Are there epistemic conditions necessary for demonstrative thought?

Abstract

Starting with Gareth Evans, there’s an important tradition of theorizing about perception-based demonstrative thought which assigns necessary epistemic conditions to it. Its core idea is that demonstrative reference in thought is grounded in information links, understood as links which carry reliable information about their targets and which a subject exploits for demonstrative reference by tokening the mental files fed by these links. Perception, on these views, is not fundamental to perception-based demonstrative thought but is only the information link exploited in these cases. Evans himself assigns a further epistemic condition (knowledge of a target’s location in public space), while more recently Imogen Dickie has expanded the reliability requirement into a more complex account centered around justification. In this paper I synthesize three central proponents of this approach (Evans, Recanati, and Dickie) and show that the epistemic conditions they place on perception-based demonstrative thought are not actually required. My argument gives two examples in which there is perceptual contact with an object but this perceptual contact fails to do the epistemic work in question. The first case is stimulus-incorporating dream experiences, the second involves multimodal binding failures. I argue that this perceptual contact still affords demonstrative thought in these cases.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Important work on this question is done by Campbell (2002), Matthen (2005), Raftopoulos and Müller (2006), and Pylyshyn (2007).

  2. 2.

    This division isn’t meant to be exhaustive or rigorous.

  3. 3.

    For simplicity I’ll refer to thoughts by the utterances used to express them.

  4. 4.

    It’s generally further assumed that relational thoughts are singular. What this means is that the subject component of the thought’s content contains the actual referent itself, or perhaps an object-dependent Fregean sense referring to that referent, and not a description which the referent satisfies. Less technically, what it means is that in thinking the thought the subject manages to think of the referent “directly” (in some sense), i.e. not by first conceptualizing the referent under some description which it satisfies.

  5. 5.

    Even Campbell, whom I cited above as the prime example of an attention-based view, adds an epistemic element to his account. He assumes that selection of targets for demonstrative thoughts “is what causes and justifies the use of particular procedures to verify and find the implications” of those thoughts (2002, p. 25), and thereby that whatever fills this role of selection must also fill this accompanying epistemic role. But unlike Dickie, Campbell is less clear on whether this role of causing-and-justifying is incidental or essential to the selection process.

  6. 6.

    Windt’s work on these cases brought them to my attention. Her work on stimulus-incorporating dreams serves as an excellent touchpoint because of the comprehensive and philosophically insightful way in which she engages with the empirical literature.

  7. 7.

    The core idea of predictive processing accounts is that experience-generating sensory activity results as the brain tries to construct simulations of the outside world which predict incoming sensory signals.

  8. 8.

    Windt (2018, p. 2587) mentions this case, along with the similar case of a siren being integrated, although I believe it’s fair to say this is a fairly well-known folk phenomena.

  9. 9.

    Sounds, I take it, are potential objects of demonstrative thought (see O’Callaghan 2007, 2016).

  10. 10.

    Even if Windt’s positive account of what the brain is doing is not correct, what is certainly true is that while dreaming your brain is no longer in the kind of sensory contact with the environment needed to generate a map of public space.

  11. 11.

    Tyler Burge (2010, p. 200) and Christopher Peacocke (1983, p. 170) also have given purported counterexamples to Evans’ spatial localization requirement. These examples are things like seeing an object in a mirror without noticing the mirror and seeing a star the light of which is refracted in the atmosphere. The problem with these examples is that Evans only requires that the information link enable locating the thing in public space. In these sorts of cases I may not in fact locate the object correctly at first glance or based only on a momentary slice of my experience, but perception still affords the kind of information link which would enable me to locate the object after some exploration. But in the dream case my information link to my body won’t allow me to locate my body parts in public space, in principle, because while I’m informationally connected to my body, I’m not informationally connected to public space (to the distal environment).

  12. 12.

    Evans’ work is an example of the mental file approach as well, although he doesn’t use the term ‘mental file’. As noted in footnote 4, singular thoughts are any thought “whose content is a singular proposition—a proposition involving individual objects as well as properties” (Recanati 2012, p. 5, footnote omitted). Although Recanati seems in this quote to assume that all singular thoughts are relational, some have argued otherwise (e.g. Jeshion 2010). To avoid this complication, I will discuss Recanati’s account only with an eye towards relational thought and not his broader topic of singular thought.

  13. 13.

    Often (if not normally) audio-visual binding is verdical, as when you hear the speech of someone you see in person as coming from them, or hear a screech as coming from a car you see skidding to a stop.

  14. 14.

    I am not presupposing any account of the files within our sensory systems, but perhaps the best known work on perceptual files is from Daniel Kahneman and Anne Treisman (Kahneman and Treisman 1984; Kahneman et al. 1992; Treisman 1998).

  15. 15.

