Monday, September 24, 2018

How Desires Work

A theory of desirism requires some understanding of how desires work. This is a very brief (metaphorically toned) description of an account of intentional action, In Praise of Desire by Noma Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder - slightly modified.

A very brief (metaphorically toned) description of his account of intentional action is:

Perception and cognition (belief) creates a menu of optional actions. These sit at action gates waiting to be released.

The reward system (desire) then selects an action and opens the gate.releases it. No deliberation is involved at this point.

If desire has difficulty selecting among options, then it throws the dispute into arbitration. This is where deliberation occurs. Deliberation looks for a solution that appeals to the most and strongest desires. If it finds one, it sends that option to one of the gates to be selected. If not, the stronger desire-combination wins.

Some people have a brain disorder whereby a certain action slips past its gate without the reward system selecting it. This is Tourette’s Syndrome.

Some people have a disorder whereby the dopamine-producing cells in the reward system die off. The reward system becomes less efficient at opening the gates and, in extreme cases, stops entirely, resulting in paralysis. This is Parkinson’s Disease.

There is no pathway from belief/perception to intentional, deliberative action without the influence of desire. If there was, then the direct cognition or perception should be able to produce intentional action in an agent with Parkinson’s Disease. This is not observed.

Deliberation, on this model, is not a cause of action, it is an action. It is something that an agent does because a combination of desires come into significant conflict and "send the dispute to arbitration" sits as an action gate.

The reward system, by the way, is a black box. There is no direct neural links from the reward system to memory or perception (even internal perception). Consequently, we are not conscious of its operation. We simply observe its effects.

Korsgaard seems to be focusing on deliberation (arbitration). But, in doing so, she is looking in the wrong spot. We act on desire at a pre-conscious level.

In arbitration, we (unlike animals) can consider what things would be like if certain desires are different, present, or absent. But the consequences of these deliberations do not lead directly to action. They result in a plan that goes to an action gate to be selected by existing desires.

This is why you can resolve to get up early to go exercise, but fail to do so. When the morning comes, the action is sitting at an action gate, but desire selects something else. Similarly, one can resolve to stop eating donuts. However, when the perception of a box of donuts in the kitchen puts the act of eating a donut at an action gate, desire selects it, and the resolution goes out the window.

Future desires, by the way, cannot influence present action. Present actions are caused by the present wiring of the brain. We can be aware of the fact that a present action will thwart future desires and be unmoved (or insufficiently moved) by that fact. We can also be aware that the thwarting of present desires could have been prevented if we had acted differently in the past, and resolve to do more to consider future desires. But that resolution can easily fall prey to the problem identified above.

When we do choose to alter our desires, we do so because we have other desires that motivate the change. These other desires are what select the plan for change when it sits at an action gate.

The best plan for altering our desires is a plan of self-reward and self-punishment. If we merely try to “will” a change, we will likely fail. We can not directly choose a desire (the option to have or not have a desire itself will not appear at an action gate to be selected).

These facts are quite relevant to treating addiction, phobias, and similar problems. The patient must want to change. An addict, for example, is taught to avoid perceptions (people, places) associated with the behavior as a way of preventing the addictive behavior from appearing at the action gate to be selected.

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