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BBTC, Chapter 8
Objections I
by William Dale

Date: 13 May 1995
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: William Dale

I'm going to only address the first objection of the chapter in this post. I think it's a very important objection, and I don't think Binswanger adequately addresses it. I anticipate some vigorous discussion of this, given the past experience of this list. I will try to post a discussion of the next objection soon. Until then, I look forward to the critiques.

In this chapter, Binswanger addresses some of the more obvious criticisms of his arguments for goal-causation. He does so by restating the three conditions for purposeful action and the three conditions for teleological causation, stating the various criticisms, and then showing how they fail to meet his condions.

To restate the conditions:

For purposeful action

  1. The action is performed by the agent.
  2. The action's goal has psychological value-significance for the agent.
  3. The action is caused by the goal's psychological value-significance for the agent.

For teleological action

  1. The action is self-generated.
  2. The action's goal has value-significance for the agent.
  3. The action is caused by the goal's psychological value-significance for the agent.

In essense, purposeful actions are the most obvious instantiation of teleological actions. The teleological actions of non-conscious entities like plants is noted via the selection of adaptive actions via evolution. In both cases, it is the past success of certain actions that leads to their current selection for use in present situations.

Objection 1 - Causation by similar past goals.

This objection goes like this: If a current vegetative action is directed at _past_ goals, how can the action be goal-directed since goals are future states of affairs? That is, the object that causes the performance of the action (past instances of the goal) is not the goal of the action (the future state of affairs), which is the sin qua non of teleological causation.

Binswanger's answer is that: if the future state must be the goal of an action for it to be teleological, then _no_ actions are teleological, not even purposeful ones. No actions can be caused by a future state of affairs that doesn't exist.

In purposeful action by human beings--the obvious case of teleological causation--it is the mental contents of the imagined future state which causes the action. In puposeful action by animals, it is the desire in the head of the organism which causes the action. In neither case does the currently non-existing future state cause the action.

If this is right, then there should be no problem with non-counscious teleological causation that is aimed at past goals successfully achieved in similar circumstances. The description fits exactly, with the notable exception of consciousness to direct the process of aiming for a repeat of the past action to accomplish a goal; instead, such direction is provided by evolution which selected for the action based on past success.

Is this right? Are teleological actions really aimed at repeating past successes?

Let's consider Binswanger's student studying for an exam. (An interesting example to me. I can't imagine a _less_ creative activity for a human being than sitting down and memorizing facts to regurgitate for an exam. Why choose this as the paradigmatic case of teological causation? What about a person trying to solve a problem he's never encountered before? Could it be to avoid the problems of explaining how _this_ is an action performed based on the past success of such an action?)

Binwsgwanger states (p.122):

"Purposeful human actions are purposeful because they are caused by the agent's desire for some expected effect of his action. But both that desire and the expectation are caused, not by the future goal, but by the agent's extrapolations from similar previous actions and effects."

In what sense is this a description of goals based on past successes? Only in the sense that all of our knowledge rests on the evidence of our senses, which must be from the past. But how we abstract from such evidence in choosing our future goals is a tricky business, a business obscured by the phrase "extrapolations from similar previous actions and effects." These "extrapolations" are the identification of causal factors via concepts. Acting toward a goal is reasoning about such causal factors and then acting to bring about a future state of affairs. Such a state may be quite different from any past state of affairs.

Binswanger dismisses such a critique on the next page this way:

" is incumbent upon the objector to offer a more plausible analysis of what constitutes the purposefulness of conscious action...It would be necessary to... maintain that in some way the desire and expectation operative in purposeful action are a response to a future goal afterall..."

He obviously doesn't think this is possible, since he fails to explain any further why this is impossible. I'm suggesting that it _is_ possible to conceive of a future goal and work toward it, as outlined above. To the objection that I may not achieve such a future state of affairs and it therefore doesn't exist,

I would say that it is perfectly possible for me to be wrong in my identification of the necessary causal factors to achieve such a state of affairs. But it is that state of affairs which motivates my desire for that state, not some past state of affairs, which is as much non-existent now as the future state is right now. The non-existence of the future state of affairs shouldn't disqualify it

If I'm right about this, then Binswanger's objection to the objection fails entirely, since he rests his defense of vegetative "backward- reference" on purposive backward reference.

Objection 2 - Psychological and biological value-significance

Is Binswanger using the term "value-significance" equivocally? As I pointed out in a response to Irfan's review of Ch. 5, I think HB does use the term equivocally in that chapter. Does he clear up the distinction here?

The objection being posed is: Is biologigical "value-significance" of vegetative action equivalent to the psychological VS of purposeful action? The claim is that it is _not_ sufficiently similar to be grouped together under the same concept of VS. The reason it is not similar is that the organism in question doesn't experience the VS of vegetative actions as one experiences purposive actions via the "felt-impact" of psychological states.

