The hierarchical organization of goal directedness in thought and action

13 May 2016

Dan McShea
Department of Biology
Duke University


All conscious thought and action is motivated. That is, deliberate thought and action require affective processes — wants, cares, preferences — that are more akin to emotion than to any rational process. Pure rationality, pure reason, motivates nothing. But what are these affective processes? What is wanting, caring, preferring? All are clearly teleological, goal directed, in some way. Beyond that very little is known about them, neurobiologically or otherwise. However, all of the other goal-directed processes we know share a common physical structure, I argue. They consist of a small entity that is directed by a larger field that envelopes and contains it. I argue that this hierarchical organization explains the apparent goal directedness in human-made devices like homing torpedoes, in organismal "seeking" behavior, in development, and in adaptive evolution (which in some ways looks goal directed). If this view is right, then presumably wanting has the same physical structure, which suggests a strategy for investigating its neurobiology. Sadly the strategy is quite vague, and I have no idea how to implement it.

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