Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Neutrals: an intuition test

So here's another of my occasional philosophical intuition tests. Imagine the following:
On another planet, there exist the Neutrals -- intelligent creatures who are exactly like us, except that they are psychologically incapable of ever experiencing pleasure or displeasure. They engage in many motions similar to ours. Like a human, a Neutral would move quickly and suddenly towards his baby if he saw that the baby was about to crawl into a busy street. But while a human father might have an unpleasant experience of fear just as he began to move, a Neutral would not. Though the Neutral's attention would be intensely focused on the baby as he began to move, he would feel nothing unpleasant at all. Even if, in the future, he imagined what could've happened if he hadn't seen the child in time, he wouldn't feel the unpleasantness of horror in imagining.

(Update) To an observer, Neutrals are indistinguishable from normal human beings. When you do things to one of them that would make a person laugh or cry, they show all the outward signs of laughter and crying. But they don't feel the pleasure of laughter or the pain of sadness that we usually do when crying.

Now let me ask you two questions:
Can the Neutrals do things that count as actions?
Can the Neutrals count as desiring anything?

Please post your answers in the comments, and don't hesitate to either disagree with or pile onto a consensus (if one should emerge). If you need more clarification on the example, please ask. Thanks a lot -- you're helping with some cutting-edge philosophical research on the concepts of desire and action!

19 comments:

Justin said...

Point of clarification: would a Neutral behave in ALL ways like a human being? That is, would a Neutral grimace and cry and show all the outward signs of emotions when things went badly? Or would a Neutral act more robotic (at least as robots are often portrayed), showing none of the typical signs of emotion as she, say, tried to save her baby. Or, in yet other words: would a Neutral be behaviorally/functionally indistinguishable from a normal human being in all respects?

david said...

I suspect that you'd have to imagine some pretty weird internal processes in order to get the Neutrals to behave exactly the same as normal human beings behave. It's hard to think of why a person would grimace and cry, for instance, without feeling some sort of displeasure.

At any rate, to answer the questions:

1. I think yes.
2. Maybe not.

Did you want us to defend our answers?

Neil Sinhababu said...

re: defending answers -- anything you wish to say on the topic is welcome!

Neil Sinhababu said...

And as for why they'd grimace and cry without displeasure -- maybe, while we have a connection from dissatisfaction to displeasure to grimacing, their biology always cuts out the middleman. So they go straight from dissatisfaction to grimacing.

dadahead said...

These neutrals sound a lot like zombies. Are they supposed to be completely without qualitative consciousness?

ethicalwerewolf said...

No, dada... they can experience colors and sounds and feelings of surprise. They just don't have pleasure or displeasure.

dadahead said...

I say yes on both counts.

I assume that though they don't feel pleasure/pain, they do still take an interest in their own well-being or survival.

So in some sense they desire to continue living, and thus take actions toward that end.

Daryl said...

Just a point to note - this discussions seems to be assuming that we feel something first and then our facial expressions show it. But as part 5 of this Gladwell article notes, emotions don't just flow from the inside out, they can flow from the outside in: grimacing can make you sad.

Anyway, on to my answers:

Can they do things that count as actions? I'd say yes.

Can they count as desiring anything?

I'd say "Hmm". Right now, your post has made me think about a somewhat different case - dogs, which probably feel displeasure (or at least pain)/pleasure. Does my dog go to the bathroom in the right spot because he desires the pleasure from the treat or praise that he will get in return? Or is it too much to call it "desire", when it could be just a conditioned response?

Mary said...

My instant reaction to this example was to think of how I tend to be the (bi-)? polar (only metaphorically speaking, as far as I know) opposite of the Neutrals, and how extreme emotion (as opposed to none) can be quite paralyzing, and result in either inaction or robotic performance of the tasks of life. A relatively brief and pleasant experience with medication allowed a sort of "Neutral" experience, in which the stuff of life could be accomplished, but without obsessing on its implications.I think, as an instant response, yes to doing things that count as actions. Desiring is puzzling...there seems to be an instictive drive for the Neutrals to do what must be done, and we often associate our instinctive drives with desire. I think they must desire something, or they would not be inclined to do it. But I don't know. This is totally going to mess up my day.

Rousseau said...

Are they doing things because they have any motivations at all, or just because it's automatic (like with the grimacing). I'm pretty iffy on free-will, but a fine place to draw the line would be between things that just follow a direct line of commands, and agents that are maximizing something.

If they are maximizing something, then it's utility, and that's pretty close to pleasure.

If they aren't, then they're just automata that I would disregard.

Rousseau said...

Lastly: What do you mean "hypothetical"? Any good solipstist (ie, me. And only me.) knows that the rest of you have no qualia and are just acting this way as a robotic part of my scenery.

Justin said...

Here are my "intuitions", but let me say in advance that they're going to be tainted by theory.

#1 Strong Yes, neutrals can act.
#2 I lean yes, but there may be ambiguity here.

