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Saturday, December 19, 2009


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“What say you Peter?”


1) Let me first correct one point about Bill’s statement of my original argument. Bill construes me as saying that a sincere assertion of my original (i) leads to a “pragmatic inconsistency”.

(i)I believe that there are no beliefs.

By pragmatic inconsistency Bill I suppose means a situation when the assertion of a sentence contradicts one of its own presuppositions. But I do not see how thinking or asserting (i) contradicts any of its presuppositions, since the contradiction can be discerned without appeal to any presuppositions. The phenomenon exhibited by (i) is that it and its content cannot be simultaneously true, although they can be both false. The fact that the whole of (i) cannot be true together with its content does not depend upon any presuppositions. And since there are no presuppositions involved, the inconsistency is not of a pragmatic kind. On the other hand, the inconsistency involved is not of the same kind as we might find when someone believes or asserts: I believe that P and not-P. Here the content of the belief is a contradictory sentence. So (i) is plagued by a curious kind of inconsistency that I am not certain how to classify. Perhaps, we may think of the inconsistency involved in (i) along the following lines. Regardless of the content of (i), the sentence (i) logically entails the sentence:

(x) There is at least one belief.

Thus, if (i) is true, then (x) must be true. So if one thinks (i), then they are logically committed to the belief that (x) is true: i.e., that there is at least one belief. Therefore, the corpus of their beliefs together with the logical consequences of these beliefs includes (i) as well as (x). But, if (i) is true, then this corpus also includes its content which is (ii): namely, that there are no beliefs. But, (x) and (ii) are contradictory. Hence, by thinking (i) one is saddling the set of all logical consequences of their corpus of beliefs with a contradiction. The same situation results if we consider the case of someone sincerely asserting (i), except in this case we must introduce an additional step that the sincere assertion of a sentence is logically tied to the expression of a belief. So if someone sincerely asserts (i), then they thereby express a belief that expressed by the sentence (i) and from here we proceed as before to show that the logical consequences of the corpus of their beliefs must contain a contradiction. Let me now turn to Bill’s actual proposal.

2) Bill’s proposal is to resurrect the notion of topic-neutrality that Place, Smart, and others used to employ on behalf of the identity version of materialism (i.e., mental events are identical to physical events). The idea is that the properties of mental events are taken to be neutral between a physicalist and a non-physicalist account of such properties. As Bill says, it is a contingent matter to which category they belong and, hence, if neuroscience will identify them as physical, then so they are. The question is whether the EM-ist can take advantage of the notion of topic neutrality of old and use it to block the objection hinted at above.

Bill suggests that the EM-ist might distinguish between a robust sense of ‘belief’, M-beliefs, and a thin sense of ‘belief’, TN-beliefs (I will focus here only on propositional attitudes). The M-beliefs feature all the properties we typically associated with propositional attitudes: they feature a that-clause that is their content; this content is a proposition (or a sentence) that has a truth-value; M-beliefs have intentionality (object directedness); M-beliefs are suitable objects for epistemic and logical scrutiny; M-beliefs are linked to sincere assertions of sentences that have a meaning; M-beliefs can be used in everyday psychological explanations without knowledge of “what goes on in the brain”, and so forth. By contrast, TN-beliefs have none of these properties, for TN-beliefs are defined precisely by removing all the essential properties of M-beliefs enumerated above.

3) Now, contrary to Bill’s suggestion and unlike the identity theorists of old, the EM-ist cannot countenance the possibility that TN-beliefs could turn out to be, as a contingent matter, identical to M-beliefs. The EM-ist insists that M-beliefs do not exist and, therefore, they cannot be identical to anything that exists, contingently or otherwise. Therefore, according to the EM-ist, if TN-beliefs exist at all, they can only be identical to brain-states.

So if the EM-ist countenances TN-beliefs, as Bill suggests, then he must view them as referring to some brain-states. Keeping this fact in mind, how are we to interpret Bill’s (i*)?

(i*) I TN-believe there are no M-beliefs.

Like my original (i), Bill’s (i*) appears to be a self-attribution of a belief; i.e., the belief that there are no M-beliefs. But since according to Bill’s proposal this belief attribution is an attribution of a TN-belief and TN-beliefs must be identical to brain-states, if they exist at all, (i*) must be a self-attribution of a brain-state. Which brain-state? And what sort of relation exists between this brain state and the content of “I TN-believe …” in Bill’s (i*)? Since brain-states lack all the properties associated with M-beliefs including the property that they are (in part) individuated in terms of their content, we cannot individuate this brain state in terms of the content of (ii*): i.e.., ‘There are no M-beliefs’. Such a brain-state must be individuated in terms of suitable physical properties. The only thing we can say is that the brain state in question (individuated in terms of suitable physical properties) is one which causes the EM-ist to vocalize (ii*). So we must interpret Bill’s (i*) along the following lines:

(iii*) I am in such-and-such a brain-state which caused me to vocalize ‘There are no M-beliefs’.

(Remember: the brain-state in question is individuated only in terms of physical properties suitable to individuate brain states and not in terms of the semantic or intentional properties of the expression vocalized. More on this bellow.)

