Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Mad Belief?

David Lewis famously endorsed the possibility of "mad pain" in his article "Mad Pain and Martian Pain":

There might be a strange main who sometimes feels pain, just as we do, but whose pain differs greatly from ours in its causes and effects. Our pain is typically caused by cuts, burns, pressure, and the like; his is caused by moderate exercise on an empty stomach. Our pain is generally distracting; his turns his mind to mathematics, facilitating concentration on that but distracting him from anything else. Intense pain has no tendency whatever to cause him to groan or writhe, but does cause him to cross his legs and snap his fingers. He is not in the least motivated to prevent pain or get rid of it. In short, he feels pain but his pain does not at all occupy the typical causal role of pain.
Mad pain in this sense seems to me conceivable. My question is: Could there be a parallel case for belief? Let's try to imagine such a case.

Daiyu, say, is a woman who believes that most pearls are white. However, this belief was not caused in the normal way. It was not caused by having seen white pearls nor by hearing testimony to the effect that most pearls are white or inferring that pearls are white from some other facts about pearls or whiteness. It was caused, say, by having looked for 4 seconds at the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. And, for her, this is just the kind of event that would cause that belief: It's not the case that she would ever form that belief by any of the normal means such as those described above; rather the kinds of things that cause that belief in her in all "nearby possible worlds", or across the relevant range of counterfactual circumstances, are perception of setting-sun events of a certain sort, and maybe also eating a certain sort of salad. Furthermore, Daiyu's belief that most pearls are white has atypical effects. It does not cause her to say anything like "most pearls are white" (which she'd deny; she is actually disposed to say "most pearls are black") or to think to herself in inner speech "most pearls are white". She would feel surprise were she to see a white pearl. If a friend were to say she was looking for white jewelry to go with a dress, Daiyu would not be at all inclined to recommend a pearl necklace. She is not at all disposed to infer from her belief that most pearls are white that there is a type of precious object used in jewelry that is both round and white.

Now I'm inclined to think that this case is incoherent. If Daiyu in fact has that sort of causal/functional structure, it's not correct to say that she really does believe that most pearls are white. In this respect, belief is different from pain. If you agree with me about this, that would seem to rule out a certain class of views about belief, namely, those views that characterize belief in terms of a mental state (maybe a brain state) of the sort that, in humans, typically has certain sorts of causes and typically has certain sorts of effects but which may, in some particular individuals, be not at all apt to have been brought about those causes and be not at all apt to have those effects. It's hard to know exactly how to read "representationalists" about belief (like Fodor, Dretske, Millikan) on this point, but a certain way of reading the representationalist view would imply no incoherence in the idea of mad belief: If an individual possesses an internal representation of the right sort, held in such a way that if everything were functioning normally it would have the normal effects, that person believes -- even if everything is not functioning normally.

Compare: having a heart. Hearts might be defined in terms of their normal functional role (to pump blood), but a being can still have a heart even if that heart fails utterly to fill that normal functional role (in which case the being will presumably either not be viable or have its life sustained somehow without a functioning heart). I'm a type functionalist about hearts: To have a heart is to have the type of organ that normally fills the causal role of hearts even if in one's own case the organ does not fill that causal role. Lewis is a type functionalist about pain. But if the Daiyu case is incoherent, we should not be type functionalists about belief. Closer to the truth, I suspect, would be token functionalism: To believe is to be in a state that actually, for you, plays the functional/causal role characteristic of belief. I'm not sure how readily representationalists about belief, especially those who think of mental representations as biological types or real in-the-head entities, can take token functionalism on board. Perhaps they are committed to the possibility of mad belief.


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I think I'm having trouble with both the Lewis case and your case, mainly because I'm not sure what notions of conceivability and possibility you have in mind.

The Mad Pain case doesn't even seem epistemically possible to me -- i.e., it seems that I can rule it out a priori. It may well be that I have an idiosyncratic concept of pain, but my concept of pain includes or entails that if one has it, then one is motivated to get rid of it.

The Mad Belief case, on the other hand, seems epistemically possible to me. It also seems conceptually possible to me, in the sense that it appears to me as conceptually coherent.

On the other hand, neither case appears to me as metaphysically possible. Rather, both are undecidable for me. I guess that's fine, though, if we're not trying to figure out what the mind-independent world is like.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,

I must confess that I've never found the Mad Pain case persuasive, i.e., it has never seemed to be me that it should qualify as pain. Martian pain, yes. But not Mad pain.

I'm not sure how much your positive points in the post were dependent on the disanalogy between belief and pain. I agree with you that Mad belief is implausible, but I don't see that as differentiating belief from pain.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, Eric.

I agree with your take on Daiyu's case: it's incoherent and token functionalism is thereby supported. Also, I think, at least in the case of Fodor, it should be pretty easy to find him supporting something like mad belief somewhere in the literature. I seem to recall some discussion from a while back whereby Fodor's hatred for holism got expressed as a defense of the possibility of a "punctate mind".

