Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Cultural basis of Desires and Beliefs

This the second part of a series started with The Evolutionary Basis of Desires and Beliefs. Today we look at how culture has its place.

The Evolutionary Basis of Desires and Beliefs
Lets summarize where we are so far. We examined the evolutionary basis in the last post. A desire is an attitude to make or keep something true whereas a belief is an attitude that something is true. The distinction made here between beliefs and desires is that only desires motivate. That is beliefs are descriptions of what it is, whereas desires are prescriptions of what could be. Or beliefs describe, they do not prescribe and desires prescribe, they do not describe. Still a description of such a prescription would be a statement of who has the desire and what its conditions of fulfillment are. If or when those conditions are met, then the desire is fulfilled. If or when those conditions are prevented or denied, the s desire is thwarted.

Animals lack the capacity to symbolize that humans have. Still lacking this capacity (to symbolize) animals can be said to have beliefs and desires, operate according to those and be understood as operating accordingly. Also humans can operate according to desires and beliefs they are unaware of and/or unable to state, similar to how animals always operate.

Now we have a number of evolutionary successful desires-as-ends: a desire for sex, a desire for food, a desire to avoid predators and so on. If we did not have them, we would not be here. In a fast changing world, animals who have the heritable post-adaptive capacity to develop new desire-as-ends - malleable desires - can have an evolutionary advantage over those who do not. Also we have not evolved to be acquire perfectly accurate beliefs but do have suitable error-minimization belief capacities - typically a balance between being over cautious and over reckless in our heuristic beliefs. In a fast changing world, animals who have the heritable post-adaptive capacity to develop new beliefs - modifiable heuristics - can have an evolutionary advantage over those who do not. Evaluative beliefs work via an agent acting on its desires, given its beliefs. If it lacks the relevant desire, it lacks the capacity to have the evaluative belief. So we have evolved to have post-adaptive malleable desire and modifiable heuristic belief capacities, that work faster than evolutionary inter-generational time, in intra-generational time. These post-adaptive capacities enables us to develop new desires and new types of beliefs. These enable us to create and operate within culture.

The Cultural Basis of Desire and Beliefs
We are assuming the related factors such as the development of tool making, language and so on here and only focus on the desires and beliefs.

The primary objective of culture originally was presumably to better help fulfill the desire-as-ends we already have as our evolutionary inheritance. This was helped by our post-adaptive beliefs enabling us to expand the scope of our world of interactions beyond nature and other humans and to include cultural artifacts - to use and to create. However culture could do more and provide mutually reciprocal social forces to mold malleable desires and to create new desires whose fulfillment is dependent on the existence of some aspect of culture, since if that aspect of culture did not exist the desire could not have existed. To the degree the interactions of agents, beliefs and desires worked together culture could persist, evolve and build on itself, to the degree it did not those cultural "experiments" were discarded.

However the combination of these social forces, modifiable (and heuristic) beliefs and malleable desires can go awry, the more so the more culture insulates agents from direct dependencies on nature and/or increases dependencies on culture itself. This can be in one of two ways and they can both occur and feed off each other.

When Heuristic Beliefs go awry
Heuristic beliefs are not entirely rational and sound, they might but they need to be considered or examined to see if this is so. One of the artifacts of culture has been to systematically study this process of considering beliefs called logic, critical reasoning and so on and this is summed up, today in the cross-disciplinary Heuristics And Biases Research Program, what I have previously referred to as the Science of Traps. Whilst this can be used to reduce the errors with which we hold our beliefs, it can also be used to go the other way, as a means to inject false beliefs into others and culture has been and still is being being used both ways.

The relation of belief and desires here leads to means-end rationality. That is one cannot reason over ends, only over means. Beliefs contribute to how we achieve our ends, by helping selecting the means to fulfill these ends. We can debate over intermediate desire-as-means but not over desire-as-ends (that was the argument against evaluative beliefs in the previous post). This is another way of saying that an agent acts to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs. Change the beliefs and the actions to fulfill the desires can change. And these beliefs can be changed either to reduce errors or to increase them.

When Social Conditioning Desires go awry
However what about the desires themselves? If one cannot use reason (means-end rationality) to change desire-as-ends, how can we have new desire-as-ends and that could only exist given culture, as well as modifying existing desires-as-ends? Well this is how the social forces work within culture. Material means such as reward can be used to encourage and punishment can be used to discourage desires. Expressive language can be used to praise and commend that is to promote desires with condemnation and ridicule used to inhibit desires too. Cultural practices of honor and dishonor and increasing or decreasing status are also be used. Emotive actions hugs, grooming, play and other forms of comfort versus threats and violence have also often (too often) been used. Legal processes can be used both as an indirect second tier reinforcement as a promoter/inhibitor of desires and as wells a means of dealing with the failures of social conditioning, if the legal process consistently reflects this pre-legal social conditioning.

However as Pavlov showed, behavioral conditioning can lead to reactions and desires quite disconnected from reality - the dog salivating when it hears a bell even though no food is provided. The same can apply in culture and the modern world is full of both informal - person to person as well as formal means - advertising and marketing - of socially influencing one's desires. and can be used and abused by anyone in any field such politics, business and religion. When used in combination with erroneous beliefs and the better insulated that society is from the underlying pre-social natural world, all sorts of desires can be encouraged up right through to ones that are impossible to fulfill for anyone. Indeed people can lead their whole lives with impossible desire-as-ends and still experience satisfaction even as no fulfillment is possible.

We have in this and last post briefly examined the evolutionary and cultural basis of desires and beliefs. We have identified various causes of erroneous beliefs and unfulfillable desires and have clues as to how evaluate both these, which will explore in the next post.