The Unexplained Intellect: The Mind is Not a Hoard of Sentences

In subsequent posts I’ll focus on The Unexplained Intellect’s main claims.  In this one I’ll identify the cause that those claims serve.  I’m grateful to the blog’s editor for the opportunity to do this (and to you for reading).


We do not currently have a satisfactory account of how minds could be had by material creatures.  If such an account is to be given then every mental phenomenon will need to find a place within it.  Many will be accounted for by relating them to other things that are mental, but there must come a point at which we break out of the mental domain, and account for some things that are mental by reference to some that are not.  It is unclear where this break out point will be.  In that sense it is unclear which mental entities are, metaphysically speaking, the most fundamental.

At some point in the twentieth century, philosophers fell into the habit of writing as if the most fundamental things in the mental domain are mental states (where these are thought of as states having objective features of the world as their truth-evaluable contents).  This led to a picture in which the mind was regarded as something like a hoard of sentences.  The philosophers and cognitive scientists who have operated with this picture have taken their job to be telling us what sort of content these mental sentences have, how that content is structured, how the sentences come to have it, how they get put into and taken out of storage, how they interact with one another, how they influence behaviour, and so on.

This emphasis on states has caused us to underestimate the importance of non-static mental entities, such as inferences, actions, and encounters with the world.  If we take these dynamic entities to be among the most fundamental of the items in the mental domain, then — I argue — we can avoid a number of philosophical problems.  Most importantly, we can avoid a picture in which intelligent thought would be beyond the capacities of any physically implementable system.

Changing our conception of the foundations on which our account of the mind is to be built does not relieve us of the obligation to build it.  Nor does it make the building work easy.  But it can increase the comforts of labouring in this always half-built edifice.  If dynamic mental entities are foundational then the most crucial fact about the mind is not that creatures with minds know things, but that they are able to conduct themselves with understanding.  In giving our philosophical account of the mind, we shall need to be familiar with the several forms that this conduct can take:  In addition to our usual scrutiny of the person who knows that P, the philosophy of mind should require its practitioners to engage with the full range of human accomplishment.  The Unexplained Intellect is much concerned with the mathematics of computational complexity, but it is also a book in which comedy, poetry, and parenting make an appearance. These are pertinent examples of intelligent conduct, and I wanted to avoid writing the kind of philosophy that achieves its clarity only by leaving things out.



  1. Hi Chris,

    thanks for this opening post. I’m trying to understand your motivation. You seem to imply that if we posit mental states as “fundamental” (what do you mean by that?), then we have a “static” picture of the mind. Who has such a static view? Can you give some textual evidence?

    as far as i can tell, in most fields including physics dynamics are defined as state transitions or trajectories through state spaces. so you need states in order to define dynamics. is there anything wrong with that? are you suggesting that we should somehow understand dynamics differently, and how would that work?

  2. Hi Gualtiero,
    Thanks for raising these questions, which are crucially important for my project. The third part of the book — ‘A point of local metaphysics’ — tries to deal with them, but it also tries to avoid embroiling itself in the recent debate about the metaphysics of the grounding relation. I don’t think it entirely succeeds in doing so.

    I’m thinking of ‘fundamentality’ like this:

    Take some circumscribed body of discourse, such as all the things that are truly said about soccer, or all the things that are truly said about marriage. Let S be the set of entities that are spoken of in that discourse.

    It is almost inevitable that S will be metaphysically heterogenous. In the case of soccer it will include players, goalposts, and leagues (all of which are objects); matches, goals, and relegations (all of which are events); and also all sorts of other things, like states of play, referee qualifications, and the offside rule. Some of these clearly depend for their existence on some of the others: There could, for example, be no league-relegation zones without there first being leagues.

    (Similarly for the domain of the discourse concerning marriages, which contains weddings, husbands, banns, anniversaries, divorces, widows, etc.. Some of these clearly depend for their existence on others.)

    If we were to plot these relations of ontological dependence then the resulting picture would certainly be complex. But it seems likely that there will be some proper subset of the domain on which some things in the domain depend, but that do not themselves depend on anything in that domain. (On some assumptions about the dependence relation, this must be so.) The metaphysical category to which the things in this subset belong may be different for different discourses. In the case of soccer, the most fundamental entities very probably include a certain sort of event (the soccer match). In the case of the marital domain, they must include a relation (marriage). My claim is that, in the mental domain, this subset of most fundamental things must include mental events (more specifically, it must include ‘epistemic encounters’ — about which I’ll try to say some more in a later post).

    Just as it would be a mistake to suppose that we can first explain what husbands are, and then later explain the marital relations in which they participate, so it is a mistake to suppose that we can first explain what the propositional attitudes are, and then later explain the dynamic interactions in which they participate.

    Those last remarks might be too condensed to be illuminating, but I hope they give some indication of the idea.

    • Eric Wiland

      I look forward to reading your work on this! Forgive me if you address this in a future blog post, but I am impatient.

      We might oppose the view that the mind is a heap of sentences on (at least) two different grounds. The first is that propositional attitudes are static, and so focusing on only static things obscures the sense in which the mind *does* things. The second is that human minds grasp structures whose logical form are more complex than a proposition, and so focusing on only propositional attitudes (and even attitudes with less complex intentional objects (e.g. hate), or no intentional object (e.g. ennui)) obscures the sense in which the mind can grasp such highly complex structures, e.g. arguments, arguments that cannot be reduced to a heap of sentences. These two complaints are distinct: I can grasp an argument at a specific moment in time. Dynamism isn’t necessary for the latter, although in practice they often appear together.

      Do you address the latter complaint as well as the former?


      • Hi Eric — good to hear from you!

        In the parts of the book that I’m focussing on in these blog posts, its definitely the first of these two complaints that I have in mind. The book does also consider something that sounds a little bit like your second sort of complaint — (although it does so rather briefly) — but I think that what I say may not be quite the same as what you have in mind here.

        What I say is that, in addition to propositional attitudes, an account of the mind’s temporal orientation should make reference to attitudes that are taken to events themselves, as distinct from propositions pertaining to those events. I think we need these event-directed attitudes in order to make sense of the way in which memory and expectation can be temporally orienting.

        I’ll say a bit about this in a later post.

        Sorry, incidentally, that your comment was held up a bit in this blog’s spam filter. I don’t know what causes such things.

        All best,


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