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Is Synchronic Self-Control Possible?

Abstract

An agent exercises instrumental rationality to the degree that she adopts appropriate means to achieving her ends. Adopting appropriate means to achieving one’s ends can, in turn, involve overcoming one’s strongest desires, that is, it can involve exercising synchronic self-control. However, contra prominent approaches, I deny that synchronic self-control is possible. Specifically, I draw on computational models and empirical evidence from cognitive neuroscience to describe a naturalistic, multi-system model of the mind. On this model, synchronic self-control is impossible. Must we, then, give up on a meaningful conception of instrumental rationality? No. A multi-system view still permits something like synchronic self-control: an agent can control her very strong desires. Adopting a multi-system model of the mind thus places limitations on our conceptions of instrumental rationality, without requiring that we abandon the notion altogether.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    At present, the truism captures the principle that an agent need only believe that she is free to act in a certain way, as well as unsuccessful attempts at action. Although it is still vulnerable to additional counterexamples, it can, in principle, be revised to accommodate them. My goal is not to establish a version of the truism that precludes all possible counterexamples, however. My goal is to provide a plausible, i.e., empirically-informed principle of motivation, together with an account of synchronic self-control that does not result in a paradox.

  2. 2.

    Philosophical folk psychology should be distinguished from other senses of the term ‘folk psychology.’ It is related to, but is not the same as, what can be called ‘lay folk psychology,’ or everyday theories of behavior (regarding the relationship, see Section 3.1). Lay folk psychology is used in everyday explanations of human choice and action, for example, when I ask, “Why was Bob so angry?,” and someone responds, “Because Bob just got a speeding ticket.” This kind of folk psychology takes place in everyday conversations and so on. Similarly, philosophical folk psychology should be distinguished from what are sometimes called ‘mindreading,’ ‘theory-theory,’ and ‘mental simulation,’ respectively. These kinds of folk psychology largely have to do with the mind. Mindreading refers to the cognitive capacities used to explain and predict behavior. Theory-theory is a theory about those cognitive capacities. It suggests that the cognitive capacities of mindreading depend on the representation of a kind of theory known as ‘folk psychology.’ Mental simulation is a different theory about those cognitive capacities. It suggests that we explain and predict others’ behavior by simulating their mental states.

  3. 3.

    In reinforcement learning, this system is formally called the Pavlovian system (for key papers, see Dayan and Balleine 2002; Dayan et al. 2006; Rangel et al. 2008; Balleine and O’Doherty 2010; Huys et al. 2011; Guitart-Masip et al. 2012; Huys et al., 2012; Daw and O’Doherty 2014; Gęsiarz and Crockett 2015; see especially Dayan 2008 and Daw and O’Doherty 2014). However, the term ‘Pavlovian’ frequently leads confusion among researchers in other fields (for an interesting discussion of how psychologists and machine learning scientists characterize the Pavlovian system differently, see Rescorla’s “Pavlovian conditioning: It’s not what you think it is,” 1988). In most fields, as well as in everyday usage, the term ‘Pavlovian’ is usually associated with Pavlov’s original experiments with dogs, where Pavlov trained his dogs by repeatedly ringing a bell and then consistently feeding them afterwards. Famously, the dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with the delivery of food, and the dogs’ expectation of food delivery was measured by their salivation. In this context, the food was defined as the unconditioned stimulus, the salivation as the unconditioned response, and the bell as the conditioned stimulus. When the dogs salivated in response to the ringing of the bell, this was identified as the conditioned response. In both public understanding and psychology, then, attention is paid to Pavlov’s discovery of the bell as the conditioned stimulus and its association with the conditioned response, the salivating. By contrast, in reinforcement learning, it is really the relationship between the unconditioned stimulus (i.e., the food) and the unconditioned response (i.e., the salivating) that is of interest. One added complication is that Pavlovian conditioning, i.e., the learning type, is sometimes also characterized in terms of methods from reinforcement learning methods, i.e., in terms of model-free and model based methods (see especially Dayan and Berridge 2014; Pool et al. 2019; see also Raab and Hartley 2019). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this last point.

  4. 4.

    The deliberative system is formally called the goal-directed or model-based system (e.g. see Dayan 2011).

  5. 5.

    Hence its alternative name, tree search.

  6. 6.

    Example from Peter Dayan (2011).

  7. 7.

    The habitual system is formally called the habit-based or model-free system (e.g. see Dayan 2011).

  8. 8.

    This formulation is owed to Crockett (2013).

  9. 9.

    The feedback signal works much like exclamations of ‘Hotter!’ and ‘Colder’ in the children’s game Hot-or-Cold. The Seeker moves around the room with the general goal of finding a hidden object. The Hider helps the Seeker by telling her whether she is getting closer or farther away. The Hider’s suggestions operate like an error signal by helping the Seeker refine her predictions, albeit without giving her detailed instructions about where to go (analogy from Montague 2006).

  10. 10.

    For instance, in addressing precisely this question, Daw, Gershman, Seymour, Dayan, & Dolan (2011, p. 1211) observe that that such a hybrid approach of interaction-before-arbitration “would appear to remain consistent with the lesion data suggesting that the systems can function in isolation (Coutureau and Killcross 2003; Yin et al., 2004, 2005), and with behavioral data demonstrating that distinct decision systems may have different properties and can be differentially engaged in different circumstances (Doeller and Burgess, 2008; Frank et al., 2007; Fu and Anderson, 2008). It also remains consistent with other fMRI studies (Doeller et al., 2008; Poldrack et al., 2001; Venkatraman et al., 2009) suggesting that overall activity in different brain systems associated with either system can modulate with time or circumstances, presumably in relation to the extent that either process is engaged.”

  11. 11.

    Elsewhere, Sripada characterizes the same objection in terms of personhood (2014, p. 22).

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Ivan Gonzalez Cabrera, Peter Clutton, Caitrin Donovan, Benjamin Henke, Linus Huang, Colin Klein, Kathryn Lindeman, Ross Pain, Elizabeth Schechter, Chandra Sripada, and Julia Staffel. Special thanks to Thor Grunbaum.

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Haas, J. Is Synchronic Self-Control Possible?. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 397–424 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00490-w

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