Philipse on Psychological Terms

The main goal of Chapter 7 in “God in the Age of Science” is to reduce all descriptions or all possible descriptions of God to metaphors or analogies, so that Philipse can then argue that by Swinburne’s own logic that the word “God” is meaningless and so that you therefore can have no rational or scientific belief in the existence of God. What Philipse tries to go after first is the psychological terms, because most people willing to describe God as having certain psychological traits — loving, angry, etc — and so could move from there to something that works as a description. Philipse wants to undercut this move, and so wants to find a theory of psychological terms that lets him leave God out. In so doing, he talks about three main views of the semantics of psychological terms: Cartesian dualism, behaviourism, and one which he amazingly — and I think indicatively — doesn’t actually give a name but instead describes as being one that Wittgenstein developed in his later years.

Now, my first thought when I read this was: where’s the “mental states” theory of psychological terms? I’m a card-carrying dualist about mind, but I of course know that you can, indeed, have a “mental states” theory about psychological terms with being a Cartesian dualist. All you have to accept that a psychological term refers to a mental state — and not simply a set of behaviours, for example, or a state of the physical brain — and you have a mental state theory. So, for example, if you say that what it means for a person to be in pain is that they are having an actual sensation of pain, no matter how they are acting, then you’re holding a mental state theory. This could still be produced or even in some sense reduce to a physical brain state, as long as you don’t argue that the term “in pain” just means “My brain is in a certain state”. But it’s clear that Philipse is lumping the mental states theory in with Cartesian dualism, and then attempts to refute that theory by refuting Cartesian dualism, including by arguing that Cartesian dualism isn’t accepted philosophically anymore (which will be seen to be a bit ironic later on). But he notes that this theory implies that you can’t know what someone else’s mental states are except by analogy to yourself, which means that if we accept the mental states theory his whole project is scuttled. So he needs to eliminate it.

He never really refutes in detail the mental states theory that he lumps in with Cartesian dualism, but he does go after the idea that we learn or refer to the mental states of others through analogy, with six reasons packed into one small paragraph. First, he claims that we aren’t aware of drawing these conclusions by analogy, but since much of this is done subconsciously we aren’t aware of what we are really doing, and the discovery of mirror neurons actually suggests that, yes, this is exactly what we do: we predict the actions and therefore also the mental states that drive these actions by putting ourselves in their position and simulating it (see simulation theory for more details). At any rate, he has to accept that we may not have direct access to the source of these conclusions; we also don’t seem to be reasoning it out, and the best he can say on that point is that it “just happens” when we look at someone, which is compatible with all three theories. Second, he says that it would be bad because it would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization, but this is a bad argument considering that if the mental states theory is right it’s all we have, and it would work a significant amount of the time, and we do, in fact, get these associations wrong and can be fooled relatively easily. Sure, it might not be completely logically valid, but it’s not a reason to say that we don’t or shouldn’t do it. Third, he say that we seem more confident than that sort of argument should justify … as if we never, for example, hold beliefs in far more confidence than we actually have — including beliefs about what other people are feeling and thinking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be less confident in our ability to determine the internal mental states of other people. Fourth, he argues essentially that we don’t see our own bodily reactions — like facial expression — and so can’t derive the beliefs from their bodily reactions that way, which is countered by the fact that we don’t learn these things by looking at their faces and seeing that they have the same facial reaction as we do, but instead by looking at the situation and thinking about what feeling we’d have, and noting that they have a specific facial reaction. If we’re right, then we can recognize that in most of those sorts of cases that expression is there, and so that that must be how they indicate that. And, of course, this can be subconscious. Fifth, he argues that philosophers of language — but doesn’t say which ones — argue that we somehow couldn’t learn the uses of the mental terms from others if they were private, but since I can learn them from looking at my own internal reactions in similar circumstances to what others are in when they use that term, again this is not an argument. Finally, he tries to refute Cartesian dualism by saying that it makes our personal pronouns like “I” ambiguous — since it can refer to the mind, or the body, or both — but a) an argument against Cartesian dualism is not an argument against the mental states theory, which again just shows that he conflates the two and b) this is not an argument since when you are referring to the body that the mind is associated with it’s not a problem at all to use the mental identity, and even if it was problematic it wouldn’t be any kind of argument against the truth of Cartesian dualism (which Philipse admits in a footnote that again just harps on how discredited Cartesian dualism is).

