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Intentionality and partial belief


Suppose we wish to provide a naturalistic account of intentionality. Like several other philosophers, we focus on the intentionality of belief, hoping that we may later supplement our account to accommodate other intentional states like desires and fears. Now suppose that we also take partial beliefs or credences seriously. In cashing out our favoured theory of intentionality, we may for the sake of simplicity talk as if belief is merely binary or all-or-nothing. But we should be able to supplement or modify our account to accommodate credences. I shall argue, however, that it is difficult to do so with respect to certain causal or teleological theories of intentionality-in particular, those advanced by the likes of Stalnaker (Inquiry, 1984) and Millikan (J Philos 86:281–297, 1989). I shall first show that such theories are tailor-made to account for the intentionality of binary beliefs. Then I shall argue that it is hard to extend or supplement such theories to accommodate credences. Finally, I shall offer some natural ways of modifying the theories that involve an appeal to objective probabilities. But unfortunately, such modifications face problems.

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  1. I’ll not try to show that all causal or teleological theories of intentionality have difficulty accommodating credences. My focus is on those that attempt to account for the intentionality of belief directly. There are other causal or teleological theories that aim, in the first instance, to account for the intentionality of desire. (See, for example, Papineau 1993.) There are also theories that try, in the first instance, to account for the intentionality of representational states more basic than propositional attitudes. (See, for example, Fodor 1989.) For all I say, such theories may accommodate or may easily be supplemented or modified to accommodate credences very well—but how well will be a question for another day.

  2. (Harman (1986), p. 24) and (Pollock (2006), p. 94) hold that credence talk is replaceable by binary belief talk about objective probabilities. (Christensen (2004), pp. 18–20) and (Frankish (2009), pp. 77–78) argue against such a view.

  3. It will take me beyond the scope of this paper to defend such an assumption in depth. But several philosophers do subscribe to it. See, for example, (Weatherson (2005), p. 420), (Frankish (2009), pp. 76–77) and (Fantl and McGrath (2009), p. 154).

  4. Stalnaker’s theory is similar to and inspired by Stampe’s (1977).

  5. Millikan sometimes capitalises the word ‘normal’ to emphasise that she does not take it to mean statistically ‘typical or average or even, in many cases, at all common’ (p. 285). She holds that what counts as statistically normal depends on which reference class we happen to pick, whereas ‘the notion of semantic content clearly is not relative, in this manner, to arbitrary parameters’ (ibid., p. 281).

  6. Dretske (1988), like Millikan (1989), cashes out his theory of intentionality by invoking the notion of functions. Although there are important differences between the two theories, they are not important for the purpose of discussing whether the theories can accommodate credences, and what I say about Millikan’s theory with respect to credences should apply mutatis mutandis to Dretske’s theory.

  7. Schwitzgebel (2009) did ask, ‘If (simplifying a bit) the belief that a cow is there is just the belief apt to be caused, in normal circumstances, by a cow’s being there, what are we to say about the belief, with 0.4 degree of confidence, that a cow is there?’ (p. 271).

  8. Sometimes the term ‘full belief’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘binary belief’. But I’ll use the two terms differently. One may have a binary belief that \(p\) without having a full belief that \(p\) in the sense that one may believe that \(p\) without being certain of it.

  9. For example, see (Stalnaker (1984), p. 19).

  10. For example, if we know that S is rational and believes that the chance that \(p\) is true is 0.7, it may be reasonable to infer that she has a credence of 0.7 in \(p\). Cf. Lewis’s Principal Principle (Lewis 1980).

  11. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this concern.

  12. See also Davidson (1985).

  13. See, for example, (Maher (1993), p. 9). For Ramsey’s classic presentation of his representation theorem, see Ramsey (1990/1927).

  14. Admittedly, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of a theory that accounts for the intentionality of credence without accounting for the intentionality of binary or full belief. But suppose someone thinks that intermediate credences require different treatment from binary or full beliefs. Given what has been said above, the onus is on her to show that an account of the intentionality of credence won’t render a disparate account of the intentionality of binary or full beliefs redundant.

