Out and About

So I’m reminded by this philosophy course that I’m listening to, that (some) philosophers have this funny notion of “aboutness”; they say things like “mental froobahs are invariably about things, which is to say they have content, whereas physical froobahs are not, and do not.”

I’ve never really understood why philosophers say this kind of thing, because it’s so obviously wrong.

The argument is mostly by induction from a handful of examples. There is no belief without something believed, no fear without something feared, no love without something loved, no boredom without — oops. Well, they don’t usually include that example.

(Oh, you see, boredom isn’t really a mental state, or it is a mental state, and what it’s about is the person who is bored, you see? At least that’s the strongest answer to that example I can think of, and it’s not strong at all.)

And on the other hand, all sorts of non-mental things are about stuff, and have content. This book, for instance, is about pirates and ninjas and zombies, and even if the book had been written long ago and the author and everyone who had ever read it had expired and/or forgotten about it (so it would be really hard to say that there were any appropriately mental things still floating about) it would still be about pirates and ninjas and zombies, as anyone fluent in the language could determine by reading it.

(The suggestion that it isn’t actually about pirates and ninjas and zombies anymore until someone reads it and acquires mental froobahs that have aboutness, strikes me as utterly unconvincing.)

The same only even moreso for content; all sorts of non-mental things have contents. Mailboxes, for instance. And grocery lists. Also cats.

An obvious response to this is that it’s not those kinds of “aboutness” and “content” that is meant when a philosopher says that all and only mental froobahs have aboutness and content; it’s a special mental kind of aboutness and content, that we just happen to use the same words for because we like to be confusing. (Speaking of confusing, note that I have not yet referred to either “intentional objects” or “intensional objects” in this weblog entry, although if I wanted to be even more confusing I certainly could have!)

But if “aboutness” and “content” in “all and only mental froobahs have aboutness and content” don’t have their normal meanings, but only some special Philosophy of Mind meanings, then it’s not really legitimate to utter the sentence as though it meant something, as though it were adding to our stock of knowledge by telling us about a newly-discovered relationship between familiar things that have familiar names. It would be more honest to say something like “all and only mental froobahs have glorpiness and fnoo”, and then when our audience asks what glorpiness and fnoo are we can say that they are a couple of words that we just made up for something or other that only mental froobahs have (after which we’re probably unlikely to be invited back).

Why do philosophers want to say that all and only mental froobahs have aboutness and content, anyway? I think it’s because (as came up during the latest lecture of the course linked above), they have physics envy, and want mental froobahs to have some interesting properties. Physical things have mass, volume, electrical charge, angular momentum, position, and all sorts o’ stuff that you can put into an Excel spreadsheet, whereas mental things (i.e. mental froobahs) don’t really have alot of those. The experience of a red apple, for instance, is generally regarded (depending) as a mental froobah, but it isn’t a red one. But it’s about that red apple, boy howdy! (If there actually is a red apple, that is; if there isn’t, well, we’ll touch on that below.)

This doesn’t really explain why they want aboutness and content to be properties of all mental froobahs, or of only mental froobahs. Which is where they get into trouble.

Aside from intransitive mental froobahs like boredom, there is also a problem of what a mental froobah might be about when the thing that it would normally be about is missing. For instance, if I’m afraid of the tiger in the next room, that fear froobah would normally be about the tiger in the next room, but if in fact there is no tiger in the next room, we have a bit of an oops.

In some cases, it could be that I’m actually afraid of the panther in the next room, and am simply misinformed about the type of animal that it is. Or I’m afraid of the tiger in this room, and am just a bit behind the times in my theory of its location.

But in other cases there is no such obvious out. If I have been convinced that there is a tiger in the next room by an elaborate conspiracy of misleading statements and recorded sounds, and in fact if I were aware of the actual circumstances I would not be afraid at all, then there doesn’t seem to be anything that I’m afraid of to hand. This does not strike me as a big problem pre-theoretically (i.e the average person, once the deception and my fear are described, would not think there was some remaining mystery about what my fear was about), but if we’re committed to the view that all mental froobahs are always about something, we are likely to end up adding weird things to our ontology (i.e. our list of things that there are), like the (non-existent) tiger that I was afraid of, and intentional objects (and perhaps, if we use the right sort of logic to think about them, even intensional ones) in general, and/or imaginary objects, or who knows what-all.

Which leads to all sorts of weird situations, it strikes me, like having in ones ontology a bunch of round cubes which are neither round nor cubical, and which don’t exist.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I can see doing it sort of for fun, but I wouldn’t claim to have been forced into doing it because the only other alternative would be to admit that not all mental froobahs have aboutness.

In general, and this is a subject that I’ve written upon extensively elsewhere (on some old bits of paper, in particular; not as far as I can tell ever on the Interwebs), I think the whole Aboutness and Intentional Objects thing is yet another result of overambitious reification (for which there should shortly be one hit, when enclosed in quotes, in the obvious Google search).

Nature doesn’t know from objects (surely I have made this point somewhere on the web before). Leaving consciousness aside for the moment (since it is Different), all that there really is is (something like) a big quantum-mechanical wave function, and there’s no reason to think that it (or some larger system containing it and some other stuff) can be neatly divided up into distinct or disjoint or otherwise conveniently separable or enumerable or nameable objects.

There are other possible universes in which objects really are baked into the physics, but this doesn’t appear to be one of them, at any scale we’ve so far come anywhere near close to penetrating.

It’s often convenient to talk about objects as if they were given by nature and baked into the universe, but that doesn’t mean that they are, and we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes that talk breaks down. Similarly it’s often convenient to talk about objects (in the subject and object sense) in conceptualizations of the universe (as in, say, intentional objects and mental froobahs), but again we shouldn’t fall into the easy mistake of thinking that they are really out there, and that the universe is obliged to respect our cuttings-up of it, and therefore that it must always be possible to make that language work.

I really must find that old handwritten essay on “Overambitious Reification and the Applicability of Concepts” that I scrawled in an old Princeton exam book the other week / decade / millenium, and type it in, so that it comes to actually exist. But right now, I have to go off to Back To School night. :)

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