A hypothesis

In the previous post, I introduced some questions at the center of my current book project, concerning the boundary between the mental and the non-mental. In this post I sketch that project in very broad outline.

Many thanks for the useful comments about my list of 5 characteristics that are each regarded, by a substantial segment of philosophers, as (i) unique to mentality, and (ii) significant enough to ground a non-trivial contrast between what is within the mind and what lies outside it. Once I have the chance to reflect on them more carefully, I may expand the list. But for now, I’ll use the original list, which I reproduce here:

1. Phenomenality. Only mental states are such that there is “something it’s like” to be in them.
2. Privacy. Only mental states can be known via a method uniquely available to their bearers.
3. Intentionality. Only mental states are intrinsically intentional.
4. Rationality. Only mental states can distinguish genuine reasoning from “brute” processing.
5. Agency. Only mental states can distinguish intentional action from mere behavior.

As a reminder: I’m neutral as to whether any or all of these characteristics are genuinely features of the mental; and I’m also neutral as to whether they are unique to mentality. So far, I’m making only a sociological claim about what drives the impression that mentality differs profoundly from the non-mental.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that my sociological claim is accurate. Specifically: the widespread belief in a profound, principled contrast between mentality and the non-mental springs from the (perhaps implicit) assumption that mentality uniquely possesses one or more of these 5 characteristics. Further, let’s assume that if this widespread belief is true, and mentality is indeed special, then it is special in virtue of uniquely possessing one or more of these 5 characteristics. (Note that if we grant the sociological claim but not this latter assumption, we’re committed to saying that mentality is special in virtue of some characteristic that is not on the list, and not directly tied to any of the listed characteristics. That’s possible, of course, but it would be surprising.)

With these assumptions in place, I can now state a hypothesis I plan to defend. Basically, my hypothesis is that if mentality is special, it is the features of occurrent states that make it so. More specifically, it is as follows.

(H) If there is a profound, principled contrast between the mental and the non-mental, then this contrast is explained by (or consists in) the special features of occurrent states. And if the mental / non-mental contrast is superficial or unprincipled, the impression that there is a profound, principled contrast between these is explained by the special features that occurrent states appear to have.

In other words: each of our 5 characteristics could be unique to mentality, in a way that renders mentality profoundly different from the non-mental, only if it is unique to occurrent states specifically. In still other words: any of (1)-(5) that could be possessed by a dispositional mental state could not explain (or constitute) a profound, principled contrast between the mental and the non-mental.

(H) is an important step towards establishing my ultimate thesis: that if there is a profound, principled division between mind and world, then it is only occurrent states that are within the mind. But the transition from (H) to that further thesis requires substantial argument, since (H) does not imply that if mentality is special, then only occurrent states are mental. For example, it might be that dispositional states qualify as mental by virtue of their relations to occurrent states. However, (H) does put pressure on the idea that some dispositional states fall on the “mind” side of a deep, principled boundary between mind and world. For insofar as dispositional states do not possess the characteristics that make mentality special, their inclusion in the mind threatens to compromise the significance of the division between mind and world.

In these posts, I’ll be concerned only with (H), and not with that further thesis.

My argument for (H) proceeds piecemeal. For each of (1)-(5), I will argue that if the characteristic at issue grounds a profound, principled distinction between the mental and the non-mental (or even the appearance of such a distinction), then it is not possessed by dispositional states. In my next post, I’ll sketch the segment of the argument that concerns characteristic (2), Privacy.

But I want to close this post with a brief discussion of the distinction between occurrent and dispositional states. I usually introduce this distinction by ostension. Pains, tickles, sensory experiences (etc.) are occurrent. And … What’s the capital of Virginia?  If reading that sentence caused you to think “Richmond is the capital of Virginia!”, then before you read that question you had a dispositional belief with that content, and after reading it you had an occurrent thought (perhaps an occurrent judgment) with that content.

This ostensive illustration conveys, to some extent, what I have in mind with (H) and with my ultimate thesis. That is: if mentality is special, then what makes it so are the features of phenomenal states, and of thoughts and attitudes that are similar to what you experienced in reaction to the question about Virginia’s capital. But obviously, my ostensive illustration doesn’t yield a definition, or even a detailed construal, of the occurrent-dispositional distinction.

I’m not yet sure how I’ll cash out that distinction. One way to gloss “occurrent” is simply as “conscious”. On that reading, (H) says that if mentality is special, then it is only the features of conscious states that make it so; and my ultimate thesis, on that reading, is that if there is a profound, principled mind-world boundary, then only conscious states are mental. My primary worry about this gloss is that it is only in a very specific sense of the term that “conscious” is a plausible gloss of “occurrent”. And that sense is specific enough that it may be at odds with some theories of consciousness. I’m particularly concerned to avoid any reading of (H) that implies that it is awareness of our mental states that makes mentality special (if it is).

