Friday, August 07, 2009

The desire machines

Alex Jurek lays into the conclusion of my essay yesterday on Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself. [Update: For some reason Jurek has deleted both his original counterpost and the reply to my refutation here.] An apologist for realism, Graff holds that reality presents man with certain “unrefusable facts,” which (in a phrase borrowed from Henry James) he “cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another.” But Jurek denies all this, arguing that “There are no facts outside of an interpretative scheme.”

Now, Graff himself easily dispatched this objection earlier in the same book: “That we cannot conceive of a fact without some interpretive paradigm does not mean that this fact can have no independent status outside the particular paradigm we happen to be testing at the moment.” (The emphasis is his. Oddly enough, I turned this passage back on Graff himself fifteen years ago in questioning his call to teach the conflicts.)

But this is not the most interesting part of his attack. “If anything is irrefutably real,” Jurek asserts, “it is that our existence as conscious beings is defined by our desires as well as our aversions. Humans are desire machines: All that most people think and do is defined by their cravings and aversions rather than true choice.”

Thus Jurek announces himself as a determinist. And thus it is not merely Graff’s “unrefusable facts” that he denies; he also denies the several defenses of freedom that I have mounted, such as here and here and here and here.

I have two questions for Jurek (or any other sociobiologist or Freudian or Marxist within earshot). If humans are desire machines (or evolutionarily adaptive machines or repression and sublimation machines or economic-class machines or what have you) is that a statement of the truth about the human condition or merely another expression of the machine’s desire (or adaptive behavior or sublimation or class)? If the latter, why should I credit it? Why should I think that it is true? If you genuinely were a machine, as Hilary Putnam points out, you would have no way to know it. Nevertheless, if your claim to be a desire machine is a statement of truth rather than an expression of desire there is then at least one human action outside the machine’s scope (namely, the machine’s unmachine-like assertion that it is a machine). And if there is one, how can you be sure there aren’t more?

More significantly, why is determinism appealing? What is it about the thought of being a desire machine that makes you want to reduce yourself to one?


R. T. said...

Although I lack the philosophical weapons and sophistication to engage in this debate, here--for better or worse (or for comic effect)--I would offer this simple assertion and argument: If there is no such thing as anything like reality then everything is (by definition) illusion (which makes me feel uncomfortably like Plato while saying so). If, on the other hand, absolutely everything is not illusion, then --by process of elimination--we ought to be able to decide upon certain realities that must be--(here it is)--a reality. Well, so much for the whimsical approach to your serious topic.

D. G. Myers said...


Reminds me of another epigram by J. V. Cunningham:

Illusion and delusion are that real
We segregate from real reality;
But cause and consequence locate the real:
What is not is also reality.

R. T. said...

Well, I shall be off again to the library tomorrow. Cunningham is the object of my visit. Anyone who can craft such perfectly sensible epigrams deserves attention. (How he escaped me during my "education" as a student is another one of those embarrassing omissions and deficits.) Ah, well. Have a good evening.

elberry said...

i have no interest or ability in philosophy but i found Mr Jurek's argument rather robotic and imaginatively monochrome. When i was about 20 i came up with my own Adlerian system, in which all human relations could be compressed to the hunger for power. i was, at the time, surrounded by people whose primary motivation was a very crude sort of power, over other people.

It was both appalling and plausible, this idea of human beings as power-seeking machines. i spent a while trying to think my way out of it, but there was nothing that i couldn't explain - with enough ingenuity & sophistication - by this model; though sometimes it required a fair bit of choosing to ignore human subtlety as if such was 'background noise', as scientists do.

Later, i realised the way out of this model - just because it was an explanation didn't make it true. There were other explanations. In the end i chose not to have a comprehensive, rigid explanation - i've seen too many people trapped in their own (or, worse, other people's) explanations, theories.

However, i think one can see that some explanations are meaner than others, are cruder, less nuanced, less human. They're the kind of explanations a robot would come up with, if it developed some kind of crude, blocky sentience. It's a robotic, mechanistic way of thinking. i suppose it convinces people who see reality in such grimly mechanical terms; the more mechanical the model, the more it convinces such people. And i suspect they just don't perceive the real subtlety of human behaviour and motive, so they don't see precisely those things which stand outside of their theory.

