Tuesday, January 27, 2009


What does it mean to say that somebody believes something?

I think that a belief is a mental state, representational in character, taking as its content something that could in principle be stated as a proposition. To believe p is to hold that p is true.

How can we distinguish between believing that we hold that p is true and actually holding it to be true? Beliefs predispose us to certain behaviours. If we consider what people actually do, we can sometimes discern a difference between what they profess, and what they actually believe.


Andrew Louis said...

Isn't this the same reduction we talked about that you didn't agree with?

Psiomniac said...

No Andrew, I don't think so. I just think that I have used an appropriate level of description for the task at hand.

Andrew Louis said...

I do tend to agree with this statement:
"If we consider what people actually do, we can sometimes discern a difference between what they profess, and what they actually believe."

Again, I take the view that beliefs are not representations, but habits of action.

Sometimes I wonder whether I really am a Christian (theist), or if I merely defend it. There's deffinately a conflict going on to be sure...

Psiomniac said...

Again, I take the view that beliefs are not representations, but habits of action.
I think it is more useful to see actions as good evidence for certain beliefs, often better evidence than what is professed. But I can have a belief without any observable habit that goes with it, and I can have a habit which only tangentially refers to a belief.

Sometimes I wonder whether I really am a Christian (theist), or if I merely defend it.
If you are a Christian theist then you are at the Cupitt end of the spectrum, which for many believers, is far too anaemic to be counted as actually Christian.

Andrew Louis said...

I was able to give you a quick response P.. On my blog...

Matt K said...

The thing with the pragmatist redescription of beliefs as habits of action is that one of the moves from a representational paradigm for understanding what thought is is to move to an inferential paradigm--a belief, a thought, is itself a kind of action, specifically in the "space of reasons," as Sellars called it. Beliefs always have observable effects insofar as your desire to state a belief does not occur ex nihilo, but is always prompted by something, a sentence in a book, a shout by someone, a flip of a finger, whatever.

What I kind of see transpiring, between this and the elongated conversation between you and Andrew at Andrew's site, is an admission of a whole raft of pragmatist redescriptions of typical Platonic and Cartesian philosophical concepts (on utility and coping and the like), with yet an abiding retention of Kant's Vorstellung.

You want to resist the redescription of all human activity in terms of coping (in which "representation," like between map and a mountainside, becomes a subset of, rather than the other way around), but what might need clarification is what the difference is between coping and representing, such that each get their due, but are separate so that the activity of representing can lead to increased coping (as you put at Andrew's site), but is not reducible to it--what is a representing that is not an increased coping?

The pragmatists are suggesting that we can't really distinguish between the two (a representing is only detectable as a coping), and given the inability to overcome the Cartesian problems surrounding gulfs between different substances (epitomized in trying to answer the skeptic), we should just ditch the map metaphor of representation, the cookie-cutter metaphor of conceptual schemes, and the God metaphor of objectivity, and just stick to the life metaphor of coping. Because, whereas we can't seem to definitively answer the philosophical skeptic's question of how we know we are successfully representing something, we can seem to answer a real life skeptic's question about whether we are successfully coping with something--we can just refer to the fruit of our actions (which, of course, are always up for revision, but that's life).

Psiomniac said...

Matt K,

I agree with a lot of what you have said so far. I suspect this might be about giving each way of describing its due.

I think the pragmatists are wrong, we can have good reasons for thinking that our coping is enhanced because of the relation of our coping strategies to the world.

I can see that the pragmatist solution has an appeal, since at a stroke it just refuses to talk about things that have eluded neat philosophical solutions for thousands of years.
Which would be fine in a situation where everybody understood and agreed how far our writ will run and everyone was content to embrace proposition 7 of the Tractatus.

But I don't buy it. I can't see that view convincing the majority of Christians because I think that the value they get from participation in their language community in part derives from the notion that there is actually a god.

However, I'm open to any suggestions you have to help clarify things.

Matt K said...

I think the pragmatists are wrong, we can have good reasons for thinking that our coping is enhanced because of the relation of our coping strategies to the world.

