Saturday, June 01, 2024

Two-Layer Metaphysics: Reconciling Dispositionalism about Belief with Underlying Representational Architecture

During the question period following UCR visiting scholar Brice Bantegnie's colloquium talk on dispositional approaches to the mind, one of my colleagues remarked -- teasingly, but also with some seriousness -- "one thing I don't like about you dispositionalists is that you deny cognitive science".  Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum express a similar thought in their 2018 critique of dispositionalism: Cognitive science works in the medium of representations.  Therefore (?), belief must be a representational state.  Therefore (?), defining belief wholly in terms of dispositional structures conflicts with the best cognitive science.

None of this is correct.  We can understand why not through what I'll call two-layer metaphysics.  Jeremy Pober's 2022 dissertation under my direction was in part about two-layer metaphysics.  Bantegnie also supports a type of two-layer metaphysics, though he and Pober otherwise have very different metaphysical pictures.  (Pober is biological reductionist and Bantegnie a Ryle-inspired dispositionalist.)  Mandelbaum and I in conversation have also converged on this, recognizing that we can partly reconcile our views in this way.

Two-layer metaphysics emphasizes the distinction between (to somewhat misappropriate David Marr) the algorithmic and the implementational level, or alternatively between conceptual and nomological necessities, or between role and realizer, or between what makes it correct to say that someone believes some particular proposition and in virtue of what particular structures they actually do believe that proposition.  (These aren't equivalent formulations, but species of a genre.)

To get a clearer sense of this, it's helpful to consider space aliens.

Rudolfo, let's say, is an alien visitor from Alpha Centauri.  He arrives in a space ship, quickly learns English, Chinese, and Esperanto, tells amusing stories about his home world illustrated with slide shows and artifacts, enjoys eating oak trees whole and taking naps at the bottom of lakes, becomes a 49ers football fan, and finds employment as a tax attorney.  To all outward appearances, he integrates seamlessly into U.S. society; and although he's a bit strange in some ways, Rudolfo is perfectly comprehensible to us.  Let's also stipulate (though it's a separate issue) that he has all the kinds of conscious experiences you would expect: Feelings of joy and sadness, sensory images, conscious thoughts, and so on.

[Dall-E image of an alien filling out tax forms]

Does Rudolfo believe that taxes are due on April 15?  On a dispositionalist account of the sort I favor, as long as he stably possesses all the right sorts of dispositions, he does.  He is disposed to correctly file tax forms by that deadline.  He utters sentences like "Taxes are due on April 15", and he feels sincere when he says this.  He feels anxiety if a client risks missing that deadline.  If he learns that someone submitted their taxes on April 1, he concludes that they did not miss the deadline, etc.  He has the full suite of appropriate behavioral, experiential, and cognitive dispositions.  (By "cognitive dispositions" I mean dispositions to enter into other related mental states, like the disposition to draw relevant conclusions.)

Knowing all this, we know Rudolfo believes.  Do we also need to dissect him, or put him in some kind of scanner, or submit him to subtle behavioral tests concerning details of reaction time and such, to figure out whether he has the right kind of underlying architecture?  Here, someone committed to identifying belief in a strict way with the possession of a certain underlying architecture faces a dilemma.  Either they say no, no dissection, scan, or subtle cognitive testing is needed, or they say yes, a dissection, scan, or series of subtle cognitive tests is needed.

If no, then the architectural commitment is vacuous: It turns out that having the right set of dispositions is sufficient for having the right architecture.  So one might as well be a dispositionalist after all.

If yes, then we don't really know whether Rudolfo believes despite the behavioral and experiential patterns that would seem to be sufficient for believing.  This conclusion (1.) violates common sense and ordinary usage, and (2.) misses what we do and should care about in belief ascription.  If a hardcore cognitive realist were to say "nope, wrong architecture! that species has no beliefs!", we'd just have to invent a new word for what Rudolfo and his kind share in common with humans when we act and react in such patterns -- maybe belief*.  Rudolfo believes* that taxes are due on April 15.  That's why he's working so hard and reminding his clients.  But then "belief*" is the more useful term, as well as the more commonsensical, and it's probably what we meant, or should have meant, by "belief" all along.

