Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Holding and Acting On Beliefs

In the recent debate on the concept of theft, Ron in Houston made a couple of common claims about the relationship between belief and intention on the one hand, and morality on the other.

There is a vast difference between holding a belief and acting upon that belief. Honestly, who has the right to tell people what they must believe? Sounds like a 1984 style mind control to me.

In this post, I want to take a closer look at the relationships between belief, desire, intention, action, and morality.

In this blog, I follow the theory of intentional action known as “BDI Theory” – Belief, Desire, Intention theory. It says that all intentional actions can be explained using the following formula:

(Belief + Desire) -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Why did the chicken cross the road? Whatever answer you give to this question will be a hypothesis about what beliefs and desires the chicken had.

Desires select the ends of intentional action – they select our goals. Beliefs select the means of intentional action – they tell us how to get to our goals and whether our goals have actually been met. Intentions are how beliefs and desires are translated into actions – the movement of muscles – or, in some cases, into inaction.

Now, let us look at an action A, where A = going 90kph through a school zone. We make this action illegal. In doing so, we make it illegal for agents to have whatever combinations of beliefs and desires that would then result in the intentional action of going 90kph through a school zone.

Does a person who is going 90kph through a school zone have a right to believe that he was only going 30kph? The law has hereby demanded that people have true beliefs as to how fast they are going, and will arrest and imprison people who happen to do a poor job of acquiring true beliefs about how the fast they are going.

We can imagine somebody saying, “You clocked me at 90kph, but I believe that I was only going 30kph. I have a right to believe whatever I want to believe. You cannot arrest me for going 90kph when I believe that I was only going 30kph because that does not respect my beliefs.”

Or, imagine somebody saying, “I believe that there is no law against traveling 90kph – and I have a right to that belief.”

Every criminal law ever written is a prohibition on having certain (sets of) beliefs. Every time we make a particular intentional action illegal, we have said, “Here is a group of belief-desire sets that you are not permitted to have. If we discover that you have them (because you have performed this illegal act), then you will be arrested and punished.”

A belief is a disposition to act. The idea that you can have a belief without acting on it is as absurd as the idea that an object can be under the influence of a force of nature without being affected by it.

Return to the formula above governing intentional action. That formula is governed by the principle that an agent acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. If you wish to alter the intentional actions that an agent will perform, then you do so by altering his beliefs and desires.

Think of these beliefs and desires to be like the forces on a body going through space. If you want to alter the course of a body going through space, then you must alter the forces acting on it – adding a new force, or changing the magnitude and/or direction of the forces that are already present. At the same time, it is not causally possible to add a new force that does not alter the motion of the object through space (unless you add two new forces that completely cancel each other out).

If you want to alter the movement of an intentional action – another human being – through life, then you do so by altering the beliefs and desires that are forming his intentions. It is as impossible to alter the intentional actions of an individual without altering his beliefs and desires as it is to alter the movement of an object through space without altering the forces acting upon it.

Similarly, it is impossible to add a belief to an agent’s set of beliefs and desires without affecting his intentional actions – as it is to add a force to an object without altering its movement through space (unless one also introduces another force that is precisely the opposite of the first).

In other words, there is no difference between holding a belief and acting on it. Beliefs will be acted on in the same way that forces of nature will influence objects.

How does this relate to “1984 style mind control?”

It is easy to understand the fear. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate thoughts, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what we are and are not permitted to think. This will lead to tyranny.”

But, the same argument applies to all law. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate action, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what actions we are and are not permitted to perform. This will lead to tyranny.”

In fact, it’s the same argument, given that every regulation we have ever passed on intentional actions is a regulation passed against belief-desire sets.

Think about any trial. A person is on trial for murder. Did he believe that the gun was loaded? Did he believe that firing a bullet at the victim might kill him? Did he believe that the victim was an immediate threat to somebody else?

