Thursday, 12 May 2016

Emotional Insight: The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience

Michael Brady is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He is currently a principal investigator on the The Value of Suffering Project, alongside David Bain. His main research area is the philosophy of emotion. One area of his research focuses on the epistemic status of emotion. He is interested in the idea that emotions have value and can perform an epistemic role. In this post, he introduces his book on these themes, Emotional Insight, which was published by Oxford University Press.

My book tries to reconcile two commonsense intuitions: that emotions have considerable epistemic value (we should sometimes ‘listen to our heart’), and that emotions often lead us astray epistemically (emotions lead to epistemic biases). I approach the issue by examining a theory of emotion that is relatively new on the scene but has increasing support: the perceptual model of emotion. On this account, emotional experience is a kind of, or is at least akin to, perceptual experience.

An important point of similarity is the claim that perceptual and emotional experience play a similar epistemic role: just as perceptual experiences constitute, in normal conditions, sufficient reasons to believe things about the external world, so too do emotional experiences constitute sufficient reasons to believe things about the evaluative realm. So my emotional experience of fear when confronting a bull in the farmer’s field is a sufficient reason to believe that I am in danger, in much the same way that my visual experience as of the car in the outside lane is a sufficient reason to believe that there is a car in the outside lane.

I argue that the perceptual model both overstates and understates the epistemic importance of emotion. This is because emotional experience is, on the one hand, never by itself a sufficient reason for evaluative judgements: whereas perceptual experiences ‘silence the demand’ for further justification, emotional experience motivates us to seek out further evidence that bears on our evaluative situation. 

A central element in this argument is the fact that emotions and perceptions have different effects on our attention, and that this difference is epistemically important. For emotions, unlike perceptions, capture and consume our attention. And there is considerable evidence – from armchair reflection, from psychology, and from neuroscience – that the point of this capture and consumption is to facilitate an enhanced representation of emotional objects and events. 

Emotions, in other words, motivate us to seek out considerations that enable us to determine whether our evaluative situation is as it emotionally appears: whether, for instance, the bull is dangerous, the comment insulting, the behaviour shameful. This suggests, against the perceptual model, that emotions lack the epistemic credentials of perceptual experiences. Moreover, it helps to explain why emotions often lead to biased thinking: the felt need to discover reasons grounds the well-known tendency to look for reasons that confirm our initial emotional appraisal rather than arrive at a ‘dispassionate’ judgement.

Nevertheless, the fact that emotions motivate us to get a better grasp of our evaluative situation suggests that they can have epistemic value that goes beyond that possessed by perceptions. For the attempt to discover reasons that bear on our evaluative situation is an attempt to understand this situation. By capturing and consuming attention, therefore, emotion can promote evaluative understanding, an understanding that often wouldn’t be available in the absence of emotion. For this to occur, emotion must be governed by virtuous habits of attention, habits which counteract tendencies towards confirmation bias and the like. But when they are, emotions have epistemic value above and beyond that suggested by the perceptual model.

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