Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Nature of Desire: A Liberal, Dispositional Approach

What is it to desire something? I suggest: to desire (or want) some item or some state of affairs is just to be disposed to make certain choices, to inwardly and outwardly react in certain ways, and to make certain types of cognitive moves. It is to match, well enough, a certain inward and outward dispositional profile given by folk psychology. Compare: What is it to be an extravert? It is just to match, well enough, the dispositional profile of the extravert -- to seek out and enjoy social gatherings, to be expressive and talkative, to enjoy meeting new people. Match this stereotypical profile of the extravert well enough and you are an extravert. Nothing more to it. Similarly for desire: If you will seek out chocolate cake, if you would choose chocolate cake over other desserts, if you tingle with delight when eating it, if you say "I want chocolate cake", if the thought of getting chocolate cake captures your anticipatory attention, etc., then you like or want or desire chocolate cake. Nothing more to it.

There are two types of alternative account. One alternative approach is, shall we say, deep: To desire something, on a deep account, is to be in some particular brain state or to have some underlying representational structure in the mind (perhaps the representation "I eat chocolate cake" in the Desire Box). The problem with such deep accounts is, I believe, that they don't get to the metaphysical root.

Consider an alien case. Suppose some Deep Structure D is necessary for wanting chocolate cake, on some deep account of desire. Unless that structure is more or less tantamount to possessing the dispositional profile constitutive (on my account) of wanting chocolate cake, then it should be metaphysically possible for an alien species that lacks Deep Structure D to act and react, inwardly and outwardly, in every respect as though it wanted chocolate cake. In such a case, I would suggest, both ordinary common sense and good philosophy advises ascribing the desire for chocolate cake to such hypothetical aliens, despite their lacking whatever Deep Structure D is necessary in the human case.

Alternatively, suppose some Deep Structure E is held to be sufficient for wanting chocolate cake. It seems that we could construct, at least hypothetically, a possible case in which Deep Structure E is present but the person in no way acts or reacts, inwardly or outwardly, like someone who wants chocolate cake: She wouldn't seek it, she wouldn't enjoy eating it, the anticipation of eating it would give her no pleasure, she gives it no weight in her plans, etc. It seems that we should say, in such cases, that the person does not desire chocolate cake. In ascribing desire or its lack, what we care about, both as ordinary folks and as philosophers, is how the person would act and react across a wide variety of possible circumstances. It is only contingently important what underlying mechanisms implement that pattern of action and reaction.

A second type of alternative approach is, like my own approach, superficial rather than deep, but unlike my approach it is narrow. What matters, on such accounts, is just some sub-portion of the pattern that matters on my approach. Maybe what is essential is that the person would choose the cake if given the chance, and not whether the person thinks she wants it or would feel anticipation when about to get it or would enjoy eating it. Or maybe what is essential is that the person judges that it would be good to get cake, and all the rest is incidental. Or maybe the essence is that receiving chocolate cake would be rewarding to that person. Or.... (See Tim Schroeder's SEP entry on Desire for a review of various narrow accounts, which Schroeder contrasts with holistic accounts like my own.)

The problem with narrow accounts is that it's hard to see a good justification for picking out just one feature of the profile as the essential bit. Desire is more usefully regarded as a syndrome of lots of things that tend to go together -- like extraversion is a syndrome, or like being happy-go-lucky is a syndrome. We can be liberal about what goes into the profile. It can be a cluster concept; aspects of the syndrome might be more or less central or important to the picture, but there need be no one essential piece that is strictly necessary or sufficient.

The flexible minimalism of a liberal, dispositional approach is, I think, nicely displayed when we consider messy, in-between cases. So let's consider one.

Matthew the envious buddy. Matthew and Rajan were pals in philosophy grad school. Ten years out, they still consider themselves close friends. They exchange friendly emails, comment warmly on each other’s Facebook posts, and seek each other for tête-à-têtes at professional meetings. In most respects, they are typical ageing grad-school best buddies. Also perhaps not atypically, one has had much more professional success than the other. Rajan was hired straight into a prestigious tenure-track position. He published a string of well-regarded articles which earned him quick tenure and, recently, promotion to full Professor. Now he is considering a prestigious job offer from another leading department. Matthew, in contrast, struggled through three temporary positions before finally landing a job at a relatively unselective state school. He has published a couple of articles and book reviews, suffered some ugly department politics, and is now facing an uncertain tenure decision. Understandably, Matthew is somewhat envious of Rajan – a fact he explicitly admits to Rajan over afternoon coffee in the conference hotel. Rajan is finishing his first book project and Matthew is halfway through reading Rajan’s draft.

