Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is Philosophy All in Our Heads?

In a 1998 essay, Alvin Goldman and Joel Pust distinguish between two approaches to philosophy, which they call the mentalist and the extra-mentalist. According to the mentalist, when we do the typical philosophical armchair-reflection thing -- when we think about, for example, whether XYZ on Twin Earth (which behaves like water but has a different chemical formula) is water or not, or when we think about whether a dude who doesn't realize he's in Fake Barn Country knows that the real barn he's looking at is a barn -- we are finding out something not about the world outside of us, but rather about our minds. We are finding out about our concepts. According to the extra-mentalist, in contrast, philosophical thought experiments aim to reveal something about the world beyond our minds -- something about the real nature of water and knowledge, perhaps, or about what is and isn't possible. Goldman and Pust endorse mentalism.

Mentalism has the following great advantage over extra-mentalism: Mentalism makes it clear how it's possible for philosophers to learn something from their armchairs. What they are learning is about their own minds. They're exploring their concepts. It's much less clear how reflecting in an armchair can deliver what the extra-mentalist wants, valuable information about the world beyond our minds. But there are two equally great disadvantages to the mentalist conception of philosophy. First, it trivializes the subject matter. Where we thought we were learning about the world -- about the nature of language, of knowledge, of the fundamental constituents of reality, of the morally good -- it turns out that we're only learning about our concepts of language, of knowledge, of the fundamental constituents of reality, of the morally good. A very different sort of thing. How disappointing!

The second disadvantage of the mentalist conception is this: It turns philosophy into a methodologically dubious species of psychology. If what we're really interested in is our concepts, is sitting in an armchair thinking about Twin Earth really the best way to go about it? Well, that's one way. But empirical psychology offers us a whole stable of other ways, including polling people about puzzle cases, studying reaction times, asking people to list features in terms of typicality, etc. Armchair reflection about weird possibilities, by people who generally have some theoretical skin in the game, does perhaps have something important to contribute to the study of human concepts, but at most it is one part of a larger enterprise that is probably best left in the hands of psychologists.

So I think we must have an "extra-mentalist" conception of philosophy. Philosophers are trying to learn, not just about what concepts our human minds happen to be stuck with, but about reality as it exists beyond our minds -- and within our minds, possibly beyond our conceptions. But then that forces us back to the question of how reflecting in an armchair about strange scenarios, which is a large proportion of what mainstream "analytic" philosophers do, puts us in touch with that reality. My thought is: It doesn't. Well, let me temper that just a bit. Armchair reflection gives us a preliminary take; it helps us develop and discover the consequences of the views that we have inherited or acquired through everyday experience. In those domains where such inherited, everyday views are well-founded (e.g., the behavior of middle-sized dry goods under moderate force, mundane social interactions), our armchair judgments are likely also to be well-founded. The further we get from the ordinary, however, the less we should expect such armchair reflections to be of value. And unfortunately, most philosophical thought experiments are far from the ordinary.


Anonymous said...

Nice metaphilosophical post! I have two issues I'd like to bring up.

First, as you hint towards the end of your post, I think the best approach is one which integrates both mentalist and extra-mentalist methodologies. We do our reflecting on our concepts and then go out and see what evidence we can gather to support or reject previous conclusions. Then, with results in hand, we head back to do some more reflecting and then go out to gather more evidence. It seems to me that this is just what philosophy has been all about since at least Aristotle. Proclaiming the dominance of one over the other is, in my humble opinion, foolhardy. That just mires us in the rationalist/empiricist debate of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Second, let's say that armchair reflection delivers info about our concepts. If concepts have an empirical basis, then armchair reflection can tell us something about the world, albeit indirectly. If this is right, then the mentalist/extra-mentalist divide is fuzzier than the labels would have us believe. (Though, I should confess that I haven't read the paper under question, so perhaps I'm misconstruing the position given therein or restating something that's already mentioned.)

Brandon said...

I remember going to a talk on causation where the person delivering the paper had one example, which was a big part of his case, that began, "Suppose it was a law of magic...." And I can't count the number of times where I've been disappointed by the conclusions drawn from a really wacky scenario; if you're going to go that far, you should be setting up for something really imaginative. But no, it's usually a pretty dull conclusion, and I think, "What is wrong with this conclusion that to have an argument that it's right you have to go into such weird hypotheticals?"

There's a pretty broad chasm between armchair work like this and the sort James Robert Brown discusses in his works on a priori reasoning about the world (e.g., in the SEP).

Anonymous said...

