Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Another puzzle about belief (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

9 am: Jack enters his office and flips the light switch. Call this event A. It is plausible to think that there's an intentional explanation for A: Jack wants light and believes that flipping the switch will produce it. But light doesn’t come. The bulb goes pop, and Jack sets off to the store cupboard to get a replacement.

9.05 am: Bulb in hand, Jack re-enters his office, and again flips the switch -- then curses his stupidity. Call the second switch-flipping event B. Now what is the explanation for B? More specifically, is the explanation the same as for A, and it is an intentional one?

There are four options, and each has its problems:

1) The explanation is the same and it is intentional: Jack wants light and believes that flipping the switch will produce it. Problem: In the run-up to event B Jack surely doesn't believe that flipping the switch will produce light. After all, he knows that the bulb is blown and that blown bulbs don’t produce light, and he is minimally rational.

2) The explanation is the same and it is not intentional -- perhaps the movement is a reflex one. Problem: Flipping a light switch is just one of a vast array of routine unreflective behaviours for which we find it perfectly natural to give intentional explanations. If these actions are not intentional, then the realm of folk-psychological explanation will be massively reduced, vindicating at least a partial form of eliminativism.

3) The explanation is different and it not intentional. Problem: It's implausible to think that A and B have different explanations. In a real life version, I'd be willing to bet that the neurological processes involved in two cases were of the same type.

4) The explanation is different and it is intentional. Problem: As for (3), plus it's hard to see what alternative beliefs and desires might have motivated B.

This puzzle about belief seems to me an important one, though it has received relatively little attention -- which is why I thought I’d give it an airing here. (One of the few extended discussions I know of is by Christopher Maloney in a 1990 Mind and Language paper titled 'It's hard to believe'. Eric also discusses cases of this sort in his draft paper 'Acting contrary to our professed beliefs'.)

My own view is that the plausibility of the options corresponds to the order in which I have stated them, with (1) being the most plausible. That is, I would deny that at the time of event B Jack doesn't believe that flipping the switch will produce light. The problem then, of course, is to explain how he can believe that the switch will work while at the same time believing that the bulb is blown and that blown bulbs don’t produce light. The only plausible way of doing this, I think, is to distinguish types, or levels, of belief which are relatively insulated from each other, and to claim that Jack's belief about the effect of flipping the switch is of one type and his belief about the condition of the bulb of the other. (Maloney takes the broadly same line, though he works out the details in a different way from me.) I happen to think that this view is independently plausible, so the puzzle is actually grist to my mill, though distinguishing types of beliefs has its own problems. I'd be interested to know how others react to the puzzle.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a nice little poser, Keith! As you've gathered, I've been thinking about the same kind of thing recently, too.

I take my usual recourse of thinking of it as an in-between case of believing, in which the various dispositions characteristic of believing splinter in different directions. I regard this approach as in roughly the same ballpark as your split-level view, but less ontologically/psychologically committed and better able to accommodate cases where there is a splintering within what you would call the higher level or lower level types of mentality. (So maybe I'm on the far other side of that same ballpark.)

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't really see the problem. When I flip the switch, there is a perfectly good sense in which the action is intentional, and motivated by some desire/belief complex. But the complex is subpersonal (it's not encapsulated, but it's relatively resistant to personal level modification). Most of my actions most of the time are caused in this kind of way. Given the resistance of the subpersonal to correction, we can expect the response to persist, whenever the triggering conditions are met. So what's the problem? One problem might be this: if there is a subpersonal level at which there are certain beliefs, and a personal level at which there are contrary beliefs, what do I believe? There are two ways to answer. One is to say, with Eric, that this is a case of inbetween beleiving (with the different levels at which partial beliefs are held explaining departures from the dispositional stereotype associated with the all out belief). The second is to say that the question is ill-posed, and argue for some kind of eliminativism about personal identity.

Anonymous said...

The problem for 2 only arises if folk psychological explanation is restricted to intentional action; that doesn't seem true. We could explain the the flipping of the switch in terms of its being a habitual action. That seems a perfectly respectable folk psychological explanation, and doesn't have any obviously implications for what beliefs and desires the subject has.

Justin Tiwald said...