Matthew, as I’m imagining him, is not generally an envious character; he has a generous spirit. The well-wishes he utters to Rajan are sincerely felt at the time of utterance, not a sham. Picturing Rajan as the next David Lewis makes Matthew smile and chuckle with a good-natured shake of the head. There would be something truly cool about that, Matthew thinks – though the fact that he explicitly thinks that thought in that particular way already reveals a kind of ambivalence. Matthew intends to give Rajan his best advice about book revisions. He plans to recommend the book warmly to influential people he knows, including the program chair of the Pacific Division APA. At the same time, though, it’s true that were Matthew to read a devastating review of Rajan’s book, he would feel a kind of shameful pleasure, while seeing a glowing review in a top venue would bring a painful pang. In drafting out thoughts about the book, Matthew finds himself sometimes resentful of the effort, and he finds himself somewhat unhappy when he reads a particularly fresh and clever argument in the draft, wishing he had come up with that argument himself instead – though when he notices this about himself, he rebukes himself sharply. If Rajan’s book were to flop, Matthew would love commisserating; if Rajan’s book were to be a great success, that would add to the growing distance between the two friends. In some moments, Matthew admits to himself that he doesn’t really know if he wants the book to succeed or not.

We can, of course, add as much detail to this case as we want -- dispositions pointing in different directions, in whatever balance we wish.

Question: Does Matthew want Rajan's book to succeed?

The best answer, I submit, if we've built the case as I've intended, is "kind of", or "it's an intermediate, messy case". Just as someone might be an extravert in some respects and an introvert in other respects so that neither a plain ascription of "extravert" nor a plain ascription of "introvert" is quite right, so also with the question of whether Matthew wants Rajan's book to succeed. A liberal, dispositional approach to desire captures this ambivalence perfectly: Matthew wants the book to succeed exactly insofar as he matches the broad syndrome and no farther. There need be no "Q" either determinately in or determinately out of his "Desire Box"; there need be no one essential feature. In ascribing a desire, we are pointing toward a folk-psychologically recognizable pattern, and people might fit that pattern very well or not well at all, deviating in different ways and to different degrees.

The implications for self-knowledge of desire I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[For more on my dispositional approach to the attitudes see here.]


Scott Bakker said...

The worry I have with this account is the worry I have with your dispositionalism more generally: the idea isn’t to come up with the most epistemologically safe position, so much as to come up with the most scientifically useful one—and this seems to require ‘deep accounts.’ There was nothing safe about Boltzmann’s atoms, but they certainly proved more fruitful than Mach’s experimental observations. So the big question would be, How could this approach serve to guide discovery? It suggests that researchers should give up on desire boxes... But what should they be looking for in a positive sense.

That said, I actually agree with you, insofar as I don’t think ‘desires’ in the folk-psychological sense exist. ‘Desire attribution’ is simply a cognitive heuristic, a way for brains to predict how organisms will behave—including the organism they happen to be part of—given what little information they have at their disposal. Whether this information can be characterized as wholly or even largely ‘dispositional’ I don’t know. But this approach does have the virtue being deep: it tells researchers to abandon looking for desire boxes and to begin looking for the mindreading heuristics that leverage the effectiveness of folk-psychological attributions (as well as explain the confusion of certain philosophers!).

From our exchanges, I know you’re somewhat in sympathy with this approach, but it does seem to undo the deep/superficial contrast you’re drawing.

Anonymous said...

If, as you say desire requires the individual "to be disposed to make certain choices, to inwardly and outwardly react in certain ways, and to make certain types of cognitive moves," then I would say that Matthew does desire the success of his friend. To have such a jealous desire would require to logically weigh the choices, say, to sabotage his friend's book. Even with a lucrative career, Matthew could secretly sabotage Rajan's book in his editing suggestions, in a slight manner that does not seem obvious. He might also give wonderful public reviews, but secretly post internet bashing under a psuedonym. In this way, he neither jeapordizes his friendship, nor his career, and would be able to console his friend. In terms of deep structure, his behavior seems to be the phenotype of a genotype that desires his friend's success, even if he may also wish his own.

Not all behavior that is not acted upon suggests lack of desire for cake, however.

At times, it means the interests are better weighed in desire of something else, or that acting upon the desire may cause jeapordy. It may also mean that the desire is unobtainable.

