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Industrial-Grade Realism about Beliefs That P

Industrial-Grade Realism about Beliefs That P

I favor a dispositional approach to belief according to which believing something resembles having a personality trait. You believe, or you have a personality trait, to the extent you have a dispositional profile that approximates a certain ideal. To be extraverted, for example, is to be disposed, in general, to enjoy parties, to like meeting new people, to be talkative in social contexts, etc. Similarly, to believe that women and men are equally academically intelligent is to be disposed, in general, to affirm that it is so, to expect academically intelligent remarks from women no less than men, to be as ready to hire a woman as a man for a job requiring academic intelligence, etc. To believe that there is beer in the fridge is to be disposed, in general, to act and react beer-in-the-fridge-ishly (going to the fridge if one wants a beer, etc.).

(Historically, dispositional approaches are rooted in the behaviorist tradition, but my own dispositionalism focuses not just on behavioral dispositions but also phenomenal dispositions [e.g., not reacting with a feeling of surprise] and cognitive dispositions [e.g., engaging in a pattern of conscious reasoning that only makes sense on the background assumption that P is true].)

My view is a kind of soft instrumentalism: The belief that P is not some thing in the head. Rather, when we attribute a belief, we are using a shorthand that approximately captures, in Daniel Dennett’s phrase, a “real pattern” in a complex landscape of potential actions and reactions. Believing that P no more requires a real stored representation with the content “P” than being an extravert requires a switch flipped to “E” in your personality-settings box.

There’s an alternative view that I will label industrial-grade realism (again adapting a phrase from Dennett). According to industrial-grade realism, believing that P normally requires that a representation with the content “P” be stored somewhere in the functional architecture of the mind, ready to be activated and deployed when one does belief-that-P-ish things like, in our examples, criticizing a colleague’s apparent sexism or strolling over to the fridge for a beer. Industrial-grade realism seems to undergird Jake Quilty-Dunn and Eric Mandelbaum’s recent critique of my dispositionalist account, and was perhaps most prominently advocated by Jerry Fodor (e.g., in his 1987 book).

To my ear, the following four theses seem to be implicit in the industrial-grade realism of Fodor, Quilty-Dunn, and Mandelbaum. If not, I’d be interested to see textual evidence that they reject them.

Presence. In normal (non-“tacit“) cases, belief that P requires that a representation with the content P be present somewhere in the mind.

Discreteness. In normal (non-“marginal”) cases, a representation P will be either discretely present in or discretely absent from a cognitive system or subsystem.

Kinematics. Rational actions arise from the causal interaction of beliefs that P and desires that Q, in virtue of their specific contents P and Q.

Specificity. Rational action arises from the activation or retrieval of some specific sets of beliefs and desires P1…n and Q1…n and not from possibly closely logically related beliefs and desires P’1…m and Q’1…m.

[Beliefs that P, hard at work]

These four theses combined constitute a commitment to a very specific type of cognitive architecture. This architecture seems to me to be rather in keeping with the old-fashioned cognitive science and computer science of the 1970s and 1980s — so it’s easy to see why Fodor would have been attracted to it. It fits less easily, however, with deep learning, statistical approaches to memory of visual ensembles, and other recent approaches according to which cognition proceeds by means of processes that are highly complex, not especially language-like, and don’t employ representational structures that map neatly onto the types of belief contents that we normally attribute to people (like “there is beer in the fridge”).

Let me pose, then, this trilemma for industrial-grade realists:

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(1.) Commit to the four theses and the seemingly old-fashioned cognitive architecture. Downside: This would be a risky empirical bet against some powerful recent trends.

(2.) Allow the possibility that the underlying representations are very different in structure and content than “women and men are intellectually equal” and “there’s beer in the fridge”. Downside: It is no longer clear what the causal story is supposed to be, about which realism is true. Heading to the fridge for beer because one believes there is beer in the fridge is now no longer explained by accessing a representation with the content “there is beer in the fridge”. Furthermore, closely related views might also require major revision. Having specific propositional contents that can be verbally expressed and shared among people is part of the picture behind, for example, Fodor’s anti-holism (see also my critique of Elizabeth Camp). Specifically P and not-P contents also seems central to Mandelbaum’s contradictory-belief account of implicit bias.

(3.) Thread the needle: Go for something weaker and less architecturally commissive than the four theses, yet strong enough to be a substantive empirical commitment to the real causal power of representations of P when we believe that P. Downsides: As far as I can tell, both of the above.

The dispositional approach to attitudes is superficial in a certain respect: It doesn’t commit to any underlying architectural implementation. As long you have the appropriate dispositional patterns of action and reaction, you believe, whatever unintuitive haywire architecture lies beneath. This superficiality is a virtue, not a vice. In cognitive science it leave questions open which should remain open about the underlying architecture, and it keeps the focus on what we philosophers and ordinary belief-ascribers do and should care about in thinking about belief: how we act in and react to the world.

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