Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Naturalist Theory of Emotions

A naturalist view of emotions is one that accords with the best scientific evidence and harmonizes with the view that human beings are largely (or entirely) the products of natural selection. Here's Steven Pinker's account of a naturalistic, scientifically-based theory of emotions:
The brain strives to put its owner in circumstances like those that caused its ancestors to reproduce. (The brain's goal is not reproduction itself; animals don't know the facts of life, and people who do know them are happy to subvert them, such as when they use contraception.) The goals installed [by natural selection] in Homo sapiens, that problem-solving, social species, are not just the four Fs [i.e., fight, flee, feed, mate]. High on the list are understanding the environment and securing the cooperation of others.

And here is the key to why we have emotions. An animal cannot pursue all its goals at once. If an animal is both hungry and thirsty, it should not stand halfway between a berry bush and a lake, as in the fable about the indecisive ass who starved between two haystacks. Nor should it nibble a berry, walk over and take a sip from the lake, walk back to nibble another berry, and so on. The animal must commit its body to one goal at a time, and the goals have to be matched with the best moments for achieving them.... Different goals are appropriate when a lion has you in its sights, when your child shows up in tears, or when a rival calls you an idiot in public.

The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting. Because the goals and means are woven into a multiple nested control structure of subgoals within subgoals within subgoals, no sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa (notwithstanding the century of debate within psychology over which comes first). For example, fear is triggered by a signal of impending harm like a predator, a clifftop, or a spoken threat. It lights up the short-term goal of fleeing, subduing, or deflecting danger, and gives the goal high priority, which we experience as a sense of urgency....

Each human emotion mobilizes the mind and body to meet one of the challenges of living and reproducing in the cognitive niche. Some challenges are posed by physical things, and the emotions that deal with them, like disgust, fear, and appreciation of natural beauty, work in straightforward ways. Others are posed by people. The problem in dealing with people is that people can deal back. The emotions that evolved in response to other people's emotions, like anger, gratitude, shame, and romantic love, are played on a complicated chessboard, and they spawn the passion and intrigue that misleads the Romantic.

This view is, in many important respects, different from Rand's. In particular, it challenges Rand's conviction that a "rational man ... has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony." This view is difficult to square with the view that emotions are products of natural selection; it is even more difficult to square with the modular view of the mind emerging from the sciences of human nature.


Anonymous said...

Maybe you could tell us what in this quotation actually contradicts Rand's view. Where does it say ANYTHING about whether a rational man can have conflicts?

Incidentally, Pinker's qualifications as a psychologist don't quite qualify him as a master of conceptualization. In the second paragraph he claims he's going to make a point about emotions, but then goes on to give examples concerning hunger and thirst. Those aren't emotions at all, and I know few who would so classify them.

Anonymous said...

Two part comment.

One (and I will have to look up a quote to support this), I believe Rand's view is that we must work to integrate our thinking and our emotions. I believe she was clear that such integration (like thinking itself) does not just happen. It is, however, conducive to human happiness and therefore what we should be striving for.

Two, I'm not sure if you (Greg) or Daniel have seen this site but it has some of the most interesting commentary on Objectivism I have ever read. I find myself agreeing with it more often than not. Might interest you two and/or provide fuel for future blog posts.

Anonymous said...

Oops, kind of sort of forgot the link! haha

That's an essay called "Objectivism: Who Needs It?" If you scroll way down to the bottom you will see a small link saying "Essays on Ayn Rand." Check 'em out sometime.

Daniel Barnes said...

Many thanks Jay, I'll check it out and report back.

Anonymous said...


I once saw a link to studies about evolutionary psychology on this site. I would really like to check that out. Do either of you know where I can find that link?


gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Maybe you could tell us what in this quotation actually contradicts Rand's view. Where does it say ANYTHING about whether a rational man can have conflicts? "

The deeper implications of Pinker's theory do raise problems for Rand's view:

1. "The goals installed [by natural selection] in Homo sapiens"

Pinker here advocating the view, supported by a wealth of evidence, that some human goals are biological in origin, and originally came about through natural selection. Difficult to square this with the Randian blank slate view.

2. "The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals"

I can't imagine that Rand would agree with this one. I know she like the phrase "emotional mechanism," but there no textual evidence that I'm aware of indicating that she believed this emotional mechanism, on its own initiative, set the brain's highest level goals.

3. "No sharp line divides thinking from feeling."

Pinker does not mean this in any sense compatible with Rand's view (despite superficial verbal similarities). Pinker, among other things, is suggesting (and this is scientifically well-founded view) that emotion is an instrumental part of thinking (Pinker stresses the motivational side of the equation), so that it would be misleading to suggest that emotions are not "tools of cognition" (emotions are one tool among several).

The overall thrust of Pinker's argument is to suggest a model of motivation and cognition where internal conflicts are simply part of the whole decision making process. Evolution and nature aren't interested in the harmony of consciousness, because such a consciousness, on this theory, would be at a survival disadvantage. Inner conflicts (whether as conceived, or rather misconceived, as between thought and emotion) are the very stuff of life. They force us to expend the necessary brain power needed for making difficult decisions.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "I once saw a link to studies about evolutionary psychology on this site. I would really like to check that out. Do either of you know where I can find that link?"

The best introduction to EP on the internet is found (not surprisingly) at Wikipedia, the link of which can be found by going here.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "I believe Rand's view is that we must work to integrate our thinking and our emotions."

There are several problems here. First, what on earth does it mean, in specific clinical form, to "work" to integrate our thinking and our emotions? What sort of steps or techniques would a clinical psychiatrist take to help a patient achieve this "integration" of thinking and emotions? Second, even after the Randian theory has been put in a form in which it can applied in a clinical setting, it must then be tested empirically. We can not assume its true on Rand's say-so alone. Third, the general belief in the sciences touched by the cognitive revolution is that emotions and thinking are integrated from the start in the sense that emotions serve as necessary "somatic markings" to thought, and that without emotions, thought, whether of a rational or irrational nature, can have no direction or focus, nor can it serve as a motivation for action. So if emotion and thought are integrated from the start, then there's no need for any "work" to be done to get them integrated: they come that way. If Objectivists knew more about the scientific view of emotions, they would reformulate their view as follows: instead of working to integrate thought and emotion, they would seek to find ways to make their emotions help, rather than hinder, the discovery of truth. There are people out there who have severe emotional blockages which prevent them from grasping certain types of truth. Take, for example, some of the advocates of providing "everyone" with medical care. When I have suggested to such advocates that this goal, however desirable it might be, is just not possible, that there are only so many doctors and nurses to go around, and that the marginal cost to add that additional nurse or doctor begins to increase at a nearly exponential rate, making it fiscally impossible to hire enough such personal to satisfy the needs of everybody,—when I have suggested all this, all I get in response is passionate denials and/or passionate resentment. These people are simply not capable of understanding my point. Deep emotional blockages prevent them from ever grasping the rather simple reason why their treasured schemes to give everybody health care won't work. But grasping this point itself requires emotions — only emotions working for the truth, rather than against it. Now whether it is in fact possible to break down emotional blockages through, say psychotherapy, I don't know. You can't simply assume, merely because it's a pleasing idea, that it is true.

Anonymous said...

Here is one concrete way I work to integrate my thinking with my emotions. It's what psychotherapist Michael Hurd calls "self-objectivity."

Full text:

As Hurd notes, this process can take up to a year or more to really become a part of you. I've been at it for about a month and my thoughts/feelings feel pretty naturally aligned with one another. Not without conflict, of course, but it's a work in progress.

Me said...

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.

Ayn Rand's interview with Playboy!

Anonymous said...