evaluate instantly and constantly." Hence emotional judgments always precede what can be determined via "reason."
  • "Social and political judgments depend heavily on quick intuitive flashes [rather than on reasoning]." A wealth of evidence backs this claim, including the near impossibility of changing someone's mind by refuting their political or moral convictions.
  • "Our bodily states sometimes influence our moral judgments. Bad smells and tastes can make people more judgmental (as can anything that makes people think about purity and cleanliness)."
  • "Psychopaths reason but don't feel (and are severely deficient morally.)" In other words, psychopaths are the exception to the rule that feelings precede and dominate over "reason"; yet look where this advantage has gotten them! The psychopath can't follow certain emotions because he is incapable of experiencing them. Far from leading to more "rational," Objectivist-like behavior, the lack of emotions leads to murder, rape, and sadism.
  • "Babies feel but don't reason." Which goes to demonstrate that in the majority of cases feelings precede reason and therefore cannot be the product of conscious premises (see my previous post).
Of this evidence the most fascinating, in the context of Rand's view of emotions, involves psychopaths, who reason but do not feel. I will explore the implications of this evidence in more detail in my next post.


Rey said...

I'm really looking forward to that next post.

Xtra Laj said...

I guess all good things are worth waiting for - I'm sure Greg is going to take his time with this one - the time between posts has expanded quite a bit recently.