Thursday, April 16, 2009

Internal State Theories

I have been speaking to some comments that Richard Carrier has made regarding desire utilitarianism.

Those comments so far have focused on criticisms of alternative happiness or satisfaction (in the hedonist sense) theories of value. Today, I want to add weight to those objections by focusing on exactly what it is about these types of theories that cause them to fail.

Theories that state that all value rests in pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, happiness, or any similar state can all be classified as "internal state" theories. For all practical purposes, they say that the only thing that has value . . . the only thing that CAN have value . . . is that the brain be placed in a particular state.

For a materialist, this means that the matter in the brain is to be organized in a particular way. This and only this organization of matter can have value. Everything else has value only insofar as they contribute to putting the brain in such a state.

The first question that an internal state theorist has to answer is why it is the only thing that can have value is that the atoms in the brain have whatever physical arrangement that is associated with this state. Why is it that an agent can be concerned with getting the molecules in the brain in a particular arrangement, but he cannot be concerned with getting molecules outside the brain in the brain in some other arrangement, or getting molecules outside of the brain in a particular arrangement?

The second problem with internal state theories is precisely the problem is that they are divorced from external states. If it is the case that the internal state is the only thing that has value then, once we realize that internal state, we can do whatever we want to the external world and it does not matter.

This is the point that is illustrated by many of the stories brought against internal state theories. My own story about the person given the choice between falsely believing that her child is well when it being tortured, and falsely believing that the child is being tortured when the child is doing well, is simply one way of illustrating a case in which the internal state of the brain is realized, but is independent of what is going on in the world.

Experience machine stories, stories about putting happy pills in the water, and stories about a person being made happy and then having her brain preserved in that state (while the external world changes) are all stories that illustrate a break between the internal state and the external world.

All of these stories provide a way of imagining that the requisite internal state of the brain has been established. Then, the author divorces that internal state from what is going on in the external world. If it is true that the internal state is the only thing that has value, then any and all changes one makes to the external world does not matter, as long as the internal state is maintained.

All of these stories aim to illustrate the fact that external states not only can matter to people, they do matter to people. Even in cases where the internal state is held constantly in a state of high value, differences in the external world independent of this fact with affect a person’s choices.

Desire utilitarianism is not an internal state theory. It is a relational state theory.

Desire utilitarianism holds that value exists in a relationship between a desire that P (for some proposition P) and a state of affairs in which P is true. P itself can be an internal state (the experience of happiness or pleasure), or an internal state (one’s children are well), or a state of interaction with the external world (one is having sex, one is eating chocolate cake). In fact, there is no limit to what an agent can desire, just as there is no limit to what a person can believe.

As such, desire utilitarianism avoids objections where internal states having value are established and maintained independent of what goes on in the external world. Furthermore, the desire utilitarianism does not need to explain why it is the case that only one possible internal state can have value – while all other internal or external states are mere means to the establishment of the one, sole, internal state having value.


Luke said...

Another great post.

Richard Carrier said...

First Question:

From a POV outside of human brains (and all functionally equivalent conscious evaluators), you are quite right: nothing does have value. That's actually quite demonstrable.

There is no state that is "better" than any other, by definition in fact, except a state that is desired more than another, and desires only exist as the product of complex conscious computational systems, like the human brain. Thus, the starting point for answering the question "Why be moral?" is the brain (or equivalent) of the being asking that question. There can be no other starting point.

This is inevitably the case due to Hume's Question, which every ethical theory must answer or else it cannot be demonstrated to even be possibly true, much less actually so. See my book's discussion of Hume's Question, and you'll understand why you can't answer your first question any differently than materialism does--not even if materialism were false!

Second Question:

Internal state theories are only divorced from external states when you deceive the decision-maker or otherwise meddle with his memory or perceptual apparatus. As in epistemology, all bets are off when you are being screwed with. But no one wants to be screwed with, and thus no one would choose that state of affairs (no one, that is, who is fully informed and rationally deciding the matter).

In other words, my happiness cannot be maintained indifferently to how my actions affect others, unless I am somehow deceived about how my actions affect others. But since I would not choose to be deceived, I cannot choose to divorce my happiness from how others are affected.

Therefore, pursuing internal states is inexorably dependent on the pursuit of external states, even more so in the cognitive domain (knowledge of the world, pursuit of happiness) than the physical (satisfaction of hunger, avoidance of physical injury).

Again, my book Sense and Goodness without God shows how this link carries all the way through to an empirical demonstration that our internal state is best served by becoming reasonably compassionate and honest in our dealings with others. That is morality.

If you get to deceive me in regard to all the external effects of my behavior, then you can make any ethical system valid, by simply tailoring the deception in the manner of a Cartesian Demon. A scenario that proves every ethical theory thereby proves none.

That's why I prefer to talk only about reality, not fictional worlds we will never live in.

