Handbook of epistemology/Emotions, will and attention

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Brain modules and routine activities[edit]

A brain module is a network of neurons specialized in certain tasks of information processing. It has entrance ways, where it receives information and orders, and exit routes, where it emits information and orders itself. It can be very localized (a small nucleus of neurons, a cortical micro-column ...) or quite extensive (a vast network distributed over several brain regions). It has its own skills and a partially autonomous mode of operation.

Cerebral activity as a whole is the result of the coordinated activity of all modules. They exchange information and orders and thus produce all the internal representations which prepare for action and all the signals which trigger it and control it.

A brain module can be conceived as an autopilot. The most subordinate pilots are the most peripheral, the neural networks which control the muscles and the rest of the body. These subordinate modules are controlled by other modules, and so on. A brain module always has a fairly limited competence. It has access to only a small part of the information available in the brain, and the repertoire of tasks it can perform is also very limited. But the higher-level modules, that is to say those who command at the highest level other modules, are able in principle to mobilize all the resources of the body and its brain. Such a module is a kind of leader in the brain, an autopilot that pilots the other autopilots.

A module can represent its own purposes, give information and orders to other modules, or receive them, and thus participate in the proper functioning of the organization. The spontaneous activity of the modules is sufficient to explain the routine behaviors that result from instincts or learning. The necessary resources are recruited automatically and perform their tasks as they are used to. There may be a leader who temporarily leads the march of the ensemble, or several, or none, because the modules can work separately and spontaneously coordinate their activities.


The concept of emotion is difficult to define and its use is often very imprecise. Should we distinguish moods and emotions, moods because they are durable, emotions because they are brief? Is tranquility an emotion or independence from emotions? Is jealousy an emotion or a more complex state that mixes emotions and will?

We can define emotions from some basic emotions (sadness, fear, anger, disgust, shame, joy, appeasement, pride, surprise ...) and include all the variations and combinations, or from some general characters:

  • An emotion is triggered by the detection of specific conditions, fear by the detection of danger, sadness by the detection of misfortune, anger by the detection of the unacceptable ...
  • This detection is followed very quickly by reflex reactions and physiological changes that enable the body to adapt to the novelty of its situation.
  • Emotions determine motives, ie desires or aversions. They tell us the goals that deserve to be pursued, and what we must flee or avoid. They are therefore very important to the will, because they serve us to evaluate our projects, and for learning, because they point out what deserves to be memorized.

Because it is triggered by specific conditions and because it causes specific reactions, a particular emotion, such as fear, can be characterized by the activity of a brain module, or a system of modules that coordinate their activities. Input channels carry the signals that awaken, modify or suppress the emotion. Output channels carry the signals that provoke typical emotional reactions (LeDoux 1996). As an emotion can mobilize a large part of the body's resources, such an emotional system can be considered as a kind of leader in the brain. An emotion, especially if it is strong, can exert a sort of empire over all the bodily activity, interior and exterior.

Decision making and the autonomy of the will[edit]

When we want, we consciously represent goals and ways to reach them before we act. Our behaviors and voluntary actions are known, at least in their initial intentions, before being executed. This is why we recognize them more readily as ours than reflex reactions or other involuntary behaviors.

The will requires the ability to decide on the goals that we pursue and the rules we obey. Behavior is voluntary when pursuing goals that we have decided. A rule that one obeys can be considered as a particular kind of goal. The goal is to obey the rule. It is reached as long as we obey.

For there to really be a will, the ability to represent the goals we are pursuing is not enough, we must above all have the ability to represent goals that we will not pursue. If the decision is simply to follow all the desires that arise, it is not a true will, because it misses the moment of indecision where the various options are represented and evaluated before being chosen or rejected. And the will often manifests itself in the ability to give up goals rather than the ability to achieve them.

As emotional systems evaluate the goals we decide upon, we can think of a model of the will that reduces it to a role of servant of emotions. Voluntary decision-making could simply involve submitting a project to emotional systems and then counting their evaluations. If the favorable opinions clearly outweigh the others then the decision is made. The will thus conceived would be heteronomous, it would only obey an external law, that of emotions.

The will is autonomous when it gives itself its own law. It is autonomous in its evaluations when it makes its decisions based on rules or evaluation criteria that it has itself decided.

The goals on which we decide ourselves may be suggested by the systems of perception and emotion independently of any voluntary control. In such cases the will only has to agree to projects that it has not elaborated. All that is asked of it is to give its signature. But we can also decide to develop projects on which we will decide later. The will is autonomous in its execution when it decides to elaborate the projects which it will submit to its evaluations.

An system autonomous in its evaluations and execution is able to pose and solve problems.

Problem solving[edit]

To pose a problem is to give oneself an end, a goal, an objective. We have solved the problem when we have reached the end we have set or when we know how to reach it. The desired end and possibly the initial situation are the conditions of the problem.

An end is determined with a detection system that can recognize whether the end is reached or not. An end is always a concept.

