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The Presence of Mind

Daniel Hutto on Causation, Naturalism and Folk Psychology.

The current climate in contemporary philosophy of mind is one of disbelief. More surprisingly it is the reality of beliefs themselves which philosophers are more and more inclined to doubt. Several major contemporary thinkers do not regard beliefs as real entities. This threat to our everyday ‘folk psychological’ concepts of belief and desire may come as a surprise to many.

What is meant by ‘folk psychology’? Whatever the current philosophical disagreements about folk psychology’s exact definition the common denominator in all accounts is that folk psychology involves the explanation of our actions by appeal to beliefs and desires. Thus, if you explain your attending-the-meeting-late behaviour by saying, “I thought it was at 4.00 clock and I did honestly want to be here on time”, then you are engaging in a bit of folk psychology.

It is also generally accepted that these ascriptions of mental states are theoretical. In other words, it is always possible for them to be wrong. There are many psychological experiments which show that even in our own case we do not always give the correct belief ascription for our actions. And there are also more sophisticated philosophical arguments concerning the indeterminacy and holism of belief and desire ascriptions which also support this claim. The idea is that more than one coherent set of belief/desire ascriptions can always be provided to explain exactly the same behaviour – and if introspection is not infallible then there is no principled way of choosing between these various belief/desire sets of explanations. Those interested in examining this line of thinking should read the work of Stich, Dennett and Davidson.

Folk psychology is important as it underwrites much of what we hold to be true about ourselves not just in philosophy and ordinary discussion but also in psychology, the social sciences, our legal systems and moral discourse. The elimination of ‘folk psychology’ would radically change our view of ourselves; just as our view of the world changed when we stopped treating trees and stones as thinking agents. We could imagine (in fact I have been told about one such legal case) a situation where a person is completely relieved of responsibility for his acts because of his genetic make-up. What made me do it? It must be in my DNA, or the flashing of my motor neurons; but it wasn’t me.

Why should anyone wish to eliminate our talk of beliefs and desires? It is not just a way of dodging moral responsibility. Since about 1963 a movement including such philosophers as Feyerabend, Rorty, Patricia and Paul Churchland and Stephen Stich (and psychologists such as Skinner) have been arguing that any view which postulates mental entities such as beliefs and desires is as radically mistaken as the theories of alchemy and astrology. Their goal has been to show that our ordinary talk about ‘mental life’ (and all that follows from it) is but one amongst other competing theories in the domain of action explanation; and that it is in fact a bad one. Their suggestion is that there really are no such things as beliefs and desires.

The strongest ‘eliminativist’ argument is motivated by the desire not only to unify all theories with science, but also to improve the quality of human knowledge. Eliminativists see themselves as revisionaries who are clearing our lives of stagnant and superstitious bad theorising. The common sense theories we hold to be true are in fact out of step with the superior physical sciences – thus they should be eliminated. Since it is unlikely that beliefs and desires will reduce suitably to the entities of physics we must do away with beliefs and desires if we wish to speak truly about the causes of behaviour.

Stich offers a more sophisticated argument for the elimination of folk psychology. He argues that whenever we assign content to someone’s (or some beast’s) beliefs and desires in order to explain their behaviour we are engaging in a bit of ‘domestic anthropology’. ‘Content’ here just means what the belief is about; i.e. “The chair in the corner”, “Socrates’ hemlock”, etc. When describing what others believe and desire we are making sense of them by ascribing beliefs which we might have; thus we can only employ our folk psychology on subjects who are similar to ourselves. But a serious psychology would need to make sense of exotic subjects as well, such as children, animals, confused people, etc. Thus, we should concern ourselves with the internal causes of behaviour when attempting a serious psychology as these are not parochial. And if folk psychology is a form of domestic anthropology then it is not likely that the internal causes of our behaviour and our beliefs will turn out to be the same things. And if they do not, then beliefs will slowly be removed from our explanations of behaviour.