Other ways of cashing out the distinction are also problematic. For instance: dispositional states conceptually entail conditional statements, but occurrent states do not; dispositional states are type-identified (or defined) by reference to conditionals, but occurrent states are not. But each of these candidates faces specific worries. And each would commit me to claims that are beyond the scope of this project: e.g., rejecting some versions of functionalism about thoughts and experiences.


    • Brie Gertler

      Yes, but I think that we understand the self through understanding the mind, and that we understand the mind through understanding mental states. This is why I begin with states.

      • Sure, but since mental states don’t occur in isolation but always in the context of a stream of consciousness and follow form one another in a regular fashion (“train of thought”), one of their distinctive features should involve how they hang together as a whole (either as acts of an ego, or as a bundle of perceptions, or what have you).

  1. Hi Brie, apologies for intruding on this learned discussion with a simplistic question, but I’m lost in the fog and trying to get my bearings. As I understand it, the issue here is basically whether dualism can be justified, and you are asserting that if any sort of dualism is valid, it can’t be any type of property dualism and must instead be some type of substance dualism. I’m sure that can’t be fully correct, but is it anywhere in the neighborhood of what you are saying, or have I completely missed the boat?

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs

    • Brie Gertler

      Hi Bill. Actually, I’m not concerned here with dualism. Among the factors that make the mind seem special are, of course, factors that have led some to conclude that the mind differs ontologically from the rest of reality–that is, to endorse dualism. But dualism is downstream of the issues I’m considering. E.g., someone might think that mentality is special in that only mental states are intrinsically intentional, without concluding that mentality is nonphysical.

  2. Hi Brie,

    The way you lead off this post reminds me of a question I thought of asking in connection with the previous one, namely whether you think it matters whether your question is framed in terms of a possible mental/non-mental distinction , as in your first sentence here, rather than a possible distinction between what’s “within the mind” and what’s outside of it, as in your last post. James Genone’s question about naive realism, which is coming from a similar position as my questions about introspection, suggest that the first formulation is less freighted, as it could make very good sense to say that perceptual (or proprioceptive) experiences are “mental” even though the objects of those experiences obviously are not “within the mind”. Thus there might be a mental/non-mental divide without a mind/world one. (I hope it’s clear what I’m after.) Do you agree that these questions can be read differently in this way? Do you have a particular reason for preferring one over the other?

    • Brie Gertler

      Hi John, Yes, I see exactly what you mean. Early in the first post, I mentioned that there is no guarantee that what is within the mind is exclusively mental, or that what is mental is wholly within the mind. In fact, this entire line of inquiry was prompted, in part, by reflecting on views that imply that they do come apart. Externalism about mental content construes content properties — e.g. “thinking that water quenches thirst” — as relational properties of the mind. This invites the question: how do such views construe delineate the mind? (I survey a number of options in my 2012 paper, including the idea that the mind is delineated in such a way as to ensure that the vehicles of thought contents are within it. But I argue there that none of these options makes sense of the thesis of content externalism.) You’re right that I should be clearer about which is my official target, and on that point I agree that the mental / non-mental distinction is less freighted. But I do think that, in the end, our understanding of what is within the mind will be shaped by our understanding of the mental / non-mental distinction: that is, I think our conception of mentality is the basis for our conception of the mind (and its scope / boundaries).

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the objects of perceptual experiences are themselves mental. That won’t surprise you, given our disagreement about introspection.

      • Thanks, Brie. And I agree that perceptual experiences don’t have mental objects — where I think our disagreement lies is that I don’t think such experiences are rightly factored into mental and non-mental components, with the subjective state on the one side of this divide and the “external” object on the other.

  3. Hi Brie,

    Thanks for these posts! Just a quick clarificatory question regarding the way you phrase #3. Talking about “intrinsic intentionality” runs into some terminological troubles, especially if you intend to engage with content externalists who try to naturalize content by reducing it to causal or etiological relations. You could mean ‘intrinsic’ in the strict metaphysical sense, i.e. “states which bear their contents as part of their intrinsic nature”, such that their bearing those contents is metaphysically independent of anything outside that state. That would make it much easier to justify the thesis that only occurrent states are contentful, I think, but it would then fail to engage with the criterion proposed by the content externalists (who thinks that mental states bear their contents only due to extrinsic causal or etiological relations). On the other hand, these content externalists do sometimes talk about “intrinsic content”, but what they really mean is something very different, what Fodor and Dretske have also variously referred to as “original” or “non-derived” intentionality, where they simply mean that then that the relevant extrinsic content-determining relations are not derived from /8another intentional system* (because they would then be presuming rather than reducing intentionality; this language often occurs when they are accusing Dennettians of doing just that by deriving intentionality from the intentional stance). But on this latter notion of “intrinsic intentionality”, it is much easier to see how a non-occurrent state could bear content.

