Marion Ledwig, Las Vegas, 01/14/2009

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Mixed Feelings: Emotional Phenomena, Rationality, and Vagueness

Marion Ledwig
For Nicholas Rescher, Peter Machamer, Isaac Levi, Richard Otte, Christian Kanzian, and Gereon Wolters


Marion Ledwig, Las Vegas, 01/14/2009


I would like to thank James Woodward and Edward Slowik and the colloquia at the University of Pittsburgh and James Madison University for very helpful discussions and constructive questions.

This book was written during my visit to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (2006–2009) and to the Loyola University of Chicago (summer 2008).

Table of Contents
Introduction …………………………………………………..
Chapter 1 Vagueness ………………………………………….
Chapter 2 Emotion Theories ………………………………….
Chapter 3 The Brain and the Emotions ……………………….
Chapter 4 The Rational Functions of the Emotions ..…………
Chapter 5 Hope and Alexithymia ……………………………..
Chapter 6 Vagueness and Rationality in Mixed Feelings ….....
Chapter 7 Vagueness and Rationality in Anxiety Disorders ….
Chapter 8 Vagueness and Rationality in Moods ……………….
Bibliography ……………………………………………………
Index ……………………………………………………………

I. Aims and Background

In this book I seek to understand the connections between emotional phenomena, rationality, and vagueness. While the rationality of the emotions in its general form is no object of dispute any more, I have shown in my book Emotions: Their Rationality and Consistency (2006) in which different kinds of senses emotions and even moods can turn out to be rational, where rational in general is taken as being able to provide good reasons for one’s emotions. Whilst my 2006 book advances the idea that the emotions, as a general category, can be termed rational, it does not investigate the question of whether there are arguments for the rationality of particular emotions, such as envy, fear, happiness, etc., which go beyond the arguments for the rationality of the emotions as a general category. Besides discussing whether emotional intelligence and emotional consistency are forms of emotional rationality, my account makes clear how far my view on the rationality of the emotions can be generalized: whether it can be generalized to computers having rational emotions and whether emotional responses to art can be considered to be rational.

At the end of the 2006 book I raised a hitherto unnoticed serious challenge for future research, namely that the emotions might turn out not to be rational after all, because the emotions are vague, where vagueness is taken to mean that there are borderline cases between the emotions, between the respective emotional phenomena, like moods, phobias, and affective disorders, and also between emotions and non-emotional phenomena, which might account for a long-lasting dispute about which phenomena fall under the emotions. In the case of mixed feelings, for instance, vagueness enters, because one might oscillate between being happy that one’s friend has won the competition and being sad that one has lost the very same competition, and the question then is: where is the boundary between the different emotions? The reason why vagueness might make the emotions, moods, phobias, and affective disorders irrational is the following: how can anyone rationally base his or her choices on something like one’s emotions if they are vague, meaning that in such a case one wouldn’t base one’s decisions on a solid basis, but on something slippery. That seems quite clearly irrational. In a similar vein Mahtani (2004) discusses the instability of vague terms. Changizi (1999), however, has already argued that as humans are computationally bound, avoiding vague concepts results in greater costs than adopting them, so that vague concepts are rational. Hence it still seems an open question whether emotional phenomena because of their vagueness are rational.

In accordance with this is that the only remarks with regard to emotional phenomena and vagueness which I have found in the literature so far are: (1) Sloman (2002, p. 71) shortly states that the concept of emotion (and not only the respective phenomena) has vague boundaries. (2) Matthews et al. (2003, p. 516) consider the question whether emotional intelligence is a broad and vague concept. (3) Nussbaum (2001, p. 24, 133-135) distinguishes emotions, which have an object, even a vague or highly general or hidden one, from objectless moods. And (4) Carroll (2003, p. 533) highlights that a mood can be characterized only in very broad ways, such as up and down, thereby suggesting that moods are vague. In general, besides these very short remarks, there is absolutely no single article or book on the connection between emotional phenomena, rationality, and vagueness in the whole psychological and philosophical literature up to now.

