Ersatz Robots

Philosophy of Mind and Graduate Philosophy Study

The Paper I’m Presenting at UMSL This Coming Sunday

This coming Sunday (April 10th), I’m presenting at the UMSL Philosopher’s Forum on philosophy of mind. Specifically, I’m presenting my response to Donald Davidson’s “Knowing One’s Own Mind.” While I’m not 100% done tweaking the paper for presentation, I do have a nearly complete working draft I’d like to share with everyone to see if I can get any feedback before presenting at the conference. Paper after the jump.

Donald Davidson, The Hulk, and Evil Zeta Radiation

By: Galen Mitchell


Donald Davidson’s “Knowing One’s Own Mind” deals with a variety of issues relating to mental content; all of which are important to those of us interested in philosophy of mind and its progress. For the purposes of this paper, these issues will be placed into three main categories: questions concerning how we know our mental content; questions concerning where mental content exists; and questions concerning how we ought to view the mind and its content in general. To say that these different questions are related is an understatement. However, in this paper I would like to try to consider them separately; in doing so, I will discuss Davidson’s answers to these questions, and see if I can improve on them. My hope is that in looking at these questions more carefully, we can rid ourselves of many needless complications that arise due to the failures of past attempts to answer these three basic questions.

Section I: Questions Concerning How We Know Our Mental Content

Donald Davidson begins “Knowing…” by stating his disagreement with Gilbert Ryle’s assertion that “we know our own minds in exactly the same way we know the minds of others” (Davidson, 529). This disagreement is in no way trivial. Davidson believes that while it is clear that we discover the thoughts of others through empirical means, it is far from certain that we do so when we are dealing with our own thoughts. In fact, Davidson states that we “often know what we think without appeal to evidence or recourse to observation” (Davidson, 529). I think that this is most definitely not the case, but we’ll get to my disagreement in a bit.

Davidson then notes that since we do not seem to come to our own thoughts by empirical means it’s difficult to say that we know our own thoughts at all. Davidson shows why this would be the case by discussing the notion of concepts. According to Davidson, concepts seem to incorporate (at some level) the circumstances and ways in which they are to be identified and applied into their definitions (Davidson, 530). When we say that someone is angry, for example, our applying the concept of “anger” to them has a lot to do with the circumstances and ways in which we observe the angry individual. In this sense, we come to know an individual’s anger empirically through their gestures, the volume of their voice etc. However, if, as Davidson asserts, we do not rely on empirical evidence and observation when we say that we ourselves are angry, our personal concept of anger might appear to be a different “anger” than that of the individual to whom we ascribe the observational concept of anger. It is along these lines that Davidson concludes that “[i]f two concepts regularly depend for their application on different criteria or ranges of evidential support, they must be different concepts” (Davidson, 530). Or so it would seem.

The problem, as Davidson notes, is that this apparent fact about concepts leads us to ask how we justify saying that we ourselves have thoughts or feelings when the conditions that lead us to say that others have thoughts and feelings do not seem present in our own case (Davidson, 530). Going back to the anger example, how am I to say that I am angry if I am not looking to my gestures or the volume of my voice? The solution is actually relatively simple.

Of course, in solving this apparent problem, one could easily take the eliminative stance and simply throw out the existence of mental content in general and thus move on with life. However, I tend to think the notion of “mental content” is useful regardless of whether mental content per se actually exists or not. So, while I personally think assuming mental content can be a bit dubious, I’m not about to throw it out now—even if it is the easiest “solution” to the current problem. Besides, such an eliminative stance would make this paper very short and only slightly less boring. However, if I’m not going to throw out mental content, what solution could I possibly have to this apparent problem that would be better than any of Davidson’s?

Well, to begin with, and contrary to Davidson’s initial assertions, I don’t believe there is a problem here at all. This is because we do know our own mental content via empirical means; it is the only way we can know our mental content. And, not only that, these empirical means are essentially the same as those that inform us as to the mental content of others. Given that this is a rather strong assertion, let’s take a step back and walk through the process by which we ascribe concepts to others to see whether I actually have enough wiggle room to make such a bold claim.

