Dennett’s Propositional Attitudes


ABSTRACT: The following paper will seek to do two things: succinctly outline Dennett’s defense of propositional attitudes as having causal powers over human behaviour using the intentional stance, and subsequently analyze the specific downfalls in his position which render his argument ineffective. Dennett’s wish to validate propositional attitudes stems from the desire to retain a certain degree of scientific certainty without doing away with the language of beliefs, values and intentions. His answer to the body-mind problem is to explain the how abstract sounding phenomena such as intentions are able to affect the physical actions of humans. A critical analysis, it will be argued, exposes the limitations of Dennett’s argument. Potential defenses Dennett might offer will be considered. However, each will be shown to either fail to meet the challenge set by criticisms, or else appeal to faulty reasoning. It will be concluded that the intentional stance is ultimately flawed.

A propositional attitude is an umbrella term used to refer to a certain set of beliefs one holds towards a certain state of affairs. The topic of propositional attitudes is met with controversy when discussion of their nature and function is raised. The question of the causal powers of propositional attitudes and their ability to affect intentionality is hotly debated among philosophers and psychologists alike. There are those adopt the realist stance, discarding propositional attitudes as folk psychology that only works in limited domains and is unreliable as a scientific theory. In opposition to this are interpretationists, who argue that the commonsense psychological approach of propositional attitudes is viable and that it provides a satisfactory explanation of human actions. In general, one might say that realists treat intentions as objective criteria, while the interpretationist view considers beliefs in a way that renders them relative and purely subjective. In his article “True Believers: The Intentional Stance and Why it Works”, Daniel Dennett expresses his views on the legitimacy of propositional attitudes. In relation to the polarizing positions of realism and interpretationism, Dennett occupies somewhat of an intermediary stance; he accounts for propositional attitudes as objective phenomena that may be explained through an appeal to rationality and beliefs using the intentional stance. This approach will be analyzed; following an exegesis of his position, the strengths and weaknesses of Dennett’s theory will be evaluated.

