PHIL2206 Philosophy of Mind
Week 12: Aboutness and Content

Aboutness

  1. Some mental phenomena have aboutness - they are about some thing or things. My belief that Wagga Wagga is fabulous, for example, is about Wagga Wagga. We might also say that my belief has directedness - that it is directed toward Wagga Wagga. Also, that it is an intentional state, or that it has intentionality.
  2. Here are some other mental phenomena that have aboutness:
  3. Some argue that all mental phenomena have aboutness. Here are some phenomena which are a problem for this idea: pains, itches, coldness.
  4. Some argue that only mental phenomena have aboutness. Here are some phenomena which are a problem for this idea: maps, books.

    To deal with these cases we might say that maps and books have merely derived aboutness, and clarify the claim to be this: that only mental phenomena have non-derived aboutness.

  5. Some combine these two claims and argue that all and only mental phenomena have aboutness. Their slogan: Intentionality is the mark of the mental.
  6. Kim seems to think that if a mental phenomenon m is about thing t then m means t. I find that hard to swallow.

Content

  1. Some mental phenomena have content. My belief that Wagga Wagga is fabulous, for example, has the content that Wagga Wagga is fabulous.
  2. What kind of a thing is a content? It is commonly said to be a proposition - in this case, the proposition that Wagga Wagga is fabulous.
  3. It is also said that my belief that Wagga Wagga is fabulous is a propositional attitude - it involves me having the attitude of belief to the proposition that Wagga Wagga is fabulous.
  4. I have the same attitude to different propositions:
  5. I have different attitudes to the same proposition:
  6. Here are some other propositional attitudes: hope, desire, fear, doubt, pathos.
  7. Kim seems to think that if a mental phenomenon m has the content p then m means p. I find that hard to swallow.
  8. A lot of people think that if a mental phenomenon m has content then m represents the world to be a certain way. I find that hard to swallow.

Some questions

  1. Question. How does a mental phenomenon get to be about something, especially if that something is way out there in the world? (Consider my belief that Proxima Centauri is the second closest star to Earth.)
  2. Question. Suppose a mental phenomenon is about thing t. Why is it about t, and not some other thing t'?
  3. Question. Suppose a mental phenomenon has content p. Why does it have content p, and not some other content p'?

Interpretation

  1. How do we interpret someone (or some thing)? That is, how do we figure out what attitudes it has to which propositions - what it believes, desires, hopes, etc.?
  2. It seems that we do so by observing its behaviour. If the thing has a language, then a lot of the behaviour that we observe will be linguistic behaviour, but this is still behaviour.
  3. Suppose we observe that a thing x behaves in way b (e.g. utters 'Gavagai') iff condition c obtains (e.g. there is a rabbit nearby). Then whenever x behaves in way b we might naturally attribute to it the belief that c obtains (e.g. whenever x utters 'Gavagai' we attribute to it the belief that there is a rabbit nearby). This seems to be the way we would figure out what x believes.
  4. Someone who is a realist about beliefs (and other propositional attitudes) takes this process to be one in which we figure out what x antecedently believes. There is a fact of the matter about what x believes, independent of our attempts to interpret x. This is content realism.
  5. Here is an alternative idea: Interpretation is constitutive of belief. For x to believe p is for our best interpretation to view x as believing p:

    For x to believe p is for the claim that x believes p to be part of the best interpretive scheme of x's total system of propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, etc.). There is no further fact of the matter about whether or not x believes p.

    (This can be generalized to all propositional attitudes.)

  6. But there are some concerns for this idea:

A correlational approach

  1. Here is another approach:

    A belief has content p iff beliefs of that kind occur iff p is true.

  2. Does this attribute beliefs to a thermometer? Although states of a certain kind occur in the thermometer iff it is 20C outside, these states need not be beliefs. (But they could be.)
  3. Some concerns:

A teleological approach

  1. Here is another approach, a teleological approach:

    A belief has content p iff it is the function of beliefs of that kind to occur iff p is true.

