Sunday, June 24, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 50: Neo-Humean Theories of Desire and the Brain

In discussing Timoty Schroeder's article on the neurobiology of intentional action (Schroeder, Timothy, (2017), “Empirical Evidence against a Cognitivist Theory of Desire and Action", In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press), I have so far (1) presented his summary of evidence regarding the neurobiology of intentional action, and (2) used this information in presenting his arguments against cognitivist theories of desire.

The next thing to do is to look at what Schroeder says this information has to say about neo-Humean theories of desire.

The theory that I defend is something of an odd duck. Typically, theories of desire are divided into two camps, evaluationist (desires are evaluations that something is good or ought to be the case) and dispositional (theories of desire are statements about how people are disposed to act). So, if there are problems with evaluationist theories, then that leaves dispositional theories. Schroeder has so far used his empirical evidence against evaluationist theories of desire. This leaves the dispositional or, what Schroeder calls, "neo-Humean" theories of desire.

On this simplest approach, one holds that desires characteristically dispose us to perform actions that seem likely to bring about (or make progress towards) the ends we intrinsically desire.

The theory that I support is an evaluationist theory. However, a "desire that P" is not a belief or judgment that P has value. It is an assignment of value to "P" being true. It requires no belief or judgment, so it does not require a pathway through the parts of the brain associated with beliefs and judgments. An action, such as writing a blog posting on desires, does look at the propositions P that are believed and judged to be true in that state of affairs, but the assignment of a value to those propositions being true can all be done behind the scenes without any contribution from beliefs or judgments. The weighing of the value of those propositions being true against the value of different propositions being true if I were, for example, to go fix myself something to eat, keeps me at the computer writing this blog post.

Of course, assigning a value to a proposition being true also determines the motivational force of making or keeping that proposition true, and so disposes one to act to the degree that one can find a relevant action to perform. However, the action is caused by the desire. The assignment of a value to a state of affairs is causally prior to action and is the reason for the action, when there is action.

With this distinction in mind, let us look at what Schroeder says about the empirical data with respect to neo-Humean dispositional theory and see if we can apply it to the assignment theory of desire.

As it turns out, Schroeder's interpretation of the causal map does not actually involve dispositions to act. It is more consistent with the assignment of value to "representations of perceivable or conceivable contents".

If intrinsic desires are, or are realized be, or subvene on, perceptual and conceptual representations that are connected in the right way to the reward system (such that their contents are constituted as rewards), then instrinsic desires will turn out to have the properties and play the roles attributed to them by the simplest form of neo-Humeanism.

So, we are looking at "perceptual or conceptual representations" (think of these as "perceives that P" or "believes that P"), where their content (P being true) are constituted as rewards (are assigned a value V, which is the strength of the reason to make or keep P true), then they will generate dispositions to act to make or keep P true.

Desires, as Schroeder describes them, are not mere dispositions to act. They are assignments of value to propositions being made or kept true that provide agents with reasons to act, if a viable act can be found. And this "if a viable act can be found" can, perhaps, be related to the acts queued up as a result of the belief/perceptual portion of the brain looking for permission to continue.

I am, so far, quite pleased about the way that the evidence Schroeder presents on the biology of intentional action fits in with the assignment theory of desire used in desirism. However, the book The Nature of Desire contains a second article discussing the empirical evidence. I will be examining that next.

On Desire 2018. Part 49: Cognitivist Theories of Desires and the Brain

In my last exciting episode I looked at what Timothy Schroeder had to say about the biology of intentional action.

Schroeder, Timothy, (2017), “Empirical Evidence against a Cognitivist Theory of Desire and Action", In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

Now, Schroeder used this as an argument against cognitivist theories of desire. His argument is that cognitivist theories are not consistent with biology.

By cognitivist theories, Shroeder is referring to theories that reduce desires to believes or judgments. These include theories that say, for example, "Agent desires that P" is to be understood as "Agent believes that P is good" or "Agent judges that P ought to be the case."

He provided evidence that, in the brain, intentional action has two main inputs.

One input is the cognitive part of the brain (the unimodal perceptual cortex and the multimodal association cortex). This is the part that we may associate with beliefs and judgments.

Another input comes along pathways that Schroeder says is "not yet interpreted in cognitive or non-cognitive terms". However, he identifies it as "the reward (and punishment) system."

Then, Shroeder looks at three ways to try to make sense of a cognitivist theory of desire.

Option 1: A pathway directly from the cognitive portions of the brain to intentional action.

This exists. The standard course of action is that the cognitive parts of the brain queue up actions, but they are all inhibited. Input from the second pathway selects among the queued up actions which will go through. So, it is possible for the cognitive portion of the brain to queue up an action that goes through without any input from this second system. It just goes straight through, without "obtaining permission" from the second system.

However, Schroeder argues that the types of cases we know about where this happens is Tourette syndrome - the involuntary tics and utterances that those with this system feel compelled to do. Significantly, people with Tourette syndrome do not take these actions to be theirs - they are not "from me". Schroeder also reports, "This same sort of overriding activation, when induced by direct electrical stimulation of the brain, likewise induces movements from which experimental subjects feel alienated."

(I would like to note, as a theory of personal identity, I have played with the theory that what "I am" is a particular set of desires. To say that I am responsible for an action - to say that an action is mine - it must have its source in my desires. If it does not come from my desires, then it is not mine. Schroeder's claims here would be consistent with that thesis. This second system "choosing" among the queued up actions which to let through and turn into actual action is what makes the actin mine. It is what makes "me" the cause of the action. However, I have not worked with this thesis enough to actually endorse it.)

