Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why Does "Believe" Have No Present Progressive?

In English, the distinction between dispositional and occurrent uses of verbs is often marked in the present tense, dispositional uses taking the simple present and occurrent uses taking the present progressive. For example: "Corina runs" usually suggests that Corina has the tendency, or disposition, to run, though she may not be running now; while "Corina is running" suggests that running is going on at the very moment of the utterance. "Jamie reads the Bible" suggests that Jamie has the habit of reading the Bible from time to time; while "Jamie is reading the Bible" suggests that Jamie is presently (whether in a narrow or broad sense of the present) reading some bit of, or in the course of reading through, the Bible.

Most philosophers of mind accept a distinction between dispositional vs. occurrent senses of belief as well. Five minutes ago, before the thought crossed your mind, you dispositionally believed that Jupiter is a planet. Now that you're thinking about it, you occurrently believe that fact. The idea is that we can talk about a person's beliefs dispositionally, without knowing what is presently running through her mind (she might even be in a dreamless sleep), but that beliefs also sometimes come up front, as it were, to play a role in active inference or conscious reasoning, in some more occurrent sense.

It's interesting, then, that ordinary English usage has no (or at least very little) use for the present progressive form of "believes", which we might think would be the natural way to talk about occurrent belief as it occurs. We don't say "Harry is believing that New York City is large." Indeed, my version of MS Word marks that sentence as ungrammatical -- though it has no problem with "Harry is saying that New York City is large"! Likewise, if you search for "is believing" in Google, you find instance after instance of "seeing is believing". If you exclude pages with "seeing", you'll find "hearing is believing", "stealing is believing", and the like, but not a present progressive in sight!

Philosophers of mind sometimes point out that in ordinary English we often use "thinks" to ascribe beliefs: "Joan thinks plaid ties are chic". But here again, English steers us away from occurrent belief: The present progressive of "thinks" -- "is thinking" -- generally does not ascribe an occurrent belief: "I am thinking of Paris", "Jee Loo is thinking about philosophy". Perhaps closest to an ascription of occurrent belief, with the present progressive "is thinking" in natural English, would be something like this: "I've been thinking that maybe we should be leaving soon". But even that last seems not so much to ascribe the belief that maybe we should be leaving soon as the thought that we should be.

I'm not a huge fan of the examination of ordinary language to reveal truths about the mind -- at least in the way philosophers have often done it. But in this case, I wonder if English usage isn't onto something. I wonder whether, maybe, there's enough of a difference between occurrent mental states, like thoughts and judgments, and dispositional ones like beliefs, that we shouldn't simply assimilate the former into the latter in the guise of "occurrent belief".

(If so, this would fit nicely with my sense -- as explored in my earlier racism and God & Heaven posts -- that we often sincerely judge or assert things we don't fully and genuinely believe.)


Brad C said...

Some thoughts:

(1) I am not sure this tells against your suggestion, but I would think the lack of a present progressive results from the fact that believing is not something that takes time; it is not a process or an activity in which we engage.

Reading and running, on the other hand, are both processes or activities in which we engage - they are actitivities or processes that fill time, so to speak. I can say 'Jolie runs' and thereby assert that she has a disposition to run (or maybe just that she has run in the past.) The thing which she has a disposition to do (or which she has done in the past) is to engage in a process.

While she is engaged in that process, i.e. during the time in which she is engaged in the activity , I can meaningfully say "Jolie is running," and "Jolie has been running since time t1, and I suspect she will keep doing that until t2." Afterward I can say "Jolie was busy running from time t1 to time t2"

(2) I suspect that we do not say "Jolie is believing" because believing is not an activity or a process in which we engage. Since it is not an activity in which we engage, it cannot compete with other activities as an optional way to fill our time. Imagine I get an email chat from a friend and he writes, "Hey, Brad. Are you busy? Can you chat?" and I write back, "Sorry, I can't chat now; I'm busy believing what I am typing."

That is nutty in part because you can't be "busy" believing something. Why not? I bet it is in good part because believing is not an activity or process. (Of course trying to figure out that to believe is an activity)

(3) I note that the other uses mentioned above in the running case can't be applied to 'believe' any more than the present progressive can. These all seem odd:

"Jolie is believing that P."
"Jolie has been believing that P since time t1, and I suspect she will keep doing that until t2."
"Jolie was busy believing that p from time t1 to time t2."

(4) I am tempted to follow Wollheim and say that beliefs are dispostions which are manifest (but usually not expressed) in certain occurrant states. Would occurrant state theorists reject the suggestion that occurrant-beleif talk is just talk about states in which our beliefs are manifest?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree with you, Brad, that believing is not an activity that takes place over time -- that (with Wollheim) we should think of belief as a disposition that can manifest itself in various occurrences.

However, it's interesting to consider some cases close to belief. "Judging", "thinking", "wanting", "intending". We do use all of these forms in the present progressive (with varying frequency) to refer to mental occurrences. Are *they* activities that elapse over time, with which we can be busy? Maybe so, but in a relatively attenuated sense.

Why does it matter whether belief can be an occurrence? Here's why: If you say, when I occurrently judge something to be the case, that I am occurrently *believing* it, then it sounds like I believe it full stop -- and thus that (on my and Wollheim's and many others' view) I have the belief-dispositions of which the occurrence is merely a manifestation. But I think we often *don't* believe what we occurrently judge to be the case (as in my racism and God and Heaven posts).

Anonymous said...

Here's an example:
I show the bank my credit details -and while they are believing them, I run off with the money.

So, there was a period when the bank comes to a position of believing them - a realisation phase; this is followed by the state of "believing". aka "my opportunity"!

When they see the money gone and realise my details are phoney, they go through a state of re-aligning their beliefs, and finally they are in a state of believing they've been had.

A similar (and maybe with more flux) example is when a magician makes the audience believe something.

I'll step away again - I just landed here on the wing of a Google bird, found it intriguing but must now get on with my task.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, John! I'm afraid I don't find the example in your first paragraph compelling from an ordinary language perspective. If anyone is still reading the comments on this old post, I'd be interested to hear if you do. The latter instances of "believing" in the example are not the present progressive (as you may recognize), so your point really hangs on the first paragraph, I think.