Now it might be that in humans, or in Alpha Centaurians, or in some other Earthly or alien species, belief works by means of manipulating internal representations written in the language of thought.  That could be!  (I have my doubts, unless the view is given a very weak formulation.)  But even if we allow that possibility, the reason that having that architecture counts as believing is because that architecture, in that species, happens to be the architecture that underwrites the dispositional pattern.

There are, then, so to speak, two layers here.  There's the dispositional characterization, which, if an entity matches it well enough, makes it true to describe them as someone who believes.  And then there's the underlying subpersonal architecture, which is how the belief is implemented in them at the detailed cognitive level.

Thus, my dissatisfied colleague, and Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum, are wrong: There is no conflict between a dispositional approach to belief and representationalist realism in cognitive science.  The metaphysical dispositionalist and the psychological representationalist are engaged in different tasks, and both can be correct -- or rather, both can be correct unless the representationalist also attempts the dispositionalist's broader metaphysical task (in which case they face the Rudolfo dilemma).

Does this make dispositionalism unscientific?  Not at all!  Two comparisons.  Personality traits: These can be defined dispositionally.  To be an extravert is nothing more or less than to have a certain dispositional profile -- that is, to tend to act and react in characteristically extraverted ways.  There can still be a science of dispositional profiles (most of personality psychology, I'd say); and there can also be a science of implementation (e.g., what subpersonal brain or lower-level cognitive structures explain the extravert's energy and sociality?).  Evolution: At a broad theoretical level, evolution just requires heritable traits with different rates of reproductive success.  At a lower level, we can look at genes as the architectural implementation.  One can work on the science of evolution at either layer or with an eye on both layers at once.

10 comments:

SelfAwarePatterns said...

I don't think dispositionalism has any issues with cognitive science. But I have been wondering lately how useful of a description it actually is for what we call a "belief". On the tax deadline example, maybe I, as a reasonably responsible citizen, am disposed to get my taxes in on time. But my friend Bill, a complete scofflaw, just doesn't care.

I say, "Hey Bill, you know taxes are due on April 15, right?"

Bill replies, "Sure, I know, but don't care." Or maybe Bill feigns not hearing me because he just doesn't want to deal with it.

Bill and I have different dispositions, but there is a commonality between us in that both of our worldviews include a tax deadline on April 15. We can call this commonality itself a type of disposition, or maybe a sub-disposition. But it also doesn't seem like "representation", "model", or "prediction tree" are wrong. It seems we're describing the same mechanisms at different levels of description.

I do agree with the overall thesis that what makes a belief is its causes and effects, and so there's no reason not to ascribe them to Rudolfo, regardless of how different his internal architecture is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right -- and I certainly don't mind saying that Bill "represents" taxes as due on the 15th, if that isn't interpreted as a hard-core realist point about his interior architecture.

That said, one of the big challenges for dispositionalism has always been handling cases in which people believe but aren't disposed to act in the stereotypical ways because they have unusual other beliefs or desires. I think this can be handled through ceteris paribus qualifiers, dispositional masks, and implicit conditions (e.g., if Bill wanted to file his taxes on time...). But I do feel the pull of the criticism that this is too hand-wavy.

Arnold said...

Three layers minimum for knowing, understanding and living metaphysically...
...Evolution is predispositioned to the interaction of forces...

Since 2011 I've been learning about belief and dispositioning with Eric's Splintered Mind...
...My position now, is learning to look, to see what I am, what I do...

A proposition...
...Are reason, belief and their interactions the condition of the human body, for...

Philosopher Eric said...

Rather than a “metaphysics” I think I’d call this a two layer “epistemology”. Wouldn’t that be a better way to address two different ways of talking about a reality that is ultimately singular?

