Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dispositionalism vs Representationalism about Belief

The Monday before last, Ned Block and Eric Mandelbaum brought me into their philosophy grad seminar at New York University to talk about belief. Our views are pretty far apart, and I got pushback during class (and before class, and after class!) from a variety of directions. But the issue that stuck with me most was the big-picture issue of dispositionalism vs respresentationalism about belief.

I'm a dispositionalist. By this I mean that to believe some particular proposition, such as that your daughter is at school, is nothing more or less than to be disposed toward certain patterns of behavior, conscious experience, and cognition, under a range of hypothetical conditions -- for example, to be disposed to go to your daughter's school if you decide you want to meet her, to be disposed to feel surprise should you head home for lunch and find her waiting there, and to be disposed, if the question arises, to infer that her favorite backpack is also probably at the school (since she usually takes it with her). All of these dispositions hold only "ceteris paribus" or "all else being equal" and one needn't have all of them to count as believing. (For more details about my version of dispositionalism in particular, see here.) Crucial to the dispositionalist approach (but not unique to it) is the idea that the implementational details don't matter -- or rather, they matter only derivatively. It doesn't matter if you've got a connectionist net in your head, or representations in the language of thought, or a billion little homonuculi whispering in thieves' cant, or an immaterial soul. As long as you have the right clusters of behavioral, experiential, and cognitive dispositions, robustly, across a suitably broad range of hypothetical circumstances, you believe.

On a representationalist view, implementation does matter. On a suitably modest view of what a "representation" is (I like Dretske's account), the human mind uses representations. For example, it's very plausible that neural activity in primary visual cortex is representational, if representations are states of a system that function to track or convey information about something else. (In primary visual cortex, patterns of excitation in groups of neurons function to indicate geometrical features in various parts of the visual field.) The representationalist about belief commits to a general picture of the mind as a manipulator of representations, and then characterizes believing as a matter of having the right sort of representations (e.g., one with the content "my daughter it school") stored or activated in the right type of functional role in the mind (for example, stored in memory and poised (if all goes well) to be activated in cognitive processing when you are asked, "where is your daughter now?").

I interpreted some of the pushback from Block, Mandelbaum, and their students as follows: "Look, the best cognitive science employs a representational model of the mind. So representations are real. Even you don't deny that. So if you want a truly scientific model of the mind instead of some vague dispositionalism that looks only at the effects or manifestations of real cognitive states, you should be a representationalist."

How is a dispositionalist to reply to this concern? I have three broad responses.

The Implementational Response. The most concessive response (short of saying, "oops, you're right!") is to deny that there is any serious conflict between the two positions by allowing that the way one gets to have the dispositional profile constitutive of belief might be by manipulating representations in just the manner that the representationalist supposes. The views can be happily married! You don't get to have the dispositional profile of a believer unless you already have right sort of representational architecture underneath; and once you have the right sort of representational architecture underneath, you thereby acquire the relevant dispositional profile. The views only diverge in marginal or hypothetical cases where representational architecture and dispositional profile come apart -- but maybe those cases don't matter too much.

However, I think that answer is too concessive, for a couple of reasons.

The Messiness Response. Here's a too-simple hypothetical representationalist architecture for belief. To believe that P (e.g., that my daughter is at school today) is to just to have a representation with the content P ("my daughter is at school today") stored somewhere in the mind, ready to be activated when it becomes relevant whether P is the case (e.g., I'm asked "where is your daughter now?"). One problem with this view is the problem of specifying the exact content. I believe that the my daughter is at school today. I also believe that my daughter is at JFK Elementary today. I also believe that my daughter is at JFK Elementary now. I also believe that Kate is at JFK Elementary now. I also believe that Kate is in Ms. Salinas' class today. This list could obviously be expanded considerably. Do I literally have all of these representations stored separately? Or is there only one representation stored, from which the others are swiftly derivable? If so, which one? How could we know? This puzzle invites us to reject the simplistic picture that believing P is a matter of having a stored representation with exactly the content P. But once we make this move, we open ourselves up to a certain kind of implementational messiness -- which is plausible anyway. As we have seen in the two best-developed areas of cognitive science -- the cognitive science of memory and the cognitive science of vision -- the underlying architectural stories tend to be highly complex and tend not to map neatly onto our folk psychological categories. Furthermore, viewed from an appropriately broad temporal perspective, scientific fashions come and go: We have this many memory systems, no we have this many; early visual processing is not much influenced by later processing, wait yes it is influenced, wait no it's not after all. Dynamical systems, connectionist networks, patterns of looping activation can all be understood in terms of language-like representations, or no they can't, or maybe map-like representations or sensorimotor representations are better. Given the messiness and uncertainty of cognitive science, it is premature to commit to a thoroughly representationalist picture. Maybe someday we'll have all this figured out well enough so that we can say "this architectural structure, this one, is what you have if you believe that your daughter is at school, we found it!" That would be exciting! That day, I abandon dispositionalism. Until then, I prefer to think of belief dispositionally rather than relying upon any particular architectural story, even as general an architectural story as representationalism.

