Saturday, May 26, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 19: Desires Without Action

Continuing on with: Doring, Sabine A. and Bahadir Eker (2017), “Desires Without Guises.” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

In the previous section, I presented Doring and Eker's thesis of desire, which is that it is a disposition to act.

After presenting this thesis, they considered a number of counterexamples. One that they seem to have found particularly bothersome came from Galen Strawson (1994).

The Weather Watchers are a race of sentient, intelligent creatures. They are distributed about the surface of the planet, rooted to the ground, profoundly interested in the local weather. They have sensations, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires. They possess a conception of an objective, spatial world. But they are constitutionally incapable of any sort of behavior . . . . They lack the necessary physiology. Their mental lives have no other-observable effects. They are not even disposed to behave in any way.

This conceptual possibility is supposed to break the link between desire and dispositions to behave. These Weather Watchers have desires, but no dispositions to behave.

Doring and Eker respond to this objection by denying that the Weather Watchers have desires. Indeed, to have a desire, there must be something that one can do. Where there is no possibility for action, there is no desire.

In light of this, they add the following criterion to desires:

(D2) Necessarily, for any agent a, any proposition p, any time t, if, at t, a desires that p, then there is at least one act type φ such that, at t, a does not think that her φ-ing not to be conducive to p’s being the case.

In other words, there has to be something a can do that is conducive to p’s being the case. If there is no such thing, then there is no desire.

This lead them to a third criterion of desire:
(D3) Necessarily, for any agent a, any proposition p, any time t, if, at t, a desires that p, then, at t, a does not think p already to be the case.

This is because if, at t, p is already the case, then there is nothing that one can do conducive to making p the case. There is no action one can perform, no disposition to act, and, consequently, no desire.

I have always thought of a desire as being analogous to a force. It has a direction (realizing p) and a magnitude (an assigned value of v), and it applies this motivational force to realizing p. We think of forces as that which explains and predicts the movement of matter through space. Similarly, we use desires to explain and predict the movement of intentional agents – to predict and explain their decisions and the actions they take (or refrain from taking) as a result of those decisions.

There could well be forces in existence that have no effect on matter. However, we have no reason to postulate their existence. For example, there may be a force F where, at any time force F appears, an equal and opposite for F’ appears that counterbalances it. We will never experience this force in any observation of the real world. It may exist. However, we only have reason to postulate the existence of forces that have an effect we can see and measure – that produces effects we have reason to explain and predict.

Accordingly, there could be desires that do not manifest themselves in any way, housed in agents like the Weather Watchers where they cannot result in any course of action of change of state that we can observe. They may exist. However, we have no reason to postulate their existence. So, just as we can imagine the force with the counterbalancing force that never shows up in any observation, we can imagine the Weather Watchers with desires that never show up in action.

However, we when we are considering a desire when the agent thinks that p is already the case, we have a situation where we have evidence of a force, then our evidence of the force disappears, and we are to think that the force itself disappears.

Imagine a compass in a magnetic field. The magnetic field influences the compass, causing the compass needle to point north. We then destroy the compass so that we can no longer see the effects of the magnetic field. A few minutes later, we get a new compass. We can once again see the influence of the magnetic field on the compass. There is no reason to believe that, during the time when the one compass was broken and before the other one arrived, that there was no magnetic field.

Doring and Eker would have us take an agent with a desire that p where the agent believes that p is not the case (and is thus φ-ing to bring about p), where p then becomes the case, and when p ceases to be the case once again begins φ-ing to bring about p, that, during the moments when p was the case, that there was no desire. Yet, that desire returned again, emerging from nothing, the instant that p ceased to be the case. Where did it go during the mean time? And why did it come back when p ceased to be the case?

Note that Graham Forbes (2017) provides another example whereby a person with a desire that God exists firsts questions the existence of God, comes to believe in the existence of God, then is convinced that there is no God. Rather than assume that her desire pops in and out of existence, it makes more sense to believe that it persists throughout. If there is a disposition to act in the desire that p, it is a disposition to begin acting as soon as the agent to start φ-ing as soon as she believes that there is something that she could do to realize p (so long as there are no combination of other desires conducive to not φ-ing).

So, in summary, we can imagine the Weather Watchers having desires though, in reality, we would never assign desires to such creatures. We use desires to explain and predict intentional action. Where there is no intentional action, there is no reason to postulate the existence of desires. But desires, like forces, do not spring into existence only when they have effects and cease to exist when we can’t measure them. It makes far more sense to think of them as persistent entities. The desire that p continues to exist, even while the agent believes that p is already the case.

This does raise a question. The standard understanding of desire is that of a dispositional state – like being soluble or fragile. I am presenting desires as a motivational force. What is the relationship between a dispositional state and a force? Are they the same thing? Or is this a competing conception of desire? I am not sure on that matter.

No comments: