May 5, 2011
Episode 14 of Luke and Alonzo’s oddly named Morality in the Real World is up, and despite its length, I don’t think it said much. Sure, it’s important and commendable to distinguish between the facts of reality vs. the words we use, but they could have accomplished that in a few short sentences. In the positive, the student is starting to surpass–or at least show genuine skepticism towards–the teacher. I find that very encouraging. Though one could argue that it has simply transferred to Yudkowsky, Luke’s infatuation with Alonzo Fyfe seems to be waning. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the episode, I suggest doing so, else my post might not make as much sense as it could.
On the alleged ambiguity of Alonzo’s terms, Luke writes,
Well, Alonzo, you invented these terms, “thwarting” and “fulfilling” to refer to relationships between desires and states of affairs. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true, and it is thwarted in any state in which P is false… every time you present your idea to a new audience you have to explain how you are using those terms, because it’s not obvious. And a lot of people who encounter your writing don’t encounter the explanation of what you mean by those terms, so it confuses them… I have a solution to that problem. I found a couple of people who picked what I think might be better words for making this distinction. Instead of talking about ‘desire fulfillment’ versus ‘desire satisfaction’, they talk about ‘objective desire satisfaction’ versus ‘subjective desire satisfaction’.
How isn’t that obvious? It’s clear as day to me. Though I disagree with his conflation of morality and desire fulfillment, I think the majority of Alonzo’s original definitions are clear, accurate, and useful to productive discussion. Luke proposes a terrible solution. He’s added two of the most misunderstood and confusing terms into a theory that was already heavily misunderstood and confusing. I mean, look how much people struggle with “objective” and “subjective” morality. So we have “action-based” theories of desire, and “pleasure-based” theories of desire, also referred to as “objective desire satisfaction” and “subjective desire satisfaction,” respectively. I’m not sure what this accomplishes. In terms of the agent, is there any salient difference? I don’t really see what this distinction brings to the table. Does this distinction support the theory? Does it change the way we discuss praise and condemnation?
After revisiting the old, “if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it” koan, Luke writes,
…we can skip the definition issue altogether – avoid using the words ‘desire’ and ‘sound’ – and just argue about what certain motivational structures in the brain are doing, or what certain shock waves in the air are doing.
I agree. This is why I have always resisted Luke’s claim that “desires might not exist” would be problematic for desirism. As I said then, this seems semantic, and I’ve never understood why Luke took that as a potential defeater. As long as we are discussing human morality, brain states undeniably exist. Specific brain states are the structures, and desires are the symbols. Nobody can argue that brain states don’t exist, at least, not without turning quite a bit of apparent knowledge on its head. So, if we commit ourselves to the position that desires reduce to brain states–which Alonzo has committed to–who can argue that desires don’t exist?
However, despite claiming that desirism respects no particular assumptions, Luke and Alonzo respect a massive assumption here: that desires reduce to brain states. What happens when we extend desirism to brainless organisms? Do jellyfish have desires? Clearly, jellyfish have needs, or perhaps predispositions to eat, reproduce, poop, etc. If we treat desires as ultimately reducible to brain states, it seems we must deny that jellyfish have desires, but we can ask: do jellyfish desire eating? Mating? Do jellyfish feel pain? If you poke a jellyfish with a stick, it reacts like a creature with a brain. Jellyfish clearly demonstrate an aversion to being poked. If they demonstrate aversion, don’t they necessarily demonstrate desire? Perhaps desires don’t reduce to brain states at all? Perhaps desires actually reduce to, “needs fulfilled to procure stasis,” or something like that? With that definition, jellyfish are included. Regardless, Luke and Alonzo will need to hash this out if they extend their theory to brainless organisms.
One might criticize me for making the very same error Luke and Alonzo discuss in the post, that of searching for a “super-dictionary” definition for desire. I’m not, at least, not to the neglect of the larger picture. I’m questioning how well the symbol matches the substance. I’m challenging their claims that desires are ultimately reducible to brain states, and that desirism respects no particular assumptions. That first claim hasn’t been demonstrated, and the second claim is definitely false. Though, for the sake of argument, I’ll agree to treat human desires as ultimately reducible to brain states. Let’s grant Luke and Alonzo the benefit of the doubt, and say the symbol matches the substance. Do any serious problems persist? I think so.
I’m interested in the facts of the world, not the words.
Then support desirism with facts of the world, instead of intuition and semantic meandering! I was never too confused over what Alonzo meant, at least, not enough to be stuck in the mud. I simply haven’t seen a lick of evidence that supports the conclusions he draws from his theory. Now, this is only an issue because Luke and Alonzo claim their theory is empirical, and evidence-based. If they didn’t make that claim, I wouldn’t raise such a big stink about evidence. Regardless, we need to start at the ground level. Okay, so we have this particle-fine distinction between “action-based” theories of desire and “pleasure-based” theories of desire. By what principle do we get from there to, “television sitcoms and reality shows are a worthless waste of time where people sit on a couch and get fat while they acquire no useful information and accomplish absolutely nothing of value?” By what evidence do we get from there to, “spectator sports is a waste of time, money, and real-estate?” By what facts do we get from there to, “we would be better off without television sitcoms, reality shows and spectator sports?”
IOW, how can we be sure that Alonzo Fyfe isn’t just projecting his values onto others, like every other moral crusader throughout history? How can we be sure Luke and Alonzo’s “morality” is any different than Tipper Gore’s, who felt the same way about gangster rap–or Osama bin Laden’s, who felt the same way about American culture?
…our listeners have been clamoring for a detailed, accurate presentation of desirism. How else can we give it to them?
Empirical demonstration, bottom line. If this is a theory about morality in the real world, then use real world empiricism to demonstrate your claim that we should do away with spectator sports, television sitcoms and reality shows. If you cannot, I suspect you’re just another moral crusader. It’s that simple.