To begin, Dennett views that the idea of having two mutually exclusive approaches of realism and interpretationism as a false dichotomy. He appropriates certain elements of both these view points in his thesis, affirming that beliefs are objective, but they may be discerned from the intentional stance. Dennett begins by tracing the origins of the problem of propositional attitudes by making the distinction between three kinds of strategies that may be used to understand something: the physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance. The physical stance, as the name suggests, aims to explain the behavior of a system through laws of physics that will affect it, given its physical constitution and the environment it finds itself in (Chalmers 557). The design stance operates on the idea that objects are created in accordance with a certain design which allows one to predict the behavior of the object at hand (558). The intentional stance refers to the beliefs and desires of an object. More specifically, it requires one to view the agent as rational, consider its beliefs, consider its desires and finally, determine how it will act based on the principle that it will seek to further the goals of these desires in accordance with beliefs (558). The difficulty arises when one tries to answer on what grounds beliefs may be attributed. Complicated beliefs, ones which are based on more than just sensory experience, require one to trace a “lineage of… [argumentation]” (559). This action is derived from the idea that one attributes beliefs to a system to which they presumably belong. The attribution of desires is also required in this case, which is also done on the criteria of what desires the system has. This process indicates that belief and desire attribution are closely related; in general, one might say that we attribute desires that a system believes are good (559). The introduction of language complicates the relationship of desires to beliefs. It appears as though, in some cases at least, desires would not be able to be attributed without language. This would reduce the consideration of propositional beliefs to mere linguistic analysis, thereby eliminating their causal power. However, Dennett is quick to make the claim that this does not reduce beliefs to “sentences stored in the head” (559). Instances in which humans consider or want a sentence to be true, says Dennett, are exceptional cases of belief and should not be regarded as “models for the whole domain” (559). Dennett also says that cases of irrationality, where one might not believe all implications of their beliefs, or else when one holds several contradictory beliefs, raise unique problems which he will not concern himself with at present (559). Dennett goes on to defend the intentional stance by making the claim that people use it so habitually and effortlessly that it’s often overlooked; it is really the only way to explain behavior of humans (560).
Dennett does feel, however, that the distinction must be made between systems where the intentional stance is in operation, as opposed to systems that might be conveniently considered as having an intentional stance. He gives the example of a lectern (560-1), stating that since the lectern stands in
front of the room, we could make the claim that it can be understood to have an intentional system which believes the good thing to do is to remain where it is. Dennett admits that such instances cannot be taken seriously. The problem with applying the intentional stance to systems which obviously do not have it, such as a lectern, is that such application does not give one any predictive power that they would not antecedently have if the intentional stance had not been applied. However, with humans, animals, or even complicated artifacts like computers, the “only strategy that is at all practical is the intentional strategy” (561). The fact that we consider things such as computers to be believers, although they are clearly different from humans, reflects upon our intellectual limits. Dennett says this might lead one to suggest a relativity of sorts, that a system may be considered a believer from one viewpoint and not from another (561). Dennett holds that this is incorrect, since intentional stances always present the same objective facts. He says too much focus is placed on instances in which intentional stances yield “dubious results” (561); they may not always predict behavior exactly, they may at least narrow down the possibilities of how an agent might behave. Dennett believes this so-called neutrality is actually a strength of the intentional system, since it allows one to use it in more complicated situations that involve chain predictions where the physical stance would prove insufficient (561).
Next, Dennett answers an objection Robert Nozick raises via a thought experiment (562-3). In a nutshell, Nozick argues that “some beings of vastly superior intelligence” (562) could “predict the individual behaviors of all various moving bodies they observe without ever treating them as intentional
systems” (562). On this supposition, humans would be treated as simple machines and all human behavior could be predicted using the physical stance. However, answers Dennett, the alien would be unable to account for patterns of behavior and would also fail to see that the individual acted one way out
of an infinity of other possible actions. To illustrate his point, Dennett extends the thought expeirment to the following: an alien and a human (who was disguised as an alien, so as to allow the alien to treat him as a serious opponent) both observed a conversation in which Mrs. Gardner received a call and made the following statements: “You’re coming home early? Within the hour? And bringing the boss home to dinner? Pick up a bottle of wine on the way home then…” (562). The human would predict that “a large metallic vehicle with rubber tires will come to a stop in the drive within one hour, disgorging two human beings, one of whom will be holding a paper bag containing a bottle containing an alcoholic fluid” (562). The alien, on the other hand, would predict something along the lines of the acceleration of the vehicle, its speed, etcetera (562). From the point of view of the alien, who has no conception of the intentional strategy, the human’s prediction would certainly be incomprehensible and impressive. This thought experiment points to the idea that humans treat other individuals as intentional systems, and such treatment is unavoidable. Dennett hopes to show the deficiency of explanations that make use of the physical stance, and ultimately, the void we are left with if the intentional stance is rejected.
