I have started reading a book of the Oxford University Press VSI series on Emotion. Like many other people, the author, Dylan Evans, thinks that emotions make us more rational where I take “more rational” to mean “more able to achieve whatever goal we want”. I have seen similar views somewhere else, perhaps by Blackmore or Hofstadter, so I thought I would provide my own views.

I disagree with the idea that emotions make you more rational. I have seen many examples of how emotions can make you more able to achieve your goals. But they all assume one thing: that being able to recognise emotions in other people is only possible if you have emotions. I think that’s nonsense. It is true indeed that if, colloquially speaking, you are not fluent in the lingua franca par excellence, you are missing out. But all you need is the ability to recognise or infer emotions in other people not experiencing them yourself.

I agree with the idea that emotions make you more irrational. Yes, I think that emotions make you more irrational. Emotions are essentially, relatively arbitrary biological reactions/changes that result in a change in your priorities or/and behaviour. The problem with this is that, while emotions can be partially controlled with some training, they cannot be fully controlled, thus making your behaviour partially subject to arbitrary non-predictable processes. How can you gear your behaviour towards a goal when a portion of your behaviour is affected by processes you cannot control? You might be able to do it, but in the absence of external obstacles, you cannot ascertain the amount of effort that will take you to achieve your goal because you might come across a stimuli that triggers an emotion that conflicts with your goal-reaching behaviour. Compare the performance of that agent with the performance of an agent that is fully in control of his internal biology (i.e. no emotions). Unlike our emotional agent, in the absence of external obstacles, the emotionless agent can execute the behaviour needed to achieve a goal without worrying if his emotional state will conflict with his goal-reaching behaviour. If the emotionless agent can recognise emotions, no emotional agent could have the upper hand merely due to having emotions. If anything, the emotionless agent is more efficient rationally-speaking because he will achieve his goal in the presence or absence of emotional stimuli while an emotional agent might struggle/stop himself from achieving his goal because some emotional stimuli triggered certain emotional reactions on him.

  • An emotionally-moving visual stimuli such as a gory/comedy movie could stop an emotional agent from carrying out an action such as reading a book but it would not stop an emotionless agent in doing so.
  • An emotional agent might experience emotions that result in a change of his behaviour in a way that he gets away from his goal. So a student feeling boredom might not study for an exam, while an emotionless student would be able to study.
  • An emotional agent would harm himself (see junk food, lack of exercise and drugs) even it was against his interests, while an emotionless agent would not do so.

But emotionless agents are not only better when it comes to negative emotions, they also have the upper hand in positive emotions.

  • A relationship between two humans that we might term “loving” could have an equivalent without the arbitrariness of emotion. Care, responsibility and goal-reaching support are easily feasible without arbitrary biological processes in their bodies. In the absence of any other factor, an emotionless agent would remain in the relationship while an emotional agent could get his libido running high when he comes across an opportunity to mate with another individual and end up ruining his relationship by cheating.
  • An emotionless agent would have no qualms about breaking the relationship if his partner tried to harm him. An emotional agent would be open to the possibility of staying within the abusive relationship if he was experiencing the appropriate emotions.

I don’t see how emotions could improve the goal-reaching behaviour performance of a rational agent compared to that of an emotional agent. I have seen the evolutionary argument thrown around, but all we know is that emotions most likely emerged before humans so any possible advantage of it is not necessarily related specifically to the fulfilment of humans.

However, it is the case that humans have a wider range of emotions compared to other animals, how do we explain that? Perhaps, the wider range of emotions did not worsen the goal-reaching behaviour of humans so it was not something that made humans less fit, hence it stuck around. Perhaps, emotions were effective because they enhanced the expressiveness of body language. How would an emotionless agent that understood emotions fare against this? Well, surely if our emotionless agent understood emotions, we could use them to enhance the expressiveness of his body language as well. Voice intonation, facial expressions, these are things that could be learnable by an emotionless agent. So there is no need of the actual biological process.

I am not disputing the idea that experiencing emotions must have been useful for humans and non-human animals at some point in the past, I am just mentioning that, compared with an emotionless agent with the same intellectual capabilities, the emotional agent performs worse when it comes to goal-reaching behaviour performance.