Needs, Desires and Goals

This afternoon, or evening, I will finish reading one of the worst popular science books I have ever read, or die in the attempt. It's full of "My hunch is ...", "I speculate that ...", "I'm no legal scholar, but ...", "Maybe ..." and the like, each followed by a just so story. It has little scientific content. (I am reading it because it received a good review in Nature, and hereby revise my opinion of Nature's book revieiws.)

The book is about the neuroscience of goals and decisions and, for all its failings, got me thinking about the nature of goals. It's part of human experience to be aware of some (not all) needs and desires, and to identify their satisfaction with goals. It is natural to believe that they can be unpacked into more basic elements, and to hope that science can do the unpacking. Cod Darwinian thinking expects that such reductions terminate in enhancing the survival of homo sapiens, so the just so stories resolve into something like amassing resources so as to maximize the opportunity of reproducing. (I am often surprised at the tendency of popular science authors to relish cod Hobbesian social arrangements running between the lines of such stories, as though movies like Mad Max and computer games like Grand Theft Auto are, or should be, good metaphors for the day-to-day life of humanity.)

Anthropomorphic thinking easily attributes goals to, for example, bacteria swimming upstream against chemical gradients: it desires to access critical nutrients, and these desires are "nothing but" the working out of chemical reactions.