Masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Edge has excerpted the first chapter of Marvin Minsky’s book on emotions, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind. I clearly need to read the whole book, but I found the excerpt characteristically thought-provoking. As you might have expected, the general approach builds on the Society of Mind: emotions, it seems, allow us to activate the right set of resources (their nature deliberately kept vague) from the diffuse cloud available to us. So emotions really serve to enhance our performance: in young or unsophisticated organisms they may be a bit rough and ready, but in adult human beings they are under a degree of rational control and are subject to a higher level of continuity and moderation.

At first sight, explaining the emotions by identifying the useful jobs they do for us seems a promising line of investigation. Since we are the products of evolution, it seems a good hypothesis to suppose that the emotional states we have developed must have some positive survival value. The evidence, moreover, seems to support the idea to some degree: anger, for example, corresponds with physiological states which help get us ready for fighting. Love between mates presumably helps to establish a secure basis for the production and care of offspring. The survival value of fear is obvious.

However, on closer examination things are not so clear as they might be. What could the survival value of grief be? It seems to be entirely negative. Its physiological manifestations range from the damaging (loss of concentration and determination) to the surreal (excessive water flowing from the tear-ducts down the face). Darwin himself apparently found the crying of tears ‘a puzzler’ with no practical advantages either to modern humans or to any imaginable ancestor, or any intelligible relationship to any productive function – what has rinsing out your eyes got to do with the death of a mate or child? If it comes to that, even anger is not an unalloyed benefit: a man in the grip of rage is not necessarily in the best state to win an argument, and it’s surely even debatable whether he’s more likely to win a fight than someone who remains rational and judicious enough to employ sensible tactics.
One of the thoughts the extract provoked in me, albeit at a tangent to what Minsky is saying, concerned another possible problem with evolutionary arguments. The physiological story about an increased pulse rate and the rest of it is one thing, but does all that have to be accompanied by feeling angry? Can’t we perhaps imagine going through all the right physiological changes to equip us for fighting, fleeing, or whatever other activity seems salient, without having any particular feelings about it?This sounds like qualia. If emotions are feelings which are detachable from physical events, are they, in themselves, qualia? I’m not quite sure what the orthodox view of this is: I’ve read discussions which take emotions to be qualia, or accompanied by them, but the canonical examples of qualia – seeing red and the rest of it – are purely sensory. The comparison, at any rate, is interesting. In the case of sensory qualia there are three elements involved: an object in the external physical world, the mechanical process of registration by the senses, and the ineffable experience of the thing in our minds, where the actual redness or sounding or smelliness occurs. In the case of the emotions, there isn’t really any external counterpart (although you may be angry or in love with someone, you perceive the anger or love as your own, not as one of the other person’s qualities): the only objective correlate of an emotional quale is our own physiological state.

Are emotional zombies really possible? It’s widely though not universally believed that we could behave exactly the way we do – perhaps be completely indistinguishable from our normal selves – and yet lack sensory qualia altogether. An emotional zombie, along similar lines, would have to be a person whose breathing and pulse quickened, whose face blushed and voice turned hoarse, and who was objectively aware of these physiological manifestations, but actually felt no emotion whatever. I think this is still conceivable, but it seems a little stranger and harder to accept than the sensory case. I think in the case of an emotional zombie I should feel inclined to hypothesise a kind of split personality, supposing that the emotions were indeed being felt somewhere orin some sense, but that there was also a kind of emotionless passenger lodged in the same brain. I don’t feel similarly tempted, with sensory zombies, to suppose that real subjective redness must be going on in a separate zone of consciousness somewhere in the mind.

The same difference in plausibility is visible from a different angle. In the case of sensory qualia, we can worry about whether our colour vision might one day be switched, so that what previously looked blue now looks yellow, and vice versa. I suppose we can entertain the idea that Smith, when he goes red in the face, shouts and bangs the table, is feeling what we would call love; but it seems more difficult to think that our own emotions could somehow be switched in a similar way. The phenomenal experience of emotions just seems to have stronger ties to the relevant behaviour than phenomenal experience of colours, say, has to the relevant sensory operations.

