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Emotions, evidence, and safety

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This paper explores two ways that emotions can facilitate knowledge. First, emotions can play an evidential role with respect to belief formation. Second, emotions can be knowledge-conducive without being evidential by securing the safety of belief.

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  1. This is not the place to give a definition of what counts as an emotion, or to take sides between the tradition (dating back at least to John Dewey 1894) that construes emotions as a special kind of motivational state, and another which construes them as a special kinds of evaluative attitude (see, for example, Dietz 2020; Nussbaum 2004; and Solomon 2003). For what it is worth, I think of the category of emotion as a potential natural kind for which aprioristic definitions are out of place. (Of course, that category may turn out to comprise a number of disparate natural kinds). By analogy we should not try to define ‘gold’ in advance of empirical investigation. I shall consider both factive emotions such as regret and embarrassment (called factive because in their ‘V that P’ form they function as factive constructions) and epistemic emotions such as being worried that P and being optimistic that P. (The factive/epistemic distinction was introduced by Robert Gordon in The Structure of the Emotions, 1987). I do wish to distinguish emotions from the feelings that they give rise to (see Goldie 2000, Ch. 2 on the distinction between ‘emotions and episodes of emotional experience’), and in this essay I am concerned with the knowledge facilitating role of both. For more recent discussions of this distinction as it applies to the epistemic emotions, see Arango-Munoz and Michaelian (2014).

  2. Brady’s (2013) skepticism about the evidential roles that emotions may play vis à vis evaluative beliefs is used as a springboard for his extensive critique of ‘the perceptual model of emotion’. I will not address the perceptual model here as I explore these issues in Dietz (2017).

  3. I use the term ‘personal reason’ following Grice (2001) but one might just as well use the term ‘motivational reason’ instead. See, for example, Alvarez (2010). It is also worth noting that while personal reasons are always explanatory, explanatory reasons are not always available for an agent to use as a personal reason. See Dietz (2016, 2017) for discussion.

  4. Williamson discusses the objectual way of talking about evidence but takes the propositional use to be the one of central theoretical importance: "Why should all evidence be propositional? It would not be on a broad interpretation of ‘evidence’. In the courts, a bloodied knife is evidence. It is natural to say that I am getting a cold includes various sensations. Some philosophers apply the term ‘evidence’ to non-propositional perceptual states….  How can 'All evidence is propositional' do more than stipulate a technical use for the word 'evidence? Indiscriminate description of the ordinary use of a term and arbitrary stipulation are not the only options. We can single out theoretical functions central to the ordinary concept evidence and ask what serves them." Williamson (2000, p.194) Throughout this discussion, I shall talk about the emotions as providing evidence and this is my shorthand for saying that facts about the emotions provide evidence.

  5. This is not the place to argue for my preferred conception of personal reasons. See Unger (1975, pp. 206–14), Hyman (1999) Williamson (2000) Grice (2001) Alvarez (2010) and Littlejohn (2012) for more discussion. For an alternative framework, see Dancy (2000). .

  6. See Williamson (2000, pp. 184–208).

  7. One will find a more detailed explication and defense of this simple model in Williamson (2000, pp. 186–194).

  8. This simple probabilistic model corresponds to the standard probabilistic notion of ‘confirmation’ in philosophy of science. See Maher (2005).

  9. It is even more obvious that the emotions can play an evidential role vis à vis propositions about emotions.

  10. The distinction between forward-looking emotions and backward-looking emotions is intuitive but I do not think it marks an important difference between their respective capacity to provide evidence. Guilt can provide evidence of past wrong-doing, excitement can provide evidence of future enjoyment.

  11. Note that it may be a bit naive to suppose that there is a strong positive correlation between fear and one’s being in danger. For one might feel fear because there is a danger to someone else. Of course, it is still plausible that one can come to know that there is a strong positive correlation between certain kinds of fear and certain kinds of dangers. Similar points arise for correlations connecting other emotions to other evaluative states of affairs. There is also the more general concern that the evolutionary function of fear tolerates a lot of false positives owing to the fact that failing to flee in the presence of danger is much more troublesome than fleeing in the absence of danger. (I shall return to this point in due course.) But note that additional background knowledge might screen off this concern in particular cases. Also note that some piece of evidence can raise the probability that someone is in danger without rendering it likely that they are in danger. A shift from .1 to .3 will do, for example.

