Wednesday, January 18, 2023

New Paper in Draft: Dispositionalism, Yay! Representationalism, Boo! Plus, the Problem of Causal Specification

I have a new paper in draft: "Dispositionalism, Yay! Representationalism, Boo!" Check it out here.

As always, objections, comments, and suggestions welcome, either in the comments field here or by email to my ucr address.


We should be dispositionalists rather than representationalists about belief. According to dispositionalism, a person believes when they have the relevant pattern of behavioral, phenomenal, and cognitive dispositions. According to representationalism, a person believes when the right kind of representational content plays the right kind of causal role in their cognition. Representationalism overcommits on cognitive architecture, reifying a cartoon sketch of the mind. In particular, representationalism faces three problems: the Problem of Causal Specification (concerning which specific representations play the relevant causal role in governing any particular inference or action), the Problem of Tacit Belief (concerning which specific representations any one person has stored, among the hugely many approximately redundant possible representations we might have for any particular state of affairs), and the Problem of Indiscrete Belief (concerning how to model gradual belief change and in-between cases of belief). Dispositionalism, in contrast, is flexibly minimalist about cognitive architecture, focusing appropriately on what we do and should care about in belief ascription.

[image of a box containing many sentences, with a red circle and slash, modified from Dall-E]

Excerpt: The Problem of Causal Specification, or One Billion Beer Beliefs

Cynthia rises from the couch to go get that beer. If we accept industrial-strength representationalism, in particular the Kinematics and Specificity theses, then there must be a fact of the matter exactly which representations caused this behavior. Consider the following possible candidates:

  • There’s beer in the fridge.
  • There’s beer in the refrigerator door.
  • There’s beer on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator door.
  • There’s beer either on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator door or on the right hand side of the lower main shelf.
  • There’s beer in the usual spot in the kitchen.
  • Probably there’s beer in the place where my roommate usually puts it.
  • There’s Lucky Lager in the fridge.
  • There are at least three Lucky Lagers in the fridge.
  • There are at least three and no more than six cheap bottled beers in the fridge.
  • In the fridge are several bottles of that brand of beer with the rebuses in the cap that I used to illicitly enjoy with my high school buddies in the good old days.
  • Somewhere in the fridge, but probably not on the top shelf, are a few bottles, or less likely cans, of either Lucky Lager or Pabst Blue Ribbon, or maybe some other cheap beer, unless my roommate drank the last ones this afternoon, which would be uncharacteristic of her.

This list could of course be continued indefinitely. Estimating conservatively, there are at least a billion such candidate representational contents. For simplicity, imagine nine independent parameters, each with ten possible values.

If Kinematics and Specificity [commitments of "industrial-strength" representationalism, as described earlier in the essay] are correct, there must be a fact of the matter exactly which subset of these billion possible representational contents were activated as Cynthia rose from the couch. Presumably, also, various background beliefs might or might not have been activated, such as Cynthia’s belief that the fridge is in the kitchen, her belief that the kitchen entrance is thataway, her belief that it is possible to open the refrigerator door, her belief that the kitchen floor constitutes a walkable surface, and so on – each of which is itself similarly specifiable in a massive variety of ways.

Plausibly, Cynthia believes all billion of the beer-in-the-fridge propositions. She might readily affirm any of them without, seemingly, needing to infer anything new. Sitting on the couch two minutes before the beery desire that suddenly animates her, Cynthia already believed, it seems – in the same inactive, stored-in-the-back-of-the-mind way that you believed, five minutes ago, that Obama was U.S. President in 2010 – that Lucky Lager is in the fridge, that there are probably at least three beers in the refrigerator door, that there’s some cheap bottled beer in the usual place, and so on. If so, and if we set aside for now (see Section 5) the question of tacit belief, then Cynthia must have a billion beer-in-the-fridge representations stored in her mind. Specificity requires that it be the case that exactly one of those representations was retrieved the moment before she stood up, or exactly two, or exactly 37, or exactly 814,406. Either exactly one of those representations, or exactly two, or exactly 37, or exactly 814,406, then interacted with exactly one of her desires, or exactly two of her desires, or exactly 37, or exactly 814,406. But which one or ones did the causal work?

