NoR 4.4: Beyond belief.

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 the previous three posts, I’ve given my favoured interpretationist account of linguistic content: fixed by that explanation fitting the base conventions of truthfulness and trust that best manages the trade off between (subject-sensitive) simplicity and strength.

The base facts were conventions linking utterances to belief. So as well as feeding into an account of how words get their meaning, the conventions give us an excellent handle on what it might mean to say that in asserting a sentence, we are “expressing a belief”. Notice, though, that the beliefs conventionally expressed in this way will not necessarily have the same content as that of the sentence—this is the phenomenon we covered in the post Fixing Fit.

Is the state of mind expressed by a sentence always a belief? Might moral sentences express pro and con-attitudes, epistemic modals a state of uncertainty, and conditional sentences states of conditional belief? There is a very natural way to understand what such claims mean, in this framework, respectively:

  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “x ought phi” only if one’s contingency plan for x’s situation, is to phi, and coming to so plan when one hears the utterance “x ought phi”.
  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “It might be that p” only if p is compatible with what one believes, and of adjusting one’s beliefs to make p compatible with them when one hears the utterance “It might be that p”.
  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “if p, q” only if one believes q on the supposition that p, and of adjusting one’s beliefs to come to believe q on the supposition that p, when one hears the utterance “if p, q”.

These are not the only ways of formulating the connections in the conventional framework—for example, perhaps closer to the dialogical role of epistemic modals would be to present them as a test: the “sincerity” condition remains the same, but on the “trust” end, the convention is that the speaker checks that p is already compatible with their beliefs, or else challenges the utterer.

Are there regularities of this kind? One might wonder whether someone uttering the words “Harry ought to phi” regularly leads their audience to plan to phi in Harry’s circumstances. Attention is naturally drawn to cases where these normative claims are contested—where someone is saying that Harry ought to change career, or do more exercise, or avoid white lies. In those cases, we don’t respond to bare assertions simply by incorporating the plans expressed into our own—we would tend to ask for a bit more explanation and justification. But of course, the same could be said of contested factual claims. If someone claims that the government will fall next week, we want to know how they know before we’ll take them at their word. These are violations of the “trust” regularity for belief, unless we add the caveats mentioned in an earlier post: to restrict it to situations where the speakers have no interest in deception and hearers regard speakers as relevantly authoritative. The same qualifications are, unsurprisingly, necessary in this case. And once we make that adjustment, then it may well be that the cases above are indeed conventional regularities. (It’s worth remembering one can come to plan to phi in x’s situation, without changing your contingency plans for any situation. For example, if you hear someone say “Harry ought to change career”, one might hold fixed one’s opinion about the circumstances in which changing-career is the thing to do, and simply come to believe that Harry is now in one of those circumstances. Lots of information-exchange using normative sentences can take this form.)

So there is a plausible way of extending the talk about sentences expressing beliefs to a more general account of sentence-types expressing attitudes of various kinds.

Now, this is all perfectly compatible with following being true, at one and the same time:

  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “x ought phi” only if one believes x ought to phi, and of coming to believe x ought to phi upon hearing “x ought phi”.
  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “It might be that p” only if one believes it might be that p, and of coming to believe this upon hearing “it might be that p”.
  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “if p, q” only if one believes that if p, q, and of coming to believe this upon hearing “if p, q”.

After all, I already flagged that on this account, sentences of any kind will be conventionally associated with many different beliefs. So why not beliefs and other attitudes too?

There are questions here, however, about the appropriate order of explanation, and it’s hear we make contact with work on broadly expressivist treatments of language. For one might think that our layer-2 story about fixing thought content did not get us to a point where we had a grip on thoughts with modal, deontic or conditional content. If that is the case, then although the later three conventional associations with belief will come out eventually as true commentaries on an agent, they are not something to which we had earned a right at layer 2 of our metaphysics of representation. On the other hand, we might think that from patterns of belief and desires, we will have a fix on states of belief, supposition and planning (planning states with factual content are not something that I’ve covered so far, but I’d be happy to add them as an additional element to the kind of psychology that radical interpretation will select).