There is a second direct route that need not involve the second (reward/punishment) system. It takes a detour through the motor basal ganglia. Schroeder identifies this as the region of habit formation. I think that a good way to summarize Schroeder's description is to think of the motor basal ganglia as a place where the input of dopamine from the reward/punishment system creates channels of low resistance for certain actions. When queued, these actions "pass through" with little resistance. So, if one has a habit of, say, turning left at a particular intersection, the "turning left" habit may pass through the motor basil ganglia even though, on this one occasion, one actually wanted to turn right. Those bad habits of, for example, biting one's nails are found here.

However, habits are not judgments. Habits, in fact, often go against our better judgments. In this way, we can have good habits and bad habits. So, equating habits with beliefs or judgments that something is good or ought to be the case is problematic.

Option 2: Beliefs or judgments about what is good or ought to be the case are formed in the reward/judgment pathway.

We need not interpret the functioning of the reward/punishment pathway as desires as distinct from beliefs. It may be used to form beliefs of a particular kind - of the kind that motivates action.

Schroeder provides three objections to this interpretation.

First, Schroeder states that such a person must interpret damage to the reward/punishment system of the type that prevents action (extreme Parkinson's disease) as damage to the ability to form beliefs/judgments about what one ought to do. Yet, as Parkinson's disease gets increasingly severe, sufferers do not report increasing difficulty in judging things as good or as something that ought to be done.

I do not see how Schroeder makes a good case here. To make a parallel case with desires, one would have to argue either that Parkinson's disease has an effect on what patients desire. If the effect of Parkinson's disease on desires is the same as that Parkinson's disease would hypothetically have on judgments of goodness or oughtness, then Schroeder hasn't come up with anything that distinguishes one from the other.

So, I don't see Schroeder's argument here.

Second, the functioning of the reward/punishment system is isolated from memory and consciousness.

Apparently, there are no direct connections from the reward/punishment system to the parts of the brain associated with memory or consciousness.

Once one begins to look specifically at the reward system, one sees an absence of projections from this system to regions of the brain that seem involved either in consciousness or in episodic memory, at least, organized in a manner that would support being conscious of or remembering specific judgments of what one has most reason to do, all things considered.

Only the parts of the brain typically associated with traditional beliefs and judgments have these types of connections. I find this quite interesting. It appears to be consistent with the thesis that we do not have very good direct knowledge of our desires - that some of them are unconscious, and that people can be wrong about what it is they desire. We are clearly able to form beliefs about our desires, but we derive those beliefs (like all beliefs) from observing our own behavior and monitoring our body (recognizing symptoms of fear or longing). Like all beliefs, our beliefs about our own desires can be mistaken. Like the rest of the world in general, our desires will influence our action independent of our beliefs in just the same way that the shape of the earth is independent of our beliefs. But the reason we think we have, and the reason we actually have, for doing something may not agree.

Anyway, this draws a genuine distinction between beliefs and judgments about what is good or what one has a reason to do from desires in that unconscious beliefs and judgments are problematic. A person who acts because he judges something to be good is relying on a mental state - a judgment - that has connections to consciousness and memory that desires, apparently, do not have.

Third, pleasure must be "causally upstream" of judgments about reasons, or we cannot judge that we have a reason to do something on the basis that it will be pleasurable. In contrast, pleasure is "causally downstream" of desire. It is in virtue of the fact that one desires something that one gets pleasure from obtaining it. It is not in virtue of the fact that one judges it to be good that one gets pleasure from obtaining it. This represents another distinction between desire and judgment.

So, to me, at least, two of these objections to relating activity of the reward/punishment system to beliefs or judgments about what is good or ought to be the case show that there are problems with this option.

Option 3: The reward/punishment is a component of, rather than the whole story behind, judgments about what is good or ought to be the case.

This option answers the problems about connections to memory and consciousness (since there is a part of the judgment located in the parts of the brain associated with beliefs and perceptions with its strong connections to memory and consciousness). However, it does not answer the objection of the direction of causation. It would still be the case that pleasure must be causally prior to the judgment that a reason for doing something is that it is pleasurable. One must first judge that one has a reason to do it (that one desires it, in the cognitivist sense of desire) before it can be pleasurable.

More importantly, the reward/punishment system can be activated along pathways that have nothing to do with those parts having to do with beliefs and judgments. It can be activated through sensory input directly, as when something tastes good, or one is pleased by the beauty of a sunset or a person. If desire requires both a reward/punishment component and a belief/judgment component, then we cannot prefer the taste of butterscotch to chocolate or prefer Beethoven to Bach. Or, at least, these preferences are not desires.

Conclusion

So, using evidence of brain structure, we can see that there are problems with the thesis that a desire can be understood in terms of a belief that or a judgment that something is good or ought to be the case. This creates a problem for cognitivist theories of desire. But, can a neo-Humean theory of desire do better?

Friday, June 22, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 48: The Biology of Action

*begin Jaws theme here*

We have reached the scariest part of the series for some desirists.

*pause for dramatic effect while the Jaws theme becomes more intense*

Particularly for those people who value some empirical evidence in their philosophy.

*Jaws theme nears its climax*

Chapters 8 and 9 of The Nature of Desire bring forth empirical evidence.

*Jaws theme reaches its climax*

The topic of discussion for the next few posts is: Schroeder, Timothy, (2017), “Empirical Evidence against a Cognitivist Theory of Desire and Action", In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

Schroeder's argument is that the biology of intentional action is more compatible with neo-Humeanism than it is with the various theories that interpret desires as cognitive states - beliefs or judgments that something is good or that one has a reason to perform some action. Specifically, the biology of action suggests that there are two inputs into intentional action - a cognitive input from the parts of the brain that are associated with beliefs and judgments, and an affective input that words through the reward system and dopamine production. This is more compatible with the neo-Humean system.

