Do Affective States Appraise Evidence, Especially Evidence Relevant to Religious Belief?

Jason McMartin and Timothy Pickavance
Wednesday 6 July 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

On one way of narrating the Enlightenment, emotion and reason came to be enemies during this time. Various reinterpretations have suggested, however, that the bifurcation of thought and affect laid at the feet of various Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes and Kant is a misinterpretation of their work (Cottingham 2012; Hare 2012). Indeed, it has been argued that the contemporary psychological “category of emotions. . . is a recent invention” and that earlier thinkers did not set emotions in opposition to intellect or reason (Dixon 2003, 3). Nevertheless, there has been a recent revival in both the investigation of the emotions and an attempt to understand their relationship to thought across multiple disciplines.

Within this broader field of inquiry, we are concerned with the narrower question of the relationship of affect (that is, emotional states of various kinds) to properly epistemic rationality. Our hypothesis is that one way in which affective states impact epistemic rationality is by appraising evidence (in a sense specified below). This view is not present in the contemporary philosophical literature, but has important precedent in the history of theology. We designate this view affective evidentialism.

Since the term “emotion” came into regular use relatively recently in the Western intellectual tradition (Dixon 2003), throughout this puzzle we have chosen to use the word affect to cover a broad range of states associated with emotion. This word enables connection with the older tradition that spoke of passions and affections. For the purposes of this puzzle, it is not crucial for us to distinguish the various concepts populating the affective realm: affection, passion, emotion, mood, etc. That’s not to say important distinctions do not exist among them. Some of these states may prove to be more apt than others for the sake of investigating this puzzle. Complicating the terrain yet further, some affective modes are plausibly further distinguished into multiple kinds of affective states. For example, gratitude can be an emotion, a sentiment, a mood, or a trait. We do not use affect to designate physiological or behavioral expression of emotional states as is usually done in fields such as psychiatry.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Philosophy

In analytic philosophy, the relationship between affect and evidence has normally taken two forms. First, emotions position us to gain evidence (e.g. de Sousa 1987; Frederickson 2003). Positioning means providing an opportunity to obtain evidence one would not have in the absence of the state under consideration. In a common example not directly involving emotion, one’s desire for pizza could enable one to witness a car crash and obtain evidence about it that wouldn’t have been possessed if the desire had not prompted walking to the pizza place. The positional influence is not performing a substantive epistemic role in such instances.

Second, several thinkers hold the view that emotions are evidence for or against particular judgments (e.g. Pelser 2014; Roberts 2013). For example, the distress I experience seeing a photo of a dead Syrian washed up on the beach of a Greek island provides evidence for my judgment that human trafficking is wrong.

We propose a third view on the nature and proper epistemic role of affective states (McMartin and Pickavance under review). We posit that affective states are sometimes “appraisers” of evidence in the sense that they serve as a background against which the weight of ordinary evidence is evaluated (cf. Kelly 2013; Shoenfield 2014; Wainwright 2006). We call affective states “appraisers” on this view because they can impact whether some body of evidence is good enough for judgment; they influence or alter the probative force of the evidence one possesses or influence the strength of the evidence one needs in order to rationally form particular judgments. Epistemically rational judgment, on this view, involves more than just evidence: a judgment is rational given a body of evidence only relative to a stock of affective states. We designate this view affective evidentialism.

Although affective evidentialism does not appear to be present in the contemporary epistemological literature, there are multiple prominent theories of rationality that together with some plausible principles suggest this role for emotions. Each of these theories posits a three-place account of epistemic rationality in which rational judgment is not merely a two-place relation of a doxastic state formed on the basis of evidence. Rather, in these accounts, movement from evidence to rational judgment is impacted by some third factor. Affective evidentialism is a plausible interpretation of these other three-place epistemologies, which are developed more extensively by McMartin and Pickavance (under review).

2.2 Historical and Philosophical Theology

Several theologians from the past may have held that affective states function as appraisers of evidence. Here, we restrict our discussion to Jonathan Edwards and an interpretation of his epistemology by William Wainwright.

