Contentful and Inefficacious


Fields_of_Force

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

The quick and the dirty:

Representational contents are causally efficacious only if representational contents are properties. But not all representational contents are properties. So not all representational contents are causally efficacious.

The slow and the clean:

The bearers of causal efficacy are properties. Something causes something else in virtue of some of its properties and not others. The color of an object, say the redness of a Frisbee, may be inefficacious with respect to the bump on my head. But this does not mean it is inefficacious tout court, since the redness may have the power to make a bull charge.

We may not have to dig very deeply into the notion of content to find some serious challenges to claims of its efficacy. This suggestion is fleshed out further as follows.

The bearers of efficacy are properties. But not all contents are properties.

The key language of the discussion of efficacy involves phrases such as “causal relevance” and “in virtue of” all of which implicate properties as the bearers of causal efficacy. Consider a red Frisbee. It is in virtue of its mass and velocity that it may cause a bump on my head, and in virtue of its redness that it may cause a bull to charge. If mental events are causes, and causes in virtue of their contents, then contents will need to be properties.

However, more will need to be said about contents to justify assimilating them to property-talk. Consider the content of my belief that not all beer is carbonated. What is the content of this attitude? Plausibly, the proposition that not all beer is carbonated. But it is not clear that this is a property. The content of attitudes is supposed to reduce to the meanings of component representations, ala The Language of Thought Hypothesis. Plausibly, the components here would include a predicational representation x is carbonated, the meaning of which is, I suppose the property of being carbonated. So, in at least one instance, we’ve found a property among the contents, and further it is an efficacious property, but it is not clear that we will be able to do this in every case. Some representations will not have properties as their meanings, as in the cases of the mental analogues of quantifiers and singular terms. And some representations will have inefficacious properties as their meanings, as in the cases of the of the predicate x is outside of my light cone or, better yet, x is an inefficacious property.

Does the inefficacy of content violate Folk Psychology?

Let us grant that Folk Psychology acknowledges things with content and that these things figure into the causes of behavior and or bodily motions. But it is not entirely clear that this alone commits Folk Psychology to the efficacy of content. Consider the following attitudes: I believe that there will be a bake sale tomorrow and that I desire to go to tomorrow’s bake sale. The content of both of these attitudes is that there will be a bake sale tomorrow. For reasons given above, it is unclear that this content has effects on me. Additionally, we may wonder how anything happening tomorrow can affect something happening today. Further, note that there is a lot more to the Folk Psych story than the contents, the other half of the story contains the attitudes themselves. The bake sale may be tomorrow, but I have the desire today, and it is the desire itself that drives my behavior and whatnot. So, it is not clear that the sorts of considerations from Folk Psych, like, “Mandik opened the fridge ‘cuz he thought beer was near” are evidence that Folk Psych contains an intuition that contents are efficacious. It seems merely to indicate that attitudes are causes.

8 Responses to “Contentful and Inefficacious”

  1. Tad says:

    Pete - I think your discussion makes a kind of vehicle/content conflation. When we say thoughts are causally efficacious, we mean, I take it, that thought vehicles are causally efficacious. A desire for ice cream causes parlor-directed behavior in virtue of the desire’s properties, not in virtue of ice cream’s properties.

    So I’m puzzled by your putative example of a mental state that can be causally efficacious in virtue of one of its properties. Here is your discussion of the example:

    Consider the content of my belief that not all beer is carbonated. What is the content of this attitude? Plausibly, the proposition that not all beer is carbonated. But it is not clear that this is a property. The content of attitudes is supposed to reduce to the meanings of component representations, ala The Language of Thought Hypothesis. Plausibly, the components here would include a predicational representation x is carbonated, the meaning of which is, I suppose the property of being carbonated. So, in at least one instance, we’ve found a property among the contents, and further it is an efficacious property

    But the property of being carbonated is a property of what the belief is about (its content) not of the belief. Beliefs aren’t carbonated, and can’t cause anything in virtue of being carbonated. The question is, ‘Is *having* the content, in part, X IS CARBONATED, a causally efficacious property of the belief that beer is carbonated?’ If beliefs can only cause in virtue of their causally efficacious properties, and if beliefs can only cause in virtue of carrying the contents they carry, then beliefs are only causally efficacious if the answer to the question is ‘yes’. But finding a belief that is about a property is surely not enough to show that beliefs have causally efficacious properties. In fact, I don’t even see that it’s relevant.

    So I think your worries can be motivated much more easily, and that the considerations you bring up concerning beliefs about the future, or abstract entities, or fictional entities, aren’t necessary or relevant. The question is not whether beliefs can be about properties, but rather, is a belief’s being about properties (or anything else, for that matter) a causally efficacious property of the belief?

