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...


At 1:00 AM, January 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Chris,

A couple points.

First, you say: "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." But given that characterization, there are lots of mental states that aren't propositional. A state of pain is neither true nor false; a state of emotion (any emotion) is neither true nor false; desires are neither true nor false; sensory/perceptual states are neither true nor false. None of these states is truth-apt. So if there's going to be any kind of controversy here at all (which, presumably, you think there either is or ought to be), then I think you'll need to re-formulate what it means for a mental state to have propositional content. No small task, I'll say ... ;)

Second, you say: "Perhaps the sensation can only arise when my mind is ready to form beliefs that I am having a such a sensation." Suppose we grant this. It doesn't follow therefrom that your pain-state has propositional content. For one, your mind could be "ready" to form such beliefs all along but never form any. For two, even if the beliefs must inevitably accompany the pain-state, this might just be a necessary relation between two different types of state (say, in virtue of their causal-functional profile), in which case all the propositional content might inhere in the belief(s) about the pain, rather than the pain-state.

--John Turri

At 12:45 PM, January 18, 2005, Blogger Chris said...

Alright, a little clarification is apparently in order.

On John's first comment: It's true that I characterize a mental state as propositional iff it is (at leastly partly) directed towards a proposition and, thus, has a truth-value. Ok, ok, I now see what I did wrong in my post: my definition says that the mental states themselves have a truth-value!! This definition will not do because then only things like beliefs will be propositional (if even they are). I want to leave open whether other sorts of mental states are directed toward propositions that are either true or false. Let me amend my defintion (remind me to never again blog while in a hurry): A mental state is propositional iff it is directed at a proposition that has a truth value. My guess is that John will feel I have answered his first point, but I'll say a little more about it nonetheless.

I believe that I recognized the contentious nature of assuming that all mental states are propositional, and hence began my considerations undecided. I agree that it initially seems that such things as having pains or being in emotional states are non-propositional (what sort of proposition is associated with my aching tooth?). I do still believe I'm correct, however, in assuming that desires are propositional: To desire x is to desire that "x" be true. Similarly for belief: To believe x is to believe that "x" is true. I have not seen a better account of these.

Regarding John's second point, he's clearly correct to say that I have yet to establish that all mental states, qualia in particular, are propositional. I didn't take myself to be proving such a thing. I was just trying to show a way that this position that initially seems clearly false might in fact be true.

Let me put it like this: Have you ever felt a sensation without believing that you are feeling one? Could you? Surely your nerves could fire without beliefs being formed, but could conscious sensation occur without beliefs being formed? Maybe there is a necessary connection between the two.

A counterexample might be something like a mood. You can be in a bad mood without it (obviously) having propositional content. Perhaps with further thought, however, I could give an explanation of this as well.

At 1:05 PM, January 18, 2005, Blogger Chris said...

I also see what you mean, John, in saying that a necessary relation doesn't mean a necessary connection. Just because I cannot have a pain without having a belief does not mean that the belief is required for the pain; perhaps it just necessarily follows it in virtue of, for instance, causal-functional roles.

Or maybe to feel a pain is to feel that Pain, where Pain is a complete non-elliptical sentence with no ontological committment. Perhaps to see a bowl is to see that Bowl. This comes from Quine's talk of holophrastic sentences. If this were true it would be in favor of the propositionalist.

I'll try to spell this out a bit more later...

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