Friday, June 17, 2022

Dispositionalism vs. Representationalism -- What's the Core Disagreement?

I'm just back from a workshop on the nature of belief in Princeton. As usual, I defended my dispositional approach to belief (see here, here, and here), according to which to believe some proposition P (such as that there is beer in the fridge) is just to be disposed to act and react in the manner characteristic of a believer that P, as defined by a folk-psychologically available (alternatively, scientifically constructed) stereotype or dispositional profile for believers-that-P. The relevant dispositions can be behavioral (e.g., being disposed to go to the fridge if one wants a beer), phenomenal/experiential (e.g., being disposed to feel surprise should one open the fridge and find no beer), and cognitive (e.g., being ready to conclude that there is beer in the house). To believe that P is to be prone to act and think as a P-believer would.

To believe that P, on my dispositional account, is not just to be ready to sincerely say that P. It is broadly speaking to have a particular behavioral, experiential, and cognitive posture toward the world. To believe, for example, that all the races are intellectually equal is not just to be disposed to say so, but to actually live that way. This view is grounded in the pragmatist tradition in belief, back to Bain, Peirce, and James.

A prominent alternative account -- maybe the dominant approach among philosophers and cognitive scientists -- is representationalism. According to representationalism, to believe that P is to have a representation with the content "P" stored in one's cognitive architecture, ready to be retrived and deployed in relevant practical and theoretical reasoning. If asked whether there's beer in the fridge, you pull from your memory stores the representation "there's beer in the fridge", do a little bit of cognitive processing, and answer "yes".

These are somewhat simplified descriptions of the competing accounts. Dispositionalism, for example, typically treats the relevant dispositions as ceteris paribus (that is, all else being equal, or normal, or right) to deal with cases of faking, acting under duress, etc. Representationalism typically allows for tacit belief, where P itself isn't explicitly stored but instead is quickly derivable from some neighboring proposition that is stored (so that you don't need separately stored representations for "there's beer in the fridge", "there's Lucky Lager in the fridge", "there's Dan's favorite beer in the kitchen", etc.).

To get a sense of what this difference amounts to and why it matters, let me mention the two main reasons I prefer dispositionalism.

First, dispositionalism better captures what we care about in thinking about what people believe. A thought experiment: Space aliens arrive at Earth. We know nothing about their internal cognitive architecture, but it's nonetheless the case that they act and react exactly as creatures with belief. Alpha-1 is disposed to say there's beer in the fridge, to go to the fridge if they want a beer, to experience surprise if they open the fridge and find no beer, to think to themself in inner speech "there's beer in the fridge, yes!", etc., etc. This should be sufficient for us to regard Alpha-1 as a beer-in-the-fridge believer, regardless of what might or might not be true about the underlying cognitive architecture.

Second, I suspect that the representationalist architectural story is overly simple. The idea that we store and retrieve representations with simple ordinary-language contents like "there's beer in the fridge" seems to me likely to be merely a cartoon-sketch of a radically more complicated architecture (compare the complex, almost uninterpretable internal architectures of deep learning Artifical Intelligence systems). The explicit/tacit distinction mentioned above is likely the tip of an iceberg of dubious architectural commitments that follow from taking literally that acting on our beliefs requires storing and retrieving contents like "there's beer in the fridge".

Now, these two objections to representationalism operate at two different levels and therefore create two different types of contrast with representationalism. The first objection constitutes a commitment to what I call superficialism. What matters, or should matter, to our conception of whether someone has a belief, is what is happening at the dispositional "surface" rather than the deep architecture. By the surface, here, I don't just mean the behavioral surface but also the phenomenalogical/experiential surface and the cognitive surface -- such as what experiences the putative believer is disposed to have and what conclusions they are prone to draw.

Superficialism is compatible with thinking that there's a representational architecture underneath. You could be a superficialist and still hold that what explains why you act and react like a beer-in-the-fridge believer is that you have a stored representation with the content "there's beer in the fridge" that you're ready to deploy in your practical and theoretical reasoning. If so, there can be a partial reconciliation between dispositionalism and representationalism. There would still be a metaphysical difference: On dispositionalism, you're a beer-in-the-fridge believer in virtue of your dispositional structure, not in virtue of the cognitive architecture that underwrites that structure. On representationalism, the reverse would be true. But maybe this dispute is minor if we're primarily concerned with ordinary, real-world human cases where the dispositional and representational structures co-occur.

