Can there be rational thought without emotions?
The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.
- Francis Bacon
Starting already with Plato, philosophers have traditionally seen rationality and emotions as two distinctive, if not opposing concepts. The modern philosophy and the current research in neuroscience, however, show that emotions and rational though are closely interlinked. Relations of emotions and reason are now studied in different kinds of thinking, including decision making, legal inference, scientific investigation, and ethical deliberation. There are studies about the descriptive question of what role emotions play in the operations of our minds and about the normative question of what role they should play. 2 Definitions and Basic Problems
2.1 Rational Thought/Rationality
“Our supposed rationality is one of the most prized possessions of human beings and is often alleged to be what distinguishes us most from the rest of the animal creation.”
Rationality can be understood as a conscious normative concept providing us on every instance with one answer to the question of which action is to be chosen. No such positive definition has been yet achieved since there are often several competing actions regarded as rational. Nevertheless, positive characterizations of theoretical rationality have been proposed. Usually these are either (1) ‘beliefs that are either self-evident or derived from self-evident beliefs by a reliable procedure’ or (2) beliefs that are consistent with the overwhelming majority of one’s beliefs. Practical rationality, on the other hand, refers to actions that are maximally efficient in achieving one’s goals. The existence of rational thought is generally assigned to human beings, although some signs of rationality could be found also in dolphins and chimpanzees.
For our purpose, it is feasible to take into account just the homo sapiens sapiens species. Rationality, or the acting reason, has its’ boundaries indeed. Limitations of rationality, as we have seen in the definition problem, are properly described by Jon Elster (1986). For our purpose, it is satisfactory to keep in mind the basic problems of rational thought such as the possibility of more equally valid rational solutions, inability of ranking several outcomes or the unfeasibility of all opportunity costs calculation.
The above-mentioned problems are always conveyed in practical life. Damasio describes a patient with ventromedial prefrontal damage, who would drive his car on an icy winter day with unbelievable tranquility, following certain proper rational procedures for safety. But his pure rational thought lacking emotions did not allow him to decide simply on the next visit to his doctor. He would be trapped for half-hour in enumerating reasons for and against each of the two dates...
2.2 Emotions, Emotional Reactions
Emotions are, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), “distinct feelings or qualities of consciousness, such as joy or sadness, that reflect the personal significance of an emotion-arousing event.”
As opposed to the rational thought, emotions cannot be called up voluntarily, on the contrary, they are said to arise unconsciously. This can be illustrated by an example of ‘smile’. If we try to smile just for the sake of smiling, we use different facial muscles than those that would be used during natural smiling. Primary emotions, as seen by Damasio (2000), are emotions not controlled by reason, e.g. those “wired in” at birth. The most important example is fear. Secondary emotions, by contrast, are controlled primarily by the frontal cortices, which invoke emotional responses in response to thoughts rather than percepts. Good example: anger.
From the neurobiological point of view, emotions are regarded as evolutionary older response system of the brain as compared to the conscious rational thought. They are studied by neuroscience with regard to the connections to physiological and cortical brain states. With emotions, we can more easily anticipate the future and learn more effectively (they serve as signals). The emotional response systems involve activation of the old brain core, i.e. the subcortex. Secondary emotions, however, engage the subcortex as well as the neocortex.
Additionally, there is a higher activation of amigdala and the hippocampus.
From the psychological point of view, the self-asserting emotions, derived from emergency reactions, involve a narrowing of consciousness; the participatory emotions an expansion of consciousness by identificatory processes of various kinds. - Arthur Koestler
Damasio further argues, from cases of brain lesion and other neurological causes of emotional deficit, that some sort of emotional "marking" of memories of the outcomes of our choices with anxiety, is needed to support learning from experience. This idea will be developed later in the somatic marker hypothesis.
Patricia Greenspan would argue for the body furthermore, and that the recent neuroscientific work on emotions seems to take all but neurophilosophy and similar approaches within philosophy as necessarily opposing the project of recognizing the cognitive or rational role of emotion. In a simple way, emotions are assumed to fall entirely on the "body" side of the "mind-body" distinction. 3 Rationality-Emotion Relationship in the Human Mind, Brain and Body
Rationality and emotional response system are two interrelating and supportive constructs working effectively in the human mind. This statement will be supported by modern views on the functioning of human mind.
