Why do we have emotions

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Although we introduced the idea of functionalism in our discussion of the work of Aristotle, we have given the question of why we have emotions little consideration. To recapitulate, the Aristotelian reply to the question, why do we have emotions? is that the function of emotions is related to the propensity they allow for certain types of behaviour (cf. Dennett, 1991). So, the function of fear is to provide a propensity for Susan to run away from the bear. One might even add that the physiological changes associated with such fear, such as increased adrenalin secretion, allow Susan to run that bit faster! Akin to the distinction drawn between interpretations and appraisals (see above), we would like to extend this functionalist view further and argue that emotions are associated with potentials for action and also, at times, with overt behaviour. So, having appraised her interpretation that the bear will eat her as one of danger, Susan forms the action potential to run away and, in fact, does run away. The question really then is whether this notion of an action potential is conceptually necessary for a proper understanding of emotion. Theorists such as Lyons (1980) and Chalmers (1998) have suggested that the answer to this question is probably no, and that action potentials are merely a component of emotion as a paradigm case. To support this claim, Lyons cites examples of the, so-called, backward-looking emotions such as grief which, he argues, are not associated with any functional desire or potential for action:

Ultimately, I think that the reason why we would say that grief does not have any desires [action potentials] as part of its concept is that it makes perfectly good sense for us to say "X grieves for Y" and "X has no desires [action potentials] deriving from his grief for Y". (1980, p. 96)

We would like to disagree with this line of argument. It seems to make no sense to suggest that somebody is grieving but has no associated action potential. Part of the essence of grief is surely that of finding it difficult to come to terms with the loss of somebody (or something) who is held in high regard, and this loss is reflected by a desire and associated action potential that things had turned out differently and that the person was still present (see Chapter 7). Lyons would not necessarily disagree with this point. He also notes that grief is associated with desires and potentials for action that things should be otherwise. However, he does not agree that this is always the case.

This point is where we beg to differ. We would like to propose that action potentials are a conceptually necessary constituent of the emotional experience and, indeed, help to define the role of emotions in a functional theory of mind. Emotions without action potentials have no functionality. In terms of backward-looking emotions such as grief, we propose that there are action potentials but that the goals to which they are directed either cannot be realised or consist of elicitations of support and sympathy from others or the reassessment of psychological coping resources through internal reflection. These points are expanded on in Chapter 7 on sadness.

Having made these various points, there remains one objection. Why could we not have a system that involves appraisals of, say, danger and leads to an action potential to avoid the danger without actually having the experience of emotions? This looks suspiciously like the original question: Why do we have emotions? And so it seems that we may still have a way to go to find a convincing reply. The answer must be related to the speed of response that is required in emotion-provoking situations, to the physiological readiness that is necessary to execute that response, and to the need to communicate our evaluations to others; we discuss these issues further in Chapter 3.

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