  12. Here, I use the expression ‘good personal reasons’ on account of the fact that some personal reasons for belief/action are simply bad reasons to believe/act.

  13. Suppose John is told that sandwiches will be served at lunch. This fact might raise the epistemic probability that tuna sandwiches will be served at lunch from .1 to. 2 but the fact that sandwiches will be served at lunch is not the kind of fact that, by itself, makes it appropriate to believe that tuna sandwiches will be served at lunch.

  14. There is another category of reasons worth mentioning; Normative reasons are typically expressed by the ‘reason-to’ construction. These are different from what I call, ‘good personal reasons’ since one might have a good reason to believe P and yet not believe P and thus, have no personal reasons for belief at all. One might adapt the above discussion to argue that emotional facts can be good normative reasons to believe various evaluative propositions. (E.g. if one knows P and P raises the probability that Q, and the resultant probability of Q is high, then the proposition that P is a good normative reason to believe Q.).

  15. Because Brady does not explain what he means by ‘bona fide’ reason, I shall consider his ideas using the framework of reasons and evidence described above. I shall not investigate whether there is any plausible interpretation of ‘bona fide reason’ according to which the thesis that emotions cannot provide bona fide reasons can still be clung on to.

  16. While my focus is on the general thesis that emotions can provide evidence, it is important that they can play some kind of epistemic role with respect to moral learning. After all, their epistemological importance would be greatly diminished if it turned out that their evidential value in that area is null, or worse.

  17. A longer discussion of this example occurs in Brady (2013, Ch. 3).

  18. Brady develops a positive epistemic account of the emotions which says that the emotions are motivational mechanisms that promote, ‘evaluative understanding’. See Brady (2013, Ch. 4). I will not consider his account here.

  19. There is a long tradition of thinking of the emotions as automatic responses and it is a common theme in contemporary neuropsychology. However, I certainly do not want to assume with Brady that all emotions are automatic and reflexive since that would not sit well with the idea that feeling-confident or feeling-certain are emotional states (which I think they are). Moreover, Brady tends to focus on cases where an emotion is caused by something in one’s environment, and rarely discusses those cases where one has anticipatory emotions that are not prompted by environmental cues.

  20. Brady (2013, p. 189) concedes that if seeking further information has “significant practical costs” the virtuous person may rely on the deliverances of the emotions but thinks that in normal circumstances, the virtuous person’s motivation is to seek further “understanding” of their evaluative situation if they do not possess the relevant evaluative information already.

  21. Elgin (2008, pp. 34–40) argues that some emotions may be reliable indicators of certain aspects of their objects. The experience of fear can be evidence enough to believe one is in danger, or the feeling of trust can be evidence that one finds something to be reliable. “The very fact that [emotional experiences] present themselves as indicators of how things stand gives them some degree of initial tenability”. Brady (2013) is aware of Elgin’s initial tenability thesis and answers it with what I have called, his ‘double counting argument’. (Ch. 3).

  22. Email Correspondence on November 27, 2012.

  23. Of course, testimonial evidence may make a tiny contribution in these cases even after I perceive the tiger or the cup, respectively. For example, even after I see that there is a hungry tiger behind me, the likelihood that it is trained not to bite and that I am not really in danger is, while low, is even lower conditional on the testimony that I am in danger.

  24. In certain cases such as this, the emotion not only plays an evidential role but the emotional kind to which the emotion belongs seems to have a constitutive relation to the property that the emotion is evidence for: For something to be disgusting, it seems that it needs to stand in some relation to the disgust reaction, though it is a delicate matter to say quite what the relation is.

  25. These remarks are suggestive of a more basic principle; If S is angry that P then S knows that P. This view has been defended by Unger (1975), Williamson (2000), Gordon (1987), Dietz (2017) and many others.

  26. See Williamson (2000, Ch. 3) for relevant discussion. See Dietz (2017) for an account of how factive emotional state ascriptions relate to knowledge and reasons.

  27. The neocortex is a higher order processing system that is thought to be involved with thinking, reasoning, and consciousness. See Le Doux (1989, 2000).

  28. Researchers have suggested that the amygdala processes early emotion signals irrespective of attention (Anderson et al. 2001, 2012; Vuilleumier and Schwartz 2001) and irrespective of awareness (Morris et al. 1998; Whalen et al. 1998), and that the early emotional response influences a range of cognitive functions, including perception, attention, and memory. Research also suggests that there are specialized subcortical pathways that allow for the early production of emotion so that the amygdala is sensitive to potential threats in the environment prior to the completion of standard perceptual functions. (Romanski and LeDoux 1992) (Zajonc 1994) .

