I don’t know what I think or feel. On psychological indeterminacy

Somewhere in his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that, if you don’t think something determinate, you think nothing at all. I guess this assumption did catch on, because among philosophers of mind it’s still common to say that beliefs and desires are individuated by their content. So what makes your current mental state the state it is is that it’s p and not q you’re thinking or desiring. Although I can understand the idea, I always thought that this was odd in view of my actual mental life. I often think that I’m not sure what I believe or desire. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this indeterminacy of mental states should perhaps be taken more seriously.* Why? Well, simply because I think it’s fairly pervasive. Our conversational maxims might demand that we be clear, but I think what’s actually going on is more like a duck-rabbit situation: given the context, we might be sad or angry, but we don’t really know, and there might not be a fact of the matter as to what is actually the case. So what’s going on?

“Do you love me?” This is a question we’d probably like to have a determinate answer to. But do we? Stating how we feel or what we think is common in our daily exchanges. If you asked me how I am now and what I think, I’d answer that I am fine, but a bit tired, and that I’m wondering whether to stay up or go to bed. It seems, then, that my mental states come in fairly clear categories: I feel fine in a certain way to a certain degree; I feel tired, and that makes me think whether I should go to bed. It seems, then, that my feelings and thoughts are determinate: I’m not angry or sad, but fine. My thought has a certain content: it’s about whether I want to go to bed, not about the aftertaste of the wine I had a moment ago. However, perhaps more often than I am aware, I don’t know how I feel and I don’t know what goes on in my mind. If you were to ask me in these moments how I am, I’d feel slightly embarrassed because I couldn’t tell. So my hunch is that we make our mental states seem more determinate than they actually are, not because we’d know how we are, but to spare ourselves and others embarrassment.

Now you might want to object that our own insecurity about what we think doesn’t actually matter. As a good content externalist, you might want to say that our thoughts are often about things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they are not determined by something definite; it just means that we don’t have the means to tell what that definite content is. To pick up an example my friend Markus Wild once gave me: You might be bitten by a poisonous or non-poisonous snake; even if you don’t know the least thing about snakes, it will definitely be one or the other. What matters is not what you know about snakes but the kind of snake that bit you. The upshot is that the content of our thoughts or desires or feelings might be determined whether we know it or not. In other words, the content that I am aware of might not at all be the content that my mental state is about. This is an important objection: I might want chocolate, but my body might in fact crave some sort of sugar, whether I know it or not.

That said, this externalist account might be important if we talk about beliefs and desires regarding natural kinds. I’m less sure this account figures in any instructive way when it comes to the question of whether we love someone or whether we have this or that opinion or association etc. What I mean is: even an externalist must accept that there are some thoughts and desires and feelings with regard to which it matters whether or not we are aware of their determinacy. If you ask me whether I love you, it’s no way out to say that I’m a content externalist…

So again: why doesn’t this figure in the philosophy of mind? If it does, please let me know. But as far as I can see, the fact of psychological indeterminacy is pretty underrepresented. That said, this is not quite true outside the narrow confines of philosophy. Although most philosophers (at least the ones I know, except perhaps for Wittgenstein) don’t seem to have picked up on it, literature and art is brimming with it. Thus, I’d like to close this post with one example.

Although there might be a number of instances, the short story “Suspicion” by my fellow medievalist and writer Evelina Miteva is the best illustration I can think of. It suggests psychological indeterminacy on four levels:

  • firstly, you don’t know what the main characters think of each other; so you don’t know whether they can ascribe determinate mental states to one another;
  • secondly, you as a reader cannot guess what the mental states of the protagonists are;
  • thirdly, the author does nothing decisive to make the mental states of the protagonists appear to be determinate;
  • fourthly, the protagonists themselves are portrayed as being unsure about their actual mental states.

Of course, the story offers cues as to what you (or the protagonists or the author) might believe, but it never reassures you about your guesses. I guess that is pretty much what our (mental) lives are like anyway. It’s not just that we don’t know what we think or feel; it’s indeterminate what the content of our mental states is. Given the complexity of thoughts, feelings and perhaps traumata that are present beneath the surface of what we are aware of, it is not surprising that many of our occurent states appear to be indeterminate. But if this is so, why does it not receive more attention in theories of mind?

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* Tim Crane kindly points out an intriguing paper on the issue. Here, the idea that mental states are determinate is succinctly questioned as a “textbook view”: “A lot of what we believe is incomplete, partial, confused and even contradictory. The single proposition-plus-individual belief state picture makes it hard to see how this can be the case, tending to attribute these features to our knowledge of our belief states, rather than to the states themselves. […] So we need to be able to say that it may simply be indeterminate whether Sam believes that his son is a great artist. But this is not because there are no psychological facts about what he believes — it’s rather because there are too many. Complexity and confusion can go right to the bottom of our worldview.”

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