So, Philipse has not, in fact, managed to demolish the mental states theory, except by invalidly conflating it with Cartesian dualism and then tossing that out with “Well, no one believes that anymore.” But he needs to demolish it, because if it’s even still in the running he runs into the issue that it posits at its heart that we can have knowledge and meaning only by analogy, and so if we accept that it could produce meaningful psychological terms his whole project is undermined. And he won’t in fact even attempt to refute that view any further, which only reveals the major weakness in his overall project: if you deny that you can’t have a theory where one can only understand components of it in some kind of analogical sense, then toss out the whole chapter. And anyone who holds that the mental states theory could provide the meaning of psychological terms is not going to accept that.

Now, of course, no one holds the logical positivist/behaviourist views anymore (this isn’t the ironic part yet, although for some reason Philipse does not harp as much on its lack of acceptance as he does for Cartesian dualism), and so I think it best to move on to Philipse’s preferred alternative, that of the later Wittgenstein. As far as I can tell from Philipse’s description … it’s about looking at the behaviour of human beings and ascribing psychological terms using that. Well, at least, that’s going to be the heart of how Philipse will use the argument. In short, Philipse claims that the terms describe “capacities, inclinations, states or occurrences to human beings“[pg 100, emphasis in original]. He argues later, though, that we can indeed assign psychological terms to animals, which we do by their behaviour. Now, I’m pretty sure that I came across this theory in philosophy at some point, but given his description I’m having a hard time seeing, well, what’s so good about it or what it actually says. As described, it sounds like a half-baked attempt to bridge the two theories above, by denying that the meaning of a psychological term is just the behaviour that it spawns, but also that you can’t really have the meaning of the term without at least including the behaviour it spawns. The best and most popular attempt to do that is functionalism, and it seems to me at least that one of the Wittgenstein’s views — he differs from his early work to his later work — is at least the precursor to functionalism (the other is credited for behaviourism). So it is possible that what Philipse is describing here is a cut-rate functionalism, though don’t quote me on that because it’s been a while since I did Wittgenstein. Also (and here is where the irony arrives), Philipse denies that this is functionalism:

Of course, one might reject the third view … But in that case, one has to argue that this can be done on the basis of yet another semantical doctrine concerning psychological or personal terms, such as functionalism, for example, and one has to show that this semantical doctrine is superior to the third view discussed below.

[pg 97, emphasis added].

So, not functionalism, then … or at least not in Philipse’s mind. But the ironic part is that, well, Wittgenstein’s theory is, obviously, not new. It’s obviously rather old. And yet, the theory that is the predominant theory in cognitive science is … functionalism. It’s the theory that I learned over and over again in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science courses and that was typically presented as the best theory — generally even better than the neurological theories — of mind for Cognitive Science. On the other hand … I can’t remember the Wittgenstein theory. At all. This suggests that it isn’t anywhere near as accepted as functionalism is. Philipse’s refutation of Cartesian dualism — and even behaviourism — is that they aren’t accepted, but then he turns around and ignores the far more accepted theory and insists that it somehow has to demonstrate that it is more plausible than the theory … that most philosophers don’t find as plausible as functionalism. By relying on philosophical acceptance to make his case, he ends up undercutting his own theory, because it isn’t as accepted.

