Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 54: Learning to Desire

Does the type of change that a desire undergoes as a result of an encounter with reality constitute “learning?”

No. Not really.

There is a sense in which a change of desire may be spoken of as "learning" to like or dislike something. However, the type of learning relevant to this discussion is that learning the "correct value" of things.

Etter Railton writes:

In supporting feed-forward action-guidance through expectation and reliance, and in supporting thereby a process of feedback from experience by assessing discrepancy with expectation, desire exhibits an inherent learning dynamic.

Railton, Peter, (2017), “Learning as an Inherent Dynamic of Belief and Desire,” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

More importantly, this learning has to do with determining the "actual value" of something. He writes that his methods of learning show "ways in which desire can go astray . . . from the actual values" and "ways in which 'one's affections' can fail to correspond to actual values."

There are no actual values for desires to go astray from, or for affections to fail to correspond to.

So, let us take a look at how Railton thinks we can learn the correct value of things.

The Relationship of Parts to Whole

One example that Railton gives us to illustrate how desire can deviate from actual value concerns a woman wanting to be a partner in a prestigious law firm. She becomes a partner, only to discover that it fails “to yield the pleasure and other benefits it promised.” The value of becoming a partner, in this case, was not in agreement with her desire to become a partner. Her experience tells her that her desire to become a partner was mistaken. This disappointment reduces the desire, the way that new evidence may reduce a person's confidence in a belief, providing an example of a person learning the true value of being a lawyer. In Railton's terms, "This, in turn, would weaken her desire that p going forward."

I think that this value is mistaken. Once upon a time, I took a drink from a cup that I thought had hot chocolate, only to discover that it was coffee. I was greatly disappointed in what I discovered to be the taste of what was in the cup. Here, it would be a mistake to say that I had a desire to drink what was in the cup. I had a desire to drink hot chocolate. What I discovered when I took a drink of what was in the cup was not that my desire was mistaken. It was my belief about what was in the cup that was mistaken.

Railton takes panes to distinguish cases in which what we learn about is a mistake between means and ends. He recognizes that, in some cases, what we learn is that something we thought to be useful is, in fact, no use at all. He recognizes that these represent cases where we acquire a new and more accurate belief. However, these are not the types of cases we are concerned with here. The woman's case is not one in which she discovered that being a lawyer serves as a poor means to some other end. Instead, she has discovered that she really does not like being a lawyer - period - independent of its usefulness.

However, the analogy to the cup of coffee still stands. It is quite reasonable to say that the woman thought that being a lawyer would "taste" different than it actually would. She knew what she wanted it to taste like. However, what she discovered upon sampling the contents of this particular cup that she was mistaken about what she thought it would taste like. This is not a matter in which her desire was mistaken. The mistake, instead, is to be found in her beliefs about that which she was tasting.

We could say that the discovery of a mistake in the relationship between means and ends is that the agent desired that Q, the agent believed that P would bring about Q, and therefore desired P as means to bringing about Q. The discovery that P will not bring about Q is the discovery that P does not have the value of a means that the agent thought it had. This is not a matter of improving one's desires. It is a matter of improving one's beliefs.

Railton's case is one in which the agent desired that Q because he believed that P would be included in Q - a part of Q. P's relationship to the fulfillment of the desire is not one of means and ends. It is a relationship of the part to the whole - of whether that which one actually desires can be found within a larger and more complex state of affairs. When one discovers that what one desires is not there, it is not a case in which one's desire was incorrect. It is a case in which one's belief that a desire would be fulfilled within a particular state of affairs was incorrect. So, what we learn is not that our desire was mistaken. It was our belief that was mistaken.

If the contents of the cup had been what I believed it to be, I would have enjoyed the content, and enjoyed it because it would have been that which I desired. If the contents of being a lawyer had been what the woman believed it to be, she would have valued it, and valued it precisely because it would have been that which she desired.

Acquired Tastes

This is not to say that the type of learning that Railton talks about does not take place. I have mentioned several examples. An encounter with poison ivy might give one an aversion to running through the bushes a preference to staying in the open. An encounter with poisonous mushrooms might give one an aversion to eating food with mushrooms. An encounter with a bee might give one an aversion to the proximity of bees. In these types of cases, the value of a state of affairs actually changes through experience.

We can easily explain how we evolved these dispositions. Pain, for example, is a sign of damage to the body - the type of damage that we evolved a disposition to avoid. However, when it gets to the point that we are in pain, it is already too late. The damage has been done.

What we truly need is a system that will cause us to acquire an aversion to those things that would likely result in a state of pain. We can do this if we can process the complex relationships between means and ends that will tell us, in advance, what might lead to pain. However, we evolved from creatures that lacked this capacity. For those creatures. it would have been more efficient to learn an aversion to that which would tend to bring about pain.

If action A results in a state of being in pain, one does not need to learn that "action A results in a state of being in pain, so I have reason to avoid action A." One can simply acquire an aversion to action A. Thereby, one acquires an aversion to and a disposition to avoid that which causes pain, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

However, when this happens, one has acquired a trait, which is quite different from learning a fact. If I should fall and cut my arm which leaves a scar, I have acquired a scar as a result of my interaction with the environment. However, this change in the shape and structure of my skin is not to be described as learning a particular fact. It is simply the effect of a particular type of interaction. The same is true of acquiring a food preference against mushrooms or a dislike for the proximity of bees.

Note that if somebody else has different experiences and acquires different preferences, there is no sense in which we can say that one set of preferences is correct and another set incorrect. This is no more the case than if one acquires a scar in his arm and another does not that the correct state to be in is that of having a scar on one's arm or not. These are simply states brought about through one's interaction with nature.

This is not to say that we cannot talk about the value of things. Insofar as one has an aversion to pain, then one has a reason to avoid being in a state of pain. Insofar as one has acquired an aversion to eating mushrooms, one has a reason not to eat mushrooms. Insofar as one has a dislike of bees, one has a reason to avoid being in the company of bees. However, more work needs to be done to show that this represents the correct state to be in and that being in a different state is wrong, rather than just being different.

There is more to be said on this issue. Railton brings up other examples such as learning the correct amount of trust to put in people that seems to suggest the correct content and force of a particular desire. We have blocked some of Railton's attempts to get to the conclusion that desires represent a type of knowledge of actual values, but he has options we have not yet examined.

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