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Emotion, Evolution, And RationalityReview - Emotion, Evolution, And Rationality
by Dylan Evans, Pierre Cruse (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Manuel Bremer
Jan 6th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 1)

Emotion, Evolution, And Rationality contains the proceedings of a conference at the King's College London held within a research project "The function of the emotions". It thus provides an overview on current research and state of the art theories of emotion in the cognitive sciences.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first part "Neuroscientific foundations" Antonio Damasio compares William James' theory of emotions with his own. Andrew Lawrence and Andrew Calder follow the continuities between human and animals emotions and their neural basis. The second part "Emotion, belief, and appraisal" relates emotions to the propositional attitudes. Finn Spicer places emotions in the context of belief-desire explanations. Jesse Prinz asks which emotions are basic. Paul Griffiths distinguishes several levels of emotion processing. Brian Parkinson unpacks the innate versus the acquired aspects of emotions. In the third part "Evolution and the rationality of emotion" emotion is considered as being not a hindrance but a facilitator of reasoning. Chandra Sripada and Stephen Stich discuss maladaptive emotions, but Matteo Mameli sees emotional involvement as necessary for practical reasoning. Dylan Evans puts this thesis as a new version of the search hypothesis. Daniel Nettle shows that even emotions based on misperceptions can lead to successful action. Christopher Badcock links the conflict between emotion and reason to the maternal and paternal gene dichotomy. The fourth part "Philosophical perspectives" contains a paper by Jim Hopkins connecting the evolutionary psychology of emotions with Freudian psychoanalysis. Peter Goldie claims that even though we are in a way not responsible for our emotions we can be blamed for letting emotions blur our reasoning.

Instead of going through the individual papers the following points convey some of the topics and questions dealt with in several of the papers. Of course not all theorist agree on the theses or assumptions presented here, but this is one more reason for the book being an engaging overview on the field.

  1. Emotions may be perceptions of body states. If they are such perceptions, however, there may be -- as there are unconscious perceptions -- unconscious emotions. What we commonly call our emotions would be the feeling of an emotion. So is it the stimulus that makes an emotion the emotion that it is -- or is it rather the response, since the antecedents of an emotion can vary enormously?  Maybe one should distinguish between what an emotion ultimately is (in terms of a perceived bodily state) and its function. (Identifying emotions with their functions seems to be empty with respect to the question why they and no others cognitive states can fulfill this function.)
  2. There is no unique neural system (like the limbic system) responsible for the emotions. There are several subsystems. For example, the amygdale is involved in the production of fearful responses, the recognition of fear in others, and the experience/feeling of fear as expressed in self-reports, but competitive/aggressive behavior relies on a different system. An evolutionary taxonomy identifies some elements that are homologous across several species: They have a common evolutionary origin, which sometimes goes beyond the mammalian species. The question which emotions are basic, nevertheless, is hard to answer: For those emotions which are really basic we may have no names, whereas those we have names for are constructed and culturally developed.
  3. Emotions are mostly unlearned if they are perceptions of body states. Thus the reactions to these states may be automated. On the other hand the very point of having emotions in contrast to mere reflexes seems to be that this stage of development allows for more flexible reactions. Folk psychological generalizations about what one does when in anger are just generalizations, not conceptual entailments. The roles that emotions play should thus not be identified with what the emotion is. On one view emotions co-occur with beliefs and desires, on an other view emotions are rather an intermediate stage -- supposedly shared with other mammals -- on which the separation of the propositional attitudes has not appeared: Processing a stimulus is tied to a set of reactions. So one might want to have a layered model on which there is some mechanism of low-level appraisal, connected to automated components of response, and some higher level (intentional/cognitive) processing. Low level system need no access to other information centres of the brain, and only the higher levels may be available for introspection. All levels deal with the ecological affordances a (human) mammal finds itself in.
  4. Even it the disposition to react to a stimulus of some type is innate, the way of reaction (the more specific content of the emotion) can vary culturally. Modular systems tied to facial recognition provide pan-cultural emotional antecedents, but the classification of the antecedent and the choice of the appropriate response depend on the wider system of beliefs and other propositional attitudes. They give that content to the emotion which interacts then with other propositional attitudes in practical reasoning. The coherence of emotions in relation to the environment unfolds in historic situations; it need not be innate. As much as biological adaptations can be disfunctional if the environment changed, so culturally generated emotions can be maladaptive if the social environment changed too fast (for the traditional inheriting of these emotions), say, from a culture of "honor" to a more flexible postmodern society.
  5. Lower level emotions are rational in the sense of "ecologically adaptive", i.e. rational with respect to the consequences, successful in as much as survival-enhancing. Higher level emotions in distinction to moods have propositional content. Emotions of neither kind are a hindrance to practical rationality, but are a vital means to restrict the search space of possible paths to successful action. They have their effects via the belief and desires they influence/evaluate. The complexity of deliberation tasks can be well beyond the computational resources of the human brain. It is no viable option to create all the alternative paths of action at hand and then evaluate them by some formal system. Emotions play here the vital role of pruning the search tree: Paths associated with a (overall) bad feel (on balance) about the outcome are not explored much or not at all. Somatic markers thus become necessary for a computational manageable practical rationality. Deliberation can only become effective if the rationally preferred paths are connected to motivational force; patients with peculiar impediments are still able to reason correctly, but they take actions at random, since they lack the needed focus on the optimal paths. One might speculate that deliberation evolved as a refinement of emotional reaction systems, just as these evolved as refinement of reflex systems. And this continuity of evolution might be mirrored in an interdependent cognitive architecture.

 

© 2005 Manuel Bremer

 

 

Manuel Bremer, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany


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