Emotion as System

Kenn Hamm

The question of whether emotions form a “natural kind” is, perhaps, an interesting one, especially to scientists and the scientifically inclined. But this question is logically distinct from the question of whether emotions can legitimately be placed under a common category for the purposes of discussion and actual use within a system of concepts. Furthermore, both of these questions are logically distinct from the question of what kind of mental states emotions are (assuming emotions are mental states, but I will take this as a given, irrespective of the definition of “mental state” used.) I wish to argue that there are legitimate reasons for adopting a set of answers to these questions which does not align itself well with any of the mainstream theories of emotion.

In order to decide whether emotions form a natural kind, we must first have some notion of what a natural kind is. Let us consider the example of a natural kind in biology. Presumably we would say that all humans form a natural kind (the species Homo erectus) and that the set of all primates would form a larger, more inclusive natural kind. But what about, for example, the set of all parasites? Under what Griffiths terms the “philosopher's” definition of natural kinds, these would not form a natural kind, since they are related only functionally. Griffiths asserts that natural kinds must necessarily share a physical structure—not just a place in a system.

Whether emotions are classed as a natural kind will depend on two things— what things are classified as emotions and the actual empirical facts concerning those things. However, here we run into a semantic problem, in that the definition of what is or is not an emotion is to some extent mutable. The tendency to allow the boundaries to be somewhat arbitrary, especially by saying that certain things often considered to be emotions in “folk psychology” are not legitimately classified as such, is tempting to those who are already committed to a particular theory of emotions. I will avoid this issue by adopting my definition of what is and is not an emotion directly from folk psychology, and furthermore by construing this as inclusively as I reasonably can, so that anger, sadness, fear, and boredom, for example, will all be considered emotions. (This sidesteps the issue of whether or not such a categorization is a legitimate way of speaking about things at all; I will assume here that it is and deal with this issue later.)

An example of a theory which will definitively assert that emotions form a natural kind is the James-Lange theory. The James-Lange theory states that an emotion is the perception of certain states in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Since the states of the ANS clearly form a natural kind in and of themselves, it seems reasonable that the perception of these same states would form a natural kind as well. However, the James-Lange theory's definition of an emotion seems to exclude many mental states that my definition of an emotion will include. In particular, any emotion which is heavily cognitively based, especially one in which ongoing cognitive activity plays a role (as opposed to one which may be triggered by previous cognition but is henceforth manifested at a lower level) seems to be excluded. In any case, the James-Lange theory has faded in popularity due to experiments indicating both that stimulating the ANS directly does not produce anything like the “normal” experience of emotions and that the same states of the ANS can be associated with different emotions. (Griffiths, 80-81.)

The affect program theory is another theory which will state that emotions are a natural kind. It attempts to give a broader account of emotions to account for the failures of the James-Lange theory. According to this theory, an emotion is a coordinated set of responses in a variety of subsystems of the body. Affect program theory is much broader than the James-Lange theory in what it will accept as an emotion, but it is still open to refutation (for a given definition of emotion) if emotions are manifested in wildly different ways from each other or especially if what we classify as the same emotion can be exhibited in very different ways physiologically.

It is my contention first, that folk psychology plays fast and loose with emotional terms, and second, that it is justified in doing so for the purposes to which it is applied. For an example, examine the term “depression.” First, note that since depression is a mood (what I would consider a sort of second-order emotion), it is unlikely to be associated with an affect program—especially one of the relatively simple ones which the affect program theories covered in Griffiths mentions. (An affect theorist could here resort to the device I referred to earlier of reclassifying depression as something other than an emotion, but this is not very compelling.) Furthermore, I myself have both used and seen used the term depression to refer to two phenomena which, while related, can certainly be distinguished. One is strongly felt sadness which typically lasts for a period of several days or a week at most and is directly correlated with some event which causes it (such as the death of a pet, a realization that some major plans one has been making will not work out, or the like); the other lasts for weeks or months and appears as a dull sense of apathy which seems to drain the meaning out of normally significant events. I will hazard a guess that the physical processes in the brain associated with these two things are rather different (not totally without basis, since if they were the same, we could perhaps expect people to keep anti-depressants on hand to deal with the first kind, which they do not seem to do); yet they are referred to by the same term. I do not think this is a simple case of a term with two definitions (as “right” is, since can refer to either a handedness or the opposite of wrong), because the links between both the concepts and the actual occurrences are tighter than that.