That leaves us in the following position: as we approach linguistic content, for some sentences, we are not in a position to appeal to belief-centric conventions of truthfulness and trust, since the belief-states that they might express have not yet been assigned content. The semantic facts that we can ground by means of the story just given will then be restricted to a fragment of language that leaves out these problematic bits of vocabulary. So we need to go back to the grindstone.

Expressivists about deontic and epistemic modals and conditionals will tend to think that this is the situation we find ourselves in—and they have a solution to offer. Rather than building our metasemantics for the problematic terms by looking at features of the belief expressed, they propose to work directly on the other attitudes—the plans, suppositions or ignorance—that stand to these sentences just as ordinary beliefs stand to factual sentences. Let us consider how this might go.

To start with, the story I have been giving would need to be generalized. The key “datapoints” that a semantic theory had to “fit” were the range of propositions that I said were “conventionally associated” with each sentence. Those contents are associated with a sentence because by being the contents of the beliefs the sentence expresses (i.e. that figure in conventions of truthfulness and trust). We can’t just mechanically transfer this to other attitudes: for example, the content of the plan expressed by “Harry ought to change career” might: changing career in Harry’s circumstances. But we will get entirely the wrong results if we required our semantic content to assign to normative content the factual proposition that one changes career in Harry’s circumstances. The semantics needs to fit with a planning state, not a factual belief that the plan has been executed.

Let us take a leaf out of Gibbard’s book here. Let a world-hyperplan pair be the combination of a complete description of how the world is factually, together with function from all possible choice situations to one of the options available in that situation. To accept a world-hyperplan pair is to believe that the world fits the description given by the world component, and to plan to do x in circumstance c iff the hyperplan maps c to x. To accept a set of world-hyperplan pairs is to rule out any combination of world and hyperplan that is outside that set—this amounts, in the general case, to a set of conditional commitments to plan a certain way if the world is thus-and-such. (Okay, you might want more details here. This is not the place to defend the possibility of such a redescription: if it is not legitimate, then that’s a problem for Gibbardian expressivists independent of my kind of metasemantics).

I will assume that our metaphysics of layer-2 representations gets us to a point where we can read off what a subject’s conditional plans are, in this sense. We can then redescribe the combined belief/planning states of this agent in terms of which sets of world-hyperplan pairs they accept. And that means we will have earned the right to redescribe this:

  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “x ought phi” only if one believes x ought to phi, and of coming to believe x ought to phi upon hearing “x ought phi”.

as follows for a suitable q (set of world-hyperplan pairs):

  • There is a conventional regularity of uttering “x ought phi” only if one accepts q, and of coming to accept q upon hearing “x ought phi”.

And once in this format, we can extract the data the semantic theory is to fit, since we now have a new, more general kind of conventionally associated content: the combined belief/planning states q. The correct compositional interpretation will then be as before: the (subject-sensitive) simplest, strongest interpretation that fits these base facts. And contemporary expressivist semantic theory is exactly a specification of functions of this kind.

The crucial technique here is the Gibbardian transformation of a description of a subject’s psychology as the acceptance of enriched content—that’s what allows us to articulate the convention in a way that provides a target for compositional interpretations. So if we want to replicate this metasemantics for other kinds of expressive content, we need to perform the analogous redescription. It might be, for example, that to underpin epistemic modals, we need to describe an agent as accepting a set of world-information state pairs, representing combinations of factual states of the world and states of their own factual information to which they are open. To underpin epistemic modals, we need to credit the agent as accepting a set of world-update function pairs. And if this is to be a single story across the board, we will need to combine these and others to a highly complex summary of a possible opinionated psychology: world-hyperplan-information-update-etc, and then, on the basis of the facts about mental content already established at layer 1 in more familiar terms, say which of these possible opinionated psychologies are ones to which the subject is open.

None of this is easy or uncontentious! The existence of the conventions that tie the target sentences to non-doxastic attitudes, the Gibbardian redescriptions, and the availability of compositional interpretations of language are all points at which one might balk. But those who favour an expressivist theory of the discourse in question are likely to be sympathetic to these kinds of claims, and my central point in this post has been to show that the convention-based metasemantics can underwrite that project just as much as it can underwrite more traditional cognitivist projects.

(I’m very grateful to discussions with Daniel Elstein and Will Gamester that have shaped my thinking about the above. They are not to be blamed.)

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