Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 12: The Desires of Young Children and Animals

Young children and animals have desires. They have hunger, thirst, and an aversion to pain at the least. Cats have a desire to chase and catch things that are like prey. Herd animals have an aversion to cats.

Oddie addresses a concern that says that this is a problem for his “appears to as being good” thesis of desire. “Appears to as being good” seems to be beyond the cognitive capacities of infants and animals – which would leave them without desires. Specifically, it is unlikely that any animal or infant has an understanding of the concept “being good” that would be necessary for anything to appear as being good.

In response to this, Oddie suggests two possible answers.

For his first possible answer, Oddie notes things can appear a certain way to us even though we do not have a concept to describe it. He uses color as an example, noting that, “We experience a far richer palette of colors, for example, than we have the conceptual tools to characterize.” In fact, we cannot even ask the question, “What is that?” unless we had a prior ability to pick “that” out so that we can investigate and think about it.

The second possible answer, he draws on the ideas of Friedrich and Lauria that something can “appear round” in many different ways. It can look round. It can feel round. Using the example of a bat he claims that something can also sound round – though he could also use the example of rolling a marble around in a box.

Similarly, one can argue that there are different modes of presentation of a state of affairs. In the perception of S, S is presented as being the case. In the desire for S, S is presented as being good. One and the same state can be presented in these two different ways. The perception that S and the desire that S take the same object but present S in different ways. (p. 51).

This defense still leaves me with two questions.

The first question springs from noting that, nowhere in this section, did Oddie mention “fittingness”. It is possible for something to “appear good” without its goodness being, in any way, fitting, in the same way that something can appear round or appear red without any claim of roundness being a fitting shape or redness a fitting color. The idea that the brain, in assigning a negative value to “I am in pain” makes it “appear bad” can simply be a basic description that this is how the brain works. From here, survival of the fittest will determine if this particular assignment of value (or this particular way of drawing an assignment of value out of the environment and experience) will get passed to the next generation.

The second question deals with the fact that I do not know what “appears good” is supposed to mean. Specifically, rather than introspecting on my own desires, I am curious to know how I understand that somebody else has a desire. I cannot see how some particular thing “appears” to them. All I can see is their observable behavior and, from that, try to infer whether a desire provides the best explanation.

With respect to colors, such as red, I cannot tell how “redness” appears to other people. However, I can look at what other people point to and call “red” and, from that, make predictions regarding what other things people will call red. I can get pretty good at it – predicting what other people will call “red” with exceptional reliability, without having the slightest idea of how “red” appears to them.

When it comes to desire, I have a problem. People are in substantial agreement concerning what they call “red.” There is no such substantial agreement with respect to what they desire. It would make my job easier if everybody pointed to the same thing and called it “good” or “desired,” but they do not. This is in spite of the fact that, when two people point to the same thing and give it two different evaluations, every other appearance is (quite nearly) the same.

When I turn that knowledge inward, that is where I learn to explain and understand my own behavior as the pursuit of certain ends. I may discover that those ends have something in common, but the word is attached not to this appearance, but to what I can know that I share with other creatures who have desires – a disposition to pursue certain ends or goals. We may not have the same goals, but we do have goals.

This is now I know that young children and animals have desires. It is not by knowing how things appear to them – something I cannot know. It is because the best method I have for explaining and predicting their behavior is to understand them as agents who are disposed to perform goal-directed action. They act with a purpose – an end – to realize (or to prevent the realization) of certain states of affairs. This represents more than just a disposition to act. It represents a disposition to plan – to alter one’s behavior in ways that will realize an end even in environments that provide different means.

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