So, imagine for a moment that you see an angry person. You know that this individual is angry by making a variety of empirical observations. For example, you might notice that their face is flushed; that their hands are clenched; that their posture has become more rigid; that the volume of their voice has increased; and perhaps, if the individual is a physicist who due to gamma radiation exposure has become a barely articulate green monster resembling Lou Ferrigno, you might note that they shouting something along the lines of “HULK SMASH!” All of these things would be considered ample justification for ascribing the concept of anger to the individual. In fact, it is quite easy to imagine how a whole host of observations, some obvious and some less obvious, can lead to our attributing the concept of anger to an individual. Taken on their own, many of these observations would not constitute legitimate grounds for attributing the concept of anger to the individual in question, but together they are highly persuasive. In short, we synthesize a variety of empirical clues into a statement about the mental content of others. So far, it would seem we are all on the same page.

It is at this point that I would like to introduce a fact of mental life that Davidson does not discuss: our attributing the concept of anger to such an individual is not to say that individual “knows” that they are angry. One simply does not entail the other.  In the case of the unfortunate physicist who was exposed to gamma radiation, we can easily imagine him doing ridiculous things like breaking through walls, bending tank guns etc., all without ever being conscious of the fact that he is angry. Such a prasinus individual could act in accordance with the concept of anger, but remain unaware of the fact that he is angry. While this is a rather silly example, it’s moral—that being angry and knowing you are angry are different things—applies to individuals of non-prasinus persuasions as much as it does to those of prasinus persuasions, and certainly to those with other mental states and contents.

One can imagine those sympathetic to Davidson’s position taking this fact to be support for the assertion that we do not come to know our own mental contents the same way we come to know the minds of others. However, they would be mistaken. In actuality, this fact seems to point toward what I take to be the more sensible conclusion: that we come to know our own mental contents the same way we come to know the mental contents of others. The fact that knowing you are angry and being angry are different things shows that we must become conscious of our own mental contents, and how are we to become conscious of our mental contents if not by empirical observation? Conscious thought does not just pop up fully formed, it must come from somewhere.

More specifically, I hypothesize that when we come to know our own mental contents we take in a wide variety of primarily internal—though occasionally external—empirical data and synthesize those bits of data into a statement about ourselves; a statement which itself is a bit of mental content. Having synthesized this sort of statement is what it means to “know” our own mental content. The fact that this synthesis happens internally and almost always “in the dark” does not change the fact that it deals in empirical data (what other sort of data could we possibly have?), nor does it preclude its conscious result: our knowing that we are in such and such a mood, or that we have such and such a thought.

While it might seem strange to say that someone would “synthesize” their feelings and thoughts out of unconscious processes and empirical observations, it would appear that this is exactly what happens. In fact, it only seems odd to say that we do this if we forget what we have learned about the brain, which has billions of neurons, hundreds of trillions of synapses and a seemingly infinite number of ways that all of them can interact. Given this, it is beyond conservative to say that it is possible that a part of the brain could be said to “observe” and synthesize the processes of other parts of the brain into conscious mental content. Put differently, I hypothesize that we know our mental contents through something like a feedback loop in which the brain—or at least part of it—observes its own states.

Further, Davidson’s conclusion about concepts being different when they have different criteria and ranges of evidential support does nothing to prevent us from saying that our anger is essentially the same anger as that we observe in others. This is because concepts can have different criteria and ranges of evidential support without being entirely different concepts. For example: when we go looking for UV radiation, we might bring a picture of a beach-body and a sharp eye for melanomas; and when we go looking for gamma radiation, we might bring a picture of Lou Ferrigno and a sharp eye for torn clothing; all despite the fact that both concepts are instances of the same parent concept of radiation. The fact that one narrow concept has a different range of evidential support than the other does not preclude their both belonging to the broad concept of radiation. Similarly, our personal concept of anger does not have to be the exact same as our observational concept of anger in order for them to both fall under the broad concept of anger. With that said, there is nothing in the way of my saying that the anger of others is essentially the same as our own, despite the two narrow concepts having different ranges of evidential support. While we can’t say that the mental contents of others are exactly the same as ours, we can at least say that they have mental contents and that they resemble our own to such a significant degree as to not be an issue.

