Attributing Mental States

Friday I attended James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series. He was concerned with answering the question of how people are able to ascribe various mental states to themselves. In particular he was interested in critiquing the account offered by Bermudez and developing an alternative account inspired by P.F. Strawson.

The standard account has it that we first come to see that we have certain mental states like belief, pain, etc and that these result in various behaviors (e.g. utterances as well as other behavior). We then notice that other people engage in these kinds of behaviors and then reason by analogy that since they exhibit behaviors like the ones that I do when I have a, say, pain these people must also be in pain. Thus the standard account has that we start with ascribing mental states to ourselves (I am in pain) and then use that ability to ascribe mental states to others (Doug is in pain).

Bermudez criticizes the standard account using a posteriori evidence from developmental psychology. In particular Bermudez uses data from the phenomenon of joint attention. In joint attention you have two observers each attending to some object, say a piece of fruit, and each aware that the other one is attending the same object. Bermudez argues that in order to be able to do this (and infants do it as early as 9 months old) the child must be representing the mother as seeing the object and attending to it. This, in turn, must mean that the child represents the mother under a psychological sortal; that is as seeing x and attending to x. This together with other evidence that suggests that the child does not at this point attribute mental states to itself  shows that the standard account can’t be right. Bermudez then argues that the best explanation of what is going on here is that the ability to attribute mental states to others constitutes the ability to attribute mental states to oneself.

Dow wanted to criticize Bermudez for using an a posteriori argument to establish something like logical dependence. Whatever that turns out to mean Dow’s basic concern was to develop the Strawsonian alternative and to argue that none of Bermudez’s arguments decide between his account and the new alternative. In short the Strawsonian alternative postulates that the child simply has the ability to pick out other persons. ‘Person’ here is used in the Strawsonian sense as of something which has both mental and physical attributes. Dow claims that in representing the mother as a person the child is neither representing their mother under any kind of sortal. They simply attend to the eye and where it is focused. This Strawsonian view is what Dow called a ‘no-priority’ view in that it holds that there is a logical dependance (whatever that is) between self and other ascriptions (at the very least it seems to mean that in order to have the one ability one must also have the other ability (and vice versa?) but that neither one develops before the other.

We were promised a transcendental argument that was supposed to establish this but we ran out of time.

Over drinks I had an interesting discussion with Josh Dulberger who was proposing a novel take on the simulation theory/theory theory debate. Traditionally these are thought to be opposed but Josh suggested that they need not be. He thought that the simulation might be used to generate data for the theory one employs of other people and their mental states. This is an interesting idea. He then suggested that if one thought this then one might be able to argue that the function of consciousness lay in enriching the data that one gets. Intuitively the idea is that consciousness gives one better access to ones own mental states and so boosts the amount of data that one has for one’s theory thus making the theory richer. He thought this was nice since one could adopt David Rosenthal’s higher-order thought theory of consciousness and then argue that Rosenthal is wrong that there is no function of consciousness using his own theory against him, so to speak. But there is a problem here. In Rosenthal’s account there must have been a time when there were people who were able to infer what mental states they were in from observing their own behavior (which includes verbal utterances). But since these people are not able to have these higher-order thoughts in a way that seems unmediated by inference they do not have conscious mental states yet. As they get better and better and attributing these kinds of states to themselves they get to the point at which these attributions no longer seem to be mediated by inference at which point they come to have conscious mental states. At the point just before they have conscious mental states their access to their unconscious mental states is just as good as it will be when they do have conscious mental states. They will have what seems to them to be a different kind of access to their mental states but they really just have the same access as before (only now it seems to them to be immediate and non-inferential). If this is right then Rosenthal’s account ia not committed to Dulberger’s claim that consciousness produces more data. Our Rosenthalian ancestors have all of the same data that we do even though all of their mental states are unconscious.

On an interesting side note Daniel Shargel pointed out an interesting difficulty for Rosenthal in this story. The Rosenthalian ancestors do not have any conscious mental states. At some point they acquire the appropriate concepts which enables them to have higher-order thoughts attributing (theoretical) mental states to themselves. On Rosenthal’s account the fact that these higher-order thoughts are mediated by inference means that they do not result in the target states becoming conscious. It is only once the higher-order thoughts are seemingly unmediated by inference that we get consciousness. But Shargel argues that when these Rosenthalians have their very first higher-order thought, whether mediated by inference or not, it will not seem to them to be so mediated since nothing seems any way to them (all of their mental states are unconscious). Shargel suggested that Rosenthal response to this was that the inference needs to be the product of some internal mental state. Since the Rosenthalians always make inferences based on external perceptions the higher-order thoughts they have are not of the right kind. I wonder if there is some other response he can give, but this is already too long!


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