Denver Bibliophile said...

My response,

ricpic said...

Saul Bellow wrote that if you're going to draw a map of the United States you at least have the responsibility to show the Mississippi emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, not the Pacific.

D. G. Myers said...

The URL for Alex Jurek’s reply did not seem to upload.

The reply is here.

Art Durkee said...

Elberry is who I agree with most strongly here. (BTW, I couldn't read Jurek's reply as its page seems to have been removed.)

The important thing to remember, in all this, is that the head when spending too much time in thought and divorced from the body, might not even notice that it stubbed its toe on something rather real. Or real enough to provoke pain. It is possible to read endlessly about grief as a way, for example, of avoiding feeling grief, and weeping. The mechanistic definitions of psychology have always been reductive to the point of missing that the body is part of our experience, too. Something many intellectuals (and writers) often seem to forget, unless reminded. (A mistake I've made myself, so I have no higher ground here.)

David Ellis said...

I found determinism appealing for a long time. To me Determinism offered freedom from guilt for so often choosing the desirable over the good. Eventually I found I wasn't convincing anybody, including myself.

If I hurt people by acting on my desires I still feel bad, whether I say I'm a machine or not. I could say I'm a machine that desires to do the right thing, but that doesn't relieve me of accountability for my choices, so I might as well resign myself to being a human being.

Anonymous said...


Accountability is a funny thing--at some point you have to hold yourself accountable, yes, but also you have to hold the universe (others, society, and, yes, logically, God) accountable for what it has done/filed to do for you so that you became as you are, don't you? Or is it only you are are to be held accountable and THEY always get a free pass? Seems that it is always the latter, doesn't it? So perhaps we should require the THEY first hold themselves accountable and then we can follow their lead.

It's interesting to say that you feel bad about hurting others (are you intentionally hurting them?) but what about others' responsibility to you? And can you really hurt anyone without their consent? Can you really do anything to change the mental state of another? For example, can you really cause someone to feel bad about themselves or is your comment about their flaw so hurtful to them only because of their low self esteem? And would they feel differently if they were on Prozac? So who is getting hurt by the comment?

David Ellis said...

I said, "If I hurt people by acting on my desires I still feel bad, whether I say I'm a machine or not." I meant this hypothetically, not confessionally. Hopefully I'm not actually hurting people these days, intentionally or otherwise. (Of course, one never knows. All the stars in our galaxy may scream in pain every time I boot up my computer, but I hope not.)

I think there are at least two reasons why someone might try to hurt people intentionally. #1 They might feel so fundamentally fearful and powerless that they try to hurt in order to prove they can have some effect on the other and therefore some degree of power over them. #2 They may seek revenge or retaliation for some perceived disrespect or injury. But I assure you I don't try to hurt people; whether I really could or not is another question.

You ask, "[...]can you really hurt anyone without their consent?" I think this raises the question of whether I can know for sure whether my actions will have beneficial or harmful outcomes, and my answer to that is No, I can't know for sure. Think of all the people who have said that an apparently bad event, such as an accident or an illness, turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Maybe it prevented them from boarding a plane that crashed, or maybe they learned valuable lessons from their illness. Who knows? Nevertheless most of us would never deliberately give someone a terrible illness or injury in the hope that it might be good for them. I suppose it is our intention, accompanied by a measure of common sense, or reasonableness (no reasonable person would break your bones to save your soul, at least not these days) that counts when we guide our actions by the importance of not doing harm.

My original comment was an attempt to answer D. G. Myers question, "[...]why is determinism appealing? What is it about the thought of being a desire machine that makes you want to reduce yourself to one?" What I was trying to say was that in my younger days I felt the appeal of determinism as a theory that would relieve me of the anguish of making difficult choices by explaining all my actions as not choices but necessities. Eventually I came to realize that determinism and other forms of reductionist theories can sometimes serve to help us understand something. But reductionism necessarily leaves something out, namely how we feel when we choose to act. By leaving feelings out of our theory, we don't cease to have them.