A decision to make is a problem. The goal is inside. It is simply to make the decision, adoption or rejection of the project. Such a decision problem is determined by the project under review and by evaluation criteria. The desired end is that these criteria are met. Once the evaluation criteria are well defined, a problem of decision is in principle easy to solve. Just detect if the criteria are met. In this particular case, there are only two possibilities to examine, adopt or reject, but if the number of possibilities to be examined is very large, or infinite, knowing how to detect if the desired end is reached or not is not enough to solve the problem, because we can not look at all the possibilities.

The solution of a problem consists in general in assembling means to reach the desired end. The possibilities of composing the means with each other make that the space of the possibilities of solution is in general unlimited. We can always invent new compositions.

The means are intermediate ends, since to reach an end, it is first necessary to give oneself the goal of uniting the means.

A problem is practical when the goal is to transform the observable reality. A problem is cognitive when the goal is to produce representations. The solution of a practical problem is obtained when one acts, while the solution of a cognitive problem is obtained when one imagines. Knowing how to solve cognitive problems is a fundamental skill, simply because we often have to imagine what we will do before we do it.

Asking and solving cognitive problems is a way of acting on oneself. We do not aim to transform the external reality but only to find inner representations.

When one must imagine or say what one will do before acting, one replaces a practical problem with a cognitive problem: finding a representation of the action or program of actions that solves the initial practical problem. Instead of acting one seeks only to imagine the action. The practical goal is replaced by a cognitive objective. One can then explore by the imagination the space of the possibilities of solution. We can solve many problems without leaving our chair. Of course, one needs to know how to anticipate in order to determine by imagination whether a sequence of actions is feasible and whether it achieves the goal. When the knowledge acquired beforehand is sufficient, the imagination alone, without the action, makes it possible to find solutions. Thanks to the imagination, the knowledge already acquired is a springboard to acquire more knowledge.


Brain modules are usually specialized in solving particular problems. They can solve the problems they are naturally devoted to, problems they face or are posed to them.

When their behavior is routine, agents do not need to look for solutions for long. They find them spontaneously because their brain modules know how to produce them, by instinct or habit. The agents are content to solve the problems they already know how to solve. But faced with a new situation, the usual reactions are not always adapted. The agent may have the domestic resources to react appropriately, but it does not know how to mobilize them, because it would have to invent a new mode of coordination between its brain modules. None of them have the means to recruit others, even though it would be sufficient for them to work together to achieve the desired ends. The agent would need an inner composer-conductor, able to find truly new solutions. The power of composing is value-creating because the value of coordinated resources can be greater than the sum of their values ​​if they are separated.

Chance is enough to innovate. A program of actions chosen at random is in general very innovative, very different from what is prescribed by instinct or habit. But obviously chance alone is rarely enough to find real solutions. Knowledge and skills are usually needed to assess possible a priori possible solutions and to find among them those which deserve to be retained. Knowledge is very often a prerequisite for innovation.

How can a network of neurons acquire knowledge, retain it, and use it to find new solutions to new problems?

It is very easy to design networks of neurons with such faculties. They memorize knowledge by modifying the connections between neurons. They can be challenged by activating their entry routes. They produce solutions on their way out. And they are very capable of innovating (David E. Rumelhart, James L. McClelland & PDP Research Group 1986). The design of neural networks is a very powerful method for solving many problems.

A centralized administration without a central administrator[edit]

For the goals and rules we have voluntarily decided to mobilize our domestic resources, they must be kept in working memory. Some modules must be specialized in the recording of our decisions and the distribution of the orders that result. The stored decision is used to send orders to all the modules concerned by the execution of this decision, as long as the goal is not reached, or has not been waived. The modules that memorize our voluntary decisions are prime contractors. So we can call them executive modules. Other brain modules are usually subordinate to these executive modules.

Executive modules are not innovators. They simply record decisions made elsewhere and automatically distribute the orders that apply them. They are not homunculi, or little geniuses in the head, but only neuronal circuits capable of recording the decisions received on their input channels, and then giving the orders that apply them to their output channels. It's just about processing the information, not putting spirits in the machine.

Voluntary decisions are made from the activity of the resources of perception and imagination, emotion and action. Some modules make propositions, others give evaluations, and finally these assessments are synthesized so that a decision is made. All these modules follow a common internal order, which they all contribute to define. Our voluntary projects are proposed, developed and evaluated by all our domestic resources, and once adopted, they impose themselves on these same internal resources, which must obey the orders given to them. But there is no leader. Executive modules only record decisions made by the community. They too are only obeying the common order. It is a centralized administration without a central administrator.

The evaluation mechanisms at the origin of the decisions obey the executive modules and therefore the decisions taken previously, which makes the will autonomous in its evaluations. The resources of perception and imagination at the origin of evaluated propositions also obey the executive modules, which makes the will autonomous in its execution. This model of brain function, a centralized administration without a central administrator, thus makes it possible to explain the autonomy of the will.