Wide content

  1. I believe that water is wet. That is, I have a belief with the content that water is wet.
  2. It has been argued that the content of this belief is not determined by the state of my brain. That is, it is possible to be in the same brain state and yet not have a belief with this content. That is, my belief has wide or broad content. (Strictly speaking we should say that the belief has its content widely (or broadly)).
  3. Here is an argument (due to Putnam). Imagine twin Earth, a planet exactly like Earth, except that on twin Earth the watery stuff is XYZ and not H2O. Twin Wylie and I are in exactly the same brain state, but whereas I have a belief about H2O, that it is wet, twin Wylie does not. He has a belief about XYZ, that it is wet, and XYZ is not water. I believe that water is wet, he does not; he believes that twater is wet, I do not. We are in the same brain state, and yet our beliefs have different contents.
  4. According to content externalism most of our beliefs, if not all, have wide content (and so too for our other propositional attitudes).
  5. Here is one way to argue this. Peter is a member of our speech community. He has inflammation of the bones. He thinks that 'arthritis' means inflammation of the bones. So he complains: 'I have arthritis'. But 'arthritis' actually means inflammation of the joints. Peter has expressed a false belief that he has arthritis. Now consider a counterfactual situation, exactly like this one except that 'arthritis' means inflammation of the joints. Now when Peter complains, 'I have arthritis', he expresses a true belief. Which belief? Not the belief that he has arthritis, but the belief that he has tharthritis, where 'tharthritis' means inflammation of the bones. What this shows is that the content of the belief that Peter expresses depends not just upon the state of his brain, but also the practices of his linguistic community. We can give a similar example using any word which can be incompletely understood, which includes pretty much every word. In fact, many words are not completely understood.

    Possible reply: he expresses the same belief in each case, the true belief that he has inflammation of the bones.

  6. Are there any beliefs whose content is not wide? Here is a suggestion: my belief that I am in pain. But this seems also to have wide content: my doppleganger on twin Earth might be in the same brain state, yet not believe that I am in pain (he believes that he is in pain).
  7. Suppose that a belief has wide content. Does this mean that the belief is not inside the head?

    There are at least two things we might say:

    1. No, my belief that water is wet is not inside my head. It contains water as a constituent (water, the stuff, is part of my belief). So too, my belief that the universe is very large contains the universe as a constituent (the universe is part of my belief)(is this paradoxical?).
    2. Yes, my belief that water is wet is inside my head, but in order to specify what kind of belief it is we need to refer to water, which is outside my head. Analogy: My mass is 70kg; my mass is 'inside' my body, but in order to specify which mass it is we refer to the standard kilogram, which is an object outside my body. What is wide about my belief is the way it is specified, not the belief itself. We should talk about wide attributions of beliefs, rather than wide beliefs.

      But does this account for the water/twater case? Twin Wylie does not believe that water is wet - he believes that twater is wet. Why doesn't the first wide attribution work? Shouldn't it succeed in specifying the same internal state?

Narrow content

  1. Suppose we agree that my belief about water and twin Wylie's belief about twater have different contents, so that we believe different things. Is there, nevetheless, a sense in which we believe the same thing? Perhaps our beliefs share a different kind of content, narrow content, which is determined by the state of our brains?
  2. Here are some considerations in support of this:
    1. We are interested in explaining behaviour; it makes no difference to explaining my behaviour and twin Wylie's behaviour whether our beliefs are about water or about twater. What matters is something that the two beliefs have in common. It would be surprising if we didn't already talk about that thing.
    2. Moreover, all that seems to matter when it comes to explaining behaviour is the state of our brains - that's what matters causally. So we'd expect this common thing to be determined by the state our brains.

      But: We do not want to explain behaviours such as movement of hands, but actions such as the boiling of water. To explain why someone boiled water it makes a difference whether their belief is about water or twater. We need wide content to explain wide behaviour.

    3. We take ourselves to have priveleged access to the content of our beliefs: we can just look inside and see. But I can't just look inside and see whether my belief is about water rather than twater. So that kind of content is not something that I have priveleged access to. It must be some other kind of content, one that is determined by the state of my brain.