Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A simple reductive theory of content

The simple normative theory of content says that:

  1. A state S of x represents that p iff x ought not be in S if not-p.
The "ought not be in S if not-p" should be read as a conditional norm. In particular, it should not be simply analyzed as "not-p → ought(not-S)" where the → is a conditional.

Some illustrations. One ought not say "Snow is white" if it's not the case that snow is white. So saying "Snow is white" represents that snow is white. One ought not kill a person without appropriate authority. Therefore, killing a person represents having that authority. One ought not have an apparent perception of an elephant if it's not the case that an elephant is present. Hence, an apparent perception of an elephant represents that an elephant is present. A joey ought not venture far from the pouch if it is not mature enough. Hence, the joey's venturing far from the pouch represents that it is mature enough.

The joey example shows that representation is a wide phenomenon, and need not involve a mind (the joey has a mind of some sort, but the representation in question need not be mental). The speech example shows that the theory requires the truth account of the norm of assertion.

Objection 1: If that p entails that q, and x ought not to be in S if not-p, then x ought not to be in S if not-q. But then if a state represents a proposition, it represents everything which that proposition entails. And that is implausible.

Response: It does not seem to me that the conclusion is really so very bad. Bradwardine's account of assertion has a similar consequence, and that seems to be a strength of it. But I do not know that the conclusion follows. It depends on the logic of obligations. Suppose the entailment thesis is true and imagine that I validly promise not to scratch my head unless it's an odd numbered day of the month. Suppose that I scratch my head on the 8th of the month. Do I then violate an infinite number of obligations: the duty not to scratch if the day is even, the duty not to scratch if the day is divisible by four, the duty not to scratch if the day is even and less than 9, the duty not to scratch if the day is even and less than 10, and so on? This seems to be multiplying immorality without good reason. It seems better to say: I now have a duty not to scratch my head if it's not an odd numbered day, and if I scratch my head on a day that's divisible by four, then necessary I violate that duty.

Objection 2: It is very plausible that on this view every living thing represents something.

Response: What's wrong with that? We have simply reprised a part of Leibniz's system.

Objection 3: Often norms conflict. When they do, the same state can end up representing contradictory states of affairs. That seems counterintuitive.

Response: We should take the "ought" in (1) as an all-things-considered ought for x. We could deny that the prudential and moral oughts are potentially conflicting all-things-considered oughts. (Either by denying that they are potentially conflicting or denying of at least one of them that it is all-things-considred.) If we can't do that, then we do in fact get the consequence that sometimes the same state can represent contradictory states of affairs. But why is that so bad? After all, if I am speaking to two people, each of whom speaks a different dialect of English, I might duplicitously utter a sentence which to one speaker will represent p and to the other a conflicting q. In such a case, my one speaking does represent two things that conflict.

Objection 4: It is sometimes all-things-considered right to speak falsely.

Response: Lying is always all-things-considered wrong. It is a betrayal of trust which does not treat the interlocutor as an end in herself. And it may be that the right way to understand the moral duty correlate to the wrong of lying is as the duty to speak only the truth.

Final remark: Even though these objections can be overcome, I have a strong intuition that representation involves a mind, which (1) does not do justice to. For that reason, I reject the view.


RkBall said...

A learned man once emailed me saying, "q entails not q". Do you have any idea what this could mean? Something like "choosing q means not choosing what is not q", or something? Maybe it was, "p entails not p".

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suppose it just means q is self-contradictory.

RkBall said...

OK, in that case I'll stop contemplating its deep existential implications...