A Taste of Naturalistic Philosophy

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 25, 2011 in Worldview Naturalism

I often write about that dominant mode of English-language philosophy: naturalism. But perhaps my readers would appreciate not just a description of naturalistic philosophy, but an actual taste of it. Today I offer a taste of naturalistic philosophy.

My selection is from the concluding pages of Timothy Schroeder’s excellent Three Faces of Desire (2004). Schroeder’s project is to identify something in the natural world that corresponds to the “folk” concept of desire. He seeks to reduce ‘desire’ to a natural kind in much the same way that the folk concept of ‘water’ was reduced rather neatly to H2O. His question is: “Is there something that fits fairly well with our intuitive notion of desire that actually exists in the human mind?”

His book is half neuroscience, half conceptual argument, and his conclusion is that the natural phenomenon that best fits with our intuitive notion of ‘desire’ is a feature of the reward system of the brain. Hence, he offers the Reward Theory of Desire, summarized in the following claims (you’ll have to read the book to understand most of this and the justification for it, but I offer it anyway):

  1. Intrinsic desires, wants, and wishes form a natural grouping, closely related to one another but distinguished from other pro attitudes such as trying and intending.
  2. Intrinsic desires may be distinguished from instrumental ones.
  3. All desires are desires that P (‘P‘ standing for some proposition).
  4. One can, in principle, intrinsically desire that P for any state of affairs P one can perceptually or cognitively represent.
  5. A thing is a reward or punishment only if it is wanted or unwanted… respectively, by the recipient.
  6. To be a desire is to be a representational capacity contributing to a reward or punishment signal.
  7. To be a desire is to be a representational capacity contributing to a certain mathematically describable form of learning.
  8. Desires are realized in human beings and other animals like us by the biological reward system, centered around the dopamine-releasing neurons of the SNpc and VTA.
  9. Desiring that P is what makes it possible for people to learn certain sorts of habits and to have certain sorts of modifications to their sensory capacities, and probably what makes it possible for them to undergo other, less well studied long-term psychological changes.
  10. Pleasure and displeasure are representations of net positive and negative (respectively) change (relative to expectations) in desire satisfaction.
  11. People are typically moved to action, or inhibited from acting, because there is something they want to achieve [or avoid], and they see a way of achieving [or avoiding] it.
  12. Desires can cause one to form prior intentions, and cause one to try.
  13. Desires are not the only causes of goal-directed movement, but of all the pro attitudes, they are the most fundamental causes.
  14. A human being with no desires is incapable of normal goal-directed movement.
  15. Moral thinking has no special power to move us except insofar as we have desires regarding morality.
  16. There are no fleeting desires.
  17. Desires cause happenings in consciousness, but are not themselves elements of consciousness.

After explaining and defending this theory of desire, Schroeder concludes:

Three Faces concerns itself equally with the common sense lore of desire, the scientific findings circling around desire, and the existing philosophical literature on desire. As a result, it might equally have been written by a scientist concerned to get her philosophical foundations right as by a philosopher concerned to get his empirical findings right… At its core, Three Faces is simply a book that asks about the nature of desire, and turns to any source of evidence… which might help in answering the question. This is not a methodology proprietary to science, or to philosophy. It is a methodology proprietary to all rational inquiry about the natural world.

Philosophy that draws upon science in this way is not the only sort of philosophy that… [is] widely practiced. But when it comes to thinking about the mind, it is the only sort of philosophy that I think can be justified. Time and again, empirical findings have shattered philosophical presuppositions about the mind. The absence of a single locus where “it all comes together” in consciousness (Dennett 1991), the separation of pain into two distinct phenomenological components (Dennett 1978; Hardcastle 1999), the irrelevance of conscious experience to certain forms of action-guidance (Weiskrantz 1986): these and many other findings about the mind… will continue to have reverberations in the philosophical world. A theory of the mind that ignores these findings is a theory that ignores evidence, and what good is such a theory?

At the same time, it is even rarer for the sciences of the mind to ally themselves with philosophy… [With] a few recent exceptions, philosophers have rarely been used as resources by scientists. This has been a pity. For there are a number of scientists working on the mind whose findings address long-standing questions in philosophy, and who have ambitiously attempted to address these questions in book-length projects, and whose works might have benefited from more philosophy (e.g., Damasio 1994; LeDoux 1996)…

…In Three Faces I have attempted to rectify both sorts of failings. I have drawn from philosophy the conceptual clarity scientific writing lacks, and from empirical science the experimental and clinical findings that philosophy has ignored. By putting together all the evidence available and all the theoretical resources available, I have built a theory of desire that is neither particularly scientific nor particularly philosophical. But the theory at least has a chance at being particularly right. And what else does one want from a theory?

