Monday, February 08, 2016

Beliefs, Desires, and Intentional Action

I have a worry.
My worry is that somebody will look upon the account of reasons and of value that I defend and say, “That is naïve and simplistic. That is an old idea, and we have moved beyond that into something more detailed and complex.”
It is the same attitude that I have towards egoists. An egoist proposes that our actions all aim at our own benefit. If pressed, an egoist will retreat to the idea that our actions are cause by our own desires and aim to the fulfillment of those desires. I think this is true. Yet, when I admit this fact, the egoist then claims that they have successfully proved that everybody acts for their own benefit.
I accuse the egoist of a failure to distinguish between the self as the object of a desire and the self as the subject that is doing the desiring. The egoist proposal is that the self is always the object of the desire and, more than that, it is self-benefit that is the object of all desires. When challenge, the egoist asserts (correctly) that the self is the subject that does the desiring. When the egoist gets her opponent to admit that the self is the subject of all of an agent’s desire, the egoist then asserts to have proved that the self is the object of all of an agent’s desires.
Am I making a similar mistake?
Of course, I do not think so. However, egoists do not see their mistake either.
When it comes to explaining intentional action, I seldom see a reason to deviate from the model of conventional beliefs and desires, where desires pointed to the end or goal and beliefs selected the means.
For example: Why am I writing this blog? Because I want to make a positive contribution to society, I have put a lot of effort into studying matters relevant to determining what people should do, and that I can give people useful formation.
When I look at the reasons people give for saying that this is inadequate, I see problems.
For example, people say that beliefs can motivate an agent - particularly beliefs that something is good or ought to be done. They defend these claims by appealing to intuitions.
When I encounter these explanations I think of a person who directed my attention to a sunset who claimed he could sense from the sunset itself that it was created by God.
No . . . Actually, she could not.
I can explain an apparent link between what an agent is motivated to do and what they call good. People have a habit of taking what they want and calling it "good" in some objective to transcendental sense to give it extra weight. But the motivation still comes from desires, and nothing else.
I want to contrast these types of arguments with a different type - a type that actually shows that, in addition to beliefs and desires, we also have habits.
Take a standard keyboard and have the users switch two letters . . . The 'a' and the 'a' for example. Then have him start typing. You will observe a series of mistakes where the agent types an 'a' for an 's' and vica versa. We cannot explain these observations I term of beliefs and desires. The agent wants to type the word correctly, and believes that the letters have been switched, but he still makes mistakes.
To explain these observations, we introduce a new entity called 'habit'. Typists do not learn to type words one letter at a time. They learn to type whole words. When the trigger the routine for typing the word 'was' it comes out 'wsa' instead.
Now we have the neuroscience to back it up. Research tells us how habits are encoded in the brain.
Provide me with evidence like this, and I will believe that motivational beliefs exist.
I have additional reason to believe that such evidence will not be found.
Even if there were motivational beliefs . . . Just wait until evolution got ahold of them. Survival of the fittest will favor traits that aid our genetic replication. This means distorting our belief that 'X is good' so that agents are disposed to believe or disbelieve such things when it enhances fitness. Beliefs that X is good will become indistinguishable from desires in their tendency to motivate agent's into doing what enhanced the fitness of their ancestors.
Why believe that there is a separate thing?
I have an interest in saying, "Yeah. Yeah. I see it. You're right." Disagreeing feels uncomfortable.
But . . . I don't see the objections. I really don't.

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