Meaning as gloss

Frances Eganinterviewed by Richard Marshall.

Frances Egan is a mind-bombing philosopher who wonders on explanatory frameworks of science, the fits and starts of mind evolution, the links between neuroscience and meaning, the redness of tomatoes, the difference between horizon and zenith moons, fMRI interfaces with philosophy, mind/computer uploading and the consciousness of the USA. All in all, she is a deep groove hipster of the philo-mindster jive. Awesome!

3:AM:What made you a philosopher and has it been rewarding so far?

Frances Egan:I read some political philosophy on my own in high school, but I wasn’t exposed to philosophy systematically until college. I took a philosophy course in my first semester because I was looking for something different. After a brief introduction to logic we discussed the problem of evil: how could an omnipotent, benevolent god allow so much pain and suffering? I was raised Catholic but that was the end of religion for me. Nothing quite that dramatic has happened since, but thinking about fundamental questions and trying to go where the arguments lead continues to be rewarding and fun.

3:AM:You’re a philosopher of mind. Why should we listen to philosophers now that scientists are finding out about minds?

FE:Philosophy is as important now as ever, even given the rapid pace of empirical discoveries about the mind. Science does not always present its findings in a way that makes obvious the implications for our entrenched ways of thinking about things, nor is science always interested in such implications. For example, general relativity undercut the idea that two events could be simultaneous except relative to a shared frame of reference. One of the jobs of philosophers is to draw out these implications.

In addition, I see philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science more generally (I take philosophy of mind to be a sub-field of philosophy of science), as concerned with foundational issues in the sciences, questions about how the explanatory frameworks of the sciences are to be interpreted. Of course, many scientists are interested in foundational issues in their disciplines (theoretical physicists, for example, and many cognitive scientists), and these issues often bear on perennial philosophical questions. So I see the work of philosophers of science as continuous with scientists working on foundational issues in the specific disciplines.

3:AM:One of the big theories of how our minds work is that developed by Jerry Fodor. This is a theory that is realist about intentionality, that is, we explain behaviour by assuming that the behaviour of people is explained by their mental states, these mental states can represent the world and produce the reasons for the behaviour. Is that right? Before assessing this approach, can you sketch the general picture that Fodor develops?

FE:Yes, that is roughly right. Fodor, like the overwhelming majority of philosophers of mind, is an intentional realist: he holds that overt behavior is caused by mental states that represent the world as being a certain way, and so can be true or false, accurate or inaccurate, depending on whether the world really is that way. My belief that it is raining causes me to grab an umbrella as I rush out the door. If the wet road was actually caused by an early morning street-cleaning, then my belief is false and the action that it caused is inappropriate. Moreover, these mental states are roughly described by a loose system of platitudes – called ‘folk’ or ‘commonsense’ psychology – that we all know implicitly and use to predict and explain the behavior of other people.

Fodor goes much further. He thinks that the intentional mental states (beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, and so on) that cause behavior are essentially linguistic in nature. To believe that it is raining is to have a structure in one’s head – literally, a sentence – that means that it is raining. According to this language of thought picture, thinking is literally inner speech.

3:AM:So how do you assess this approach? I think you like the way it keeps commonsense psychology, but there are difficulties too for you in terms of how the whole programme fits together. Is that right?

FE:I do want to preserve commonsense psychology, but we need to be clear what we are preserving. In general, commonsense fixes on phenomena that impact our lives; it sets the preliminary agenda for science. But often it merely gestures at the phenomena and shouldn’t be taken too seriously as explanatory theory. This is true of commonsense psychology. It’s a loose collection of platitudes like ‘people tend to act out of their beliefs’ and ‘people tend to avoid what they don’t like’; hardly much of a theory, and certainly not ‘protoscience’.

The explanations of behaviour it provides are pretty shallow. It holds that our behaviour is caused by our beliefs and desires, which it identifies by their contents. My belief that it is raining and my belief that flights to Paris are really cheap right now cause different behaviours. But commonsense doesn’t tell us much more about the kind of thing beliefs really are. They may be sentences in the brain, though I doubt it. They may be more global properties of the subject, dependent on widely scattered areas of the nervous system. Commonsense just doesn’t care how beliefs and desires have their causal powers.

Fodor’s language of thoughtthesis – the idea that thinking is inner speech – goes well beyond commonsense psychology. It aims to describe the internal processes that produce behavior. There isn’t much empirical support for this view. It’s a very elegant picture – it’s the way that god, unencumbered by any real-world constraints, might have designed minds – but it’s not likely to be the way that minds developed naturally, as a product of evolution, in fits and starts.