Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Humean reason-choosing post at PEA Soup

The nice folks at PEA Soup invited me to their blog more than a year ago, and I hadn't put up any posts yet. So I've done a big one over there on how Humean views of motivation can explain the choosing of reasons. Feel free to comment here if you're afraid of going up against the Reason-Fu of terrifyingly skilled top ethicists in comments over there. Or for any other reason.


Chris said...

Neil, I have to admit that I am not quite sure what's at stake here, in large part because we know that most of what goes into goals, motivation, and decision making occurs below the level of awareness (I suppose this goes along with the alienation theme raised in the comments, as well as the idea of self-deception), even when we consciously deliberate about a decision, so much of the discussion seems to be moot in the face of empirical evidence. Still, your formulation actually seems quite similar to much of the research on goals/desires and motivation in the tradition of Kurt Lewin. If you haven't read his Dynamic Theory of Personality, I highly recommend it.

The gist of his theory is that our goals and desires, combined with our beliefs (or in the language of psychology, our representations of the environment), produce valences towards or away from certain states. The decisions we ultimately make, and the actions we ultimately take, can then be seen as vectors that are the result of combining all of the vectors produced by all of our related desires. So, for example, a strong desire for the piece of immortality afforded by a book would produce a vector (of action, say) pointed directly at writing a book, while a strong desire to not write a book would produce one in the exact opposite direction. If these desires are of equal strength, they would cancel each other out entirely (graphically, this would represented as a vector perpendicular to the line moving from your current state towards writing a book. If we then add in the desire for the personal satisfaction afforded by writing a book (as you represent it), we get an overall vector in the direction of writing a book. Without other intervening desires/beliefs, this should result in your writing a book.

Anyway, this is a common way of approaching desires empirically these days, and one that, on the surface at least, seems similar to your Humean position. It might therefore help strengthen your argument against people like Searle.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I agree with the 'below the level of awareness' point. Methodologically, I try not to put too much weight on people's thoughts about what was or wasn't a desire in motivating their actions.

I remember the psychologist Art Markman saying at one point that people are reasonably good self-reporters of affective states (do they feel pleased? displeased?) and states of arousal. They can mess up a lot about the causes of these states, but they know when they're in these states. So in places like the Humean theory of Motivation paper where I'm responding to Darwall, I use the affective states to gauge where the desires are. This I think is methodologically better.

The Lewin view you describe seems to fit mine pretty well. I'll look into this more. I'd be interested in learning more about recent empirical work following him.

Chris said...

Neil, I was a student of Markman's, actually (while you were at UT, I believe). Shoot me an email at and I'll send you some papers/cites.