As a result of the last considerations, the following aims are proposed:

(1) determine which rationality concept is adequate for moods, phobias, and affective disorders. With regard to the emotions I advanced the following in Ledwig (2006): an emotion can be termed rational, if this particular emotion is reasonable, justified, warranted, and/or appropriate for a given situation. An emotion is reasonable, justified, etc. for a given situation, if the agent has good reasons for this particular emotion in the given situation. As the burden of explaining emotions lies with developmental processes, that is, with personal developmental and evolutionary processes, good reasons become those, which have been selected by means of developmental processes. Of course, I specified further what a good reason is in (2006); yet, listing this here would lead too far away. In (2006) I examined the following concepts of rationality coming from a decision-theoretic point of view and dismissed them as inadequate for the emotions: (1) one’s emotions are rational if one follows the principle of maximizing expected utility, which is a commonly used decision-theoretic principle; (2) Solomon’s (1993, p. 222) view where every emotion maximizes one’s personal dignity and self-esteem; and (3) Kahneman et al.’s (1997) New Benthamism, where an emotion can be termed rational, if it maximizes the agent’s total experienced utility of temporally extended outcomes. With regard to moods, phobias, and affective disorders, I will also consider all of the previously mentioned rationality concepts for their adequacy, but I will also apply the rationality concept of artificial intelligence to moods, phobias, and affective disorders, where “reason could be mechanically explained as the operation of appropriate computational processes on symbols, where symbols are non-semantically indivisible items…and computational processes are mechanical, automatic processes that recognize, write and amend symbols in accordance with rules”. (Clark 2003, p. 310)

Moods, phobias, and affective disorders are new and significant areas in relation to rationality, for no one in their wildest dreams would have considered these phenomena as in any way rational. In (2006) I have advanced that it is possible to justify a mood and even to reason about it, which might make moods rational. Yet, one might also want to look at which different kinds of functions moods, phobias, and affective disorders serve - do they have communicative, information selection, getting attention functions, etc.? - in order to determine their rationality.

(2) Determine which vagueness concept is adequate with regard to the emotions, moods, phobias, and affective disorders; Salmon (2007, p. 53), for instance, distinguishes between three different concepts of vagueness: vagueness in the sense of (1) the existence of borderline cases, in the sense of (2) “when several criteria exist for application of a term, with no specification of how many of the criteria have to be fulfilled or to what degree”, and in the sense of (3) lack of specificity. It has to be pointed out that “vague” and “vagueness” are labels for real and common phenomena, for instance, whereas Bill Clinton is quite clearly not bald, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard of Star Trek) is bald; yet, where is one supposed to draw the borderline between baldness and non-baldness? That seems difficult or even arbitrary. Moreover, there is a vast and highly technical and contentious philosophical literature surrounding the issue of vagueness.

(3) Determine whether the emotional phenomena are vague or their concepts. Up to now only Sloman (2002, p. 71) has noticed that one has to distinguish between the vagueness of emotional phenomena and their concepts, so this whole area is still untreated territory. If one, for instance, defined moods as persistent raw feelings, one could argue that this definition is vague; for what time-span does persistent amount to? Yet, one could also argue that the phenomenon is vague, because where is the border between being in a certain mood and not being in it any longer? That such a distinction between the vagueness of emotional phenomena and the vagueness of emotional concepts seems to be necessary becomes evident when one looks at Keefe’s (2006, p. 15) statement that at least the possibility exists that there is a vague language in a non-vague world.

Similarly, Sorensen (2001, p. 121) points out that the vagueness of the term “cloud” cannot make the object cloud vague. In his epistemic account of vagueness, Williamson (1994, p. 6) also claims that the impossibility of knowing the boundaries of vague phenomena might be independent of the way in which the objects are represented. Yet, Williamson (1994, p. 257) in contradistinction to the foregoing states:

“To attribute vagueness to ‘things themselves’ just is to say that they have it irrespective of whether or how they are represented. But if vagueness is a matter of ignorance, it depends on whether or how things are represented to the supposedly unknowing subject. No representation: no distinction between vague and precise. Thus the epistemic view cannot consistently attribute vagueness to things themselves.”

Sorensen (2001, p. 121) argues that an object language cannot be vague just because of the vagueness of a meta-language that is used to describe it. For some of the meta-languages which are used to describe algebraic chess notation are vague, such as the informal commentary in chess instruction booklets, whereas other meta-languages are precise, such as the various programming languages which are used in order to computerize chess. Likewise, Sorensen (2001, p. 122) claims that “An utterance can be a borderline case of a vague meta-linguistic term without having any vagueness of its own.” Sorensen (2001, p. 122) gives the example of a half British/half American student who utters the sentence “The formula with Gödel number three billion is a logical truth.”, where the student doesn’t know what three billion really meant in order to illustrate such a borderline case.

