Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How Reasons Work

The following are additional posts and comments that I have made on the Desirism facebook group.

I am bringing up out of the depths of a comment section below a response I have written to the thesis that we have direct experience of evaluative valence.

My response:

I am one of those people who has experienced drugs which allows a person to experience pain without an aversion to pain. As a child, I had a severe sore throat where I refused to eat or drink anything - which was not healthy. The doctor gave my mother some pills. I took a pill and, an hour or so later, she gave me a glass of orange juice.



But, I drank the orange juice and it "felt" the same way it has been feeling. I felt the same sensation in the back of my throat.

But, I didn't care.

The reason I did not care is because "pain" is processed in two parts of the brain. The feeling is processed near the top of the skull (the somatosensory cortex). The badness of pain is experienced near the stem (the limbic system). The drug inhibited brain signals in the "I hate this" part of the brain, but the signal in the "I feel this" part of the brain was not effected.

So, I learned to distinguish pain from the aversion to pain. Pain does not have an inherent badness. Rather, we evolved to respond to feelings of pain with, "MAKE IT STOP!" because it served evolutionary purposes. The feel of pain is one thing, the MAKE IT STOPNESS!" something else entirely.

Now, if I may restate my position:

Pain is a mental state that assigns a negative value (-V) to the proposition "I am in pain" being true, which, in turn, provides the agent with a reason to prevent the realization of "I am in pain".

When it comes to an aversion to causing pain to others (a mental state that assigns -V to "I am causing pain to others") this is not a direct perception of an evaluative valence. This is an aversion, perhaps with some evolutionary foundation, but largely socially engineered through a long history of praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, inflicted on you directly, threatened hypothetically, inflicted on others in your presence, and experienced through gossip and works of fiction. All of these are processed through the reward system. Rewards and punishments do not just have to happen to you. (Thus, the importance of role models.)

These moral rules tended to be encoded in the prefrontal cortex. There is a brain pathway - the mesolimbic pathway - that connects the reward centers of the brain to the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for receiving these signals of reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation - the using them to encode these behavioral rules.

In other words, in your life you experienced a number of cases of reward and punishment, of yourself and others. These acted through your reward system to encode "do not cause pain to others" in your prefrontal cortex. And to assign to this rule a negative value (a "-V") that you can then use to compare this concern with others that might arise.

What makes morality objective is that there is a right answer to the question, "What do people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote universal desires for and aversions to?" People's beliefs and feelings on the matter do not change this truth. It is sitting out there, waiting to be discovered.

What follows now is a comment that I wrote a bit later as the discussion continued.

My mental states have a great deal of causal efficacy concerning my behavior. I can tell a nice story about how pain signals travel up the nerves in my body to my brain, where it is processed to generate signals that will then cause my actions so as to avoid similar sensations in the future. I can tell how a part of that signal will activate the mesolimbic pathway to encode a rule in the prefrontal cortex that will give me an aversion, not to pain, but to that which causes pain. A few bee and wasp stings will give me a strong dislike for bees and wasps - causing me to avoid them, not as a means for avoiding pain, but as an end in themselves. I can augment this with an evolutionary story about how the development of this system kept my ancestors alive and having children.

How does this connection between the signals travelling up the nerve endings to my brain connect to your brain to generate reasons for intentional action?

Knowing that you also have a reward system, it follows that if I want to avoid being in pain, I have reason to activate your mesolimbic pathway in such a way so as to encode in your prefrontal cortex a an aversion to causing pain to others.

In turns out that we evolved a disposition to respond to praise and condemnation the way we respond to rewards and punishment. Among animals, the bearing of teeth, growling, snarling, the relatively harmless slap of a paw, beating one's chest, signals with ears back and tail low, all represent the animal equivalent of condemnation. Grooming, smiling, hugging, the sharing of food, and sex all serve as rewards. In this way, animals control each other's behavior through systems that do not cause physical injury.

This is the system by which one animal's mental states influence another animal's mental states.

Let's apply this to a the case where I am screaming and on fire and you are holding a blanket.

IF you have an aversion to my suffering, THEN you will have a reason to act so as to help put out the fire. However, IF you have no such aversion - and if you see no other advantage (e.g., a reward or some other form of compensation - some other desire of yours that would be served by putting out the fire), then you have no reason to do so. And if you have a desire THAT I suffer the agony of being burned, then you may have been the one who lit me on fire, just to watch me suffer.

That's the difference between a good person and an evil person. A good person has those desires that people generally have reasons to promote. A good person is a person who acts in ways we have reason to praise - so as to trigger the reward systems of others to encode dispositions to engage in the same types of behavior. An evil person has reasons to act so as to cause harm to others - actions that people generally have reasons to condemn and to punish, so as to trigger the reward systems of others to encode aversions to those types of action.

If you stand and watch me burn, or if you are the person who sat me on fire so that you could watch me suffer, then that would make you the type of person that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn. They have many and strong reasons to trigger the reward systems of people generally to have an aversion to watching people suffer, and condemning and punishing you for your act would be one way to accomplish that.

The greater the distance between the reasons an agent has and the reasons she should have, the greater the evil.

Anyway, I can handle the situation where a person helps another who is on fire. And I can handle the situation where a person sets another person on fire. They have to deal with the different ways the limbic systems of the two agents are wired and the rules encoded in their prefrontal cortex through a lifetime of rewards and punishments.

No comments: