Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Essay: A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes, or Thinking Outside of the Belief Box

I have long advocated a dispositional approach to belief (e.g., here). But I have been cagey about trying to extend that account to other attitudes such as desiring and loving. In this new essay, I finally set aside those hesitations and go all-in for dispositionalism.

Abstract: To have an attitude is, for the most part, just to live a certain way. It is, for the most part, just to be disposed to behave in certain ways, to be disposed to undergo certain conscious experiences, and to be disposed to exhibit certain folk-psychologically recognizable cognitive patterns. To have an attitude is, essentially, to be describable by means of a folk-psychologically recognizable superficial syndrome, regardless of one's deep cognitive or biological structure. To have an attitude is not, for example, essentially a matter of having a representation stored in a metaphorical functional box. It is more like having a personality trait. It is to have a certain temporary or habitual posture of mind.  
As always, comments welcome, either by email or as comments on this post.


Carrie Figdor said...

I like it, and am defending a view that I think is related and compatible and I will get back to you on this. we should talk!

Scott Bakker said...

A potential problem is that your account, given the deep/superficial frame, threatens to lapse into a kind ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument. You acknowledge the break between the deep and the superficial is not a clean one–but the real question is one of how this break plays out in practice. In practice, the deep knowledge is the knowledge that raises civilizations up. It is actionable in ways that superficial knowledge is not. In a sociological sense, there’s no sorting it science from life, deep accounts from superficial, save perhaps the way the possessors of the former to regularly exploit the possessors of the latter. This is probably one of many reasons we assume that deep is better.

But this is the thing: you frame this argument in pragmatic terms. For living, given that liberal dispositionalism best captures the kinds of attitude ascriptions we believe we are making in real life, we should trade our metaphoric box for a metaphoric posture. My argument (for the past decade) is precisely the opposite: For living, given that mechanistic explanation best captures what we are actually doing when we believe we are making attitude ascriptions, and given the way the actual is regularly instrumentalized by social institutions, we should advocate for more, not less, mechanistic (deep) explanation. All you need do is visit websites like these [] to appreciate the degree to which “Creeping Manipulation” is a very real social threat. Epistemic deference to the deep accounts that make this manipulation possible is the only way I can think of blunting this threat. (I once asked Dennett about this flip-side to his Creeping Exculpation, and his reply, literally, was, “Caveat emptor.” That got the crowd going!)

This is the problem: your account, by posting epistemological limits and generalizing them across a family of contexts, threatens to seal experience/lived life in, turn it into a kind of ‘inferential module,’ and so rendering it accountable only to its own interpretative vagaries as constrained by the dispositional nexus of ‘folk psychology.’ And yet it’s all information, deep or superficial, valuable according to whatever our current project happens to be. And it’s all going to get mashed into the associative bolus of culture whether we want it to or not. Used for us. Against us.

So the million dollar question, as I see it, becomes: What’s the pragmatic advantage of placing superficial information higher on a general, as opposed to an impromptu, case-by-case, authority gradient? Aren't you advocating a kind of epistemic akrasia otherwise?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Carrie: Sure, let's talk! I'll email you.

@ Scott: Thanks for the terrific comments, and the expanded ones in the email. They are leading me to conceptualize a concluding section that will add considerably to the depth and weirdness of the paper, I hope!

Charles T. Wolverton said...

In an attempt to come up with substantive criticisms, I've spent the last few days immersed in Davidson's SIO essays. On rereading your paper from that perspective, I've come up with only one minor issue having to do with this quote:.

[swampcat] would still qualify as a cat on a superficial account but not on a deep account that requires that the entity have a particular evolutionary history.

In the SIO essay in which swampcat's owner swampman appears, Davidson argues that swampDD is "psychologically" different from real DD, which has seemed to me obviously at odds with their being the same physically. I think I now understand the disconnect, which apparently arises from (to me bizarre, though perhaps technically necessary) interpretations of some psychological terms. By a "psychological difference" he apparently means a difference that is descriptive as opposed to explanatory (the distinction that apparently motivated anomalous monism). That isn't quite explicit in the essay, but there are several suggestive clues (eg, his insistence that swampDD can't "re-cognize, re-member" - ie, "re" any mental event - since he/it had none previously and therefore can't be accurately described using such words.

In the phrase quoted above, it appears that you may intend "on a deep account that requires ... a particular evolutionary history" merely to identify a hypothetical account that employs evolutionary thinking, in which case I don't see Davidson's essay as relevant - it's all about differences based on history that is experiential, not evolutionary. In any event, I think by going "behavioral" you avoid the linguistic issues that constitute the "psychological" differences that are central to Davidson's essay, again making it irrelevant. Now that I better understand the swampman thought experiment, my reaction is that it adds nothing to Davidson's essay and diverts attention from significant points that seem to have gotten much less attention. Apparently he came to feel the same and expressed regret for having "created" s-DD. So, I'd suggest following DD's lead and dropping swampcat and the swampman reference.

Like Scott, I've come to find it more comfortable in the "deep", but I think your "superficial" behavioral disposition approach may facilitate the transition from the latter to the former. Presumably few would have serious difficulty accepting that behavioral dispositions are implemented in neural structures. Possibly harder to imagine is a neural implementation of a "belief box" - unless one imagines a "language of thought" sentence as essentially a latent verbal utterance of the sentence, in which case it too is a behavioral disposition. So, at a minimum your approach may have value as a heuristic aid.