For instance, we can design a pill that convinces you that you've fulfilled any desire (say, the desire to make your child safe and healthy), when in fact it is not so fulfilled. You would not consider that a refutation of desire utilitarianism. Therefore, you cannot consider it a challenge to any other theory, either.

But the biggest problem, that you are essentially declaring desire utilitarianism incapable of answering, is why we should be moral at all. No external state can ever have value except insofar as some internal state is satisfied by it (this is logically impossible, not just physiologically impossible). Therefore, there is no escaping the fact: some internal state must get the ball rolling, and only an internal state can keep that ball rolling.

But to understand why, you will have to start interacting with the argument in my book.

Richard Carrier said...

An idea occurred to me in the shower this morning, as ideas often do.

This might help explain why our theories are so close, and possibly identical...

As I explain in my book, happiness is a state of global contentment, which is the state of the satisfaction of all desires--even desires whose fulfillment is in the future, i.e. as long as everything is being or has been done toward that long term goal that can be at the moment, you will feel the desire is being satisfied and therefore you will feel near-complete contentment.

[I say near-complete because there will remain a slight anticipatory discontent, a feeling of incompleteness in proportion to the importance of the long-term goal, but such discontent has been scientifically shown to be inversely proportional to its time-scale, i.e. the more distant a goal, the weaker the discontent it produces when unsatisfied, which is why long-term goals are only satisfied when they produce subsidiary goals that have more immediate satisfaction demands, which only reason can produce--at least when evolution hasn't already done so, but such evolved desire systems are few and limited--which is why humans are so good at achieving long-term goals.]

Physiologically, desires are states of discontent caused by wanting something. Hunger is the most primitive example: you feel uneasy and uncomfortable until you eat. It is that unease that motivates the action to seek food. If you never felt hungry (and had no other comparable motivating discontentments, such as discontentment at behaving suicidally or irrationally), you would never eat, and you would starve. The satisfaction of this desire removes the unease, producing a feeling of satisfaction and contentment that is a component of happiness.

Though eating also produces an array of immediate concomitant pleasures (the taste of the food, the enjoyment of the ritual of a meal, etc.), and one of our overarching desires is to live a life filled with such joys and thus achieving such joys satisfies that overarching desire, those pleasures alone are never satisfying, they do not produce contentment, and thus do not produce happiness (though their absence could harm it). It is the satisfaction at having removed the discontentment of hunger that is the actual fulfillment of the desire, and what is ultimately more satisfying overall than the concomitant pleasures.

This is because, physiologically, we have other desires that produce stronger and more persistent states of discontent until they are satisfied, than any fleeting pleasures can overcome. Though many fools try, their example proves the point. Drug addiction and other forms of drowning behavior attempt to satisfy desires with a constancy of pleasures, yet the effort only makes things increasingly worse as one's life becomes ever more dissatisfying and even self-destructive--because such behavior seeks to ignore rather than satisfy desires, and as a double consequence, it actually ruins the physical conditions of life, e.g. losing jobs and friends and resources and physical and mental health, getting in trouble with the law, etc., which a proper satisfaction of desires would have avoided.

Why is all this important? ...

Richard Carrier said...

Because happiness is by definition this state of contentment, a feeling of the complete or ongoing satisfaction of all present desires. Therefore, it is impossible to experience genuine and complete happiness when any desires are left unsatisfied.

Therefore, the only way you could design a pill to produce perfect happiness is to design a pill that would convince someone all their desires were satisfied, that there was nothing left to be done. But such a pill would (a) be a form of deception that would (b) kill them. Because they would believe all their desires are satisfied, they would lie down and just die. They wouldn't get up. They wouldn't eat. They wouldn't think about anything. They wouldn't pay attention to anything.

The result would be similar to the effect of the Pax drug depicted in the film Serenity.

It would not be possible to convince these people to do anything. No lectures on desire utilitarianism would motivate them. They wouldn't even pay attention--because paying attention requires a desire, a state of discontentment that is only removed by paying attention, which thus produces a feeling of satisfaction, a pleasurable sensation that is an essential component of happiness. But the drug already removes that state of discontentment. It thus removes all desires, including the desire to pay attention, the desire to care for their children, everything.

Yes, such a drug would produce a perfect internal state that would remove all motivations to do anything. That's why such a drug would kill you, and why you would thus never choose to take such a drug. No rational choice could ever warrant doing so. Because in your present state (your non-drugged state), you want your desires to actually be satisfied (e.g. you want to live and accomplish other things), and the drug will not actually do that--it will only deceive you into thinking it has. And you do not want to be deceived.

This is why I see very little difference between my goal theory and your desire utilitarianism: you talk about the satisfaction of desires, which in my theory is simply a component of happiness. We are thus both talking about the same thing: goals. I just fold all your goals (all the desires we pursue) into one complete category called "happiness" (the satisfaction of all desires, whether by a complete or ongoing satisfaction).

