The adaptive importance of cognitive efficiency: an alternative theory of why we have beliefs and desires

Biology and Philosophy 26 (1):31-50 (2011)

Armin W. Schulz
University of Kansas
Finding out why we have beliefs and desires is important for a thorough understanding of the nature of our minds (and those of other animals). It is therefore unsurprising that several accounts have been presented that are meant to answer this question. At least in the philosophical literature, the most widely accepted of these are due to Kim Sterelny and Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argue that beliefs and desires evolved due to their enabling us to be behaviourally flexible in a way that reflexes do not—which, they claim, is beneficial in epistemically complex environments. However, as I try to make clear in this paper, upon closer consideration, this kind of account turns out to be theoretically implausible. In the main, this is because it fails to give due credit to the powers of reflex-driven organisms, which can in fact be just as flexible in their behaviour as ones that are belief/desire-driven. In order to improve on this account, I therefore propose that beliefs and desires evolved, not due to their enabling us to do something completely different from what reflexive organisms can do, but rather due to their enabling us to do the same things better. Specifically, I argue that beliefs and desires evolved for making the generation of behaviour more efficient, since they can simplify the necessary cognitive labour considerably. I end by considering various implications of this account
Keywords Philosophy   Evolutionary Biology   Philosophy of Biology
Categories (categorize this paper)
Reprint years 2010, 2011
DOI 10.1007/s10539-010-9229-z
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

Our Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 43,694
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

View all 31 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Can We Perceive Mental States?Eleonore Neufeld - forthcoming - Synthese:1-25.
The Natural History of Desire.David Spurrett - 2015 - South African Journal of Philosophy 34 (3):304-313.
Altruism, Egoism, or Neither: A Cognitive-Efficiency-Based Evolutionary Biological Perspective on Helping Behavior.Armin W. Schulz - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 56:15-23.
The Benefits of Rule Following: A New Account of the Evolution of Desires.Armin Schulz - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (4):595-603.

View all 6 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Animal Beliefs and Their Contents.F. Dreckmann - 1999 - Erkenntnis 51 (1):597-615.
Motivation-Encompassing Attitudes.Christopher G. Framarin - 2008 - Philosophical Explorations 11 (2):121 – 130.
Belief and Desire in Imagination and Immersion.Susanna Schellenberg - 2013 - Journal of Philosophy 110 (9):497-517.
Unselfishness.Christopher G. Framarin - 2008 - International Philosophical Quarterly 48 (1):69-83.
On a Purported Principle of Practical Reason.Patrick Fleming - 2008 - Journal of Philosophical Research 33:143-162.
The Motivational Role of Belief.Neil Van Leeuwen - 2009 - Philosophical Papers 38 (2):219 - 246.
What is an Emotion in the Belief-Desire Theory of Emotion?Rainer Reisenzein - forthcoming - In F. Paglieri, M. Tummolini, F. Falcone & M. Miceli (eds.), The goals of cognition: Essays in honor of Cristiano Castelfranchi. College Publications.
In Defense of Folk Psychology.Frank Jackson & Philip Pettit - 1990 - Philosophical Studies 59 (1):31-54.
Instrumental Desires, Instrumental Rationality.Edward Harcourt - 2004 - Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1):111–129.
Reasons and Psychological Causes.Wayne A. Davis - 2005 - Philosophical Studies 122 (1):51 - 101.


Added to PP index

Total views
30 ( #285,296 of 2,264,518 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
4 ( #367,035 of 2,264,518 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes

Sign in to use this feature