BBTC, Chapter 3
Analysis of Purposeful Action
by Tom Radcliffe
Date: 7 Jun 1994
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe
In Chapter II Binswanger identified three steps to reaching an understanding of the status of vegetative action as goal-directed. The first of these steps is to answer the question: "What are the properties of conscious action which make us view it as purposeful?" B.'s end-in-view in Chapter III is to find an answer to this question. Recall that B. distinguishes between actions taken with an end-in-view (purposeful actions) from a more general category of teleological action that may not have an end-in-view (goal-directed action.)
My end-in-view in writing this essay is to first summarize B.'s argument, criticize some aspects of B.'s comments on desire and free will, and then make some comments on his view of causality and explanation that have lead Rick Minto to accuse B. of introducing elements of positivism into the objectivist philosophy of science. I argue that Rick is making an error in suggesting there is a meaningful metaphysical use for the concept "fundamental." Binswanger's position on this question does not help much, being at best ambiguous.
As a free bonus, there is an emotional polemic thrown in at the start.
Emotional polemic starts here: I can't think of where to stick this comment in the structure of this essay, so I'll put it here where it is good and obvious: I found myself having to mentally hold my nose a number of times reading this chapter, with its cartoon images of "savages" sacrificing to the gods. I have no particular fondness for so-called indigenous cultures, but with the practically unmatched European history of savagery to draw on (nigh on four-thousand years of documented bloodshed, irrationality and tyranny, much of it carried out with a technological capability that simply wasn't available elsewhere) it seems to me a little strange that objectivist authors so frequently conjure up these images out of 1950s B-movies when discussing the development of concepts. Why not, instead of saying (p. 32), "There is no rational justification for a savage's belief that by making animal sacrifices to the gods, he will influence the weather" say, "There is no rational justification for a savage's belief that by burning a witch he will influence the salvation of her soul"? It is time to reject the Church's old definition of "savage" (people who aren't white and don't believe in God) and replace it with something like, "a savage is anyone who believes that there are ways of knowing superior to reason." By that definition my ancestors could hold their own in the savagery brigade against head-hunters and cannibals without working up a sweat.
End of emotional polemic.
1) Summary of Chapter III: The Analysis of Purposeful Action
Purposeful action is only possible to conscious organisms, for holding an end-in-view is a capacity of consciousness alone. In the best objectivist fashion B. therefore asks what facts about our consciousnesses are important to forming the concept of purposeful action.
He identifies two attributes of the conscious state that distinguish purposeful actions from all others: to act purposefully, a person must believe an action will have particular consequences, and desire those consequences. It does not matter that the belief may be ill-founded: the Bible is not literally true, but a devout fundamentalist would still be acting purposefully if he refused to wear cotton-polyester (Deut. 22:11).
The belief that a particular action will help bring about particular consequences (salvation of the soul, in the example of the fundamentalist above) is insufficient to cause the action. There must also be a desire on the part of the agent for those consequences. B. argues that this desire (and not the end-in-view itself) is the cause of the action. I have some quibbles with B.'s whole discussion of desire that I'll get to below.
B. summarizes his position as: "A purposeful action is a conscious action caused by the agent's desire for some anticipated consequences of his action." By this standard, B. argues, the conscious actions of non-human animals are purposeful.
Having established the nature of purposeful action, B. turns to the order of cause and effect in purposeful action. Teleological statements typically reverse the temporal ordering of cause and effect: I say, "I am drinking beer in order to get drunk." The effect (future inebriation) is put forward as the cause of my action in the present. B. solves this problem by pointing out that according to his definition of purposeful action the cause is in fact my present desire to become inebriated, and my belief that drinking beer will do this. The belief and the desire both precede the act, so the temporal order of causation is preserved. Belief and desire constitute the efficient cause of the action, and the end-in-view constitutes the final cause.
B. argues -- correctly I think -- that we should retain the language of final causation even though there is an account of the action that depends only on efficient causation. The two accounts are slightly different perspectives on the same facts. This particular difference is so small that B. calls them inseparable: there's not much to choose between "I went to Stratford in order to see a play," and "I went to Stratford because I wanted to see a play."
B. closes with a re-iteration of his point in Chapter II that teleological explanation is a special case of mechanical explanation, and that the distinction to be made is a question of two different perspectives on the same set of facts. The problem of teleology as he poses it is how we can legitimately make this distinction, and whether vegetative actions will fall on the teleological or non-teleological side of it.
My overall assessment of this chapter is that while the core analysis of purposeful action is sound, B.'s defense of it raises some problematic issues. These are discussed below.
2) Quibbles Regarding Desire and Free Will
Nathanial Branden's work notwithstanding, I think it would be wrong to say that anything like an objectivist psychology or theory of the mind exists. Many of Rand's positions depend on a model of the mind that is at best vaguely defined, and this vagueness is evident in B.'s discussion of desire.
Despite his claim to be concerned only with "paradigm cases" of desire, B. manages to muddy the waters quite a bit. On the one hand, he states that desire in humans is caused by (p. 33) "more basic metal processes, such as appraisal and evaluation." On the other hand, he argues that animals experience desires in the absence of any ability to conceptualize the desire or its object. This implies that desire in humans is radically different from desire in other animals. I believe objectivists tend to hold the differences between humans and other animals as greater than they are, often with little empirical justification for their claims. We are simply not long enough out of the trees for there not to be substantial areas of continuity between human psyches and the psyches of other animals. I hope that some day an ethologist with a knowledge of objectivism will take on this problem.
