Wednesday, May 16, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 07: Radioman and Radiowoman

The story of Radioman and Radiowoman is used to argue for an evaluation theory of desire as opposed to a disposition-to-act theory of desire.

An evil demon has given Radioman a disposition to act. By means of a chip planted in Radioman's head, every time he walks near a radio he will reach out and turn it on. It is something like a habit – something the agent simply does in a given circumstance. A radio is within reach, out goes his hand, on goes the radio. If we ask him if he wants the radio to be on, he would say he does not. He has no interest in the radio being on and, in fact, he hopes that there is no radio nearby so that he will not end up turning it on.

Radioman has no desire to turn on radios.

The purpose of this example is to illustrate that our concept of desire is not a concept that attaches itself merely to a disposition to act. Here is a disposition to act, but it is not associated with a desire, so the concept of a desire points someplace else. It is a mistake to associate the concept of a desire with a mere disposition to act.

In this, the thought experiment does its job. Whatever desires are, Radioman does not have one.

Radiowoman represents the evaluative theory of desire. She also reaches out and turns on a radio when one is near. However, she does so because she sees the radio being on as something good.

She has the same behavioral disposition as Radioman, but this is because the radio's being on seems good to her, she feels drawn to the prospect, it is alluring. And when she hears the radio come on she feels satisfied by that.

Radiowoman, in contrast to Radioman, has a desire to turn on radios. Thus, demonstrating the merits of the evaluative theory of desire.

Now, we are asked to consider what would be the case if Radiowoman discovered that she has these sentiments about turning on radios because a demon put a chip in her head.

Suppose Radiowoman were to find out about the etiology of her desires. Then she would know that they are not reliable indicators of goodness. Rather, they are systematic illusion of goodness. They are like the Mueller-Lyer illusions that, once you know about them, give you no reason at all to believe that the lines that appear unequally really are unequal. And even if she knows nothing of the peculiar etiology of her desire, Radiowoman’s desires are defective.

This is one way to look at it, but I think it runs into problems.

The aversion to pain can quite accurately be described as a chip in the head foisted on me, not by an evil demon, but by evolution. The wiring that causes me to assign negative values to certain sensations caused by damage to my body was not an intelligent designer.

Rather, the wiring came into existence because that wiring kept my ancestors alive and helped them to produce viable offspring. Random mutation, natural selection, and luck dictated the specifics of the wiring. None of this requires any mention of an external 'good' (or 'bad') of which the pain is a reliable indicator. The only thing it is a reliable indicator of is that which was a part of an evolutionary package that caused my ancestors to have viable offspring.

It does not follow from this that, upon recognizing this fact, and denying the existence of any type of 'good' for this aversion to pain being a reliable indicator of, that I lose my reasons to avoid pain. The aversion to pain – the awfulness (the negative value) assigned to states of affairs in which the proposition 'I am in pain' is true – simply is a reason to avoid pain all by itself.

My hunger and thirst have a similar etiology. Not only did evolution plant in my brain hunger and thirst chips, those chips are programmed with preferences for those kinds of food that helped keep my ancestors alive. That was a function of their environment – which foods were healthy, which were poisonous, which provided enough calories to survive, and which provided other necessary nutrients.

A different evolutionary history would have resulted in different tastes. However, knowledge of this etiology and that there is no “good” out there for it to be a reliable indicator of does not make a pumpkin pie with Cool Whip heaped on top lose any less delicious or remove my reason to eat a slice if I can.

One can still postulate an external good for these evolution-designed brain chips to be reliable indicators of. The problem is that they are not needed. As Street (2005) argued, the best scientific theory scientific theory has evolution modifying these brain chips – modifying their assignments of value – using only random mutation and natural selection.

Whether there is an external good for our desires to be a reliable indicator of is an important philosophical question. However, like some other philosophical questions such as the existence of God or free will, some people strongly desire that the “reliable indicators of the good” hypothesis is true. Radiowoman sounds like a person with a particularly strong desire that her desires track some sort of external good. If this is true, she may be very upset to discover that this is not the case – as upset as others are when confronting arguments against the existence of God or of free will.

At the same time, maintaining the idea that our desires are reliable indicators of some external good has its own undesirable consequences. Some people get the idea that their value assignments match up with some external good. From this, they infer that those who do not perceive this goodness are defective. They denigrate such people, calling them “sick” or “perverse,” and dismiss their interests as concerns that cannot only be ignored (since they are interested in no real external good), but intentionally frustrated (since, in their perversion, they are motivated to realize that which is bad). Such has been the fate, for example, oh homosexuals whose brains simply attach positive value to same-sex relationships. This is a problem.

At this point, somebody may be tempted to accuse me of an inconsistency. In the previous paragraph, I used the term “undesirable” as in “bad to desire.” A critic may point that this seems inconsistent with the idea that there is no truth for desires to reliably refer to – no “ought to be desiredness” in the universe for our desires to track. If this criticism was sound, this would be a problem.

I will look at that question next.

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