And it only gets worse when you realize why he is ignoring both the mental states theory and functionalism. The reason is that both of them are, in fact, implementation independent. For mental states, if Data is really feeling pain then he feels pain, no matter whether he has a positronic brain or not (most of the objections would be that a positronic brain cannot produce pain sensations, not that it isn’t a human brain). For functionalism, if there is a structure that fills the right functional role it is pain, regardless of how that is implemented. This is problematic for Philipse because ultimately what he wants to argue is that since God doesn’t have a physical body He can’t have any psychology and ultimately can’t be a person. For the former, that will be an indirect argument, but he makes it directly for the second part (which will be covered in the next post). Only by tying his view of psychological terms to human beings specifically can he do that, and he does that with Wittgenstein’s view. Of course, that this potentially leaves out animals — see the idea of judging them by their behaviour — or AIs or even sufficiently different aliens is not something that Philipse allows himself to be concerned with … but anyone who cares about getting the concepts right is going to have to be concerned with.

Philipse points out that Swinburne argues against the Wittgenstein conception of the meaning of psychological terms, argue essentially that we can have psychological states without expressing them outwardly and that we don’t need to limit the ascription of psychological terms only to those things that express them the way we express them, so God might express them instead, for example, by “making marks in the sand”. Philipse takes on the first objection by insisting that we have to presume that an agent has expressed some behavioural signs of psychological states before we are justified in saying that in this case they still have them even though they aren’t expressing them. However, he runs into his old nemesis the mental states theory again that would argue that if someone was, for some reason, physically incapable of expressing, say, anger that wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t feel it, just that we might not be justified in ascribing those states to that being. And Philipse, to have his argument come off, needs to establish that such a being is not possible, that you simply could not have a being that had psychological states but couldn’t express them bodily. He wants us to accept that there is no such thing, not that if there was such a thing we’d have a really hard time figuring out what psychological state it was in at the moment. So this simply won’t work; Swinburne’s argument does, in fact, demonstrate that a being can have psychological states that they do not express, and all Philipse can do here is insist that the way these things are for us — for example, that we learn to hide our emotions by learning what the normal behaviours are — is how they must be for all beings, which would be him simply assuming what he purports to demonstrate.

It is with the second argument that Philipse indirectly argues that if you don’t have a body then you can’t have psychological states, and so that implementation matters. Unfortunately, he actually tries to do that in a really, really horrid way, as he counters the “marks in the sand” argument with, essentially, “Don’t you need a body to make marks in the sand?”, which he then uses to say “So you have to do it by metaphor!” Except … this argument assumes that God cannot interact at all with the material world! If God can interact with the material world without a body, then He can make marks in the sand. And if Philipse thinks it reasonable to say that God cannot interact with the material world without a body, then Philipse would have, in fact, pretty much refuted theism. It’s no wonder that Coyne likes Philipse, when they make the same mistake: just as Coyne tries to establish that faith and science are incompatible because faith does not produce knowledge, Philipse tries to establish that God cannot have psychological states because God can’t interact at all with the physical world without a body. But if they could establish the latter, then that’s a much more serious issue for theism than the one that they are trying to justify with that claim. Which is why, then, theists won’t simply accept that. And Philipse doesn’t establish that here, and if he’d done it earlier he really should have just quit there and ended the book.

At any rate, in the next post we’ll get to the sections that had me wondering ““Look, are you REALLY a philosopher?”



5 Responses to “Philipse on Psychological Terms”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    I got lost on the end of the first paragraph, this is very technical.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Unfortunately, that’s a side effect of the work; Philipse is both very technical here and doesn’t explain his part well at all, leaving me to have to try to do it. Sorry about that.