So it's possible to partially reconcile dispositionalism and representationalism. But that partial reconciliation concerns only the first of the two objections -- the a priori philosophical argument in favor of superficialism.

My second objection is more architectural and also more empirical. It's a guess or bet against a representationalist architecture according to which we literally store representational contents like "there's a beer in the fridge" and retrieve those contents when they are relevant to our reasoning.

Actually, there's a possibility of a partial reconciliation here, of a different sort. After all, what is it to literally have a stored representation with the content "there's a beer in the fridge"? Obviously, there's no literal slip of paper with that sentence written anywhere in the brain. Maybe a complex distributed process can count as literally storing that representation if certain other conditions are met.

Here, I think the representationalist faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the representationalist can be super liberal and say that there's a stored representation that "there's a beer in the fridge" whenever the system is such that it has the dispositional structure characteristic of a beer-in-the-fridge believer. In that case, there's no substantive empirical dispute between dispositionalism and representationalism: The so-called representationalist is really just a dispositionalist employing misleading language. On the other hand, the representationalist can make specific architectural commitments regarding how the cognitive system must be designed. The more specific, the riskier empirically, of course, and the closer to the simplistic cartoon sketch, and the less relevant to our superficialist interests as belief ascribers.

As participants in the Princeton workshop noticed, and as readers of the debate between Jake Quilty-Dunn, Eric Mandelbaum, and me (e.g., here) sometimes notice, although there's a bald top-line disagreement between dispositionalism and representationalism, a closer look suggests some paths toward reconciling the two views. However, I think a still closer look suggests that such apparent reconciliations can really only be partial. Understanding this back-and-forth helps us better understand the philosophical terrain and the real nature of the dispute.


Howard said...

The first thing that occurs to me relating to your debate is beliefs not about the fridge and beer but about the self and the world globally- the kind of things cognitive therapy, a branch of cognitive psychology deals with in trying to treat patients-
To start, take global beliefs typically encountered: "I am a loser, "I'll lose my job", "My wife is cheating on me," etc.
I suspect these kinds of self beliefs are better handled with representational theories, if only because the 'sense' of these beliefs is too general and too specific to the personality and its quirks to be satisfyingly treated by dispositional theories- though there is a behavioral component to these beliefs- ie. "I am a loser" so I don't ask for a raise or don't ask that guy/girl out
But those behaviors go along with many beliefs and are not specific to the belief "I am a loser."
Maybe I misunderstand

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point. I see where you're coming from, I think. What exactly should go in the dispositional profile for "I'm a loser"? It's rather murky, and different ascribers might be inclined to put different things in the profile.

But I think that apparent vice is actually a virtue. On my account it's not wholly clear what it is to believe "I'm a loser", but it *shouldn't* be clear. Believing you're a loser is really a vague pattern of dispositions, not having the sentence "I'm a loser" stored and ready for retrieval. But it might include things like saying that (sometimes, not always), being unsurprised when you lose yet again, having low ambitions, regarding insults as deserved. And as this profile suggests, it's probably the case that believing you're a loser is more like having a personality trait, which you match to some degree or other, rather than like having a stored piece of information "Sacramento is capital of California" which you're ready to retrieve. The dispositional account works great for, and was originally designed for, just such vague, blurry, gradual, personality-trait-like cases of belief.

Devin Curry said...

I'm a reconciler.

"First, dispositionalism better captures what we care about in thinking about what people believe." What most people care about, yeah, for sure! But it doesn't capture what Mandelbaum and Quilty-Dunn most care about in thinking about what people believe (when they're at work, anyway).

