In comments to some previous posts, Marcin Milkowski raised a spirited defense of Dennett’s heterophenomenology (HF) as a correct methodology of data from first-person reports (about mental states). Among other statements, he made the following:
“HF is not about inferring beliefs from verbal behavior in any setting. It’s about verbal reports as produced during psychological research when the subjects aren’t lying, ironising etc. but just, say, pressing a red button or a green one. I cannot find any place where Dennett would say that verbal reports are the only evidence we have about beliefs. He would say (and I agree) that this is the best evidence we could get (as there are no mindreading machines (yet?)).”
I don’t think I said that according to Dennett, verbal reports are the only evidence we have about beliefs. So let’s agree that he doesn’t say that. Even so, it seems to me that Marcin’s interpretation of Dennett is not entirely correct. So I propose a close reading of one of Dennett’s latest statements of his view
“… a nesting of proximal sources is presupposed as we work our way from raw data to heterophenomenological worlds:
(a) “conscious experiences themselves”;
(b) beliefs about these experiences;
(c) “verbal judgments” expressing those beliefs;
(d) utterances of one sort or another.
What are the “primary data”? For heterophenomenologists, the primary data are the sounds recorded when the subjects’ mouths move, or (d) the utterances, the raw uninterpreted data. But before we get to theory, we can interpret these data, carrying us via (c) speech acts to (b) beliefs about experiences. These are the primary interpreted data, the pretheoretical data, the quod erat explicatum … for a science of consciousness. … Sticking to the heterophenomenological standard, and treating (b) as the maximal set of primary data, is a good way of avoiding a commitment to spurious data” (Dennett 2005, Sweet Dreams, pp. 44-5).
I think it’s fair to make the following points:
1. Nowhere in this passage or any other passages that I am familiar with does Dennett require that subjects not be lying, “ironising”, or otherwise misleading their listeners about their beliefs. Dennett says that we take the (apparent) utterances of subjects about their mental states and interpret them as (apparent) expressions of belief. Furthermore, Dennett says we give the subject dictatorial authority on what it is like to be her. If anyone knows of passages where Dennett tells us how to distinguish utterances that are good guides to a subject’s beliefs about mental states from those that aren’t, I would be very interested to know. Until then, I maintain that this might be a problem for HF, because HF, as Dennett describes it, has no apparent way to insure that its data are not “spurious”.
2. I disagree with Dennett that the step from utterances to beliefs is “pretheoretical”. In the context of a science of mind, “belief” is a theoretical term, so interpreting utterances as expressions of belief requires a theoretical assumption, which may be questioned. Even if we set aside the possibility that “belief” will be eliminated from our theoretical vocabulary, there are still worries. In a thin sense of “belief”, beliefs are only attributed from the intentional stance without necessarily existing in people’s heads. In this sense, you believe everything you sincerely say you believe, because, say, sincerely asserting that p is constitutive of believing that p (sometimes, Dennett says things roughly to this effect). Under such a thin notion of belief, HF makes perfect sense (barring worries about how to tell when people are sincere). But I don’t think this thin notion of belief is enough to underwrite a sound methodology of data from first-person reports. In a thick sense of “belief”, beliefs are states actually occurring in your head. In this sense, you may sincerely assert that p without having a belief that p (perhaps because you have a belief that not p but are deluding yourself that you have the opposite belief, or even just because you lack a belief pertaining to p). In my opinion, the science of mind is after beliefs in the thick sense, or whatever more refined theoretical counterpart of belief scientists will find in our brains. So if we are developing a scientific methodology, we cannot always reliably infer beliefs from assertions (contrary to HF).
3. I think there is a methodology that is close in spirit to HF—because it is still a third-person methodology—but is more open minded and more sophisticated than HF. We still start with (d), but then we are not forced to infer (descriptions of) beliefs and only beliefs as data. We can (defeasibly) infer whatever (descriptions of) mental states our best evidence tells us we can infer. It may be that we infer (descriptions of) beliefs, but we may also infer (descriptions of) desires, chunks of information stored in working memory, conscious experiences, or whathaveyou. If we infer (descriptions of) beliefs, our descriptions may or may not match the subject’s descriptions, and the same is true of any mental states. For instance, when my daughter tells me she is not hungry, I rarely if ever infer that she has a belief that she is not hungry (as mandated by HF). Sometimes I infer she is not hungry, whereas other times I infer she doesn’t like what she is eating. It depends on what other evidence I have. Furthermore, I have evidence that my inferences are pretty reliable, even though they go beyond what HF allows (though in other ways, they are more prudent). In short, what data about mental states we extract from first-person reports should depend on the total evidence we have (linguistic, behavioral, and neurological). (I defended a view like this in my 2003 JCS article, and I offered a refined version of the same view in my recent talk at the PSA meeting.)