(4) Determine whether the emotional phenomena are irrational, because they are vague. This issue is completely neglected in the literature so far, so this needs some especially thorough research. One could argue though that even if the boundaries between emotions, moods, etc. turn out to be vague, this does not have to have any consequences for the rationality of emotions, moods, etc., because these phenomena might still serve different rational functions.
II. Significance and Innovation

The significance of this project is to account for the following fundamental problem in emotion research thereby advancing the knowledge base of the discipline: there has been a dispute going on over the centuries concerning which phenomena fall into the category of the emotions, suggesting that the borderline between emotional phenomena and other phenomena such as desires and attitudes is rather vague. No one so far has yet tried to account for this ongoing problem by means of vagueness. Hence to account for this problem would resolve a long and serious conflict and above all would be a unique solution.

This project is innovative and new, because (1) it distinguishes between the vagueness of emotion terms and of emotional phenomena, (2) looks at the advantages and disadvantages of vagueness in these regards, (3) brings forth evidence for the vagueness of emotion terms and their corresponding phenomena, (4) determines which rationality concept is adequate for emotional phenomena, and (5) determines whether emotional phenomena despite their vagueness are rational.

Ordinary terms such as emotions are vague. Coates (1996, p. 3) has claimed that only ordinary concepts and not emotional phenomena are inherently vague and that the terms “emotion” and “mood” are such ordinary concepts. With regard to the latter, the position could be advanced that ordinary language is inherently vague, because its objects are inherently vague or the line between where an object or a phenomenon begins and ends cannot be drawn due to insufficient knowledge. With regard to the emotions, phobias, affective disorders, and moods, knowledge has increased over the last decades, with the advancement of neuroscience, cognitive science, etc., but is far from complete. Thus it is still an open question whether the emotions, phobias, affective disorders, and/or moods are vague, because the phenomena are vague or their concepts are vague or because enough knowledge has not been gathered yet to make that kind of a judgment.

Coates (1996, p. 167) suggests that ordinary language is inherently vague, because vague concepts, like “heap”, are only used in contexts where a precise demarcation point would have little purpose. Whilst the terms “emotion”, “phobia”, “affective disorder”, and “mood” are not as vague as “heap”, precise demarcation points for these terms also do not seem to be needed in daily life, which might explain the vagueness of these concepts. The vagueness of these concepts might also be due to the fact that lots of different kinds of emotions, phobias, affective disorders, and moods fall under the respective terms, whereas one doesn’t distinguish in ordinary language between different kinds of heaps. Moreover, with regard to certain phenomena, for instance, boredom or hope, it is an open question whether they belong to the emotions at all. So not only the distinction between the different emotional phenomena might suffer from vagueness, also the distinction to other not-emotional phenomena might turn out to be vague.

Ordinary phenomena such as emotions are vague. It might not only be the emotional concepts which are vague. Simons (1999) actually points out that many everyday objects are vague. Thus a corresponding vague ordinary language might actually capture the vagueness of its objects, which might be a good thing, in the sense that our language is not misleading, but rather represents the objects or phenomena as they really are. With regard to the emotions, vagueness enters in the cases where (1) either the feeling-tone of the respective emotion or the physiological response is rather weak, so that one cannot distinguish it clearly from cases where no emotion is given, or (2) where cases of mixed feelings are given, so that one has difficulty in stating which feeling is given.

With regard to the first point, if one for instance induced certain moods or emotions by music, which might not lead to big intensities of emotions, and then asked the respective person, do you feel any emotion at all or do you feel a certain desire or just a feeling, it would be interesting to see whether responses over large groups of experimental subjects were uniform or whether they were diverse. So, one could measure the intensity of emotions by means of verbal reports, but also by means of physiological responses, like for instance increase in neuronal activity, change in skin conductance, and the P300 component of evoked potentials, etc. With regard to the latter possibilities, it seems obvious, because these components are measured on continuums, that it is very difficult to say when one has a significant increase in skin conductance, neuronal activity, and the P300 component of evoked potentials, and therefore even here vagueness in the sense of having troubles establishing clear borderlines enters into the picture. With regard to the former, verbal reports can be vague because of their possible lack of specificity, or they can be vague because the respective phenomena just differ from each other because they lie on continua where there are only quantitative and no qualitative distinctions to be found. Also if one advocates the view that emotions include judgments as an essential feature, some judgments because of their lack of specificity might be vague. Hence this might be another possibility for vagueness to arise. With regard to moods, it seems to be rather established that neurotransmitters have an effect on mood changes (cf. Griffiths 1997, chapter 10), and as neurotransmitters can be given in different degrees, so that even here a continuum is given, borderline cases might occur.