  29. See (Brady 2013, pp. 109–117).

  30. From the perspective of the probabilistic framework, the barista case discussed earlier is a paradigm of very weak evidence. This notion of strength is pretty rough and ready. There is an obvious sense in which evidence is not strong when one’s prior is .8 and the evidence raises the probability to .81.

  31. For a more extensive discussion, see Rabinowitz (2011).

  32. Thanks to John Hawthorne, Yoaav Isaacs, and Charity Anderson for extensive discussion here.

  33. If one likes Super-Refined Safety, one might also be tempted by other conceptions of safety that can potentially offer even more explanatory power for certain kinds of cases. For example, one might craft a test that not only considers whether one could easily have formed a false belief about P (using a relevant similar method), and also whether one could easily have formed a false belief about a relevantly similar subject matter. I will not pursue these issues here.

  34. One must be precise about what counts as a ‘close case’ if one hopes to avoid wayward alternatives that lead to skepticism. See Greco (2007) for an exposition of Pritchard’s (2004) ambiguous formulation of ‘close cases’.

  35. One reader was very concerned that my discussion presupposes “a mechanistic conception of humans and their epistemic practices”. In general, my theorizing proceeds from the assumption that our mental lives ultimately supervene on physical processes, and perhaps certain remarks in the text reflects this. Moreover, in keeping with one fairly standard idea, I have also proceeded to theorize about the emotions from the assumption that mental states can simultaneously rationalize as well as cause other mental states (an idea famously attributed to Donald Davidson 1970). Perhaps certain remarks in the text reflect this as well. But none of this commits me to any kind of simple-minded reductionism according to which we can expect to discover very simple equations of the form, to be an emotion of type F is for such and such physical phenomena to obtain. It is also worth emphasizing that I do not wish to deny that the representational aspects of emotion may be important to psychological explanations, though in keeping with a broadly Davidsonian picture, I do not think precludes their taking their place in the causal nexus.

  36. Focusing on perceptual beliefs, Dokic (2012) has argued that certain epistemic emotional experiences—in particular, feelings of certainty—are reliably correlated with (and thus, arguably provide evidence for) the safety of beliefs. If he is right, then he has described a way that emotions can provide evidence for the safety of beliefs. But it is one thing to track a safe process, another to help constitute it.

  37. As noted, not all emotions enhance attention. Consider the contrast between fear and disgust. While fear heightens attentional focus and boosts information processing (which is thought to be beneficial to the overall survival of a species) (LeDoux 2000; Dolan 2002), disgust diverts (sensory) attention from the object of disgust. (Zhang and Luo 2015; Krusemarl and Li 2011) (This arguably serves its own evolutionary benefit by reducing one’s exposure to potential threats of a poisonous or pathogenic nature). See Rozin and Fallon (1987) for more discussion.

  38. Brady (2013) makes some related observations. See Ch. 5.

  39. One should be skeptical of a valence generalization to the effect that any two kinds of emotions that are either positive or negative will produce the same kinds of effects or produce the same set of tendencies. See Lerner and Keltner (2000) and DeSteno et al. (2014) for discussion.

  40. For example, see Goldie (2004), Elgin (2008) and Helm (2001; 2009).

  41. This talk of ‘basing’ may be more questionable on cognitivist theories according to which emotions are, at least in part, constituted by certain kinds of judgments (see Nussbaum 2004 and Solomon 2003) or beliefs (Dietz 2020). Other views concede the representational aspects of emotions but deny that they constitute judgments or beliefs (Goldie 2000 and Roberts 2003), and on those views the basing picture is more straightforward. For a survey of cognitivist views, see Scarantino 2010.

  42. I do not wish to claim that the entirety of the epistemic role of the emotions is confined to safety enhancement and probability raising. Such a claim would require that I make the notion of epistemic roles precise.

  43. I would like to thank Michael Brady for extensive discussion and written comments on drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Timothy Williamson, Ofra Magidor, John Hawthorne, Bill Brewer, and Michael Pace for invaluable discussion and feedback.


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Dietz, C.H. Emotions, evidence, and safety. Synthese 199, 2027–2050 (2021).

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