It might be that this has something to do with the absence of an external correlate for emotions, which leaves us feeling more certainty about them. We know our senses can mislead us about the external world, so we tend to distrust them slightly: in the case of emotions, there’s nothing external to be wrong about, and we therefore don’t see how we could really be wrong about our own emotions. Perhaps, not entirely logically, this accounts for a lesser willingness to believe in emotional zombies.

Or, just possibly, emotional qualia really are tied in some deeper way to volition. This is not so much a hypothesis as a gap where a hypothesis might be, since I should need a plausible account of volition before the idea could really take shape. But one thing in favour of this line of investigation is that it holds out some hope of explaining what the good of phenomenal experience really is, something lacking from most accounts. If we could come up with a good answer to that, our evolutionary arguments might gain real traction at last.


  1. 1. Louie says:

    Very interesting post. You asked: What could the survival value of grief be? It seems to be entirely negative.

    But grief doesn’t need a survival value to have ‘evolved’. Since emotions and consciousness evolved independently (or at least for different functions) grief could merely be one of those times when they don’t work together in a positive way. The system isn’t designed perfectly, but ratcheted together, so we might expect these kind of unusual interactions. A chimpanzee in a rage is a formidable thing. Give it ‘consciousness’ and it might still get angry once in a while. Other animals also have no understanding about death (and its implications). Losing a child to a chimp is nothing like losing a child to a human. Finally, people are usually assisted by none-grievers, which may lessen the negative impact grief may have on survivability.

    Or I could be talking rubbish? :) Oh, and having read Dennett’s ‘consciousness explained’ recently, I think I don’t believe in qualia, but I can’t quite remember! ;)

  2. 2. Peter says:

    I don’t know what the answer is here, but I think you’re right – it needn’t be that grief in itself has a positive survival value. It could indeed be the result of a less than perfect interaction between our old emotional system and relatively new conscious one. It could be an unavoidable by-product of an emotional system which overall has a positive value – though that in itself would need some explanation, perhaps along the lines of our not being able to have positive emotions without the negative ones..? Or it could be that signalling grief, as you say, is socially useful and that a patently sincere signal (and what signal could be more sincere than one that actually is slightly disabling?) works best, with tears being an arbitrary display arising out of the haphazard circumstances of our past, but still as good as anything else…?

    But it still seems rather puzzling, certainly more so than some other emotions.

    I lean towards scepticism about qualia myself, though I try to keep an open mind!

  3. 3. Louie says:

    Actually, I think humour is far more puzzling???!!!

  4. 4. Girisha says:

    Interesting posting – especially about grief.

    Regarding the possibility of emotional inversion (similar to colour inversion): I think it is far difficult to envisage. The main reason being that unlike the colors which are externally stimulated, emotions can be completely internal (I could be depressed for no reason). And emotions are in a sense, “more phenomenal” than the experiences. But the idea is good to discuss.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    The idea that emotions are more phenomenal than experiences is certainly interesting, if difficult to grapple with – I have a job getting my intuitions about all this in good order.

    Humour deserves a book of its own, I think (perhaps more than one). For one thing I suspect it covers at least two distinct but connected phenomena: the rational appreciation of a neat or surprising connection, and the physiological response to tickling or similar stimuli (which I think is shared by chimps at least). For another it’s highly elusive. Is funniness a quale? I have to confess I have no clear idea at the moment.

  6. 6. Chris says:

    I think grief surely has a survival value. And regarding the fact that humans are social beings which do not live on their own it is not very difficult to see this value. Imagine a woman with childs living in the stone age, which has lost her husband. Without her husband there is no one who goes hunting and can feed her childs and herself. Without help from others, she is likely to starve. The consequence is that she has to signalize the other members of the social clan to help her. And a usual way to signalize the need of help are tears and grief. Its nearly the same argumentation which often is applied to explain why evolution did not elimante “depressions”. Its because they are usefuel to get more help and support from others.

    With kind regards,

  7. 7. Jose Covo says:

    Since consciousness is epiphenomenal, not all functions of it are purposeful.