"Second, I suspect that the representationalist architectural story is overly simple." This is an objection to representationalism (and one to which I'm sympathetic). But I don't see it as an objection to representationalism *from a distinctively dispositionalist point of view*. You can (and should, in my view!) be a dispositionalist about belief qua superficial folk psychological kind no matter what you make of that objection to representationalism. Maybe representationalists are right about cognitive architecture; maybe their story is overly simple. If they're right, then maybe things worthy of the label "beliefs" exist qua cognitive states. (Using my (imperfect) terminology, we'll just have to be careful to distinguish those "cognitive states of belief" from the superficial "attitudes of belief" that your account is about.) If they're wrong, then maybe "cognitive states of belief" don't exist. Either way, people have patterns of dispositions that fit folks' stereotypes. The details of the underlying cognitive architecture just don't seem to make that much of a difference to your theory of (superficial) believing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Devin: On point 1: Of course it's fine for M & QD to care about what they care about. I'm glad they do, and I think their boldness in committing to representational architectures helps push the discipline forward. But I wish they wouldn't call it "belief". As a discipline, it's better if we don't talk past each other by using the word in radically different ways, and I think superficialism better captures what most people in the discipline should be and are concerned about when they talk about belief. So we have a terminological choice, to be governed by pragmatic criteria, and the pragmatic criteria favor my approach. (This is the thesis of my 2021 paper "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief".)

On point 2: Yes, that seems right. It's not a *specifically* dispositionalist critique, though of course to the extent it undermines the leading competitor view it indirectly supports dispositionalism. Superficialism is closer to the heart of the matter. Adding one more bit of nuance: I do think that if Mandelbaum's view were architecturally perfect, that would create a new reference magnet for "belief" and stronger scientific pragmatic reasons for thinking of belief in a representationalist way, which would weaken the linguistic/pragmatic superficialist argument as well (but maybe not destroy that argument).

Devin Curry said...

Thanks, Eric, this is helpful. I agree that there's a terminological choice to be made--but I don't see the views as competitors if terminology is really the only conflict between them. Of course, your bit of nuance suggests that there's a deeper philosophical disagreement there (depending on one's theory of reference). For what it's worth, I'd want to distinguish the two phenomena even if the representationalists are totally right, in short because superficial "attitudes of belief" and architectural "cognitive states of belief" are individuated by playing distinct functional roles: the latter function as cogs in cognitive systems whereas the former function as fodder for folk psychology. But it's admittedly difficult (if not impossible) to avoid bringing in stuff about reference and thereby opening up a huge can of worms...

Howard said...

What would happen in therapy with a patient who believes he's a loser or easier to operationalize a failure is that the therapist would challenge that belief as expressed in automatic thoughts by citing counterexamples: ie. 'you just had an article published, you successfully built a chain of pizzerias in San Jose, you have a wife and kids, people like you etc and the approach called CBT claims it has empirical evidence it has positive outcomes not just in changing beliefs but reducing depression and anxiety.
You could say their evidence is circular or somehow it really changes dispositions- I know some prominent CBT practitioners and they would put the case better than I have.
They combine the behavioral with the cognitive, which is poised in an interesting spot visa vis your dispositional approach
Would be interesting to study regarding the suicidal, I'd venture

SelfAwarePatterns said...

I have to admit I don't have a carefully thought out position about beliefs. A quick scan of the options at the SEP article doesn't lead to one obviously seeming right. I am a functionalist, but that seems compatible with each of the other options.

One thing I wonder about here is the scope of beliefs. In other words, does a perceptual conclusion, such as the color of a dress in that internet incident a few years ago, count as a belief? If not, then where would the perceptual representations end and dispositional beliefs begin? What about the affective reactions associated with such a representation? Do we include it in the representation, or consider it something separate?

My own suspicion is that it's dispositions all the way down, with any distinction being artificial. Though I haven't considered that necessarily distinct from representationalism before. But the word "representation" does seem suspicious, implying something literally presented (re-presented) somewhere. (Some neuroscientists use "image" or "image map", which seems even worse.) Words like "model" or "schema" seem safer, although with the idea that these models and schemas are often distributed across wide areas of the brain as constellations of predictions and reactions.

One thing I do wonder about with the dispositionalist view. I may believe eating cheese fries is bad for my health, and believe it is bad to worsen that health, yet still eat cheese fries. Does that mean I don't really believe cheese fries are bad for me? Or that shorter term dispositions are just winning out over longer term ones?

Anyway, interesting post as always Eric!

Howard said...

Eric, here is a slapdash improvised interpretation, though partial: we have a disposition for beliefs which produce behavior. My belief when altered alters the behavior: is therapeutic self talk, altering belief or changing your disposition via therapeutic indoctrination?
The atomic unit of CBT are automatic thoughts- I cannot chose my thoughts, these are produced by my beliefs- I suppose that Beck the founder of CBT might view beliefs as dispositions to have certain thoughts which guide behavior-
just a start of the analysis

Alex Popescu said...

