Today in the PhD course on Herman Cappelen and Josh Dever’s The Inessential Indexical we talked about an objection posed by Manolo García-Carpintero to the impersonal-action rationalizations that are discussed in chapter 3 of the book (section 3.3). Herman called this objection Reply 1*. Here I would like to propose a line of argument against Reply 1* that Herman and Josh (henceforth C&D) didn’t explore during the session. I will focus my attention on Nora’s scenario (pp. 36-37).
Here is C&D’s impersonal rationalization of Herman’s action of closing the door in Nora’s scenario:
Impersonal Action Rationalization 2
• Belief (B1): Nora is in danger.
• Desire (D1): Nora not be hurt.
• Belief (B2): If the door is closed, Nora will be safe.
• Action: Herman closes the door.
And here is Reply 1* (as I understand it): a full folk-psychological explanation of Herman’s action will attribute Herman a number of indexical beliefs, such B3, B4, and B5.
• B3: I am Herman
• B4: Nora is here
• B5: The door is there
Without the attribution of indexical beliefs like B3 – B5, a rationalization of Herman’s action is incomplete. One way to show that this is so is to consider a possible scenario in which Herman has the non-indexical states B1, D1 and B2 but lacks B3 – B5. In this situation, Herman wouldn’t close the door. Moreover, his not-closing-the-door behavior wouldn’t be irrational in the envisaged scenario. It would be perfectly rational for him to have the relevant non-indexical states while not performing the action of closing the door. Thus, the attribution of appropriate indexical mental states is necessary in order to get a proper rationalization of Herman’s action.
I think the intuition behind Reply 1* is compelling. Intuitively, some background indexical beliefs are necessary in order to fully explain Herman’s action in the original scenario. However, it is important to note that a variety of background non-indexical states also seems necessary to fully explain Herman’s action. Consider, for example, beliefs B6 – B8.
• B6: An ordinary door can be closed by a normal human-size agent
• B7: Closing Nora’s door will not put Nora in a greater danger
• B8: Superman is not going to kill anyone who tries to close a door
By mimicking Reply 1*, one can argue that the attribution of non-indexical beliefs such as B6 – B8 is necessary in order to get a proper rationalization of Herman’s action. Here is a copy-pasted version of the argument: without the attribution of B6 – B8, a rationalization of Herman’s action is incomplete. Consider a scenario in which Herman has the non-indexical states B1, D1, B2, has the indexical beliefs B3 – B5, but lacks B6 – B8. To make the scenario more vivid, suppose that Herman believes that closing the door will put Nora in a greater danger. In this situation, Herman wouldn’t close the door. Moreover, his not-closing-the-door behavior wouldn’t be irrational. It would be perfectly rational for him to have all the attributed mental states while not performing the action of closing the door.
What this line of argument seems to suggest is that the incompleteness of the original rationalization of Herman’s action doesn’t reveal anything special about indexicality. Many background states must be attributed to Herman in order to have a complete (folk-)psychological account of his action. Some of these states are indexical, others are not. Reply 1*, one might conclude, doesn’t show that there is an interesting psychological difference between indexical and non-indexical mental states. If this is right, essential indexicality can be resisted even if one finds Reply 1* compelling.
The advocate of essential indexicality will probably think that indexical beliefs such as B3 – B5 and non-indexical beliefs such as B6 – B8 are not on a par. The former, she may suggest, must be included in a proper rationalization of Herman’s action, whereas the latter belong to a background of unstated ceteris paribus conditions. But how does one draw the line between background and non-background mental state attributions? Wouldn’t be easier to save one step and say that B3 – B5 are also background mental states that are understood to be possessed by Herman ceteris paribus? I do not deny that the essential-indexicality theorist might find a satisfactory way to a draw principled distinction between the two kinds of mental states at stake. But I think it is fair to say that at this point of the discussion she has the burden of proof.
End of the original post
Comment by Josh Dever (July 4)
Thanks, David. This is helpful and an interesting line of thought.
I think a defender of IIC, and Reply 1*, might want to push a bit on the question of whether B6-B8 are really necessary in the way that (supposedly) B3-B5 are necessary. (You suggest trying to break the analogy by suggesting that B6-B8, unlike B3-B5, get swept into the background ceteris paribus conditions. That’s one option, but that’s already to concede that there is a need for the beliefs specified in B6-B8, while relocating that need in the shape of the explanatory scheme. I’m exploring instead the idea that they might not be needed at all.)
An obvious point to start with: we need to distinguish between not having a belief, and having the negation of that belief. Certainly if someone has the negation of B8, the belief that Superman will kill anyone who tried to close the door, then the presence of that belief would block rationalization of the action. So we need at least the absence of ~B8. The crucial question then is whether the mere absence is enough, or whether we need the replacement belief B8 as well.
