Sunday, June 03, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 25: Against Manifestation-Dependent Desires

I am continuing my discussion of Maria Alvarez thesis that desires are manifestation-dependent dispositions, found in Maria Alvarez, (2017), “Desires, Dispositions and the Explanation of Action” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press

I have accepted the part of the thesis that says that there is no reason to postulate a desire that does not explain and predict observable phenomenon. However, I have defended that thesis using the force-model of desire (a "desire that P" provides motivational force to realize a state of affairs in which P is true). There is no practical reason to postulate the existence of a force that serves no explanatory or predictive function.

Here, I want to present some objections to Alvarez' manifestation-dependent model, in order to demonstrate the superiority of the value-assignment (force) model.

I must specify, Alvarez does not say that a desire must manifest itself in behavior. A desire can manifest itself in a will NOT to do certain things. Furthermore, it may manifest itself in certain emotions (sadness, joy) or thoughts (fantasies). Counter-examples where behavior alone is blocked (e.g., by paralyzing a person while leaving intact that person's capacity to think) would not be a problem under her thesis.

Recall that, in this, Alvarez says that desires are different from other dispositional states. Salt can be soluable even though it is never put in water. A vase can be fragile even though it is never struck. But a desire, she claims, requires some manifestation or it does not exist.

However, I would argue that it is quite possible for a person to have a particular desire - and for us to know that she has that desire - even though it never manifests itself in any way - in any act, thought, or emotion - on the part of an agent. We can do this by making inferences about the type of person that the agent happens to be.

Imagine a planet with a species whose members all have a strong fear of spiders - a strong aversion to being in the presence of spiders. Some members of this species head out on a space ship to colonize another planet. As a result of some catastrophe, they crash on the planet, losing their data libraries and, eventually, much of their knowledge of the past. Furthermore, this planet has no spiders or anything that resembles spiders. These people never take any action as a result of their fear of spiders, never think about spiders, and never experience any emotional reaction with respect to spiders. Yet, they still have a fear of spiders in the sense that, the instant they see a spider they will experience an aversion to being in the presence of such a beast, break out in a cold sweat, scream, experience a rush of adrenaline, and attempt to flee. They could have lived their whole lives without ever experiencing a spider, but the dispositional state remains.

In the realm of explanation and prediction, we can well predict that if we were bring a spider with us - say, in an acquarium - and show the spider to a member of this species on this planet, we can predict a reaction.

Alvarez mentions another case involving somebody in a coma who acquires a new desire.

[W]hile a comatose person may still have the desire she had before entering that state, those desires will be attributed to her on the basis of her having manifested them somehow in the past. On the other hand, it is implaisble to argue that she can acquire new desires during her coma. To be sure, she could express a new desire on waking up, but there's no ground for saying that she had the desire but did not manifest it while in a coma, rather than that she acquired the desire and expressed it on waking up.

Yet, we can well imagine that a medical researcher has invented a drug that will cause a person to acquire a fear of the dark. Those who take the pill experience severe anxiety if they cannot see what is around them when their eyes are open, and express a strong desire to keep the lights on and avoid any darkened room. They inject the drug into the comatose person (let us say because its primary effect is to prevent harm to memory as a result of the brain damage attributed to the cause of the coma). When the patient wakes up, she has her memories, and she has a fear of the dark.

She wakes up in a well-lit room. The doctors keep her lights on because they know what will happen if they were to shut off all of the lights and leave her in a darkened room. They know that she has a fear of the dark, even though it has not manifested itself in any way - in thought, in emotion, or in action on the part of the patient.

Indeed, we have to ask how Alvarez can explain that first manifestation. According to Alvarez, the desire does not exist until it is manifested the first time. An infant has no aversion to pain until something happens that causes pain. At that point, the aversion to pain and its first manifestation occur at the same instant. But, what caused that manifestation? What caused the infant to hate the experience of pain if not a prior and previously existing disposition to have an adverse reaction to experiences of pain?

Finally, we have a question of what happens to desires between manifestations. Let us assume that our patient has an aversion to pain. Yet, at the moment, she is sitting back in her chair in her office reading an interesting paper on the philosophy of desire. She is having no thoughts about pain, and is experiencing nothing but the satisfaction and thoughts associated with focusing on this paper on the philosophy of desires. Now, is it the case that her aversion to pain has vanished? Or is it the case that her aversion to pain persists but is no longer manifesting itself? How can we tell the difference?

Certainly, a person can lose a desire. I had many childish desires that, currently, I no longer have. There is probably at least one desire I had as a child that, now, I never think of. It is something I enjoyed doing as a child, that I found valuable, but which now does not even enter my mind. Now, let us assume that I fall over unconscious and enter a coma. There, too, I have past desires that are no longer entering my mind, not manifesting itself in any way. How are we to distinguish between the desires I had and are lost versus the desires that persist even though, at the moment, they are not manifesting themselves in any way?

In all of these cases the attribution of a desire is the same. We attribute a desire to a person as a way of predicting and explaining how that person will react to future states of affairs. We may make these attributions on the basis of past observations, but the attributions themselves are based on their ability to explain and predict future events. The space colonists have a fear of spiders because we can predict what will happen if they were to encounter a spider - even if they never do so. The patient has a fear of the dark because we can predict how she will react to a darkened room even if she never experiences a darkened room. My own desires persist or cease to exist when they are not manifesting themselves due to how I am disposed to behave in the future when placed in circumstances where the desire becomes relevant.

These all give us reason to reject Alvarez' manifestation-dependent desire thesis.

1 comment:

Larry Bell said...

I simply pose this question:

Why does religion always accommodate science and science never has to accommodate religion?

The answer is obvious.