The Natural History of Desire

South African Journal of Philosophy 34 (3):304-313 (2015)
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Sterelny (2003) develops an idealised natural history of folk-psychological kinds. He argues that belief-like states are natural elaborations of simpler control systems, called detection systems, which map directly from environmental cue to response. Belief-like states exhibit robust tracking (sensitivity to multiple environmental states), and response breadth (occasioning a wider range of behaviours). The development of robust tracking and response-breadth depend partly on properties of the informational environment. In a transparent environment the functional relevance of states of the world is directly detectable. Outside transparent environments, selection can favour decoupled representations. Sterelny maintains that these arguments do not generalise to desire. Unlike the external environment, the internal processes of an organism, he argues, are selected for transparency. Parts of a single organism gain nothing from deceiving one another, but gain significantly 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 does not 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 suggests possible gains for systematic tracking of outcome values in any system in which selection has driven the production of belief-like states.
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