With regard to the second point mixed feelings have not been studied much in the philosophical literature yet (with the exception of Ledwig 2006 and Greenspan 1980) and it seems particularly puzzling to assume that mixed feelings, where the boundary between the respective feelings seems inherently vague or where one might not even experience any boundary at all because one experiences two feelings at the same time, might be rational to seek or have, so this needs to be explored further. In the case of mood-swings, as in the clinical case of bipolar disorder, where one goes from one extreme to the other extreme, the boundary between mania and depression seems to be vague, too, that is, how can one really establish that it is this point when one switches from mania to depression and/or vice versa. The latter seems to hold even more so for the weaker forms of bipolar disorder. Also if one is “moody”, i. e. at one instance happy, at the next instance annoyed, at the third instance sad, etc. the boundary between these different instances is difficult to grasp clearly, like when exactly does the change happen from one instance to the next.

Advantages and disadvantages of vagueness. According to Simons (1997), semantic vagueness concerns the meaning and reference of expressions. This might lead to interpretative indeterminacy. Is it a bad thing if ordinary language is inherently vague? From an evolutionary perspective this does not have to be the case as long as the species survives. In accordance with the latter, Greenspan (2001) points out that there might be good evolutionary reasons for depression, the emotional phenomenon. Also, if the aim is to motivate people, then a vague, general goal, such as “to preserve nature”, might be very effective, whereas if the aim is definitely to reach that goal, then it has to be made more precise. Similarly, in philosophy, vague concepts might be a very good starting point for discussing philosophical concepts, but in order to reach an adequate analysis of a certain concept this would be insufficient and it would be necessary to be more precise. Also for a therapeutic intervention and especially for a successful diagnosis of affective disorders one needs a more precise analysis of the respective concepts and phenomena. That the diagnosis of mental disorders is still under constant revision and therefore has not reached a precise state yet can be seen by the fact that the American Psychiatric Association currently is working on the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-V.

Coates (1996, p. 8) goes so far as to say: “sometimes a blurred picture may communicate more meaning than a sharp one.” Yet identity conditions for vague concepts might be completely impossible, which might be a clear disadvantage. Furthermore, it might be questioned whether vague concepts can give the knowledge that philosophy actually wanted to deliver (cf. Coates 1996, p. 155). The law of excluded middle does not hold with regard to vague concepts, which might make logic more cumbersome, too. Hence, vagueness needs to be excluded from the concepts as much as possible. With regard to moods and their boundaries with the emotions, this might still be possible, because moods have not been studied that much in philosophy, let alone their relationships to other phenomena. With regard to the emotions, further research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind and also attempts to synthesize emotions in computers is likely to reveal further insights into the emotions and might perhaps lead to a theory of the emotions that is not vague. Something similar might be possible for phobias and affective disorders. That one is able to synthesize emotions in computers might sound far-fetched, but actually there have been studies which developed software programs competing for space on the computer’s hard disk employing Darwin’s principles of evolution by natural selection, namely heredity, mutation, and differential selection, so that the better software programs survived, were able to reproduce themselves in different degrees, which included random errors (= mutation) in the reproduction process (cf. Evans 2001; Ledwig 2006). Perhaps if one just waited long enough, software programs with emotions might develop. This seems reasonable if one assumes that an intelligent being has to have emotions in order to survive.

Evidence for the vagueness of emotional phenomena. As many everyday objects, such as the sun or human beings, are vague (Simons 1999), it seems not impossible that phenomena like “emotions”, “phobias”, “affective disorders”, and “moods” will turn out to be vague, too. Furthermore, evidence for the vagueness of emotions might arise from people’s general inability to classify their own emotions. For example, on meeting a friend not seen for a very long time might generate feelings that are not mixed feelings as such, but rather feelings that are hard to put a label to. Mixed feelings are only insofar a case of vagueness, when feelings oscillate between two different feelings over a time-span and where the boundary between the two different feelings is difficult to locate. That is, mixed feelings are so called, because the different feelings experienced do not blend into each other, and not because they are so mixed that they produce another feeling, like in the case of mixed colours. In the case of mixed feelings one is still able to clearly identify which feelings are involved. It might be the case though that the respective feelings like the feelings involved in hate and love lie along a continuum and that in the case where the feelings oscillate between the different poles it might be hard to determine which feeling is given at a certain time, because the borderline between hate and love is not clearly defined. Also in the case where either one of the poles of the experienced feelings or even both lie in close proximity to the borderline of the two respective feelings as such, vagueness might be involved, for the simple reason that it seems difficult to identify a clear borderline. Also vagueness enters into the problem when feelings of two or more different people are involved. For feelings are a subjective thing unless one employs an objective measure, like for instance physiological responses, so that it is difficult to compare the intensity and quality of feelings of two persons with each other. Yet even with objective measures already problems appear, for Kendall et al. (2004, p. 336) report that parents of children diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder don’t agree in all the cases on the presence or absence of specific objective somatic symptoms experienced by the child with their children and that parents attribute significantly more somatic symptoms than their diagnosed children to their children.