Why shouldn’t beliefs turn out to be the internal causes of our behaviour? Well as Stich points out they are likely to be identified in different, sometimes conflicting, ways. For example, consider his case of a contemporary of ours and, say, a Victorian chap who are both associated, by description alone, with two different politicians of their own times. Both know of their politician as “Ike” and they are acquainted with exactly the same limited details about the habits, tastes and character of these men. So perfect is the match in descriptions that both our man and the Victorian fellow will answer in exactly the same way to any question about “Ike”. If that is the case then our serious psychology would and should say that both men believe the same thing. But we, as good folk psychologists, would say “Rubbish”. Of course they don’t believe the same thing because their beliefs are about men of completely different historical periods (there are plenty more examples like these in the literature, cf. Putnam, Burge, Kripke).

But times and places are not the type of things that we find inside one’s skin. Thus, if we avail ourselves of such things when identifying the content of our beliefs while doing folk psychology, then we are not concerned principally with the internal causes of behaviour while doing folk psychology. Therefore, argues Stich, such things as beliefs and desires, which make use of these external features of the world, have no business in a serious psychology. The implication is, of course, that a serious psychology will eventually replace our folk psychology even in our ordinary speech.

To avoid this consequence some philosophers have held that reasons, that is, beliefs and desires, are not causes. Ironically, that is the eliminativist conclusion, but unlike the eliminativists these philosophers also hold that whether science recognises beliefs and desires as real or not just doesn’t matter and could never really matter to us.

But whether or not it is true that it wouldn’t matter to us is beside the point. Surely we want our reasons to be causes – especially if cause is to mean, as it does in the OED, “what produces an effect”. Why did you hit that man? I thought he was poking fun at me (and I wanted to teach him a lesson). Why did you eat that cake? I wanted some chocolate (and I thought the icing was chocolate). These are paradigms of causal explanations if, by causal, we mean “what made something happen”. They are not paradigms of scientifically respectable causal explanations, mechanistically conceived.

So what would it be like if reasons were not causal? Given the definition of cause (not my definition) we would have to answer questions such as “What made you do that?” by forever saying – certainly not for a reason. For those types of question are, by definition, causal questions. It won’t do to change the ‘what’ to a ‘why’ if the ‘why’ is asking the same type of question. Let’s not be thwarted by surface grammar. The fact that we can give more than one answer to these types of question does not make them any less causal in nature. Consider these statements:

(1) A chemical imbalance in his brain has depressed him.

(2) The belief that his attentions were rejected has depressed him.

(3) Wilder Penfield’s (a psychologist) firing of his neurons for him has depressed him.

Why should we think that only the second description is non-causal? Surely this would be arbitrary and desperate. We should not seek to protect reasons by claiming that they are noncausal; to do so would be to completely undermine explanations in terms of reasons.

That we talk in this way and give these types of explanations is, I think, beyond dispute. Consider a statement which is amenable to the substitution of cause for reason.

(4) I have (reason/cause) to believe.

Some philosophers claim that a wider analysis will reveal cases which do not lend themselves to this type of description. We might find cases in which the words are not interchangeable such as in the expressions:

(5) Give me one good (reason/cause).

But even if this is true, even if there are exceptions to this common usage, it does not change the fact that our explanations in terms of beliefs and desires are casual in just the way previously described. One has but to examine the way in which the terms are used in these cases. To argue against one ordinary piece of discourse by having located a handful of others is to forego description and to attempt a form of ordinary language legislation.

What’s more, viewing reasons as causes is the only way to save our belief/desire explanations from the charge of being explanatory miracles and the only way to give them some hope of a respectable account of their origin.

We are left with a quandary: be true to our selves or our science. Never the twain shall meet. Some, the scientific realists, choose the latter path. Others, those who find the very suggestion of eliminating of what is so obviously real, choose the former. But I find both responses deeply unsatisfactory. Surely we can do better than this.

We must explain how the following three claims can all be true together and yet harmless if we are to overcome the arguments of the eliminativists and yet maintain that reasons are causes.

Claim (i): Beliefs and desires will likely not appear as entities at the level of physics (Paul Churchland’s argument).

Claim (ii): Beliefs require a principled way of tying external features of the world to the internal causes of behaviour (Stich’s argument).

Claim (iii): Explanations in terms of beliefs and desires are causal explanations. (The Ordinary Language argument as I have construed it).

