Desire is to successful intention as belief is to knowledge

The concept of belief is really very simple. You believe something when you think it’s true. The “something” you believe – the “it” that you think is true – is its content, which can be expressed as a declarative sentence. That’s how we usually ascribe beliefs, as in “Bill thinks Paris is the capital of France”, where the embedded sentence ‘Paris is the capital of France’ is true in the same range of situations as Bill’s belief.

Animals obviously have beliefs, even though they don’t have language. So those embedded sentences are generally not literally inside the head of the animals whose beliefs they correspond to. Rather, the belief plays a similar role in the animal’s mental economy as the sentence plays in the language’s inferential economy. The role of the sentence in the language – what it would be true of, what it implies, what implies it, and so on – mimics the role of the belief in the animal’s belief-system – such as what the animal infers from it.

Although the concept of belief is simpler than the concept of knowledge, we seem to acquire it later in life. There’s a reason for that. Having knowledge is the normal state of any perceiving mind with respect to the world. Evolution shaped brains, afferent neurons, sense organs, etc. so that minds would have knowledge. So when we humans begin to talk as infants, we tend to talk about the most familiar normal situations of agents knowing things about the world they live in.

Only after we have acquired a working concept of knowledge are we able to abstract from it to acquire the concept of belief (and many do not get that far). An item of knowledge is a true belief sustained by reliable processes. We sculpt our (simple) concept of belief by chipping some bits off the larger stone of our (less simple) concept of knowledge. We do it by “bracketing” or suspending in our imagination the condition that it be true, and/or the condition that it be sustained by reliable processes. These extra conditions typically depend on states of affairs outside the head of the knower – truth depends on the subject matter of the belief, and reliability depends on information channels such as sense organs. Only after we have isolated the component of knowledge that lies wholly inside the head do we finally arrive at the concept of belief.

There are some legitimate reasons why beliefs are of special interest to us. But there is at least one illegitimate reason: the ubiquitous Cartesian view of the mind as being “cut off” in a problematic way from the “outside world”, so that we are “not entitled” to talk about anything beyond “the inner”. Thus begins an unhealthy preoccupation with certainty and with “justification” – in other words, with internal guarantees or checks on the supposed goodness of our beliefs.

Internalism has done untold damage to epistemology in particular, and to philosophy in general. That’s a misfortune, but it’s one that mostly only academics have to live with. However, internalism has also done untold damage to the lives of ordinary people, in its application to volition. I’ll try to explain.

The concept of desire is as simple as that of belief, and our acquisition of it mirrors that of belief. We start off with successful intention rather than knowledge. Successful intention is the normal outcome of any act. Most of the time when we say “he did X”, we mean he meant to achieve X when he acted, and he actually succeeded.

I mentioned above that evolution shaped brains to have knowledge. But that knowledge serves an even more fundamental evolution-given purpose: to promote the proliferation of our genes in future generations. Evolution shaped brains, efferent motor neurons, muscles, etc. for achieving goals. So when we first begin to talk, we talk about the most familiar normal situation of agents achieving goals in the world in which they act.

Only after we have acquired a working concept of successful intention are we able to abstract from it to acquire the concept of desire (and, strange as it may sound, I would argue that many do not get that far). A successful intention is a desire that reaches its goal by means of reliable processes. We acquire the concept of desire by “bracketing” or suspending in our imagination the condition that it reaches its goal and/or the condition that it does so through reliable processes. These extra conditions typically depend on states of affairs outside the head of the knower – success depends on the object of the desire (a state of affairs) being realised, and reliability depends on working machinery such as motor neurons, muscles and limbs. Only after we have isolated the component of successful intention that lies wholly inside the head do we finally arrive at the concept of desire.

As with belief, there are some legitimate reasons for being interested in desire as opposed to successful intention. But as with belief, the Cartesian reason is illegitimate. The idea that our minds are “cut off” in a problematic way from the world in which we act narrows our focus, so that it settles on experienced wishes. There is real danger in this – not just for academics but for the way ordinary people live their lives. We are liable to think of a strong desire as a vividly-experienced wish instead of one that emerges in decisive action. And we may mistake fantasy for actual desire, even though we often fantasise about things we have an extremely powerful aversion to, such as rape. It is that sort of confusion that leads me to say many people never get as far as having a clear concept of desire. By confusing it with vividness of experience, they make a similar mistake to those who suppose the subjective feeling of certainty is a guarantee of truth.

The perspective of traditional epistemology is to look from the inside outwards. From that perspective, the concept of belief looks more primitive than the concept of knowledge, and it looks as if we can treat beliefs that have the extra ingredient of “justification” as making it over a hurdle to become knowledge. The same perspective supposes that intention is “like desire, only stronger”. I recommend an alternative perspective, which takes desire to be more like an attenuated form of intention. Instead of expanding our concepts of belief and desire to include the concepts of knowledge and intention, we have to contract our concepts of knowledge and intention till all we have are concepts of belief and desire.

I think this has a real bearing on how we live our lives, because so often we appeal to internal “feelings” when making judgements about what we really desire. For example, young parents are harsh on themselves if they do not feel a strong sense of attachment to a newborn baby. Lovers misread jealousy as a wholly “negative” emotion. Spouses mistakenly think they have fallen out of love if they have grown accustomed to each other. Terrorists deem their own actions to be morally right if their experienced urge is to do good.

Thoughts such as those lead people to make bad decisions in life.

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