The control of consciousness by consciousness: attention[edit]

Our executive modules, responsible for the application of our voluntary decisions, are necessarily limited in number. Their memory resources are also limited. This is why the inner order of goals and rules that direct our behavior is of limited complexity. We can not do too much at once.

The executive modules are preceded by evaluation devices that permanently modify and renew the goals we set ourselves. These assessment capabilities are also limited. We can not take a multitude of decisions at the same time. Each proposal must be examined in turn.

Attention is the selection of representations subjected to an evaluation for the purpose of a voluntary decision.

We pay attention to what we perceive, imagine, feel and do in many ways, because the selected information can be used in many ways. Priority information in the evaluation process leading to the decision is given a higher degree of attention than if it plays a secondary role. To develop the theory of attention, it is necessary to study how the evaluation devices that precede the voluntary decision select and use their sources of information.

Imagination and voluntary control of attention allow the will to operate in closed circuit, because it can decide itself the information from which it makes new decisions. We can thus be focused on what we imagine and feel as cut off from the world. But such isolation is never complete. An unexpected event is enough to get us out of our meditation and capture our attention. Unexpected event information, evaluated for a voluntary decision, was selected by an unintended process. The will is autonomous and can decide for itself what holds its attention, but not to the point of completely avoiding external influences.

Silent ethical knowledge[edit]

Ethical knowledge consists of evaluating actions, behaviors and their ends.

To be intelligent, it is not enough to know how to achieve goals, above all we must know that they deserve to be pursued, or at least they are not to be feared. Ethics is therefore the most important knowledge.

As emotions are used to evaluate actions, they produce an ethical knowledge. As the will is autonomous in its evaluations, it can go beyond purely emotional ethical knowledge. Silent ethical knowledge is the know-how-to-evaluate that results from the emotions and the will.

An ethical knowledge can be defined as the knowledge of an ideal, because an evaluation system determines an ideal. Is ideal, or close to the ideal, which is positively valued, is contrary to the ideal which is negatively valued.

For an ideal to exist and be known, it is enough to think of it as an ideal, as a criterion for evaluating our actions. It exists as an ideal, simply because it is true that we have adopted it.

For an ethical knowledge to be true it is enough that what it evaluates positively really satisfies us and that what it evaluates negatively really displeases us. Thus conceived the ethical truth is relative, because what satisfies some does not necessarily satisfy the others. But the rest of this book will show that reason makes it possible to develop a universal ethical knowledge.

The construction of oneself[edit]

An agent may want not only a transformation of its environment but also a transformation of itself. It may want to change its habits or ways of reacting, acquire new abilities and knowledge. It may even want to change its will.

As we are transformed by all our experiences, by all that we perceive or imagine, all our voluntary decisions at the origin of our experiences always have the effect of transforming us. This is how we acquire new habits. At first they require a voluntary effort, but they are then accomplished in an automatic manner.

One acts on oneself as soon as one acts because one directs one's attention. The direction of attention is the first lever with which one acts on oneself at every moment. It is one of the first skills to acquire to learn to control oneself.

Imagination, even without action, is enough to transform oneself, because it makes us discover our abilities. We start by imagining that we could try something, then we realize that it could work. To imagine that we are capable is often enough to make ourselves capable. When we solve a problem by the imagination, we are transformed by the discovery of a solution.

Our voluntary decisions are not limited to action on the present. They often concern a more or less distant or determined future. We decide in advance on the objectives we will pursue and the rules, commitments or constraints which we will respect. Everything happens as if we were writing in our heads the contracts and the specifications for which we voluntarily decide. Such writing occurs automatically. It is enough that we take our decisions so that they are memorized in a definitive way, or almost. They can then take effect even years or decades later, unless they are forgotten. Taking decisions in advance is like wanting to want, because we are now deciding to want what we want later. In determining his will one builds it. One transforms oneself by making decisions, the will is self-determining, it is transformed by its own decisions.

To build oneself one must decide what one wants to be, so one must give oneself an ethical knowledge that defines an ideal of the self. This ideal is defined with concepts. To know if a concept is true of the self one needs a detection system sensitive to the self. But where do we find the self? How do we detect whether it is meeting its ideal?

I am what I do. To give oneself an ideal of the self is simply to give oneself evaluation criteria for one's actions. Decisions may or may not agree with the ideal. I prove that I satisfy or not my ideal simply by making my decisions.

One builds oneself by giving oneself an ideal of the self, thus by deciding the criteria of evaluation of our decisions.

The will has something magical: just want to lift a little finger so that it automatically rises. It is the same when the will wants itself, when it makes commitments on its future. It is enough to want to determine one's will so that it is automatically determined. But whether it is for action on its environment or on oneself, the magic of the will always has limits. The will alone is generally insufficient to move mountains. Nor can it make itself what it can not be.

We build ourselves permanently, every time we make decisions and we live their consequences. As with any construction, the builder must adapt his action to the available materials, if he wants a viable and reliable result. Reflection, self-knowledge, is therefore essential, vital, to build oneself.

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