    Do you mean the former notion of intrinsic here, or the latter?


    • Brie Gertler

      Hi Cameron. This is a good question. First, just a clarification: I’m not saying that any of (1)-(5) are possessed by mentality, let alone uniquely so. That list is my attempt to capture the principal features that make mentality special, according to some or other significant segment of philosophers. Reductivists about content will presumably deny that mentality is special in the profound, principled way at issue here. So even if they think mental states uniquely possess one or more of these features, they won’t think of those features as “special-making” in the way my targets do.

      What I had in mind here is, I think, the latter of the two options you present: non-derived intentionality. (Specifically, I had in mind a Searle-type view.) And yes, I agree that many will claim that non-occurrent states have non-derived intentionality. As applied to that view, my hypothesis says that, in that case, the fact that mentality has non-derived intentionality does not yield a profound, principled difference between the mental and the non-mental. (This is a conclusion that Dretske et. al. will accept independently.)

  4. Hi Brie, I like the thought that the only principled way to draw a distinction between mind and non-mind is in terms of consciousness – with consciousness of course being suitably, and specifically not self-representationally understood. Indeed, I have for some time embraced the thought that mind just is consciousness. To me though this does not mean that dispositions cannot be part of mind. It seems to me that they can and must as long as they are dispositions to be in states of consciousness, which seems to be the case in your example. It seems to me this is unproblematic because we normally categorize dispositions in terms of what they are dispositions for, in terms of their manifestations. For example, musical abilities are manifest in musical performances, annoying habits in annoying performances, and so on. A disposition that issues in conscious events should, I believe, accordingly be called a conscious disposition, and can then also unproblematically count as mental even according to the strictest understanding of the notion that mind is consciousness. If this may seem odd, I suspect it is because of a tendency to identify a disposition with its base (which in the case in question will of course be neurophysiological). So I wonder whether this is also driving your skepticism about dispositions being mental, or whether you have other reasons? In any case, I look forward to finding out!

  5. Hi Brie,

    Given your remarks in your final 3 paragraphs, I’m curious how you plan to defend (H). (Maybe I just have to wait until you begin!) But on the face of it, defending (H) in the absence of a substantive definition of “occurrent states” will be difficult. You say that “For each of (1)-(5), I will argue that if the characteristic at issue grounds a profound, principled distinction between the mental and the non-mental (or even the appearance of such a distinction), then it is not possessed by dispositional states” — which suggests that in fact you’ll be assuming that occurrent states are simply non-dispositional states. Yet in your final paragraph you seem to say that you’re dubious about that assumption.

    Relatedly, I’d like to ask why you’re not just formulating (H) in terms of conscious states, rather than occurrent states. You say you don’t like glossing ‘occurrent’ as ‘conscious’ because “it is only in a very specific sense of the term that ‘conscious’ is a plausible gloss of ‘occurrent’.” From that sentence, it’s not quite clear to me which term is bothering you: is it ‘occurrent’ or ‘conscious’? (I suspect the latter, but I’m not sure.)

    • Brie Gertler

      Hi Gary. I do take “occurrent” and “dispositional” to be contrasting — that is, a state-type defined as occurrent is not defined dispositionally. And yes, my next post will indicate how I plan to defend (H). Defending (H) will not require a definition for “occurrent” or “dispositional”. So long as I have a sufficient condition for “occurrent”, or a necessary condition for “dispositional”, I can argue that any mental state that has (1)-(5) will be occurrent (non-dispositional). But obviously, a more specific construal of this contrast would be useful for my project.

      And yes, the worrisome term is “conscious”, since that is open to so many diverging interpretations. I’m especially concerned with the tendency to think of consciousness in higher-order terms–i.e., consciousness or awareness of something. My thesis is not that, if there is a profound, principled divide between mentality and the non-mental, then what explains this divide is states that are conscious in a higher-order sense.

      • I’m interested to see how you proceed. 🙂 You say, “So long as I have a sufficient condition for ‘occurrent’, or a necessary condition for ‘dispositional’, I can argue that any mental state that has (1)-(5) will be occurrent (non-dispositional).” So what I’m wondering now is what your sufficient condition for ‘occurrent’ will be. Perhaps for that role you will simply use ‘non-dispositional’, and then appeal to a necessary condition for ‘dispositional’. In which case I wonder what that condition will be! I myself am dubious that the notion of dispositions that is at play in metaphysics (broadly construed) actually bears on the occurrent vs. non-occurrent distinction in philosophy of mind. So I think it’s unfortunate that ‘dispositional states’ are standardly taken to be the opposite number, so to speak, of occurrent states; and I’m skeptical about the prospects of cashing out the occurrent vs. non-occurrent distinction in terms of dispositions.

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