Thursday, April 9, 2009

Belief & Desire

Boghossian raises an interesting question. Can we think of a person who has desires but no beliefs? His answer is contained in this curious passage from Content and Justification:

It's hard to imagine. The reason is that we think that someone can want p at some time t only if he either believes it to be not p at t or is unsure whether it is p at t. You cannot want p at a given time, if at that time you already believe that p has occurred. You can be glad ... but you cannot want it to occur (105).

If you're unsure as to whether p, it doesn't follow that you believe p or its negation. It does follow that either you believe p or are unsure as to whether p. So, even if that disjunctive condition obtains whenever someone desires, I don't see how this shows that if you imagine someone who desires something you thereby imagine someone who believes something. The reason this matters is that Boghossian thinks that he can establish the normativity of content by establishing that belief is normative (in the sense that belief ascriptions commit you to certain ought judgments) and establishing that we understand the notion of content only by understanding the notion of belief. There are questions we can raise at each step, but this seems like a very simple and superficial mistake that he's made. It could be that I'm missing something obvious.


Mike Almeida said...

If you're unsure whether p, then you do have some low credence for p. I'm not sure whether he counts low credences as beliefs.

Brandon said...

'Unsure' is potentially ambiguous here. We sometimes use it as a positive state of unsureness, and (more rarely) use it to indicate that the mental state is simply something other than that of being sure. It seems plausible that 'unsureness' in the first sense is a sort of credence, or at least depends on credences; however, I don't think it's obvious that in this sense "someone can want p at some time to only if he either believes it to be not p at t or is unsure whether it is p at t".

We normally think of belief as in some sense composite: unless we are using the word equivocally to mean something like 'trust', a belief says something about a thing (or event, or whatever). But desires are rather different: you can simply desire things (or events, or whatever). This certainly requires some sort of cognition (e.g., concept-formation), but not every form of cognition is a belief.

Neil Sinhababu said...

On the broader issue, I'd think that someone could have desires but no beliefs, and manifest these desires in feelings of pleasure or displeasure as they daydreamed about circumstances in which their desires were more or less satisfied.

Clayton said...


He doesn't say anything I've seen about the belief/credence connection but it seems that what his argument needs is simply that there is some connection between desire and states that are normative in the ways that beliefs (allegedly) are. So, even if credences aren't beliefs, if credences are normative in the ways that beliefs are that should shore up a problem in his argument for the normativity of content.

I think I agree about 'unsure'. Say more if you get the chance about, "I don't think it's obvious that in this sense"someone can want p at some time to only if he either believes it to be not p at t or is unsure whether it is p at t"" That struck me as pretty safe. If I'm reading you right, you think that you can want p even if you are certain that p. I thought that for desires, at least, you don't desire what you believe true. Maybe wants behave differently from desires, but we just need, I think, some contentful states you could have without beliefs.

That's interesting, I'll have to think more about that.

Brandon said...

Part of my point about 'unsure' is that it can indicate states of mind that carry a sort of ambiguity for them. Suppose, for instance, that, if someone were really reflective about it, that they would be sure that p is the case, but just aren't thinking of it at the moment. Does this allow room for wanting p, even if we definitely don't want things we are sure we have when we think about them? There are, I think, other marginal cases like that, which at least raise the question of whether the disjunction is complete.

(But I also think, as my second paragraph suggests, that the sort of content that desires, and I would also say wants, can have doesn't have to be the sort that has to be true or false. I think there are differences between wanting that p obtain and wanting to do A and wanting to have T that are as great or greater than the difference between knowing that p and knowing how to A. They require content. But there is no reason to think that beliefs are a necessary condition for desires or wants having content.)

How do you think wanting p to be true relates to wanting not-p not to be true (such that, for instance, one is relieved that p is true)? I think one very tempting way of glossing the relation is to regarded them as two sides of the same coin. And there's some plausibility to the idea that I can want not-p not to obtain even when I know that it doesn't (e.g., one could take being glad that not-p does not obtain as evidence of this). And if you thought that relief and gladness were connected with wants, one might regard relief or gladness that p is true as at least evidence that we want p, even when we know it is true.

Paul Torek said...

Ignoring Boghossian's argument, I think his claim is true. To desire something seems to require a rich enough conception that some beliefs (credences, at least) are implied. For example, if I desire an affair with that woman I seem committed to certain beliefs such as: that is a woman; people can have affairs; and probably more. Even if those particular beliefs can be knocked down as requirements, the idea that I can have a specific desire with no beliefs whatsoever remains wildly implausible.