Thursday, June 28, 2007

Social desires

I have just begun reading I. Persson’s monumental, The retreat of reason (Oxford, 2005; see the review in NPDR). There is a lot to think about already in the first forty pages or so, particularly about pleasure and pain. But I have just come to a very interesting argument which Persson thinks is sufficient to refute ‘experientialism’, that is the claim that the only thing desired by us is to have experiences of one kind or another. These may be experiences of pleasure, or of intellectual discovery, or whatever. What matters, nevertheless, is that the only things we desire are experiences which we have. As he puts it on p. 43:

[T]he falsity of experientialism is shown also by the existence of certain ‘social’ desires the content of which is that one be surrounded by other conscious beings who perceive and understand one and whose uptake is friendly and generous, that is, desires to the effect that others have certain experiences of oneself.

These ‘social’ desires are still self-regarding: it is not a general desire that there be in the world conscious beings, but rather that there should be in the world beings conscious of oneself. But it is not a desire for oneself to have a certain kind of experience; it is, rather, a desire to be experienced.

Persson’s argument for the denial of this claim turns on the idea that we would be most upset were it to turn out that there are no mental properties but only physical properties. So there are animate beings, but they act and respond just as one would expect a minded agent to act and respond, but do so solely on the basis of physical stimuli. The world would look, in other words, just as it does now. But there are simply no mental states in addition to physical ones. Persson says that should it turn out that this is the case, and should we find out that this is the case, we would feel ‘intolerably lonely’ (43).

This loneliness is interpreted as being generated by a desire for there to be other minded agents in the world on whom we might leave certain ‘imprints’ (44). There should, in other words, be people whom we might cause to love us, remember us, even despise us. It is not enough that people merely behave towards us in certain ways; we must also be confident that they think about us in certain ways etc. Persson interestingly uses this as a grounds for the common view that we are reasonably justified in having the desire to be remembered after our deaths (presumably fondly, for the most part, but I suppose some people may conceive a desire to be feared or simply well-known whether positively or not). Would this be so intolerably lonely? I’m not sure. Persson insists that the absence of mental states applies to all living beings, the addressee of his argument included. So the loneliness would be of a very strange sort; what we have realised is that all of us, that is all people we would normally classify as alive and conscious are in fact responding solely on the basis of physical stimuli, ourselves included. Loneliness would seem to be the appropriate description of my reaction only in the case in which I discover that I am the only possessor of mental properties in a world of otherwise solely physical living things.

Second, if we were to be convinced of the truth of the no-minds picture of the world that is presumably enough to convince us that there will be no mental properties at all. We might simply have to give up on the desire to be loved, thought of and the like. But if, as Persson insists, we too should turn out to be mindless in this sense but still have these social desires, we would also radically have to revise what it is for ourselves to want to be loved and the like. If we can find any room to retain such a desire in this mental-property-less world then it is less clear to me that we cannot also reorient our understanding of what it is to love, say, such that we can allow it to be possible all the same to be loved (on this new understanding) by other mental-property-less people.

This does not mean, of course, that Persson is wrong to think that what he calls ‘experientialism’ offers too narrow a range of things for which we can have intrinsic desires. But I am not so sure that this is a good argument against it. Perhaps the common and widespread desire for certain states of affairs to obtain after one’s death could offer a starting-point from which to build a similar case. However, it would remain to be shown that it is (i) rational or justified to have such desires and (ii) that such desires are in fact what they seem to be on the face of it and not, as one might claim, disguised desires to experience during one’s life certain emotions of being held in high-regard, loved, respected and the like.

These are still early thoughts, but I’m very keen now to work through the rest of the book. It seems to be an example of what I like most of all in philosophical work.

1 comment:

Choppa said...

Sounds to me as if he's regurgitating the old chestnut about the intolerability of having no god. Mind replacing god here as the Idea, the transcendent Other. The fetish we empty our positive (often) feelings and notions into and then worship on the basis of our own nothingness and the fetish's fullness and power.

Marx's chapter on commodity fetishism in Capital I gives a good account of the process in relation to money and goods (dead products) vs living human powers (living activity).

Seems to me he's just defining "mind" out of the setup, maybe "experience" too. And scaring himself into the bargain. This of course also highlights the perils of mechanical materialism. Does Persson take a position on the battle in linguistics between Skinnerites (behaviourists) and Chomskyites (mentalists)?