With this said, we can move on to the question of where mental content exists.

Section II: Questions Concerning Where Mental Content Exists

On the question of where mental content exists, we might as well start with the same issue Davidson does: Putnam’s twin earth. A brief re-telling might be helpful. Putnam’s twin earth argument asks us to imagine that there are two earths which are physically identical in all regards but one: where on this earth the word ‘water’ is applied to H20, on twin earth the word ‘water’ is applied to some other chemical substance of essentially the same properties. According to Putnam, we could then have two physically identical people (one on our earth, and one on twin earth) that would seem to mean different things by the word ‘water’. From this Putnam concludes that meanings are not in the head and so there must be an external component to meaning and other mental contents.

This brings about an interesting result: according to Davidson, “[i]f the meanings of their words, and thus the beliefs expressed by using those words, are partly determined by external factors about which the agents are ignorant… [w]e ought, it seems, to conclude that neither speaker knows what she means or thinks” (Davidson, 532). Like Davidson I think that this conclusion is a bit much—just for different reasons than Davidson does.

Davidson thinks that this conclusion is misguided because it forgets what he thinks is a necessary component in beliefs and meanings in general: causal histories. To get at this concept of causal histories, Davidson asks that we imagine him standing in a swamp during a lightning storm. He then asks us to imagine that while he is standing in the swamp, a bolt of lighting hits a dead tree and all at once he is reduced to all of his elements. As a result, the tree is somehow transmogrified into his exact physical replica (though composed of different molecules) (Davidson, 531). Davidson calls this replica “The Swampman” and says that it goes on to act exactly as he would, encountering friends, moving into his house, and writing articles on radical interpretation such that no one could tell the difference. However, Davidson thinks that there is a difference. According to Davidson, his replica couldn’t be said to recognize his friends, remember his house etc. because the replica had never met his friends or lived in his house. This leads Davidson to conclude that the difference between him and his replica is in their causal histories. Davidson thinks that if we apply this idea of “causal histories” to the apparent result of Putnam’s argument, it would seem that physically identical entities could be said to mean different things without contradiction, and we would not be forced to say that an individual cannot know what they mean or think.

On the surface, this conclusion might seem rather elegant; it gives us back our mental content, and allows us to say (as I think many people would like to) that they are more than their physical makeup. However, this is the problem. It’s all well and good to say that we are more than our physical makeup, but then you have to say what that “something more” is and where we can find it. Unfortunately, causal histories can only be found by observers, and do not seem to have any existence outside the minds of those observers. While it may be true that a thing can have some non-physical (at least in the traditional sense) aspect known as a causal history, I am not convinced that this would make any difference when it comes to mental content and “meanings.”

It’s plain enough to see how causal histories might matter to an observer or to a society as a whole. If, in the example given above, the original Davidson was to emerge from the swamp at a later time after willing his molecules back together, and he were to come back to his house to find The Swampman eating all of his food, he would be right to demand that the replica stop eating immediately and leave. After all, the original Davidson bought all of those things, and in society, such a causal history matters—if only for legal reasons. If we were to have to decide which Davidson was the real Davidson, I’m sure most all of us would say that the original Davidson was the real Davidson. However, this does not mean that The Swampman has no claim to being a Davidson. Nor does it mean that The Swampman wouldn’t be Davidson in every sense that counted with regard to mental content. The Swampman does not have to have always been Davidson to be Davidson now. Once again, this is because causal histories are social/observational things and not actual persisting things.

