Tuesday, January 14, 2014

‘Sacred’ values, rule-based choice and the brain

Source: B3ta (I forget which specific
image challenge, so can't be more
specific than that. Grovels & apologies.)
This working paper grew out of my encounters with a claim that seems to be currently fashionable, to the effect that some values are 'sacred'. Although different ways of filling in what 'sacred' amounts to are to be found, some of them involve denial of the claim that all values are represented on a common scale. In my view the evidence used to justify the sacred values claim is not currently up to the job that is being asked of it.

The topic, and the recent scientific attention, are nonetheless of interest because they accompany empirical attention to old question about lexical preference orderings, and the possibility that some values might be 'incommensurable'.

The text below is the abstract I used for a recent presentation on this topic.


A number of recent empirical papers claim to have found evidence that (some) people have so-called ‘sacred’ or ‘protected’ values. These are understood as values that cannot be traded off against non-sacred values, or values with respect to which such trade-offs are resisted, or (finally) values with respect to which even contemplating trade-offs provokes outrage. Different, and incompletely compatible, explanations for this putative data are offered. Sometimes it is claimed that sacred values are infinitely valuable compared to secular ones. Sometimes it is suggested that decisions concerning sacred values are made according to unconditional rules, rather than weighing expected consequences. Finally, it is also sometimes claimed that sacred values are incommensurable with secular ones, in the sense that comparison is strictly impossible.

Unsurprisingly, the claim to have found evidence of people having sacred values thus understood is regularly accompanied by claims to the effect that this presents a problem for models of people as ‘rational actors’ or as approximately economic agents.

I argue here that the variously proposed explanations for the empirical evidence that people have ‘sacred’ values are importantly distinct, rather than complementary, and that some are less plausible than others. If sacred values are infinitely valuable, then they are not incommensurable. If sacred values are incommensurable with non-sacred ones, then it might help to have a way of deciding by rule rather than comparison. But rule-based choice for some category of values requires neither incommensurability nor comparatively infinite value.

I also argue that the evidence in the recent empirical papers falls well short of defending the claim that anyone in fact has ‘sacred’ values in any of the relevant senses. The evidence for an opposed conclusion in the area of addiction – for example that choices concerning heroin by addicts are responsive to opportunity cost, and so economic rather than automatic – is more impressive than the evidence that choices about ‘sacred’ values are made in non-economic ways. And the experiments themselves are flawed. Among other things, the psychological constructs that inform the data analysis fail to draw the required contrasts, and the designs lack the incentive compatibility recognised as a requirement for eliciting expressions of genuine preferences. 

I pay particular attention to a recent paper (Berns et al. 2012) claiming to have identified neural correlates of the representation of sacred values. The set of options used in the experiment shows severely limited construct validity, and so fails to support even a very tentative localisation claim regarding sacred values and the brain.


Berns, G. S., Bell, E., Capra, C. M., Prietula, M. J., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J and Atran, S. 2012. The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1589): 754-762. [I've discussed the Berns et al article in a previous posting on this blog.] DOI:10.1098/rstb.2011.0262

Tetlock, P. E. 2003. Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7): 320-324. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Subsumption Architectures and Common Currencies

One motivation for asserting a common currency is in explanations of orderly behaviour. In this case the common currency is a 'proximal' currency, in the sense that it is part of the cognitive economy of whatever is doing the behaving. (For a note on the distinction between ultimate and proximal currencies see this posting.)

Shizgal and Conover provide a pithy statement of the inference to a proximal common currency here:

In natural settings, the goals competing for behavior are complex, multidimensional objects and outcomes. Yet, for orderly choice to be possible, the utility of all competing resources must be represented on a single, common dimension (Shizgal & Conover 1996).

(For a discussion of Shizgal and Conover's paper see this posting.)

One challenge to this inference arises from those who think that it is an error to attempt to explain orderly or appropriate behaviour by reference to representations of any kind. If there aren't any representations, then there aren't any representations of value (or utility, or reward, etc.). And if there aren't any representations of values, there isn't a proximal common currency. A leading figure in the anti-representation tendency is Rodney Brooks, formerly of MIT, whose 1991 manifesto 'Intelligence without representation' is still regularly cited.

The aim of the working paper 'Subsumption Architectures and Common Currencies' is to assess Brook's challenge in the specific area of motivation, or preference. This involves a slight change of emphasis from most discussion and debate over Brooks, because that debate focused largely on representations that were counterparts to beliefs (in the sense of representing facts about what the world was like) rather than representations which were counterparts to desires (in the sense of representing what actions were worth doing, or what goals had what current value).

The positions of Brooks on the one hand, and Shizgal and Conover on the other, seem clearly opposed. If orderly choice requires a common currency that is internally represented, then whatever subsumption architectures can do, they can't produce orderly choice. But if they can produce orderly choice without central representations of value, then Shizgal and Conover are incorrect about the necessity for such representations.

Assessing the challenge that Brooks' work poses involves getting clearer about what kinds of order behaviour can exhibit, and also what kinds of processing and internal working can produce what kinds of order. I've presented working talks on this at a few departmental colloquia, but not yet taken the topic to a conference or produced a written version.

This paper is now being worked on collaboratively, by myself and Blaize Kaye. Our first conference presentation on the topic (by him) will take place in January 2014. And I hope that we'll be able to post a working draft within a few weeks. 

Related postings on this blog:

Important sources: Rodney Brooks