Despite this difference between the two kinds of depression, they also have similarities and a complex interrelationship. Just as there can be situations in which one does not care about any aspect of an emotion except its valence (even if one admits that other factors play a part in determining what an emotion is), there are an even broader range of situations in which one would not care which type of depression was affecting an individual. They can often have very similar affects on behavior or dispositions thereto. Also, the same event can trigger both a bout of sadness and an extended stretch of apathy; or a bout of sadness can itself trigger a stretch of apathy; and a stretch of apathy can make one more disposed to bouts of sadness. When we refer in normal speech to depression, I think we deliberately avoid differentiating between these two cases in order to allude to a section of the folk-psychological web of emotions which includes both of them and their relationship to each other. A bit of vagueness can sometimes be an aid to communication if accompanied by an increase in the set of reactions and thoughts evoked in the listener.

This does not mean that I consider the scientific examination of what emotions are to be worthless. It seems clear that this study can be useful to us as well, for example for the development of drugs to treat psychological conditions which have a simple physiological basis, or to help better understand certain pathological cases. But I find it unlikely—almost implausible—that such an explanation of emotion could ever replace the way we presently use the terms.

Griffiths claims conceptual analysis of emotions to be fundamentally flawed because even carried out correctly, it can only get at what people believe their emotions to be, rather than what those emotions really are. I take issue with this claim at two points. First, the question of what people believe about their emotions is in and of itself an interesting question—perhaps more interesting than might naively be assumed, since people assign emotions to other people through this exact theory, and thus it has a strong effect on their actual behavior (though this particular type of effect is only secondary; that is, it does not directly affect the emotions of the agent in question, but only how he deals with the emotions of others.) In fact, since a person generally assigns roughly the same types of mental states to himself as he does to others, he will probably use this same theory to explain his own emotions and emotionally caused actions. However—and I consider this to be the more important point—given the complexity of the human neural system, I find it unlikely that we would be able to apply a scientific theory of emotions very broadly to daily life even if we were able to find one. Some scientific developments affect the mindset and everyday lives of the members of a culture at a direct level, but others are applied in specialized fields and are seen by most people only at the level of results produced by specialists in those fields. It seems likely that a scientific theory of emotions would fall into the second category—especially because many people are liable to consider that science is getting too close to some kind of secret essence of humanity and will, even if they accept the theory at an intellectual level, be somewhat uneasy about applying it. If this is the case, then people will in all likelihood continue to apply their previously held folk-psychological theories, which will thus remain interesting objects of study, and perhaps are not quite so bad as scientists and scientific philosophers with an axe to grind have made them out to be.

It may seem that I am here advocating a kind of dualism between dealing with things at the “mental” (what many modern philosophers would call “folk-psychological”) level and at the physical level. This is true, but the kind of dualism implied is neither a substance dualism in the vein of Descartes nor even a property dualism. It is, rather, a methodological dualism. I make no claim that mental events are not, in theory, reducible to purely physical ones; I simply claim that such is, at present, not a useful way to deal with them in most cases, and that things will likely remain this way due to the inherent complexity of the human brain and mind.

Calling something “folk psychology” has become, especially amongst psychologists and scientifically oriented philosophers, a way of dismissing it as rubbish. Yet folk psychology, for all its warts (and I admit there are many) is still the theory used by the vast majority of people today to explain their behavior and those of their fellow human beings. Complete elimination of all folk-psychological categories seems more or less meaningless as a theory, as I showed in my earlier paper “Full-blown Eliminative Materialism Eliminates Itself,” since this would result in the elimination of theories themselves from our vocabulary. Thus, we can ask where emotions, in the inclusive sense in which I have defined the term, fit into folk-psychological accounts of the mind—theories which make reference to such things as beliefs, desires, and perceptions. In considering this question, it is extremely important to keep in mind the distinction between occurrent emotions and dispositions to have emotions in certain circumstances.