Well said.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu January 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

Luke,
will there be a 40 page megapost about naturalism? The ones about Bayes and Cognitive Science were very informative.

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Thomas January 25, 2011 at 5:24 am

Slightly offtopic, but since materialism (even eliminativism) is so dominant in the naturalistic philosophy of this blog, I must ask this: Luke, have you read Galen Strawson? As a strict materialist and a Dennett-fan, I think that you really should read for example Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. Strawson is a physicalist (real one), so one cannot accuse him of having any “religious bias”. Indeed, Strawson actually thinks that religious believers are “in infinitely better shape” than “the Dennettians”. This is because, in the final analysis, Dennettians are committed on denying the existence of conscious experience. In the case of experience, one cannot say (as Dennett does) that it seems to me that I have experience, but it doesn´t follow from this that there really is such a thing as experience. One cannot do that, because where phenomenological experience is concerned, the existence of appearence just is the reality. So if it seems to me that I have experience, then I just have experience. Period. But the neo-behavioristic philosophy of Dennett must then deny the existence of experience. Strawson comments:

‘They are prepared to deny the existence of experience.’ At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green. (Consciousness and its place in nature, 5-6)

Brilliant. All you strict materialists out there: read this guy!

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Metacognizant January 25, 2011 at 7:10 am

Hey Luke, nice post. I’m interested both in the nature of desire as well as neuroscience (I’ll eventually be getting my doctorate in neuropsychology), so I think I’ll follow up on this book.

For lack of a better place to ask this, though, I’d like to ask if you’d like to debate with me the existence of the Christian God specifically. I tried finding your email so that I could shoot this question to you there, but I couldn’t seem to find it. I understand you’re probably extremely busy running this blog–it seems to be pretty popular–so if you’re not able to, I understand. I’m very competent in the areas of the philosophy of religion, apologetics, and the like, and I’d enjoy debating with someone who is as skilled as I am on the opposing side. Someone recommended me to you when I posed the previous statement to them. If you’re interested, my friend has set up a forum that exists specifically for debates like this (I don’t feel like posting the link here if you’re uninterested). Would you care to know the url?

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Luke Muehlhauser January 25, 2011 at 8:56 am

Taranu,

Not for a while, anyway. But I do have other megaposts in the works.

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Luke Muehlhauser January 25, 2011 at 8:58 am

Metacognizant,

No, I don’t have time for debates these days.

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Metacognizant January 25, 2011 at 10:29 am

Alright, thanks for taking the time to respond.

If any other atheists would care to debate me, I’d enjoy debating with anyone reasonably competent in areas such as these. My email is freecube [at] gmail [dot] com (censored for email robots) for those who’d like to have the forum link emailed to them where we can debate. I don’t feel like advertising for a forum on Luke’s blog here.

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Ein Sophistry January 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Metacognizant, it might be a good idea to give others here some idea of what general position you’d be coming from within Christian theism, since that will in large part determine the scope of the debate (is evolution going to be an issue? The age of the Earth?).

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Metacognizant January 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Ah, good point. I grew up in a Christian home. I lost my faith when I was around 15 due to a wide variety of doubts. I’ve always believed that truth is more important than however I want to live my life. I lived as an agnostic or atheist (depending upon circumstances of life) for years, until a roommate in college pressed me hard to do intense research on my doubts; and after quite a bit of thought, I converted to Christianity. Theologically, I’m a Molinist with Arminian leanings. I’m coming from a position that believes that science and the Bible are not in conflict; evolution won’t be an issue and neither will the age of the Earth. I also believe that faith isn’t something that can be rationally maintained given any plausible defeater. I specialize in the topics of the philosophy of religion and neuroscience, and I am quite competent in areas such as the philosophy of mind, textual criticism, the historical Jesus, theology, and biblical exegesis (including both Hebrew and Greek; not as much Aramaic). I would, in fact, like the debate to be quite extensive and comprehensive, as I do believe that Christianity is true and I don’t believe that you can verify that simply by proving the existence of God. If anyone would like to debate me and feels competent enough, I’d love to.

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svenjamin January 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm

“A thing is a reward or punishment only if it is wanted or unwanted… respectively, by the recipient. ”

And that is an embarassingly concise statement of what I have been trying to explain to some of my cultural constructivist social science peers. A little off topic, but even granting basic biological urges like food and warmth leaves a constructivist account of human cultural and social meaning-making that denies any innate social inclinations lacking a mechanism by which a social event could be a reward or punishment!

