dog-beliefThe unconscious is not just un. It works quite differently. So says Tim Crane in a persuasive draft paper which is to mark his inauguration as President of the Aristotelian Society (in spite of the name, the proceedings of that worthy organisation are not specifically concerned with the works or thought of Aristotle). He is particularly interested in the intentionality of the unconscious mind; how does the unconscious believe things, in particular?

The standard view, as Crane says, might probably be that the unconscious and conscious believe things in much the same way, and that it is basically a propositional one. (There is, by the way, scope to argue about whether there really is an unconscious mind – myself I lean towards the view that it’s better to talk of us doing or thinking things unconsciously, avoiding the implied claim that the unconscious is a distinct separate entity – but we can put that aside for present purposes.) The content of our beliefs, on this ‘standard’ view can be identified with a set of propositions – in principle we could just write down a list of our beliefs. Some of our beliefs certainly seem to be like that; indeed some important beliefs are often put into fixed words that we can remember and recite. Thou shalt not bear false witness, we hold these truths to be self-evident; the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

But if that were the case and we could make that list then we could say how many beliefs we have, and that seems absurd. The question of how many things we believe is often dismissed as silly, says Crane – how could you count them? – but it seems a good one to him. One big problem is that it’s quite easy to show that we have all sorts of beliefs we never consider explicitly. Do I believe that some houses are bigger than others? Yes, of course, though perhaps I never considered the question in that form before.

One common response (one which has been embodied in AI projects in the past) is that we have a set of core beliefs, which do sit in our brains in an explicit form; but we also have a handy means of quickly inferring other beliefs from them. So perhaps we know the typical range of sizes for houses and we can instantly work out from that that some are indeed bigger than others. But no-one has shown how we can distinguish what the supposed core beliefs are, nor how these explicit beliefs would be held in the brain (the idea of a ‘language of thought’ being at least empirically unsatisfactory in Crane’s view). Moreover there are problems with small children and animals who seem to hold definite beliefs that they could never put into words. A dog’s behaviour seems to show clearly enough that it believes there is a cat in this tree, but it could never formulate the belief in any explicit way. The whole idea that our beliefs are propositional in nature seems suspect.

Perhaps it is better, then,  to see beliefs as essentially dispositions to do or say things. The dog’s belief in the cat is shown by his disposition to certain kinds of behaviour around the tree – barking, half-hearted attempts at climbing. My belief that you are across the room is shown by my disposition to smile and walk over there. Crane suggests that in fact rather than sets of discrete beliefs what we really have is a worldview; a kind of holistic network in which individual nodes do not have individual readings. Ascriptions of belief, like attributing to someone a belief in a particular proposition, are really models that bring out particular aspects of their overall worldview. This has the advantage of explaining several things. One is that we can attribute the same belief – “Parliament is on the bank of the Thames” – to different people even though the content of their beliefs actually varies (because, for example, they have slightly different understandings about what ‘Parliament’ is).

It also allows scope for the vagueness of our beliefs, the ease with which we hold contradictory ones, and the interesting point that sometimes we’re not actually sure what we believe and may have to mull things over before reaching only tentative conclusions about it. Perhaps we too are just modelling as best we can the blobby ambiguity of our worldview.

Crane, in fact, wants to make all belief unconscious. Thinking is not believing, he says, although what I think and what I believe are virtually synonyms in normal parlance. One of the claimed merits of his approach is that if beliefs are essentially dispositions, it explains how they can be held continuously and not disappear when we are asleep or unconscious. Belief, on this view, is a continuous state; thinking is a temporary act, one which may well model your beliefs and turn them into explicit form. Without signing up to psychoanalytical doctrines wholesale, Crane is content that his thinking chimes with both Freudian and older ideas of the unconscious, putting the conscious interpretation of unconscious belief at the centre.