  2. Philipse on Personal Identity | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it’s been over a year since I last talked about “God in the Age of Science”, but I haven’t forgotten about it. So here I’ll talk about the last section in Chapter […]

  3. mnb0 Says:

    “Philipse tries to establish that God cannot have psychological states because God can’t interact at all with the physical world without a body.”
    Actually Philipse says that it’s meaningless to say that God can have any psychological state if He can’t express them. That’s not the same.
    Jumping from this strawman to your appeal to tribalism “we don’t need to worry” is quite a fallacy for someone of your caliber (you are one of the very rare apologists who actually taught me something positive ….)
    The good thing of Philipse’s book is that he tries to meet scientific standards himself. His example is “God loves X”. He sums up the four ways humans express love, ways that are not available to God by definition. You are invited to present a way, but simply refuse to do so. You are also invited to explain what “God loves X” means (to natural beings like us specifically) if He doesn’t have any way available to express that love.
    And this applies to every single example of a supernatural entity interacting with a natural one: “God created the Universe”, “humans have a soul”, (supernatural) fairies tend the flowers in my backyard to make them blossom more beautifully etc. etc.
    Preferably without appeals to tribalism.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Obviously, it’s been two years since I wrote this post, so I have to re-read it to try to remember what I was thinking at the time, so please forgive me for vagueness and the like.

      I deny both that I’ve created/attacked a strawman and that my argument is tribalism.

      For the accusations of strawman, I said that it was an indirect argument, and I submit that his claim is definitely stronger than a mere epistemic “If God has psychological states we don’t have a reference point to understand them” based on two arguments:

      1) The definition he uses for psychological terms is explicit in insisting that if you can’t express psychological terms you don’t have them, and then he argues that God can’t ever express those psychological terms because He isn’t physical.

      2) He takes on Swinburne’s argument that is basically that we can indeed have psychological terms or states even if we can’t express them not by saying that if someone did we could only ascribe them to that entity by analogy or metaphor, but instead by arguing that God still can’t express them and holding the line that not being able to express them means you can’t have them.

      Now, he indeed could be going more after a line that if God has them, they have to be so different from ours that we’d have to use analogy and metaphor, but his arguments don’t really work to establish that, in other places — and even in this chapter — he wants to establish that God can’t be a person or can’t have personal traits if He’s immaterial so the interpretation is consistent with what he talks about later, and even if you want to take that as the most reasonable interpretation you’d have to note that I went after that as well by pointing out that we generally DO ascribe psychological terms/states to people by analogy to ourselves and so we can’t really criticize if we have to do that for God as well. And on top of that, not using analogy too often is Swinburne’s and Philipse’s concern. I’m not at all concerned with having to use analogy if the argument works (and as you should know I don’t think any argument works here).

      He sums up the four ways humans express love, ways that are not available to God by definition. You are invited to present a way, but simply refuse to do so. You are also invited to explain what “God loves X” means (to natural beings like us specifically) if He doesn’t have any way available to express that love.

      Sure … he rules it out by HIS definition. The entire first half of my post is dedicated to giving reasons why I don’t think his definition fits. Thus, I can say that God loves us in the same way that we would love each other, with suitable adjustments for position and the like, and all Philipse could do is push for his definition. But I have no reason to accept Philipse’s definition just because, especially when the reasons he gives for adopting it are so weak and I have reasons independent of this debate to prefer the others (like the fact that both mental states and functionalism are implementation independent, which allows for AIs and aliens without brains to potentially have them as well).

      Also, Philipse hasn’t demonstrated that an immaterial being can’t interact with the material world, and if he could then the least of the theist’s problems would be expressing psychological states.

      Now, that might be where you’re arguing for “tribalism”, as I say that theists don’t need to accept his definitions or assertions if it leads to him refuting their position. My counter is that I’m saying that if he’s advancing a definition in a debate that supports his side and destroys the other side, he had better support it in a way that demonstrates that we should select it for reasons other than that it makes his argument work. Otherwise, the other side will simply refuse to accept the definition and the debate will get nowhere. Philipse, in my opinion, tosses out things he accepts but that theists are not going to accept a lot and expects us to go along with him. It made the end of the book incredibly annoying, since I wasn’t convinced by his arguments in the first part and all of his arguments in the last part relied on my having done so to have any credibility as an argument.

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