The thing with this, though, is that seems perfectly true from the pragmatist perspective that combines Davidson and Rorty, one in which we have causal relations to the world but no as-of-yet-inexplicable representational relations. The kind of rhetoric that suggests that we don't need a concept of the world, or that we'll never know the world as it is in itself because the world is ultimately mysterious or unknowable, is a rhetoric that is best left behind. There is no world-in-itself, but there is a world and we can know it, by all the retail ways we've been doing it since life appeared. A special kind of Philosophical Knowing has been what's at issue for pragmatists, one we haven't been able to make concrete sense of.

What philosophy since Kant thought it could add was a way of not only knowing when a particular way of talking helped us deal with the world, but also when it represented the world. And then this knowledge would be able to help us better cope. The trick, though, is that in explicating what this representational link is that only philosophy can help us with, a philosopher can't recur to our retail, coping ways of hooking up to the world, because doing so eliminates the specialness that philosophers claim for the representational link.

For instance, Wilfrid Sellars is most famous for his inferentialism, which was precipitated by his attack on the Myth of the Given, an influential underpinning of empiricism and the Kantian representational paradigm. However, Sellars also thought that science taught us the way the world really was. Quine, too--after clearing a couple other dogmas of Kantian representationalism, he still maintained that physics "limned the world," taught us of the real world.

But every science, including physics, is easily explicated in the coping paradigm. Physics, and most sciences, help us predict and control our physical environment. What philosophers from Plato, Descartes and Kant down to Sellars, Quine, Nagel and Searle have maintained, however, is that there is an additional relation to the world. Philosophers of science aren't concerned with doing physics--there concerned with defending the desire to say that science tells us the way the world really is. Pragmatists just want to say that science is amazing at what it does, and that adding "it represents the way the world really is" doesn't help in any way to the amazing things science does, and just creates pseudo-problems that suck up peoples extra energy for no apparent reason (because no apparent payoff).

Another way of putting this is that the Cartesian problematic that Kant continued sets up this gulf between us and the world, and that philosophy has been trying to tell us when we are hooked to the world and when not. What distinguishes all other activities from post-Cartesian epistemology is that those activities (including science) have just assumed they are hooked up to the world in some manner and got on with their particular investigations.

What pragmatists are suggesting is that not only is this a fairly reasonable assumption--as you say, we have good reasons for thinking of our coping processes in relation to the world--but it was silly for us to even consider the idea that we might be disconnected from it, like the gulf between subject and object, experience and the world, mind and the world, language and the world. These dichotomies, when wielded by philosophers, breed a kind of global skepticism that Descartes tries to get us to countenance with his thought experiments. What the pragmatists are suggesting is that, philosophically speaking, we are always connected to the world (in some manner).

Now, I entirely agree with you that pragmatism isn't going to convince Christians that they should be atheists--but that's not what pragmatism is designed for. All pragmatism says is that, if people find it efficacious to talk about God, then God is actually real. What has been becoming more and more clear, however, over the course of cultural evolution are in what ways God is real. It has become clear that God is not material, and that the fact of His necessary immaterialness eliminates His ability to have causal powers over the physical environment that violate our as yet discovered physical laws. Christians who want to maintain that kind of clap-trap don't find any solace in pragmatism because it isn't any kind of representational philosophy we need to throw in their face, but just the fruits of scientific research. Enlightenment philosophers thought that the Kantian problematic was going to help them push back religion--but it won't, at least not in good faith.

Psiomniac said...

Matt K,

I think how we describe our relationship with the world depends on our purposes.

There are times when it is good not to talk about the world as it is, independent of us. But doesn't saying that there is no world-in-itself do the very thing that pragmatists are trying to avoid, namely make an ontological claim whose truth value has no impact on anyone's actual life?

My purpose in talking about the world in the way I have done is to counter the view that human needs and our way of talking and coping is the only way to meaningfully tackle what is likely to be going on.

I am not advocating a special Philosophical Knowing, merely a common sense notion that we can represent the world we know to ourselves and each other, like when we make a map, and this is a subset of our coping strategies.

We could characterise Rorty's response to the 'The Myth of the Given', (as well as the dualisms thrown up by the musings of Hume and Kant,) as saying we must abandon the idea that language enables us to represent the world at all, whether truly or not.