I think normal human desires both (a) often (though not always) have a strong phenomenal component which seems more central to them than is the case with beliefs or many other mental states, and (b) are somehow constitutively linked to behavior. It seems to be conceivable that (a) and (b) can come apart, and when they do there's room for argument about what sorts of states we should call "desires". If you've got (a) w/o (b), is that a "desire"? What if you've got (b) w/o (a)? I'm inclined to think phenomenology doesn't matter that much while the constitutive link to behavior does, but there's room for disagreement here and I wouldn't pin anything important on how we decide the matter.

Anyhow, I take it that by assumption Neutrals lack (a). Since they still "act" in intelligent ways (or at least seem to), then, roughly, they *must* have (b). That is, Neutrals must have states which are like desires in certain ways, but not phenomenologically. So, for instance, Neutrals must have states which are functionally like desires.

If we decide not to call such states "desires", then Neutrals lack desires even though they can act. So action doesn't require having a desire! I wouldn't make too big a deal about this possibility though, since Neutrals have states which are desire-like in crucial respects. On the other hand, if we don't think phenomenology is essential to being a desire (as I'm inclined to think), then Yes, the Neutrals have desires.

Max Goss said...

Neil, can you say anything about how "their biology" might cause the Neutrals to react in ways that, in the case of humans, are caused by feelings of pleasure and displeasure?

Incidentally, I have some conceivability worries. I assume you don't think that the Neutrals would act EXACTLY like us, but without the "middleman" of pleasure and displeasure. I'm not convinced that, short of some kind of pre-established harmony, these creatures would act much like us at all.

Here are tentative answers to your questions, contingent on how you respond to the above:

1. Yes, or possibly yes, at least if there is something else that plays the role that pleasure and displeasure play in us.

2. Maybe. See 1.

Max Goss said...

I should add that, as Justin said, my intuitions are "tainted" by theory. But then again, I hold that there is no meaningful distinction between philosophical and prephilosophical intuitions; all of them are influenced by theory (at least if intuitions don't include incorrigible beliefs like one's present perceptual experiences, simple truths of logic, etc.).

BensonBear said...

What reason do you have for thinking that these questions have any determinate answer?

Michael said...

(1) Yes. Forming and realizing intentions do not bear any obvious or direct relation to (dis)pleasure, so I don't see any reason why they couldn't do such things; moving one's body in accordance with (or for the sake of the realization of) an intention is an action, if anything is; so, they are capable of action.

(2) Yes. One motivation for answering "No" is that, as Justin says, there is a strong phenomenal content to desires and very often (dis)pleasure is a salient part of that content. But I agree with Justin that phenomenology probably doesn't matter (for example, if we are to allow for anything like unconscious desires). I'm less sure about the idea that there is a link between desire and behavior, much less a constitutive connection; surely there is something to this, but in my view no one has given a satisfying account of it. In any case, for all we know, the Neutrals may have desires with little or no phenomenal content, and which (contingently) have little or no effect on what they do.

Fun example!

Michael said...

(1) Yes. Forming and realizing intentions do not bear any obvious or direct relation to (dis)pleasure, so I don't see any reason why they couldn't do such things; moving one's body in accordance with (or for the sake of the realization of) an intention is an action, if anything is; so, they are capable of action.

(2) Yes. One motivation for answering "No" is that, as Justin says, there is a strong phenomenal content to desires and very often (dis)pleasure is a salient part of that content. But I agree with Justin that phenomenology probably doesn't matter (for example, if we are to allow for anything like unconscious desires). I'm less sure about the idea that there is a link between desire and behavior, much less a constitutive connection; surely there is something to this, but in my view no one has given a satisfying account of it. In any case, for all we know, the Neutrals may have desires with little or no phenomenal content, and which (contingently) have little or no effect on what they do.

Fun example!

Neil Sinhababu said...

Tony, the big question here is whether creatures just like us, but whose internal lives were stripped of pleasure and displeasure, would count as having genuine motivational states. (I understand the word 'motivation' to have a strong conceptual connection to 'action'.) So the question you ask me is really the one I'm asking you.

Max, I'm having a little trouble seeing the conceivability problem here. Do you have trouble conceiving of the inverted spectrum scenario? I've never found it hard to conceive of creatures whose experiential states varied with their situations in a different way than ours. But if you have trouble with inverted spectrum, maybe you'd have trouble here. Or maybe you think that being caused in a certain way or causing certain things is constitutive of pleasure. I don't think that of pleasure, but I do think it of other mental states.

Bear, the concepts may be vague, and that makes it difficult to precisely determine their boundaries. But in general, questions about whether some well-described possible object would fall under a certain concept have determinate answers.

Anonymous said...

1. action is what you do, not what you feel...
2. the action is a mecanic of something, if anything its for the survival of the spiecies, so i would guess desire for the spiecies to live on...

ulven...