NoR 3.5: Relata of rationalization

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

In previous posts covering sensory/perceptual states, and intentional/motor states, I’ve provided a teleosemantic story of their layer-1 representational properties. The question now is move from this to characterize the base facts for radical interpretation, the “courses of experience” (E) and “dispositions to act” (A) that appeared in my formulations of that account of layer-2 representation. I’m not attached to vindicating that particular wording: what we are looking for is a refined proposal that’ll do the right job, more precisely:

  1. What we substitute for (E) and (A)  really do stand in rational relations to beliefs and desires.
  2. The resources developed in the last few posts enable us to characterize the formulations substituted for (E) and (A).

A disclaimer right at the start: I am not going to discuss here the possibility that the teleosemantic contents may fail to be the right relata for rationalization because they are in some sense “nonconceptual” in contrast to the “conceptual” contents of belief and desire. The teleosemantic story determines truth-conditional content, and radical interpretation seeks to say what it takes for beliefs and desires to have similar truth-conditional content. Issues of concepts (in the relevant, Fregean, sense) are not something I’ve broached so far. I’m aiming to maintain that track record.

I will start with the appeal to “dispositions to act”. Our discussion of options in the last post in effect has already introduced the theories and themes that are required. The account put forward there was that our options were intentions: when framing a decision problem, the item we assess for expected value is the formation of an intention, and moreover an intention that has a function to bring about states of the world. Various “high level” states we might call intentions in natural language do not qualify—it’s perfectly ok to say that Sally had the intention to run all the way to the bottom of the hill before she feel over, or that Suzy intended to insult Sally. But states with those kinds of high-level content do not have a function to indicate in the sense set out earlier—they can fail to be satisfied in the absence of any “malfunction”, if Sally or Suzy have false beliefs about their abilities or their target. Sally’s options, in a specific context, are all the intentions she might form in that context. The option Sally enacts is the intention she forms. On this account, what beliefs and desires rationalize is the formation of certain intentions, or better: the contrastive formation of one intention out of all the others possible for the agent.

This doesn’t quite pin down the characterization of the base facts, since there are can be plenty of intention/motor states with functions to produce states of the world which are not plausible “options” for an agent—since they characterize the fine details of motor control over which the subject typically has no access. In the cases that concern us, these subpersonal states are triggered by a person-level intention, but the relation they have to beliefs and desires is purely causal, not rational. So while this account of options tells us that they are to be found among those which are teleosemantically grounded, it doesn’t yet tell us which among these states count as options. To complete the account, I suggest we appeal to a causal-role characterization: that among those intentional/motor states teleosemantically grounded, options are those which trigger other intentional/motor states with functions-to-indicate but which are not themselves triggered by such states (perhaps a states can sometimes be triggered by another intentional/motor state, and sometimes comes into being without such triggering: this will suffice for it to count as an option is the relevant sense).

With this final piece in place, the proposed substitution for “dispositions to act” comes into view. Our interpretee, at a particular place and time, has an array of options (possible intentions-formations in the sense just defined). She forms one of the intentions in this set and not the others. The formation of this intention triggers further downstream intentional/motor states which cause and control bodily movements on the part of the agent. The belief/desire interpretation should attribute beliefs and desires to the agent at that place and time that rationalize this contrastive intention-formation. But of course, rationalizing a single-intention-formation episode is not the be all and end all: a belief/desire interpretation of Sally (attributing her beliefs and desires at arbitrary places and times) needs to (optimally) rationalize her contrastive intention formation dispositions with respect to every point. If we want a more accurate labelling than “disposition to act” we might go for: “dispositions for contrastive intention-formations”.

