Thursday, January 13, 2005

Mental states and propositional content

Does everything mental have propositional content? Tim Crane, in his "The Intentional Structure of Consciousness," takes as granted that there are plenty of mental states devoid of any propositional element. Arthur Falk, in Chapter 2 of his Desire and Belief, argues that all mental acts have at least some propositional content.

To say that a mental act or attitude, such as belief, have propositional content is simply to say that it is directed toward a proposition and, thus, has a truth value. In wanting a sloop you desire that you have a sloop, in believing what your mother says you are believing that what your mother says is true (to some degree of certainty). It seems clear to me that these sorts of mental attitudes are propositional, but perhaps not emotions or qualia.

Crane believes that all mental states are intentional, but not necessarily propositional. He takes things like being in love or qualia as counterexamples to a view like Falk's.

While reading Crane, I was convinced of his point; surely beliefs about being in love are propositional, but it's difficult to see how the love itself is. On furthur reflection, however, I became tempted to change my mind. Perhaps being in love is, besides the associated feelings, belief that many propositions are so and desire that many propositions be so, etc. There may be able to associate the cause of the feeling with a set of propositional attitudes.

But what of the feeling itself? What of sensation? Falk argues that we cannot feel sensation without believing that we are having a sensation. I initially thought this untenable, until I formulated a thought experiment: While unconscious (knocked out from drugs, say) we won't feel the pain, even though many of our nerves will be firing just as they would if we were conscious. Perhaps the inability to feel comes from our inability to form beliefs about the sensations. A more everyday example might be the following: Suppose I am playing hockey and am very engrossed in the game. My mind may be so occupied with what I should be doing on the ice that I hardly feel it when someone's slapshot ricochets off of my thigh. When my shift is over and I go sit on the bench, however, I may become aware of a dull pain in my leg. Perhaps the sensation can only arise when my mind is ready to form beliefs that I am having a such a sensation.

So now I'm stuck floundering between these two views, wondering if the soreness I feel in my back is in part propositional or not...