One of the most obvious ways to attempt to explain emotions at the cognitive level is as pairs of beliefs and desires. A further step in this view, if one wishes to unify as many types of mental states as possible, is to explain desires themselves as a kind of belief (typically, the belief that something is or would be good.) This view runs into the problem of instrumental versus intrinsic desires. The essential distinction between these two seems to be that instrumental desires cease to exist when it is determined they are not beneficial in some larger scheme of things, whereas intrinsic desires persist even in the face of evidence that they are not useful. It seems clear that instrumental desires can be explained as a kind of belief (in fact, a kind of rational belief): namely, the belief that the object desired would aid the achievement of some further end. However, the corresponding account of intrinsic desires—that they are beliefs about the goodness or badness of the world—seems less compelling, especially in light of the fact that one may have an intrinsic desire for something one instrumentally (and rationally) believes to be a bad thing. It seems better to think of intrinsic desires as the basic building blocks at the root of that which is instrumentally desired. That is, each intrinsic desire is something one believes will contribute to one's happiness (where happiness is axiomatically an ideal state for the agent to which nothing can be preferred). When intrinsic desires are overridden by instrumental concerns, the root cause is that one has at some level made an evaluation that other intrinsic desires whose value sum to more than the one under consideration will likely be produced by giving this one up.

The common phenomenon of explain oneself or someone else as acting “against his own better judgement” is of special interest to me, since I do not find the phenomena implied at all compelling. The argument runs as follows: a theory of rational decision making (such as standard decision theory) will state that decisions are made in an attempt to maximize the value of the outcome, given the perceived probability of various states of the world. There are two ways in which this theory can be construed: normatively or descriptively. The normative view will state that decisions should be made according to these rules, while the descriptive view will state that decisions actually are made by these rules. Though the normative form may be useful for making policy or giving advice, it is the descriptive form which concerns me here.

Most people will admit that processes of this type form at least a part of their decision making. It seems natural to say that decisions are made by selecting what one believes likely to produce the best outcome. But when emotions become involved, people become more reluctant. The “natural” theory seems to them to be that emotions are interfering with rationality, as Elster proposes. But what exactly is meant by interference with rationality? There seem to be several possible ways in which this interference could occur. One is that it could cause irrational beliefs (given the evidence available) of some type; another is that which people seem to commonsensically imply when they say that they are acting “against their better judgement.”

It seems that any theory of mind will be forced to admit the possibility of irrational beliefs given the evidence available. A rather large body of evidence in support of this view is widespread belief in some kind of paranormal phenomena. Of course, some of these cases may possibly be explained by saying that the agent does, in fact, in the circumstances in which he finds himself, have compelling reason to believe in paranormal phenomena (even if these paranormal phenomena do not, in fact exist.) However, some forms of superstition are widely observed in otherwise rational and even scientifically minded individuals.

Consider one particular type of belief: the belief that something is or is not in a person's feasible set. The feasible set is that set of actions the person believes himself capable of taking. People can clearly have faulty beliefs about their feasible sets. Yet it seems that one cannot choose to do what one does not believe oneself capable of doing—even if one does in fact end up doing something one believed impossible, I would tend to say this was a case of chance and was not chosen by the individual.

Given that where we draw the line between various components of the mind will inevitably be to some degree arbitrary, I find the account of people acting “against their better judgement” to be more simply explained, without any loss in explanatory power, by saying that emotions consist at least partly in (possibly irrational) beliefs about feasible sets, rather than that they somehow make one choose an option one actually believes suboptimal. In this case, emotions can still be understood as interfering with rationality, since they produce suboptimal actions which one would not have taken had the emotion not been present; yet the complication of factoring them into decision theory can be brought back to the level of beliefs rather than infecting the entire diagram. Similar arguments can be made for certain other explanations of emotions, such as Herb Simon's statement that they affect salience.

This statement of Herb Simon's leads naturally into the view of emotions as economic externalities. After all, is not saying something is salient very similar to saying that it is important? And the manner in which I interpret “importance” in this case is as “likely to affect one's happiness,” happiness being a sum over expected intrinsic desire fulfillment. This leads to the thought of emotions affecting the values assigned to outcomes in decision theory, which in turn leads to (though is not the same thing as!) the emotions themselves being taken into account in those values.

