Saturday, February 10, 2007

A pragmatic problem?

Suppose we want and have a pragmatic theory of mental states. According to this theory, mental states are the causes of behavior. Individuals of different species think in order to determine what to do. Mental states have contents; they are about something. This ingredient is important. The content of the mental state is said to be a possible state of the environment. Thus, mental states are ways of considering both, how the environment is and how it could be. A network of mental states gives, therefore, not only a way in which the environment is/could be, but also a way to modify it so that it becomes something that it currently is not. This is a general theory of mental states.

Thus, we should not only consider mental states that are about non-psychological parts of the world. That is, we must also consider mental states about mental states. All the way from ordinary second-order mental states – e.g., as when I believe that my belief that Ann Arbor is inhumanly cold is false – to equally ordinary, but less common, theoretical stands – e.g. as when I believe that a pragmatic theory of mental states is the correct one. If the latter ones are also mental states – as they seem to be – they should be accounted for by our theory. If our theory is correct, there must be a pragmatic reason causing that theory to be in our heads (or believed by us).

There are some mythical accounts of such theoretical states. Some of us – at least I – were educated / socialized in the belief that theory is done for the sake of truth. That is to say that philosophical and scientific research is done for the sake of the truth about the problems of philosophy and science. I now believe this is a big mythical story with two problematic claims. First, it assumes a ridiculous notion of truth, as if it were some thing beyond the ordinary objects of experience, something that we always aim at, but never reach. This story is mistaken. The truth-value discourse is an essentially psychological one. It is beliefs that are said to be true or false, not things, properties, or events. Second, it goes against our pragmatic theory of mental states by posing a pragmatic problem. If such a myth is true, then philosophers engage into philosophical mental states for no good reason beyond simply engaging in them. There is no philosophical thinking that is the means for something else. If this were true the number of happy philosophers would be quite greater than the actual one.

However, if our pragmatic theory is true, then all mental states, all thinking, is a means for a pragmatic goal. Philosophers and Physicists alike, do their thinking for something else than just thinking about problems. Individually this translates into goals like getting good jobs, being socially recognized, and even becoming a famous, fancy star within someone’s history book. Socially speaking, to think about our theories – to think about our thoughts, that is – has a very clear goal. Theory making is a way of revising our beliefs and, thus, a way of improving the means by which we make of the environment a more comfortable place. To keep on revising our beliefs is an issue of mental health. We should do it every few months, just like we do with other vital organs of ours.

In any case, one thing is true. Scientists and Philosophers do not pose a pragmatic problem to our theory of mind. They also do what they do for the sake of something else, and not for the sake of truth.