Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Two things

First, new pilot data are in. They seem to be telling me that the folk are not all substance dualists. If the first people I've tested are like everybody else, folk beliefs about the metaphysics of mental properties are all over the place in every respect. So far, the only wider theoretical relevance I've been able to cook up for this apparent finding is that Paul Bloom's explanations of folk beliefs about the afterlife, moral worth, and personal identity in Descartes' Baby are probably unsound. After I get comments back from my professor, I think I'm going to send the write-up of the pilot out to PMS WIPS, although I get the strong sense that I need to discuss the philosophical relevance of the findings in some way that hasn't occurred to me yet.

Second, if you, like me, want to get your feet wet in the philosophy of information, I recommend that you read any of the good-sounding articles by Luciano Floridi except "What is the Philosophy of Information?" Or, if you do read that one, skip straight to section 4. I say this only because it's the fourth item on a google search of "philosophy of information," and the first one that looks relevant.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hypothetical Substitution and Representational States

At least as important as developing a philosophical theory of what to count as a mental representation is a theory of what to count as a representational state – a state expressed in English by a relation between an individual and a proposition, that is best explained in terms of (or just is) a relation between an individual and something like a mental representation of (the meaning of) the proposition. Lillard (1993) notes that, simply in virtue of using a pen to stir my coffee, I do not necessarily represent my pen as a spoon, so using a pen to stir my coffee is not a representational state. Following Josef Perner, she calls using a pen as if it were a spoon an instance of hypothetical (as opposed to symbolic) substitution. The difference between the clearer cases of hypothetical (as opposed to symbolic) substitution are reflected in facts such as that “I am using a pen as if it were a spoon” is not, surface-grammatically, a relation between an individual and a proposition – an independent clause does not follow “as if.” But English could have been different here. We could have said “I am using a pen that it is a spoon;” perhaps that is roughly how locutions of this sort work in other languages. And maybe English does have a relation between an individual and a proposition in the deep structure of sentences reporting hypothetical substitutions.

I guess we could just say that hypothetical substitutions aren’t relations to mental representations because they are extensional, and relations to mental representations aren’t. For example, my intuition is that, if I am not pretending, then I am acting as if I am Clark Kent iff I am acting as if I am Superman iff I am acting as if I am the fictional male lead portrayed as having grown up in Smallville in such television shows as Lois and Clark. But that intuition is kind of weak, and I suspect that I would give it up in the face of a good argument. Do other people share this intuition?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Concepts and the Idiosyncrasy of Mental Representations

I was reading Margolis and Lawrence’s introduction to their anthology Concepts a couple of weeks ago. I got the impression that (perhaps for limitations of space) they didn’t do justice to the view that concepts are best thought of as abstracta, and especially the argument from what they call “the idiosyncrasy of mental representations” to that view. I want to do justice to that argument here, and maybe also air out my thoughts about the metaphysics of concepts in the process.

Consider two speech situations, S1 and S2. The utterances and contexts in S1 and S2 are entirely identical, except for the identity of the speaker – A in S1 and B in S2. Let’s assume that their utterances contain no first person pronouns or other self-referential indexical elements, such as “Some dogs have no hair” or “Would you like more hot pepper?” We have an inconsistent tetrad of propositions:

(1) A’s utterance in S1 means the same as B’s utterance in S2.
(2) A’s mental representation of the meaning of at least one sub-sentential expression in her utterance (“dogs,” “hair,” “hot pepper”) differs greatly in type from B’s mental representation of the meaning of that same expression.
(3) For any two sentential utterance-tokens U1 and U2, ceteris paribus, if U1 and U2 contain one expression-type e, such that the token of e in U1 and the token of e in U2 do not express significantly type-identical concepts, then U1 does not mean the same as U2.
(4) Concepts are (types of) mental representations of the meanings of sub-sentential expressions.

Another slightly different version of the tetrad, corresponding to another slightly different version of the view that concepts are mental representations replaces (2) and (4) with, respectively:

(2`) A’s mental representation of what A believes to be the extension of at least one sub-sentential expression in her utterance (“dogs,” “hair,” “hot pepper”) differs greatly in type from B’s mental representation of what B believes to be the extension of that same expression.
(4`) Concepts of referential expressions are (types of) mental representations of the presumed extensions of referential expressions.

We could generate different “prime” versions of the basic tetrad for all sorts of different views of concepts and mental representation. (I’ll limit the discussion here to the first version, assuming that everything I have to say holds, mutatis mutandis, for the other versions.) Despite the vagueness of “significant difference,” I take it that all of these different versions are inconsistent; we have to deny at least one premise in order to avoid inconsistency. I also take it, however, that one ends up thinking about mental representations, (2) is supposed to be true by hypothesis. The question, then, is whether to drop (1), (3), or (4). Here is how I see the scene, now:

> I probably won’t give up (1). My intuitions – about utterance-meaning, anyway – are semantic-externalist enough at this point that (1) is, to me, pre-theoretically obvious. As far as theory goes, I think that linguistic conventions fix the semantic properties of utterances, and that whatever determines linguistic conventions, whatever those ultimately turn out to be, cannot tap so deeply into our minds as to draw distinctions in utterance meaning solely on the basis of differences like those between A’s mental representations and B’s mental representations. That said, I bet that all sorts of psycholinguists would prefer to drop (1).

> I would give up (3) if I thought that theories of concepts weren’t supposed to explain the semantic properties of utterances. Sometimes I think that is the case; sometimes I think that theories of concepts, as developed by psychologists, are just designed to explain typicality effects and related, more-or-less overt behavioral facts and dispositions. To the extent that the facts about typicality effects are not also facts about the meanings of words, this should lead me to drop (3). But I get the sense that I am really deeply confused about what theories of concepts are supposed to explain, and that my confusion obscures the role of concepts in semantic theory. That’s why I’m inclined not to give up (3).

> That leaves me with (4). I am motivated to reject (4) both because of the tetrad and because I don’t see a natural, sensible way to preserve locutions of the form “the concept of x” if we think of concepts as mental representations. I am motivated not to reject (4) by what I take to be the fact that most psychologists think of concepts as mental representations of one sort or another. On the plausible meta-philosophical view that what we philosophers are trying to do with our discussions of concepts and mental representations is to shed light on these terms as they are used by psychologists, it tells against an explication of “concept” if it does not also come with a truth- or plausibility-preserving interpretation of psychologists’ mental-representational talk of concepts. But what tells against an explication is not always what ultimately defeats it, and theories of concepts might be one of those areas in philosophy in which merely scrutinizing accepted scientific terminology ought to lead to broad change in the way scientists construct their theories. (How different would this be from the sort of verificationist thinking that motivated Einstein to develop the relativistic conception of simultaneity?) To what extent treating concepts as abstracta would lead to such a change is not clear to me, though, since there might be a simple, painless translation of most psychological, mental-representational talk about concepts into the “abstracta” idiom. (Perhaps the mental representations psychologists call “concepts” are best construed as mental representations of the abstracta that are called “concepts” in expressions of the form “the concept of x.”) Anyway, I lean towards giving up (4) because I like (1)-(3).