For example, say some time ago I had a desire to form a relationship with an individual who withdrew their interest. In this case, the cake was no longer available. If currently, I had an attraction to a departmental colleague, I might weigh that interest. Perhaps, it's not truly a desire, but a slice of butterscotch pie in substitution for the desired chocolate cake. Or, maybe it is truly what I desire - but, I consider it in terms of what attraction is truly worth: what would be the risk, if that person also seemed interested? Would it be a jeapordy to my career? Would it be a jeapordy to other potential relationships if that person were not permanently available? Would it cause damage to that individual's personal life? In this case - perhaps I am opting out because of not the desire for something sweet: be that cake, or pie, but lack of an option that doesn't offset all other potential desires (career, well being of all involved), even if momentary gratification were an option. In this case, I decline dessert not because of lack of desire - but for higher ambitions, or like skipping the cookie pro-offered at a luncheon to hold out for the promise of a special occasion holiday dessert.

While not acting upon desire doesn't always mean lack of desire, as exampled above, I cannot see that in Matthew's case, if he wished his friend's failure, he would not cause it.

Carl said...

Desires(Agent A, proposition X) & ~Desires(Agent A, proposition X) is a contradiction. Desires(Agent A, proposition X) & Desires(Agent A, proposition ~X) is not a contradiction. Indeed, it's quite common.

Anonymous said...

A little off the point, but If I recall correctly it was Spinoza who first pointed out that the western mindset has a concept for relishing another's failure (we generally use the German Schadenfreude in English) but none for relishing another's success. In Buddhist philosophy of mind, however, there is such a concept (mudita).

clasqm said...

I tingle with delight at the memory of chocolate cake. The memory of chocolate cake captures my attention. I dream of chocolate cake every night. Merely seeing the word chocolate on your website caused my blood pressure to rise by fifteen pints. My children are named Mars, Hershey and Galaxy.

However, I have developed a rare allergy that means that the slightest hint of theobroma cacao extract across my lips will mean a prolonged and agonising death. I therefore do not seek out chocolate cake, nor do I choose chocolate cake over other desserts.

Do I desire chocolate cake?

clasqm said...

Surely Matthew, an experienced academic by now, is not so naive as to think that academia is a pure meritocracy? If Rajan made faster progress it is not necessarily because he was a better philosopher than Matthew. He might be, but then again, he might have gotten a break or two, a mentor here, a dropped hint there, a journal editor desperate for a paper ...

Be that as it may, let's translate your definition from Choclatecakeish to Philosophian:

If you will seek out Rajan, if you would choose Rajan over other philosophers, if you tingle with delight when reading his book, if you say "I want Rajan", if the thought of getting Rajan's attention captures your anticipatory attention, etc., then you like or want or desire Rajan. Nothing more to it.

(I had to paraphrase slightly - the search and replace function produced some hilarious sexual innuendoes in there!)

Matthew does seek out Rajan - at conferences, anyway

By the same token, he is choosing Rajan over other philosophers - he could be spending this afternoon coffee talking to really significant philosophers like, I don't know, that guy from Riverside with the unpronounceable name.

Reading Rajan's book does make Matthew tingle with delight, at least part of the time.

The thought of Rajan's attention ... trickier ground. If the book flops, Matthew thinks he will commiserate and grow closer to Rajan. Maybe. Or Rajan could become suicidally depressive and end any further chance of this relationship progressing. After all, Rajan does not have much experience dealing with failure.

But if Matthew helps Rajan with his book, the possibility exists that Rajan might one day be chairing a faculty search committee ... Yes, on balance I'd say Matthew wants the book to succeed.

clasqm said...

Since I can either keep on posting here or grade term papers ... no contest.

I am distressed my my lack of desire for chocolate cake. despite my inner turmoil, there is no outer evidence to convince Eric of my sincere desire to consume this symbol of cultural decline and calorific excess.

However, why should the consumption of chocolate cakes be limited to my protoplasmic self. I shall construct a small robot, with a Raspberry Pi for a brain and a small chemical analyser that will constantly search the atmosphere for traces of chocolate cake and immediately pounce upon any that it detects. In this way, my outer behaviour (if we stipulate that the robot is a cybernetic extension of my good self) will match my inner desires without triggering my allergies and thereby putting an end to all desires, and I can proudly declare myself desirous of chocolate cake at last.

Nick Byrd said...

(1) I have been thinking about how to classify folk psychological states leading up to and since the BPS conference. I am attracted to a view like yours. I like your dispositionalism. I think seeing folk psychological states as theoretical entities (or models?) could also be advantageous. Long story short, I enjoyed this.