This all seems pretty sensible, though it does seem Crane is getting an awful lot of very difficult work done by the idea of a ‘worldview’, sketched here in only vague terms. It used to be easy to get away with this kind of vagueness in philosophy of mind, but these days I think there is always a ghostly AI researcher standing at the philosopher’s shoulder and asking how we set about doing the engineering, often a bracing challenge. How do we build a worldview into a robot if it’s not propositional? Some of Crane’s phraseology suggests he might be hoping that the concept of the worldview, with its network nodes with no explicit meaning might translate into modern neural network-based practice. Maybe it could; but even if it does, that surely won’t do for philosophers. The AI tribe will be happy if the robot works; but the philosophers will still want to know exactly how this worldview gizmo does its thing. We don’t know, but we know the worldview is already somehow a representation of the world. You could argue that while Crane set out to account for the intentionality of our beliefs, that is in the event the exact thing that he ends up not explaining at all.

There are some problems about resting on dispositions, too. Barking at a tree because I believe there’s a cat up there is one thing; my beliefs about metaphysics, by contrast, seem very remote from any simple behavioural dispositions of that kind. I suppose they would have to be conditional dispositions to utter or write certain kinds of words in the context of certain discussions. It’s a little hard to think that when I’m doing philosophy what  I’m really doing is modelling some of my own particularly esoteric pre-existing authorial dispositions. And what dispositions would they be? I think they would have to be something like dispositions to write down propositions like ‘nominalism is false’ – but didn’t we start off down this path because we were uncomfortable with the idea that the content of beliefs is propositional?

Moreover, Crane wants to say that our beliefs are preserved while we are asleep because we still have the relevant dispositions. Aren’t our beliefs similarly preserved when we’re dead? It would seem odd to say that Abraham Lincoln did not believe slavery should be abolished while he was asleep, certainly, but it would seem equally odd to say he stopped believing it when he died. But does he still have dispositions to speak in certain ways? If we insist on this line it seems the only way to make it intelligible is to fall back on counterfactuals (if he were still alive Lincoln would still be disposed to say that it was right to abolish slavery…) but counterfactuals notoriously bring a whole library of problems with them.

I’d also sort of like to avoid paring down the role of the conscious. I don’t think I’m quite ready to pack all belief away into the attic of the unconscious. Still, though Crane’s account may have its less appealing spots I do rather like the idea of a holistic worldview as the central bearer of belief.

21 Comments

  1. 1. quentin says:

    It seems very odd to say that Lincoln still believed slavery should be abolished after his death (or that he still believes it today!). Not that he lost any belief, but he doesn’t exist anymore as a person… If beliefs are dispositions of persons, and if dead bodies are not persons, there’s no problem of this sort.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Yes, a bit odd. Crane might feel I’m misrepresenting him, because he never actually talks about dead people, only sleeping or unconscious ones. It seemed a reasonable extension, but perhaps he’d say dead people don’t have dispositions any more. Or he might say dead Lincoln still has the belief that slavery is wrong but doesn’t think it any more?

  3. 3. David Duffy says:

    I have trouble understanding where disposition talk gets one. The disposition of the dog is to wait expectantly under just this particular tree for the next few minutes, and this arose after it watched a particular cat climb into the tree?

  4. 4. Cognicious says:

    It would seem odd to say that Abraham Lincoln did not believe slavery should be abolished while he was asleep, certainly, but it would seem equally odd to say he stopped believing it when he died. ~Peter

    I don’t find it odd at all to say he stopped believing it when he died. The odd thing would be to say he continued to believe it after he died. When Lincoln died, he became incapable of holding beliefs, just as he became incapable of speaking or breathing or buttoning his shirt. An “Abraham Lincoln” no longer existed who could do anything.

    Psychology researchers have conducted many experiments on unconscious thought/belief (Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink summarizes some of this work when discussing racism). Often they find differences in reaction time, for example, that reveal unconscious associations or attitudes at odds with what people believe they believe. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that these associations and attitudes are beliefs. They don’t seem propositional, although one can write propositions that describe them.

