Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0021 - Molding Desires

We have an imaginary universe in which one occupant (Alph) has only one desire (to gather stones) in a world where the number of stones is limited. Because of this, Alph has to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather stones again.

We have introduced a second person, Bett.

Alph has a reason to cause Bett to scatter stones. By doing so, he can cause Bett to scatter the stones so that he can spend all of his time gathering them.

Three posts back, Alph had a serum that, when injected into Bett, would cause Bett to scatter stones. He also had a reason to give Bett the injection - so that Alph could make and keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones".

This time, we will give Alph a slightly different means for creating the same effect.

We are going to create Bett in such a way that, when Alph praises him for scattering stones, he will acquire a desire to scatter stones. More specifically, Bett will acquire a desire "that I am scattering stones".

In this universe, we will get Bett started in gathering stones by making Bett so that he also responds to simple instructions while they are being given. As a result, Alph can instruct Bett in the act of scattering stones. It is important in this example that Bett not be understood as performing an intentional action in this case. Bett is acting on no belief or desire of his own. He is an automaton, specifically obeying Alph's instructions.

However, when Bett successfully completes an action, Alph can praise him. As a consequence of this praise, Bett acquires an actual desire to scatter stones just as, three posts back, he did when he was given the proper serum. He acquires a desire "that I am scattering stones".

We must be careful to understand how praise is being used here. Praise is not being used as an incentive. In this universe, Bett has no desire for praise that motivates him to scatter rocks so that he can realize a state in which "I am being praised". Bett has no initial desires at all - thus no reason for action. When Bett begins to scatter stones, it does not even make sense to say that the actions are his - any more than the actions of a toaster are those of the toaster.

The effect that we are looking at in this case is the effect of causing Bett to have a desire to scatter stones for its own sake. Instead of being motivated by a desire for praise (a desire "that I be praised"), the praise causes Bett to acquire a desire to scatter stones (a desire "that I am scattering stones"). This is the proposition that Bett wants to keep true. I this universe, he acquires this desire as a result of Alph's praise. Alph, in turn, has a reason to praise Bett for scattering stones based entirely on Alph's desire to gather stones and the fact that he keeps running out of stones to gather.

In our language, praise tends to use value-laden language. Alph may say that Bett is a good person for scattering stones, and that he is doing a good thing by scattering stones. However, we should not allow these linquistic habits to the conclusion that Alph is trying to convince Bett that scattering stones is good. We should particularly avoid the interpretation that, Alph is trying to motivate Bett to scatter stones by convincing him that scattering stones is good. Even if Bett acquired such a belief, it would not motivate Bett to actually scatter stones unless Bett also had a desire to "do that which is good (in the relevant sense)". Bett has no such desire, and we are leaving the idea that a belief that something is good is inherently motivating on the shelf until we need it. We do not yet need it.

For our purposes, where praise uses value-laden language, Bett will merely understand "good" in this case to mean, "that which Alph has reason to praise." Alph's claim that Bett is a good person, and his claim that scattering stones is a good thing to do, are perfectly true statements. Alph does, in fact, have a reason to praise Bett for scattering stones. However, because Bett has no desire to be a good person or to do good deeds, these beliefs fail to motivate action directly.

I am also not ruling out these desires - any more than a physicist discussing mechanics in a universe with frictionless pulled and massless strings rules out friction and mass. I am excluding them at the moment to simplify the model and focus on the relevant elements.

The relevant elements are that when Alph's praises Bett for scattering stones, this has a material (causal) effect on the structure of Bett's brain such that Bett acquires a desire "that I am scattering stones". Praise, in this case, has the same effect as the serum in an earlier post. It is merely a fact of Bett's biology that this type of interaction with the environment alters his body in this particular way.

Human brains (and animal brains) have a feature something like this - the reward center. It takes rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) and uses them to create new desires and to mold existing desires. In the same way that Alph has a reason to use praise to cause Bett to desire to scatter stones, we have reason to use reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to cause those around us to have certain desires and aversions.

This is the system that I will build on in the posts ahead, with the expectation that I will arrive at something so similar to what we call the institution of morality that it will be difficult to tell the difference.

However, we are not there yet. Scattering stones is hardly an obligation, particularly in a universe where half the population has no reason to scatter stones and nobody has a reason to get that half of the population to scatter stones. In fact, half the population has reason to cause the other half to gather stones instead.

We must introduce a few more elements into our imaginary world to get a moral system.

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