Snakes on a Brain

Are there belief-dependent properties? More specifically, does having a belief that a is F suffice to confer any properties whatsoever to a? If you were a certain kind of idealist, you would think that such a belief sufficed to confer the property of being F to a’s. If you weren’t an idealist, but nonetheless bought into certain kinds of relational accounts about belief, then you would think that the belief in question at least conferred to a’s the property of being believed. As I’ve argued in “Unicorns and Monitoring Theories of Consciousness” there are no such properties and this spells bad news for various theories of consciousness. Here’s Dennett on belief dependent properties. And snakes:

(1) Many people (wrongly) believe that snakes are slimy.

This is a fact about people, but also about snakes. That is to say,

(2) Snakes are believed by many to be slimy.

This is a property that snakes have, and it is about as important a property as their scaliness. For instance, it is an important ecological fact about snakes that many people believe them to be slimy; if it were not so, snakes would certainly be more numerous in certain ecological niches than they are, for many people try to get rid of things they think to be slimy. The ecological relevance of this fact about snakes does not “reduce” to a conjunction of cases of particular snakes being mistakenly believed to be slimy by particular people; many a snake has met an untimely end (thanks to snake traps or poison, say) as a result of someone’s general belief about snakes, without ever having slithered into rapport with its killer. So the relation snakes bear to anyone who believes in general that snakes are slimy is a relation we have reason to want to express in our theories. So too is the relation any particular snake (in virtue of its snakehood) bears to such a believer. (From “Beyond Belief” in The Intentional Stance pp. 176-177.)

I guess I’m not seeing what it is about snakes an anti-relationalist about belief would be missing out on here. Suppose one were to affirm that

(3) Snakes get killed.


(4) People have snakes-are-slimy beliefs.

Couldn’t I cite causal relations between the entities described in (3) and (4) without also having to admit the truth of

(5) There exists such a property of snakes as being-believed-to-be-slimy


I don’t see why not. What hinges on this? Well, first and foremost, various theories of consciousness are going to be in trouble, like those that hold that being a conscious state is being a represented state and those that hold that being a phenomenal property is being a represented property. Also, I got to write something called “Snakes on a Brain”.

Fig 1. Samuel L. Jackson regards mutha-f$%&*#g snakes as existing independently of his mutha-f$%&*#g mind.

10 Responses to “Snakes on a Brain”

  1. I’ve never understood why we shouldn’t be radically liberal about properties — Cambridge properties, being-believed-by properties, being-in-a-universe-in-which-the-penny-in-my-hand-is-heads-up properties…. What does it cost?

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Eric, I’m actually pretty liberal about properties myself. I can accept, at least, the kinds of properties you mention. My beef against belief doesn’t hinge on my simply being conservative about properties. My beef hinges on specific kinds of properties, like so-called properties of inexistent objects. I think that things that don’t exist don’t have any properties. But we can have beliefs about things that don’t exist. So whatever having beliefs consists in, it can’t entail confering properties to so-called intentional objects.

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Eric, I should’ve said “aside from being-believed-by properties I can accept the kinds of properties you mention.” Hopefully now my comment seems slightly less paradoxical.

  4. Unicorns don’t have the property of being one-horned, because unicorns don’t exist? Why think there’s a metaphysical fact here, rather than a decision about how to use language?

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    My main answer is “for the sake of argument because I’m arguing against people who would share such an assumption” although there are lots of other philosophical arenas where I would be quite happy to concede there is no distinction between metaphysical facts and linguistic decisions. More specifically, I am interested in arguing against people who think (i) there are metaphysical facts of the matter about consciousness and (ii) those facts are determined by how things are represented.

  6. Tad says:

    Can’t you have belief-dependent properties without buying the relational theory of belief content? E.g., can’t you say essentially what Dennett’s saying in the following way: Snakes have the property of being typical causes of/reasons for/victims of (etc.) snakes-are-slimy-beliefs? That would give them belief-dependent properties (no such properties w/o beliefs) without tacitly endorsing a relational theory of belief content.

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad! I think you raise a pretty good point. As long as one thinks there are such things as beliefs and relational properties, even if one denies relational accounts of belief it will be very hard to deny that there are lots of senses of “belief-dependent properties” wherein there turn out to be belief-dependent properties. For another example, If snakes were on a plane with a bunch of snake believers, then snakes would have the belief-dependent property of being on the same plane as a bunch of believer’s beliefs.

    However, there is one particular sense of “belief-dependent property” that I’m particularly interested in arguing against, and that’s the sense where there being a belief about a thing suffices to confer properties to the thing.

  8. Tad says:

    Ah - Now I get your point. I should have read the post more carefully.

  9. Tad says:

    On 2nd or 3rd or 4th (I’ve lost count) thought…

    I’m still a little puzzled by your view. If you’re beef is with relationalism about belief content, then isn’t it the case that what you’re saying is trivial? Of course being a belief about a thing never suffices to confer properties to the thing. That’s because there are no beliefs about things. Or nothing has a belief about it. So I’m not sure what more work the objection to belief-dependent properties is doing, other than is already accomplished by a non-relational theory of belief individuation.

    Perhaps you’re just interested in showing that it’s not a weakness of your view that it implies that there are no belief-dependent properties, in the particular sense you’re interested in arguing against. Dennett’s quotation seems to identify important causal facts that are missed if snakes don’t have properties simply in virtue of having beliefs directed at them. So you’re concerned with defusing this possible objection to an obvious implication of your anti-relationalism -right?

    Still, even a non-relational theory of belief individuation does not rule out the possibility that tokening certain beliefs suffices for conferring properties on certain things. E.g., presumably the property of containing a belief-that-snakes-are-slimy is a relational property of certain minds (isn’t containment a relation?), that these minds’ tokening of this belief suffices to confer on them.

    In general, isn’t attacking the relational theory of belief individuation in order to defeat representationalist theories of consciousness taking a sledge hammer to an ant? It’s a background assumption of all parties to the debate that representation is a relation between vehicle and content. The question is whether this concept can be used to understand consciousness. Denying the existence of a representation relation incurs such burdens that most representationalists about consciousness would probably dismiss it - our arguments work on the assumption that beliefs should be individuated relationally, they might grant, secure in the view that this is relatively uncontroversial. It’s kind of like criticizing natural selection by claiming that species do not evolve. The latter is so uncontroversial, that Darwinists will happily grant that if things do not evolve then natural selection is false.

    Having said this, I should probably read the original paper in which you make the argument (I haven’t yet). Though controversial, your proposal is very thought provoking.

  10. Pete Mandik says:

    Tad, thanks for the remarks. I think that what I’m going to do is work up a separate post that addresses some of these kinds of concerns (and some related ones a few other people have raised. Stay tuned!