(Aside. The decision theoretic setting and the appeal to beliefs and desires rationalizing options makes this sounds all very internalist, and perhaps more suited to a theory built on structural rationalization rather than substantive rationalization. But there’s nothing inconsistent with using a decision-theoretic formalism for substantive rationality: the “value” functions can report not subjective degree of desire but objective value (or agent-relative value that does not match the same agent’s desires). The “probabilities” are equally open to a variety of interpretations. So the framework is extremely flexible. The appeal to a belief/desire interpretation that “rationalizes” options just expresses the presupposition that beliefs and desires are among the determinants of the probability and utility—which may be because the relevant probabilities are indeed degrees of belief, or that degrees of desire matter are at least a factor in determining value, or more broadly by a role for beliefs in determining what reasons you possess, or for personal projects to determine a wellspring of value that may vary psychology by psychology. Amidst all this flexibility, the very form of the calculations of expected value and the way they relate to options in Jeffrey’s formalism (and various related ones, such as causal decision theory a la Joyce) means that there is no contribution to expected value from contingencies that are inconsistent with the proposition that specifies the option. So the underlying drive to characterize options in a way that makes them certain (or better: probability 1, however that is to be interpreted) when pursued is baked into the form of the theory of rationalization independently of interpretation. And while it’s not inevitable that we respond to that by following Hedden and identifying options with intentions, that account retains its appeal even when we move beyond the structural rationalization interpretation of the formalism. End Aside).

Radical interpretation also requires that the attribution of belief and desires at each point mesh with one another; specifically, that the belief changes imputed be rational responses to the evidence made available by experience. This is where appeal to “course of experience” came in.

We have at our disposal teleosemantically grounded representational facts about perceptual states. Many of those states will be subpersonal intermediaries between retinal stimulation and the output of the perceptual system. In parallel with the discussion above in intention, I suggest we concentrate on perceptual states characterized by a terminal causal role: those which are do not themselves trigger further perceptual processing.

There’s another parallel with the discussion of intentions. There are plenty of states that we would ascribe in natural language as seeings, hearings, and so on, which involve high level content. We might talk of hearing the car return, or seeing that the dishwasher is finished. But clearly the content ascribed in such cases can be false even when there is no perceptual malfunction, but simply false beliefs. So even absent malfunction, such states need not be responses to worldly conditions matching their content, and that shows that are not states whose contents are teleosemantically grounded in the sense I have outlined. So a commitment of this framework that the relata of evidential rationalization, in the sense in which these appear as base facts in radical interpretation, need to be low-level, not cognitively-penetrated, perceptual states.

(Aside: I am not committed to denying there are perceptual states with high-level content, any more than I am committed to denying there are intentions (planning states) with high-level content. And I can allow that these stand in rational relations to beliefs and desires and lower-level perceivings; one might include the assignment of content to such states as an extra item in the interpretation selected by radical interpretation. But in each case, I am committed to denying that high level states are the only things that stand in relation to beliefs and desires—the critical thing if the account is to be applicable without further epicycles is that there be a layer of low level content in perception that rationally constrains the evolution of belief, and likewise, that beliefs and desires rationally constrain a layer of low level content. It’s worth noting, also, that the high level/low level boundary need not be fixed. I think it’s plausible that response-functions can be acquired. Just as we can expand the range of intentions which have functions-to-produce by internalizing and making automatic the skillful execution of complex routines, We can expand the range of perceptions that have response-functions by internalizing and making automatic the transition whereby they are triggered by more paradigmatically low-level perceptual states. The key thing, in both cases, is that the internalized routines are executed independently of what the agent beliefs or desires—a sufficient condition for this being the case would be the capacity for figuring in perceptual illusions. End Aside).

Suppose Sally is perceiving a yellow banana (better: is seeing that a yellow crescent-shaped thing in front of her). If we were to pursue the analogy to the case of intention fully, then we would suggest that the relata of rationalization, the “experiential evidence” is not to be identified with the content of this perception:

  • there is a yellow crescent shaped thing to the front.

but instead the following:

  • I am undergoing a perception with the content: that there is a yellow crescent shaped thing to the front

This would be the analogue of saying that the primary relata of practical rationality is not the action described in the content of an intention, but the intention itself.