(Side note: I think in general we need to be careful with the thought experiments being used in these considerations. When we try to consider someone who is acting absent the self-identity beliefs — without, for example, belief B3 — one easy way to envision the scenario is to imagine someone who is positively identity confused. So we can imagine Herman believing that he is Josh, and so not believing that he is Herman. But then we don’t know if changes in the imagined behavioral profile are consequences of the positive misidentification belief, or just of the absence of the identification belief. Even if we’re careful not to impute a misidentification belief (as Perry is in the Lingens case), the scenarios change a lot more than just the presence/absence switch on the identification belief. The scenarios always involve someone who is messed up in some way, and when we imaginatively develop such a scenario (think about the closest worlds in which there is someone like that), we may be imputing additional features that do the actual explanatory work in the changed behavioral profile.)
I think there’s a reasonable grip to the thought that one doesn’t need to believe that Superman won’t kill you for undertaking an action, in order reasonably to undertake it. Surely in normal cases the question of whether Superman will kill you for acting *just doesn’t come up*, and plays no role in your acting. If that’s right, then one doesn’t need B8.
(Another side note: it does feel like there’s an important difference here between not believing ~B8, and having the epistemically modalized belief that Superman might or might not kill you for acting. To have that modalized thought is to raise the issue of Superman’s intervention, and once the issue is raised, there’s some temptation to think that it then plays a role in determination of action in a way that it didn’t when it was simply not under consideration. This may mean that we really need models for deliberation that are tied into some kind of broadly dynamic semantics, in which contexts are keeping track of issues under consideration, and modals are partitioning or expanding the space of worlds.)
It’s clear that if we do allow that B8 is needed for action, we’re quickly going to place very high cognitive demands on acting. For any P you believe, we can consider the belief that it is not the case that if P, then dire consequences will result from undertaking action X. Then we’d end up needing to impose all of those beliefs, which means one additional “harmlessness” belief for everything you believe. (Plus a regress, as those beliefs create a need for further harmlessness beliefs.) It’s very hard to accept that rational action comes with such a high cognitive entry cost.
(Maybe we just have these beliefs tacitly? One line of thought will then have it that our very acting is the evidence that we have them tacitly — that a background functionalism will impute the beliefs to us via our acting. This is a line of concern in the de se case as well — that IIC can be defended by saying that anyone who acts ipso facto has the de se belief, since all that’s meant by a de se belief is one that is necessary for action. There’s a lot to say here, but broadly speaking I think it’s hard to see how an *interesting* version of IIC comes out of this approach.)
Of course, that there’s reason to reject the demands for B6-B8 isn’t enough to help out the defender of IIC. They also need that those reasons don’t extend as well to B3-B5. I won’t try to make that positive case here, but I do think that many people will be more gripped by the apparent positive need for B3-B5 than for the apparent positive need for B6-B8, and that it’s less obvious how a kind of over-expansiveness worry arises with the specific category of de se beliefs.
Comment by Manuel García-Carpintero (July 10)
Thanks for this, David – and to Josh for the very helpful reply. I’d like to take advantage of your post to try and explain better than I did during the course my take on Herman & Josh’s discussion of the agency argument.
I think of the agency-based arguments for the essential role of first-personal thoughts (the famous thought-experiments involving characters such as Perry the Messy Shopper, Lingens the amnesiac lost at Stanford Main Library, Castañeda amnesiac soldier reading his biography, etc) as modest, but nonetheless compelling causal experiments.
Imagine, for illustration, a situation in which there is a standing ball, B, which starts moving after being hit by another, A. We believe B’s movement to have been caused by A’s hit. I take this to be an ordinary application of Folk Physics, underwritten by (a folk version of) Mill’s Method of Difference. We compare the many imagined/perceived situations in which neither A’s hit nor B’s movement occurs, with the situation in which both the hit and the movement occur, and conclude that the hit makes the difference, thereby constituting the relevant causal factor of the movement: without it, the latter would not have occurred.
Similarly, we compare the previous condition in which the Messy Shopper lacks the first-personal thought – even though he may well have other de dicto and de re thoughts about himself, to the effect that he is making a mess –, all other relevant folk-psychological conditions also obtaining (in particular, the pro-attitude to prevent sugar-spilling in supermarkets being present), with the situation in which he comes to have it, and conclude that the first-personal thought is a required causal factor. Here, I mean first-personal thought in the theoretically neutral way we accepted during the first session: one that we are disposed to express by using sentences including ‘I’ and its variants.