This has the appeal that it abolishes certain dualisms all in one go. But I think the cost is too great. As an argument against the caricature realist view it might be an understandable response. But I doubt many realists believe in the one true map that would map the landscape 'in-itself' as an embodiment of the very 'vocabulary of nature', as if human concerns or interests have nothing to do with it.

Just because there is a terrain doesn't mean there is only one possible take on that terrain. We can make rainfall maps, topological maps, political maps and so on. None of them make sense outside of our mapping conventions, and all of them are responses to human concerns or interests.

But it should be obvious that forming a language community in a coffee house and getting them to acheive consensus on whether the church is due east of the waterfall is a doomed enterprise unless somebody goes out and checks.

So whilst I am in favour of abolishing Cartesian dualisms and I agree that a sensible reading of Rorty makes the point that our tools are in part fashioned according to our needs and in part as a response to causal interactions with the world, I think we should remind ourselves that we are connected to the world even if it is silly to suppose otherwise.

I wasn't making a point that pragmatism should convince christians to be atheists by the way, but I agree they will find no solace therein. I might find it efficacious to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so are christian pragmatists likely to grant Sherlock the same ontological status as god? I doubt it. I also agree that there are problems with the specification of god that relate to god's interaction with the world.

So the reasons I don't rule out representation as one mode of description are: firstly I don't think it is correct to do so, and secondly because, for example, Andrew uses Rorty's position to justify an all-bets-are-off view of our relationship to the world, which in turn grants god-talk the same status as any talk which purports to be about what is or is not the case. And we can't have that....

Matt K said...

I think you might be what I would refer to as a pragmatist, though without knowing it.

Take your first two lines:

I think how we describe our relationship with the world depends on our purposes.

There are times when it is good not to talk about the world as it is, independent of us. But doesn't saying that there is no world-in-itself do the very thing that pragmatists are trying to avoid, namely make an ontological claim whose truth value has no impact on anyone's actual life?

First, notice that your first line is the pure pragmatist assertion--all descriptions are relative to our purposes.

This means that, second, the realist idea that one is describing something independent of human purposes is itself, paradoxically, a human purpose.

The pragmatist line is kind of like Kant's transcendental ego--every statement comes attached with an implicit "I think that...." There is a purpose attached to everything. It seems you're quite willing to grant that all descriptions are purposively generated. All pragmatists want to do is take the paradox out of "one human purpose is to describe things as they are aside from human purposes."

And just as all assertions come attached with purposes, so does the assertion common to a number of philosophers (like Putnam, Goodman, Derrida, and Rorty) that there is "no way the world is." Whether or not we should judge this as an ontological claim or not I'll leave aside, because the real question you raised is--isn't this a valueless claim according to the pragmatist? And, when push comes to shove, we have to answer, "No, it isn't a valueless claim."

In the end, our strategy is deflationary. In this particular instance, the value of that claim is pretty much all tied up and exhausted in getting academic philosophers to stop wasting their time with foundationalist epistemology. We want philosophers to stop wasting their time and energy on thinking about what now appear to be pointless questions. One might turn that around on the pragmatist, but just so long as there is a cultural industry, and not just a few scattered amateurs, behind the realist project, the pragmatists retain their own importance.

I guess what this all grounds out to is 1) you're willing to grant the pragmatist arch-assertion (all description relative to purpose), but 2) you yet think there is something all important in the notion of "representation." It is unclear to me what you think (2) is. In your agreement with (1), you've gone so far as to agree that representation is a subset of coping and that there can be as many maps of a terrain as one has the imagination to make up. And yet, in counter-posing your position to the pragmatists, you go so far as to say that getting rid of representation is incorrect. The language of "correctness," however, is something to be employed only when there are solidified standards for judgment--and it is just this idea we lay aside when we look at maps. No map is correct or incorrect, they are simply more or less useful. Riemannian geometry isn't correct, and Euclidean incorrect--the former is simply more useful for Einsteinian physics.

