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Hot ThoughtReview - Hot Thought
Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition
by Paul Thagard
MIT Press, 2006
Review by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, Ph.D.
Jul 3rd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 27)

Until relatively recently, few and far between were substantial philosophical treatments of the role that emotions play in cognition. Indeed, to talk about emotions in terms of cognition would be to invite incredulous stares. However, once Quine managed to turn analytical philosophy naturalist, the floodgates were opened to philosophical examinations of how emotions are essential to how humans reason. A number of researchers working at the borders of psychology and philosophy have made this a very lively area, in a short time turning the previous orthodoxy on its head.

This collection of essays is Thagard's own addition to the research in that area and his voice is both distinct and, in a way, valuable. Written or co-written since 2000, the essays build on Thagard's account of cognition presented in Coherence in Thought and Action, in which he gave a single chapter to emotions. Thagard's own brand of naturalism is to develop formal models of cognitive phenomena in a way appropriate to rendering them implementable upon a computer.

Thagard has divided the essays into two groups: in the first group he elaborates the mechanisms necessary for modeling hot thought, i.e. emotional cognition; in the second, Thagard puts the mechanisms to use in explaining the role emotions play in human thought concerning a variety of specific subjects such as law or religion. The mechanisms proposed by Thagard function on a number of levels from the molecular to the social: Thagard isn't a hard-core reductionist and is happy to accept multi-level explanations, calling himself an explanatory pluralist. A similar pluralism is evident in the choice of subjects Thagard deals with in the second part.

The opening chapter is an introduction to the idea of the mind as a mechanism. An important step that Thagard makes in this chapter is to declare his support for computational models of cognition. Thagard does not deal with the issue in the book, instead directing the reader to his 2005 edition of Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science. Despite this, in reading the book it is important to know that Thagard's choice is by no means unproblematic, the various problems with this approach being well represented in the literature. Also, despite Fodor's claims to the contrary, a computational approach to the mind is not "the only game in town", with various philosophers defending dynamical systems approaches such as Mark Bickhard's interactivism. Having said that, Thagard manages to make the best of the approach thanks to his simultaneous use of several levels of explanation.

The notion of emotional coherence is central to Thagard's account. Thagard takes his earlier DECO coherence model of decision-making and supplements it by attaching emotional valence values to the elements of the neural network that it implemented on. As a result, the role of emotions within deliberation is modeled in terms of the effect the emotional valence values have upon the activation pattern of the neural net -- the idea being that the activation pattern indicates the most coherent set of beliefs, emotions and decisions. As Thagard allows, the task of computing the maximally coherent sets of elements is very difficult but he believes that there are algorithms that do a good job of approximating to that result. Given that he is aiming at providing a model of how humans think, Thagard is in effect taking sides in another difficult debate within theories of cognition. This is the debate between adherents of the view that humans generally decide by maximizing certain values under the constraints placed upon them by the environment and their own abilities, cognitive and otherwise, and those who, following Herbert Simon, see human reasoning as essentially bounded and who think that in deciding we are merely satisficing. Again, this point lies very much outside of the scope of Thagard's book, but by not dealing with it Thagard potentially misleads the reader into thinking there is no alternative.

Working with the concept-level HOTCO model, which is the 'emotionally' augmented DECO model, and the neural-level GAGE model (one of Thagard's chapters is titled "Spiking Phineas Gage" -- an almost criminal pun!) he attempts to show that he had provided models that capture vital elements of emotional thought on the social, cognitive and neural levels. The last chapter dealing with the mechanisms is Thagard's sortie into the molecular level processes that "matter to mental computation".

In some ways the second part of Thagard's book is the more promising as that is where the rubber is meant to hit the road -- it is on the degree to which it is applicable that Thagard's model will ultimately be judged, whatever the theoretical debates are. Unfortunately for Thagard, once applied to actual cases, his theory seems to quickly come off the road. His chapter on the emotional roots of religion provides a prime example. Thagard argues that his model of emotional coherence explains why most people choose religion over science, the reason being that that choice is also coherent with people's emotional preferences. However, the way Thagard presents the problem is highly artificial. First of all, people generally do not opt for just one of religion or science, most preferring the less coherent option of simultaneously holding both sets of beliefs in separate areas of their minds. Secondly, as Daniel Dennett has observed, philosophical arguments around which Thagard builds his model of the situation are irrelevant to why most people actually believe in God. Thirdly, Thagard only considers the emotional aspects of religion and not those of science (love of discovery, joy of belonging to a team doing valuable research), making it impossible for scientific outlooks to achieve emotional coherence. Finally, Thagard's model does not appear to add to the debate since it is long recognized that religion is often adhered to for emotional as well as rational reasons. The overall effect is that Thagard's supposed test case appears to be constructed post hoc in order to provide support for his model.

The strength of Thagard's approach is that he replaces abstract claims with specific models that can then be applied and tested. That they are not convincing is certainly a problem for his approach but it is only thanks to his willingness to go beyond abstract claims that the problems are as evident as they are. As such, his book should be read within the context of the broader debate about the nature of cognition and the role that the emotions play within it. Unfortunately, by excluding mention of the various alternatives, Thagard does not make this easier for a reader who begins by reaching for his book.

 

© 2007 Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

 

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski was educated in Australia and Canada but is working in Europe, at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Vienna, Austria, and at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His work has focused upon understanding rationality from a pragmatist, naturalist perspective. It is in that context that he is examining superstition as a natural, cognitive phenomenon.


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