The What-We-Care-About Response. Why, as philosophers, do we want an account of belief? Presumably, it's because we care about predicting and explaining our behavior and our patterns of experience. So let's suppose as much divergence as it's reasonable to suppose between patterns of experience and behavior and patterns of internal architecture. Maybe we discover an alien species that has outward behavior and inner experiences virtually identical to our own but implemented very differently in the underlying architecture. Or maybe we can imagine a human being whose actions and experiences, not only in her actual circumstances but also in a wide range of hypothetical circumstances, are just like that of someone who believes that P, but who lacks the usual underlying architecture. On an architecture-driven account, it seems that we have to deny that these aliens or this person believes what they seem to believe; on a dispositional account, we get to say that they do believe what they seem to believe. The latter seems preferable: If what we care about in an account of belief is patterns of behavior and experience, then it makes sense to build an account of belief that prioritizes those patterns of behavior and experience as the primary thing, and treats purely architectural considerations as secondary.


Some related posts and papers:

A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief (Nous 2002).

Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006 revised 2015).

Mad Belief? (blog post, Nov. 5, 2008).

A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box (in Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief, 2013).

Against Intellectualism About Belief (blog post, July 31, 2015)

The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief (essay in draft, October 2016).


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I'm curious what you would think about cases of deference, particularly moral ones.

If my religious mother, deferring to her faith, avows to believe I'm going to hell for being gay, but lacks the dispositional make up of a caring mother who sincerely thinks I'm going to hell -no pleading, she doesn't worry much about me, etc. -then does she really believe I'm going to hell?

Could we say this is common across people who avow P but don't really act like it? It seems like in moral issues particularly our "beliefs" and behaviors to act on them come apart.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 12:52. That sort of issue is very close to my heart! I argue that such cases should be regarded as "in-between" cases in which you have some but not all of the relevant dispositions and so cannot quite accurately be described as believing that P nor quite accurately be described as failing to believe that P. See for example my treatment in "Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs" (PPQ 2010):

Unknown said...

Are one's dispositions and representations subjects of belief rather than objects of observation...
...that our egos and science want a means to understand truth/reality...

Callan S. said...

I think the representationalist inclined here have an incapacity in regard to self reflection and recursion. From lack of skill in that regard (or horribly, perhaps like some people can't curl their tongue - just a mechanical impossibility)

Seriously, imagine having a belief, but being unable to see it as a belief - what would it look like? Well, it wouldn't be believing - it'd be having the right...representation? It wouldn't be having a disposition, it would just be this is this and that is that. Everything would make absolute sense, instead of being a series of...dispositions toward this or that.

Over on conscious entities they talked about how some people cannot visualise things in their mind - and a guy who's mind was blown that others could. Your representationalists might just not be able to see a disposition as anything but how something represents itself.

And that's why they call science representational, when it isn't. Science, as in the practice of it, accepts that even if one million tests result in A, the very next test you could have made (but don't) might result in B. Ie, that you never know - science always leaves you, the human, to cast your belief one way or the other - it never does. But if you can't see your beliefs as beliefs and see them instead as the world representing itself this way or that way, that understanding of science is incompatible with you - how can you be left to believe one way or the other when you can't even see yourself believing?

I think it'd be worth probing their representations - engaging optical illusions so object A turns out to be object B. But they based their whole day on it being object A before they find it is B...which kind of sounds like how a disposition works, right? Need some convincing optical illusion example - though there are plenty of illusions out there, so there's bound to be a dozens.

George Gantz said...

Bravo, Eric! The representationalists have a disposition to explain human conscious processes on the basis of that which can be identified in the brain with existing observational tools. As the tools improve and the deeper complexities of the human mind are explored, perhaps that disposition will change. As I wrote a few years back, some neuroscientists have a similar disposition to reject free will - something which I find to be similarly self-contradictory:

Similar dispositions can be found in other fields of science: Remember when genes in our DNA were viewed as the blueprint of life, and we believed that decoding the human genome would solve the mysteries of human development? Now we find that there are immensely complex relationships between genes, gene expression, protein construction, functionality and performance --- and even with the microbiome swimming within and on us. In this incredibly messy process, the one thing that remains consistent is the disposition for life to live.

ABCDecay said...

> You don't get to have the dispositional profile of a believer unless you already have right sort of representational architecture underneath

Flip this around for a happier marriage. You don't get to have a representational architecture unless you already have the right sort of dispositional profile.

Such an inversion doesn't necessarily commit you to a top-down approach to the determination of representations. It's not just that representations are downward projections and reifications from a higher dispositional order of consciousness onto a neural substrate. Representations are also determined from the bottom up as relative intensities of chemico-physical dispositions.

It's dispositions all the way down. Beliefs, then, aren't just human attributes. If I'm able to type this out, it's in virtue of a set of beliefs that belong to my nervous system, and also a set of beliefs that belong to the United States—which, you will agree, is conscious—insofar as it's disposed to let me access a computer with Internet.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan -- I'm having some trouble understanding your comment. What trouble would a representationalist have with self-representation? I don't think the picture is that every represented also need to be itself represented with another representation, for example (which would create a regress problem).

ABCDecay: Yes, I'm tempted to do the flip you say -- but that wouldn't be very concessive to the representationalists, as they see their view in their own terms!

Drwilson said...

Hi Eric,

This is interesting, however, I'm still unclear about how you separate belief from knowledge. If you believe that your daughter is at school, and she is, then how is this not simply knowledge? Your belief about the state of he world matches up with the actual state of the world.

On the other hand, a belief in God -or in Santa Claus -is not exactly true and it's debatable whether it's even justified. I believe that these types of belief can be justified when they contribute to a narrative that is sincere or authentic. I use those words hesitantly, because I'm not sure how to describe it exactly. What I am saying is that certain types of belief function like stories we tell ourselves, and some of those stories may be more dangerous to our wellbeing than others. This relates to the notion of self-deception.

Bernard Williams gives the example of a man whose son has tragically died. If the man continues to believe that he son will return, we typically want to say that this belief is "unhealthy" because he is deceiving himself about the truth. Certainly, there has to be a limit to how far we should allow ourselves or others to be deceived. In the case of Santa Claus, on the other hand, we mostly do not view it as harmful for children to believe in him--at least until her schoolmates would start making fun of her.

I'm not sure how this relates to your ideas about disposition or representation, but now I will certainly have to consider how it does. :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Drwilson: Usually, I think, when we know something, we also believe it. One gets to know by believing plus meeting some other conditions. (However, I think there are also some cases in which one knows despite not quite believing, as I discuss in my paper with Blake Myers-Schulz.

ABCDecay said...

> Yes, I'm tempted to do the flip you say -- but that wouldn't be very concessive to the representationalists, as they see their view in their own terms!

“Wouldn't be very concessive”—with respect to what, though? Vocabulary? It's possible to concede the correctness of a representationalist vocabulary while maintaining the correctness of a dispositionalist one within the scope of the problems you're dealing with.

Or do you mean concessive with respect to problems worth investigating? For example, the messiness of going full representationalist, the question of what it could mean in the context of such messiness to “store” representations, the possibilities of decentralized storage and the de-privileging of human consciousness as the locus of representations...

Kallan Greybe said...

What about features of a belief that don't comfortably count as dispositional or straightforwardly representational?

An example here would be if we:

a) believe that linguistic content = mental content


b) accept a causal theory of reference of some sort.

A causal theory of reference gives us a theory of a kind of content, reference, which I don't think is straightforwardly dispositional and can't be representational unless we're willing to be pretty brutely externalist about representational content, along the order of "bears are scary because they're scary". On the other hand, the most famous argument for why these kinds of contents are causal, Kripke's, involves using them cross-modally, i.e. to make sense of things, possible worlds, that more closely match representations.

Wouldn't this lean us towards saying that content is therefore more likely to be representational, seeing as we've good arguments for believing that reference is causal? If you don't like Kripke, I suspect Gricean theories of language, what with their modelling of beliefs, could be used to make a similar point.

Callan S. said...


What trouble would a representationalist have with self-representation? I don't think the picture is that every represented also need to be itself represented with another representation, for example (which would create a regress problem).

