March 9, 2005

Externalism About Content: Nail Meet Coffin?

[Note: the tone and content of this post have to do with my firm conviction that, given the mediocre stakes involved in philosophical debate (narcissistic enterntainment, the possibility of getting tenure, understanding the meaning of life), it should be conducted like a battle between improvising rap MCs, bloggers, or members of the British Parliament. The post that follows was originally posted to Blackboard for my Metaphysics class. Since I am currently trying to develop a viable internalism about content that meets Kripke, Putnam, and Burge's objections, I would appreciate any and all comments.. For more on the connections between blogging and rapping, see the work of my acquaintance and comic genius, Josh Levin, here: http://slate.msn.com/id/2113913/]

Quote: "The upshot of these reflections is that the patient's [ed., the like-an-arthritis-virgin's] mental contents differ while his physical and nonintentional [sic] mental histories, considered in isolation from their social context, remain the same."--Burge (end of IIa)

Burge's claim for the non-individualism of the mental can be understood in two ways. The first way of understanding it makes it true, but uninteresting. The second way of understanding it makes it deep and interesting, but it is also false.

The first, uninteresting way of understanding Burge's claim is via the idea that the content of the beliefs that can be ascribed to rational beings is causally dependent on the particular society and physical environment they are placed in. This is true because most, if not all, of our reasoning about the world depends upon the manipulation of linguistic or other symbols, and ensuring the correct use of those symbols is dependent on getting feedback from our social and physical environment. We have to know how to apply our terms to the world, as well as how to use them in inferences, and the only way to learn how to do that is to make conjectures about (i) what other people use these symbols to do and (ii) what the world is like.

Say, for example, that you are Aristotle, and you believe that the substantial form, the metaphysical essence, of all water is such that it ensures that any and all samples of water--one of the four basic elements of the universe--will be nourishing to animals. The essence of water dictates, by necessity, the kinds of efficient causal interaction it can figure in.

So, taking a sample of heavy water and feeding it to his owl, Minerva, Aristotle is shocked to find that it dies. Minerva, we assume, is not very comforted by Aristotle's protestation that water is "by its real definition" nourishing and life-sustaining.

In order to forget his grief, Aristotle buries Minverva in the river Lethe. As a result of this cathartic experience (which, incidentally, he uses up to come up with his theory of the emotional effects of experiencing ritual suffering in stage drama), Aristotle decides to revise his concept of water--that is, feedback from his external environment (i.e., the de facto discovery of heavy water) has caused a change to the content of his internal beliefs , a change that he and others would ascribe to him. Even if he does not , or even cannot, articulate this change in concepts, we know that his reactions to possible water samples in the future will be different.

Aristotle almost decides to revise his concept of metaphysical essences that constitute and individuate natural kinds as well, but because he is famous for this doctrine (it got him tenure at the Lyceum) he decides to conclude his career, like most philosophers, by upholding a quirky, retrograde idea that none of the young , upstart Turks at the skeptical Academy take seriously.

Burge's strong, interesting, and false claim is not that Aristotle's beliefs are caused by interaction with his external environment and society, but that, even if we kept all those causal interactions constant and simply transported Aristotle to a new society, then being in that new society will be enough, by itself, to metaphysically constitute his beliefs in a new way, even if nothing is different about Aristotle on the inside (nothing is different about his ability to use the beliefs in his head to reason about the world and communicate with others in his society) .

Let's take Burge at his word.

We put Aristotle in a tele-transporter and beam him up to Professor Koslicki's Metaphysics class, 3/8/2005. We shall put aside any philosophical quibbling over whether this would still be the same Aristotle. The questions we are interested in are not about personal identity, at least not directly about personal identity.

We stipulate that everything about Aristotle on the inside, the individualism of his mental, is the same. He is liable to make the same inferences and communicate the same beliefs (begging the question for a second), as well as respond to his environment in the same way (AT LEAST GIVEN THE SAME INPUT). He is like Burge's like-an-arthritis-virgin, simply a molecule for molecule duplicate of an original person who is transplanted into a new society.

Of course, the one change we have to make is that Aristotle now speaks modern English, but we will simply stipulate that all his concepts, including the malformed ones, translate perfectly into English with no loss to the kind of reasoning Aristotle can engage in (and no change to the physical constitution of his brain, behavioral propensities, etc.).