Edwards held that true benevolence was necessary for epistemic access to certain facets of reality, such as proper belief in God. True benevolence includes one’s affective orientation and enables appreciation of evidence to rationally draw judgments not otherwise possible. Wainwright sums up Edwards’ view by saying that “a properly disposed heart is needed to see their [the evidence’s] force” (Wainwright 2006, 52). Wainwright stops short of attributing the appraisal view described above to Edwards. Instead, Wainwright considers identifying true benevolence with higher order evidence. He rightly rejects this as a charitable interpretation of Edwards since higher order evidence is just evidence, threatening an infinite regress. Affect-as-appraisal provides a plausible way of interpreting Edwards and completes the trajectory Wainwright seeks to trace in his development of Edwards’ model.

The Edwardsian model we develop requires that what Edwards calls ‘true benevolence’ (e.g. love, gratitude) appraises evidence and thereby shapes what judgments are rational given one’s evidence. This suggests a radical position on which Christian commitment reshapes one’s entire noetic structure.

2.3 Social Science

In the social sciences, there are varying theories concerning the relationship and the underlying physiology between affect and cognition. Our hypothesis may be impacted by differing accounts of the nature of emotion, and this will require additional research. Nevertheless, many accounts of emotion view them as pervasive throughout mental processes (Siegel 2020) and in the words of one researcher “all information processing is emotional, in that emotion is the energy that drives, organizes, amplifies, and attenuates cognitive activity and in turn is the experience and expression of this activity” (Dodge quoted in Siegel 2020, 232). In short, much empirical evidence supports the close interrelationship between emotion and cognition.

Varying subdisciplines among the social sciences have distinct and non-overlapping conceptualizations of and empirical research programs into emotions and affect. As the social sciences do not have consensus regarding the nature of affect and approach the question from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, multiple empirical research programs may have a bearing on the question of the relationship between affect and evidence. Depending on the disciplinary perspective, some affective states such as moods or sentiments may be more appropriate for fulfilling the role of being an epistemic appraiser. For example, Siegel suggests that “mood can be thought of as a bias of the system toward certain categorical emotions. Mood shapes the interpretation of perceptual processing and gives a ‘slant’ to thinking, self-reflection, and recollections” (Siegal 2020, 240). As described by Siegel, moods bear initial promise to fulfill the criteria needed by affective evidentialism.

We discuss four domains of social scientific research bearing promise for empirical exploration of affective evidentialism. We present them in order of increasing specificity and differentiation among broad affective schemes people may employ. The first two research programs differentiate between two broad modes of affect: positive and negative. Attachment theory typically differentiates among four main attachment styles. Finally, the Primals Inventory measures 26 beliefs about the world that potentially include affective elements.

2.3.1 Positive and Negative Affect; Broaden-and-Build Theory

Consider the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions proposed and developed by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (1998; 2001; 2003). The theory is helpfully understood by way of contrast with the more extensive research done on negative emotions. Negative emotions such as fear narrow a person’s thought-action repertoires. Fear primes one’s body for a narrow range of actions, such as fight or flight. For example, more blood flows to the large muscle groups to facilitate running. Similarly, when fearful, our thoughts and attention narrow down to focus on that which is salient to the object of fear. Apart from a fearful state, I would be able to broaden my perception of my surroundings and thus access the corresponding evidence, but fear inhibits obtaining evidence irrelevant to my response to the perceived threat. According to standard theories of negative emotions, the narrowing of dispositions toward specific thoughts and actions plays an adaptive role. It strengthens our ability to successfully negotiate threats. Negative emotions remain adaptive if constrained to the discrete events giving rise to them. They become maladaptive when they persist and become pervasive (Siegel 2020).

Fredrickson uses this common account of negative emotions to draw a contrast with positive emotions. Rather than narrowing thought-action repertoires, positive emotions, such as joy or contentment, “broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources” (Fredrickson 2001, 219). For example, in one experiment, Fredrickson and her colleagues primed subjects with joyful, fearful, and neutral emotional states through video clips. They then presented subjects with a visual puzzle that asked subjects to determine which of two arrays most closely matched the initial figure. One of the options was similar to the initial figure in smaller local details, while the other was more similar in global array and larger arrangement. Subjects primed with positive emotion preferred the global arrangement over the detailed elements, suggesting a broader pattern of thinking resulting from positive emotion. Fredrickson cites additional examples from Alice Isen:

