Monday, June 05, 2006

Reporting What We Think, Want, and Fear

Gareth Evans, Robert Gordon, Richard Moran, and others have noted that one way to answer questions about what you believe involves reflecting not on your beliefs but rather on the things your beliefs are about. If someone asks me whether I think Schwartzenegger will be re-elected, I can answer that question simply by reflecting on Schwartzenegger and his chances, expressing the results of that reflection with the self-attributional sentence: "I think he'll win".

I could even go so far as to say the "I think..." swiftly, before I've done any reflection at all. I can then contemplate Schwartzenegger at leisure, as though the question were just about his chances (and not at all about my beliefs about his chances), saying "... he'll win" in whatever way and by whatever mechanism I normally, and non-self-attributively, express my opinions about the world. The idea here is that whatever ordinary means I have of expressing views like "the office closes at 5:00" or "the 49ers are doomed" -- things I can surely say without introspective self-examination -- can also be employed to say "I think the office closes at 5:00" or "I know the 49ers are doomed". The difference between the former expressions and the latter is a difference in tone and confidence, not a difference in the presence or absence of introspection. But, of course, technically the latter sentences are in some sense about my mental states in a way the former are not.

Moran and Gordon hope that an account of this sort can work generally to explain self-attributions of attitudes. Others, like Shaun Nichols and Alvin Goldman, who see self-attributions of attitudes as involving something more closely akin to self-scanning, suggest that accounts of this sort work best (if at all) for belief, and fail completely for desire, fear, etc.

Part of the problem here is that Moran and Gordon have not been as clear and explicit as they might be about how such an account would work with attitudes such as desire and fear.

For desire, do I look at the world and assess whether (for example) ice cream is desirable? For fear, do I look at the world and assess whether that big dog is something I should be afraid of? Perhaps. But it seems that what I capture most accurately by such techniques is not the desire for ice cream but rather the belief that ice-cream is desirable, not an absence of dog fear but rather the belief that that dog doesn't warrant fear. And of course the beliefs here can come apart from the other attitudes, as in the case of avowedly irrational fear.

So maybe the Evans/Gordon/Moran account only works for belief after all?

No, I think it's still open to them to give an account of the following sort: To answer the question about whether I'm afraid of the dog, I can look at the dog itself, prepared in advance to express any fear I might have with a self-attributional sentence like "I'm afraid of that dog". This expression may be the result not of scanning my own mind but rather a direct response to the world -- as an expression like "that hurts!" or "I'm so happy to see you!" is plausibly a direct response to the world rather than a result of self-scanning, not psychologically very different from non-self-attributive expressions like "ow!" or "you look great!"

(Technical note: Thus, it seems to me, there can be a happy marriage between accounts like Evans/Gordon/Moran with "expressivist" accounts like that of Dorit Bar-On -- despite the sharp line Bar-On draws between those accounts and hers [see also Brie Gertler's Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Self-Knowledge].)

But let me note in conclusion (lest it seem that I've forgotten everything I've written about belief in earlier blogs) that the connection between a sentence like "I think Schwartzenegger will win" (or "I think God exists" or "I believe all men were created equal") and one's actual beliefs is in certain cases rather dubious. It better expresses one's (potentially very superficial) conscious judgments than one's deep, implicitly accepted, action-animating beliefs.

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