HB maintains that biological and psychological VS are related. He does so by imagining an animal without the pleasure/pain mechanism, and he suggests it would have no reason to act teleologically since it can't pursue pleasure or avoid pain. But isn't this simply endorsing hedonism?

No, he says, because hedonism maintain that the goal of all purposive actions is the desire to experience pleasure, and the actual goal of purposive actions is the attainment of some object. While he allows that the pleasure gotten from the attainment of the object is usually part of the reson to desire the object, it's not the entirity of the desire. Somehow, the "possession and use" of an attained object is important but the pleasure taken in it's use is not.

I think HB would be better served at this point by defining the difference between pleasure--as a momentary feeling--from happiness as a lasting state. This is because ultimately values are pursued and gained to produce a happy or flourishing life for oneself, when such a stae is properly understood. But saying that values are pursued for their possession and use begs the question of why doing so is important. In the end, it's so one's life is happier--which must be distinguished from the mere range-of-the-moment pleasure of hedonism.

HB next makes the following claim (p.127):

"Having had the experience of valuing something emotionally, based on pleasure, man has the ability to invest non- pleasureable objects with value-significance; this is presumably what occurs when a man places a moral value on performing an action which he expects to DECREASE HIS TOTAL LONG-RANGE PLEASURE." [my emphasis]

I'm not sure why the fact that man can place a value on decreasing his long-range pleasure helps argue against hedonism. This seems important only if there's a difference between long-range pleasure and long-range happiness.

HB considers the matter closed and moves to animals. He says that animals are "always motivated by the pleasure-pain mechanism" (p.128), but are nevertheless interested in the object of its purposeful actions, not the pleasureable consequences. I don't see how if they are _always_ motivated by the pleasure-pain mechanism.

Now, we come HB answer to how psychological and biological VS are fundamentally related. The answer lies in looking at the faculty of consciousness from a biological perspective. That is:

"...the higher animals possess the faculty of consciousness because it has survival value." (p.129)

I would ammend this to say that consciousness _can_ have survival value, but it might not. It only has survival value so long as it is used to further the life of the organism. After all, not all organisms have evolved consciousness, and organisms like protozoa have done quite nicely without it. Consciousness comes with the advantage of being able to select among alternatives--at the same time it comes with the disadvantage of being able to choose the wrong alternative.

But the trick is to combine consciousness with the pleasure-pain mechanism. As HB says:

" is readily apparent that the things which bring pleasure to an animal are the things which the animal's life require." (p.130)

This is generally true, but there are notable exceptions. HB states a few like aresenic and alcohol for man and tuna fish for cats. He dismisses these as not part of the natural environment to which the organism is adapted. Yet alcohol has been a part of man's environment (that part of existence which has VS for man) since he first ate fermenting fruit, and it's not at all clear that it's harmful for people in moderate amounts.

But all this overshadowed by the pleasure to animals of sexual activity--activity which certainly endangers the life of the animals involved. It drains resources, puts the organism's in a vulnerable situation, threatens the life of the mother during birth, and draims resource from the parents if they care for the young. If it only by tying reproduction to pleasure that it occurs at all. And it's done to propgate the species, not futher the life of the organism. This is a major disjunction HB doesn't address, at least here (and he should tell us where he will do so).

HB continues to argue that the connection between pleasurable experiences and life-enhancing actions is overwhelming. Also, it is obvious that, like all an organism's beneficial traits, the pleasure-pain mechanism is selected by evolution. Therefore, it is natural selection which aligns the pleasure-pain mechanism with needs. In a like manner, it is ontogenetic selection which keeps the pleasure-pain mechanism operating in any particular organism during it's life.

Here, HB is handles the objection that the above reasoning only applies to physical pleasure and pain, and not to psychological pleasure and pain. He says that physical pleasure and pain makes abstract desires and preferences possible; that the basis of all psychological VS is the biological alternative of life and death. This is where he gives his answer to the question originally posed:

"The case for the basic similarity of vegetative action (based on survival needs) and purposeful action (based on desires) rests on the point that desire as a phenomenon has evolved because it has survival value." (p. 135)

So, although man can use his consciousness to choose self-destructive ends, that's not why his consciousness evolved. So the psychological value-significance conscious organisms place on objects is an expression of a more basic biological value-significance all living organisms experience. Psychological value significance is conceptually a species of biological value significance. This falls in line with HB's earlier classification of purposeful action as a species of goal-directed action.

It's interesting that as one moves from the non-conscious organisms through the conscious ones on through the self-conscious one, that the ability of the organism in question NOT to match psychological desires to survival needs increases. In fact, in human beings, we can endure a great deal of "delayed gratification" (grad school comes to mind) to achieve future goals. I wonder if some of the "higher" animals aren't less tied to their immediate desires than "lower" animals. This suggests the tie is not as tight for these animals as HB claims.

I have one more section of this chapter to discuss, which are various potential counterexamples to HB's thesis. That will be forthcoming soon.

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