The Descent of Preferences


[A slightly revised version of this paper has been accepted by the BJPS] More attention has been devoted to providing evolutionary scenarios accounting for the development of beliefs, or belief-like states, than for desires or preferences. Here I articulate and defend an evolutionary rationale for the development of psychologically real preference states. Preferences token or represent the expected values of discriminated states, available actions, or action-state pairings. The argument is an application the ‘environmental complexity thesis’ found in Godfrey-Smith and Sterelny, although my conclusions differ from Sterelny’s. I argue that tokening expected utilities can, under specified general conditions, be a powerful design solution to the problem of allocating the capacities of an agent in an efficient way. Preferences are for efficient action selection, and are a ‘fuel for success’ in the sense urged by Godfrey-Smith for true beliefs. They will tend to be favoured by selection when environments are complex in ways that matter to an organism, and when organisms have rich behavioural repertoires with heterogenous returns and costs.   The rationale suggested here is conditional, especially on contingencies in what design options are available to selection and on trade-offs associated with the costs of generating and processing representations of value. The unqualified efficiency rationale for preferences suggests that organisms should represent expected utilities in a comprehensive and consistent way, but none of them do. In the final stages of the paper I consider some of the ways in which design trade-offs compromise the implementation of preferences in organisms that have them.

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David Spurrett
University of KwaZulu-Natal


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