The 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.