So . . . how does the brain work?

Schroeder provides us with a causal map. Note that he presents this map after a long discussion of the empirical research. This is not a map drawn while sitting at the philosopher's armchair. It is drawn while standing in the neuroscientist's laboratory.

One reasonable interpretation of the neuroscientific account might go as follows: one senses the world and makes judgments about it. These sense experiences and judgments are realized in the unimodal sensory and multimodal association cortex. They cause possible basic or primitive actions to be primed, with the priming of more complex possible actions (say, strumming a guitar) causing the priming of the less complex possible actions that are required (say, shaping one’s hand in a certain way, moving one’s arm, etc.). These primed actions can be commanded by clusters of neurons found in the motor hierarchy, naturally. Primed possible actions existing at a given time are typically more numerous than the actions one actually performs or would wish to perform. Thus, primed possible actions are all chronically suppressed, this being the role of the motor BG. At the same time as possible actions become primed, one’s experiences and judgments cause a response in one’s reward system. This response combines, in the motor BG, with one’s experiences and judgments. And this combination of experiences, thoughts, and reward signals in the motor BG causes a release of some of the primed possible actions.

Fine. What does this mean in English?

Here you area, reading this post . . . I assume . . . perceiving the world, assessing what you read, saying things to yourself like, "Hey, that finally makes sense?" and "How can anybody believe something as stupid as what this guy is putting on his blog?" But, are you going to keep reading? Are you going to go to the kitchen and get a piece of that chocolate cake? Are you going to write a comment?

As you perceive the world, your brain cues up a whole gaggle of actions compatible with those perceptions. It cues up a set of actions that would involve continued reading, a set of actions associated with going to the kitchen for some chocolate cake. A set of actions that are involved in making a comment. All of these are nominated for the action in question.

If all of these actions go through the gate, then you end up doing a whole lot of different actions at once. You can't do them all at once - it is physically impossible to do so. Normally, your brain will pick one of the nominees and say, "That one." And then you do it.

Sometimes, there is a specific type of action that leaks through the gate. It is usually a simple action. In most cases it is a part of an action - the utterance of a particular word or a simple muscle action such as a wink or a twitch. This is Tourette Syndrome. The behavioral oddities are commonly called "tics". The person afflicted with Tourette Syndrome report being "alienated" from these actions - they come from someplace else. They are not chosen. Whereas the action that is selected to make it through the gate is the action that is chosen - and, thus, it is the action that belongs to the agent.

So, what about this "choosing" of various queued up actions? How does that work?

Well, that comes by means of a dopamine signal that enters through the reward system. This signal selects one of the various act alternatives and says, "Do that one." If this signal is weak, an individual will choose an action, by find it difficult to execute the action. If the signal is stopped altogether, then the agent cannot act - no act is chosen - even though the agent wants to act. This is Parkinson's Disease.

Schroeder's description of the reward system and its effect on actions lacked detail. He wrote:

The [orbitofrontal cortex] has fairly stable, though not immutable, long-term dispositions to discriminate between [its] input signals. In response to some, nothing happens. In response to others, a signal is sent along the affective [basil ganglia].

The signal that is "sent along" is the signal that is relevant to selecting the action that gets let through the gate.

Schroeder does not say anything to this effect, but it seems that these "stable, though not immutable, long-term dispositions" seem to have a close relationship to what I have been calling desires. Desires, as I have described them, are certainly stable and long-term but malleable, and are used in selecting actions. However, nothing in Schroeder's description suggests assigning a value to a proposition being true. So, this may mean absolutely nothing. This is simply something to be filed away - perhaps it will be useful later.

One of Schroeder's comments that I am particularly curious about is this:

In addition to a reward system, the brain almost certainly also contains a distinct punishment system. Its existence may be inferred from such facts as that intuitively rewarding stimuli and intuitively punishing stimuli cause distinct but similarly located responses in OFC and distinct but similarly located responses in the affective BG, and from the fact that there are special brain chemicals particularly released in animals like us under punishing conditions and causing, e.g., freezing behavior in rats. Unfortunately, the effects of the punishment system on behavior can only be inferred by analogy to the effects of the reward system, as there is as yet no clear identification of the punishment system’s output structure.

I have long wanted to know something about the punishment system but, so far, have only been able to find information on the reward system. This is my first confirmation of the hypothesis that it works in a way similar to the reward system.

This actually is not a lot to go on - but it is more than I had. Schroeder used this to argue against cognitivist theories of desire by showing that the way the brain actually works a signal from the affective parts of the brain - the reward system - are used to choose action. This is not a part of the brain that is associated with beliefs and perceptions. So, theories that claim that a desire is to be understood as a belief or a perception are going to have problems matching their theories to the empirical fact. A neo-Humean, such as myself, will not have such problems.

So, it seems, I can breathe a sigh of relief . . . so far.

On Desire 2018. Part 47: Animal Desires

Alex Gregory proposes: To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

If this is true, then it seems to follow that if Fido has a desire to go for a walk, then Fido has a belief that he has a normative reason to go for a walk. Yet, attributing such a belief to Fido seems absurd. Thus, it cannot be the case that Fido's desire to go for a walk is a belief that he has normative reasons to go for a walk. Meaning that Gregory's thesis must be rejected.

This, in my opinion, is a knock-down objection to Gregory's thesis.

Gregory makes two attempts to defend himself.

Gregory's first attempt is to suggest a rather loose attribution of beliefs and desires. He argues that a cat can have a desire to drink milk even though the cat can have but a very rough idea of what "milk" is. Fido can lament that his food bowl is empty with only the most basic understanding of "food bowl" and "empty". So, it seems conceivable that an animal can have a rude type of proto-belief about having a reason for action.