I think maybe you're projecting your own capacity onto others (a nice thing to do, but perhaps incorrect).

I get your infinite regress problem, but imagine the opposite - infinite non regress. Where there is no regress back/step back and thinking 'that representation - that's something I'm thinking of!'. I remember a guy once writing 'So this person made me mad. I don't mean he came over, opened my skull and fiddled with my brain to make me mad - really I was making myself mad with him'. Here there is a recursion/a regress where he considers the process going on. Now imagine removing that recursion - what would it look like? It'd look like 'That guy is making me mad!'. It'd be that guy and that guy alone and that's it. It wouldn't be a disposition in the viewer toward getting made, it'd be a quality of the subject that he makes people mad.

So what problem would a representationalist have with self representation? It's because that guy represents as an aggravating guy and...there is no 'and'. He'd just show up as aggravating - there would be no reason apparent for the representationalist to represent himself, so he wouldn't represent himself. Everything would show up as 'the right representation', as you described it. Infinite non regress, for treating all representations as all being qualities of the thing seen.

Ironically it's hard to consider, because it involves doing two contradictory things at once. 1. Seeing the process of thinking to some extent 2. Imagining what it's like to not see the process of thinking to any extent at all and only see the guy as making you mad.

Demonax said...

Hi Eric,

I think I'm inclined to agree with you in endorsing some variety of dispositionalism over contemporary forms of representationalism. However I find myself balking at the inclusion of both "conscious experiences" and "cognitions" among the conditions for believing.

Including conscious experiences seems to undermine the whole point of a dispositional account of belief. You (rightly, in my view) note that aiming for a conciliatory approach with representationalism is ceding too much; but then what role are conscious experiences playing over above the patterns of outward behavior? I'd want to ask the parallel question about cognition. Why posit inner states or processes as the meaning or the identity conditions of our mental-state terms if we're going the dispositionalist route?

I see why you want to do this given your thoughts about nonhuman intelligences. And I agree that we shouldn't want to exclude nonhuman beings from having beliefs. I think the trouble I'm having is not so much with the quibble between dispositions or representations, but that each of these positions tempts us to a certain interpretation of states of believing (and likely to mental phenomena in the more general sense).

Two implicit premises seem to be at work here. First: *the belief* is akin to a quasi-physical "thing" which stands in need of explanation in the way we would explain any other "medium-sized dry good" (as Austin put it). We feel a compulsion to explain the mental as we would explain a physical system. But is this truly the naturalistic way to go about the explanation of mindedness, or is this a strategy that stems from a misunderstanding of the role of mental language? I'm not so sure anymore.

Second: the belief or state of believing is the appropriate focus for epistemology and/or psychology. Beliefs in the right inferential or semantic relations become knowledge; beliefs expressed or realized in certain patterns of behavior constitute mental/psychological/cognitive life. Certainly beliefs are important. My quibble here is whether beliefs are central and fundamental, in either a justificatory or explanatory sense. Again, I'm no longer sure about this.

I won't try to develop this much further since this is already too long for a comment. But I do think dropping these two premises can get us closer to what we want from both the dispositionalist's attention to *what is done* and the representationalist's attention to implementation.

What I think we can say is that the characteristic activity of a being, human or nonhuman, is not simply a matter of ascribing beliefs but a matter of how we understand it as a being capable of believing. This isn't just dispositionalism, because "characteristic activity" is a broader concept which includes "patterns of behavior" (etc.) This means that implementations matter, insofar as function can't be entirely abstracted from form. A whale, a paper wasp, a chimp, a cuttlefish, and a crow are all similar in some ways, and they are all wildly different in others. Chimps and maybe crows might have beliefs, but we are already torturing the concept of "belief" in saying so (I think mainly because they lack language, or at least more than a rudimentary proto-language).

If belief doesn't matter outside of certain practices of human social life, this isn't a denigration of chimps or crows. It's just to recognize that we get on in different ways as different kinds of being.

I don't think the worry is whether ETIs or some future super-intelligent machine-agents would be capable of impressive feats in the intellectual domain. The question here seems to me whether we're licensed psychological concepts in describing their activities, and in what circumstances. We may find that there just aren't any good criteria for when and where we can reasonably make belief-ascriptions without considering the context of the particular case.

David Duffy said...

