Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Natural History of Desire

This is the abstract of a talk I'm presenting soon, and the 2015 conference of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa. I'll post a working version of the paper itself within a few weeks. (Added subsequently: Here is that draft.) I know that this blog has been really quiet for a while, but the project has not, and I'm hoping to find time to update and expand this site over the next few months.

The Natural History of Desire

David Spurrett – UKZN


In Thought in a Hostile World (2003) Kim Sterelny develops an idealised natural history of folk-psychological kinds. He argues that under certain selection pressures belief-like states are a natural elaboration of simpler control systems which he calls detection systems, and which map directly from environmental cue to response. Belief-like states are distinguished by the properties of robust tracking (being occasioned by a wider range of environmental states, including distal ones), and response breadth (being able to feature in the triggering of a wider range of behaviours). A key driver, according to Sterelny, of the development of robust tracking and response-breath, and hence belief-like states, are properties of the informational environment. A transparent environment is one where the functional relevance to an organism of states of the world is directly detectable. In a translucent or opaque environment, on the other hand, states significant to an organism map in less direct or simple ways onto states that the organism can detect. A hostile environment, finally, is one where the specific explanation of translucency or opacity is the design and behaviour of competing organisms. Where the costs of implementing belief-like states pay their way in more discriminating behaviour allocation under conditions of opacity and hostility, Sterelny argues, selection can favour the development of belief-like representations of the environment.

In the case of desires, however, Sterelny maintains that the same arguments do not generalise. One justification that he offers for this view reasons that unlike the external environment, the internal processes of an organism are under significant selection pressure favouring transparency. Parts of a single organism, having coinciding interests, have nothing to gain from deceiving one another, and much to gain from accurate signalling of their states and needs. Key conditions favouring the development of belief-like states are therefore absent in the case of desires. Here I argue that Sterelny’s reasons for saying that his treatment of belief doesn’t generalise to motivation (desires, or preferences) are insufficient. There are limits to the transparency that internal environments can achieve. Even if there were not, tracking the motivational salience of external states calls for pervasive attention to valuation in any system in which selection has driven the production of belief-like states.


1. Introduction
2. Sterelny on the Descent of Belief
3. Sterelny on the Descent of Preference
3.1. Sterelny’s Explanatory Target
3.2. Why the belief case won’t generalise
3.3. Sterelny’s positive view
4. Criticism of Sterelny
4.1. Limits on Internal Transparency
4.2. Internal Transparency doesn’t imply Motivational Transparency
4.3. The Wrong Target
5. Objections
6. Conclusion

Presentation slides

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