  8. 8. Peter says:

    That’s plausible as far as it goes, Chris: but if the bereaved woman is just signalling her grief, why can’t she use something recognisable but harmless, like going red in the face or having permanently raised eyebrows, or better still, do something that is both a signal and directly relevant – like keep on asking for help? When I’m angry, I bare my teeth, I clench my fists, I stare at the enemy: all relevant to fighting and hence both a signal and of some practical value. But crying just blurs your vision, and sitting around grieving just wastes time you could be spending on survival. I may be missing the point, but it seems mysterious.

    Not everyone accepts epiphenomenalism, of course, Jose: but even if we do, is consciousness necessarily lacking in purpose? The fact that my mental activities do involve the enntertainment of purposes is what convinces me rightly or wrongly, that I’m in control – the fact that my mental purposes are not causally effective doesn’t mean they aren’t purposes – I think?

  9. 9. Ron Karr says:

    Is grief “entirely negative”? Yes, it is unpleasant. But doesn’t pain have survival value? There have been cases of people who for some reason don’t experience physical pain, and these folks tend not to live too long, because they don’t take normal precautions to prevent injury, etc.

    Grief is a signal of emotional injury, and it’s a signal to the self as well as others. I would think its survival value is related to its opposite: attachment to people that we care about. Certainly there is survival value in having supportive relationships, right? family, friends, community. Grief is an indication that these relationships are valuable.

    Suppose there are two types of people: A and B. The As experience grief whenever a child dies. The Bs notice that their child has died and think “OK, no big deal”. Which group is going to take better care of their children? Which group is going to survive more effectively, albeit at the cost of some emotional pain?

    As to the question of “couldn’t we KNOW that our child is valuable without FEELING BAD?”, I have no idea whether that would be possible. At any rate, evolution is not noted for caring about the feelings of individuals. It cares about the survival of genes.


  10. 10. Ivan says:

    > Or, just possibly, emotional qualia really
    > are tied in some deeper way to volition.
    > This is not so much a hypothesis as a gap
    > where a hypothesis might be, since I should
    > need a plausible account of volition before
    > the idea could really take shape.

    This line of thought is very interesting.
    Perhaps the emotions and projected emotions are the causes of behaviour.

    Ex: I will buy that ice-cream in order to get the sugar high.
    My “free will” was seeking the emotions that come with sugar ingestion.

    Ex2: I will keep quiet in class even though I think I know the answer.
    My “free will” is projecting the negative emotions of public humiliation in case I am wrong about the answer.

    ::tentative definitions::
    Volition: Ability of the human nervous system to choose actions according to their projected emotional benefit.
    Conscious Free Will: Ability to use thought in order to better structure the projected outcomes of actions and act accordingly.

    Any takers?

    I think we should also point out that emotions are not-only encoded in the firing of the neurons but also in chemicals released.
    Thus they are a priori in a different category compared to color perception.

  11. 11. Peter says:

    So the suggestion is that grief might be like pain, a deterrent to getting into certain kinds of unfavourable situations? The disabling effects would be, as it were, part of the penalty (and after all, pain can be distracting and disabling too in some circumstances). I’m not sure – do I really seek to avoid the death of my children in order to avoid feeling grief afterwards? But that does seem to come closer to providing a full explanation than anything I’ve heard previously, so perhaps it is on the right sort of lines.

    On volition and qualia, I do think there might be some scope there. John Searle has the idea that intentionality might be explicable in terms of qualia because, for example, the feeling of being hungry is about food in a very basic kind of way. But hungriness seems basically linked with action too?

  12. 12. Chris says:

    “I’m not sure – do I really seek to avoid the death of my children in order to avoid feeling grief afterwards?”

    I do not think this is the main aspect. It is more something like the others see you in your miserable situation and thus want to offer their help. Surely they must be persuaded that you really need help and therefore it would not be enough to get red in your face or to lift your eyebrows, because this doesn’t hurt and makes you not unable to look for yourself. But when they know how bad your situation really is (by comparing with their own miserable grief-experiences) they will feel pity and will more likely come and care for you.