(2) Your Rajan/Matthew example is about as close to home as it could be for many philosophers. Since I have a pet-peeve for far fetched examples, I want to commend this example!

(3) Why not suppose Michael has two higher level desires? I.e., (i) for a compatriot to succeed and (ii) for himself to outshine his peers. In this case, these higher level desires lead to conflicting lower level desires: wanting Rajan to succeed and wanting Rajan to not succeed.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I like your story about Matthew and Rajan because that's essentially what it seems one ends with: narrative reconstruction, self-invention that involves positing possible future states of mind within a rather fictive present state of mind. In hindsight, we come to understand what it means to move like a crab.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

@ Scott: Here's what I think you look for in the positive sense: empirical evidence of patterns of clustering and splitting, just like psychologists do with personality traits. Then, based on pragmatic interests, you can (a) adjust the stereotypes a bit (e.g., as we did when we started allowing "Freudian" expressions of desires) and/or (b) concoct new stereotypes or new names for common ways of splintering (e.g., Frankfurt's second-order desire).

That's not to say that we don't also look at deep functional and physiological causes too. I do think they're important -- only *derivatively* important, is my suggestion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon: We can build the case so that it's pretty clearly a straightforwardly held complicated desire, but that wasn't my intention. I think it's also to generate the case so that it's ambivalent.

The nice thing about not going purely for behavioral dispositions on this is that I can easily handle cases when one doesn't pursue a desire due to contrary pressures (e.g., at the risk of one's career). One can still savor the possibility and give it some weight in considering one's options even if at the end of the weighing process it's clear that it is dramatically outweighed. Also (a point I discuss at length in my similar account of belief) I hold that dispositional claims are always "ceteris paribus" -- all else being equal or normal or absent countervailing forces. When the countervailing force is there, one is "excused" from manifesting the disposition. (A bit mushy, I confess!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Michel 1 & 3: One still gives the consideration weight but a countervailing force excuses one from manifesting the disposition by actually eating the chocolate. (See my response to Anon.) The robotic extension of the self, though, that's a brilliant idea! I think it's consistent with my approach that desires not always behaviorally manifest in the usual way, if the cognitive surroundings are unusual.

Michel 2: Maybe he does "on balance" want the book to succeed. But is that the same as simply wanting the book to succeed? And it seems we might add detail to tilt the balance the other direction. Is there reason, in light of that, that it must always, or even usually, be right to either straightforwardly ascribe the desire (on balance) or straightforwardly deny it (on balance)? I'm inclined to think that there can often be messy, in-betweenish cases, like with extraversion or being an honest person.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Carl: Some people say such things, but as you have probably surmised that is not going to work on my approach. I have yet to see a case that clearly (in my view) merits the ascription of contrary desires rather than the ascription of an in-between state of desiring. My guess is that it is an unjustified resistance to in-betweeness that pushes people, in desperation, toward ascribing contrary desires.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon 03:07: Cool, thanks! Didn't know about the Buddhist concept.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Nick and Anon 08:21: Thanks for the kind words!

@ Nick: I think it's reasonable to think that Matthew has desires of the sort you suggest, but I'm disinclined to think that it would follow that he has directly contrary desires -- both the desire that R's book succeed and the desire that it not succeed. This probably isn't metaphysically possible on my approach, since the dispositions constitutive of the one will contrary to the dispositions constitutive of the other such that one cannot very well match the profile for both desires.

clasqm said...

@Eric: you write"Maybe he does "on balance" want the book to succeed. But is that the same as simply wanting the book to succeed?"

You have deliberately set up a "messy, in-between case", and asked us to answer. Unsurprisingly, there are only messy, in-between replies.

Compare this to the case of the drowning man. Here there is an absolute lack of messiness. He wants that breath of air NOW! There is nothing particularly philosophical about this level of desire: it is shared by any multicellular organism that lacks gills. This I could see as "simply wanting something". Anything above that on the evolutionary scale that instantly becomes messy.

Do I want to eat that piece of food? Yes, but I could first look around to see if there are enemies waiting to attack me while I am eating. Do I want to have sex with the woman from the cave down the road? Yes, but her mate Ugh wields a mean club, so let's wait till he's out hunting. Do I want Rajan's book to be succesful? Yes, but he damn well better write a glowing review for mine next year.

So I would suggest that the mess is our natural habitat, the environment in which we spend most of our lives. The world of simple, straightforward desire is something most of us will encounter quite rarely, and when we do, it may well be fatal.99% of the desire we feel is mediated (been a long time since I read Rene Girard - must go back and pick up the terminology)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I absolutely agree about the mess, Michel! I think it's a major virtue of a dispositional cluster account that it is suitable for messy cases in a way that "Q in the Desire Box" is not, or not as naturally.