There is a problem here, in that emotions seem, at first glance, to be much more similar to beliefs, ideas, and concepts than they do to money, food, and clothing (some items traditionally considered as economic externalities.) However, this problem vanishes when we consider that only the prospects of emotions are counted as economic externalities. It would be useless to count occurrent emotions as economic externalities under decision theory, since the current value of the agent's state is not an input to the decision matrix (except possibly indirectly, but mediated through changes in beliefs about the world or the feasible set.)

Elster cites on page 303 as an example of a fundamental flaw in the idea of emotions as economic externalities that someone who knows he will feel guilt if he takes a certain action will not agree to take a guilt-removing pill. I have felt a similar sentiment at times myself; yet, when I discussed this example with a friend, we both agreed that we would take a guilt-removing pill. (Personal conversation with Mark Schreiber.) Perhaps Elster would explain this by saying that the emotion my friend and I feel is not guilt at all, but it seems like guilt in all ways to me, and I certainly do not hesitate to speak of it as guilt. (In other cases I think it best to use one of the methods described above, such as a change in feasible sets, to describe guilt; in no case do I think it necessary to postulate that guilt makes one take suboptimal choices given one's beliefs.)

So, if the phenomena associated with what we call emotion have no unity at the physiological level nor at the cognitive level, is there any legitimacy in referring to them by one term at all? I believe there is. Observe that although, given these variances, there will almost certainly be some differences in emotions across cultures, there is a common physiological basis for at least some phenomena we generally associate with emotions—the affect programs. It seems reasonable to claim that the affect programs are more or less physiologically determined and do not vary from culture to culture, but that as we reach higher and higher levels of emotional abstraction, there will be more room for differences between cultures. That is, if the affect programs are considered first-order programs, then there may be second-order programs affecting the patterns in which the first-order programs occur, third-order programs affecting the second-order programs, and so on. The higher level these programs are at, the more room for variation from simple physiological causes, and thus the more potential for difference both at the individual and cultural levels.

The scientific program of pinning down the exact meaning of terms and relating them in a fixed framework is an admirable one for some goals, but for others, it fails to achieve much. In particular, scientists often object strongly to functionalist theories. They will say that the variety of biophysical happenings which are grouped under such functionalist categories as belief, desire, and especially emotion actually arise from a hodge-podge of different mechanisms in the brain which evolved somewhat independently. They will ask how a functionalist can possibly give two things the label “sadness” when one is an affect program with immediate physical effects and the other is a much more complex (and to some scientist's minds, tenuous) set of beliefs, feelings, and dispositions.

The answer, I think, is that the functionalist program is in the pragmatic tradition, which eschews more traditional philosophical usage of “truth” in favor of utility (in fact, pragmatism defines truth as useful belief.) I would venture that functionalists are generally more concerned with thought experiments, possible alien intelligences, artificial intelligence, or a day-to-day practical understanding of the human mind than they are in a theoretically sound, maximally detailed explanation of exactly how the human mind works. The functionalist program is justified above and beyond its likely practical use by the fact that functionalist usage of mental terms seems to accord well with commonsense, folk-psychological usage of the same terms.

So, what exactly are the emotions a functionalist refers to? We have seen why they cannot usefully be accommodated as mere affect programs, as beliefs, or as costs or gains. Yet they often seem to involve all three of these things. Emotions, in common speech and in functionalist terminology, seem best described as complex interacting systems which can be partly composed of affect programs, beliefs (especially beliefs about feasible sets) and prospective costs or gains. This mixes levels of description in a way which may offend purists of any type or those who are interested in an overall framework, not just useful results. But if these systems are dealt with at least partly at an unconscious level, then it does a good job explaining how people manage to deal effectively with such big concepts, and also why emotions seem to have eluded the relatively simple analyses which have been applied to neurons and beliefs alike.

Works Cited:

Elster, John (1999). Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths, Paul. (1997). What Emotions Really Are. New York, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schreiber, Mark. Personal Conversation, fall 2000.

Kenn Hamm
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Last modified: 21 December 2000