And of course such happiness occurs in degrees (it is not binary), and our goal is to maximize it within our means. Since rarely can we achieve perfect states of happiness, and when we do it can only be temporary, since though we can occasionally find a situation in which there is, at that moment, nothing left to be done, new events will always intervene (we will get hungry again, a friend will need our help again, danger will approach again, our long-term goals will need another step taken, and so on).

It is thus futile to talk about bizarre scenarios in which we are deceived into thinking otherwise, since all that they prove is how we would behave when deceived, not how we would behave when correctly informed (and responding rationally to that information), and moral theory must pertain to reality, not fabrications.

Eneasz said...

Hello Richard. Since both you and Alonzo seem to agree that your two theories are very similar, I wanted to ask a question on the one major point that is different.

Alonzo ends the motivation of an individual's actions at desires.

You extend this one step further by saying that desires are (sought to be) fulfilled because this produces happiness, and happiness is a sort of meta-desire.

What is the advantage of having a meta-desire of happiness that all other desires point to?

I hope I'm not misrepresenting your position, my apologies if I am.

Richard Carrier said...

Eneasz said... What is the advantage of having a meta-desire of happiness that all other desires point to?

It's not a question of advantage. It's a question of fact and logic: the conclusion simply can't be avoided, advantage or no. Read Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics to see why.

Start with any desire and ask "Why should I have that desire?," in other words, "Why bother wanting that?" rather than something else instead. Follow the inquiry to a conclusion, and for every desire you choose, the inquiry will end at "Because fulfilling that desire makes me happy."

You might ask then "Why care about being happy?" and the question, once understood, appears as absurd as asking why we can't go north of the north pole: as a matter of physical, biological fact, there just isn't anything we want more. And if there were, we would call that happiness.

Hence the end-point is logically necessary: we cannot have an infinite series of desires justifying every individual desire, therefore there must be some ultimate desire which we desire simply because there isn't anything else we want more, and every individual desire we have must fulfill some such desire.

Logically, the end point can always be exactly the same thing (e.g. all desires are sought to quell discomfort), or a few different things, but in the latter case what happens when these "core desires" conflict? How do you choose one of them over the other, when you must so choose? Either a hierarchy of values results in which one comes out the winner (so we're back to everything ending at one ultimate desire), or you are stuck with irreconcilable fundamental values (and the best you can do is flip a coin).

But in the one case (when it all ends with one ultimate desire) we simply label the object of that desire "happiness" and in the other case (when it all ends with a small set of irreconcilable ultimate desires) we simply label the objects of that desire-group "happiness" and then tough it out with a resultingly complex model of what happiness is.

Either way, it all ends in happiness. Can't avoid it.

However, in scientific fact, the second option is very unlikely. The physiology of desire is such that all desires appear to have the same motivational operation: you feel happy when you fulfill the desire. If you didn't, you would never be motivated to pursue the desire, and thus it wouldn't be a desire.

The "happiness" you feel at the satisfaction of a desire is not pleasure per se, but the escape of discomfort (what you might call "contentment"). Though pleasure can accompany the satisfaction of a desire, it isn't the thing that actually motivates you. Since you aren't feeling pleasure until you succeed, pleasure cannot be the physiological motivator, something else must be. And that "something" is always the removal of discomfort.

For example, the anticipation of a pleasure (sex, yummy food, making a touchdown, passing a test, learning a scientific theory, solving a philosophical problem, etc.) produces a certain level of discomfort (a feeling that you lack something or something is unsatisfied in you--i.e. you want a pleasure to be present, and yet it's not), which motivates you to pursue the pleasure. The true satisfaction is thus not the pleasure in itself, but the removal of discomfort at lacking the pleasure.

But we haven't completed our cognitive science of human desires, so though the above appears so far always to be the case, there may yet be exceptions, and something yet more fundamental may be at work. But I can only wait for science to tell me that. In the meantime, I have to work with what science has already figured out so far.

Martin Freedman said...

Hi Richard

The problem with your view that you have generalised the notion of happiness or contentment or removing a discomfort so much that it makes no difference in fact. Whatever you call it is a name for becomes a placeholder that is a constant or universal mechanism by which we all have desires.

The issue, as I put it, is it is not your satisfaction of your desire that concerns me, but the effect of its fulfilment on me. And vice versa. And the various Experience Machine arguments demonstrate that fulfilment of one's own desire matter to oneself too.

Yes, in time, biology will explain better how desires work but, then and now, whatever desires there are just are the motivators for people to act that can affect others (intended or not). We can investigate these effects now and attempt to deal with problematic effects (including clarifying what are problematic). This is what people do and always have done anyway. What has been missed is systematically treating this universal attribute of human beings (or biology if you will) directly in terms of its interactive affects on each other and adding no more than is necessary to characterise it.

Instead many have added additional features that distract from this core issue and many of those additional feature are fictions, fantasies, or, in your case, and with all due respect, vague generalities that make no difference to the issue.

Will future biological insights (and other sciences) improve the way we can deal with these interactions, in many ways? Yes. But surely it will always be the case that there are these interactions that those insights will be addressing?