  15. Philosophers who endorse Whyte’s defence include (Papineau (1993), p. 74) and (Dokic and Engel (2005), p. 9).

  16. I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  17. This point is made in Tang (2014).

  18. For my purposes, any kind of probability that is not subjective probability counts as a kind of objective probability. Also, I prescind from issues regarding whether certain so-called probabilities (e.g. relative frequencies) really deserve to be thought of as probabilities. See Hájek (1997) for more on such issues.

  19. Certain problems may arise from the specific kind of physical probability invoked. For example, suppose that objective chance is invoked. On some views, the objective chance of a past event happening or of an event happening in a deterministic universe is either 0 or 1 (Lewis 1980). This means that if we have an intermediate credence of \(x\) in some past event happening or if our universe is deterministic and we have an intermediate credence of \(x\) in some future event happening, there won’t be a match between credence and objective probability. Now, it is implausible to claim that conditions are neither optimal nor normal in such cases. Having a partial belief that something in the past has happened, or living in a deterministic world and having a partial belief that some future event will happen does not mean that the environment is abnormal, or that our belief-forming mechanisms are not working properly, or that an organism can’t make use of its (partial) beliefs to perform certain functions successfully.

  20. Maher’s example was originally intended to show that credences cannot be understood as binary beliefs about physical probability. If credence talk can be replaced by talk of binary beliefs about objective probabilities, we should always be able to match credences with (believed) objective probabilities. But such a match is not always available: there are cases in which someone’s credence in \(p\) is \(x\), but she believes that the objective probability that \(p\) is true is not \(x\). For instance, one’s credence in the coin landing heads may be 0.5, but if one believes that the coin is two-headed, one will presumably believe that the objective probability of the coin landing heads is not 0.5.

  21. It won’t help to relax the requirement by holding that, under normal conditions, when a creature is \(100x\,\%\) confident that \(p\), then the objective probability of \(p\) being true does not deviate too wildly from \(x\). Suppose that the objective probability of \(p\) being true is 0.8, and suppose that such a condition is normal for the performance of a creature’s functions. Assume that an objective probability of 0.8 does not count as deviating too wildly from either a credence of 0.79 or a credence of 0.81. In such a case, it’s unclear whether \(p\) give us the content of a credence of 0.79 or a credence of 0.81, assuming that a creature has both credences.

  22. Lewis (1986), for example, holds that it is not reasonable for agents like human beings to assign a credence of 1 to our evidence propositions (pp. 585–587).

  23. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this suggestion.

  24. If the content of a credence of strength \(x\) is true in \(100x\,\%\) of the relevant cases, then such a credence is perfectly calibrated with respect to those cases. For more on the notion of calibration, see Fraassen (1983).

  25. Calibration is similar to—but not exactly the same as—a version of Stalnaker+ or Millikan+ that appeals to the notion of relative frequencies. Consider, for example, a version of Stalnaker+ that appeals to relative frequencies. According to it, under epistemically optimal conditions, if S has a credence of 1 in a coin landing heads, then the relative frequency of the coin landing heads is 1, i.e., the coin will always land heads. Now, consider Calibration. According to it, if S has a credence of 1 in a coin landing heads, then the coin will land heads in all cases in which S is in the same state and conditions are optimal or normal. This is consistent with the coin not landing heads sometimes, for example, in cases in which S does not have a credence of 1 in it landing heads.


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Thanks to audiences at the Australian National University and the National University of Singapore for discussion of the paper. Thanks to two anonymous referees for their very helpful feedback. And special thanks to Jens Christian Bjerring, Ben Blumson, Alan Hájek, and Wolfgang Schwarz for their very useful comments on the paper.

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Correspondence to Weng Hong Tang.

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Tang, W.H. Intentionality and partial belief. Synthese 191, 1433–1450 (2014).

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  • Intentionality
  • Content
  • Belief
  • Credence
  • Partial belief
  • Probability