Let’s look at claim (i). Why should beliefs and desires show up at the level of physics? No one should expect to see them there. This would be like doing algebra badly. It is analogous to reducing only one side of the equation. The price of giving exact physical definitions of our movements is that we no longer enter into the picture. The only way to get these predictively exact definitions is to reduce, on both sides, to a purely physical vocabulary (i.e in terms of electrons, protons, etc.). Thus it is legitimate to ask whose actions will be uniquely predicted. Ours? We, as agents, don’t appear in the matter at all.

Fear not. This is also true of geology and meteorology (and a host of other respectable sciences as well). The only way to exactly predict the motions of a lightning bolt is to sacrifice talk of it as a ‘lightning bolt’ altogether. And if that’s correct physics can never, even in principle, predict our (or the lightning bolt’s) actions. Thus physics does not compete with folk psychology. Lots of ontologically real objects (tables, chairs, rocks, etc.) don’t exist in the language of mature physics. We don’t exorcise their causal powers because of it.

But the scientific realist does not want to admit that chairs and tables really exist either. For Churchland’s dream is that of “a society whose ‘ordinary’ ‘common sense’ conception of reality is the conception embodied in modern physical theory.” (SRPM, p.28). Therefore “these people do not sit on the beach and listen to the steady roar of the pounding surf. They sit on the beach and listen to the aperiodic atmospheric compression waves produced as the coherent energy of the ocean waves is audibly redistributed in the chaotic turbulence of the shallows” (SRPM, p.29). That is because the second description is what our most advanced physics tells us is really going on.

But one can concede to the scientific realist that nothing exists other than entities described by a mature physics without reducing all scientific explanation to talk of such entities alone. To do so would be to misunderstand the nature of scientific method and explanation. I am not alone in believing that reductionism is a misguided programme on pragmatic grounds. A good exposition of this line of thinking can be found in Van Fraassen’s The Scientific Image.

Such non-reductive explanation is the very backbone of biological science. It is not that biologists deny that the “underlying physical processes are really all there is”, it is just that they do not limit their explanations to that area of discourse alone. For as John Maynard-Smith, an eminent biologist, tells us, biologists “ask not only how it works but what it is for. This sharply distinguishes biology from physics and chemistry” (EIB, p.65). Thus “an explanation in terms of variation and selection is just as much (or little) causal as one in terms of nerve impulses or chemical reactions: it is only the time scale is longer”. (EIB, p.66)

Now for Claim (ii): If we wish to maintain the view that beliefs are internal causes we must somehow give a principled account of the fact that the content of the beliefs can be about external features of the world. This was Stich’s objection to folk psychology; he didn’t think a principled account along these lines was possible.

I think such an account is possible if we describe belief content in such a way to take account of evolutionary pressures of our environment, both biological and cultural. For if we understand ourselves as a part of nature, or society, our belief contents can be tied down, in a principled manner, to our particular environments. Thus beliefs are about states of affairs which lie outside of us. But we can say which features of the world they are supposed to or meant to be about by examining the subject’s evolutionary history. They are ‘designed’ in this fashion because they can help us, or helped our ancestors, to survive long enough to reproduce. This is similar to the explanation of beliefs and desires that Dretske sketches in his pioneering work Explaining Behaviour: Reasons in a World of Causes.

Examine this simple case of the biological evolution of a belief in stickleback (a kind of fish) from Dretske (the book is filled with such examples):

“The fish exploit rather crude indicators (a bright red underside, for instance) to recognize one another. Males use the bright red underside to recognize male intruders, females use it to identify interested males. The fish react similarly to a variety of objects of similar colouration: painted pieces of wood elicit aggressive behaviour in the males and sexual interest in the females. But in the fish’s natural habitat the correlation is good enough. By and large, only stickleback have this colouration.” (Dretske, EB, p. 103)

Thus it is possible to fool a stickleback by changing its natural environment because its belief is meant to be about external objects in its home. The same can be said of our Victorian friend, of Stich’s example, and his beliefs about ‘Ike’. We must take into account his cultural and social background if we wish to understand what his beliefs are meant to be about. But an examination of his current environment can tell us what his beliefs are about now. If we transported this fellow to our century and asked him some questions about ‘Ike’ we could, given what we know, predict his responses with ease. We can expect him to have certain beliefs given his background. For example, if we told him the current date and told him also that ‘Ike’ (who, ex hypothesi, we would describe just as he does) died only a few years ago he would likely either believe ‘Ike’ lived an exceptionally long time or that we were lying. If he were very clever he might believe that we were talking about a different ‘Ike’. All this ‘folk psychology’ is possible because we know that his belief should and would be about an ‘Ike’ of the Victorian era if we had not altered his ‘environment’.

