Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Degrees of Conscious Judging? Degrees, but Not of Confidence?

Keith Frankish, in Mind and Supermind, argues (among many other things) that although non-conscious dispositional beliefs come in degrees of confidence, conscious beliefs (he calls them "superbeliefs") are always flat-out yes-or-no, are always simply either accepted or not accepted. I'd like to disagree with that.

(By the way, I'd recommend Dominic Murphy's illuminating, if somewhat critical, review of Mind and Supermind.)

It won't do to object that obviously we sometimes consciously think that some proposition is only somewhat likely to be true. Frankish can handle such cases as defenders of flat-out belief have always done: He can say such judgments are flat-out judgments about likelihoods. (Jargonistically, one might say it's bel[flat-out](pr(P)= .9) rather than bel[.9](P).) If the debate comes down to attempting to distinguish between believing flat-out that something has a certain likelihood of being true and believing that thing simpliciter with some degree of confidence, it's going to take some subtle argument to straighten it out; and indeed, I suspect, it will ultimately be a pragmatic decision about how to regiment the word "belief" for scholarly purposes.

So let's not touch probability and degrees of confidence. It has always bothered me, anyway, philosophers' talk about degrees of confidence as "degrees of belief" -- as though having intermediate confidence were the only way to be between fully believing something and entirely lacking the belief!

Consider superstition. At the craps table, the dice come around again to a man who has been a "cold" shooter the last three times in a row; I wager against him, on the "don't pass". In a sense, I know the dice are fair and he's no more likely to crap out than the hot shooter; but still I think to myself "he's gonna flail", and I'm much more comfortable with the don't pass than the pass bet. It doesn't seem quite right to say that I consciously judge that he's going to flail or quite right to say that I consciously judge that he's as likely as the next guy to have a hot run. Maybe in some cases, I flip between two contradictory judgments, each full and genuine judgments; but can't I also, instead, simply have a single superstitious thought that I recognize as superstitious and yet half judge to be true? Such cases are in-between, I'd suggest, in a way not neatly captured by positing intermediate degrees of confidence.

Consider half-endorsed thoughts. Someone is speaking. You're not sweating it too much, but going with the flow. She hasn't said anything startling or questionable enough for alarms to go off, so you're nodding -- not entirely absently, but not entirely conscientiously either. Are you judging or believing what she says? Here, too, I think is a spectrum from mere idly letting words wash over you and fully endorsing and accepting them, a spectrum not best characterized in terms of degrees of confidence. Similar phenomena occur with slogans that come unbidden to mind, or remembered strands of prose, or memorized lecture notes.

Consider indeterminate content. Mary thinks consciously to herself that the purse is on the bed. The thought has half-formed associations: that it's not in the kitchen, that she'd better go to the bedroom, that she'll be needing it soon. Must all these thoughts or associations be either fully formed or entirely absent from consciousness? Must Mary's thought have a single, precise English content (as perhaps an instance of inner speech does?) that includes its being on the bed, say, but not its being in the bedroom?

In my published discussions of in-between belief (e.g. here and here), I've emphasized dispositional cases, where someone is simultaneously disposed to act one way in some situations and other way in other situations. I have not, as here, focused on cases in which a single, individual thought may fall between being a genuine judgment and not being one.


  1. This is the same kind of thought i always get. How much conscious are our actions ... Accidentally saw your blog, got hooked to it now.

  2. Keith Frankish and I had a bit of an email exchange about this post. Details in the underblog!

  3. I just had my eyes close and i heard someone calling for help it was saying the name Evan then started screaming it out like if it was trapped and need it help. It was scary... I also was able to see my baby nice and clear in side my stamach everytime i close my eyes then the next day i had a miscarriage.

  4. Can any kind of mind be confident without purpose...
    ...disagreements and agreements can be reductive or productive and are attractive to philosophy and science but become only provisional functioning of consciousness...

    The neutrality of one's own confidence...

  5. I see haziness too, as many have described, but when I'm startled by a noise I 'see' a white background with random black lines, almost like a paper maze