It is unclear to me how anything like what realists have conceived "representation," the philosophical purposes to which that notion has served, survives in your notion, to what purpose your notion serves. I'm unclear what exactly the cost is when we give it up, aside from our inability to use a series of other philosophical concepts pragmatists are urging we give up. I don't see how such an expensive concept, one worth fighting over in philosophical blogs, combats any more effectively an enemy--the disappearance of the world--that we both agree barely warrants our attention: not at all in regular life, and then just long enough in our philosophical, hobby life to kick the crap out of it should some paradox-monger think it fun to forward.

No one in the real, commonsensical world that we spend 90% of our time in would raise the idea. If they did, it would suffice to say, "Uh, go outside and see it." In that other space, the philosophical one, the pragmatists have basically been trying to get more and more refined ways of trying to just refer us back to commonsense. Philosophical space is not the same as commonsensical space, mind you, so the efforts pragmatists have gone to might sometimes seem extravagant from a common sense perspective, but no more extravagant than the weird circumlocutions their opponents have gone through to shore up something that never needed shoring up.

Psiomniac said...

Matt K,

I think it more likely that I'm a horses-for-coursesist. Which strikes me as pragmatic enough anyway.

On the paradox of the notion of representation being itself a human purpose, well it is of course one of our concerns that we get things right. As soon as we plot the church as due east of the waterfall with the purpose of enabling people reading the map to navigate from one to the other, we have committed ourselves to the notion that this was the best way we could find to plot things, in order to facilitate the navigation. Not that the map is thereby more 'correct' than a rainfall map of the same area. But you can see that certain features of the scenario are well described by adopting a representationalist standpoint.

So the things you say I grant, I do. Descriptions are purposefully generated. I think the idea of trying to describe things independently of human purposes is incoherent. If that is enough to qualify as a card carrying pragmatist, fair enough.

What that reveals perhaps, is that our disagreement is over strategy.

Of course, deflationary strategy I can sign up to, the issue is the issue, minimalism about truth can give us what we want, without the inherent absurdities of making declarative statements to the effect that representation doesn't happen.

We both want to stop time wasting, but we differ on how to do it. I doubt that a deeply counter intuitive and ultimately implausible dogma of abolishing representation is likely to do the trick.

So what I think it grounds out to is that:
1) We agree that all description is relative to a purpose,
2) it is important not to deny that it is a description, since to do so just reduces the credibility of the argument.

There is no contradiction in saying that to discard representation is incorrect, yet at the same time no map can be the 'correct' one. If you want to seriously argue against that, you will fall foul of recoil arguments. Maps are more or less useful but anybody with any common sense knows that there is a reason for this that is inextricably linked with the way the world causally interacts with us. In some respects, the world is ultimately implacable, you can try to persuade it that the church is west of the waterfall all you like, it won't listen. 'Representation' is a useful way of talking about this relation. To argue against that, or to argue that it is some kind of user-illusion is to saw off the very pragmatist branch you are sitting on.

So in summary, we agree on the goal but not on the question of which strategy passes the giggle test.

Phaedrus said...

I have an answer to this. It's too long to write in a comment, so see this post I wrote in the following link (just glance at the basic argument):


Basically we distinguish between good and bad beliefs based on the consistency between the expectations they produce and their relation to true perceptions. If we hold false beliefs about an objective world, this will produce expectations inconsistent with true perceptions. This assumes of course that our faculties have a somewhat accurate relationship to a possible world, constrained by physical laws, in which we inhabit.

Psiomniac said...

Thanks Phaedrus, I replied on your blog.

Phaedrus said...

Hey Psi, Is it cool if I post a link to your blog on mine? It'll be listed under the "other blogs" button. :)

Oh and thanks for the comments by the way. I never got a chance to respond back.

Psiomniac said...


Yes that would be fine. With your permission I'll reciprocate.

Phaedrus said...

Thanks! Yeah go ahead and post a link to mine if you want. :)

Andrew Louis said...

I have to say, I'm in complete agreement with you in regards to Stephens post on the RCC and condoms. Well done!

Psiomniac said...

Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd see. But thanks!

Kraxpelax said...

666; The Final Solution; and the Claim.


Matt K said...

Hi Psi,

Haven't heard from you in a while, but I just happened to have wrote something apropos belief -
"A Spatial Model of Belief Change"