Next, there is B.'s discussion of actions without desire, as in the case of duty. I would argue that such actions are purposeful, with the efficient cause being the desire to do one's duty. I do not believe there is action in the absence of desire. The complexity of the human soul is such that there is often only the most tenuous link between the nature of the action and the nature of the desire, to the extent that it may be impossible to deduce the nature of the desire from the action. But there is always desire, and I can't understand how B. can on the one hand say purposeful action is action caused by desire for an end that is believed to be a consequence of that action, and on the other hand say (p.33) "Of course, there are purposeful human actions in which the element of desire is missing...."
Finally, there is the brief mention of free will (p. 35- 36), in which free will is given the role of "endorsing" certain desires, and therefore allowing them to be acted upon. Rand's theory of free will as the choice to focus one's mental attention on specific objects is one of the most intersting aspects of her whole patchwork, and I can't see how it relates to B.'s description of free will at all. The choice to focus is *positive,* not merely a matter of "endorsing" desires that are thrown up from the depths, but an active faculty whose use allows us to organize and operate our minds more effectively than any other animal.
None of these questions is really central to B.'s argument in this chapter, but his handling of them points out areas of incompleteness and ambiguity in objectivism that should be the focus of future work.
3) Ontology, Causality and Explanation
I find B.'s wording of the question he is answering in Chapter III interesting. He says, (p. 28) "What are the properties of conscious action which *make us view it* as purposeful?" (emphasis added.) Rick Minto and Irfan Khawaja have both argued that this attitude is wrong-headed: that the question should be "What are the properties of conscious action which *make it* purposeful?" I have already posted a reply to some of those objections, in which I argued that the two questions could be construed as one and the same if you take the objectivist theory of meaning seriously. Things are not intrinsically instances of the abstract set "purposeful." They are actively subsumed by the concept purposeful only if they fulfill the definitional criteria, and to say, "X fulfills the definitional criteria for Y" means both that "X is Y" and "We must view X as Y." Binswanger's language (and my own, at times) is perhaps unfortunate, but the desire to avoid intrinsicist assumptions is at its root. It nonetheless sometimes makes B. look like a variety of subjectivist. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that B. sometimes uses language that makes him look like a variety of intrinsicist, as discussed below.
Rick has argued (often using large philosophical words like "nomological subsumption" that make me appreciate just how much Jimmy Wale's head hurts when I start in about quantum mechanics) that Binswanger may have adopted a Humean-empiricist view of causation which allows the decoupling of ontology and explanation that B. and I think is necessary and good and Rick and Irfan think is unnecessary and bad. "Decoupling" is a bit of an unfortunate term, as it implies that the two are unrelated. There is, however, a very important distinction to be made. My own position on the issues Rick has raised (assuming I have understood them correctly) is as follows:
Causes are concrete and particular. Causal explanations are abstract and general. That is: nothing is ever caused by anything other than a concrete, particular thing. My coffee mug sits on my desk by virtue of its own particular mass and the particular mass of the Earth. The Earth causes my coffee mug to sit on my desk. My explanation of this, however, is necessarily abstract. Mass and gravity are both abstractions, and for me to say, "My coffee mug sits on my desk because its mass is subject to the gravitational attraction from the mass of the Earth" requires me to invoke these abstract terms *as abstractions.* I am making a general, abstract claim about the nature of mass and asserting that I can subsume the particular case at hand into this claim. One way of looking at the legitimacy of this subsumption is to ask: is this particular case one that could have been used as a basis for forming these concepts in the first place?
This means I am declaring at the outset that the Humean contention (as Rick describes it) "if C causes E, and C and E can be type-identified in two or more non-equivalent ways, then C did not cause E _as anything in particular_" (emphasis in original) is false. C always causes E as *itself* -- the most particular thing of all -- an individual entity in its entirety. To take any other position seems to me to involve a massive inversion of hierarchy -- we become aware of properties via the actions of particular entities, and form the only concepts of causal relations we can legitimately have from observations of those particulars. How then can we infer that causes are anything but particulars?
The different natures of causation and causal explanation make it necessary to distinguish ontology and explanation. Only particulars exist, and there is no hierarchy of existence. The abstract nature of explanation requires a conceptual hierarchy, and this hierarchy will reflect the knower as much as the known, so multiple hierarchies are possible (and in physics, at least, they actually exist.)
To fail to admit this distinction between hierarchy-less existence and hierarchal explanation is to lapse into intrinsicism, and I believe both Rick and Binswanger make this lapse at times. Rick says, "On the other hand, if it is the case that teleological causation and mechanical causation are *fundamentally* two different modes of action of a living entity then the difference is not *fundamentally* epistemological, but metaphysical." (emphasis added.)
I also am frankly uncomfortable with much of Binswanger's discussion along these lines. He speaks freely of the "metaphysical status" of vegetative action, and asks (p.27) "Is vegetative action *essentially* similar in its mode of causation to purposeful action?." Only particulars exist, so the abstraction "vegetative action" cannot have a metaphysical status. And the question of what is essential is epistemological, not metaphysical. So on the one hand B. looks like he is committing the same error as Rick, but on the other hand Rick criticizes him for taking a view similar to those thinkers for whom (p. 26) "the issue is merely one of semantics, of finding the most 'convenient' or 'fruitful' terminology." To my mind, this latter view is precisely the one that objectivists should be taking, with the understanding that both the specific nature of the mind and the facts about the particulars in question strongly constrain what is either convenient or fruitful. At the very least, I wish B. had brought out the objectivist perspective more clearly, as he is ambiguous on the question of what he means by things like "metaphysical status" and "essential," If he is read in one way he looks like an intrincist, and in another like a positivist.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding Rick and Irfan (and Binswanger) entirely here, and in any case I think they are all honestly mistaken. I look forward to list members showing me where I've gone wrong.
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