For what it's worth, I don't think mad pain makes much sense, but I'll play along for the purposes of making the following point.

Presumably the conceivability of mad pain has to do with (i) pain having intrinsic properties, (ii) the instantiation of which suffice for pain, and (iii) our conceptual apparatus somehow accessing said intrinsic properties. Against Anonymous 12:23:00, I don't see how an analogous story is supposed to fly for belief. I call to mind my own belief that most pearls are white and it's not apparent that anything like (i)- (iii) are going to be satisfied. I don't see that such a belief has any qualia essentially, since I can retain such a belief even through periods of deep unconsciousness. And even if there's some sense in which my belief has non-phenomenal intrinsic properties, like the mass and charge of the sum of its constituent particles, those are implausible candidates for the properties in virtue of which my conceptual access to my belief is mediated.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete, Anon here:

Yeah, I think you might be right. I think I misread the Mad Belief case. I had in mind a case where the (occurrent and dispositional) belief is intermittent: it comes and goes with the experiences of the Sun and eating certain salads. Re-reading the case, though, I think the belief is stipulated to continue while having the other states that seem to be constituents of, or entailed by, having a belief.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon: All I have in mind here is coherent conceivability. (In my mind there's no legitimate sense of metaphysical possibility that differs both from nomological possibility and from coherent conceivability or logical possibility.) As for the rest, Pete puts it better than I in his comment, with which I see you agree.

Amy: I'm not committed one way or the other on mad pain (though I share Lewis's intuition). My main thought is that if you, like me, find mad belief incoherent you may want to avoid accounts of belief that privilege internal structure over patterns of action and reaction.

Pete: Spot on and helpful! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric! I also find "mad belief" incoherent and I like to think that one should focus, as you said, "in patterns of action and reaction" in order to characterize beliefs (and concepts). But I always thought this was compatible with the idea that having beliefs involved having and using different sorts of representations.
Now, your post has made me think that if one wants to avoid "mad beliefs", the only way to articulate this different conceptions would be to defend a "type dispositionalism" and a weaker "token
representationalism" or "token functionalism" about beliefs... Does that make any sense?

PS: Thanks for you post and forgive my English. It is not my first language and I might be making all sort of mistakes...

Anonymous said...

On a bit of a tangent, 'mad beliefs' as you describe, are well-known in the psychiatric literature.

The phenomena is called 'delusional perception' and was first described by Karl Jaspers. It is was included as one of the 'first rank' symptoms of schizophrenia by Kurt Schneider.

See here:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Laura: That would be my own inclination -- a dispositionalism (which is a special case of functionalism, but in my case without the materialist agenda) and at most a token representationalism according to which something counts as a "representation" just in virtue of the relationships that actually hold between it and other states.

Vaughan: Yes, delusion has been getting some attention in the literature on belief recently, one key question being whether we should think of delusions as a kind of belief. But "mad belief" in the strict Lewisian sense is even weirder than delusion, because at least in the case of delusion there's still a core of dispositions that accord with the delusive belief (if it is a belief) -- dispositions to assert the truth of the believed proposition. In Lewisian-style mad belief, there wouldn't even be that. There'd be no evidence whatsoever from the outside that the person believed the proposition in question!

Anonymous said...


Well, I'm not sure that mad belief is incoherent, on Lewisian grounds. Imagine that we find that (contrary to intuition) there is a strongly reliable correlation in humans between some type of brain state and some belief, say believing pearls are white. Now consider Daiyu. She is in that state, qua brain state. If we hold that she is indeed a member of the relevant population (human), then, given a prior identity claim for humans between this belief type and this brain type, we can conclude that Daiyu is indeed in the state of believing that pearls are white, regardless of any connections to input or output FOR HER. Is this incoherent?

By analogy, consider a computer running MS dos, say. Knowing the code, we might find a weirdly wired machine in which pushing the keys "asdf" causes it to go into a state of storing "pearls are white" while showing "cheese is fun" on the screen and printing "I'm bored." In ordinary working versions of this model computer, that string of code leads to the proper screen and printing. But the code in this computer doesn't, even though we have prior knowledge of what that string of code normally does/means/commands, etc. We might say, gee, it believes pearls are white, but it's doing some whacky things. Mad machine!

About representationalism: don't people like Fodor hold that if the right causal/nomological connections are present, a representation with a punctate content is present, no matter what functional role says (this is Pete's point). But they hold that belief is a relation to a content (or to a syntactic string and a content), and that relation IS functionally defined. So maybe Daiyu has the representation that pearls are white, assuming lawlike connections, but we'd be hard pressed to attribute a belief with that content to her. I'm not exactly sure where this leaves the representationalists, but it seems relevant.


PS Sorry for the long post! I haven't been able to blog for a while! (If you know what I mean...)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shoot, Josh, sorry for missing your long-ago comment! Your last point about representationalism is especially helpful; I think you might be right there.