Innate games and constitutive norms

It’s absurd to say that the game of soccer is innate. Why? Because it’s silly to think that the information encoded in our genes gives expression to phylogenetic traits on minimal triggering and which track the complex set of rules that make up ‘soccer’. Similarly, it is absurd to talk about most games as innate — chess, badminton, Uno, and so on.

Indeed, you’d expect this point to apply to all games. But maybe it doesn’t. For, here’s a proposal: a game isn’t much more than a set of playable tricks. And some tricks are, plausibly, innate under some general description. Example. When my dog plays catch, the ‘catch-and-return’ instinct seems like an innate trick, because it comes too quickly and too easily to too many dogs with a similar genetic makeup. Furthermore, the trick itself is pretty much all there is to say about the rules of game.

I’m cheating a little. Granted, the particular manifestation of the game that my dog (Sammy) plays cannot be reduced to its natural components. Typically, the game he plays is best done under a richer description — “Catch the Monkeyman”, owing to the fact that his chew toy was (in better days) vaguely monkey-man-shaped. And of course it would be weird to attribute to him a monkey-man-toy-responsive trait, given that I’ve seen other dogs play a similar game of catch without the need for monkeymen. Still, if you fudge the edges of the example, it looks like catch-and-return is a case of a game that is innate for the species.

That doesn’t mean that all games are innate. Presumably, few are. What is interesting to me is that there is a predictable structure to games, as many of our games correspond to assemblages of these favorite natural tricks. Moreover, the rich description of a game probably far exceeds what you would get if you cobbled together all the natural tricks it takes to play it, in the same way that the “Monkeyman” description exceeds the catch-and-return game.

That said, if you could describe the essential or enduring structure of a game in terms of its natural tricks, you might have a stronger basis for talking about which norms are truly constitutive of the game. So, e.g., despite its name, “Catch the Monkeyman” is not really about the Monkeyman. Similarly — shifting examples to one that is more philosophically interesting — if we want to talk about truth as the constitutive norm of the game of assertion, we should be ready to talk about a truth-directed representational trick in our minds, and which provides structure to the activity.

Potted summary: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Now seems to be a good time to write about Hannah Arendt on the public-private distinction, as far as she puts it in ‘The Human Condition‘ (1958, 2e., University of Chicago Press). These are meant as reading notes, and meant to be faithful to the aims of the text. That said, I include a few comments in parentheses and italics where I think a little color commentary might help.

Continue reading “Potted summary: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition”

Why can’t I will a desire?

In this quick post, I’ll try to answer the question: why can’t we always form our desires at will and on command? So, for example, why is it I can’t will myself into wanting to do exercise, or wanting to grade a stack of papers, or into wanting to apply for that job at the box factory? After some brief deductive navelgazing, I’ll suggest that it might be possible to desire on command, though only if the agent has unsophisticated beliefs about their own agency.

Following the Davidsonian tradition, I’ll suppose that reasons are belief-desire pairs, and also suppose that an intention is a reason for action with an appropriate causal role in making the action. (Maybe this is a wrong account of action in general, because folk psychology sucks, etc. But for the sake of the present argument, I’ll assume it’s good enough for clear cases, and allow that a fuller account can be presented with a richer functional/causal vocabulary.) From this model, it follows that, for me to be able to will a desire, I’ll have to desire the desire, and believe I can effect the first-order desire.

Suppose we could causally effect desires in this way as a general capacity; what would the world look like if we could? Well, it would follow that akrasia would be impossible. For any time you failed to do a thing, it would always owe to your failure to want to do the thing. And that forbearance is not a weakness of will so much as a willful rejection of a live option. This is not our world, since akrasia does exist. So we do not have that general capacity.

But why not? What’s the holdup?

Assuming the Davidsonian model, there are three potential points of failure. Either (a) desires are not effective in making desires, or (b) beliefs are not effective in making desires, (c) there’s something about the relation between beliefs and desires that is not effective in making desires.

The failure to generate desire does not issue from the fact that genuine second-order desires cannot effect first-order desires. We fall in and out of love with our enthusiasms all the time, e.g., through emotion work and gratitude. It is both possible, and routine, for us to voluntarily adjust the intensity of a desire, by considering its relation to previously existing desires. And this is a special case of being able to will a desire, just in case willing is a belief-desire pair, which we assumed it is. Sometimes, a second-order desire is indeed sufficient to sustain a first-order one.

The failure to generate desire is, at least on first glance, not a function of a problem in causal effectiveness of belief-desire pairings. After all, by hypothesis, all intentions involve such pairings, and so must have the potential for action-success. There is, perhaps, something special about the case of willing a desire that prevents it from being willed. But it is unclear to me how I could better understand those limitations just by looking at the nature of reasons. If it were obvious, the question never would have come up in the first place.

So, since second-order desires sometimes do compel first-order desires, the obstacle must be found in the causal effectiveness of beliefs, either when treated as standalone mental happenings, or in their contribution to reasons.