The jury at any trial is going to be asked to judge not only what the accused did, but what the accused believed. In fact, there is an intimate connection between what the accused did and what the accused believed, since his actions are defined by what he believed. Did he believe that the gun was not loaded? If he did, then he could not possibly have performed the act of intentional homicide.

The statement that we may regulate thought is not a statement that says we may start to do something new – something that people have thought in the past was prohibited. It is a statement that says that we should be honest about what we have been doing all along – what we have done since the day that the first law was passed.

11 comments:

Colin said...

Quick question coming from a physicist who now programs BDI agents. You make an analogy between forces and beliefs that argues that no belief can be held without impacting intentions. However I don't quite see where that analogy comes from. Specifically, I can think of any number of trivial beliefs. Within a software BDI agent it is very easy to add a variable to the beliefs knowledge base that is never updated and never triggers an action.
How many angels on the head of a pin? Are distant galaxies matter or anti-matter? If an irresistible force encountered an immovable object what would happen? In an environment where these are treated as trivial beliefs, aren't these trivial.

Saving Abel said...

Has anyone seen Christopher Hitchens debate? I’ve heard he is going to be debating D’Souza in St. Lous September 10th. I found this website www.godontrialdebate.com

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Colin

Quick question coming from a physicist who now programs BDI agents. You make an analogy between forces and beliefs that argues that no belief can be held without impacting intentions. However I don't quite see where that analogy comes from. Specifically, I can think of any number of trivial beliefs.

Greetings. I'm glad you're here. I could use somebody like you.

Anyway, the forces analogy is, I admit, something like speaking of electrons in terms of orbits. It simplifies things.

Beliefs are dispositional states. It is quite likely that an agent can have a "belief that P" that simply is not relevant to any end that the agent has. In these cases (what you call 'trivial beliefs') a person can believe that P without it being the case that P will not affect an actual intention.

However, it is also the case that a trivial belief becomes non-trivial the instant it becomes relevant. There has to be a way to test for the belief (even if the 'intentional act' that the belief that P triggers is for the agent to say 'yes' if asked, 'Do you believe that P?'

delosgatos said...

Or, imagine somebody saying, “I believe that there is no law against traveling 90kph – and I have a right to that belief.”

Maybe I'm not grokking. Are you saying that the law against going 90 in a 30 zone makes it against the law to believe that no such law exists?

If someone held such a belief but still stayed under the speed limit they wouldn't have broken any laws.

And in the case of "You clocked me at 90kph, but I believe that I was only going 30kph, it seems to me that it's not that such a belief is prohibited, it's just that it's irrelevant in the case at hand.

Not that beliefs are always irrelevant. In the case of a killing, whether the accused believed, e.g., that the gun was loaded, or that the gun was a stage prop with blanks, etc., are relevant to determining whether to charge murder 1, homicide or to drop the charges. But this is a different issue than whether those beliefs are themselves prohibited. It's the actions that are prohibited.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is a bit strange to say that "You have a right to freedom of speech, so long as you do not say X, Y, or Z under conditions C1, C2, C3." The permission to say X, Y, or Z under conditions C4 (e.g., when alone and nobody can hear you) does not change the fact that your freedom of speech has been limited.

The same is true of freedom of beliefs. It is true that these beliefs are only prohibited under certain circumstances - but a prohibition on "believing that P under conditions C" (e.g., believing that you are driving 30mph when you are driving 90mph) is still a prohibition on belief.

With every criminal statute, there are cases where, what you believe under conditions C will determine whether you are guilty or innocent of a crime. So, what you are permitted to believe has limits - you cannot believe whatever you want under those circumstances.

delosgatos said...

It is a bit strange to say that "You have a right to freedom of speech, so long as you do not say X, Y, or Z under conditions C1, C2, C3." The permission to say X, Y, or Z under conditions C4 (e.g., when alone and nobody can hear you) does not change the fact that your freedom of speech has been limited.