Davidson seems to think that The Swampman is less “Davidson” due to his own confusion around terms like ‘recognize’ and ‘remember’. Davidson treats these terms as if they point to obvious and highly literal activities, and this is not the case. Certainly, when we say the words ‘recognize’ or ‘remember’ we might decide to parse them as “to cognize again” or “to memorari again” but this is a story given to us by the structure of language, not by actual empirical facts. Given our current knowledge of the brain, these concepts are better thought of as processes by which mental connections are made from stored data to current perceptions. Our brains take bits of data about a person or object, store them away, and then when we see something matching that person or thing’s general description, our brains say something along the lines of “Aha! I know you! You’re this thing!” and the areas of the brain where our memories of that person or thing are stored become active. Unless we’re dualists, nothing about this process changes when we talk about The Swampman. The Swampman has the same brain structure, and so the same memories; his brain will light up and perform the same actions that the original Davidson’s would. Causal histories have nothing to do with it because a brain has it’s own causal history written in its structure—assuming it’s properly duplicated, each brain in question equally possesses the property of being “Davidson” and meaning the things that Davidson means.

Given all this, it seems that Davidson’s solution to the problem of physically identical things meaning different things by the same word, and thus our having to conclude that they don’t know what they mean, is inadequate. It rests on too many assumptions and confusions given to us by language and tradition. While it is an admirable attempt, it simply does not explain things in a satisfactory manner. In pursuit of a solution, it seems to me that we would do better dismantling Putnam’s argument than we would working around it like Davidson does. Such a dismantling would go something as follows.

For Putnam’s example to work, we have to assume that meanings extend much farther than they actually do. This is because in order for Putnam’s argument to hold, neither individual could know the chemical composition of the substance to which they apply the term ‘water’—if they did, we could no longer say that they had the same “narrow” beliefs about it, nor could we say that they were physically identical. Once we have taken away the ability of each individual to know the chemical composition of the substance to which they apply the term ‘water’, we are left with one very obvious conclusion: what each individual means by ‘water’ has nothing to do with chemical composition. In which case, both individuals have the exact same beliefs about water and mean the exact same thing by the word ‘water’. In other words, both concepts depend for their application on the exact same criteria and ranges of evidential support, and are thus the exact same concept. Just because the term is applied in the one case to H2O and in the other to some other chemical substance does not mean that the individuals mean something different by the term or that their concepts are different. All it means is that “meanings,” if they even exist, function more “shallowly” than Putnam thinks.

This conclusion seems to lie behind Davidson’s statement that: “If a speaker wishes to be understood, he must intend his words to be interpreted in a certain way, and so must intend to provide his audience with the clues they need to arrive at the intended interpretation” (Davidson, 536). Putnam’s mistake in the twin earth argument is in following clues that were never given to a “meaning” which was never intended. Certainly, someone can be interpreted as meaning something that they did not intend to mean, but that has more to do with the paucity of language and human error than what the person meant. To sum up the issue with Putnam’s twin earth argument we might say that it assumes—without justification—that terms point to more than they do.

One last example of why this is the case could probably be found in Davidson’s discussion of arthritis. However, I’d rather talk about the Hulk again (and who wouldn’t?). Suppose you were to read the first part of this paper and say to me “I’m sorry, but I take offense at your portrayal of the Hulk as evil.” Now, obviously I never said that the Hulk was evil, and so I would have to ask you where you got that idea. Suppose you were to then say “Well, the Hulk only bends tank guns when he is under the influence of evil zeta radiation (radiation which presumably makes the Hulk turn evil), and your portrayal of him implies that he bends tank guns without this influence. In so doing, you say that the Hulk is evil.” In response to this I would have to say, and quite honestly, that I did not say, nor mean, that the Hulk was evil, or even under the influence of evil zeta radiation. Even if it was the case (it isn’t) that the Hulk only bends tank guns when under the influence of evil zeta radiation, this fact does not affect my meaning or my concept of the Hulk unless I know about it; it affects your interpretation—what you think I mean—and nothing more. With this said, my solution to “the Putnam problem” might be summed up as follows: what a person means does not incorporate information that the meaning individual does not have, and this is possible because meanings exist “in the head.” If, indeed, they exist anywhere, and this is consistent with Davidson’s own conclusion.