What distinguishes belief from other representations with mind-to-world direction of fit is that it is truth-apt. And non-truth-apt representations of the world — e.g., intuitions — really do have causal efficacy in making desires. Hence, the difficulty that many of us actual humans seem to have in distinguishing the cognitive contents of intuitions from those of gut feelings.

So, one might think that the problem is that belief is oriented towards truth, as truth-directedness is not fit for ordering our sentiments. Why might that be? Well, I think truth has at least two features: it (a) indicates that the sentence has a referent, and (b) its claims are ostensibly built to last. However, (a) I see no issue in treating desires as referents. We think about desires as objects of propositions all the time. (b) So maybe the problem is in the presumption of standing. i.e., if we were able to will a desire, then it would presume that we also have a belief in our ability to effect a desire, and so, a judgment that our ability to effect a desire will be built to last. But if we ever suffer from akrasia, and remember it, then those judgments are unlikely to survive much scrutiny.

Suppose that account is correct. The upshot is that it might be generally possible to will a desire, but one has to have extremely unsophisticated (or deluded) beliefs about one’s own self-mastery to do it.

Compatibilist free will and quasi-perceptual intentions

If the only plausible compatibilist idea of freedom of the will demands that our conscious faculties be capable of exerting control at least sometimes over our behaviour, then it is hard for me to escape the inference that our intentions (or, anyway, our “free” intentions) are quasi-perceptual. That is, it is hard to avoid saying that quasi-perceptuality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the free will, if there is such a thing.

[Updated Nov. 16.15]

Very quickly, there are at least two different kinds of accounts of intentions. Many agree that intentions are causally self-referential: that is, they are the sort of thing that you represent as true, and become true by representing as true, and thereby causing it to happen. I say to myself, “I will lift my arm”, and then that saying-to-myself makes the thing happen. I describe a state of affairs, and then it happens. Such intentions are cases of de dicto reference, meaning they involve descriptions that refer.

Unfortunately, that makes it seem as though intentions are contingent on our capacity to introspectively verbalize. But (some complain): can’t children intend? What about non-human animals, like corvids? It seems they can intend to do stuff even if they can’t verbalize. What’s up with that? Hence the alternative — proposed by Tyler Burge, endorsed by AA Roth (and others) — is that our intentions only have de re contents. That is, our intentions have the structural feature of causal self-reference they function in such a way as to refer, but don’t involve any inner second-order faculty that is capable of introspecting on and verbalizing the thoughts that refer.

That all sounds great, except for one thing: the free will drops out. Right or wrong, few people have traditionally wanted to say that non-human animals have a free will. The free will is supposed to be a function of deliberation and our capacity for conscious control. And it seems to me that the connection between such a faculty and the notion of a de dicto intention should be obvious enough to be suggestive.

Of course, it remains to be seen if any such thing as the de dicto intentions actually exist. In all probability, I think, even mature adults will not have rich internal descriptions that they could report as reasons, even after deliberation. For it seems to me that de dicto intentions may have gaps in their content. But this is no reason to suppose that they do not exist, or that our account of intentions must be replaced by the de re account, which is tailored to fit children and corvids.

Trust as a truth-maker [tpm]

Daniel Everett entered Brazil as a Christian missionary. Then he encountered the Piraha people, a community that is indigenous to Brazil, and lived among them for a while. And as a result of encountering the Piraha, he lost his faith.

The Piraha are interesting for a great many reasons, foremost among them being that their culture is based on immediate experience. Everett describes them as “the ultimate empiricists”, because they have no respect for explanations of remote facts. For example, when Everett attempted to convey stories of Jesus and the sermon on the mount, his efforts were laughed off as credulous or delusional, since Everett had not witnessed the sermon firsthand.

This is just to say that, for all intents and purposes, the Piraha endorse a kind of evidentialism. Evidentialism is the idea that we have a responsibility to only believe things in proportion to the evidence. Compare that to the missionary Everett, who was a fideist — meaning, he believed certain religious claims were true on the basis of choice, commitment, and faith.

In a sense, the difference between the missionary Everett and the Piraha echoes an argument in epistemology. W.K. Clifford, a sabre-rattling epistemologist from yesteryear, argued that it is a sin against humankind to believe something on insufficient evidence: to be deluded is to be irrational, and worse. Pragmatist philosophers like William James bemoaned Clifford’s hellfire, and defended the idea that an ethical belief can be supported by force of will. Contemporary evidentialists like Richard Feldman and Earl Conee have goals that are slightly more modest than those Clifford had. Feldman and Conee argue that it is epistemically mistaken to believe out of proportion to the evidence.

I am an evidentialist, in the sense that I think evidentialism is platitudinous — it is surely correct to say that all objective knowers ought to apportion their beliefs to the evidence. But I also think that evidentialism is relatively trivial — evidence and volition are not mutually exclusive. Following the constructionism of John Searle, it turns out that sometimes you can believe in a proposition, and — bizarrely — trust counts as strong evidence in favor of the truth of the belief.


