Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What do Millians believe?

According to Salmon, believes is a binary relation between agents and propositions, where an agent and proposition stand in the relation only if some brain states of the agent represent that proposition, and if those brain states play the kinds of causal roles that we normally attribute to belief (the brain states are in the belief box). Consider a case of two people having these beliefs, respectively: “Clark Kent is heroic” and “Superman is heroic”. Both beliefs express the same proposition, which is simply the complex <Clark Kent, being-heroic>. So both people hold the same proposition as the object of intentionality, though intuitively we might think they believe different things in virtue of the propositions expressed being different. After all, we’d be quicker to believe the latter rather than the former, and people might argue the truth value of one compared to the other, despite it being the case on the Millian account they would be arguing over the very same proposition.

Salmon has a way of differentiating the roles they play: simply introduce ‘ways of believing’ by means of the BEL relation, so that an agent A believes a proposition P by means of way x only if BEL<A, P, x> obtains. So, different brain states (mentalese sentences corresponding to “Clark Kent is heroic” and “Superman is heroic”, for example) can all distinctly represent the proposition by means of BEL. These different brain states play different causal roles, and might lead to an agent assenting to different things, such as “Clark Kent is not heroic while Superman is” or “Clark Kent and Superman are both heroic”, etc. So, says Salmon, all is well, simply introduce ways of believing that play causal roles in our actions, locutions, thoughts, etc.

At this point, the unsatisfactory consequence has obtained. These ‘ways of believing’ play causal roles, are involved in cognition, and more. But aren’t these simply the things that our beliefs are supposed to do in virtue of their contents? After all, isn’t it simply in virtue of the propositional content of my belief ‘Superman is heroic’ that I point to the thing in the air and say ‘That guy is heroic!’, then later point to Clark Kent and say ‘that guy is no hero.’? No; according to the Millian, we must push the characteristics of our beliefs further down, since the parts doing useful work must be the ways of believing.

This is unsatisfactory because ways of believing (brain states) are missing characteristics we normally associate with belief, such as publicity (I cannot share a way of believing the propositional content <Clark Kent, being-heroic>, only the propositional content itself, despite the former having the specific content I want to share). And even if the Millian replies and tells us that of course beliefs are these things, it seems then that the propositional content is no longer relevant to the roles that these beliefs play. After all, the brain states are far more granular than the propositions they express, and carry additional information.

Thus, propositions as understood by Millians, are wholly external to the mind, and just as well, since they are not granular enough to represent my full set of beliefs anyway, and would be useless in explaining why I act a certain way or believe such-and-such thing. But it seems too much of an abuse of both beliefs and propositions to let stand. So I ask of the Millian: just what is it for me to believe that your view is in trouble?

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