Emotional phenomena, vagueness and rationality. While I have already dealt with the different ways emotions can turn out to be rational in Ledwig (2006), I have not looked at the connection between vagueness and the rationality of the emotions. Considering the function that moods serve, Carroll (2003, p. 530) plausibly speculates that moods probably give the organism information about the agent’s levels of energy and tension. It would be irrational for a depressed agent to go out and attempt to rescue the whole world, because he feels lacking in energy for that, or perhaps even anything right now, but if he is in a good mood, this would seem much more rational to try. Yet where is the boundary to be set between being in a good mood and being in a bad mood? Sloman (2002, p. 72) points out that some moods might be even rational or adaptive reactions to certain environments. For example, in an environment where partly risky actions fail most of the time, this might induce a cautious mood, to always take the less risky alternative, leading to more success in the long run. Yet, one can alternatively explain this fact by developing a cautious attitude and not by developing a cautious mood. But even here: it might be problematic to evaluate which the less risky alternative is, something might be less risky with regard to monetary issues, but more risky with regard to health. So saying that something is risky is very vague indeed.

With regard to phobias, that phobias are evolutionarily beneficial and therefore might be termed rational can be supported by the fact that the most frequently diagnosed phobias, such as phobias of insects, snakes, and heights, are directed at situations that reflect an evolutionary preparation to be sensitive to dangers that ancestral human populations encountered (cf. D’Arms and Jacobson 2003, p. 141). Yet one might want to ask why are humans not phobic with regard to ticks which look so similar to spiders and which are carriers of so many diseases and why aren’t humans phobic to large predators, like lions or bears? Perhaps one needn’t develop a phobia with regard to large predators, for the simple reason that the huge size of these animals was already sufficient to activate a fear response. With regard to ticks, one could say a phobia is also not needed, for according to Lorenz (1943) touch stimuli, given by an insect crawling on the skin, release the response of throwing it off with a quick movement of the hand. Moreover, being bitten by a tick does not lead to immediate death, although some of the tick-borne diseases actually can lead to death, so that at least immediate survival is not at stake. The latter might be at stake with regard to certain spiders and snakes, though. That the classification of phobias is open to the problem of vagueness might already derive from the fact that if one follows the DSM-IV classification of specific phobias, something can only be classified as a specific phobia if one exhibits persistent fear, where it seems unclear where exactly persistency starts and where it ends. What is of particular interest with regard to the rationality of phobias, the person who has a phobia recognizes that the phobia is excessive or unreasonable, while in children this feature may be absent according to the DSM-IV which might indicate the influence the person’s environment has on the person classifying his phobia as irrational.

Another point of interest is that the majority of children with a specific phobia, like spider phobia, also suffer from another anxiety disorder (Ginsburg and Walkup 2004, p. 175) which might indicate that the boundary between the different anxiety disorders is a vague one. Similarly in a study of adolescents with a specific phobia Essau et al. (2000) discovered that this mental disorder goes together with another anxiety disorder in 47% of the cases followed by depressive disorders (36%) and somatoform disorders (33%). Moreover, ca. 80% of those with social anxiety disorder as young adults had an affective disorder or an anxiety disorder as adolescents (Newman et al. 1996). In contrast to that Perwien and Bernstein (2004, pp. 275-276) report that of the anxiety disorders examined, separation anxiety disorder had the highest rate of recovery with 95.7% and a very low rate with regard to the development of a new anxiety disorder (8.3%). Now just because one anxiety disorder goes together with other affective disorders does not necessarily mean that the boundary drawn between the different disorders is not adequate, after all, if someone has AIDS there are lots of different diseases going along with it, too, yet the possibility exists in the case of overlapping affective disorders that either the boundary is very vague or that the boundary established was not adequate for capturing the respective affective disorder. Yet in the case of AIDS the different diseases going along with it are of different kinds, such as diverse infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, and even various cancers, whereas in the case of different anxiety disorders, these at least have some features in common, such as persistent and excessive worry, sleeping problems, and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Thus the boundary between different anxiety disorders may be very vague. With regard to the rationality of anxiety disorders, this might be possible. For cognitive factors, especially the way people think and interpret stressful events, play a critical role in how anxiety is caused (Barlow et al., 1996). Hence it might be feasible to justify one’s anxiety disorder and even to reason about it, which might make anxiety disorders rational.

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