I am grateful to the Imperfect Cognitions blog for inviting me to write a post on my recent publication “Are propositional attitudes mental states?”, forthcoming in Minds and Machines.
In the paper, I explore some implications of the view that some group entities (e.g., clubs, governments, companies) can have beliefs and desires. I argue that if group entities can have beliefs and desires, this would show that beliefs and desires are not mental states. I am not entirely convinced that group entities can really have beliefs and desires---though I think there are some reasons to take this possibility seriously, as I discuss in the paper. What I really want to achieve in the paper is to show that if you are prepared to accept this position, you should be prepared to accept the somewhat surprising conclusion that beliefs and desires are not mental states. If you find this result unacceptable, perhaps you should also find the view that group entities can have beliefs and desires unacceptable.
My main argument is this: If beliefs and desires are mental states, then only minded beings could have them. After all, a physical property can be had only by physical beings. So, by analogy, a mental property or state can only be had by mental, or minded beings. But group entities are not minded beings. In other words, there are no group minds. So, if group entities can have beliefs and desires, then beliefs and desires are not mental states.
Why do I think that group entities are not minded beings? As I explain in the paper, I work with a conception of mind according to which a being is minded only if it is of such a kind that there is something it is like to be it. We are minded beings, and there is something it’s like to be us. In contrast, there is nothing it’s like to be a rock or an electron---sorry panpsychists!---and rocks and electrons are not minded beings. I hold that group entities are like rocks and electrons in this respect.
One interesting implication of this conclusion (i.e., beliefs and desires are not mental states) is that it gives us a way to refute the idea that there is “cognitive phenomenology”, i.e., there is something it’s like to believe that p. My proposal is that beliefs are “multiply realizable” states: they are realized by non-mental states in non-minded beings such as groups, and they are typically realized by mental states in minded beings like us, especially when we have occurrent beliefs. When the state that realizes a belief is a phenomenally conscious mental state, there is something it’s like to be in that relevant mental state. But that relevant mental state is not the belief in question; rather, it is a realizer of the belief. I think this is a good way of rejecting cognitive phenomenology because it acknowledges the intuitive idea that there is often something it’s like to be us when we have beliefs, but it doesn’t entail that there is something it’s like to believe that p.
Another interesting implication of the arguments of the paper is that they make certain claims about group beliefs and desires easier to digest. If I am right, saying that groups have beliefs or desires should not amount to saying that there are group minds. If one has qualms about the idea of a group mind, that shouldn’t thereby be a reason to reject group beliefs or group desires.