Consider another slightly less fanciful case, an episode of Columbo, wherein the police inspector (call him Bob) who murdered his wife is intent on placing the blame on a known burglar (let’s call him Fat Sam). Columbo suspects this and realises that for the inspector’s plan to work Bob must plant some of his wife’s things in Fat Sam’s flat. To thwart his twisted superior’s plans Columbo inserts a false address into Fat Sam’s police file for Bob to find. The new address in the file is in fact the address of Columbo’s new flat – but the inspector, believing it to be Fat Sam’s flat plants one of his wife’s necklaces there. All is resolved in the end because, as Columbo planned, only the killer could have left the necklace in the flat, and only Bob believed that Fat Sam lived at that address. Columbo solved his mystery and exonerated Fat Sam but left us with greater mysteries concerning beliefs.

How are we to describe the inspector’s beliefs? Are they about Columbo’s flat or are they about Fat Sam’s flat?

For instance, if the inspector’s partner in crime were to ask him “Who lives in the flat where the necklace is to be planted?” I think we would agree that (6) would be an honest description of the content of the inspector’s belief.

(6) The necklace is to be planted in Fat Sam’s flat.

But we can also imagine Columbo explaining the situation to his fellow police officers to prepare them for the arrest. When asked where the inspector plans to plant the necklace Columbo would be accurate, from this point of view, in saying the inspector believes that:

(7) The necklace is to be planted in my (Columbo’s) flat.

Which is it? This seems like a dreadful problem (to some like Stich) if we fail to consider the historical (and thus environmental) background of the inspector. Obviously his belief is meant to be about Fat Sam’s flat – that’s what the file said. That’s what he was trying to find out. It is because of Columbo’s interference with Bob’s environment that the error is generated. What’s more it is Columbo’s knowledge of these environmental changes which allows him to accurately predict this error (think of the analogy with sticklebacks and the painted bits of wood). On this account we can warrant saying of the inspector that he has the mistaken belief that Columbo’s flat is Fat Sam’s flat.

If this just seems like common sense to you – so much the better. It’s meant to. So if taking stock of our natural (or original) habitat is part of our evolutionary science then ‘folk psychology’ is not any less serious for taking account of external features of the world (such as time and place). In fact it is all the stronger for it. If this is folk psychology let’s have more of it.

Naturally, many of our beliefs are more sophisticated and complex than those of a stickleback; especially as we have a language. But the basic story is the same for sensory beliefs. Different rules apply to language-using animals, but that is to be expected as the evolution of language is a sophisticated cultural development.

Cultural evolution may be more complex than biological evolution but both are types of evolutionary process. Thus, by taking into account the historical environments of an agent (human or otherwise) we can make principled claims about its likely beliefs, even to the point of predicting its mistakes accurately.

And finally, having hopefully defused the dangers of drawing false conclusions from the truth of claims (i) and (ii) let’s turn our attention to how reasons are to be considered causes, since I have claimed this is exactly what our ordinary language demand they be.

Beliefs and desires, taken together (i.e. reasons) are not simply causes – they are historical causal explanations. They are not explanations given by citing a single causal event but explanations which cite a historical series of causes. And they are explanations suited to make mention of purposes.

An organism’s reason or purpose need not always be defined in terms of beliefs and desires. The reason for behaviour may, in some cases, be a mere reflexive or instinctive reaction. Think of why a virus behaves as it does. It self-replicates to survive.

This is likely true of some of our behaviour. But nothing prevents a reason in the light of beliefs and desires from being the cause of purposeful behaviour.

This is an insight that Aristotle had when philosophy was still young; an insight which deserves our serious attention if we hope to dispel the current disbelief in beliefs while maintaining a view of ourselves which is consistent with our science.

Aristotle was comfortable with the idea of there being different types of causal explanation. In fact, he is famous for having described four separate types: efficient, formal, material and final. We concentrate our attention on one type or the other depending upon which type of question we wish to answer. This allows us to ask many different, important, and explanatorily useful questions.