It seems that the extra-mentalist are the prevailing in the debate, but I also think that this is a Sisyphean task. The more reachable goal seems to be the mentalist's. If it is more reachable than maybe more will come of it in the end?

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Nice post.

But gathering people´s intuitions is not trap in the the first disadvantage of "mentalism".

Solely that instead of knowing what our own minds can learn is directed to know what the minds of other people can learn.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Few thoughts defending the "extra-mentalist" side...

1.Are the concepts mental? If the concepts represent our awareness of something about/in the world, then thinking about concepts is thinking about the world. I'm more inclined to remove any talk of concepts, and simply speak of - thinking about things.
2.Given certain awareness of the world, can we further learn something with just thinking? I don't see why not. We may be aware of two separate things, but never considered some relation between them. We might be aware that all X are Y, and we might be aware that all Y are Z. Considering things in our thoughts, we may become aware that all X are Z, without further looking at the world.
3.In worst case, philosophers can figure out what is impossible given certain concepts they have, that is... that some idea - is contradiction. Is this about the concepts or about the world? I guess it depends on person's preferences, as it is contradiction between concepts, but also can mean that we figured out that the world can't be such and such, AS this "such and such" is contradiction in itself.

And a thought:Isn't denying possibility of extra-mentalist philosophy, a case of extra-mentalist philosophy?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Charlie: Yes, I'm inclined to agree that this kind of back and forth between our conceptions as revealed from the armchair and empirical study of the world can be valuable. The aim of this, though, seems to me principally extra-mentalist -- it's to find out about the world, using our armchair conceptions as a starting point.

Brandon: I'm sympathetic with your point. I also agree that some of the classic thought experiments in science are valuable -- as a way of getting at our implicit conceptions, or possibly as a way of getting to truths of logic (if these are somehow separable from our conceptions). Thus, if our conceptions are well-founded, such thought experiments can reveal truths about the world. But as the case of throwing a spear at the edge of the world reveals, if our conceptions are deficient (for example, in not allowing for non-Euclidean space that might be bounded without an edge that we can approach) the conclusions will be inaccurate.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: I suspect that extra-mentalism only seems Sisyphean if you're not willing to leave the armchair.

Anibal: Although I grant that it's interesting to learn about our conceptions, I still think it's legitimate for people to be disappointed if philosophy is presented as only a means to learn about that and not (as generally advertised) a means to discover fundamental truths about the universe.

Tanasije: I agree that one can learn something by spinning out one's concepts -- minimally, as you suggest, about their logical implications. But I do continue to think that what one can learn that way is disappointingly limited.

In denying, in this relatively armchairish way, that one can learn much about the extra-mental world from the armchair, am I doing the very thing I'm criticizing? Not really, I think. It appears to me to be a fairly mundane aspect of the world, about which our armchair conceptions are likely to be fairly accurate, what methods one can use to learn about things, and what those ordinary methods tend to reveal (you learn about colors by looking, about people's attitudes in part by asking them, etc.); so my armchair conception about the limitations of the armchair is the sort of conception that seems to me among those likely to be well grounded. And I'm unaware of any scientific studies showing that we can learn much more from the armchair than our ordinary conceptions would allow.

Brandon said...

It seems to me that good thought experiments are forms of reasoning that in principle can be put in rigorous form that doesn't use the apparatus to do so (it just may be difficult to do that). As you say, where the spear-throwing example fails simply in its failure to recognize the Euclidean assumption, or, at least, its failure to recognize that that assumption is not necessary. Other than that, in fact, it's still a good thought experiment, in the way an argument can be a good argument but limited because a premise is only true under certain conditions. It identifies a hypothetical, if a then b, but fails to show that a is the only relevant antecedent. The problem here is not deficient conception, but inadequate division of relevant possibilities. This, I think, is a very different thing, and shows the way in which the spear-throwing example differs sharply from the 'law of magic' example which attempts to illuminate what happens in ordinary causation by a scenario such that, if it existed, we would have no clue what it would involve; or even in cases where people assume that when water comes out of a curved hose it will continue to follow the curve rather than go in a straight line.

Brandon said...

I think it's also worth pointing out that the standard problems that arise from these sorts of armchair cases are not exclusive to them; they often arise in the case of interpretation of real experiments. There have been lots of experiments in the history of science which have been thought to prove things that they didn't actually prove because people were making an assumption that wasn't necessary; there are lots of cases where experimental results are misinterpreted because of the deficient conceptions of the experimenters. Even the mentalist vs. extra-mentalist debate is actually just one possible version of the anti-realist vs. realist debate. So to this point we really haven't touched on anything unique to armchair reflection itself. I think that's important because one might be attracted to mentalism because one thinks it's suitable for armchair reflection in a special way; but that would have to be on a very different basis than problems like deficient conceptions, etc., because none of these problems touch on anything particular to armchair reflection itself.

