The “about-ness” of thought

Consider, for example, the “about-ness” of thought. Does it make sense to say that one physical state is about another state? C. S. Lewis thought not:

We are compelled to admit between the thoughts of a terrestrial astronomer and the behaviour of matter several light-years away that particular relation we call truth. But this relation has no meaning at all if we try to make it exist between the matter of the star and the astronomer’s brain, considered as a lump of matter. The brain may be in all sorts of relations to the star no doubt: it is in a spatial relation, and a time relation, and a quantitative relation. But to talk of one bit of matter being true about another bit of matter seems to me to be nonsense. [1]

Surely the laws of physics govern these physical states without any reference at all to what they are “about”. If we knew all the physical facts about the world, I contend that it would be like watching a silent movie without subtitles. Different scenarios with respect to the meaning of what is going on could be compatible with the same physical state of the world. If two people are watching the same silent movie without subtitles, it is likely that each of them is seeing a somewhat different story line. There is nothing about what each is seeing on the screen that determines that either of them is correct about what is actually going on in the movie. If reality is fundamentally physical, and the state of the physical world does not uniquely determine what meaning a word has, it follows that the word has no determinate meaning. So how could there be any determinate meaning to the words and concepts that we use? W. V. Quine argued that physical information leaves it indeterminate as to what, say, a speaker of a foreign language means by the word gavagai. There is no fact of the matter as to whether the native is referring to “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit parts” [2]. But similarly, would not this argument also show that there is no fact of the matter as to what Quine means by naturalism when he says “naturalism is true”?

So we might develop the argument as follows:

  1. If naturalism is true, then there is no fact of the matter as to what someone’s thought or statement is about.
  2. But there are facts about what someone’s thought is about. (Implied by the existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Some philosophers of mind, known as eliminative materialists, maintain that since intentional states will probably not be found in the course of brain science, it follows that there are no intentional states of the human person. So, for instance, eliminative materialists maintain that there are no beliefs. The obvious question that occurs to most people when they hear this sort of thing is to ask, “You expect me to believe that?”

Although advocates of eliminative materialism have argued that the eliminativist position is not really self-refuting, attempts to defend eliminativism against this charge seem not to be successful, as Lynne Baker, William Hasker and I have argued in print [3]. Rather than going into a detailed discussion of this debate, I will just point out that to accept eliminative materialism is to accept something akin to the belief that we are brains in vats, or that in some other way we are massively deceived about everything. If this expedient is necessary to save naturalism from the argument from reason, it is a desperate one indeed, one that undermines the foundations of the very scientific enterprise on which it is based.

— V. Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (InterVarsity Press, 2003), pp. 74-76.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), p.64

[2] W. V. Quine, Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960), chaps. 1 and 2.

[3] Lynne Rudder Baker, Saving Belief (Princeton University Press, 1987); Victor Reppert, “Ramsey on Eliminativism and Self-Refutation”, Inquiry 34 (1991): 499-508; Victor Reppert, “Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question”, Metaphilosophy 23 (1992): 378-92; and William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Cornell University Press, 1999), pp.1-26.

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Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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