Hey Eric,

Apologies if I'm not saying anything particularly noteworthy; I'm not as well versed on this topic as I would like to be. One obvious objection to the dispositionalist view that occurs to me is that it would be easy to change the dispositional structure of the brain by messing with some small aspect of the cognitive framework which seems orthogonal to the belief structure (for example, by messing with my motor cortex so that whenever I want to get a beer or talk about there being a beer in the fridge, I never actually can).

However, I gather that the above criticism is easily dealt with by invoking a notion of counterfactual robustness. So that there exists a belief as long as the overall cognitive system is dispositionally robust in a counterfactual sense (which the motor cortex example would still be), even if it's not actually functional.

This leads me to my real objection, which is that dispositionalism is contextual. We can take a counterfactually robust cognitive system, like my brain, which believes there is a beer in the fridge, and move it to some parallel universe where the laws of physics are such as to render my dispositional tendencies useless, but where everything else is equal (still a beer in the fridge). Meaning that I couldn't even try to go to the fridge or drink my beer, or make verbal reports about the beer, or act in any way as if there is a beer in the fridge (due to weird physics reasons). Nor is my overall belief system counterfactually robust in this universe (it's not just a matter of fixing a few things in my overall cognitive architecture). Yet, since my overall cognitive architecture and sense data remains the same, it would be weird to say that I don't have beliefs about there being a beer in the fridge.

Would you accept this consequence of your dispositional view? And does this challenge the partial reconciliation with representationalism that you had in mind? Thanks.

Arnold said...

Is this about: belief of nature vs nature of belief... philosophy's propositions of psychology ontology metaphysics provide balance...thanks

Arnold said...

I have always wondered about metaphysics as a useful in philosophy... that philosophy views physics as knowledge not as a measurable quantity but as a measurable quality, for understanding...

Before commenting today I googled 'metamaterial' and found the 'world's industries' have claimed a first meaning for the definition of metamaterial-as micromaterial...
...I object, material has always been a gender of the mind...

So, from this time on, I propose philosophy's dispositions and representations towards metaphysics change to metamaterial...
...And I will propose a section for 'Philosophy of Material' in Wikipedia...thanks again.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

The first part of this, a summary of what was discussed at the Princeton forum, led me to remembrance of Davidson. When I read further into things, the word proposition came up in reference to the dispositional side. Mr. Davidson classed belief as a propositional attitude, along with a few more. So, I guess, failing a compelling argument or reason to 'believe' otherwise, I remain in the dispositional camp. Thanks for the post!

Callan said...

Is there ever an effort to simplify the subject into something less complex and easier to establish some mutual agreement on? Like let's take an amoeba and it oozes forward - lets say it's on the move for food. Does the amoeba have a belief that there is food out there? At what point is there more than just biological movement (and no belief) and a belief is present?

Debates always seem to keep it in the human sphere - which it seems should be clear that there will be many confounds involved in such a complex subject.

Kati Farkas said...

I always thought everyone was a dispositionalist about beliefs. What distinguishes representationalists from the rest is a particular commitment about how the dispositions are partly realised. Representationalists, like everyone else, need a story about how beliefs differ from desires, and I can't see any other option for than appealing to dispositions, or functional role. Functional roles are causes + dispositions, so functionalists are also dispositionalists, the variety that cares also about causes.

Jean-Pierre Legros said...

Is there a real difference between dispositionalism and representationalism, or only a difference in "what looks" in the mind, between the look "which experiences" the fusion of mental functions and the look "which describes" their composition? ? See the double look:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, and sorry about the slow reply. Knee-deep in my book draft! Replies to some (not all) commenters below:


Devin: I more or less agree with all of that.

Howard: I certainly have no beef with cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, I would disguish between thoughts, judgments, and beliefs. "I'm a loser" is a thought or a judgment if it's a momentary occurrence of something one affirms. It's a belief (in my way of slicing the psychological pie) if it's broadly manifested in one's actions and reactions. One way of thinking about CBT is in terms of changing thoughts/judgments as a means of changing beliefs.

