NoR: 1.2 Radical Interpretation

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

The core layers of representation I will be talking about are (1) preception/action; (2) belief/desire and (3) language. I start in the middle, with layer (2). In the next few posts, I will lay out in more detail the metaphysics of belief/desire representation that I favour, develop the sharpest form of criticism of it that I know, and explain how the theory should be refined to avoid that criticism. After this, I’ll get to work in expanding on this refined theory, with an eye to making predictions about particular species of representation.

Let’s start from general principles. Abstract interpretations of someone—functions that map points in the history of that person (“person stages”) to a set of beliefs and desires—are ten a penny. There is, for example, one abstract interpretation that maps you right now inter alia to a belief that the Earth is run by lizard people. Another attributes an overwhelming ambition to count the grains of sand in the Sahara. Most of these abstract interpretations bear no relation to what you actually believe or desire, and make no sense of what you say and do. They are, after all, just pieces of mathematical machinery.

Somewhere among this space of abstract interpretations, however, there is one that gets things right—which maps you right now to those beliefs and desires that you do in fact possess (and similarly for every other stages of your existence). Similarly, one of those abstract interpretations gets things right for each stage of my existence, and so on.

A metaphysics of mental representation (at layer 2) will give a story in two parts. In the first part, it gives further details about a relevant space of abstract interpretations. Here we need to answer questions such as the following. (1) what kinds of things get interpreted (at a time)—the whole temporal stage of a person, or internal states that the person is in at that time? That’s a question about the domain of the functions that are the abstract interpretations. (2) What attitude-types does an interpretation ascribe—flat out beliefs/desires, comparative belief/preference or numerical degrees of belief/desire, for example? Are there other attitudes also ascribed, such as the subject’s attitude to risk? These are questions about the co-domain of the function that are the abstract function. In short: exactly what is to be interpreted and what information does an interpretation deliver? With the domain and co-domain spelled out, the space of of abstract interpretations can be defined as arbitrary mappings from one to the other.

In the second part of the story, the metaphysics gives an illuminating account of what the world has to be like for one of these abstract interpretations to be the correct interpretation of an individual x. In giving this story, one will of course cite certain facts about x—this could be almost anything, in principle, from their inner cognitive processing, to their causal relations to the surrounding relation, to features of the species to which x belongs, to facts about what they perceive or how they choose to behave. These cited facts I’ll call the basis of correct interpretation. The rest of the story about how a function is selected as correct given the basis I’ll call the selectional ideology.

Consider the following pair of (very schematic) accounts:

  • The correct interpretation of an agent x is that one which maps x at t to a set of beliefs and desires that best accountsfor x’sdispositions toactat t given courses of experiencex undergoes up to t.
  • The correct interpretation of an agent x is that one which maps an inner state s of x to a belief that p iff the state’s function within x’s cognitive system is to carry the information that p, for the purposes of controlling behaviour.

illustrate some of the possible divergences between different stories about the nature of representation.

(a) The first seems to be working with a space of abstract interpretations which map whole time-slices of agents to beliefs/desires. The second has to work with interpretations that map individual states of a person to beliefs (some other clauses would be needed if we wanted to ground desires too).

(b) In the first, the basis of correct interpretation includes dispositions to act and courses of experience undergone.(It also includes, implicitly, the reidentification of the agent over time and counterfactual scenarios). in the second, the basis are facts about the functions of components of cognitive systems, and specifically, information-carrying functions.

(c) In the first, there is selectional ideology. Given full information about the basis (action, experience) we need in addition facts about how interpretation do better and worse in “accounting for” the basic facts. In the second, there is no sign if selectional ideology (all the work is done by the “iff”).

I’ve said that the metaphysics will have to give some illuminating story, but left it open what counts as illuminating. The paradigmatic unilluminating story about correctness is one that just redeploys concepts of the very attitudes being ascribed by an interpretation in characterizing correctness. The following is true, but not illuminating: the correct abstract interpretation maps x-at-t to a belief that p iff the agent believes p at t. You can pick out the correct interpretation by laying down such platitudes for each attitude-type the interpretation covers, but we need some independent route to correctness that doesn’t mention beliefs, desires, etc. Such platitudes do have a role within the overall metaphysics here, but the key thing is that rather than use facts about belief and desire to explain correctness, the proposal is that we use our grip on correctness to explain facts about belief and desire. So the platitudinous biconditional has a role, but the direction of explanation, on this account, flows from left to right, and stands in need of an independent story about in what correctness consists.

The metaphysics of mental representation I am exploring is a version of radical interpretation,and a slight elaboration of the first option introduced above:

  • The correct interpretation of an agent x is that one which best rationalizes x’s dispositions to act in the light of the courses of experience x undergoes.

This will be further refined later. But even at this stage, we can see that the basis includes actual and counterfactual experiences and dispositions to act, and that the selectional ideology includes a notion of better and worse rationalization. Also notice the things it does not contain. For example, there’s no relativization to any actual or ideal interpreter or interpretative stance. Insofar as its an objective [non-stance-relative] matter how an agent acts and what they experience, and an objective matter what rationalizes what to what degree, then it’ll be an objective matter what the correct interpretation is, and so what the agent believes and desires.

My favoured story about correctness, as stated, would not by itself reduce the representational facts about belief/desire to purely physicalistic, naturalistic or even non-representational facts. After all, that one perceives the presence of a red ball, or that one’s limbs moving along a certain trajectory is youhailing a taxi are themselves representational facts. And whether or not a cluster of belief/desires rationalize certain choices, in a certain context, is prima facie a normative fact, and whether normative facts are physicalistic or naturalistic is very much sub judice. It is not something I will take a stand on here. I offer it as an account of how one kind of intentionality—that of perception and action-gets transformed, via normative truths, into the intentionality of belief and desire. I favour supplementing this with a physicalistic/naturalistic account of the intentionality of experience and action, and together the two stories would reduce the representational to the non-representational. But radical interpretation as presented here need not be yoked to that broader project. We might, as Adam Pautz has advocated, combine this story of the transformation of perceptual and agential content into belief/desire content with the positing of metaphysical primitive representation in experience.

The story about the metaphysics of representation just given defines a theoretical agenda: to get clear on each of these three elements: experience, action and rationalization. Experience and action are deferred to a later sub-sequence of posts where I discuss the way the metaphysics of layer-1 representational facts. But it is rationalization that will be our primary focus for the time being.

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