Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Neuroscience of Desires and Aversions

The first day of class is in 298 days – but I am visiting the philosophy department tomorrow.

As I work on editing my paper on a moral aversion theory of punishment, I have turned my attention in reading to neuroscience, for three reasons.

Reason 1: The presentation I will be attending tomorrow is on unconscious pleasures. In preparation, I went to Google Scholar and looked up “unconscious pleasure” and was treated to a number of neuroscience articles.

Neuroscientists believe in the existence of unconscious pleasures because they have conducted experiments on pleasure and associated pleasure with certain other observable characteristics – e.g., facial expressions. They have also taken brain images of people experiencing pleasure. They then discovered that it is possible to generate the same observations as well as correspondingly relevant neural images even though the subject reported no consciousness of pleasure.

Reason 2: A person interested in desirism has reason to be interested in the neuroscience of wanting, so my reading has wandered into that area as well. Within these documents on pleasure, the neuroscientists discussed other parts of the reward system, such as wanting and learning.

Reason 3: The neuroscience behind learning certain aversions – such as aversions to act-types such as theft, vandalism, lying, and promise-breaking – are relevant to this paper that I am writing on punishment. If punishment is used to promote aversions to performing certain act-types, then it would help to have an understanding of the neuroscience behind this process.

Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find any research on this subject specifically – so I cannot point to a paper and say, “See, like that!” Of course, I also cannot find a paper that refutes it. I can only find papers that discuss aspects of neuroscience that have implications for the elements that I am interested in – such as these discussions on pleasure and wanting.

However, it seems that I am going to have to revise my views at least a little in light of this recent research.

In my writings, I have been reducing aversion to desire. I have been expressing an aversion to P as a desire that not-P. In terms of propositional attitudes, this may be true. However, in terms of neuroscience, this reduction does not work.

It turns out that the brain contains two parallel but distinct structures. Positive motivation – motivation to realize a particular state of affairs – seems to be found in the left frontal cortex. Meanwhile, avoidance behavior – a disposition to act so as to prevent the realization of a state of affairs – is processed in the right frontal cortex. This leaves open the possibility that desires and aversions function differently, as it brain could have easily evolved functional relationships to one hemisphere and not the other.

The details are for neuroscientists to work out. I have not yet come upon any evidence that there is any functional difference between desires and aversions, but the possibility is there. This would relate to creating aversions to theft, vandalism, assault, and the like.

I am expecting that Dr. Heathwood’s paper tomorrow will touch on this research – so I should be able to get a little more information.

1 comment:

David Jacquemotte said...

This is great info, Alonzo. I think one barrier to bringing Desirism to the mainstream is going to be moving it away from folk psychology. This is definitely a step in that direction.