Callan S. said...

Hi Eric,

Alternatively, suppose some Deep Structure E is held to be sufficient for wanting chocolate cake. It seems that we could construct, at least hypothetically, a possible case in which Deep Structure E is present but the person in no way acts or reacts, inwardly or outwardly, like someone who wants chocolate cake
Uh, I can't construct, even hypothetically, such a case, unless I make up stuff. It's like saying a magnet attracts metal, but we could imagine sans any magnet, metal being attracted to the same point (where the magnet was before). I can imagine it if I make up some imaginary physics. Otherwise no, I can't imagine it, hypothetically or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Callan, I'd say absence of knowledge of deep structure E looks a bit like a genetic implication. People have genotypes and phenotypes. Phenotypes are the outward or inward expression of a gene. Genotypes are likely expressed, but not necessarily. In terms of cognition, this is true as well - memory is a prime example, of some neural based encoding that is not constantly expressed. This may be the case with cake desires as well, that a structurally based desire based on learning mechanisms has been encoded, but regularly not conscious - until something in the environment triggers the conscious desire for cake.

Callan S. said...

Anon, I don't know how something is both treated as being sufficient for wanting cake (note the lack of caveats) yet at the same time it's treated as only sometimes being sufficient for wanting cake. That's like saying a magnet is sufficient for attracting metal, then saying it only does so sometimes. One or the other statement simply lacks information, or they just plain contradict each other.

It sounds like semantic two step, to make the thing both somehow sufficient, yet not.

Anonymous said...

Semantics aside Callan, it's the scientific truth that genes hold the possibility of more than one phenotype. There are also certain behaviors that are only expressed upon exposure to another variable. From philosophers, I've heard it referred to as poised, or having the potential for a certain attribute.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: If you can't imagine it, even better for my view, I think!

Callan S. said...

Anon, is it sufficient or is it poised? If it's poised and we haven't figured out what makes something go one particular way, were not really in a position to say anything is sufficient for E. Yet.

Eric, I don't understand what you mean?

It seems that we could construct...

I presume I'm part of that 'we', as are you. How does what appears to undermine your notion that 'we' can construct such a hypothesis, help your view?

Anonymous said...

Callan - In terms of sufficient or poised? Both, I would say. I am a beginning researcher in a memory lab. While certain genes that may predict for memory disorders may require the interaction of another variable to make them active (exposure to a trauma for PTSD, ingestion of alcohol in terms of Korkasoff's when people are prone to thiamin deficiency), there is a recent one that I've learned of that seems to prove sufficient and poised. There is a deep structure E called APOE which is a gene that predicts for Alzheimers. As far as researchers can tell, if a person lives long enough (noting varying ages that it affects different people) a person that carries the APOE gene (which is poised during youth), they will get Alzheimers. People who die too young may eventually have acquired it. It's such that researchers call it a "near" guarantee, but it's pretty much as sufficient as one gets in research, because if one lives long enough and has the gene - one'll get Alzheimers. But, when one is younger - one has the gene, not the disease. I would call that both poised, and suffiently poised. While Alzheimers is not cake, it offers the possibility that such a "deep structure" could exist for positive attributes or desires as well.

Jorge A. said...

the root of desire is a that nature "wants" to minimize gibbs free energy and maximize entropy

so, like, when you 'want' (in the intentional sense) chocolate cake, it can be traced back to some microstructure in your brain 'wanting' (in the reductionist mechanistic sense) to reach some chemical equilibrium or something

in Michel's interesting doublethink case, where we both want cake and don't want cake, it's simplest to envision two distinct neural systems trying to "fold" into their preferred states, but being prevented by the other system from doing so

this unpleasant state of affairs can be called 'ambivalence' which amusingly enough contains the word 'valence'


Callan S. said...

Anon, if they have not figured out the exact trigger for it, it's not both sufficient and poised, they simply are ignorant of the exact trigger but are not admitting that. Ie, they aren't supporting some sort of 'sufficient yet also poised' state - they are just aggrandising so as to protect their paycheck.

Folk can keep using 'sufficient' but keep using a black box definition of the term where it changes so as to, by chance, match the theory given. But it's not really convincing.

Juan said...

This dispositional approach implies that all that's necessary for belief/desire change is to change one's own behaviour. So I could believe or want anything as long as I fit the right attitude profile. Sweet!