Speech is an action, and certain actions are prohibited.

The same is true of freedom of beliefs. It is true that these beliefs are only prohibited under certain circumstances - but a prohibition on "believing that P under conditions C" (e.g., believing that you are driving 30mph when you are driving 90mph) is still a prohibition on belief.

The example above is a case where there is disagreement among involved parties as to what actions occurred. The belief that you are driving 30 when you are driving 90 isn't prohibited, it's the action that's prohibited. The penalty for driving 90 in a 30 zone when you believe you were doing so is the same as the penalty for doing so when you don't so believe.

With every criminal statute, there are cases where, what you believe under conditions C will determine whether you are guilty or innocent of a crime. So, what you are permitted to believe has limits - you cannot believe whatever you want under those circumstances.

Some laws are explicitly written such that the beliefs of a transgressor are relevant to the determination of what crime, if any, was committed. This doesn't mean that certain beliefs are prohibited.

Interesting discussion, by the way. I don't get enough opportunity for these kinds of discussions any more.

Dave W. said...

Mr. Fyfe, you describe yourself as following BDI theory, and your discussion follows from that. What other serious theories of intentional action are there, and how would the same argument pan out under those theories? (To put it another way, why should we follow BDI theory when answering questions like those of Ron in Houston?)

Ron in Houston said...

Alonzo

While many times belief does lead to intention and then lead to action, such strict determinism doesn't really exist.

Cognitive therapy is a classic example. They talk breaking the ABC connection. A = some activating event B=some belief C=some consequence caused by your actions.

A moral person can stop at any point in the equation of belief, intention, and action.

I'll use myself as an example. When I was about 11, I was slapped around by a bunch of black kids in a racially motivated event. I could have formed the belief that black people are evil and must be eliminated. I might hold onto that belief, but so long as I don't act upon it, my belief, while an over generalization and overreaction to the event does not make me an immoral person.

My morality may make me question the belief or may make me refuse to act upon the belief. Even if confronted with a situation where belief and intention come together, I still have the choice of whether to act or not.

I will agree that an ethical person should always examine and many times actively question their beliefs. However, just having a belief does not make one ethical or not ethical.

Eneasz said...

Goodness I've been posting a lot lately.

Anyway to Ron -
I think that a belief that black people must be eliminated is immoral, and holding such a belief would move one towards the "immoral" part of the ethical scale, even if never acted upon. The only reason such a belief (if truely held) isn't acted upon is because of conflicting desires that overrule it. Things like an aversion to going to prison, or the risk of being killed (in self-defense), or just not wanting to stain your shirt with blood. But if those desires go away, what would stop you from trying to eliminate black people?

And such a belief would have other repercussions as well, such as not hiring black people for jobs they are qualified for, or refusing them an education, or refusing to do business with them. Such a belief has wide-ranging negative impacts. It is a belief/desire that we would all be better off without, and as such we all have many/strong reasons to discourage it. That makes it a bad/immoral belief.

Also it seems to me you subscribe to the mystical concept of counter-causal free will? I'm assuming this is a communication error somewhere along the way?

Steelman said...

Every criminal law ever written is a prohibition on having certain (sets of) beliefs. Every time we make a particular intentional action illegal, we have said, “Here is a group of belief-desire sets that you are not permitted to have. If we discover that you have them (because you have performed this illegal act), then you will be arrested and punished.”

I'm having trouble with the above in relation to the speeding example in the same post.

Speedy: Hey, Joe, you know that dip in the road in front of the middle school? You can catch air if you hit that thing at about 90 kph.

Officer Joe: That's a thirty zone.

Speedy: Yeah, I know but it's fun. And if nobody is around...

Officer Joe: That flashy Mustang of yours will be in the impound, and your butt will be in a cell, if I ever catch you doing it.

