The Role of Emotions in Knowledge

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of objectivity as a method of avoiding subjective error.  When people say that an issue needs to be looked at objectively, or that science is the field of knowledge best known for its objectivity, they are arguing for the need to overcome personal biases and prejudices, and to know things as they really are in themselves, independent of the human mind and perceptions.  However, I argued that truth needs to be understood as a fruitful or proper relationship between subjects and objects, and that it is impossible to know the truth by breaking this relationship.

One way of illustrating the relationship between subjects and objects is by examining the role of human emotions in knowledge.  Emotions are considered subjective, and one might argue that although emotions play a role in the form of knowledge known as the humanities (art, literature, religion), emotions are either unnecessary or an impediment to knowledge in the sciences.  However, a number of studies have demonstrated that feeling plays an important role in cognition, and that the loss of emotions in human beings leads to poor decision-making and an inability to cope effectively with the real world.  Emotionless human beings would in fact make poor scientists.

Professor of Neuroscience Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, describes several cases of human beings who lost the part of their brain responsible for emotions, either because of an accident or a brain tumor.  These persons, some of whom were previously known as shrewd and smart businessmen, experienced a serious decline in their competency after damage took place to the emotional center of their brains.  They lost their capacity to make good decisions, to get along with other people, to manage their time, or to plan for the future.  In every other respect, these persons retained their cognitive abilities — their IQs remained above normal and their personality tests resulted in normal scores.  The only thing missing was their capacity to have emotions.  Yet this made a huge difference.  Damasio writes of one subject, “Elliot”:

Consider the beginning of his day: He needed prompting to get started in the morning and prepare to go to work.  Once at work he was unable to manage his time properly; he could not be trusted with a schedule.  When the job called for interrupting an activity and turning to another, he might persist nonetheless, seemingly losing sight of his main goal.  Or he might interrupt the activity he had engaged, to turn to something he found more captivating at that particular moment.  Imagine a task involving reading and classifying documents of a given client.  Elliot would read and fully understand the significance of the material, and he certainly knew how to sort out the documents according to the similarity or disparity of their content.  The problem was that he was likely, all of a sudden, to turn from the sorting task he had initiated to reading one of those papers, carefully and intelligently, and to spend an entire day doing so.  Or he might spend a whole afternoon deliberating on which principle of categorization should be applied: Should it be date, size of document, pertinence to the case, or another?   The flow of work was stopped. (p. 36)

Why did the loss of emotion, which might be expected to improve decision-making by making these persons coldly objective, result in poor decision-making instead?  It might be expected that the loss of emotion would lead to failures in social relationships.  So why were these people unable to even effectively advance their self-interest?  According to Damasio, without emotions, these persons were unable to value, and without value, decision-making became hopelessly capricious or paralyzed, even with normal or above-normal IQs.  Damasio noted, “the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.” (p. 51)

It is true that emotional swings can lead to very bad decisions — anger, depression, anxiety, even excessive joy — can lead to bad choices.  But the solution to this problem, according to Damasio, is to achieve the right emotional disposition, not to erase the emotions altogether.  One has to find the right balance or harmony of emotions.

Damasio describes one patient who, after suffering damage to the emotional center of his brain, gained one significant advantage: while driving to his appointment on icy roads, he was able to remain calm and drive safely, while other drivers had a tendency to panic when they skidded, leading to accidents.  However, Damasio notes the downside:

I was discussing with the same patient when his next visit to the laboratory should take place.  I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other.  The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting the calendar.  The behavior that ensued, which was witnessed by several investigators, was remarkable.  For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates . . . Just as calmly as he had driven over the ice, and recounted that episode, he was now walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences.  It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop, but we finally did tell him, quietly, that he should come on the second of the alternative dates.  His response was equally calm and prompt.  He simply said, ‘That’s fine.’ (pp. 193-94)

So how would it affect scientific progress if all scientists were like the subjects Damasio studied, free of emotion, and therefore, hypothetically capable of perfect objectivity?  Well it seems likely that science would advance very slowly, at best, or perhaps not at all.  After all, the same tools for effective decision-making in everyday life are needed for the scientific enterprise as well.

As the French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincare noted, every time we look at the world, we encounter an immense mass of unorganized facts.  We don’t have the time to thoroughly examine all those facts and we don’t have the time to pursue experiments on all the hypotheses that may pop into our minds.  We have to use our intuition and best judgment to select the most important facts and develop the best hypotheses (Foundations of Science, pp. 127-30, 390-91).  An emotionless scientist would not only be unable to sustain the social interaction that science requires, he or she would be unable to develop a research plan, manage his or her time, or stick to a research plan.  An ability to perceive value is fundamental to the scientific enterprise, and emotions are needed to properly perceive and act on the right values.

Science, Authority, and Knowledge

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in a recent essay praising the virtues of science:  “Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

This is the sort of sweeping statement that one is apt to make when making an abstract case for the scientific method without examining too closely how scientists actually acquire knowledge in the real world.  The fact of the matter is that no one — including the most brilliant of scientists — can acquire knowledge without relying on social processes that include hierarchical authority and “conventional wisdom.”

How does a psychologist such as Steven Pinker know about the Big Bang theory of the universe?  Did he purchase a telescope, conduct his own observations, track the movement of the galaxies, and come to the conclusion that the universe began with a big bang?  No, like the rest of us, he was taught the Big Bang theory in school.  He had neither the time nor expertise to critically evaluate whether or not his teachers might have been wrong.  He had to accept their authority because there was no good alternative.  “Faith” might be too strong a word, but there is a certain degree of trust that when specialists in physics write textbooks and give lectures, they are providing the truth, as best as they are able to.  In an earlier time, Pinker would have been taught not the Big Bang theory but the Steady State theory of the universe — and he would have accepted that, without trying to verify it himself through empirical observation, because that was the conventional wisdom.

How does Pinker know that the theory of evolution is true?  Did he study living organisms and fossils for years and years, matching each empirical observation with the claims of Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and others?  No, he accepted what his teachers taught him, for the same reasons he accepted the Big Bang theory.  Like everyone else, he trusts the specialists that are doing their jobs, and when these specialists have a strong consensus that something is true, he accepts this.

What happens when there are outstanding disagreements among scientists, whether involving string theory, multiple universes, the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of evolution, or other issues?  Does Steven Pinker get right to work on these issues, making his own observations, and testing multiple hypotheses?  No, like the rest of us, he either pleads ignorance, accepts the findings of the most recent article he’s read on the subject, or tries to gauge the majority opinion of scientists on that issue and adopts that opinion as his own.

Now, I’m not trying to discredit science here.  I fully accept the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution, and I have a low opinion of various attempts at “creationist” theory.  But I didn’t arrive at these conclusions by disregarding authority, but by embracing authorities that seemed to me to be genuinely interested in studying the real world, willing to share their methodologies and observations, accept criticisms, and change their minds when necessary.

We are born into this world as ignorant as the lowest animal, we gradually absorb knowledge from our parents, teachers, peers, and our culture, and we may — if we are very, very lucky — make one or two truly original contributions to knowledge ourselves.  Even the most hardheaded skeptic, the bravest dissenter, the most diligent and persistent questioner, cannot do without some reliance on authority and conventional wisdom.