Burge's strong, false claim about the non-individualism of the mental amounts to the claim that, even though Aristotle would behave exactly the same in this new environment (e.g., he would irrelevantly weep the same crocodile tears for Minvera every time he sees a sample of ordinary H20), we would ascribe different beliefs to him, because we as a society assign a different extension to terms like 'water.'

Our knowledge of water in modern America, or at least our intention as a society to refer to a different set of objects by using 'water,' is enough to change the constitution of Aristotle's beliefs on Burge's picture.

Let's put aside for the moment the technical issues in the philosophy of language that motivate Burge's discussion. These are issues about how best to understand the logical form of propositional attitudes. For example, there is the issue of how the truth-value of a sentence like 'I believe that X' behaves as we substitute different co-extensional descriptions for 'X,' as well the issue of what kind of inferences 'I believe that X' licenses (e.g., it does not license the inference that 'X' is true).

Putting aside these technical issues, the main point we have to make is simply that there is no good reason to believe Burge's premise that Aristotle is the same, "on the inside," when transplanted to his new society. The reason is that the beliefs we hold on the inside are not just static entities--that is, something like sentences one holds true inside the "belief box" within one's head at any given time. This simply cannot be the case. The number of sentences we are liable to affirm at any given moment is probably infinite (eg., "I believe that 1 is a number, "I believe that 2 is a number". . . ), but there is only a finite storage capacity in our brains. Beliefs are instead something like dynamic potentials within a person's mind---the potential to make some intellectual judgment or other, whether via a private mental or public speech act--in response to new input from one's physical and social environment.

The persistent beliefs that we ascribe to others and to ourselves are much more coarse-grained and informationally ambiguous than the individual judgments that manifest these beliefs at any given time. So, while it is true (in the uninteresting sense described above), that the beliefs ascribed to Aristotle in his new environment are different, this is simply because a belief is defined by its potentialities. Aristotle's beliefs encode different potential judgments in his new environment because the input he is liable to get--especially from all of the sophisticated scientist types questioning his biology, chemistry, and physics (that's you, Ang!)-- will be different.

Now, why do these claims I am making not amount to an agreement with Burge? If a change in society or physical environment automatically equals a change in beliefs, then I should be agreeing with him. Yes, but this is an agreement only under the uninteresting understanding of 'externalism' described already. The essential issue regarding the "metaphysics of belief / mental content" is decidedly different in my picture than Burge's. The difference Aristotle's society makes to the content of his beliefs is still a difference within Aristotle (i.e., methodological solipsism is preserved). Aristotle is still the authority for deciding the content of each of his own beliefs (even if he cannot articulate the content of these beliefs well, his behavior will usually show us what he actually believes. That is the sense in which he is the authority on the content of his beliefs).

Burge's claim that nothing within the like-an-arthritis-virgin changes after he is transplanted into a new society is simply not true. In the original social context, the like-an-arthritis-virgin was somewhat clueless. In the new society, he is still clueless, but so is everyone else. Within each respective social context, his beliefs manifest the potential to produce different acts of intellectual judgment, simply because the difference in societies dictates that he will be responding to different input. For example,

Social Encounter A :
Question asked: "Why are you rubbing your thigh?"
Judgment given: "Because I've got arthritis."
Response: "I think you do not know what you are talking about."

Social Encounter B (once transplanted):
Question asked: "I see you are rubbing your thigh, how long have you had arthritis?"
Judgment given: "Two weeks."
Response: "Yeah, if you think that's rough, my wife has had arthritis in her belly for nine months."

Burge's false premise comes from the philosophical canard that understanding the metaphysics of belief is best pursued by taking individuals through various counterfactual scenarios and then asking questions like,

"What beliefs would we, as outsiders looking in, ascribe to this individual (eg., Aristotle), given what we know about how the society in question intends to use its terms in order to refer to certain objects in the world?"

The better question is,

"How do this individual's beliefs get manifested via the judgments he is liable to give in response to questions from his society and causal interaction with his environment?"

This second question preserves methodological solipsism. It is also seems like a much more useful question for philosophical psychology than Burge's.

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