  5. 5. Hunt says:

    Obligatory comic link:

  6. 6. Scott Bakker says:

    He writes, “But another response is that the problem is not with belief itself, but with
    the philosophical conception of it which philosophers have developed
    from their reflections on the practice of belief ascription. Might there be
    another way of thinking about beliefs, a way of thinking that better accommodates
    these facts about belief? To put it another way, if we think
    that belief ascriptions in these cases are literally true, what is it that makes
    them true, if not a collection of individual, countable belief states? What
    is the relationship between the truth of the belief ascription and the psychological
    reality it describes?”

    How could any answer to these questions not suffer all the problems of underdetermination suffered by all other such answers? At this point, why should anyone think this is a credible way to proceed? Repeating a process and expecting a different result… There’s a saying about that.

    Just saying. 😉

  7. 7. Michael Murden says:

    To Peter (comment 2)
    The comments to “How Can Panpsychists Sleep?” went on at some length about the definition of consciousness. I don’t think we settled on one, so I don’t know that we have a basis to claim that sleeping people are unconscious. I agree with Quentin that corpses are not people and so no philosophical effort need be expended on their behalf.

    For that matter I don’t know that we have a widely accepted definition of belief either. Of course, given that human brains are finite in size and duration I would assume that if beliefs, whatever they are, are in some sense, stored in brains then the number of beliefs a person can have is finite, and therefore countable. My sense of the matter is that we won’t really know what beliefs are until we have the ability to alter them mechanically by making mechanical alterations to brains. To me this suggests that the limits to our ability to understand human brains and the things they do may ultimately be ethical.

  8. 8. Michael Murden says:

    To Michael Murden (comment 7)
    On the other hand, it’s possible that beliefs are finite but uncountable, because we generate beliefs as we need them. If beliefs are dispositions to act, they must be dispositions to act in particular situations, so each situation one finds oneself in generates new dispositions to act, that is to say new beliefs. On this argument ‘core beliefs’ are simply dispositions to act in situations one finds oneself in frequently. That’s not necessarily that I agree with the ‘disposition to act’ definition of belief, but if beliefs are dispositions to act they must be situational.

    I think it’s also interesting to note that if beliefs are dispositions to act in certain ways in certain situations and the actions are purposive, that is to say intended to solve problems, gain advantage, enhance survival and reproductive fitness etc. then one could argue that beliefs are ways to gain advantage etc. To put it another way, one could say that beliefs are heuristics in Scott Bakker’s sense of the term, that is to say ways to solve the problems life throws up using as little information and as little intellectual effort as possible. Think of all the effort we have saved ourselves over the years by assuming that all X are Y instead of having to understand each X individually.

  9. 9. Cognicious says:

    Michael Murden (#8): If beliefs are dispositions to act, they must be dispositions to act in particular situations, so each situation one finds oneself in generates new dispositions to act, that is to say new beliefs. On this argument ‘core beliefs’ are simply dispositions to act in situations one finds oneself in frequently. That’s not necessarily that I agree with the ‘disposition to act’ definition of belief . . .

    I definitely disagree with the “disposition to act” definition. It’s too behavioristic (after all, believing feels like something), and it fails to account for many beliefs. I believe that turkeys are birds and that alligators are not birds, but what dispositions to act correspond to these beliefs? Let’s see, these beliefs dispose me to act correctly when finding my way around at the zoo, and if I were back in school, they’d dispose me to give particular answers on biology exams; but these examples of dispositions aren’t satisfying, they’re trivial. Citing all the possible actions that might be connected to such beliefs gets us no closer to understanding what a belief is.

    There’s another flaw in defining a belief that way. It becomes necessary to distinguish beliefs, definitionally, from other things that dispose a person to act, such as habits, training, emotional states, phobias, compulsions, and addictions. An alcoholic is disposed to drink frequently, but not because of a belief.

