Tackling scientific taboos

Consciousness and Emotion
November 23, 2001

It seemed appropriate to be reviewing Consciousness and Emotion in the week the Kubrick-Spielberg film AI : Artificial Intelligence was released in the United Kingdom. The film describes an attempt to instil emotional consciousness in robots and examines the resulting ethical problem. Unfortunately, Steven Spielberg's addiction to schmaltz meant that the film failed to live up to the promise of 2001 : A Space Odyssey , so serious students of these issues will have to visit this new journal.

For the first half of the 20th century, psychology was content to view its human subject matter as little more than a stimulus-response machine. The sterility of the behaviourist project led to the so-called cognitive revolution, but this just replaced the S-R machine with the Turing machine. Though cognition was back on the agenda, it was assumed that it could be modelled by symbolic logic and represented in any computational medium.

It was only in the wake of the failure of the classical AI programme that cognitive science turned to naturalism - the study of cognition as implemented in the species Homo sapiens . The focus of attention shifted from mathematical logic to neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Rather than pursuing the quixotic search for ideal rationality, scientists such as Antonio Damasio started inquiring how human agents actually took decisions and were surprised to find that emotion was an indispensable part of the process.

Throughout most of the 20th century, the study of affect was left to the disciples of Sigmund Freud. But this was a decidedly mixed blessing as psychologists had little success in confirming Freud's theories experimentally. Now Freudian psychology is viewed as an amusing fiction and the study of emotion has been relegated to the humanities side of C. P. Snow's cultural iron curtain.

Of late there have been a few attempts to storm the barricades. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Marxist scholar Jon Elster shifted his attentions to the study of emotion in his book Alchemies of the Mind , drawing on literature and scientific psychology. Bernard Baars agrees in his article in the first issue of Consciousness and Emotion that science has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Baars's "four scientific taboos" - consciousness, emotion, the humanities and psychodynamics - are all up for liberation through this journal.

Freud famously theorised that most human affect is below the threshold of consciousness, but Ralph Ellis and Natika Newton do to Freud what Marx did to Hegel. According to the editors, emotion plays a crucial role in distinguishing between conscious and unconscious information processing. "If we ask ourselves why this instance of information processing is consciousI it is because it arises out of an organism's motivating emotional life." If this is the case, the cyborg David in AI would have been conscious, whereas HAL in 2001 would not.

If consciousness is grounded in emotion (rather than higher-level processes such as language), this has ethical implications. Much work in affective neuroscience is based on animal studies, making it far harder to conclude, with Descartes, that animals are unconscious biological machines. This work has implications for the humane treatment of animals and emotionally intelligent robots. The latter is the concern of scholars such as Baars and Thomas Metzinger. As affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp puts it:

"Silence on such matters is a potentially immoral stance."

The journal also looks at ethics and criminology. In his article "My amygdala-orbitofrontal-circuit made me do it", psychologist Bill Faw explores some of the possible consequences of neuropsychology for issues of criminal liability. Unfortunately, the article is far too short to cover the area properly.

Notwithstanding the thoroughgoing naturalism of the contributors to Consciousness and Emotion , there is a residual hostility to evolutionary psychology. Panksepp's general polemic on the topic (published elsewhere) has given rise to extensive debate, but the specific target of his article in this journal is information-encapsulated "modules". Consciousness and Emotion prefers to view consciousness and emotion as integrated features of self-organising systems rather than independent modular processes.

Timo Järvilehto's two-part article "Feeling as knowing" is a good description of the attempt to move beyond the sterility of the dominant cognitivist paradigm. Emotions are acquired in a social context and are only (falsely) seen as private with the onset of language and "personal consciousness", Järvilehto claims. When the anthill is disturbed, the behaviour of the ants displays emotion.

Cognitivists will pounce on Järvilehto's claim that "there is no phenomenal quality of conscious experience that would exist independently from, or in addition to the things we do". Aha, cry the Chalmersians, these guys are just begging the question or, worse still, they're behaviourists. This raises an interesting question - is the new wave of anti-cognitivism just a psychological Counter-Reformation? Järvilehto considers this charge and concludes that he differs from the early J. B. Watson by extending the concept of behaviour to the organism-environment system. Järvilehto then attempts to distance himself further from the 1930s by introducing the concept of "intention" or expectation of the result. But even this was foreseen by Watson's "fractionally antedating goal responses". Only time will tell if the New Turks of consciousness studies are anything more than (reactionary) White Russians with sharp haircuts.

It remains an open question whether the field of consciousness studies is big enough to support sub-specialities. Thomas Natsoulas's article on "feelings" as intrinsic to states of consciousness would seem to be about emotion. But on inspection it is nothing more than the Jamesian argument that conscious states have both cognitive and qualitative experiential elements.

Similarly Carl Anderson's article, "From molecules to mindfulness", is only marginally related to emotional consciousness. The editors, both philosophers, need to ensure that they establish a sharper focus.

The journal also suffers from the publisher's minimalist approach to copy editing. It is speckled with errant paragraph indents, typos and missing references. But this is only irritating. The editors are to be congratulated for launching a quality journal on the crest of the wave of interest in embodied, enactive and other visceral approaches to cognition. It is too soon to see whether, as Damasio claims, cognitive science is undergoing yet another paradigm shift, but hopefully we will hear less talk of epiphenomenalism and brains in vats.

Keith Sutherland is executive editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Consciousness and Emotion

Editor - Ralph D. Ellis and Natika Newton
ISBN - ISSN 1566 5836
Publisher - John Benjamins
Price - €54.91 (individuals) €135.23 (institutions)

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