Let’s call this the Problem of Causal Specification. If your reaction to the Problem of Causal Specification is to think, yes, what an interesting problem, if only we had the right kind of brain-o-scope, we could discover that it was exactly the representation there are 3 or 4 Lucky Lagers somewhere in the refrigerator door, then you’re just the kind of mad dog representational realist I’m arguing against.

I think most of us will recognize the problem as a pseudo-problem. This is not a plausible architecture of the mind. There are many reasonable characterizations of Cynthia’s beer-in-the-fridge belief, varying in specificity, some more apt than others. Her decision is no more caused by a single, precisely correct subset of those billion possible representations than World War I had a single, possibly conjunctive cause expressible by a single determinately true sentence. If someone attempts to explain Cynthia’s behavior by saying that she believes there is beer in the fridge, it would be absurd to fire up your brain-o-scope, then correct them by saying, “Wrong! She’s going to the fridge because she believes there is Lucky Lager in the refrigerator door.” It would be equally absurd to say that it would require wild, one-in-a-billion luck to properly explain Cynthia’s behavior absent the existence of such a brain-o-scope.

A certain variety of representationalist might seek to escape the Problem of Causal Specification by positing a single extremely complex representation that encompasses all of Cynthia’s beer-in-the-fridge beliefs. A first step might be to posit a map-like representation of the fridge, including the location of the beer within it and the location of the fridge in the kitchen. This map-like representation might then be made fuzzy or probabilistic to incorporate uncertainty about, say, the exact location of the beer and the exact number of bottles. Labels will then need to be added: “Lucky Lager” would be an obvious choice, but that is at best the merest start, given that Cynthia might not remember the brand and will represent the type of beer in many different ways, including some that are disjunctive, approximate, and uncertain. If maps can conflict and if maps and object representations can be combined in multiple ways, further complications ensue. Boldly anticipating the resolution of all these complexities, the representationalist might then hypothesize that this single, complicated representation is the representation that was activated. All the sentences on our list would then be imperfect simplifications – though workable enough for practical purposes. One could perhaps similarly imagine the full, complex causal explanation of World War I, detailed beyond any single historian’s possible imagining.

This move threatens to explode Presence, the idea that when someone believes P there is a representation with the content P present somewhere in the mind. There would be a complex representation stored, yes, from which P might be derivable. But many things might be derivable from a complex representation, not all of which we normally will want to say are believed in virtue of possessing that representation. If a map-like representation contains a triangle, then it’s derivable from the representation that the sum of the interior angles is 180 degrees; but someone ignorant of geometry would presumably not have that belief that simply in virtue of having that representation. Worse, if the representation is complex enough to contain a hidden contradiction, then presumably (by standard laws of logic) literally every proposition that anyone could ever believe is derivable from it.

The move to a single, massively complex representation also creates an architectural challenge. It’s easy to imagine a kinematics in which a simple proposition such as there is beer in the fridge is activated in working memory or a central workspace. But it’s not clear how a massively complex representation could be similarly activated. If the representation has many complex parameters, it’s hard to see how it could fit within the narrow constraints of working memory as traditionally conceived. No human could attend to or process every aspect of a massively complex representation in drawing inferences or making practical decisions. More plausibly, some aspects of it must be the target of attention or processing. But now we’ve lost all of the advantages we hoped to gain by moving to a single, complex representation. Assessing which aspects are targeted throws us back upon the Problem of Causal Specification.

Cynthia believes not only that there’s beer in the fridge but also that there’s ketchup in the fridge and that the fridge is near the kitchen table and that her roommate loves ketchup and that the kitchen table was purchased at Ikea and that the nearest Ikea is thirty miles west. This generates a trilemma. Either (a.) Cynthia has entirely distinct representations for her beer-in-the-fridge belief, her ketchup-in-the-fridge belief, her fridge-near-the-table belief, and so on, in which case even if we can pack everything about beer in the fridge into a single complex representation we still face the problem of billions of representations with closely related contents and an implausible commitment to the activation of some precise subset of them when Cynthia gets up to go to the kitchen. Or (b.) Cynthia has overlapping beer-in-the-fridge, ketchup-in-the-fridge, etc. representations, which raises the same set of problems, further complicated by commitment to a speculative architecture of representational overlap. Or (c.) all of these representations are somehow all aspects of one mega-representation, presumably of the entire world, which does all the work – a representation which of course would always be active during any reasoning of any sort, demolishing any talk about retrieving different stored representations and combining them together in theoretical inference.