Brad Cokelet said...

Hi Eric,


Isn't there a third option here? Call it 'normative mentalist theory'. We are not just figuring out what are concepts are like, we are improving them and, sometimes, figuring out what they should be like.

This would make mentalism seem less pointless, I think. It is no longer trivial.

It also suggests that your methodological worry about mentalism *might* rests on a contestable assumption: that like empirical psychologists, philosophers are engaged in descriptive, rather than normative inquiry.

Brad Cokelet said...

Here is an example of how the shift to normative theory might vindicate *some* wacky thought experiments.

On the normative view, when we undertake a philosophic inquiry into the best conception of a good life, we are pursuing one part of a larger inquiry aimed at figuring out how to best live our lives.

Now consider Nozick's far-out thought experiment about the experience machine - imagine you could choose to live in a machine which would make you think you are having a fulfilling life (fill out the details of what that would invlove as you like). Would we be indifferent between living in the machine and living a life outside the machine that was fulfilling? Similarly, would you be just as happy to be in a Truman show situation as not?

Many of us respond by realizing we would choose the life outside the machine over the one in it, and, upon reflection, decide that a good life involves being in touch with reality in some way or other - we want real friends, etc, not just to think we have them. This suggests that we should adopt a conception of the good life that fits that decision.

My point is that by reflecting on far-out cases, we attend to things we might not otherwise and are better able to make up our minds about how it would be best for us to live.

Of course even once we take up normative theory, there are questions about whether there are "mind independent facts" about how we should live, etc. So the mentalism/worldism distinction re-arises - but I hope this shows that thinking of ourselves as being engaged in normative inquiry helps vindicate the value of thought experiments.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I feel like a kid in a candy store...

It seems to me that there are at least two main issues involved in standard armchair modal thought experiments:

(i) are the scenarios metaphysically possible?
(ii) assuming they're possible, would they show what they're intended to show?

Questions of type-(i) are about the reliability of our modal "intuitions". Questions of type-(ii) are about the reliability of our judgments re: whether a concept applies in a given situation.

About issue (i):
My own view is that our modal intuitions (or whatever they are) are reliable about mundane possibilities, but unreliable about far-out possibilities (or, more weakly: it's inscrutable whether they're reliable about far-out possibilities).

Suppose we stick with relatively mundane modal thought experiments (e.g., Russell's quasi-Gettier case about the stopped clock; Singer's case about the boy stuck on the train track). It seems to me that we can confidently answer in the affirmative.

What about far-out possibilities, such as fission cases (involving Star Trek transporter beams and whatnot)? I'm (strongly) inclined to think our modal intuitions are not to be trusted in such cases.

About issue (ii):
It seems to me that facts about our concepts aren't at all like modal facts -- they're facts about inter-subjective reality (I leave debates about the ontological status of modal facts for another day). As such, it seems to me that the X-phiers are right. It seems that we should leave the armchair and figure out what our collective concepts really are. Thus, even if I know that Russell's quasi-Gettier case is metaphysically possible, it seems somehow inappropriate to rely on my solitary armchair "intuitions" (or whatever) about whether such a possibility is a counterexample to the (inter-subjective) concept of knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why we philosophers are so worried about these sorts of things.

But, being a philosopher:

Sometimes scientists sit in their armchairs and try to figure out what predictions they can make, based on a given theory. Are they thinking about their concepts? Well, sort of--what is a theory, anyway? But then they go and try the experiment, to see if the theory can be supported/confirmed/falsified/etc/

Maybe we are just like scientists trying to figure out what predictions our theories make, but our theories are less well-developed, or less easy to connect to test, or about more outre shit. Still, the difference between us and scientists (when in their theorizing mode) is not one of kind, but one of degree. And if they're not sweating this distinction, we shouldn't either.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Brandon: I agree with both your points. Your second point, especially, provides an important caveat to my response to your earlier point. One nice thing about getting out of the armchair, though, is that it more effectively puts your background assumptions at risk.

Brad: I agree completely that there is that third option. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to get much play in the dialectical space on this issue, though it is of course closely related to Carnap's idea of "explication" as one of philosophy's key tasks. I think of my own work as divided between pragmatic *recommendation* of ways of talking and thinking about things (esp. my work on belief) in light of the empirical facts, and extra-mentalist exploration of claims of broad philosophical interest (like the accuracy of introspective judgment).

