on 17 February 2009
Rolls' book examines the interaction of emotions and cognitive states. Much of the discussion involves a framework of 'rewards' that animals/humans will work for and 'punishers' that they will avoid. The adaptive advantage of having emotions is that every individual action does not need to be governed by genes. This makes behaviour much more flexible. Rolls contrasts the flexibility of animals with a robotic arm where every response has to be specified by the designer. His book provides a good discussion of the brain areas involved in emotion and how they are thought to interact.
In the latter part of his book, Rolls is less successful in tackling the contentious but emotion-related issues of consciousness and freewill. It often seems that he would have done better to rely on his own knowledge of the brain and his personal convictions. Instead, he depends on a third party philosopher to propound a theory of higher and lower-order thoughts. Rolls doesn't seem to believe his own theory here, remarking towards the end of his discussion that this still doesn't explain qualia.
He is similarly unsuccessful with freewill. His whole scheme depends on animals and humans responding to pain and pleasure and an emphasis on long-term planning. This contradicts the current orthodoxy of relating freewill arguments to trivial actions such as flexing the wrist, as in the Libet experiments. Rolls can't resolve this conundrum, and ends with the surprising conclusion that the quesions of freewill and determinism are not important, and we should concentrate on only the mechanism of brain processes.