However, we have to draw a line somewhere between what the animal can understand and what humans can understand. As Fido jumps up to catch the ball thrown for him, we can say that he understands something about the relationship "Force = mass * acceleration". However, it this is mostly due to the development of instincts and habits that take advantage of the relationship. We would be making a mistake if we implied that Fido was a cognitive expert in Newtonian physics. Understanding the desire to go outside in terms of a belief that one has normative reasons to go outside is simply over-intellectualizing what is, in fact, a basic desire.

It may be difficult to know exactly what it is a dog believes, but "that I have a normative reason to go outside" hardly seems like it is even close to the line.

Gregory's second attempt is to narrow the concepts of desires and beliefs. Here, he tries a move that I discussed in the previous section, distinguishing "basic drives" from "desires". Here, he argues that animals do not, in fact, have desires. Instead, animals have "basic drives" that are distinct from desires, and thus are not to be understood in terms of "having a belief that one has a normative reason to φ."

In this case, as I said previously, Gregory himself defeats this option. Gregory wrote:

Hunger, we might think, is the paradigmatic desire, and if a theory of desires excludes hunger from its purview, then it is no longer a theory of desire at all.

Yet, when Gregory makes this move, he is removing hunger from the category of "desire" and putting it in the category of "basic drives" - something different from desire. Gregory, then, may be offering a legitimate theory of what he is calling "desire," but he is no longer offering a theory about what the rest of us call desire. Such a theory is, explicitly, a theory about such things as hunger, thirst, aversion to pain, desire for sex, along with the more complex desires that humans are capable of acquiring.

Indeed, Gregory is offering a theory of "desires-as-means". That which is desired as a means to an end can be understood as being desired in virtue of the belief that one has a reason to realize these means, because it serves the end. The squirrel's desire to climb the tree to get to the food can be understood as understanding that he has a reason to climb the tree (to get to the food). But his desire to eat cannot be understood in this way. Gregory's thesis fails the instant he switches from talking about the value of means to the value of ends.

The reason a cognitive understanding of "desires-as-means" makes sense is because "desires-as-means" are mixtures of "desires-as-ends" and "means-ends beliefs". And means-ends beliefs are subject to cognitive analysis. There is no mystery here.

But the true source of desire - that point at which all inquiry about desire ends, because it is has reached the things that we desire for their own sake and not for the sake of something else - is simply outside of the scope of his theory.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 46: Addiction

First, I rewrote the previous post before posting this one. I did this to improve the fit between the two posts. They discuss related topics. While the previous post discussed cases where a person apparently believed that he had a normative reason to φ without having desire to φ, this one has to do with an agent having a desire to φ without believing that she has a normative reason to φ.

To address the previous problem, Alex Gregory suggested the possibility of desire without motivation. Thus, it is possible to have a belief that one had a normative reason to φ (and, thus, a desire to φ) without being motivated to φ. I argued that this was unnecessary. The only thing we needed were cases where the desire to φ was outweighed or overpowered by other reasons, or the desire to φ was a future desire that did not have the capacity to reach back in time and motivate current action. When this happens, even though all desire is intimately connected to motivation to act, it does not always generate action. The reason (and, with it, the motivation) to φ may simply be overwhelmed by the reasons not to φ. (Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

Now we are going to address a different kind of case.

Amy has been a heroin addict for many years. She believes that she has very little reason to take the drug. But she strongly craves it nonetheless.

Recall that Gregory's thesis was: To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ. Here, we have a case in which Amy has a desire to φ without having a belief that she has normative reason to φ. So, this would be a problem for Gregory's theory.

Gregory responds to this case by suggesting that Amy's weak desire to φ over-motivates her to φ. Recall that he argued for breaking the association between desire and motivation in the previous case. If we can have desire without motivation then it seems plausible to argue that we can have motivation beyond that which is warranted by a given desire.

However, I argued that we can handle the case without breaking the link between the strength of a desire and its motivational force. Moreover, I argued that we need the link between desire and motivational force since if desire has nothing to do with giving an agent a strong or weak motivation to act, then we are left to puzzle over the question of what a desire actually is supposed to be doing.

Furthermore, we can raise the objection against Gregory that his way of handling this objection certainly conflicts with our common understanding of the term. The reason Amy cannot give up the drug is because she has an overwhelming desire to take the drug - a desire too strong to resist.

In fact, this is exactly the way that the assignment theory of desire analyzes addiction. The addiction is a very strong desire that overwhelms all other desires. The effects of the addiction on the brain is to create a desire against which other present desires cannot compete. While the addiction can overpower all present desires, it also can easily ignore all future desires as well - given that a future desire cannot reach back in time to motivate present action. The result is a desire so strong that it causes the agent to sacrifice all other present and future concerns.

Another option that Gregory suggests is to distinguish desires from "some more primitive compulsion or drive".

I would suppose that if Gregory were to go this route, there would be no better candidate for "more primitive compulsion or drive" than the aversion to pain and the desire to eat. Yet, to go this route would mean that the aversion to pain is not an aversion, and the desire to eat is not a desire. Neither is the desire for sex, or the interest that one has in being within a comfortable temperature - not too hot and not too cold.

I have argued previously that Gregory's theory works for desires-as-means. This is because desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs about how the means will serve those ends. Desires-as-means respond to evidence because the belief component of desires-as-means responds to evidence. Desires-as-means appear to be beliefs about reasons for action since they are beliefs about how certain actions (φ-ing) relate to certain ends.