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad,

    I agree with pretty much everything you say here. In fact, it was my intention to draw pretty much the same conlcusions that you do. I’d like to add, here in this comment, that lots of philosophers think that content ought to be efficacious, so therefore there’s something surprising or unsettling about these conclusions.

    So what is it that we might disagree about?

    One thing that I would like to do with the above sorts of considerations is use them to argue against referential externalism, which you have expressed some sympathy for (and I, antipathy). Such an argument, however, would depend on the presmise that contents are efficacious. They would depend, for example, on it being the case that my belief that beer is in the frideg is efficacious with respect to the fact that it is about beer being int the fridge.

  3. Tad Zawidzki says:

    Hi Pete,

    Glad to be in such agreement with you. But I guess I haven’t seen your arguments against a belief’s being about X being a causally efficacious property of the belief. I don’t think the post to which this was a response contained such an argument. As far as I could tell, you pointed out that beliefs can only be causally efficacious in virtue of their properties, and then (irrelevantly, in my view) that beliefs are sometimes about properties, other times about non-properites, other times about uninstantiated properties. I guess I’d like an argument for the following conclusion: a belief’s being about X is not a causally efficacious property of the belief.

    Now you might opt for a kind of ’screening off’ argument, where you claim that anything a belief appears to do in virtue of its being about X is actually the effect of some other of its properties. But this would rule out all but basic-level physical properties as causally efficacious, I fear.

    There seems to be a premise or two lurking in the background here. I suppose someone could argue (like an internalist functionalist) that a belief’s being about X supervenes on its relations to other cognitive states in an individual’s cognitive economy. So if you don’t think beliefs are efficacious in virtue of their contents, you have to be assuming that either this can’t be content’s supervenience base, or that this internal relational property is no more suited for causal efficacy than referential relations.

    Another option is to be a referentialist, yet maintain that a belief’s being related to an external property/object/state/event can be a causally efficacious property. So your argument must involve a denial of this. Again, I’m not quite sure how the post to which these are a response makes this case.

    Finally, I’m sympathetic to one thing referential externalism accomplishes - objectivity. Whatever content is, people with radically different cognitive economies have to be able to disagree about the same thing. But maybe there are other ways to accomplish this. Anyway, I’m more sympathetic to socio-linguistic externalism.

    Actually, I think my views are probably very close to yours. I don’t think individuating mental states by (commonsense) content tracks their causally efficacious properties. But perhaps we disagree about this: I think something can be real and important without being causally efficacious. Content plays a regulative role as real and important as the causal role played by mental states’ causally efficacious properties, in my view.

    Does this garner more symapthy?

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad,

    thanks for pressing me on this. You raise a lot of important points. However, instead of commenting on all of them right now, let me just focus on one thing and tell me if this helps clarify things.

    You write:

    I guess I’d like an argument for the following conclusion: a belief’s being about X is not a causally efficacious property of the belief.

    And right here I think I can see where we might be talking past eachother a bit. I am not targetting whether being about X is a causally efficacious property of belief. I’m targetting whether content is a causally efficacious property of belief. For this to be a separate target, of course, there needs to be some way of distinguishing content from “being about X” and on a lot of views there is. When a belief is about X, on the views I have in mind, the content is simply X. The content is not the property of being about X. The content is what the belief is about.

    So, I leave it entirely open whether having a content is efficacious. Maybe you’re right that having a content is efficacious. But that, on some views, is a separate question from whether content is efficacious.

  5. Tad says:

    Hi Pete -

    Thanks for clearing that up. Your post makes me think of another question: does anyone espouse the view you target? I always thought the issue was whether a thought’s having content was a causally efficacious property of the thought. Who thinks that what the thought is about tout court, i.e., independently of the thought’s being about it, has direct causal effects on behavior? The only cases I can think of where that would be an issue are cases where the thought is about other thoughts, mental states, or bodily states.

    I acknowledge that people often ask whether content is causally efficacious. But I always thought that was a sloppy way of asking whether a thought’s having the content it has is causally efficacious.

  6. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad,

    How plausible do you find the following suggestion?

    Part of what has motivated various fans of narrow content is their committment to the idea that content itself should be causally efficacious.

  7. Tad says:

    Hi Pete -

    That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. Do you have in mind any particular example? It occurs to me that Fodor’s earlier self in ‘A Modal Argument for Narrow Content’ (J. Phil. 1991 - same issue as Dennett’s ‘Real Patterns’) might be making this error, but I don’t remember the details well enough.

  8. Pete Mandik says:

    Tad,

    I did have Fodor in mind but am not familiar with that ‘91 paper. I was thinking the ‘87 book, Psychosemantics.