The proposal has some independent appeal. The fact about perception truly describes both someone who is viewing a normal banana in normal conditions, and one who is viewing a white plastic banana under yellow lighting. It is something that could be straightforwardly uptaken into the beliefs of both parties, even if they knew their respective situations. This “common factor” view of the incremental evidence experience provides across the two cases has obvious attractions in the context of radical interpretation, where the aim is to identify some “evidence” independently of layer-2 facts about belief and desire.

For contrast, consider a dogmatist view on the increment of evidence provided by experience. On this view, we are justified in updating directly on the content there is a yellow crescent shaped thing to the front absent certain defeaters and undercutters. One such defeater could be: that one believes background conditions to be abnormal. So in effect, rationality would then impose a disjunctive constraint on subjects who have an experience with the content that there is a yellow crescent shaped thing to the front. Either they come to believe that content, or they have (already?) a belief that background conditions are abnormal. This dogmatist theory of evidence is perfectly compatible with radical interpretation, and doesn’t require anything of layer-1 intentionality that we have not provided for. Nevertheless, for convenience and concreteness, I’ll work with the common-factor account.

There is a question we face in the case of characterizing the perceptual relata of rationalization that has no obvious analogue in intention. The content of experience seems rich and analogue—I perceive a subtly varying colour profile of greens and yellows when I look at a tree. We might suppose that the content of this experience involves a particular number of perceived leaves, just as a picture may involve a particular number of painted leaves. But resource-constrained agents like you and I don’t update on all this information. I form the belief that the tree has lots of leaves, and that they range from green to yellow. But—for example—I wouldn’t take a bet at even odds that there were exactly 148 leaves on the tree, even if the totality of the facts perceptual represented by me now entails this. So the suggestion is this: the transition from terminal perceptual states to the evidence actually updated upon is lossy. And so one cannot simply characterize that incremental evidence as the totality of all the terminal perceptual states.

At this point, we are again back into questions of cognitive architecture that are ultimately empirical. It may be that there is a filtering within the perceptual system (by attention, say) which outputs some special set of perceptual states. Only the states with this distinctive causal role are passed on to central cognition (though other terminal states in the system may make a difference to perceptual phenomenology). But equally, it may be the architecture is indeed lossy as described. There’s no a priori reason, I think, to think our perception works one way rather than the other.

The right response is the following. Epistemological theory, in the general case, should not solely specify a relation between belief change and a proposition/propositions on which one updates and directly incorporates into belief (as it would, for example, if we took the Bayesian theory of conditionalization to be right format for a full theory). Instead, epistemological theory should relate a belief-change to the full content of the experience, without assuming that the full content is taken up as belief. An extra parameter is needed: the rational constraint on belief change is that one updates on those aspects of one’s experience to which one stands in the right functionally-characterized “uptake” relation. In that case, if q is the full content of Sally’s experience, then the interpretation of Sally will be constrained by a complex condition: for Sally to undergo a rational belief change, then there must be some p such that (i) Sally changes her beliefs by updating on p; (ii) p is entailed by q (/the fact that Sally has an experience with content q); (iii) Sally is standing in the right functional relation to p—e.g. attending to the p-aspect of her experience. Element (i) could still be cashed out in a Bayesian way, if one wished. Element (ii) keeps us honest by requiring that the story doesn’t go beyond facts given in experience. Element (iii) will be tailored in different ways to different perceptual architectures.

Having provided for the full range of cases, for reasons of simplicity and concreteness, going forward I will assume that Sally’s sensory-perceptual architecture already does the work of selecting, so that element (iii) is vacuous for her.

This leaves us with the following picture. The base facts about Sally’s “dispositions to act” are facts about her (low level) intention-formations, against the background of all the other (low level) intentions she might form. The base facts about Sally’s “courses of experience” are the fact that she has an experience, the relevant part of the content of which is that q. The rational constraints include a broadly decision-theoretic constraint that beliefs and desires in circumstances c determine probabilities and values which rationalize the dispositions to form intention x (rather than w,y,z) in c; and also a broadly Bayesian constraint that Sally’s change in belief between a pair of contexts c/c* (in which she undergoes experience e) is by conditionalization on the proposition that part of the content of e is that q.


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