    This would be a departure from Recanati’s theory, which treats encyclopedic files as akin to proper names (Recanati 2012, p. 46). Unlike perception-based files which are supposed to be tied to a single perceptual link, encyclopedic files are maintained even as any one link feeding the file is lost. New links are hooked up to one of these files as the targets of those links are identified as being the same as the target of the file. Recanati hasn’t considered the possibility that a perception-based mental file might itself be fed by multiple perceptual links which might diverge in their target.

  16. 16.

    This response is based on the one Recanati gives in (2012, chapter 11) to how one could successfully think singular thoughts (after they’ve been unknowingly transported to Twin-Earth) about Twin-Earth doppelgangers of people they know, given that they’re thinking of them through a mental file which draws on information links to different people.

  17. 17.

    Recanati tends to talk (incorreclty) about perception as if it provides a single, clean information link, or as if perceptual information links will map one-to-one to the perception-based mental files supporting demonstrative thought (e.g. Recanati 2012, p. 35, 62).

  18. 18.

    It might further be suggested that distinct auditory and visual files are formed which your sensory systems merely “link” together; the linking would explain the apparent perceptual binding and the two distinct perceptual files would afford differentially activated regions within a post-perceptual mental file. File linking is an operation that Recanati posits at the level of mental files (2012, pp. 42–47) as a way to explain the cognitive significance of identity statements and beliefs. Recall that for Recanati mental files are something like, or correspond to, modes of presentation. If you believe an identity holds between the referents of two such modes of presentation then there must be some cognitive operation which preserves the distinct modes of presentation while explaining how and why you easily treat information in each file as pertaining to the referent of the other file. Linking (understood as less extreme then merging files) is the operation Recanati posits to explain how modes of presentation are preserved while also allowing information transfer. As suggested by an anonymous reviewer, Recanati might try to extend the linking operation as a way to handle cases of multimodal binding failures. The first worry for this approach is that the sound and the seen rolling ball are not identical and not experienced as identical, so it wouldn’t make sense for the perceptual system to keep a file on each and link the two, if this linking corresponds to representing identity. It might be suggested that what’s linked isn’t the sound file and the file for the ball, but instead the sound file and a file for the seen event of the ball’s rolling. The ball’s rolling might be an event perceived through both vision and audition. While some version of this response will likely make the linking reply workable, there are two more basic problems with this overall linking approach. I’m about to argue that even if there were distinct visual and auditory files, each of those files is fed by links which make contact with both the sound and seen ball. More importantly, as I’m also about to argue, there is good evidence that your sensory systems keep a single file in these cases, instead of producing separate files which could be linked.

  19. 19.

    O’Callaghan’s work on multimodal perception (especially 2015, 2019) is what drew my attention to these cases and the complications they cause for theorizing about demonstrative thought.

  20. 20.

    As Allport (2011, p. 25) points out, the term ‘attention’ itself is ambiguous. There are several things we could mean by it, and nothing I’ve said rules out the existence of subpersonal attentional mechanisms which select mental or neural representations (including files) for further processing or kinds of attention (e.g., perhaps involuntary attention) which reduce to these mechanisms. All this section shows is that the specific sort of attention involved in attending to the sound of the steel bearing doesn’t reduce to selection of files.

  21. 21.

    For other examples of work that takes on important parts of the file-based information-link approach, see (Pylyshyn 2007, especially pp. 18–20, 37–39; and Jeshion 2010).

  22. 22.

    Dickie has a technical definition for ‘converge’, but the details won’t matter here (Dickie 2015a, p. 52).

  23. 23.

    I have labeled these three claims as Claim A, B, and C because they will be important shortly.

  24. 24.

    A moment of careful inspection of the three claims, as printed above, should convince the reader that this is true.

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Acknowledgements

This paper owes a great deal to the two anonymous referees from this journal, whose sharp comments greatly improved both the framing of this paper and its central arguments. This paper grew out of a draft of a much different paper, which itself started as chapter 3 of my dissertation. In that long process I benefited greatly from input by Casey O’Callaghan, Charles Siewert, Nico Orlandi, Indrek Reiland, Richard Grandy, Dan Burnston, Alex Morgan, Mohan Matthen, and several other sets of referees. Casey, Indrek, Alex, and Mohan deserve special mention, as they provided generous line-by-line comments on earlier drafts and spent substantial time discussing with me fundamental issues which shaped this paper into its current form. This paper was written during my postdoc under Mohan Matthen at the University of Toronto. I thank Mohan and the university for their generous support.

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Barkasi, M. Are there epistemic conditions necessary for demonstrative thought?. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02453-w

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Keywords

  • Demonstrative thought
  • Justification
  • Information links
  • Gareth Evans
  • Dreams
  • Multimodal binding
  • Mental files