  13. 13. peter.hankins says:

    I do take the point about sincere signals (though the eye-watering still seems inexplicable on any terms!).

  14. 14. Malcolm Pollack says:

    Leaving aside the interesting question of the adaptive underpinnings of grief, it may be that crying plays a useful physiological role; the shedding of emotional tears (there are other sorts) may be involved in ridding the body of proteins formed during stress. There is a good deal of information available about this on line — see, for example, this.

  15. 15. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks, Malcolm – very interesting. I wonder why tears are only used for these particular proteins in these circumstances? You would think that a handy protein excretion mechanism would come into play more often. Perhaps the specific chemistry has something to do with it.

  16. 16. Malcolm Pollack says:

    I believe other mechanisms are used as well; sweat, for instance. But yes, it does seem odd that of all the stressful situations we find ourselves in – and Lord knows they are amply provided – only a small subset invoke tears for purging their chemical byproducts.

  17. 17. Marvin Minsky says:

    This discussion raises many important issues. Unfortunately, a lot of these remarks appear to assume the (simplistic) view that every aspect of our behavior has to be based upon some mechanism that has a positive survival value. I think that this popular view deserves a name, and perhaps we should call it “Jerry Fodor’s Mistake,” because it is the basis of a recent book co-authored by him called “What Darwin Got Wrong.” See the review in

    Anyway, my point is that it might be a mistake to assume that (just because we have a word for “it”) the word ‘grief’ refers to a particular and definite mental trait that is based on some distinctive set of selectable genes. Instead it seems to me more likely that ‘grief’ (as well as most every other ‘psychological term’) refers to a collection of mental activities that each are based on large collections of other traits and processes.

    In particular, this whole discussion began from points discussed in only chapter 1 of my book “The Emotion Machine,” and I found a lot of this discussion very helpful and useful! However, so far as “Grief” is concerned, the book included some more constructive ideas about the nature and functions of what we call Grief. See the sections beginning with the title GRIEF on my home page at

    Here’s the most relevant section:


    I cannot weep, for all my body’s moisture
    Scarce serves to quench my furnace-burning heart;
    Nor can my tongue unload my heart’s great burden,
    For self-same wind that I should speak withal
    Is kindling coals that fires all my breast,
    And burns me up with flames that tears would quench.
    To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
    Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me!
    Richard, I bear thy name; I’ll venge thy death,
    Or die renowned by attempting it.—Henry the Sixth, Part III

    When you suffer the loss of a long-time friend, it feels like losing a part of yourself, because grief involves our reactions to the loss of some of our mental resources. For, certain parts of your intellect must have over time become specialized for sharing ideas with the person you love; but now, the signals those brain-parts transmit will never again receive any replies—just as would happen with losing a limb. This could be why it takes so long to put to rest the loss of a friend.

    Gloucester: Be patient, gentle Nell; forget this grief.
    Duchess: Ah, Gloucester, teach me to forget myself! —Henry the Sixth part II

    Nell can’t comply with Gloucester’s advice because the links of affection are too broadly dispersed for any resource to erase all at once; they aren’t all stored in some single place. Besides, we may not want to forget them all, as Aristotle remarks in Rhetoric:

    “Indeed, it is always the first sign of love, that besides enjoying someone’s presence, we remember him when he is gone, and feel pain as well as pleasure, because he is there no longer. Similarly there is an element of pleasure even in mourning and lamentation for the departed. There is grief, indeed, at his loss, but pleasure in remembering him and, as it were, seeing him before us in his deeds and in his life.”

    So Constance can say, in the play King John, that mournful feelings mix with pleasant memories:

    Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
    Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
    Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
    Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
    Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
    Then have I reason to be fond of grief.

    Thus Shakespeare shows how people clutch their griefs, and squeeze them till they change to joyful shapes.


    The point is that (as Peter above suggests) there are plenty of positive aspects of pain — and plenty of negative aspects of pleasure. A lot of these are further discussed in the final chapter of The Emotion Machine.

  18. 18. Peter says:

    Many thanks! Of course when I wrote the piece above I hadn’t read most of the book, but perhaps I can take this opportunity to recommend it to readers of Conscious Entities.

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