    I’m unsure how “core belief” is defined. If “Slavery is wrong” is a core belief, it doesn’t fit this part: “dispositions to act in situations one finds oneself in frequently.” Many people heartily endorse the wrongness of slavery who have no direct experience of it.

  10. 10. Charles Wolverton says:

    my beliefs about metaphysics, by contrast, seem very remote from any simple behavioural dispositions … I think they would have to be something like dispositions to write down propositions like ‘nominalism is false’ – but didn’t we start off down this path because we were uncomfortable with the idea that the content of beliefs is propositional?

    I think of such matters in terms of context-dependent behavioral dispositions but consider their content to be the behavior – here, the production of a sentence – not the sentence per se considered to be a proposition.

    Like Eric Schwitzgabel, one can think of reliable production of a sentence in multiple contexts – ie, as a set of behaviorally consistent dispositions – as evidence of “belief” in the truth of the sentence considered to be a proposition, but I haven’t found doing so to be necessary or even desirable. Once discussion moves down to the level of – ie, is carried on in the vocabulary of – physiology, the psychological vocabulary seems better left behind.

    A behavioral disposition presumably is some sort of sensorimotor neural structure which is in place whether the subject is awake or asleep – or even dead, at least for awhile. The relevant question is then what sensory and contextual inputs are sufficient to activate the disposition. Answering the question for a subject who is asleep or otherwise unconscious seems straightforward in principle. And when the subject is dead, the answer seems pretty clear. But in any event, phrasing the issue in terms of “belief” seems to me to add nothing.

  11. 11. Charles Wolverton says:

    MM @8: If beliefs are dispositions to act, they must be dispositions to act in particular situations, so each situation one finds oneself in generates new dispositions to act, that is to say new beliefs.

    Which is why I don’t find calling a behavioral disposition a “belief” adds anything, and actually muddies the water. One might find it useful, or at least interesting, to consider the cardinality of the number of dispositions in a brain, but as Michael’s comments suggest, the same consideration wrt to “beliefs” confuses because there is an implicit assumption that “belief” has a meaning beyond just being another name for a disposition. If you eschew that word, there is less temptation to sneak in such meanings thru the back door.

  12. 12. Cognicious says:

    Charles Wolverton (#11): One might find it useful, or at least interesting, to consider the cardinality of the number of dispositions in a brain, but as Michael’s comments suggest, the same consideration wrt . . . “beliefs” confuses because there is an implicit assumption that “belief” has a meaning beyond just being another name for a disposition.

    What? If “disposition to act” exhausts the meaning of “belief,” then the only way to ascertain your beliefs is to observe your actions and reason backward to identify what beliefs they imply. You’d thus be proceeding like a third party who tries to figure out why you did something. Third parties often get it wrong. To enlarge the set of actions under consideration, you might also include actions that you think you’re disposed to, but people are notoriously poor at predicting what they’d do in situations yet unmet.

  13. 13. Scott Bakker says:

    Cognicious: “What? If “disposition to act” exhausts the meaning of “belief,” then the only way to ascertain your beliefs is to observe your actions and reason backward to identify what beliefs they imply. You’d thus be proceeding like a third party who tries to figure out why you did something. Third parties often get it wrong. To enlarge the set of actions under consideration, you might also include actions that you think you’re disposed to, but people are notoriously poor at predicting what they’d do in situations yet unmet.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what we do in fact do with reference to ascertaining our ‘feelings on a subject’ having never expressed such feelings before. But then, of course, we need only remember reporting a belief as our own to report that belief as our own. This would allow us to explain the lack of belief transparency, on the one hand, and the difference between first and third person ascriptions on the other very parsimoniously.

    The real question, it seems to me, is why we would bother naturally defining an individual posit that doesn’t exist in nature. There’s no reason the elements in a ‘belief talk system’ would share one-to-one correspondences with the biomechanical facts on the ground.