A pastor stands before his assembled flock at mass. The pastor has noticed that over the past few weeks donations in the collection plate have been diminishing. For a brief moment, he suspects there may be a thief around. On this particular day, the pastor has privately observed that a particular teenage boy has snatched some donations from the plate as it makes its rounds. A calm immediately passes over the pastor’s mind. For though the pastor knows that the boy is prone to mischief, the pastor also knows that they are otherwise impressionable and pious. Now suppose the pastor, in his sermon, mentions the mystery of the diminishing funds. In the midst of his speech, he sincerely endorses this proposition:

  1. I know that no-one who is part of this congregation is a thief in their heart.

The pastor says this with all appropriate showmanship – credulous intonations, sweeping gestures – in order to convey his belief that the congregation is made up of virtuous souls. But since the pastor has observed the boy taking the money, we should say that the pastor has made an utterance that is contrary to the external evidence, and is unjustified.

Let (t-1) be the belief in (1) prior to the utterance, and let (t-2) be the belief in (1) after the utterance.

Insofar as we think that (1) is the expression of the pastor’s own sincere beliefs, we might think that the utterance is faulty. Strictly speaking, his prior belief (t-1) is a delusion, since it is a belief that is directly contrary to the external evidence.

Yet the effect of the pastor’s words and bearing is as if it had conveyed a secret message to the boy: I know what you have done, and now you know that I know. As a result of the pastor’s utterance, the boy quietly defers to the pastor. Ashamed at his petty crime, the boy resolves to never steal again, and immediately returns the funds to the plate.

What is remarkable about this case is that simply by uttering (1), the pastor has at the very same moment (with the cooperation of the intended audience) brought about the state of affairs described by (1). The pastor’s prior delusion (t-1) suddenly transformed into an objective fact of the matter after it had been expressed (t-2). The utterance (1) is very much like what John Searle called a status function declaration. The assertion is true because the pastor represented it as true, and it was taken as true by the boy.

In short, the pastor made up the facts — and he got away with it. And “getting away with it” for the right sorts of reasons is all that is required to make the claim true.


In the above example, trust is the thing that makes (1) true. But of course, this is not a feature of all — or even most — evidential claims. No matter how much you trust a homeopath, trust alone will not make their snake oil work.

I think there is quite a lot to recommend the idea that trust can make some claims true. For one thing, it makes sense of the tenaciousness of systematic illusions — the illusions involved in organized religion, for instance — in such a way that we are capable of attributing rationality to them at some level. (Since the presumption of rationality is essential to social scientific explanations, this is only bad news for the cynic.) For another thing, it gives an account of how effective threats to those institutions pose a rational existential crisis in those who buy into them. As the Catholic Church has learned in Ireland, breaches of trust can be both morally outrageous and world-breaking.

(And to their credit, some ancient institutions will occasionally recognize the theoretical limits of their supposed magesteria. For instance, according to Catholic dogma, even the Catholic Pope’s infallibility is limited to its use ex cathedra. So if Mr. Ratzinger were to declare that the Earth has sixteen moons, then he would not be speaking from the chair of Peter, and hence not saying something true.)

So there’s no need to worry that recognizing trust as a truth-maker will lead to an epistemic disaster, and there are some good reasons to think that it makes sense of how the social world works. But even so, this is still a disturbing line of argument. For any free-thinking person who is not dead from the neck down, the idea that authorities can just make facts up from out of nowhere is a complete and utter scandal. And the above argument confounds the initial motivation for evidentialism, which is to reject the idea that wishful thinking can be conducive to rationality.

So the disturbed evidentialist might explain the pastor’s story by saying that at any particular moment in time, trust is never a part of the evidence. The idea is that the prior belief (t-1) and the subsequent belief (t-2) can only be judged on their own terms, and not compared to one another. As such, it would turn out that (t-1) is just the pastor’s delusion, and (t-2) is made true by the decision of the boy — in both cases, trust is not the truth-maker. In other words, the account would have to be synchronic (at one time), not diachronic (across time). This is consistent with what Feldman suggests in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, when he claims that evidentialism is best seen as a synchronic theory of rationality, not a diachronic one.

If we don’t believe that trust counts as evidence at the level of the diachronic, then we’d have to say that trust is (at worst) a merely sociological event that is of no philosophical interest, and (at best) involves a non-epistemic sense of justification (e.g., as Feldman suggests, a prudential one).

And while I agree that trust is a prudential notion about how we ought to pursue our personal projects as human beings, it seems that trust is also a conception of how we ought to conduct ourselves as responsible knowers. Trust is the causal link between (t-1) and (t-2) that made the boy acquiesce; furthermore, trust is the boy’s evidence for accepting the testimony of the pastor as true, and not just as the pastor’s interesting opinion; and trust is the reason why (1) really is true, since (1) is only true through deference, and there cannot be any genuine deference without trust. And, finally, if either the pastor or the boy had lacked trust, but all other events had remained the same, then we would have grounds to think that the pastor simply was not warranted in asserting (1).


In antiquity, the word “truth” (derived from “troth”) meant faithfulness, good faith, or loyalty. I’ve suggested here that there is one special context in which truth has retained its initial connotations.

I only worry that the Piraha would not approve.


(Corrected Feb 20: it’s the “chair of Peter”, not the “chair of David”. Apologies.)