Gregory removes ends from his theory by claiming that desires-as-ends are not desires. The aversion to pain, hunger, and desire for sex, are not desires. Gregory himself admitted that if his theory ever reached this point then it was no longer a theory of desire. In discussing appetites, he wrote:

Hunger, we might think, is the paradigmatic desire, and if a theory of desires excludes hunger from its purview, then it is no longer a theory of desire at all.

At the time, Gregory kept hunger in the realm of desire. However, here he is at risk of removing hunger from the category of desire and placing it in the realm of "more primitive compulsion or drive". There is, perhaps, no more primitive compulsion or drive than the aversion to pain, or the desire for sex, or the desire to eat - all necessary for sustaining life and biological reproduction.

So, Gregory's first response suggests an implausible break between desire and motivation. His second response removes hunger, thirst, lust, and aversion to pain from the category of "desire".

His third suggestion is to postulate a combination of the above reasons.

Real-life addicts might be partially motivated by a genuine desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms, partially over-motivated by a very weak desire to take the drug, and partially compelled to take the drug by some drive.

However, if the break between desire and motivation does not work (because what else are desires supposed to do if they do not motivate), and the distinction between drives and desires does not work (because hunger, aversion to pain, desire for sex, and other basic drives would no longer be desires), then a hybrid of the two will not work.

A theory of desires is, first and foremost, a theory of the very things that Gregory is now calling drives. These are things that we value, not because they serve some further end, and not because we believe we have a reason to do them. We value these things in spite of the fact that we have no reason to do so. They simply are things that have value - that are assigned the values they have, not by reasons, but by evolution, environment, and experience. Addictions are very strong - overpowering - desires. They are desires that people have no reason to have, but which evolution, environment, and experience have caused them to have anyway. Anything that considers itself a theory of desires must be a theory of ends, and not just of means.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 45: Desires Without Motivation

In our last exciting episode, Alex Gregory distinguished hunger from feelings of hunger - hunger pangs and the like. He argued that the latter are not subject to evidence like beliefs. However, that does not imply that the former are not subject to evidence like beliefs. Thus, hunger and other appetites do not provide counter-examples to his thesis: To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ. (Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

As a part of my response, I agreed with the distinction. After all, the assignment theory of desire states that a desire is the assignment of a value (importance) of a proposition being true. The desire to eat is an assignment of a value of importance to "I am eating" being true. This does not imply any type of feeling or sensation. One can assign a value to eating without hunger pangs, just as one can assign a value to being with one's children without hunger pangs. So the distinction is sound.

However, Gregory's thesis still has problems with the idea that a desire to eat can be understood in terms of a belief that one has motivating reason to eat.

In my response, I asserted that desire is closely related to motivation. I then mentioned in an earlier post in this series addressing the appetites, the desire to eat is related to motivation. Motivation is related to (among other things) the concentration of the hormone ghrelin. I argued that it is not difficult to understand concentrations of ghrelin being related to the assignment of a particular value to the proposition, "I am eating". However, it is difficult to understand how to relate concentrations of ghrelin to the "belief that I have a normative reason to eat".

Well, now that I am on the record as relating desire to motivation, I need to note that Gregory, in the next section of his article, denies this relationship. According to Gregory, a person can have a desire to φ without at all being motivated to φ.

Gregory is making this claim in an attempt to defend his thesis from counter-examples such as the following:

Sally is a smoker. She knows full well that she has very good reasons to quit: smoking is costly and unhealthy. But she is weak-willed and continues to smoke. Such a case might seem to threaten DAB. Isn't Sally's problem that while she knows she should quit, she doesn't want to?

The objection, put in terms more closely related to Gregory's thesis, is that Sally believes that she has normative reasons to quit, but she does not have a desire to quit. If a desire to φ is a belief that one has a normative reason to φ, then this is a problem.

To answer this objection, Gregory seeks to assert that Sally does have a desire to quit smoking. However, a desire to quit smoking does not imply motivation to quit smoking. According to Gregory, desires have the potential to motivate, but this potential is not always actualized.

There are a number of problems with Gregory's response. I want to start with his claim that desires do not motivate. Gregory has already separated hunger from the feeling hungry (a distinction I agreed with). Now, he wants to separate hunger from a motivation to eat. If he does that, then what is left of hunger? It is neither "feeling hungry" nor is it a drive to find something to eat. What is it? I argue, as I did above, that it is not reasonable to relate hunger to purely contingent physical sensations such as hunger pangs. Instead, it is a motivation to eat - a motivation partially under the influence of concentrations of ghrelin in the system.

Desires are a part of a theory that aims to explain and predict intentional action. Desires provide the motive to act - the reason to act. A desire that does not motivate is as odd as a force that does not provide acceleration. Saying that desires merely have the potential to motivate is like saying that gravity merely has the potential to provide a downward force on those objects that are near to the body - something that might, somehow, fail to be actualized.

There is a way that a desire can exist without resulting in any intentional action. This happens when there are more and stronger reasons to do something else. For example, a book sitting on a table does not move. The reason that it does not move is because the upward force from the table precisely counters the weight of the book. While the force of gravity still exists, drawing the book towards the center of the earth, it is not moving anything.

Similarly, a desire, countered by other desires, need not result in any action. Sally has desires to quit based on her desires to spend her money on things other than cigarettes and to preserve her health. However, she also has an even stronger desire to smoke, so the desire to smoke overrides her weaker and fewer desires to spend money on other things and preserve her health.

Also, there is, in fact, a type of desire that does not motivate. A future desire has no ability to reach back in time and motivate present actions. The agent may well believe that smoking will thwart future desires - e.g., the desire to be watching her grand children graduate from college. The agent can know that her present desire to smoke is thwarting her future desire. However, the future desire has no ability to motivate her to stop smoking. This would require a present desire that her future desire be fulfilled. The motivational force this and other present desires may exist, but they may not be strong enough to outweigh the desire to smoke. They are like the sheet of paper in the path of a bullet. They provide some resistance, but they do not stop the bullet.