The straight normative case, like the Nozick argument you mention, brings out what seems to me special about ethics in particular -- which is that (in my view) the moral facts are tied up in an important way with how people are disposed to judge. (I'm inclined to think of moral facts as grounded in sanitized and rigidified [in Kripke's sense] dispositions to make moral judgments.) In my view, then, they're on this weird cusp between the mental and non-mental, kind of like color is. But I'm still inclined to think that far-fetched thought experiments provide cases in which the dispositional patterns start to break down, so they shouldn't be at the core of one's theory, except perhaps as helpful illustrations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Felipe: I'm inclined to agree with you about most of this. But I wonder: In virtue of what are propositions metaphysically possible? What else can it be but our concepts? Thus, i and ii might be tangled together. No?

Josh: The scientists you are talking about have extra-mentalist aims, with an armchair contribution to those aims. I agree that philosophy can work the same way. They're not, perhaps, sweating the distinction between conceptual exploration and other ways of theory building, but I think they do care about whether the *aim* is to learn about our concepts or to learn about the world. Since it's straightforwardly the latter for scientists (with some caveats regarding those for whom the relevant part of the world is our concepts), there's no need to argue about it. But it's not so straightforward for philosophers; hence the mentalism-extramentalism debate.

Anonymous said...


I guess my point amounts to a defense of extramentalism, with the scientist's armchair as a model for the philosopher's armchair. Build a theory, see what it entails, think about how that might impact reality. Weird thought experiments might be relevant to any of these stages of armchair exploration.

As for mentalism, are they committed to pure, old-fashioned conceptual analysis? If so, it's not clear to me that their position is viable--I have my usual worries about a priority and analyticity. In other words, I second what Charlie said in the first reply.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right. (I don't think that's the only way to go about philosophy, though -- as Brad points out.) A tempting parallel is to the use of theoretical reasoning in physics, from Galileo to contemporary theoretical physics.

Anonymous said...

I'm a radical mentalist, i.e. not only about philosophy, but even the empirical sciences. This is made possible as a position by a metaphysical framework where the existence of a true reality external to us is acknowledged (though transcendent), but every possible way of getting to grips with it requires information to be "coded" in the language of the mind. This virtual domain of mental computation is seen as separate from true reality. Thus, nothing actually refers to reality, we just pretend that it does, because this is useful. In fact, all we believe and even see is, strictly speaking, merely virtual constructs of the mind. But some of our constructs are more useful than others. The virtual structures engineered by physisists have incredible predictive power, but we can't really account for why, since, in the end, the only thing we can provide is virtual description, not real explanation.

In this picture, philosophy is seen as merely a freer mental excercise in a range of mental activities that exhausts all that is humanly possible. So when philosophy comes up with conclusions about the nature and limits of the mind, of course it has great value for the way we describe and deal with reality outside of philosophy. Thus, it is not just an armchair thing. Or if it is, in some sense, then everything is, in some sense.

I don't see why the mentalist position should confine the philosopher to the armchair. After all, the brain includes the neurons in our senses.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

So why do you say "we"? It seems you are no more in direct contact with me than with any extra mental reality, yes? So if you deny the latter, should you deny the former too?

Anonymous said...

Suppose we're not in direct contact with other people. Then, the belief in other people's existence (OP) would be unjustified in terms of its sources, but still perfectly justified as making systematic sense of sense data. And beliefs like this (OP; that there is a true reality independent of mind) are so invaluable in our efforts to make sense of experience that even radical mentalists like myself are completely comfortable speaking about these things as if they are true, even believing in them without detachment (not when confronted with it by philosophers though).

However, I'm not so sure people are epistemically beyond our reach, because if the computationalist hypothesis is right, we're all the results of computation, and given thorough instructions, we should be able to render the exact same model/thought/emotion/etc in our minds, whether it's something mathematical or even symbolic in some sense. With a perfect language, we would be in some kind of direct contact with other people. There are some ifs and buts here, but I won't be able to make it short if I start.

I can imagine perfect communication being technologically possible. But that's just an intuition, and I'm happy to go back to a less assuming position.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But wouldn't the communication be via a medium, so that we're in contact at least as directly with that medium as with other people?

Anonymous said...

By medium, do you mean some sort of computer interface? If so, then yes. According to the metaphysical theory I've been alluding to, we can in principle attain direct contact with all kinds of virtuality, brain- or computer-generated. In practice, though, we're limited by the computational capacity of our brains.