In other experiments, Isen and colleagues tested the clinical reasoning of practicing physicians. They made some of the physicians feel good by giving them a small bag of candy, then asked all of them to think aloud while they solved a case of a patient with liver disease. Content analyses revealed that physicians who felt good were faster to integrate case information and less likely to become anchored on initial thoughts or come to premature closure in their diagnosis. In yet another experiment, Isen and colleagues showed that negotiators induced to feel good were more likely to discover integrative solutions in a complex bargaining task. Overall, 20 years of experiments by Isen and her colleagues show that when people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information. (Frederickson 2003, 332-333)

Broad-and-build theory indicates a key differentiation in affective pathways that will have a bearing on rational judgment.

2.3.2 Sentiment Override

Marriage researcher John Gottman (2011) suggests that “sentiment override” impacts the cognitions married couples have in connection with their relationship and their marital experiences. Sentiment override is conceived of as a broad emotional disposition possessed within an intimate relationship. Romantic couples who experience positive sentiment override more easily access positive cognitions regarding their relationship. For example, when asked about a specific relational event, they would be more likely to be able to recall positive features of that event. By contrast, couples who experience negative sentiment override are more likely to recall negative features of the same event, even if the overall valence of those events should have been positive (e.g. the couple’s wedding day). According to Gottman, negative sentiment overrides are formed by unrepaired ruptures that lead to pervasive negative affect (e.g. resentment, bitterness) toward the partner.

2.3.3 Attachment

Within interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory, emotions are understood to be largely implicit and non-conscious while being highly sensitive to social interactions (Siegel 2020). Emotion serves to organize experience in a value system that supports action. Basic evaluations of “good” or “bad” enable states of arousal that direct attention in ways appropriate to the situation. Primary emotional states comprise the earliest forms of communication between an infant and its attachment figure. Given the inherent sociality of emotion, emotions are both regulated by and regulate the emotions of others. Regulation involves emotional states that are flexible, responsive, and that integrate varying facets of physiology, subjective experience, and behavior. Thus, Siegel contends, “emotions are the contents and processes of interpersonal communication early in life, and they create the tone and texture of such communications throughout the lifespan” (Siegal 2020, 270). Attachment styles therefore result in broad patterns of emotional regulation (or dysregulation). As emotions direct attention and interpretation, diverse attachment styles can be expected to generate potentially distinct judgments even in the midst of identical evidence.

2.3.4 Primals

Primal world beliefs (Clifton et al. 2019), or more simply just primals, are conceptualized as beliefs about everything, relating to the basic character of the world. They occupy a conceptual continuum anchored by opposites: e.g. the world is interesting/the world is boring. Thus primals are simple adjectival accounts of the nature of the world as a whole. Primals impact a person’s actions and motivation, and may also inform more specific, fine-grained understandings of the nature of the world. For example, if the world is unsafe, it may also be toxic. Primals are conceptualized as maximally general. For example, if the world is believed to be dangerous, this will be true of the whole of reality, and not just of specific portions of it. Thus holding that “this neighborhood is safe” would be consistent with affirming the primal that the “world is dangerous.” Significantly, primals are conceived to be largely implicit and automatic and not regularly the subject of conscious awareness. Finally, Clifton et al. affirm that primals are active, by which they mean that “like other beliefs, primals are expected to dynamically direct attention; organize, simplify, filter, and fill in information; and guide action” (Clifton et al. 2019,83).

Primals are usefully compared to personality traits, particularly as several primals have significant overlap with personality constructs. For example, the primal that affirms that the world is safe would seem to cohere with the personality trait of optimism. Usually, personality traits are seen to be innate dispositions that impact one’s view of the world. An optimist is naturally inclined to view the world positively as safe, accommodating, and enjoyable; things normally work out. By contrast, primals are not focused on the person, and their characteristics, but instead on what the person believes about the world.

Although it does not yet appear to be part of this nascent research program, primals seem to have an affective dimension. Though they’re described as beliefs, they clearly also include an affective component or response to the world.