Please note that this way of understanding Sally the smoker does not require that we disconnect desire from motivation in any meaningful way. It disconnects future desires from present motivation, but it would be more strange to link motivation in such a way that desires - unlike everything else in the macro universe - has the power of backwards causation (the capacity to cause things to happen in the past, when it did not exist).

So, the objection to Gregory is that he cannot sensibly disconnect hunger both from feeling hungry and the motivation to eat; there would be nothing else. At the same time, we do not need to disconnect desire from motivation to handle cases like Sally. We only need to recognize that the motivation of some desires may outweigh others, motivating the agent to choose the option that will fulfill the most and strongest of her desires, and overpowering her fewer and weaker desires to realize an incompatible end.

Gregory brings up another supposed problem case that he calls "Teething Tabatha".

Tabatha knows that she has good reason to go to the dentist: her teeth are in an awful state. But she will quite keenly insist that she doesn't want to go to the dentist. Who does?

This is supposed to create a problem for Gregory's theory because Tabatha has no desire to do something (go to the dentist) that she believes has normative reason to do. Thus, a belief that one has a normative reason to φ is not, in this case, a desire to φ.

Gregory begins by charging that this is also a challenge for the Humean theory. I consider the assignment theory of desire to be a Humean theory, so, if true, this would also challenge me.

This kind of case seems as much a problem for the Humean theory of motivation as for DAB, since it is natural to presuppose that Tabatha might go to the dentist even though she has no desire to do so.

But this is no problem for the Humean theory of motivation. The Humean would distinguish desires-as-ends from desires-as-means. Tabatha's statement that she does not want to go to the dentist can be accurately taken to be a (true) claim that she does not value going to the dentist as an end in itself. Indeed, she may even have an aversion to going to the dentist. Yet, her reasons for going to the dentist - her present desire to avoid future pain and to prevent the loss of her teeth - outweigh her reasons not to go to the dentist. So, even though going to the dentist is not valued as an end, this is more than made up for as a means to her other ends.

In defense of DAB, Gregory could offer the same type of analysis.

Tabatha doesn't think that she has good reason to seek out the pain at the dentist. This is the sense in which she doesn't want to go to the dentist. But all the same, Tabatha does think she has good reason to visit the dentist, all things considered.

The response here still does not require any break between a desire and motivation. We can still allow that the aversion to going to the dentist has motivational force. It is just outweighed by the many and strong reasons to go to the dentist, providing an even stronger motivation. Like a rocket leaving the Earth's atmosphere, the reasons for going to the dentist obtain enough power to overcome the "gravity" of staying away from the dentist.

Separating desires from motivation simply is not necessary.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 44: Appetites as Beliefs About Reasons

In considering objections to his thesis, Gregory considers an objection near to the objections I have raised. Specifically, he considers the objection that it makes no sense to think of appetites (such as hunger) as beliefs about reasons to eat.

Recall, Gregory’s thesis is:

To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

So, on Gregory’s account, to desire to eat is to believe that one has reason to eat. It is absurd to think that a desire to eat is a belief that one has reason to eat. Therefore, we should reject a Gregory’s account.

Gregory attempts to defend his thesis be distinguishing the feeling of hunger from the desire to eat. We can have the desire without the feeling, he argues, as when one eats to be polite. And we can have the desire without feeling hungry, as when we have desert. The feelings of hunger are not beliefs about reasons to eat or anything else. However, the feelings are not the desire to eat, so this leaves open the possibility that the desire to eat is a belief about reasons.

I wonder if Gregory ever wanted to lose weight. That experience alone demonstrates that the desire to eat is independent of any and all beliefs about having reasons to eat. There are a great many obese and overweight people who are fully aware that they have no reason to - and many reasons not to - eat, but are driven to eat by an overwhelming desire. There are also a lot of people of normal weight who constantly struggle against a desire to eat that does not go away just because one rehearses the reasons.

We know something about hunger. For one thing, eating behavior is associated with the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is released by the stomach when it is empty, and stops being released when the stomach is full. Empirical research shows that the concentration of this hormone determines eating behavior. Note that the experiments that researchers have conducted on animals do not associate amounts of ghrelin with feelings of hunger. Researchers, so far as I can tell, have no way to determine what subjective sensations their non-human research subjects are feeling as a result of the concentration of ghrelin in their system. They only measure the disposition to eat, and their findings show that the disposition to eat is not only associated with ghrelin concentrations in the bloodstream, but with the amount of those concentrations. The more ghrelin, the stronger the disposition to eat.

On Gregory's model, the desire to eat is the belief that one has a normative reason to eat. The disposition to eat is influenced by the concentration of ghrelin in the system. Consequently, we seem to be required to imagine a system where the concentration of ghrelin somehow influences the belief that one has a normative reason to eat.

One of the ways that this can happen, of course, is that the concentration of ghrelin determines one's reason to eat which, in turn, determines one's beliefs about one's reasons to eat. However, if we get a reason to eat from the concentration of ghrelin itself, there doesn't seem to be anything else for the belief that one has a reason to eat to do. We can simply go with the reason to eat (the desire to eat) that the ghrelin produces.

Imagine if there was a drug where, with a small dose of the drug, you would believe that the surface of the sun has a temperature of 3000 degrees. However, with higher concentrations of the drug, you come to believe that the surface of the sun has a higher temperature. At double the concentration, you believe that the temperature of the surface of the sun is 6000 degrees.

There is another problem with this thesis, given Gregory's defense of his thesis. The concentration of ghrelin in the system is not subject to evidence. There is no logical proof that entails, as a matter of deductive reasoning, a different concentration of ghrelin and, with it, a different belief about the importance that eating has to the agent.

