Monday, October 09, 2006

Ephemeral Belief?

I've often defended the view that we should think of beliefs (as opposed to temporary judgments) as involving a broad array of stable dispositions -- dispositions to act, react, think, and feel in ways appropriate to the belief, across a spectrum of situations. But here's an example that troubles me.

I'm at a party. Someone introduces himself -- "Jerry". I shake his hand and say "Hi, Jerry!" Five seconds later I cannot tell you his name. (Admit it, this happens to you too!)

Now in this case, it seems both that I believe (however temporarily) that his name is Jerry and that I don't form a broad array of stable dispositions pertinent to that belief. If so, of course, believing can't be a matter of having a broad array of stable dispositions -- contra me!

I see two responses. The first is to reject the intuition that I believe his name is Jerry (for those five seconds). (This is what Krista Lawlor said when I pressed her on the issue during her visit last week.) Maybe it's a weird, marginal case of the sort our intuitions really weren't meant to handle. We can, of course, (as philosophers) define the technical term "belief" however we want; we needn't hew to intuition in every case; and there's something valuable in reserving the term "belief" only for states in which one has a broad array of stable dispositions.

The second response is to reject stability: Maybe only breadth is necessary. For five seconds, my dispositions are all right, perhaps, across the board -- I would say "Jerry" to myself when thinking of him, I'd assume someone who said that name was talking about him, I'd greet him with that name, I'd feel surprised if someone called him "Larry", etc. -- and that's enough for belief. The broad array of dispositions changes quickly enough; it just won't stay put.

I'm not entirely happy with either answer.


Rob Wilson said...

Hey Eric,

There might be two different kinds of case here, and you might want to describe the example in more detail to see whether it fits one or the other of these. Suppose that you've met Jerry and with him for (oh) 10 minutes before wandering off. At least if your social ineptitudes are like mine, even when you forget Jerry's name, there remain a bunch of dispositions that would support the claim that you believe that his name is Jerry, even though you can't recall his name when asked. For example, you'll likely recognize the name, or have some idea that it starts with a "J", ... . The other kind of case is more typically when you're introduced to a whack of people at once after walking into a party, and then promptly "forget" all or most of them. Here it's more plausible to say both that you don't have beliefs about their names (even if you quickly say them to yourself as they're rolled off), and that you don't have any corresponding (or the "right" corresponding) disposition. Again, here there is support for your view.

So, relax; you're fine!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the reassurance, Rob! Interesting distinction, there. I agree the two cases you describe are importantly different.

Keith Frankish said...

Well, of course I’d want to invoke the basic/ superbelief distinction here (where don’t I?). The point is that you need fewer and more specific dispositions to count as superbelieving something than to count as believing it in the basic way. Basic belief requires a broad array of unreflective dispositions, whereas superbelief requires a narrow set of deliberative dispositions (essentially, to recall the target proposition and use it in conscious inference). There will be cases and cases, of course, but in these terms it’s easy enough to see how both the positive and negative intuitions you describe could be justified. For a short period you remain disposed to take it as a premise that the guy’s name is Jerry even though you haven’t formed the broad array of unreflective behavioural dispositions required for basic belief. So if your positive intuitions about this case concern superbelief and your theory of belief is a theory of basic belief, then you’re OK!

Eric Sotnak said...

Why can't there be long term and short term dispositions that correspond to long term and short term memory?

While the name is still lingering in short term memory, it is easily accessed, and so you can accurately be described as having the right sort of disposition that constitutes a belief that the person is named "Jerry". But if the name is not adequately transferred to long-term memory, that disposition will fade away, and so will any attendant belief about the name.

I wonder if a harder case might be created by implicit memory. Suppose you can't remember the name, ... suppose you forget ever having met Jerry. Then, sometime later, you see him again and think "For some reason it seems to me that guy is named 'Jerry'" (not knowing why you have this thought). Should this count as a BELIEF that the guy is named 'Jerry'?

Fido the Yak said...

I think your argument depends on a definition of "broad array of stable dispositions." What's in an introduction if not a broad of array of stable dispositions? Try doing introductions in a completely foreign language. I beleive there's a lot of literature on greetings in Mande if that helps.

Since you're trying to distinguish between belief and temporary judgement, then the case of Jerry does appear marginal. There is some evidence that the encounter fully met your criteria of an introduction. Jerry offered you his name, you used his name, you shook his hand. Was that enough to constitute an introduction in your book? Do you believe that you met Jerry. Was it a full introduction, or something more casual? Given your sense of the introduction, have you behaved accordingly? Would it have been inappropriate to act as if you never had met? If a mutual acquaintance were to ask, "Eric, have you met Jerry?" would you say something like "Yes, but I forgot his name"? If so, so long as you acknowledge the encounter as being something like an introduction, then I think you are still in the realm of "broad array of stable dispositions"; you simply forgot a person's name. If you were a successful diplomat or a dean, i.e. somebody for whom names are terribly important, you probably would have remembered Jerry's name, perhaps with the aid of some mnemonic device that would be part of your array of stable dispositions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Keith, Eric, and Mr. Yak! I can't tell you how delightful it is to have such helpful, sensible, and sympathetic responses. (In the conversation mentioned in the post, Krista said: "I'm defending your own view against you!")

Eric, on the second case you mention: I think, if that's my dispositional set-up, then insisting on a definite yes-I-believe or no-I-don't-believe might be a bit misleading. Call it an "in-between" case, why not?