3. Discussion

3.1 Development of the Hypothesis

We hypothesize that properly epistemic rational judgments are formed by means of the influence of affect on the appraisal of evidence. This hypothesis predicts certain ways that affective states will distribute across worldviews and the kinds of differences that might be anticipated among those who have the same evidence but who possess different worldviews. Distinct worldviews differ concerning their affective profiles. According to our hypothesis, those with different worldviews can be expected to draw different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence as a result of differing affect. Nevertheless, these judgments can still be epistemically rational.

To see the need for empirical work here, consider the following. One plausible development of emotions-as-appraisers requires that commitment to a religious tradition involves an affective component that is distinct from those involved with commitments to other religious traditions. But is this requirement actually satisfied? There are non-empirical reasons to think it plausible. For example, religions can be understood as narratives, and adequately comprehending a narrative often involves certain affective responses to that narrative. But empirical psychology can investigate these sorts of questions more directly. For example, what impact does religious conversion have on a person’s affective profile? Does it make a difference to what religion someone converts? Do children raised in, say, a Muslim household differ affectively from those raised in, say, an evangelical household, and if there are such affective differences are they of the sort relevant to emotions-as-appraisers? Answering these and other questions are vital to testing whether emotions are appraisers.

The varying social scientific perspectives surveyed above suggest that 1) emotions shape epistemically salient features of cognition (e.g. attention), 2) positive and negative affect impact epistemic processes differently, 3) broad patterns of affect can be identified (e.g. sentiment override), 4) these patterns can be inculcated through profoundly social means and are largely implicit (e.g. attachment styles). Finally, 5) diverse worldviews, along with their concomitant beliefs and affective profiles, shape one’s appraisal of evidence and the rational judgments drawn therefrom. From a theological perspective, the affective component of trust in God proves not to be incidental, but substantively alters one’s epistemic engagement with the world.

3.2 Potential Empirical Tests of the Hypothesis

Apart from direct engagement with social scientific methodology, a delineation of a means for testing our hypothesis empirically will be necessarily schematic. As the research conducted and surveyed by Fredrickson suggests, emotional priming shapes judgments. Empirical tests of affective evidentialism begin, therefore, by noting how the affective states impact rational judgment. The limitations of the kinds of empirical tests conducted by Fredrickson, however, are that they mainly rely on affective states rather than more trait-like affective profiles. Affective evidentialism suggests a global approach to the world, rather than passing states of mind that impact one’s cognition discretely and momentarily. Similarly, such states of mind can tend to be more explicit and conscious than implicit and unconscious.

The other three areas of social scientific research show more promise for empirically testing affective evidentialism using implicit global traits. To date, attachment theory has the most empirical support. Primal world beliefs and sentiment overrides have considerably less. Primals are much newer and haven’t yet received extensive empirical scrutiny.

Among these, we think primals may be the most promising means for testing affective evidentialism empirically. Primals are described as being beliefs, and perhaps that is correct. Yet to be explored in the psychological literature is the affective component of these worldview beliefs. Presumably, many of these primal world beliefs have an affective facet. Consider the belief, “the world is dangerous”. Those who possess this primal would seemingly default to fearful affective responses to their ordinary experiences. As noted, such affective modes constrain engagement with evidence, and the rationality of judgments made therefrom. As a result, primals may be effectively used to test affective appraisals empirically.

4. Conclusion

Affective evidentialism adds emotion to evidence as another world-directed facet falling under properly epistemic evaluation. Widening the domain of epistemic evaluation may yield insight into questions over which rational people disagree, such as the problem of evil or divine hiddenness.

Evaluation can also be brought to bear on one’s characteristic emotions or affective profile. Some broad emotional patterns can and should change (Goldie 2012). The older concepts of passions and affections typically included the potential for moral evaluation of one’s emotional life (Dixon 2012). Therefore, affective evidentialism also reaffirms the perspective of seemingly large swaths of Christian intellectual history that suggest a path toward the mitigation of religious disagreements through the reformation of one’s emotional reactions. 


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Cite this article

McMartin, Jason, and Timothy Pickavance. 2022. Do Affective States Appraise Evidence, Especially Evidence Relevant to Religious Belief?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 11).

Contact the author

Jason McMartin
Email: [email protected]

Timothy Pickavance
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