These, then, three problems with Gregory's account of appetites. First, there seem to be a lot of large gaps between what an agent believes he has reason to do (has reason to eat or to drink) and what he desires to eat and drink. Second, Gregory needs an account of the relationship between concentrations of ghrelin in the system and the belief about how much of a reason one has to eat - which is an odd type of relationship to have. Third, concentrations of ghrelin in the bloodstream is not subject to evidence.

An alternative option - the option that I would favor (the assignment theory of desire) - says that the desire to eat is the assignment of a value indicating the importance to the agent of the proposition "I am eating" being true. The amount of ghrelin in the system can simply be associated with the value assigned to the proposition being true. The more ghrelin, the higher the assigned value. The desire itself provides the reason to - and the motivation to - eat.

Appetites cannot, in fact, be easily reduced to what an agent believes he has a normative reason to do.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 43: Dual Direction of Fit

For the next few posts, I would like to address what Alex Gregory took to be the main objections to his thesis:

To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

It will be instructive to see if those objections are also objections to the assignment thesis that I am defending:

To desire that P is to assign a value V to the importance of ‘P’ being made or kept true.

The first objection Gregory confronts is that of belief theories generally - that they have the wrong “direction of fit”. Recall that the standard distinction drawn between beliefs and desires is that, “If you believe that P and ‘P’ is false, change your belief. But if you desire that P and ‘P’ is false, change the world.” Beliefs have the wrong direction of fit for desires.

Gregory’s response to is to say that desires have both directions of fit at once. It is a belief that one has a normative reason to change the world - that the world ought to be changed. This has both a mind-to-world direction of fit (if one believes that one has a normative reason to change the world, and one does not, then change the belief), and a world-to-mind direction of fit (if one believes that one has a reason to change the world, and it is true, then one should change the world).

As I have been arguing, this works well for means, but means are mixtures of ends and beliefs. A belief about means is a belief that an action would serve an end. If one believes that an action will serve an end, and it is false, one should change one’s belief. If one believes that an action will serve an end, and it is true, then one should perform the action.

However, the desire that picks out the end cannot be understood in this way, and this is the type of desire that provides the foundation for all reasons for action. What is it to believe that the end is something one has reason to bring about? What is it to believe that spending time with one’s children is something one has reason to do? What does it take for the belief that one has this type of reason to be true?

I want to stress how important this is. All means-statements are statements are “ends plus beliefs” statements. In the distinction between desires and beliefs, all desires are ends. All value, all reasons for acting, all motivational force comes from these ends. If one does not have a theory of ends - if all one has is a theory of means - then one has an account of only the belief side of the equation, and is saying nothing about the desire side. An actual theory of desires must be a theory of ends - that which gives value, reasons for acting, and motivational force to means.

Assignment theory of desire is a theory of ends. Evolution, environment, and experience combine to assign values (importance) to certain propositions being made or kept true. These assignments are basic biological facts. Once an assignment is given to an end, the agent has a motivating reason to realize that end. Beliefs combine with ends to determine means - the route to take, the action to take, to realize the ends to which evolution, environment, and experience has assigned a value.

When it comes to ends, there is no mind-to-world direction of fit. There is nothing in the world that an end needs to match to be correct or incorrect. Desires can be good or bad - just as anything can be good or bad - according to whether it tends to fulfill or thwart (other) desires. But desires cannot be correct or incorrect like a belief can, because there is nothing in the world for them to match.

The fact that means have a mind-to-world element (in virtue of the mind-to-world element of the beliefs that make up means), does not imply that ends have such an element.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 42: Doing What One Ought

Here, I am considering Gregory's third argument in defense of the thesis, which he calls "DAB",: "To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ."

If DAB is true, this amounts to the claim that what we ought to do depends on our beliefs about what we have reason to do. It is very plausible that this claim is ambiguous between something true and something false. It is false in the sense that one’s beliefs might be false. But it is true in the sense that what we rationally ought to do does depend on our beliefs about what we have reason to do. So DAB resolves the controversy regarding whether what we ought to do depends on our desires.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

I am not certain what controversy Gregory is referring to.

I suspect that the controversy he is referring to has to do with cases such as: Jim believes that taking a pill will cure his cancer. Given that he desires to cure his cancer, does he have reason to take the pill? What if the pill is a placebo? Does he still have reason to take it?

Gregory says, "It is false in the sense that one's belief might be false." But what belief is he talking about? A desire, according to Gregory, is a belief about what has reason to do. The agent desires to take the pill, because he believes he has reason to take the pill. He believes that it will cure his cancer. So, he has a desire to take the pill. The belief that the pill will cure his cancer is false. But his belief that he has a reason to take the pill (according to Gregory) is true.

From this, we can say that it is false that he ought to take the pill because it will not cure is cancer. However, it is true that he ought to take the pill because the rational thing for a person with cancer to do if he has a pill that he believes will cure it is to take the pill. To refuse to do so under these circumstances is irrational. The "ought" term is ambiguous.

If this is analysis is correct, then it is relevant to note that we can get the same conclusion without DAB.

Gregory is referring to the so-called desire to take the pill. Taking the pill is desired as a means, not as an end. The end - the final desire - is the desire to cure the cancer. Desires as means, as I have argued in the previous post, is a combination of beliefs and desires-as-ends. It is the beliefs, not the ends, that are sensitive to evidence.

