Instincts, Desires, and The Rational Man An analysis of the contrast between faux beliefs and desires, and genuine beliefs and desires of rational beings

The view “that anything that we can successfully interact with by treating as if it were rational, and as if it had beliefs, desires, etc., has the very same claim to be regarded as having beliefs and desires” as humans do is one that is put forth by Daniel Dennett. This view is implausible for a multitude of reasons. It is important to note the contrast between faux beliefs and desires, and genuine beliefs and desires of rational beings. There is also the issue of conflation between metaphor and reality, the unique nature of being human, and finally the fundamental difference between non-rational things and rational beings that are able to control their impulsive and immediate pseudo-desires and pseudo-beliefs in favor of real desires and beliefs such as a human’s life purpose in the existential sense.

Dennett does not account for the fact that two different types of beliefs and desires exist. Namely, the first type is the type of immediate beliefs and desires – the ones that are short-term and are basic or simple. These are the types of beliefs and desires associated with the primary things such as need for sustenance, shelter, water, and are shared amongst all kinds of living things. They do not need higher-order thinking and they are resolved readily with simple solutions – if one is hungry, they eat; if one is thirsty – they drink and so forth. In contrast to these, the latter type is non-immediate beliefs and desires. These, as opposed to the former type are more complex and involve things like the existentialist concept of life purpose, or in a simpler example, the desire to lose weight or the belief that being overweight is unattractive. The former type of beliefs and desires are present universally and do not take thinking – they simply are states of being, reactions to physical and environmental factors and as such do not require rationality. On the other hand, the latter true beliefs and desires are more than reactionary and are fundamentally different from the former type of pseudo-beliefs and pseudo-desires. It is vital to distinguish between the two forms and to make a clear distinction between what is truly a desire and a belief, and what is merely a simulacrum and is actually something far simpler. In describing a simple physiological process as a “belief” or a “desire” – one runs the risk of conflating two very different types of things.

The use of belief and desire in the former sense is therefore metaphoric. The leap from interacting with things as if they were rational and is if they have beliefs, desires, etc. to actually giving them those properties is conflating the first type of pseudo-belief and pseudo-desire with the latter genuine beliefs and desires. The reality is that interacting with things as if they were rational does not actually give them those latter properties – it just gives the illusory appearance of such happening. By calling an elephant a computer, even if it is “for ease of understanding”, does not make an elephant a computer in any way – except for in the metaphorical sense. Confusing the self-ascribed characteristics that one claims an object has with the actual properties of the object is a serious error.

Dennett defends the argument that interacting with things in treating them as rational makes them rational. He states that talking about things in this way is helpful as a shorthand to understanding things and indeed this may be helpful in some cases. However, one can just as easily explain things in other ways without resorting to anthropomorphization which runs the risk of making objects more distorted rather than more clear. For instance, instead of ascribing amoeba desires – one can more accurately and with the same level of simplicity explain the amoeba’s movement towards food as a manifestation of a simple survival mechanism – that the amoeba given certain inputs, makes specific outputs. In the same way, rather than saying that a thermostat 'wants' to heat up a room and 'knows' to do as at a certain temperature, one can say that the thermostat is designed to make outputs given certain inputs. Describing things in this way avoids the unnecessary and confusing anthropomorphization that occurs otherwise.

Related to the difference between false and ordinary types of desires is the unique nature of being human. Dennett claims that “dualism…and vitalism…have been relegated to the trash heap of history” along with the statement that belief in either of these two concepts is equivalent to defying modern science. The issue here is that this claim is highly dismissive of vital concepts and these are dismissed with no investigation with a rather spurious faith in modern science. The science that was termed modern has throughout history been repeatedly proven to be wrong in significant parts. This blind faith in modern science today, this belief that now (albeit never before) humanity has achieved perfect understanding of all rings can be seen only as incredibly naïve.