Possible objections by the realists could be raised on the grounds that since humans are not perfectly rational, the patterns pointed to by the intentional stance are incomplete; if perfect rationality were feasible, there would be no need to employ the intentional stance at all. Dennett answers that although “there is no fact of the matter of exactly which beliefs and desires a person has” (563), this does not delegitimize the intentional stance by “[surrendering] to relativism” (563) because the question why one holds certain values is not objective in itself. Dennett also defends himself against the  interpretationist label by stating that although one might be tempted to refer to things such as thermometers as having intentional systems, such examples only serve to acknowledge the “logical status of belief attribution” (564). Dennett states that the difference between a human and a thermostat, although language of beliefs may be used in reference to both, is that more complex agents, such as humans, contain internal representations of the environment, so that it would be virtually impossible to change some aspect of a system’s connection to the environment without changing the system itself. To contrast, one could take a simple thermometer and remove it from the boiler it is attached to, thus changing its beliefs, without changing the thermometer itself. Dennett states that “there is no magic moment in the transition from a simple thermostat to a system that really has internal representation of the world around it” (565); the problems with attributing beliefs to humans and thermostats are the same in nature, they just differ in degree.
In his conclusion, Dennett attempts to answer why intentional stance works. One could say that it works in regards to complex systems because evolution has designed humans to be rational; behaviorists offer a similar answer on the basis of response and reinforcement. Dennett admits that while true, this is somewhat uninformative, since it neglects to answer exactly how this evolutionary development functions (566). Another reason as to why the intentional stance works could be that an “account of how the strategy works and the account of how the mechanism works will (roughly) coincide” (566). That is, for each belief, there is some corresponding internal state. Dennett believes that some form of these answers will be correct. He believes that our brains avoid the problem of combinatorial explosion, which many complex machines run into, on account of language “as an indefinitely extendable principle of representation” (566). In essence, Dennett believes that the fact that we have not been able to come up with an alternative is sufficient reason to indicate the intentional stance as the language of thought is the most plausible explanation we currently have.
Dennett’s account of propositional attitudes, although sounding plausible in general, is weak and does not answer the more subtle problems raised by his position. The position he has assumed as being somewhat of an intermediary between realists and interpretationists is indicative of the fact that he wishes to maintain scientific certainty without changing much of how we understand human communication. His introduction of the application of the intentional stance is systematic and appears to unfold with scientific method-like precision: “first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have…Then you figure out what desires it ought to have…and finally you predict that this rational agent will further its goals in the light of its beliefs” (558). Well thought out as this approach seems, it skims over the most important and most difficult portion of the entire process – that of determining what beliefs an agent ought to have. Dennett fails to address this ever important point, which is actually the crux of what his position depends on. He comments on the practical inapplicability of the intentional stance to things such as thermometers by commenting that they are fundamentally different from more complex systems, such as humans, and explains that without the intentional system one would be unable to account for patterns of human behaviour, as considered in the alien thought experiment.
However, all of these divergences fail to explain how and on what basis one attributes beliefs in the first place. Seeming to realize this hole in his argument, Dennett concludes the article with the statement that there is no “plausible alternative” (566) to his theory, thereby placing the burden of proof on those who oppose him. However, such a justification for adopting the intentional stance is incredibly weak and fails to take into account several schools of thought that do in fact provide serious objections, such as reductionism, for example. Furthermore, the idea that in explaining behavior one ought to look at what “beliefs the agent ought to have” (559), is problematic. The use of the word “ought” implies some criteria which the agent should comply with, criteria which should be reflected in the agent’s beliefs. Given this point, the intentional stance could be taken as a restatement of the design stance, especially when one considers that Dennett does maintain that “belief is a perfectly objective phenomenon” (557), as stated in his thesis. If belief is an objective phenomenon, then it ought to be objectively deduced without appeal to vague criteria such as what one ought to believe. One might even go so far as to say that Dennett commits the naturalistic fallacy in equating “ought” with “is”; just because one ought to hold certain beliefs in theory does not mean they necessarily do hold them in practice. Dennett might appeal to the internal representation of an agent and say that it will hold beliefs it ought to by virtue of its connections with the environment. However, the internal representation theory fails to address how exactly the agent is connected to its environment and what the nature or structure of such connections is. Dennett might answer with the claim that one tends to focus on “dubious” instances where the intentional stance fails without seeing the infinite number of other instances where it succeeds. This is nothing but a stock answer that could be given in reply to virtually any objection when other defenses have failed.
In conclusion, that it can of propositional attitudes using the intentional stance, although a philosophical theory is the defense be held up against criticism, which the intentional stance cannot. The valiant attempt at combining scientific certainty with folk psychology, ultimately does not withstand criticism.

Work Cited

Chalmers, David J., ed. Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Karolina Wisniewski (’11) is a Philosophy major at York University.

Art courtesy of roblfc1892

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