Rosenberg tells us that there’s little hope of ascertaining the meaning of any individual human action because the particular motives expressed in thoughts about ends and means cannot be known. If I understand the claim, it’s that our intentional folk-psychology has little value for limning the causes of human action. Even if we knew the reasons for which someone thinks he did something, these reasons are at best “rough indicators” of the real, non-intentional causal structures in the brain that underlie behavior. “Biography” (folk-psychology) is a blunt explanatory instrument at best and mostly just storytelling.
It’s hard to know what to say here. On physicalist assumptions, the proximate causes of human action are neural events, so any explanation of what we do that invokes beliefs, desires, and other intentional mental states succeeds only if they connect to the neural reality in some reliable way. But there’s plenty of room to maneuver here. At one extreme, the folk-psychological states ascribed to human beings are type-identical to neural states, but if this classical reduction of the mental to the physical fails (as, presumably, it does) it might be true that any given, particular belief, desire, etc., is identical to some particular neural state. If this token-identity fails as well, we can proceed to more loosely conceived connections of intentional states to brains. For example, we ascribe mental states holistically to minds construed as engines of massively parallel, non-symbolic, computation. So someone believes that P just if his brain realizes a particular pattern of weightings distributed across large assemblies of neurons; thus (as in the Churchlands) intentional states roughly correspond to points in multidimensional representational spaces. Or (following Dennett) we say that the behavior of very complex organisms (and other devices) exhibit real patterns that we usefully and economically detect when we adopt the intentional stance. And so on. It’s not obvious where in all this we are entitled to say that the intentional idiom affords a rough approximation of the causes of behavior, and when we’re entitled to say only that it provides at most a blunt explanatory instrument. Rosenberg denies the former and accepts the latter, but the distinction is not clear.
One thing that seems obvious and, in light of the continuing preeminence of computationalist theories of the mind, important, is that we can couch powerful explanations in intentional terms, at least when the “minds” in question are artificial. We regularly and reliably explain how a device got from one computational state to another by reference to their representational content. The machine entered into the state that represents Q as an effect of being in the state that represents If P then Q, and the state the represents P. The clever wiring makes causation mirror logical inference. It is possible, though not for mere humans, to explain the computer’s behavior in terms of physics alone. And for most practical purposes, explanations couched in the higher-level vocabulary of electrical engineering are similarly out of human reach. Yet we happily explain computation in intentional terms, relying on the token-identification of representational and physical states. Extant artificial computation is, of course, much simpler and neater than what transpires in brains, but it does not seem obvious that this precludes intentional explanations of human minds and behavior.
We build machines that realize a secure connection of the normative realm of reasons to the natural, physical, realm of causes. The intentional, by design, piggybacks on natural causation, ultimately on physics, and intentional explanations are the best explanations we can hope for here. How likely is it that we, products of natural selection, manage this with our handiwork but natural selection didn’t manage it in putting us together? Is it plausible that the result of eons of evolution is an organism that has a high degree of inclusive fitness because it does a good job of explaining, predicting, and (sometimes even) controlling the behavior of other organisms—predators, prey, and one’s conspecifics—by means of a folk-psychological theory of mind, if all this affords it is a blunt explanatory instrument? How blunt is blunt? Our ancestors caught food, avoided being food, and seduced mates so as to become our ancestors because, along with some luck, they were endowed with an instrument that worked.
We may agree with the Churchlands and praise folk-psychology as a marvelous instrument that reached maturity millennia ago and is currently largely moribund, being refined on the margins by our artists but long since having come up against the gross limits of what it can explain. Whether its elimination in favor of something better, something that can be smoothly integrated into the natural sciences, is a practical possibility remains to be seen. But—and this seems the crucial point against Rosenberg—the demise of propositional attitude psychology is not the demise of the intentional. The Churchlands’ eliminationist program is, as they call it, neurosemantics, aspiring to explain human behavior as the effect of neural states that represent things.
The focus of Rosenberg’s denigration of folk-psychology might lie elsewhere. If the mental states to which we have conscious access and which we cast as beliefs and desires are something akin to epiphenomena, then explanations that invoke them might simply be false, the intentional states playing no real role in the causation of behavior. This is not an attack on intentionality per se. The true explanations might, as in Freud, be intentional yet accessible not at all or only by way of therapy. Rosenberg (for reasons that do not seem adequate) contends that brain states that cause behavior could not possibly mean anything, so folk-psychological “explanations” wind up explaining nothing. But even if they could, it might be that they lie beyond our introspective powers, powers whose feebleness Rosenberg highlights earlier in the book.