Now, we can have the same ambiguity of ought without Gregory's DAB. The actual desire in this case, the desire to cure the cancer, is not sensitive to evidence. However, the belief that the pill will cure the cancer is subject to evidence. We have the same distinction between what the agent believes will cure the cancer and what will cure the cancer. We have the same two senses of "ought" - the one that relates the action to the desire through the belief, and the one that relates the action to the desire directly - independent of the belief. We have an objective "ought" and a subjective "ought". The objective "ought" says "You ought not take the pill; it will do no good." The subjective "ought" says "You ought to take the pill. It is what a person with a desire to cure cancer and a belief that taking the pill will cure cancer would do."

However, we have gotten this conclusion without interpreting desire - in this case, the desire to cure the cancer - as any type of belief about one has a normative reason to do. The desire is still nothing more than the assignment of a value to a state of affair - an assignment that is not sensitive to evidence.

The summary of these last three posts is that Gregory has given us no reason to favor the idea that a desire is a belief about a normative reason. Where this thesis seems to make sense, Gregory has confused what is desired as a means with what is desired as an end. What is desired as a means is sensitive to evidence and prone to the objective/subjective distinction because it contains a belief within it. That belief is sensitive to evidence and subject to the objective/subjective distinction. The desire-as-end that also makes up the desire-as-means is not. We cannot reduce the desire-as-end to a belief about what one has a normative reason to do unless we can come up with a theory of normative reasons that does not, in turn, refer back to that same desire.

On Desire 2018. Part 41: Susceptibility to Evidence

Concerning Alex Gregory's defense of his thesis that "To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ," Gregory's second argument in defense of this thesis is as follows:

Second, DAB explains why desires are sensitive to evidence about what we have reason to do (cf. Fernández 2007; Byrne 2011; Moran 2001: 119). If you want to vote Conservative, I might get you to rationally abandon this desire by presenting you with evidence that there are no good reasons to vote Conservative. Or, for another example, if I ask you whether you want my spare plane ticket to China, you will respond by considering the reasons for and against taking this choice: the sights, the food, the weather, etc. DAB explains why desires are sensitive to evidence about reasons: because they are beliefs about reasons.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

I discussed his first defense in the previous post. There, he wrote that normative beliefs have the power to motivate us to act, which I countered by suggesting that normative beliefs are beliefs about relationships between states of affairs and desires where desires provide the motivation to act.

The problem in this second defense is that, as a matter of fact, the desires-as-ends (that which we desire for their own sake) are immune to evidence. More complex forms of desire are subject to evidence because they are mixtures of beliefs and desires, and beliefs are sensitive to evidence.

As evidence that basic desires are immune to evidence, try reasoning a person out of extreme pain, out of their love for their child, out of an addiction, or out of their sexual orientation. What syllogism can you provide a person who prefers the taste of butterscotch topping to the taste of chocolate that will alter his preference so that he comes to refer the taste of chocolate? How do you persuade a child that she likes broccoli when they do not like broccoli?

Indeed, if basic desires are susceptible to reason, I would like to see the structure of the argument that has a change of taste or preference as its conclusion. Generally, if a person claims to have a belief that P, we can at least make some sense of what it takes to prove that "P" is true. So, if P is, "I have a normative reason to Φ," please provide an example of how such an argument can be constructed without making a viciously circular reference back to the agent's own desires.

This is not to say that desires are not subject to change. Of course desires can change. However, they do not change as a consequence of evidence. The most common way for a desire to change is by experience. If a particular action produces a reward - whether in the form of pleasure, or a drug-induced high, or praise from others; or if it produces pain, the agent at first may value (or disvalue) the action as a way of obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain. However, it comes to be valued for its own sake - one of the rules of behavior that the agent adopts. But the relationship between experience and desire is nothing like that of evidence and belief. There is no "valid inference" between experience and desire as there is between evidence and belief. There is merely cause and effect.

When Gregory claims to see desires susceptible to evidence, what he actually sees are cases of complex mixtures of beliefs and desires being subject to evidence. However, this is because beliefs are a part of the complex structure.

For example, we should consider the distinction between means and ends. A person "wants" a half-inch wrench to tighten a bolt, then discovers that it is a 9/16 inch bolt. He no longer "wants" the wrench. It seems that his desire is “sensitive to evidence.” However, this is only because we are using a shorthand way of speaking. The agent never did want a half-inch wrench. Instead, he wanted to tighten the bolt and he believed that, with a half-inch wrench, he could tighten the bolt. His belief is sensitive to evidence. But his desire to tighten the bolt is not. The belief that the bolt was a half-inch bolt provided none of the motivating force. That came from the desire to tighten the bolt. The desire is not susceptible to reason (unless, of course, tightening the bolt is a means to some further end, and there is evidence that tightening the bolt will not, in fact, serve that end).

For another example, consider the person who wants to own a Picasso painting. He believes that the painting up for auction is a Picasso, so he "wants" that painting. Then he is given reason to believe that the painting is a reproduction and not an original Picasso. This, too, looks like evidence that his desire is susceptible to evidence. Yet, evidence did not alter his desire to own a Picasso painting. Rather, the evidence altered his belief that the painting up for action is a Picasso. There is no mystery behind the fact that beliefs are susceptible to evidence. But the belief that the the painting was a Picasso did not provide any motivating force. That required the desire to own the Picasso.

The examples that Gregory gives us of desires being sensitive to evidence - the case of "wanting to voting Conservative" or "wanting a ticket to China," these "wantings" are packed with beliefs sensitive to evidence. They are like "wanting" the half-inch wrench, or the painting that is up for auction. There is no mystery behind the fact that evidence regarding the relationships between voting Conservative or travelling to China and the agent's desires might alter the agent's opinions about those relationships.

Indeed, rather than sensitivity to evidence providing a reason to look at "desire as belief" theories, the invulnerability of ends to reason suggests an argument against "desire as belief" theories.