  14. 14. Stephen says:

    I understand that people tend to make models in their brains so that we can predict future events. On the physical side, this means that if I decide to walk along a log on the beach, my model includes the solidity of the log, the presence and role of gravity, the need to balance using my muscle system and body position, etc. I’ve never seen this particular log but I have this modelling mechanism to deal with the situation. If I stepped on the log and my foot passed right through it, I’d have a situation with cognitive dissonance and would need to alter my model to resolve it. In this case, it seems my beliefs are the parameters of my model. The use of the model results in dispositions to act.

    How does this work with concepts rather than physical actions though? Perhaps we also have social models that have as their parameters “beliefs” on ethics, values and social norms. Their outputs would not only inform our physical actions, but also our thinking with respect to further ideas that we develop. Other models could encompass our fields of knowledge and perhaps other areas. The outcomes of the models look like derived beliefs. That is why beliefs can seem to appear when we have never even considered a particular situation before. This seems to be foundational for philosophy, where the number of solutions presented as an answer to a problem seem to equal the number of possible derived beliefs ;-).

  15. 15. Cognicious says:

    I believe that my neighbor “H” is a librarian. This belief inclines me to ask her “How are things at the library?” rather than “How are things at the pharmacy [or the shop, the shipyard, etc.]?” It also inclines me to say yes if asked whether I know any librarians. Many similar instances of such dispositions to act exist, but no one of them is the belief, nor is their sum. Each of them is a consequence of my belief about H’s occupation. That’s not the same thing as being identical with the belief. To reduce “belief” to a set of dispositions is to take all the believing out of it.

    I get the impression that some people think that excluding all that is subjective will make their ideas more scientific.

  16. 16. Charles Wolverton says:

    Scott@13: The real question, it seems to me, is why we would bother naturally defining an individual posit that doesn’t exist in nature. There’s no reason the elements in a ‘belief talk system’ would share one-to-one correspondences with the biomechanical facts on the ground.

    Perhaps because we tend to ignore a distinction which Rorty makes between “referring to” and “talking about”. His example is “Sherlock Holmes”, about which much has been said despite the fact that it doesn’t refer. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we keep the distinction in mind.

    Ie, different vocabularies for different purposes.

  17. 17. Scott Bakker says:

    Charles (16): I’m not sure how this advocates for defining ‘belief’ in terms of ‘dispositions to behave,’ as opposed to *against.* To understand what beliefs amount to naturalistically entails understanding the salient facts of the cognitive systems utilizing it and associated idioms. All an intentionalist need do is point out the ways ‘dispositions to behave’ fail to discharge the functions (such as, most notably, evaluation) apparently discharged by beliefs. It just plays into their hands as far as I can see.

  18. 18. Charles Wolverton says:

    Scott –

    It doedn’t – we’re in sync on this issue. I wss addressing how others might come to think otherwise.

  19. 19. Michael Murden says:

    Cognicious and Charles Wolverton
    I don’t really buy the ‘dispositions to act’ definition of belief. In fact, I don’t really buy the idea of defining the term ‘belief’ at all. We all agree on the 1st order, folk psychological sense of belief, as long as we don’t try to formally define it. Once we do try to define terms such as belief we get as many definitions as definers. I suspect that our inability to achieve consensus on such terms is due to the fact that to the extent that beliefs exist they are neurological phenomena and our brain science is not yet up to the task of saying, neurologically, what a belief is. My sense is that until we can define neurological phenomena in explicitly neurological terms there is nothing but entertainment value to be had in trying to define them at all.

  20. 20. Charles Wolverton says:

    Michael: I can’t tell if you are including me in those proposing a ‘dispositions to act’ definition of belief (as Scott apparently mistakenly did), but if so, see Me@11:

    Which is why I don’t find calling a behavioral disposition a “belief” adds anything, and actually muddies the water.

  21. 21. Michael Murden says:

    Charles Wolverton (20)

    On the contrary, I merely did not want to leave the impression that I supported that definition.

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