That said however, while “dual” rather than “singular” explanations can be helpful sometimes, to me they also seem a bit temporary and Occam defying. Better still might be to deny either a “dispositional” or “representational” position alone to let whoever is speaking let us know how they’re using the term “belief”. Then if we grasp their meaning we ought to be able to respond more appropriately. So if I’m referring to GPT4 “believing” something, obviously as contended there will be no neurological dynamics behind such “belief”. But sure, in a disposition sense it could still do so.

Consider the old line, “Stupid is as stupid does”. If you do stupid things then does that mean that you’re “stupid”? This is true by definition dispositionally. Not so in a representational sense. What representationalists lack however is an experimentally accepted understanding of consciousness and thus what “belief” in this regard happens to be constituted by. I personally suspect this resides in the right sort of neurally produced electromagnetic field. But if scientists were to experimentally verify this (or any other consciousness theory), then apparently scientists would be helping philosophers do philosophy better by means of yet another validation of that amazing 14th century friar (Occam). I’d rather the shoe were on the other foot however, and thus philosophers were to help scientists by providing various accepted metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological understandings from which to do science.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Phil E: I accept that it's *also* two-layer epistemology, but I stand firm in my idea that it is two-layer metaphysics as well. *What it is* to believe / have a belief can be characterized either in terms of superficial dispositional role or in terms of internal mechanisms. On philosophy and science -- I prefer that the causal run both ways at once.

Arnold said...

Would understanding the movement of force and cause be...
...active passive neutral or positive negative between...
for the objectivity of any preferences' to stay...

Philosopher Eric said...

Well then perhaps you’re also a strong nominalist like me professor. Of course if so then it’s a bit strange that you’d be a chief partisan regarding a nominal debate like this one. Perhaps it’s carried over from an earlier time in your career when you weren’t quite as strong a nominalist? Regardless, if anyone here is interested in how Occam’s “nominalism” and “razor” have helped science become what it has, I recommend McFadden’s book on the matter, and particularly the audio kindle version (which would often send me to sleep at night until I’d heard it all too many times).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Phil E: I do have some nominalist tendencies -- though not on every issue!

TWOE: Yes, I treat belief and consciousness differently. I can see how you might think there's a tension if you think they should be treated the same. Consciousness I'm a pretty hard-core realist about. Belief, on the other hand, I think of as being a convenient way to summarize certain complex dispositional patterns into which we tend to fall -- including dispositions both to behavior and to conscious/phenomenal episodes. I do think that to fully match the dispositional stereotype constitutive of believing one must be disposed to enter certain conscious states under appropriate conditions -- though I think there might be a useful reduced stereotype that dispensed with that.

Arnold said...

Your note to TWOE seams your best ramifications in 13 years...
...but it needn't be a negative or a positive to find oneself at the end of their rope...

To rest in neutrality and passivity, only for a while though...

Does AI have a role in spontaneousness'...
...for help in asking questions of life...

Philosopher Eric said...

I guess being a partisan in this particular nominal debate displays how you’re less than a perfect nominalist professor. But then I’m also an extreme reductionist who’d like nothing more than for a respected community of professionals to provide science with various accepted metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological answers from which to work. Though all science should be aided by such understandings, it seems to me that today this void cripples the central behavioral science of psychology. If however traditional philosophers generally object to the formation of such a specialized community from within, then fine. In that case I’d like one or more new communities of “meta scientists” to rise up. Their dispositional difference with philosophers would be that they have a purpose which is exclusive — to provide science with an accepted metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological premise from which to do science.

TWOE: Well spotted regarding those apparent inconsistencies in the positions of professor S! But then this all makes sense to me as a strong nominalist. From this position we’re allowed to use words however we like, that is as long as we’re clear about how they’re being used. And why might one tend to be a dispositionalist regarding “belief” in a way that isn’t consistent with a consciousness form of belief? In years past I recall professor S objecting to people saying that they believe they want their kids to ultimately have happy rather prestigious lives, but behave conversely. So he’d rather say that these people believe that they want prestigious kids. Or consider Trump supporters who cognitively believe that America must remain a democracy, though by their actions subvert democracy to facilitate another Trump presidency. Thus it could legitimately be said that they don’t believe America should remain a democracy.