On Desire - Why We Want What We Want

30 Jul 2012

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Book: On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
Author: William B. Irvine
ISBN-13: 978-0195327076

We all have desires. Isn’t it?. I desire everything that attracts me. If I like an activity, I want to do it. If I like a product, I want to have it. If I like a person, I want to have a relationship with him/her. I believe, many are like me. Ever wondered, Why do we have desire to do anything at all?. What triggers these desires?. Why some desires are stronger than others?. Why do people even risk their life for love, power or money?. This book has answers for these questions, in a way that is tough to digest.

The author William Irvine is a professor of Philosophy at Wright State University. This book shows his rich experience in philosophy. He is able to take us from the ground level to the level where we can understand what he has to say. All his discussions are based on philosophy, reasoning, Darwinism and a lot of scientific evidences. He starts the book with the basic discussions on desire and moves on to the science and evolution of desire and finishes the book with the dealing of desires. He uses a lot of examples to explain each and every concept clearly.

One such example: If I am hungry, I will find the keys, start the car, drive to the nearest restaurant, eat anything that is available and end my hunger pangs. A very ordinary, day to day activity for many people.

You are hungry and you need to end your hunger pangs. To accomplish that, you find the car key and drive to the restaurant. If you are not hungry, you would not have driven to the restaurant. The anxiety to end the hunger pangs is called Terminal Desire (wanted for its own sake). The other desires that you form to accomplish your terminal desire are called Instrumental Desires.

Most of our terminal desires are formed by our emotions and all of our instrumental desires are formed by our intellect. Surprisingly, emotions win over intellect most of the time (unless you are enlightened). Most of our terminal desires are the results of thousands of years of evolution. Irvine discusses the possibility of the evolution of desires in species and its part in helping the species to survive and reproduce.

For example, if having sex hurts you badly and jumping into fire produces orgasm, all of us would have perished long back. What makes sex, a desirable thing to do and jumping into fire a strict non-desirable thing to do?. Only Darwinism can answer that question. The ultimate goal of any species is to survive and reproduce. All the desires that helps to achieve these goals are desirable and others non-desirable. All of these information are already coded into our DNA, which Irvine calls Biological Incentive System (BIS)

BIS rewards you with orgasm, if you have sex (helps reproduction) and punishes you for jumping into fire (does not help survival). BIS decides most of what we want. You get a perception that what you will want is already decided by your BIS. Where does the free will go?. The idea of free will is an illusion, when compared to the grand scale desires we form.We have free will to decide the Instrumental Desires, but not the Terminal desires. In most cases, instrumental desires are formed to accomplish Terminal Desires.

For example, if you do not like Brinjal (Egg Plant), you can choose not to eat it. You have free will. Great. But, your BIS decides that you do not like Brinjal (Terminal Desire) and your choice of not eating it (Instrumental Desire), is just to accomplish your Terminal Desire. You may try to prove that you have free will, by forcing yourself to eat Brinjal. But, it wont be an enjoyable experience like sex, that you want to do again and again. With me, huh?

We are not just slaves to our BIS (doing so, ensures our survival). We can, to some extent control our BIS. He discusses the various approaches, involving philosophical practices, religious practices etc. Some of the religious practices are interesting to know. Old Order Amish’s submission to higher authority, Hutterites reluctance to progress and Shakers remarkable celibacy (no sex). Most of these communal groups try to suppress almost all of their basic desires for a rewarding after life. So, does the Christians and Buddhists to some extent. I actually enjoyed reading this chapter more than the other chapters.Thank you Irvine, for this book.

This book will have an impact on all things that you see, do and feel. This will radically change your perception on everything. This is not just another philosophical book. This book might save a lot of your time in chasing the desires that may not be relevant to what you are. Please do read.

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