Self-Aware: "Does a perceptual conclusion, such as the color of a dress in that internet incident a few years ago, count as a belief? If not, then where would the perceptual representations end and dispositional beliefs begin?" I think there's room for terminological flexibility here about what exactly is the boundary of a belief. See this old blog post:

Self-Aware (continued): "I may believe eating cheese fries is bad for my health, and believe it is bad to worsen that health, yet still eat cheese fries. Does that mean I don't really believe cheese fries are bad for me? Or that shorter term dispositions are just winning out over longer term ones?" I discuss a similar case near the end of my 2021 article "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief". I'll just paste it here:

"We can develop this case in a couple of different ways. First, imagine that our junk-food eater regularly makes sincere and serious plans to stop eating junk food, tries to avoid situations of temptation (e.g. by keeping junk food out of the house), feels genuine guilt or regret when she lapses, tries to recruit others to help her improve her lifestyle, etc. In this case, she would in fact have many of the reactions and behaviors constitutive of believing that it’s unhealthy to eat junk food and that she should thus avoid it. If that’s what’s going on, it’s plausible either that she does avoid junk food for the most part or that there’s some partly excusing factor at play, such as high levels of stress. Alternatively, imagine that our junk-food eater makes no serious plans to improve her diet, doesn’t feel regret after bingeing, doesn’t really feel motivated to do anything much to improve her habits, is typically happy to load her grocery cart with candy, and laughs at her kale-eating friends—it’s just that on the rare occasion that she stops to reflect explicitly, she recognizes that she probably should ease up on the CheezOs. In this case, it’s not so unreasonable to say that, taking a bird’s-eye view of her enduring attitudes, she is not entirely accurately describable as unambiguously believing that she ought to prioritize eating better."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


Alex: Here I appeal to the "ceteris paribus" clause that I regard as implicit in all (or most) dispositional claims. The disposition will manifest if the trigger is present, all else being equal or normal or right. As Cartwright argues, this is true of almost all scientific generalizations as well as folk generalizations. All else is not normal if the laws of physics have gone screwy! I recognize that appealing to ceteris paribus clauses can strike one as fishy and a dodge, but I do think we need them! (I discuss this in a bit more depth in my 2002 paper on belief.)

Callan: Yes, my approach definitely starts with the human case. I think the farther we push it away from the human case, the more we stretch the dispositional stereotype. Compare with personality stereotypes. Can a dog be an extravert? Yes, probably that makes sense to say. A cricket? Hm. An amoeba? Double-hm! But on my view this is terminological.

Kati: One important difference here is whether the dispositions are person-level or subpersonal. Arguably what makes a subpersonal system a "memory store" or whatever is in part the interactions it is bound to enter with other subpersonal systems. So to that extent a functionalism representationalist is at least partly a dispositionalist. But that's different that appealing to person-level dispositions, like the disposition to feel surprise or to go to the fridge if one wants a beer. At least, that's how I see it!

Jean-Pierre: I'm not sure I understand. Tell me more.

Anonymous said...

Eric: Well yes, that's the benefit - the very point where a characteristic appears to break (for being applied to a simpler animal) also informs us of why it might break at that very point. And gives us an idea of what components it breaks into.

At what point does it stop breaking down into the terminological and instead remains significant or meaningful?

Jean-Pierre Legros said...

To unify dispositionalism and representationalism requires a way of thinking that encompasses both. It's a bit long to explain, that's why I put you a link. In summary, your brain has the task of representing the world, and experiences itself in the process of carrying out this task, since you are the process. What does a philosopher of mind do who wants to explain this? It is easy for her to represent "the brain in the process of constructing its representations": this is representationalism. She embodies this part. She somehow gives in to materialism. But how to represent "the brain experiencing itself in the process of representing"? Impossible. It is justly an impression, not a representation. It is experienced as a "disposition to". This is another direction of look that cannot be described in the language of neuroscience or representationalism.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

Thanks Eric. Reading that old post, along with the comment I left at the time, I’m struck by a couple of things that I don’t think registered back then. One is the no-fact-of-the-matter conclusion you reach in that post. I’m struck by how often that conclusion seems right when trying to map traditional psychological concepts to neural ones.

The second, which also relates to the other snippet you shared, is that it seems like we can hold multiple conflicting beliefs, with each one triggered in different circumstances. We could just say that however the conflicting dispositions net out over time is our real belief, but that seems to sweep important details under the covers.

Beliefs are complicated and I can see where the eliminativists are coming from. Although the dispositional or interpretational approach seems more productive, for now.