Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Philosophers should be interested in ‘common currency’ claims in the cognitive and behavioural sciences

I'm presenting on this topic at the 2014 conference of the PSSA (Philosophical Society of Southern Africa) to be held in Bloemfontein in January. (If all goes according to plan, my collaborator Blaize Kaye will be presenting something about subsumption architectures and common currencies - watch this space for updates.)

The text below is my submitted abstract. I'll post a working text of the paper in due course. The aim of this paper is simply to document some of the variety in common currency claims, and argue that they are of specific philosophical interest. (That is, I'm not defending any more specific claims about whether any particular currency thesis is true or not.)


A recurring claim made in a number of behavioural, cognitive and neuro-scientific literatures is that there is, or must be, a unidimensional ‘common currency’ in which the values of different available options are represented.

There is striking variety in the quantities or properties that have been proposed as determinants of the ordering in motivational strength. Among those seriously suggested are pain and pleasure, biological fitness, reward and reinforcement, and utility among economists, who have regimented the notion of utility in a variety of ways, some of them incompatible.

This topic deserves philosophical attention for at least the following reasons: (1) Repeated invocation of the ‘common currency’ idiom isn’t merely terminological coincidence because most of the claims are competing explanations for one or the other of two putative kinds of fact. In one case the currency represents a principle of manifest pattern in choices. In the other, it is a functional part of the processes which produce choice. (2) We can’t suppose that the different currency claims within each area are compatible, because there are significant obstacles to identifying pairs of members of either the ‘pattern’ or ‘process’ group. (3) There are, finally, seriously opposed positions about the relationships (generally, and in specific cases including that of humans) between the pattern facts and the process facts.

Philosophical positions both favouring and opposing a common currency exist. Philosophers who incline to view their positions as at least partly empirical, should be more interested in the issues outlined here than they are.

This text was updated slightly on 11 January 2014.