Why did the chicken cross the road? We could answer formally that it is in the nature of chickens as a species to cross roads. Or we could answer materially and give an account the firing of neurons in the chicken’s brain. We could even answer efficiently and say the features of the chicken’s individual genetic background were responsible. But most interestingly, we could answer finally by citing the chicken’s purpose (if it had one). It is important to bear in mind that these are all causal answers.

Aristotle’s account was considered to be highly metaphysical (the account actually appears in his Metaphysics from which the term is derived), and metaphysics is highly out of fashion nowadays, but his account can easily be revived within an evolutionary framework which is not only non-metaphysical but scientifically respectable in its own right.

Goals can be respectably grounded if they are taken to be ultimately developed by natural selection and evolutionary forces. To discover the goal or purposes of a subject we must take stock of the creature’s environment, instincts, and/or training. This is what we do both in the evolutionary sciences and in our folk psychology. It justifies speaking of organisms as organisms in our predictions rather than reducing everything to physics as the scientific realist advocates. This type of account of beliefs and desires should give us the tools to solve some long standing philosophical problems. And it offers these tools in a framework which is not at odds with science.

What’s more it is an account which fits perfectly with the response that was given to to claim (ii). Remember Stich’s objection to folk psychology was that it needed to make use of external features of our environment to identify our beliefs. Thus, since solipsism is discredited and we must make sense of our beliefs as they relate to the external world around us – it would seem that an evolutionary account is a good bet. We can state a general purpose, that being survival, to which all behaviour can be, directly or indirectly, related. I say again, this would provide us with a principled science which takes organisms as individuals into account. It is an account which promises answers not only to the freewill and mind/body problems, but which is also in accord with our ordinary descriptions.

These remarks are very sketchy – and perhaps the main question will be whether or not all behaviour can be, directly or indirectly, tied to the goal of survival. But I think we are entitled to this claim if we can agree that cultural evolution, however complex it is, has general survival value.

Still some may say, “Very well, for simple creatures, and the simpler the better, it is easy to see how their immediate behaviour is related to their daily survival but surely it is different with us.” Naturally, it is. That is why I have been stressing cultural evolution as well as biological evolution throughout. We don’t have to be ‘hard-wired’ instinctively to live in a particular environment; our behaviour is flexible because we can take decisions based on a wealth of accumulated knowledge from our ancestors which is passed on non-genetically. That this is a good survival strategy is evidenced by our success as a species.

Animals that develop socially, as we do, have better survival odds. And survival within a society is after all a form of survival; one which helps us survive as individuals and, in turn, allows us to pass on our genes.

Social development can generate behaviour which is not always directly or immediately related to survival. But so what? That may be the price of cultural evolution. And within a general evolutionary framework, an account can easily be given of behaviour which is not obviously survival related. Cultural evolution as an evolutionary strategy, though complex, can been seen to have obvious survival value.

So in the case of simple creatures it may be obvious why their actions are survival-related, but it will be far less obvious in the case of creatures involved in some form of cultural evolution. This is as it should be.

I do not wish this ‘evolutionary’ account of folk psychology to be misconstrued as attempt to reduce all explanations of behaviour to a simple formula. It is not that we only act to survive, at least not obviously. Far from it, this type of account is intended to provide a general but scientifically respectable framework in which the work of anthropologists and philosophers of a descriptive bent can be carried out. It is for these reasons that I hold the evolutionary account of belief to be the natural choice. We should have the presence of mind to accept it rather than deny the reality of beliefs and desires. If the argument of this paper is correct then the serious psychology of the eliminativists is only serious in its limitations.

© J.D.D. Hutto 1991

Paul Churchland 1987 Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind (C.U.P.)
Fred Dretske 1988. Explaining Behaviour : Reasons in a World of Causes. (MIT Press)
John Maynard-Smith 1990. Explanation in Biology in Explanation and its Limits (ed. Knowles) (C.U.P.)
Stephen Stich 1983. From Cognitive Science to Folk Psychology (MIT Press)
Van Fraassen 1980. The Scientific Image (Clarendon Press).

Daniel Hutto is a graduate tutor in philosophy at the University of York.

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