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Citizen Ghost January 26, 2011 at 2:25 am

Interesting stuff.

But I don’t really understand the comment that “There are no fleeting desires.” It seems to me that some of our most powerful wants and urges are indeed fleeting. I’m not sure how these are different from what the author terms “desire.” Guess I’ll need to read the book.

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Jerry Wigglesworth January 26, 2011 at 8:07 am

“Time and again, empirical findings have shattered philosophical presuppositions about the mind.” ….Negatory, sir. Kant was spot-on concerning the nature of mind. The a priori givens of space and time are fundamental, and are constructsl of the mind. Think of the complexities of optical illusions…the mind consistently supplies certain innate 3 dimensional interpretations to 2 dimensional phenomena, such as the convex and concave interpretations of drawings of seashells. To deny this input by the mind in it’s interpretation of spatial reality is to deny well-established empirical findings.

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Jerry Wigglesworth January 26, 2011 at 8:40 am

Dear Metacognizant: Please show me the reconciliation of Christianity with modern physical theory…I too desire Christianity to be true, which is another way of saying I have faith. Through the rational thought defeating physical actions of quantum mechanics I can deduce a non-material reality that must interact with normal physical reality. However, ultimately the interaction of the non-material with the material is logically, rationally impossible given the definitions of the words “material” and “non-material”. Ultimately I am lead to reconstruct the idealist philosophy that rationality itself as an idea is the basis of reality. Why should there be a rationally knowable universe at all, unless it arose from the essence of rationality itself…..

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Jerry Wigglesworth January 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

Regarding Dennett et al: What would we call the state of awareness in Dennett’s mind of the absence of consciousness in the mind? Would we call that a “conscious” state of mind? Thus consciousness is implicitly pre-supposed in a theory that denies the existence of the very phenomenon that gave rise to it!!! Dennett suffers from having an “illusion of an illusion”…. I agree with the author quoted above, -it is truely incredulous.

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Thomas January 26, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Jerry,

However, ultimately the interaction of the non-material with the material is logically, rationally impossible given the definitions of the words “material” and “non-material”.

It´s a contradiction (and thus, logical impossibility) to say that x is both ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’, but why on earth is the interaction of material and immaterial stuff “logically impossible”? Immaterial stuff just means something that is very different from the ordinary material stuff. Why couldn´t the two interact? Bill Hasker has called this “the most overrated problem in the history of Western philosophy”. I agree with him.

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Luca Noro January 26, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Slightly offtopic, but since materialism (even eliminativism) is so dominant in the naturalistic philosophy of this blog, I must ask this: Luke, have you read Galen Strawson? As a strict materialist and a Dennett-fan, I think that you really should read for example Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. Strawson is a physicalist (real one), so one cannot accuse him of having any “religious bias”. Indeed, Strawson actually thinks that religious believers are “in infinitely better shape” than “the Dennettians”. This is because, in the final analysis, Dennettians are committed on denying the existence of conscious experience. In the case of experience, one cannot say (as Dennett does) that it seems to me that I have experience, but it doesn´t follow from this that there really is such a thing as experience. One cannot do that, because where phenomenological experience is concerned, the existence of appearence just is the reality. So if it seems to me that I have experience, then I just have experience. Period. But the neo-behavioristic philosophy of Dennett must then deny the existence of experience. Strawson comments:‘They are prepared to deny the existence of experience.’ At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green. (Consciousness and its place in nature, 5-6)Brilliant. All you strict materialists out there: read this guy!  

You should read some of the criticism, though. I am an agnostic when it comes to the nature of the mind, but I have a professor who is a dualist, and I believe he draws on some of what Strawson has written. Anyways, the claim that phenomenologically immideate experiences are emptiet by themselves, and from that, arguing that materialism is false, is basicly to assert dualism and via modus tollens, which very well could be question begging (isn’t it?).

Look, I am not endorsing eliminativism, I am just saying that one should be carefull. I see the initial plausability in claiming that the phenomenologically given cannot be denied, and I also think that Dennetts philosophy is a bit to brutal, but Strawson is basicly arguing from logical separability in this naive cartesian way. I recall one argument where he basicly says “I can imagine flying around as ghost, ergo the soul and body are separable “. I think that kind of argument seems suspect.

