Thursday, March 10, 2005

Back in action

I'm sorry for not responding to the very helpful comments that people gave to the last post -- I was visiting my brother in Chapel Hill from Thursday to Monday, and I've been in the claws of the flu since then. I'm starting to feel better, so now it's time to get back to talking about the intuition test that y'all were helping me out with. Apologies in particular to folks like Tony and Max whose questions on the last post will be answered shortly. Right now I just want to explain what this whole thing was all about.

In my dissertation, I'm going to be defending the view that desire is involved in all human action. In order for someone to try to do A, they've got to desire B and believe that doing A will help to bring about B. Some philosophers have tried to defend this view -- the desire-belief theory of action -- as a truth about all possible actions, even the actions of creatures totally unlike us. These philosophers often rely on a very broad reading of 'desire' which includes every non-belief mental state that could motivate action.

There is, however, a narrower reading of 'desire' which I think is closer to our ordinary use of the term. When you come to believe that you'll get something you desire, or when you visualize getting something you desire, it'll cause you to feel some pleasure. Some connection like this to pleasure and displeasure, I think, is an essential part of the concept of desire. (I don't think that all our desires are desires for pleasure -- nobody accepts that anymore.)

I think we can imagine creatures that would engage in action, but that wouldn't have the experiences of pleasure and displeasure that are an important part of our lives as agents. These creatures (the Neutrals) would be acting without desires. We, however, aren't like the Neutrals. While I don't think the desire-belief theory, with the narrower reading of 'desire', is true of all possible creatures, I do think it's true of human beings. So what I'm going to do in the dissertation is show how much the desire-belief theory can explain about action and deliberation. I'll oppose it to theories according to which additional elements need to be added to the picture to explain action, and also to theories which say beliefs can usurp the motivational role of desires. (This is going to require me to delve pretty deep into psychological research on desire and action, but now that I've found Tim Schroeder's excellent book "Three Faces of Desire", I have some idea which way to go with that.)


Justin said...

I think I've asked you about this sort of case before, but offhand I can't remember your answer. Suppose I'm walking toward my office, thinking hard about my NCAA tournament bracket, and rather unthinkingly take my keys out of my pocket and open my office door. On the one hand this seems to clearly be an action; on the other hand, is seems pretty plausible that no pleasure/pain was involved -- I certainly wouldn't naively describe my experience as being pleasurable. What do you say about cases like this?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well, there really isn't reason for pleasure to show up here. Your subjective probability of desire-satisfaction doesn't vary much, and it's not an intense desire. You also aren't vividly imagining the object of your desire.

Justin said...

What you say sounds right, but I don't completely see how it relates to the thesis you want to defend. You say all human action involves desire, where desire is construed in some way intimately related to pleasure. My example purports to show this thesis is false. I'm trying to present a case of an action where no pleasure is involved. (And by the way: the example is pretty hum-drum. We aren't talking about exotic possibilities here which can arguably just be dismissed.)

Now, in response to this sort of example, someone defending your thesis could (1) grant that there's no pleasure involved, but say this is OK b/c my opening the door isn't really an action (maybe in some special sense of action), or (2) grant that it's an action, but say this is OK b/c there actually is pleasure involved (not a lot, and I'm not attending to the pleasure b/c I'm distracted), or (3) something else. At least on their face, (1) and (2) look like bullet-biting strategies. I don't know what all falls under (3). My question is, which of options (1)-(3) are you taking?

Neil Sinhababu said...

So, let me be clearer about the the thesis I'm defending. I claim that all action requires desire, and that desire is a mental state that has certain necessary connections to pleasure. The nature of these connections is such that at least one of the following four things must be true for a mental state to be a desire for B.

1-If I have a big increase in subjective probability of B, I feel pleasure.

2-If I have a big decrease in subjective probability of B, I feel displeasure.

3-If I vividly imagine B, I feel pleasure.

4-If I vividly imagine a state of affairs incompatible with B, I feel displeasure.

In 1-2, the intensity of the (dis)pleasure will vary positively with the degree of belief change. In 3-4, the intensity of the (dis)pleasure will vary positively with the vividness of the imagining. In all cases it'll vary positively with the strength of the desire.

I do not claim that all experiences of knowing that B has come about will be accompanied by pleasure. In particular, when seeing B come about doesn't change your degree of belief in B (perhaps because you already knew B would come about), my theory predicts no pleasure. While there is a necessary connection between desire and pleasure, it doesn't work that way. So here I'm doing 3 (and claiming that you didn't understand my view in constructing the example).

Anonymous said...

Without going into your entire theory, what reason might someone have for thinking desire has such a specific connection with pleasure?

Neil Sinhababu said...

The experience of finding out that you'll get what you want is a pleasurable one. The experience of finding out that you won't get what you want is accompanied by displeasure. If you discover that something is going to happen, and you don't feel any pleasure or displeasure, it makes sense to say that you don't care whether it happens or not.

It's similar with vivid imagination. If you visualize some scenario, and you feel indifferent, it makes sense to say that you don't desire it to happen or not to happen.

(Here I am setting aside pleasure and displeasure caused by other sources. If I am getting a good massage while I think about there being a long line at the sandwich shop, my pleasure doesn't mean I desire there to be a long line at the sandwich shop.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Anonymous, I should ask: do the judgments I've outlined in the last post about whether someone desires something or not, based on pleasure and displeasure, seem reasonable to you?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it "makes sense" to suppose that an agent is not desiring in a particular case if their desire-state is not accompanied by pleasure (or something like this).

However, you claimed that there is a "necessary connection" between desire and pleasure. I guess I don't yet see how a necessary connection between the two has been established. Your accounts of an agent's behavior do make sense (are plausible, perhaps) but how do they establish a necessary connection?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Hmm... that was what the Neutrals thought example was supposed to do, but I see now that it didn't pick up those relations between desires and pleasure specifically. I tried to emphasize them when I stated the Neutrals example, but it probably wasn't very clear about that.

In any case, I wouldn't credit a creature with desires if it didn't have pleasure or displeasures at those times, regardless of what else was true about it.