Section III: Questions Concerning How We Ought to View the Mind and its Content In General

Unfortunately, I think at this point I have already given away the sort of answer I’d find sufficient to this last category of questions Davidson tackles in “Knowing…” However, we’ve come this far, so we might as well finish the job—if only for closure. So, how should we view minds and their contents in general?

Davidson believes that there is an unfortunate tradition in philosophy to view the minds as “a theater in which the conscious self watches a passing show (the shadows on the wall)” (Davidson, 539). This idea harkens back to the allegory of the cave, but according to Davidson, it has major flaws. The first apparent flaw is that there is no clear way to say how the mind interacts with the outside world. The second issue, and the one which is currently more important to us, is that it does not speak to the location of the objects of the mind, and how we interact with them. As Davidson asks, “are they in the mind, or simply viewed by it?” (Davidson, 539).

Davidson suggests that the best solution to this sort of “interaction issue” is to move away from the metaphor of mental objects. Now, this is not to say that people don’t have beliefs, desires, thoughts etc., just that these things do not require actual mental objects in order for them to exist (Davidson, 540). Once we have done away with the metaphor of mental objects, Davidson thinks that we can see how the fact that we identify mental contents by recourse to natural history fails to preclude mental contents existing “in the head.” Going off of what was said before, Davidson says that this realization comes part and parcel with the realization that a person’s meaning depends on the “kinds of objects and events that have caused the person to hold the words to be applicable; similarly for what the person’s thoughts are about” (Davidson, 540-541).

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this set of realizations is all that helpful. They certainly seem to follow along the lines of Davidson’s argument, but if I am right about what I have said so far, Davidson’s argument is not the best solution we have to the questions put to us by Putnam and the like. While I am all for getting rid of the metaphor of mental objects, I have already said that causal histories are not important to a person’s mental content, so any image of minds that is meant to maintain the importance of causal histories will have to be modified somewhat.

In pursuing such modifications, the first thing we ought to do is attempt to move beyond our unquestioned reliance on folk psychology. I think I have shown that terms like ‘recognize’, ‘remember’, etc., carry along with them folk psychological stories that do not often line up with what we know about human brains. If we were to be truly careful in moving forward, we wouldn’t just cast aspersions on “mental objects” like Davidson does, we would cast aspersions on all of the terms we use to talk about minds and mental life too. The concept of “mental objects” is just one of many concepts we might need to throw out. However, at this point in time I’m not quite willing to take the eliminativist stance and throw out folk psychology as a whole; I’d rather pursue a redefinition of our folk psychological terms to match what science has shown us to be the case. This process has already begun (it can be easily traced as far back as U.T. Place and further), but it is bound to take quite a long time, and involve numerous successive redefinitions of some of the most fundamental folk-psychological terms we have. As such, any image of mind that I could provide today would be rather sparse, and undoubtedly made obsolete in a relatively short amount of time. However, if I were forced to say something specific, I would say that minds, if they are anything, are physical; mental content is nothing more (or less) than the result of conscious and unconscious processes that go on in the brain; and given what we know today, there is no reason to believe that mental content extends any further than that.


So where does all of this leave us? With regard to questions concerning how we know our mental content, I think I have shown how it is possible—and actually highly probable—that we come to know our own mental content through essentially the same means that we come to know the mental content of others, and the fact that we use different methods to arrive at knowledge of our personal mental content than we do others’ mental content does nothing to prevent us from saying that our mental content is essentially the same as someone else’s mental content. As for the questions concerning where mental content exists, I think I have shown that mental content (meanings and the like) cannot be said to incorporate circumstances outside the individual possessing the bit of mental content, and as such there is no problem with saying that mental content exists “in the head.” And finally, when it comes to how we ought to view the mind and its content in general, I think I have shown that the order of the day ought to be caution directed by what we have been able to discover via cognitive science etc.


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