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Luca Noro January 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I meant “via modus ponens deny materialism”

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TRUTHOVERfaith January 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

@Metacogniznat

Is your position that an invisible man in the sky watched planet earth spin for 4 1/2 billion years and then essentially said something like “Man, that little spot there in the Middle East is really starting to intrigue me. I think I might just throw some flesh and blood around myself and zip down there and personally interact with those folks for a few years. And while I’m down there I might just allow those people, whose very existence is due to me, to savagely beat me to death in the most disgusting manner possible. And then I’ll magically bring myself back to life and zip back to my throne while these superstitious, mostly uneducated and illiterate, people try to wrap their minds around my stupendous visit. And then I’ll zip back to my throne and watch these little creatures spend the next two thousand years arguing and killing each other over the exact meaning of my sudden personal interest in the ancient Middle East.”

I realize that there are many versions of Christian belief (all equally absurd, in my humble opinion) and I was just wondering which version you were.
I would accept your offer of debate except for the fact that my time is completely engulfed by this current debate: “Did Noah’s ark include the Easter bunny?”

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Thomas January 29, 2011 at 3:43 am

TRUTHOVERfaith,

I often wonder why some people find ridicule to be a decent argument.

Is your position that an invisible man in the sky watched planet earth spin for 4 1/2 billion years..

This is by the way one of the worst arguments against theism there is. “God waited too long.” The assumption seems to be here that an eternal being would have to have some “need for speed”. A being who has always existed and will always exist acted “too slowly”.

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Metacognizant January 29, 2011 at 10:36 am

For all who’ve been replying to me, I’d ask that you would send me an email instead of discussing debating me here. I posted me email in an earlier post of mine, so feel free to shoot me one. This is Luke’s blog, not mine.

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TRUTHOVERfaith January 30, 2011 at 2:52 am

Thomas

” I often wonder why some people find ridicule to be a decent argument.”

‘Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
-Thomas Jefferson

There’s little in Christian doctrine that is not an “unintelligible proposition”.

“God waited too long” is not the argument. If the purpose of creation was to provide a
place for Gods favorite creatures (humans) to go about their business of finding their destinies , offering up animal and human sacrifices, bloody penises, owning slaves, stoning non-virgins etc., then why not create humans from the beginning, as in Genesis. The creation account in Genesis seems sensible from a theistic point of view.

Perhaps Metacognizant could offer some examples of his/her unique insights into the debate of Christianity that we haven’t see a 100 times or more from the likes of W.L Craig, Ben Witherington, the Mcgrews, etc.

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Thomas January 30, 2011 at 4:04 am

TRUTHOVERfaith,

“-Thomas Jefferson”

Oh my… You combined ridicule with an appeal to authority.

I don´t know why I bother to answer. You clearly are totally unaware of the relevant discussion on the topic. Maybe you should read, say, Richard Swinburne and then argue against his arguments with respect.

Dogmatic and blind anti-theism is always bad. Your comments are a prime example of that.

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Jerry Wigglesworth August 28, 2011 at 2:18 am

Jerry,

However, ultimately the interaction of the non-material with the material is logically, rationally impossible given the definitions of the words “material” and “non-material”.

It´s a contradiction (and thus, logical impossibility) to say that x is both ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’, but why on earth is the interaction of material and immaterial stuff “logically impossible”? Immaterial stuff just means something that is very different from the ordinary material stuff. Why couldn´t the two interact? Bill Hasker has called this “the most overrated problem in the history of Western philosophy”. I agree with him.

By material stuff I mean any manifestation of matter/energy…not just the tangible material objects of “matter”….ie. I pre-suppose as given all the constituents of the Standard Model + gravity or the unified extention of that theory, -are called “material”….and this ‘material’ is presumed to produce all possible phenomena. (

In theory all “things/processes/actions” of the Standard Model bear some causal or interactive relationship to other like described ‘things’ from the SM…no non-material cause or action is introduced that falls outside it’s purview, -thus nature is considered “causally closed”… If there were no matter or energy fields of any kind in any given volume of space, we would say it is “empty” -that it contains “nothing”. In fact, -this is our Kantian pre-programmed, intuitive, a-priori representation of space…We have evolved to perceive reality as “taking place” in 3 macroscopic spacial dimesions conforming to Euclidian geometry. But all that space/ geometry IS something… it has tangible “properties”. Empirical science and our intuition leads us to the common-sense conclusion that before the big-bang singularity we did not have this “something” called space (or time)…If we accept one of the very general and maximally applicable definitions of our “space” as “the possibility of phenomena” -then before the big-bang singularity…before there was such a thing as space…we essentially had “no possibility of any phenomena”…this would be the “true” nothing…-inconceivably so…(since our idea of “totally empty space”…-our “conceivable nothing” always contains at a minmum the thinker , the imagined observation, and the thought of “empty space” (nothing)

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