Dispositionalism elegantly avoids all these problems! Of course there is some low-level mechanism or set of mechanisms, perhaps representational or partly representational, that explains Cynthia’s behavior. But the dispositionalist need not commit to Presence, Discreteness, Kinematics, or Specificity. There need be no determinate, specific answer exactly what representational content, if any, is activated, and the structures at work need have no clean or simple relation to the beliefs we ascribe to Cynthia. Dispositionalism is silent about structure. What matters is only the pattern of dispositions enabled by the underlying structure, whatever that underlying structure is.

Instead of the storage and retrieval metaphor that representationalists tend to favor, the dispositionalist can appeal to figural or shaping metaphors. Cynthia’s dispositional profile has a certain shape: the shape characteristic of that of a beer-in-the-fridge believer – but also, at the same time, the shape characteristic of a Lucky-Lager-in-the-refrigerator-door believer. There need be no single determinately correct way to specify the shape of a complex figure. A complex shape can be characterized in any of a variety of ways, at different levels of precision, highlighting different features, in ways that are more or less apt given the describer’s purposes and interests. It is this attitude we should take to characterizing Cynthia’s complex dispositional profile. Attributing a belief is more like sketching the outline of a complex figure – perhaps a figure only imperfectly seen or known – than it is like enumerating the contents of a box.


Howard Berman said...

If explaining behavior is your thing, fine I trust you- but something is lost- mental life is rich and strange and real in its own right- though you are critical of introspection, William James regarded thoughts as a sort of behavior

Howie said...

Your position leads to the paradox we don't know our beliefs until we take action- I won't know I want to die until I commit suicide, or try- Mersault was a murderer because he shot the Arab man on the beach. But he was in a fight so it was situational- so we have to make qualifications and assert degrees of belief

David Duffy said...

One problem I see for dispositionalism is along the same lines as that for radical behaviourism - that it is computationally easier for our brains to have a direct representation of the location of the fridge in the kitchen (and we actually know about grid cells and place cells).

We don't usually say that Tim the cat has a belief that there is cat food in the refrigerator and that he believes the refrigerator is in the kitchen. We do say that he knows there is food in there.

In the case of blindsight, we might say that such a person has a disposition to point correctly to the stimulus, even though they don't believe that the stimulus is there because they lack conscious awareness of the stimulus. But this is not as useful as simply saying that there is knowledge without conscious awareness, and that with practice, conscious awareness can be recovered.

Arnold said...

Are you proposing to psychology... could learn to treat representation's to become disposition's...

The treatment might be psychology becoming phyiscalpsychology...
...that physic's senses are psychic's senses...

Practice and exercise of the senses would be required... confront beliefs-disbeliefs-self...

D said...

When I learned how large language models (programs like ChatGPT) work, I realized that like GPT, I don't have "beliefs" in the representational sense that I had naively assumed I did, but instead had something much more like dispositional beliefs. It converted me to dispositionalism, because I could see that as a model of what was going in in my mind it did a much better job. There's something a little more complicated going on-- I sometimes explore my beliefs, telling myself stories about them and reinforcing them, trying to make sure they don't contradict each other, in ways a language model doesn't. But that usually happens on a very small fraction of the things I believe about the world: things that are more controversial, or more abstract.

Philosopher Eric said...

If this were my paper I wouldn’t want Howie’s above mentioned paradox to be a valid criticism. Belief should be considered to influence behavior rather than behavior be considered to constitute the existence of belief. To go this way one might emphasize the epistemological rather than ontological merits of dispositionalism. Under that stipulation I think I’m good with this perspective — here behavior merely suggests belief. When speaking in more of an ontological way however, or how things actually are, I think I’d go with the representational option.