4) But vocalizations are not sincere assertions. Vocalized sounds in and of themselves have no meaning; they have no truth-conditions and, hence, have no truth-values; they cannot be subject to epistemic or logical scrutiny, etc., unless the vocalization is carried out with the intention to assert something. But, the EM-ist must maintain that intentions (or rather M-intentions), just like M-beliefs, do not exist. The EM-ist, of course, might now distinguish between M-intentions and TN-intentions and, then, following Bill’s suggestion proceed to argue as he did about beliefs. But, then, so shall I. This process may take numerous rounds going through several other propositional attitudes and their related properties until we realize what we should have expected from the start: sincere assertions, M-beliefs, M-intentions, and all the other paraphernalia associated with propositional attitudes form a logical circle linking each to the others. Denying one compels abandoning them all. One cannot have it both ways: i.e., one cannot deny the existence of beliefs (or rather M-beliefs), yet enjoy the advantages of the other concepts logically linked to it. (I shall return to this topic shortly).
Bill himself argued in one of his recent posts that if there are no beliefs, then there cannot be propositions either. Or to put it more precisely: if there are no beliefs, then the concept of truth-value must be gone too and with it the concept of a proposition, if propositions are taken to be (among) the vehicles of truth-values.

But, surely, when an EM-ist vocalizes (ii*), he intends this vocalization to be taken as having a meaning, truth-value, and be a suitable subject to epistemic and logical scrutiny: i.e., the EM-ist intends such vocalizations to be sincere assertions. But sincere assertions are logically linked to the very properties which the EM-ist maintains nothing does, and can, exemplify. In fact, the EM-ist denies the existence of beliefs (and other propositional attitudes) precisely because he takes beliefs (i.e., M-beliefs) to feature such properties as intentionality, content, etc.

So the conclusion we arrive at is this: you cannot think or sincerely assert (i) without saddling the corpus of your beliefs with a logical inconsistency (not merely a pragmatic inconsistency). While Bill’s (ii*) escapes this logical contradiction, it does so by forcing the EM-ist hand to commit “cognitive suicide” by self-refutation. Let me explain.

5) The only way we can interpret (ii*) that is consistent with the EM-ist position of denying M-beliefs etc., is to construe (ii*) as (iii*). But what (iii*) states is that a certain causal relationship exists between two physical events; i.e., a brain state and a vocalization of a certain noise, neither of which has any of the properties we customarily associate with the mental sphere of the propositional attitudes. It is important to emphasize that just because the vocalized noise resembles the English sentence ‘There are no M-beliefs’ we cannot conclude that in (iii*) it has the meaning which the familiar English sentence has. I insist that the EM-ist is not entitled to such a notion of meaning or at least that he has to show us how he earns this notion while denying the rest of the concepts that are logically linked to meaning. I maintain that he has no way of earning it and, therefore, he is not entitled to it. And if he is not entitled to it, then (iii*) stands as the only way we can interpret Bill’s (ii*). But so interpreted ‘There are no M-beliefs’ has no truth-value and, hence, it cannot be true. Yet the EM-ist point in voicing ‘There are no beliefs’ was to assert a true statement, which he cannot be interpreted as doing. Thus, Bill’s proposal saddles the EM-ist with “cognitive suicide” by self-refutation. But, perhaps, “cognitive suicide” by self-refutation is an inherent feature of the EM-ist position and Bill’s proposal is one way of highlighting this fact. This objection of “cognitive suicide” by self-refutation and one well publicized response to this argument will be the topic of my next posting.



I should apologize for altering your text, but I was trying to make what I thought to be your point stand out more sharply. Note that
(ii) There are no beliefs
involves no self-ref. inconsistency. There are possible worlds in which (ii) is true. Now you and I agree that (ii) is false in the actual world. But that is a matter of empirical fact, not of logic. The proposition expressed by (ii) -- EM -- is not self-refuting. Self-refutation comes in when the EM-ist tries to do something -- hence pragmatics -- something like assert (ii). That is why in the literature one speaks of pragmatic inconsistency.

As for the second part of your response, you really sliced 'em and diced 'em on that one! I agree. That little proposal, which occurs in the literature, was meant to 'bait' you.

Perhaps in need of further discussion is whether the pragmatic inconsistency spills over into out-and-out logical (non-pragmatic) inconsistency. That may have been an upshot of my post in which I try to show that if there are no beliefs, then there are no truths either.


No need to apologize, I know what your thinking was and said so.

I agree with you about the *proposition* (ii). It is false in the actual world and it is not self-refuting as it stands. For instance, if there were no minds in the world etc., then proposition (ii) would have been true.

But my original claim was about (i) not (ii). It is (i) that is self-refuting and cannot be thought by anyone. It is about (i) that I said that it is not pragmatically inconsistent, but it is also not akin to a straightforward contradictory belief such as "I believe that P and not-P". Hence I offered a third alternative which perhaps can be called something like "cognitive inconsistency" because If (i) is truly thought by someone then their belief-corpus becomes immediately inconsistent.

Now, regarding the question you raise of how do we link a sincere assertion of (ii) to the "cognitive inconsistency" (if you will) plaguing (i) is a good question and I am hoping to write my next piece on that. Your suggestion is that a sincere assertion of (ii) pragmatically presupposes (i) and, therefore, pragmatically commits the speaker to (i) and therefore to the cognitive inconsistency involved in (i). This position views the connection between *sincere assertion that P* and *belief that P* as a pragmatic relationship. For reasons that I shall go into in my next piece, this move is subject to a fairly strong defense by the EM-ist. Hence, I am exploring a tighter link between sincere assertion and belief-expression, a link which together with additional considerations will block the defense in question.



And sure enough I took the bait lock, stock and barrel. That's me!

"Perhaps in need of further discussion is whether the pragmatic inconsistency spills over into out-and-out logical (non-pragmatic) inconsistency."

Exactamo! That is what I am working on now. I gathered that your other post was leading in that direction.

Christmas will be a great time to discuss this. Perhaps, I shall make an effort.


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