The most powerful argument for this interrelation is the somatic-marker hypothesis. The theory states that unconscious somatic markers, generated from secondary emotions, are helpful in predicting future outcomes of scenarios. Now, how does this automated mechanism of decision-making work? The hypothesis maintains that the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex of brain links the factual knowledge we have with the bioregulatory mechanisms that invoke the actual emotional body states. Thus, through association, somatic-marker system aids us to quickly detect (for example a trustworthiness of a person) and decide. Via hypothalamus, the system is connected to the endocrine system that awards us (or punishes) with feelings. This general view is used in many psychologic processes. These include recognition as a part of the entire learning-cognitive process and the decision-making processes (by limiting the list of possible alternatives when a decision is to be made, for instance). In the end, all human thinking can be understood as a joint operation of both rationality and emotions.
Nonetheless, saying that (particularly secondary) emotions and rationality go often together, I cannot argue this is necessary always the case. There are many instances, when these two would contradict themselves. The interesting example is visible when choosing a way of transport from one city to another.
We tend to fear flying more than driving, although statistically we are more likely to survive the flight. This ‘irrationality’ of emotions does not need to be inevitably discussed in this essay, but deserves to be kept in mind.
Since the emotions are an older response system, we could argue that rationality is another stage in the evolution of human species’ mental abilities. And furthermore, purely speculatively, emotions might be slowly vanishing on the expense of rationality (just think of all the moral rules trying to get the reason hold of control over emotions).
4 Artificial Intelligence as Rationality without Emotions?
The obvious example that comes to ones’ mind when thinking over the ‘rational thought without emotions’ is the artificial intelligence (AI). The development in this field is enormous, from chatting bots passing the Turing test through Honda’s socializing humanoid robots to the learning artificial neuronal networks. Maintaining this pace, we could have here human-like intelligent androids as soon as 2030 or 2100. Leaving the actual process of ‘gaining intelligence’ aside, let us have a look at the intelligent machines and their a-emotionalism. Will or will not robots have emotions? The definition of emotions by EB does not provide us with an opportunity of clear judgment. For an answer, we have to search in philosophical arguments.
An intuitive answer to the question of AI’s emotions would be "no, of course not – they act only according to a man-written program, they follow rules...". But on the other hand, future androids could be considered as having emotions, because they will be built with a certain (human-given) purpose (e.g. the ‘sense of life’). They will most probably have certain time-and-resource-saving procedures that would allow them quickly evaluate a situation. They will have ‘gut feelings’. They will have to be programmed to ‘love’ all humans. These two philosophical approaches, the so-called weak and strong AI, will most probably quarrel for another few tens of years before the debate will be really relevant. In my opinion, till then, human emotions will not be considered as something ‘out of this world’ (as they are already starting to be), but will be understood scientifically and ascribed to beings more generously.
5 Conclusion or the ‘Emotional Rationality’
“Rationality is an important force in decision making, but its potency is severely diminished if emotion is absent or ignored.”
Humans cannot think solely rationally.
Apart from the question of whether a completely rational costs-and-benefits analysis of a decision is theoretically possible or not, our biological predisposition simply do not allow this. We feel, value and guess as we think. Although emotions cannot be prevented, they are, in fact, often quite helpful. They serve as automated mechanisms of decision, they signal and thus help us to anticipate, they reward and punish. In the end, emotions are, after all, much of what makes life worth living...
From the normative point of view, different amount of emotion-rationality ratio is desirable. An airline pilot landing in bad weather should not allow his gut feelings to perturb attention to the details on which decisions depend. In general, too much feeling at the smaller frames or too little at the larger frame can have disastrous consequences. But still, with the tremendous advance of science and technology, there is yet the possibility of pure rational thought in the concept of Artificial Intelligence. Nevertheless, also here, the human-like machines will need certain purpose of their existence; they will most probably be programmed in a way similar to how our mind works. Will ‘their’ emotions be recognized as ‘real Emotions’? Or, quite probably, will ‘our emotions’ still remain something unexplainable? These are questions that, like many others, need some time to be answered...
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