The other possible ground to dismiss folk-psychological explanations is a view of causation, roughly the idea that true claims about cause and effect must be formulated either in terms of physics, or in terms reducible to it. When we assert that Marvin went to the store because he wanted some beer and he believed that in the circumstances the best way to obtain some was by going to the store, these reasons can be the causes of his going to the store only if they are identical—token wise or maybe even type wise—to the neural states that actually cause the bodily movement. I suspect that we’re entitled to be more generous with ourselves when it comes to describing causation, and that reasons can be identified as causes without being so closely tied to the underlying physical reality. (Here I ignore what seems to me the fact that in any event the neural stuff cannot be reduced to the physical stuff. The neuroscientific and evolutionary baby are at risk of going down the drain with the folk-psychological bathwater.) To say that one thing causes another is, as is well known, in part a practical matter, dependent on human interests, and thus not relegated to the God’s-eye point of view of physics. Physics fixes the world’s facts, including the facts about causation, but this does not imply that all the facts about causation are facts of physics.
But if the only truths about causation are those couched in the vocabulary of physics and whatever special sciences are reducible to it, then Rosenberg properly dichotomizes scientific explanation and mere storytelling.
It is striking how seemingly unselfconsciously Rosenberg proffers explanations of the kind he tells us are useless. For example, in the process of informing us that all history, being no more than folk-psychology on a grand scale, provides are entertaining stories, not real explanations, he offers the example of Henry Kissinger, who became a power broker by convincing people that knowing about the 1815 Congress of Vienna was going to help Nixon deal with the Soviets. Whether what Kissinger convinced people of was true or false, here we have a folk-psychological explanation of how he came to pre-eminence. Later in the chapter, Rosenberg offers a perfectly reasonable, yet patently folk-psychological, explanation of the Chinese practice of binding female feet. It’s all about what people wanted and what they believed about how to get it. (I’m enough of a humanist to suspect that this explanation, though correct, is missing something, viz., the rich symbolism that was part and parcel of the cultural practice.) And it’s worth noting that this folk-psychological explanation is at the same time a satisfying selectionist explanation.
Rosenberg’s discussion of innovation, discovery, creativity, etc., is an instance of a familiar pattern. We do not explain it by learning what it really is, i.e., that it’s the product of random variation and selection in a brain that operates on stochastic principles. To learn this is to find that there is no such thing. It’s not the mysterious, magical thing some might be inclined to imagine it is, so, since they are right about what it is, they are wrong about there being such a thing. More scorched earth eliminativism.
Rosenberg’s claims about history are interesting. There’s a familiar account on which explanation and prediction are essentially the same thing; explanation is “postdiction” in contrast to prediction. If this is true and we see that history cannot manage much in the way of prediction, maybe we should doubt its ability to explain anything. However, it seems plausible that a system, even one governed by deterministic laws, that is chaotic, as we might reasonably take the course of history to be, would be explainable after the fact but not reliably predictable. I assume, for example, that had the world’s leading historians known everything going on on 21 June 1914, they could not have predicted that a world war would be precipitated one week later. That Gavrito Princip and his pals would, in fact, carry off the assassination in Sarajevo and that this event would, in fact, cascade into world war was something no human being could have reasonably predicted. God, if his world really were governed by deterministic laws, would have known with certainty what was coming, but no human being could have reliably predicted the events that started the Great War. Nonetheless, retrospectively we know what started the war—Princip’s assassination of the Archduke—and this is a true, even if quite obviously very incomplete, explanation. The fine-grained knowledge of initial conditions needed for precise predictions isn’t needed for explanations. Any number of things going on in the summer of 1914 can be ignored as unknown and now unknowable, yet we still can explain what happened. There’s a big difference between knowing that the butterfly will flap its wings and thus predicting the hurricane, and knowing that it did, since we know that the hurricane ensued.
The unsurprising fact that historians seem fixated on the past and offer no predictions of the future is due to there being no laws of history. As Rosenberg tells us, history is large scale folk-psychology, and account of why human beings did what they did that invokes their beliefs and desires on the supposition that they are more or less rational. This is not a matter of knowing the (non-existent) laws that govern human behavior. It’s the result of having been supplied by natural selection with a mental module dedicated to making inferences about other minds, inferences we could not typically justify on the available evidence. That is to say, the folk-theory of mind is not a theory in the scientific sense; it involves no subsumption of events under genuine laws. I imagine that our evolved but quite specialized theory of mind isn’t particularly well-suited to explaining the behavior of remote and unobserved strangers. We can know, say, that Princip fired his gun at Ferdinand because he wanted to kill him and that he believed that in the circumstances that was the best way to bring about his death. Beyond this truism, I suppose that things get murky fairly quickly, and that a good explanation of why he wanted to assassinate the Archduke and believed that it was a good idea to act on that desire might not be easy to come by, even on the debatable assumption of more or less intact rationality. And to get from the shooting to the outbreak of hostilities one month later involves all manner of folk-psychological explanations, some trivial and others hard to come by. This is all hard enough after the fact and impossible beforehand.