I take the thought-experiments to make plausible the general point that a first-personal thought is always causally needed to get a folk-psychologically complete rationalization (which I take to be a form of belief/desire causal explanation) of behavior, by applying Mill’s Method of Difference together with the causal-explanatory features of Folk Psychology. Of course, we run the relevant causal experiments in our imagination; but this is neither here nor there, as we do the same with physical causal thought – after all, this is the way Galileo did many of his celebrated “experiments”.
Hence, I do not take these arguments to be in the business of defending Herman & Josh’s IIC, because they crucially involve quasi-empirical elements: who knows what sort of rationalizations are needed to account for the behavior of angels and Gods? I do not have a clue, nor interest in engaging in unconstrained speculation about such matters. I am only interested in defending a restricted version of IIC, not considered by C&D (cp. IIC2, p. 40): As a matter of deep folk-psychological necessity, indexical beliefs are needed in order for human beings, constituted as they are, to act.
Before moving on, a comment about the disparaging remarks Herman made on Folk Psychology: of course, some unrestricted principles that psychologists studying Folk Physics take to be part of it have been conclusively refuted. But, firstly, they have been refuted by very compelling new evidence that, together with alternative physical theories, physicist have put forward. In fact, that combination of evidence and theory also refuted much more theoretically sophisticated theories, which were already previous alternatives to some of the general principles of Folk Physics, such as Newtonian mechanics. And, secondly, in the same way that adequately restricted claims in Newtonian mechanics survive the refutation, many ever so modestly articulated claims of Folk Physics also survive the challenges; among them, the claim that, in scenarios like the one imagined above, the hit by A was a causal factor of B’s movement.
Now, regarding the first point, as far as I can see, the most that C&D offer as a positive theoretical alternative to the folk-psychological explanatory role of first-personal thought is the “Action Inventory Model”. It is fair to say that this falls widely short in comparison with the challenging impact on Folk Physics of, say, early XXth century physics. As C&D admit, it is not even clear that their model is really an alternative; for it may well be that their category of “actionable contents” essentially involves first-personal thoughts – and in fact this is what I take the arguments we are discussing to establish. Secondly, even if the Action Inventory Model, understood in the strictly third-personal way C&D want, provides some adequate rationalizations for some science-fiction agents (perhaps Gods or angels), it is still open that the folk-psychological explanations of human actions involving first-personal/indexical thoughts that the arguments we are considering posit are still the perfectly adequate ones to be had at the “personal” explanatory level.
I move now to discuss David’s interesting argument. In line with the previous interpretation of the arguments for the essentiality of indexicals, I’d like to emphasize that I assume that thoughts such as B3-B5 are thoughts that ordinary subjects for which rationalizations such as IAR2 are given (Herman in this case) do in fact have, and they do in fact play a causal role in eliciting the behavior to be accounted for. Epistemologists distinguish two kinds of rationalizations of beliefs, propositional justification and doxastic justification. The former applies to beliefs a subject may or may not have; the latter to beliefs the subject has actually formed. A similar distinction is usually made with respect to practical rationalization, here between justificatory reasons and explanatory reasons. We are interested in the second variety, involving what in the epistemic case is called the “basing” relation. It should be clear from what I said before that I assume that such relations are in part causal (cf. the articles on the “Epistemic Basing Relation” and on “Reasons for Action: Justification vs Explanation” in the SEP).
Of course, this does not mean that for a rationalization to explain/doxastically justify a behavior/belief, the subject must have consciously gone through the supporting states. For my present purposes, I think it suffices to note that it would be very easy to intuitively show that agents in such cases have the relevant first-personal thoughts, and that they play a causal role in their behavior. For instance, in the Herman case, we can imagine dialogues such as these in reaction to the impersonal explanation C&D provide, IAR2: “But how could Herman have closed the door, if it was not within his sight/if he was paralyzed – no, you are wrong, Herman had in fact a good visual perspective of the door from where he was/had already recovered from his paralysis and now he can walk normally”. These dialogues also suggest the other element in the full argument, which as I said I take to be an application of Mill’s Method of Difference: without the first-personal thoughts, the subject would not have acted the way he did. Note also that, in contrast with what Herman seemed to assume, for the argument we need not defend anything as strong as that visual experiences are themselves first-personal, etc. We only need to show that first-personal thoughts, in the pre-theoretical sense we are assuming, appear to be crucially involved in the explanation.
Now, what about David’s attempt at discrediting the argument with his “bad company” considerations? My reply would be essentially the one suggested by Josh, with a nod to recent debates surrounding dogmatism in epistemology. To put it bluntly, that some reason would undermine/defeat a rationalization does not entail that the rationalization must include a belief to the effect that the potentially undermining reason does not obtain. In the previous remarks, I have tried to add to what Josh says my take on why the status of B3-B5 is very different.