Just as there should be a complex set of causal dynamics which incited WW1, there should also be a complex set of causal brain dynamics which represent a given belief somehow. Of course today it doesn’t help that fields like psychology and neuroscience are able to tell us so little about what’s going on here. For fun I’ll give this a quick go myself however.

I consider the brain to exist as a massively parallel non-conscious computer. Furthermore for many forms of life like the human I suspect that the right kind of synchronous neuron firing sets up an electromagnetic field which creates a serial phenomenal computer, or consciousness itself. (See J. McFadden.) I won’t get into the relationship between these two very different forms of computer, though theoretically here complex EM fields constitute all elements of phenomenal existence. Thus just as certain causal dynamics should be associated with the start of WW1, “belief that P” should in some sense ontologically reduce back to field dynamics which themselves represent a given belief in some capacity.

Then for a clerical note:

If someone attempts to explain Cynthia’s behavior by saying that she believes there is beer in the fridge, it would be absurd to fire up your brain-o-scope, then correct them by saying, “Wrong! She’s going to the fridge because she believes there is Lucky Lager in the refrigerator door.”

For this I think I’d instead go with something like:

“..then refine that assessment by saying. “Right, and according to the machine she believes there is Lucky Lager in the refrigerator door”.

So I think you shouldn’t claim wrongness when there isn’t any. If you do need to claim wrongness here however then make up a situation where the brain-o-scope does actually display her being wrong.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

Howie: True, on my view often we don't know our beliefs until we notice how we act. But my dispositionalism also allows that cognitive dispositions and phenomenal dispositions are partly constitutive of believing; so it doesn't all come down to behavior.

David: I'm not sure I understand the relationship among the positions in your comments. Is knowledge different from belief if the types of representations it requires, on your view? If so, could you explain a bit more?

D: I'm disinclined to think that ChatGPT really has beliefs, in part because it probably needs more consistency that might require *some* kind of modeling of the world and not just language, and in part because it's doubtful that it has conscious experiences. But I'm inclined to agree that we might be more ChatGPT-ish ourselves than we normally think and than representationalists generally think.

Phil E: You write: "If this were my paper I wouldn’t want Howie’s above mentioned paradox to be a valid criticism. Belief should be considered to influence behavior rather than behavior be considered to constitute the existence of belief. To go this way one might emphasize the epistemological rather than ontological merits of dispositionalism." Although my view potentially allows dispositions to cause their manifestations, if one accepts a metaphysics on which in general dispositions cause their manifestations, I don't want to commit to that causal claim, since I don't want to assume the falsity of a metaphysics on which dispositions don't cause their manifestations but rather stand in some other relation. I aim to avoid Howie's concerns by having phenomenal and cognitive dispositions, rather than by going in heavy on causation. On your second point: I'm inclined to think that the absurd-seeming claim of wrongness is a consequence of the four commitments of industrial-strength representationalism. That the view leads to that seemingly absurd claim is one of my arguments against it. Maybe I'm wrong that it does lead to that claim, but then I'll want an explanation of why not.

Howie said...


How does your approach handle the situational aspects of behavior? A social psychologist would make the same criticisms of your approach that they would of personality- there would have to be many 'if then' branches. It could be very complex and ex post facto- if we want to predict behavior, your approach might be wanting

Philosopher Eric said...

Upon reading the post again I suppose that I personally would be more comfortable with a paper which presents a valid dichotomy — both this kind and that kind of belief. And in certain places you do acknowledge a role for representational belief, though clearly the dispositionalism theme is what’s being promoted.

In the end I realize that there are all sorts of things that we think we believe that we don’t act like we believe. If strong evidence were to arise that I tend to hire black tap dancers rather than white tap dancers, and even given a representational belief that race has nothing to do with it, then I might be stunned by such evidence. Being stunned however should be evidence for that representational belief. Here I might also reassess the matter. Perhaps I do enjoy watching black tap dancers more and therefore tend to hire them more? And if I were to consider such behavior wicked, then I might try to be less anti white in this regard. Or I might continue being wicked here in disguise. Or I might continue believing that white tap dancers are just as good in a representational sense, though not believe this dispositionally.