Possibly I don't understand this all very well, but how does one fit the idea of dispositions with the individual being able to reason (in a potentially infinite process) using beliefs? How does one combine a disposition regarding the location of a child's school with one to act on traffic reports that X street is currently blocked. For a representationalist this would seen to be a straightforward computation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

ABCDecay: I guess I meant both. I'm not interested in trying to defend a hard line against representationalists. Part of my idea is that even if gives representationalism a lot of what it wants, dispositional approaches still make better sense.

Callan: I think I see better now, but maybe I don't completely see. Representations of the outer world aren't presumably labeled with "and this representation is had by *me*" attached. One can represent oneself only implicitly, if at all. For example, an egocentric representation of space represents where you are only implicitly by means of representing the relative positions of other things. For simple systems, there might be no explicit self-representation at all. But it seems that human beings can also explicitly self-represent.

Demonax: Interesting comment. There's a lot there! Phenomenal dispositions are central to my project, and what separates it from earlier dispositionalist/behaviorist-inspired projects that emphasized outward behavior. It's just part of my methodological starting place that I don't want to try to downgrade the importance of phenomenology or reduce it to something else. One your two implicit premises, I believe I reject both of them. My view is somewhat like Dennett's (esp in "Real Patterns") except with phenomenology among the fundamental relata. Behavior and phenomenology and dispositions to behavior and phenomenology are the most basic elements of the model and "belief" talk is a way of pointing out patterns among them. I'm not sure about your "characteristic activity" point though, and why that is more than dispositional. Could you explain more?

David: It could be implemented by representations, just like you suggest. It might be implemented in some crazy old connectionist or deep-learning net that doesn't fit with our usual picture of representational inferential kinematics. It is both a weakness and a strength of my view that I don't explain that. A weakness because if I did explain it, it would be better. A strength because it doesn't commit to explanations that might well be dubious and simplistic.

Demonax said...

I certainly sympathize with wanting to keep conscious phenomenology in the picture. Your approach sounds like an interesting way to approach the problem. My own quibbles with the phenomenal have more to do with a heavy case of scruples about "ontologizing" the subjective (which is, unfortunately, more a prejudice than a well-argued position at this point!)

I think I'm with you about real patterns. Where I differ (if it is a real difference) turns more on a point about what we mean by phenomenal. Andre Carus recently made some remarks on the relativity of conceptual life which are along the lines of where I stand. My concern turns on a tendency to take certain appearances and their properties as basic, when the phenomena may be more dependent on habits of language use than bona-fide description-independent properties of human life.

That's compounded by a further tendency to apply a general distinction between appearance and reality to mental life. I'm pushing back on dispositionalism as well as representationalism because the former seems to make the same distinction between description and object as the latter. I'm not exactly sure I'm convinced of this point myself, because there seem to be paths for a dispositionalist to respond to that objection. But if this is a difficulty, it amounts to explaining the phenomenal in impersonal language.

What I meant by characteristic activity is difficult to explain in a few sentences. Characteristic activity involves attending to the life of a kind of organism (the human organism) rather than the more abstract scope of mental acts and events, or analogs in physical events and processes. I'm influenced here by Michael Thompson's *Life and Action*.

Dispositionalism gets something very right even at this part of the story. Human beings *do certain things*. Some of those things, like digestion, hair growth, eating, walking, speaking a language, and judging that S believes that p can all be described "from the outside" as certain patterns. But other things, like *coming to realize that I now believe p when I didn't last week*, don't slot so easily into that story. Is that a pattern of behavior? It's not inconceivable. The worry I'm trying to get at here is that if some of these features of mindedness are description dependent, then a dispositionalism may not be sufficient to get us to them.

This is not to say that what we call beliefs don't exist without the concept "belief"; something happens in the course of human beings using language with one another. It's rather to suggest that the concept "belief" itself is meaningful within those contexts of humans talking about other humans and ascribing certain things to them.

Callan S. said...


Representations of the outer world aren't presumably labeled with "and this representation is had by *me*" attached.

If I'm understanding you, this is it though - you do do some labeling like this - to merely mention it is to do some labeling like this. I'd suggest this is a strong part of what makes you engage in dispositionalism. And the more this behaviour is absent in an individual, the more someone will treat themselves as a representationalist.

And the thing is, they mentioned science - and in terms of 'And this representation is had by *me*' attachments, science is heavily on your side, AFAICT. Vomit isn't 'gross' or 'disgusting', for example, somehow innately in itself - that's an attribution of the viewer and scientific practice backs that up. So science supports dispositionalism.