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To what extent is emotion involved in reasoning of different kinds? How does it have its effects? And is the involvement of emotion in reasoning something we should try to avoid? These are some of the questions that Paul Thagard is concerned with in Hot Thought, a collection of sixteen articles addressing various aspects of what he calls 'emotional cognition', that is, 'cognition viewed from the perspective that emphasizes the integration of traditional cognitive processes such as reasoning with emotional processes that attach values to mental representation' . Thagard's principle claim is that emotions are involved in various kinds of thinking that are often taken to be 'cold', or emotion-less, such as reasoning about scientific, legal, and religious questions, assessment of evidence, and in everyday individual and group decision making. Furthermore, Thagard argues that in many cases emotions, contributing in appropriate ways, are essential to good theoretical and practical reasoning, contrary to 'both the classical view that emotions are an impediment to reason and the romantic view that emotionality is inherently superior to reason' .
The positive proposals in the book are the most compelling aspects. These include Thagard's proposals of various kinds of mechanisms for emotional cognition such as in analogical reasoning of different kinds [Ch 3 Emotional Analogies and Analogical Inference], and in coherence judgments on which intuition can work in decision making [Ch2 How to Make Decisions, Ch4 Emotional Gestalts]. There are also fascinating discussions of Phineas Gage, who famously survived a brain injury in a railway accident, and the jury in the OJ Simpson trial. Thagard describes computer models of emotional cognition and contrasts these with models of purely cognitive, emotion-less reasoning to argue that it was by emotional cognition that the Simpson-case jury reached a not guilty verdict [Ch8], and to argue that Gage's reduced capacity for emotional cognition (due to his brain injuries) was responsible for his unusual behavior and poor decision making [Ch 6].
However, the arguments that Thagard offers in support of his positive proposals are in general unconvincing and unlikely to persuade someone who was not already sympathetic to them. He gives the impression in a number of places that the fact that a cognitive process can be modeled by a computer program that involves such-and-such connections and interactions shows that actual cognition in real people involves those connection and interactions. For instance, in the discussion of self-deception [Ch 13 Self-Deception and Emotional Coherence] he takes the success of a program that models emotional cognition to yield beliefs like those self-deceptive beliefs attributed to a particular literary character (Dimmesdale in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter) to show that some actual cases of self-deception occur by emotional cognition [220, 229-232], and to show that certain issues in traditional debates about self-deception are misplaced . But this does not follow, and Thagard himself cautions against that assumption in one of the earlier papers in the book . Perhaps it is because the book is a collection of independent papers, written with different collaborators, that he does not consistently heed this warning.
Furthermore, some of the evidence he offers in support of his view is tenuous. In chapters 10 [The Passionate Scientist: Emotion in Scientific Cognition] and 11 [Curing Cancer? Patrick Lee's Path to the Reovirus Treatment] he appeals to biographical accounts of particular scientific investigations, how certain scientists described themselves as having various emotional reactions at different points in their enquiries, and in chapter 12 [How to be a Successful Scientist] he appeals to the agreement between experts from a range of academic fields that having certain attitudes and emotions to one's work is important for success in that field. Yet merely because someone experienced certain emotions while carrying out a certain inquiry does not show that those emotions were involved in her reasoning to a certain conclusion, and the fact that a number of academics believe that emotions have an important role in cognition does not show that emotions actually have such a role.
These problems are unfortunate as they sometimes distract attention away from what are the real philosophical issues. For example, in self-deception the key issues are such things as whether or not someone can both disbelieve something and, as a result of her deception, believe it, whether someone can intentionally bring herself to have a particular belief, what is the character of any emotion that might play a role in someone becoming self-deceived, and how this might differ, if at all, from the character of emotions involved in other kinds of motivated believing such as wishful thinking. But Thagard concentrates instead on things like the degree of valence, or positive or negative value, a belief has (on a numerical scale) at which it is accepted according to the model , a feature that seems to be more a technical aspect of the model than something with a significant correlate in real cognition.
And there is a more general issue of whether emotions are the only source of valence as Thagard seems to assume when inferring the involvement of emotion in a cognitive process from the fact that beliefs in the process have valences. But this is not obvious: could desires and aversions to particular things, for example, make relevant beliefs about those things positive or negatively weighted for someone?
It is also unfortunate as it devalues what is otherwise a lively, accessible presentation and discussion of some interesting ideas about cognition and applications of cognitive science and computer modeling to issues in philosophy of mind.
© 2009 David Wall
Dr. David Wall, Department of Philosophy, University of the West of England, Bristol
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