It seems Officer Joe has discovered Speedy's belief-desire set regarding going 90kph in a 30kph zone, yet cannot arrest him since it's not illegal to have those beliefs and desires, just to actually act upon them in the presence of a peace officer. So, Speedy can believe and desire whatever he likes about breaking the law, but nothing can be done about it until he actually acts.

If you want to alter the movement of an intentional action – another human being – through life, then you do so by altering the beliefs and desires that are forming his intentions. It is as impossible to alter the intentional actions of an individual without altering his beliefs and desires as it is to alter the movement of an object through space without altering the forces acting upon it.

Speedy believes it's harmless fun to break the speed limit, and launch his Mustang into the air in front of the local school. He has a strong desire to do it. If he sees Officer Joe in the area, his desire and belief don't change; he just doesn't act, and feels frustrated as a result. His desire is thwarted, but neither it nor his belief is altered; he'll do it again the moment he thinks the coast is clear.

Regarding legislation against beliefs and desires vs. actions, you said:
In fact, it’s the same argument, given that every regulation we have ever passed on intentional actions is a regulation passed against belief-desire sets.

This seems misleadingly reductionist to me. Laws against beliefs and desires are unenforceable since it's impossible to know a person's beliefs or desires without accompanying actions that reveal them.

The jury at any trial is going to be asked to judge not only what the accused did, but what the accused believed. In fact, there is an intimate connection between what the accused did and what the accused believed, since his actions are defined by what he believed.

True, but without the action there would be nothing for the jury to discuss; the "defendant" would be sitting at home, fantasizing about shooting the victim, but not acting upon that desire. He may even have means and motive, but just be lacking opportunity. However, we can only examine desires after actions have occurred (publicly talking about desires and intentions is also an action, of course, as in the case of verbal threats of harm). So, unless and until some sort of action occurs, no laws have been violated.

As an additional example, laws that prohibit racism don't prohibit hateful desires and beliefs, just their public expression.

I think laws can only regulate actions. Beliefs and desires are jurisprudentially considered as enhancing or mitigating factors, but not as direct objects of legislation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dave W.

What other serious theories of intentional action are there, and how would the same argument pan out under those theories?

One of the most popular theories out there is simply the theory that beliefs and desires do not exist. This is the theory of eliminativism that wishes to eliminate all attempts to explain behavior in terms of beliefs and desires and substitute medical terms - C-fiber firings and endorphine release.

However, eliminitivists do not really have an alternative theory just yet - just a proposal for the types of claims that would be made in an alternative theory. So, it is of limited use.

BDI theory, on the other hand, is the theory that we use in our everyday lives to explain and predict the behavior of others - to do our jobs, communicate with our spouses and neighbors, and even to understand our own actions. This does not make the theory right - but an alternative theory will at least have to be able to take care of these functions.

Another theory that I like is 'script theory'. Instead of exlaining things in terms of beliefs and desires, it explains things in terms of outside stimuli triggering scripts.

Script theory seems to do a better job of explaining a number of observed phenomena. Take typing, for instance. It is awkward, at best, to explain the actions of somebody typing the word 'typist' in terms of "The agent has a desire-as-end to type the word 'typist', and a belief that the letter 't' is positioned above and to the right of th e'f' key, generating a desire-as-means to reach the index finger from the 'f' key up and to the right to press the 't' key."

It seems like a lot of work.

Instead, script theory says that we learn scripts for typing common words and when we trigger the subroutine 'type 'typist'', we type the whole word as one process.

This theory better explains how we ride a bicycle, or walk, or do many of the things that we do that are intentional actions but are largely done without thinking.

It also explains why students in a class will sit in the same spot every day (even if there are no assigned seating), why they repeat the same phrases.

It explains the nature of certain disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (which is a short circuit that runs the same scripts over and over again).

However, it does not seem to work so well when we talk about deliberation - when we actually think and worry about what we are going to do. Script theory seems to work in the realm of means, but not so well in the realm of ends.

In other words, it seems to have little to say about value.