Friday, 6 June 2014

Why all internal reasons are actually external prejudices

Bernard Williams' doctrine that all reasons for a person doing something must be internal to that person- i.e. involve a motivation within himself rather than arise out of some Social Convention- appears easy to dispose off- at least on the assumption that human beings evolved by Natural Selection. This is because, assuming it is costly to have motivations which are subject to some calculus such that they inhibit or permit an action; it follows that for any given action, the Evolutionary Stable Strategy will militate for some proportion of actors not possessing an 'internal reason' but proceeding by mimicry, including lagged mimetic effects- i.e. for an external reason- to complete the same action. Indeed, Amotz Zahavi's work on warning calls and predator 'mobbing' shows how 'external reasons' can improve predator-prey outcomes and hence are trans-species Eusocial.
The same point would be true for artificial agents- e;g. those used in a simulation- provided it is costly to acquire information and apply reason to it and there is heterogeneity in terms of either information access or processing capacity amongst agents.
True, one could simply change the way one defines 'internal reasons' or 'motivations' such that we now speak of a desire to mimic or a desire to be lead or a desire to roll the dice and so forth. However, since these desires or motivations are encoded in Language, then- by Wittgenstein's argument against Private Languages- clearly these are 'external reasons' merely. The one doing the action may not even be aware of it, let alone have an internal reason for doing it. Certainly, it would also be a case of quod nescis quo modo fiat, non facis.
 However, since Public Language has different granularity than either 'Mind stuff' or whatever Cognitive process determines action, and furthermore, since we know in advance that any given set of terms available to Public Language for use as explanans is either incomplete or misleading or both- it follows that no external reasons exist save by way of prejudice.
The literature on this subject, in so far as it relates to counter-factuals, misses the point that for agents who have evolved by Natural Selection, Uncertainty always exists as to which World we live in- this one or a counter-factual. Indeed, the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy- assuming it is costly to find out the answer- is to always remain in a state of 'buzzing blooming' confusion in this regard, at least for some proportion of the population. Philosophy has no Archimedian point here. On the contrary, opening its jaws to digest Game Theory it  becomes merely the Ouroburos of the latter's shed skin.

No doubt, those familiar with the literature may think I'm missing the point. Perhaps, Williams is referring to ideal agents with infinite and instantaneous computing power? The problem here is such agents would have a type of Theory of Mind which would disintermediate Language and the essentially linguistic distinction between 'internal' and 'external'. Indeed, it is far from clear that the word 'reason' would retain any utility.

Alternatively, we may posit some special barrier to perfect Theory of Mind. But, in that case, Language would be entirely strategic because arising wholly from that barrier and the reason for it. Here again the distinction Williams makes becomes wholly hypocritical and empty of Philosophic content.

What about William's criticism of 'external reasons?'

The answer, of course, is that the agent believes he's hit on a 'cheap talk' ploy in a particular sort of game. To turn it into a 'costly signal' he may pretend to be undergoing some terrible inward struggle productive of the costive truth in question. Indeed, there's a Kavka's toxin type twist to this such that he has an incentive to convince himself that this is what is genuinely happening.
A bit like Bilgrami's Gandhi.


  1. You've completely misunderstood Williams. I don't think you've read the article you link to. We are talking about that rationalisation which is specific to the agent iff the action is done with full knowledge and unimpaired judgement. This does not mean an omniscient agent with infinite reasoning power. Just a reasonable person in full possession of his faculties and not liable to gross perceptual or other similar error. Williams is saying that when you interview such a person, you should ignore any 'external reason' he gives for his action and just focus on his 'internal reason' because the former is likely to be just something he calculates you want to hear whereas the latter is psychologically plausible and inspires faith in his future conduct.
    Let us look at an example. Suppose x denounces the Government as corrupt. If his reason for doing so is some loss he himself has suffered or will suffer, we feel he has a point. If, however, he says 'it is my duty to oppose the Government because Virtue requires hostility to those in power'- we may doubt his good faith.

    1. Williams assumes that agents have an interest in acting rationally and being well informed. However Kavka's toxin shows why this mightn't be the case. Idionomic or antagonomic preferences exist- indeed that is the ESS we would predict. Furthermore such preferences can have spectacular returns. Indeed, Politics and Religion and Philosophy and Literature and Art and so on show us nothing else. Even in the supposedly rational Business Corporation, the evidence is that the people at the top have high sociopathy and reckless disregard for both the Truth and even minimal due diligence. True, this can be kept in check if, like Stalin, you shoot Managers who mess up. But, that's a story about mechanism design and incentive compatibility- not Philosophy.
      In politics, the guy with a personal grievance can always be bought off, while the other guy who, on principle, accuses everyone else of being a thief (a la Kejriwal) might be the guy we elect.
      In any case, we are now not talking about reasons but signalling and preference revelation mechanisms. So Philosophy remains the ouroburos of Game Theory's shed skin.

    2. Actually, that response was a bit hasty and doesn't do justice to your argument. You raise a point re. the relationship between pragmatics and semantics which is, what I would term, properly 'Philosophical' in the sense of lying at the heart of hermeneutics.
      As such I'd need to see this argument deployed in some canonical literary context to see what its utility is.
      Any suggestions?

  2. What is Bilgrami's Gandhi?

    1. Hi.
      I'm sorry I thought I'd posted on the topic but actually hadn't. Prof. Akeel Bilgrami is a distinguished Professor from a very good Indian Muslim family. Many such people became converts to Mahatma Gandhi's ideology or cultus.
      To my mind, this was not a good thing.