Thursday, September 01, 2005
Instinct, intelligence, and reason in Korsgaard's Locke Lectures
The following brief excerpt brings out several important features of Korsgaard's view of merely conscious animals:
Consciousness first evolved in unintelligent animals, and would have been useless if all it did was to flood their tiny minds with neutral information that needs to be processed by intelligence or reason before it is of any use. So the world comes to an animal already practically interpreted as a world of tools and obstacles, friends and enemies, of the to-be-avoided and the to-be-sought. The natural way of perceiving the world, in other words, is teleologically. (4.2.1)
The unintelligent but conscious animal, on the view Korsgaard is pushing here, has an interior mental life of a sort. That mental life is comprised of a series of motivationally loaded representations of the outer world. These representations are the closest thing such an animal has to an imperative, and its behavior can be understood as rote adherance to the recommendations of its perceptions. For such an animal instinct operates both within the mechanism by which the sensory impingements of the world are transformed into representations and in the mechanism by which such representations spur behavior. In the first instance, instinct is the faculty which imbues those representations with motivational force, and it does this by sorting groups of sensory impingements into semantic categories -- things-to-be-eaten, things-to-be-ignored, things-to-be-avoided, and so on -- that are hard wired into the animal. In the second instance, instinct is the application of a rule specifying what is to be done given acquaintance with a representation from a particular category.
An intelligent animal is characterized by its ability to learn from its experiences. It is able to extend its repertoire of practically significant representations (or even just cues, for a machine may be intelligent) beyond those with which instinct (or the inventor) originally supplied it. So intelligence is a capacity to forge new connections, to increase your stock of automatically appropriate responses. Intelligence so understood is not something contrary to instinct, but rather something that increases its range and ramifies the view of the world that it presents. (4.2.2)
The distinction between an intelligent animal and one that is merely conscious, then, has to do with the capacity to enlarge the extension of the categories provided by instinct. An intelligent animal may, for example, come to learn that jello is food, despite initial appearances to the contrary. When it does this, future representations of jello will be motivationally loaded in the way that instinct (speaking loosely) determines that representations of food ought to be. Notice that the operation of instinctual faculties remains essentially unchanged, and that intelligence is able to overrule instinct only in the first of its two offices.
Since I have laid things out in this way the punchline is probably obvious - the rational animal will be able to overrule instinct in its second office. That is, the rational animal will be able to determine for itself what rule shall determine its response to representations from each of the various semantic categories. This rule making function, moreover, will be tantamount to a reconception of many of the categories since it imposes a teleology over and above that given by nature.
There is, though, a wrinkle. For Korsgaard reason is the result of a very specific feature of the human mind.
...our capacity to turn out attention on to our own mental states and activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them, and to call them into question. I perceive some situation as dangerous, and find myself with an instinctive impulse, an incentive, to run. But when I bring that impulse itself into view, when I reflect on it, then I can call it into question. Shall I run? Does this situation really give me a reason to run? And now I have to decide.
The first result of the development of self-consciousness is liberation from the control of instinct. Instincts still operate within us, in the sense that they are the sources of many of our incentives – in fact, arguably, though by various routes, of all of them. But instincts no longer determine how we respond to those incentives, what we do in the face of them. They propose responses, but we may or may not act in the way they propose. Self- consciousness opens up a space between the incentive and the response, a space of what I call reflective distance. It is within the space of reflective distance that the question whether our incentives give us reasons arises. In order to answer that question, we need principles, which determine what we are to count as reasons. Our rational principles replace our instincts – they will tell us what is an appropriate response to what, what makes what worth doing, what the situation calls for. And so it is in the space of reflective distance, in the internal world created by self-consciousness, that reason is born.