Very interesting! This isn't really my area, but my first reaction was to say that Jack's intention should be conceived more broadly--e.g., as an intention to enter his office. I would tell a story similar to the one Searle likes to tell about skiing: Flipping on the switch is one of the many background, subsidiary actions that belong to the higher-level action of entering the office. Since it's a subsidiary to another intentional action, it's still intentional. But since the direct object of the intention is to enter the office and not to flip on the switch, Jack need not believe that flipping the lightswitch will succeed at turning on the light. Thus it would be no surprise if the neurological processes were similar in both cases.

That was my first intuition. And since I'm not well versed in the literature, you might as well count me as one of the folk.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments. I'll take Eric's and Neil's first.

Yes, we are in the same ballpark, though you see fragmentation where I see a clean(ish) bifurcation. In this case, at least, I think bifurcation is more plausible. I'm not inclined to say that Jack half-believes that the switch will work and half-believes that it won't. Rather, I'm pulled towards two different categorical ascriptions. When I look at Jack's actions, I want to say that he believes the switch will work, and when I consider his experiences I want to say that he believes it won't.

But perhaps you would agree with that, and say that what splinters is not belief, but our dispositions to ascribe belief? If so, then we are fairly close, though, as you note, I take these competing dispositions to correspond to distinct psychological states.

There is also a general issue I'd like to press you on. How is it that folk psychology functions as smoothly as it does, if its central concepts have such ill-defined conditions of application? But that's probably an issue for another time.

I agree with your account of the situation. The problem isn’t one for psychology but for folk psychology. The folk concept of belief is a personal-level one, so we must either accept that a person can have contradictory (or in-between) beliefs, or endorse some form of eliminativism with respect to folk psychology. I think that's broadly in line with your analysis.

Anonymous said...

Replies to John and Justin.

It seems right to call the action habitual, and I guess that would count as a folk-psychological explanation in a broad sense. But I was thinking of folk psychology in the narrower sense of belief-desire psychology, and I think the point stands with regard to that. In fact, I guess another way of putting the problem would be to ask whether habitual actions are intentional.

That's a nice suggestion. I guess one challenge would be to explain why Jack is annoyed with himself after flipping the switch the second time (which is the typical reaction in such situations). After all, on the proposed view, he's done just what he intended to do – namely, enter his office. That fact that we would get annoyed with ourselves in this situation suggests that we wouldn't conceptualize the switch-flipping as subsidiary to the entering.

And what should we say about a case where Jack remembers that the bulb is blown and refrains from flipping the switch? I suppose we could say that he intended to perform the usual entering action but with a partial override of one of its subsidiaries. (Phenomenologically, that does seem quite plausible, actually. Remembering not to press the switch does seem like overriding a default rather than refraining from performing a further action.)

Thanks very much for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, now I'm getting puzzled! Thanks for the reply. It still seems to me that the problem is with personal level belief desire explanation, rather than folk-psychological explanation per se. It's the former that's committed to ascribing contrary beliefs, not the latter.

Clearly some folk-psychological explanations are in terms of personal-level beliefs and desires; I take the possibility of the 9.05 am flipping to show us we shouldn't explain either of the actions in such terms. But that just shows us that a sub-class of folk-psychological explanations are inappropriate.

w.r.t. whether habitual actions are intentional, I'd say that some are and some aren't. So the folk-psychological explanation in terms of habituality doesn't entail the intentionality of the action, and doesn't lead to the problem.

Anonymous said...

Hi John – Thanks for your reply. It's just a terminological issue, I think. You are using 'folk psychology' in a broad sense that includes all psychological explanations given by the folk, whereas I was using it a narrow sense that's equivalent to 'belief-desire psychology'. Folk-psychological explanations in the narrow sense are sub-class of folk-psychological explanations in the broad-sense. Does that remove the puzzle, or I am missing something? Best, Keith

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Keith,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. That's a very nice point about the phenomenology. Actually it makes me a bit more confident about the subsidiary action account.

I take your point that Jack would be annoyed with himself for flipping the switch the second time, and that this could tell in favor of your reading. There must be at least a few other ways to explain his annoyance--e.g., maybe instead of levels of belief we should talk about levels of intention, with the intention to enter the office being somewhat insulated from the intention to go in and replace the bulb. But then again, there might be ways of modifying the example to rule out these other explanations.