- Commentary on “Towards a Design-Based Analysis of Emotional Episodes”
The theoretical work of Wright, Sloman, and Beaudoin is a significant contribution to our understanding of the nature and function of emotions, and potentially also to therapeutic method. Their message that emotions, as controlling and scheduling mechanisms, are essential to any complex intelligent system (that is: one with multiple and potentially conflicting motives, and situated in a changing and unfriendly world) is important. It encourages cognitive psychologists to regard emotions as a central aspect of intelligence, not to sideline (or even to forget) them, as is too often done. In addition, it shows—at least in general outline—how emotions might be understood in computational terms.
Critics of computational psychology too often assume that emotions and motivation must lie outside its scope. This is not so, although it is true that relatively little computational work has been done in this area. Interestingly, the very early days of AI saw a comparatively high proportion of models of multiple goal-seeking, affective processes, and even personality (see, for example, the papers in Tomkins and Messick 1963). But, inevitably, these were so crude as to be almost useless in illuminating the nature of emotion and motivation. As AI-workers and their psychologist colleagues found to their cost, it is difficult enough to model the pursuit of one goal, never mind the pursuit of several mutually conflicting goals. Accordingly, personality and emotion soon faded from the scene as preferred topics of computational research—but not before I too had argued that they could, in principle, be so addressed (Boden 1965; 1972).
I suggested—in the sketchiest terms—that the concepts of William McDougall’s personality theory could be interpreted in a computational fashion (Boden 1965; 1972). His concept of sentiment, for example, marks what Wright et al. call “goal-sets,” and his master sentiment of self-regard relates to the descriptive and normative aspects of the self-image to which they draw our attention. He even described emotions as (conscious) control mechanisms, enabling the subject to monitor the incipient excitement of distinct types of motivation, and (sometimes) to adjust behavior so as to facilitate or inhibit the otherwise-inevitable response. What the target-authors have done is to put subtle and sophisticated computational flesh onto these minimalist theoretical bones.
McDougall himself, of course, will be turning in his grave. He saw affect as partly conscious (as well as dispositional), and argued that consciousness—and purposive behavior too—cannot possibly [End Page 135] be given a mechanistic, or physicalist, explanation. Despite Wright et al.’s persuasive anti-reductionist remarks about the necessity for highly abstract (psychological) levels of explanation, he would not have accepted that such explanations could be computationally grounded. He even insisted that the neurophysiological ground of goal-seeking behavior involved a special sort of energy, or horme, intrinsically directed to specific ends. Presumably, no professional reader today would agree with McDougall on that point. But many may agree with him about consciousness. And many more will insist that consciousness is a crucial aspect—perhaps the crucial aspect—of emotion. Such critics will doubtless point out that our three authors explicitly “factor out,” or refuse to discuss, consciousness as such.
Wright et al.’s rhetorical reserve on this point is defensible on two counts. First, even though emotions do involve conscious sensations, the dispositional and control aspects of affect are at least as important. Indeed, it is evident from the quotations from individuals reacting to bereavement that people often describe the phenomenology of grief in terms of these sorts of factors, rather than in a “purely qualitative” fashion (whatever that might be). Even so, these dispositional aspects of emotion are often overlooked, or regarded as less significant than the conscious phenomenology. And second, theoretical psychologists in general sideline consciousness: either they ignore it entirely, or they take it for granted philosophically and ask about the conditions under which it appears or disappears. They are well advised to do so, since we do not yet understand this concept (more accurately: this mixed bag of related concepts) at the philosophical level. Even a journal whose title has “Philosophy” as its leading...