There is a crucial difference between reactionary actions that only are concerned with immediate outcome and long-term, concerted series of actions that build up to something greater. In exploring this difference, it becomes clear what separates humans from all things that are non-human. Previously, the functioning of an amoeba and a thermostat were explored. Other animals function in the same way: for example, a dog given the smell of food, will always output certain behaviors conditional on some other states such as relative hunger, or the type of food. On the other hand, a human is distinct from the animals in that the human has the unique ability to suppress and/or control his short-term beliefs and desires in favor of overarching and more highly value long-term goals and life purposes. It is true that an animal can be trained to suppress its instinct of hunger to a certain point but an animal will never exhibit those characteristics without human involvement. The suppression of an animal’s immediate desire is not an ability that the animal possesses innately but is rather something that can only be trained and put into place by a truly rational being. Animals and non-rational things alike are slaves to their immediate instincts.

Similarly, an artifact with a simple set of input-output relationships like a basic thermostat can be given more complex sets of input-output relationships, but these must be sourced from a human. Neither an animal nor a computer can truly create – they can only compile or rearrange sets but lack the ability to create new ones; they follow certain algorithms in their faux-creationism and are unable to escape them in the way that rational creatures can.

Escaping the instinctual and the traps of the immediate demands of the described faux desires and faux beliefs, just like the ability to create outside of algorithms, without being imprisoned within a set of rules – is an innate characteristic restricted to the rational. This requires a sense of imagination to be able to visualize the rewards from following something beyond the immediate, and this resulting ability to control short-term impulses in favor of a higher project is something reserved to humans. In order to be considered fully rational, a being must be able to have control over its immediate impulses.

It is notable that not all humans exercise this control, but all possess the ability to do so. Those humans who do not make use of this ability and live instinctually – bound by their immediate faux-desires and faux-beliefs, are closer to animals in their way of life than truly rational beings. Therefore, not only are animals and things not capable of being rational, but even some humans lack rationality – as some humans do not have overarching desires and beliefs beyond the false ones of the instinctual and the immediate.

The desires and beliefs of the rational beings are guided beyond the immediate, whereas the simple amoeba instantly goes towards food or away from danger because it can only fulfill the immediate satisfaction of its necessities. Unlike these basic things, humans have two types of desires and beliefs – thus have beliefs that are immediate – such as if one is hungry, one eats. But humans also have beliefs that are non-immediate, that supersede these more base and basic desires and beliefs. An example of this is the long-term satisfaction of a life purpose, or even something less intricate such as the suppression of short-term hunger for the long-term goal of thinner physical appearance. This higher-form agency and the results of it in the form of human consciousness and the manifestation of life purpose in the form of high art such as the Statue of David is what sets rational humans apart from the entirety of irrational nature.

In conclusion, Dennett’s view that anything humans can successfully interact with by treating as if it were rational, therefore can be regarded as having beliefs and desires in the same ways as humans have them is implausible and inaccurate. It is important to note the difference between faux and genuine beliefs and desires. There is a stark difference between reactionary happenings that are only connected with immediate outcomes and the actions that are long-term and are made up of many different actions which together contribute to something greater.

The intentional state is admitted by Dennett as being anthropomorphic but is defended by him as an accurate and useful shorthand. However, seeing non-rational objects and creatures as akin to us is simply grossly inaccurate. The comparison assumes too much because the difference between a goal-directed individual who has a consciousness and the blind, robotic happenings of a non-consciousness entity have little in common. The observable behaviors of a macromolecule or a dog or other non-rational thing can be predicted without utilizing the problematic intentional state. The anthropomorphization of it takes away not adds to the comprehension of what will take place. Daniel Dennett is also overly dismissive of the unique nature of being human and the possibility of vitalism or dualism. Finally, there is the distinctive exclusive ability of the rational to be able to control the immediate impulses which can be called pseudo-desires and pseudo-beliefs. In the way that non-rational things can be said to have desires and beliefs, they can only be of this type. The genuine desires and beliefs such as the life purpose of a human is strictly reserved for the rational and to confuse the interaction of inputs and outputs in the non-rational with rationality is to dismiss a crucial element of humanity and would be a grave mistake indeed.