Sunday, July 12, 2009

Psychological Inputs

Brian Parks has a puzzling post over at GFP. He invites us to consider the following manipulation scenario:
I implant in your brain a radio-controlled neurological device that allows me to manipulate all of the psychological forces (PFs for short) that guide you in your choices—that is, all of the feelings, emotions, sensitivities, motivations, dispositions, desires, aversions, beliefs, and so on that hold sway in your mind. Using the device, I can make you feel pleasure, pain, guilt, pride, calm, anxiousness, anger, compassion, and so on, each in response to whatever stimuli I specify. I can make you love a certain kind of food, I can make you hate members of a certain race, I can make you romantically attracted to a certain person, I can do all of that. More importantly, I can control the degree and intensity of each of your states of mind.

The one thing that the device does not allow me to control, however, is your ability to choose. You retain that ability. Though I determine your psychological inputs, you determine the choices that follow from those inputs.

This makes it sound as though one's psychological "inputs" don't exhaust the facts about one's psychology. Perhaps we can draw a distinction between input states or internal stimuli (feelings, etc.), on the one hand, and processes (dispositions to make certain inferences, or to be moved in certain ways by certain stimuli) on the other. We can thus make sense of the idea of controlling one's psychological 'inputs' whilst leaving free their ability to choose. (Different people process their feelings in different ways, after all.)

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be what Parks has in mind. Here is how he describes the upshot of using the device to imprint you with Madoff's psychological inputs: "In physical terms, I put your brain in the exact same neurological state that his brain was in, and I let things go from there to see what happens." So, contrary to my initial interpretation, the device doesn't just fix some subset of your psychological makeup (namely, the "inputs", leaving be the "processes"). Rather, it fixes your entire psychology -- decision procedures and all.

This seems like an important distinction to me. At least, if we want to draw on the intuitive picture of psychological 'inputs' as contrasted with 'choices', then we need to take care to interpret the 'inputs' sufficiently narrowly as to not exhaust our minds in their entirety. In physical terms: our brains include not only 'input' states, but also the mechanisms for processing these states so as to yield decisions.

But I guess it's a further question whether we should draw on the intuitive distinction I've elucidated here. My old post 'Agency and the Will' offers a quick argument to suggest that at least if we understand the inputs to be exhausted by 'beliefs' and 'desires', understood in some fairly stable sense, there's got to be more to our brains than just that. (Again, two people might have all the same beliefs and desires, but come to different decisions depending on all sorts of other factors -- attention, distraction, salience, not to mention brute differences in their habits of thought. It at least isn't obvious that all such differences can be traced to a difference in belief or desire.) But perhaps there's no principled reason to consider those other factors to be 'procedural' psychological elements rather than 'inputs'?

What do you think -- is there a principled distinction to be made here? If so, what is the best way to draw it?

1 comment:

  1. It's rather odd to think of beliefs and desires as "inputs" in this thought experiment, because those don't have obvious neural correlates. My first thought was to interpret "inputs" as something like sensations.

    I'm also puzzled about how long the inputs are controlled for. There's feedback between your actions and your beliefs, desires, and sensation. Messing with this feedback is a way of hindering your actions, isn't it?


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