EAAN & Brentano’s Problem
June 7, 2010 — 8:23

Author: Ted Poston  Category: General  Comments: 15

Plantinga’s EAAN argues that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating, i.e., the belief that naturalism (N) & evolution (E) is true defeats itself because E&N imply that probability that we are reliable (R) is low or inscrutable, which in turn provides a defeater to the belief that E&N are true. One of the crucial claims of Plantinga’s argument, if not the most crucial claim, is that the Pr(R/E&N) is low or inscrutable. This means that if evolutionary naturalism is true then the chance that our belief forming mechanisms are reliable, i.e., produce mainly true beliefs, is very low or just can’t be determined. Plantinga’s argument for this claim involves the claim that evolution selects adaptive behavior. So the role of belief in the course of evolution lies in its adaptiveness, not solely in its truth-conditions. So far so good, but consider the problem of intentionality, “Brentano’s problem”. Brentano’s problem is a possibility problem: how is it possible that there are states with intentional contents? For instance a belief that there are cats is an intentional state whose content is “there are cats.” This content is true iff there exist an x such that x is a cat. Cat-facades, dogs that look like cats, tv-cats, raccoons on a dark night don’t make that content true. The content “there are cats” zeroes in on a specific kind of biological organism–cats. Brentano’s problem is very difficult for physicalists. Bill Lycan has a series of papers taking up this challenge again to existing physicalist accounts of intentionality (for starters, see Bill’s paper “Giving Dualism Its Due” AJP, 2009). What does Brentano’s problem have to do with Plantinga’s EAAN? In short, Plantinga’s right that evolutionary naturalism has a problem with true beliefs, but the reason this is a problem is because evolutionary naturalism has a problem with intentional content. One of Plantinga’s examples is that the different beliefs “that is a tree” and “that is a witch-tree” might have the same adaptive behaviors. This is supposed to illustrate the point that false beliefs might be on par with true belief when it comes to adaptive behavior. That’s right as far as it goes. But given that evolutionary naturalism can’t explain intentional content, it’s hard to see how it might throw up a belief that there are witch-trees, let alone throw up the belief that there are trees. I think the Brentano’s problem is fundamental here. To put it contentiously: until we get a solution to Brentano’s problem Plantinga’s EAAN simply is too “down stream” to evaluate. A more agreeable way to put the point is this: Plantinga’s right that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating but the reason for this is that evolutionary naturalism can’t answer Brentano’s problem.

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Ted,
    You might be right about the significance of Brentano’s problem, but I thought I’d mention that Plantinga might have said something to this effect in his recentish paper on materialism.
    Just out of curiosity, do you think that the alternatives to materialism will do better with the Plantinga problem? I find the thought that modifications in an immaterial substance will be “about” objects that exist independently from that substance to be pretty strange. How do those modifications in immaterial substance get to be about the right individuals, properties, etc… so that by means of these modifications and resultant attributes of a soul the ensouled person gets to form true beliefs about things in the material world? If the probability of R on my substance dualist view of mind is inscrutable (and hence, low or inscrutable), is substance dualism self-defeating?

    June 7, 2010 — 8:55
  • Clayton:
    If memory serves, Plantinga’s notion of naturalism is basically that there is nobody like God. But if there is somebody like God, it’s at least moderately probable that he would want epistemic agents to be at least moderately reliable. Why? Because someone like God would be inclined to produce things that are valuable, and reliability is valuable.
    So, Plantinga’s argument applies equally well (or badly) to many (but not all) non-theistic dualisms. It has little to do with whether the mind itself is a material or not, as you point out. For instance, a non-theist epiphenomenalist about content is in even worse trouble than a materialist non-theist, because the materialist at least can invoke the intuition (which Plantinga disputes) that it’s advantageous to get things right, while the epiphenomenalist about content can’t.

    June 7, 2010 — 10:48
  • Ted Poston

    Hey Clayton, I agree. The problem is explaining how states with intentional contents are possible and on any view that takes these states to be non-fundamental Brentano’s problem will arise. E.g., teleological semantics doesn’t imply some specific substance ontology. It just looks like the account fails regardless of the substance ontology. A substance dualist view that took intentional content as primitive isn’t self-defeating, but this wasn’t the view you were considering, right? Maybe Fodor’s atomistic views survive Plantinga’s argument.
    Alex: I don’t see the justification for the claim that the EANN works equally well to many non-theistic dualism. Here are two non-theistic dualisms on which the EANN differ. First: the view Clayton provided: Dualism + some causal account of intentionality. Second: dualism + intentional content is primitive. It looks like EANN works on the first b/c a causal account can’t answer Brentano’s problem. But the EANN doesn’t work on the second.

    June 7, 2010 — 11:21
  • Mike Almeida

    This content is true iff there exist an x such that x is a cat. Cat-facades, dogs that look like cats, tv-cats, raccoons on a dark night don’t make that content true. The content “there are cats” zeroes in on a specific kind of biological organism–cats
    Small point. What the content of the belief happens to be and what makes ‘there are cats’ true depends on what cats are. Go to an apriori possible world in which cats are robotic. In that world, what makes ‘there are cats’ true is that there are robotic creatures of a certain sort. And the content of my belief is that there are such robotic things.
    But then I wonder about the intentionality problem. Is it a problem? Go to an apriori possible dream-world in which there is no external world. The belief B1 that there are cats is not about anything in such a world, since there is no external world and nothing for it to be about. But B1 is indiscernible from our actual cat-belief B2. All that seems to matter to the intentionality in the latter case and not the former is some causal relation to the external world. But we can have that whether we are purely material or not.

    June 7, 2010 — 12:39
  • I might be misunderstanding the nature of the challenge, but wouldn’t a healthy dose of content-externalism give the resources to resolve some of the worry behind the Brentano problem (and thus, supply the naturalist with a sort of reply to Plantinga)?

    June 7, 2010 — 14:43
  • Ted:
    “Second: dualism + intentional content is primitive. … But the EANN doesn’t work on the second.”
    Your version of it, where the puzzle is intentional content, doesn’t work then. But Plantinga’s version seems to work there just as much as in the materialist setting. After all, if intentional content is primitive, why think that it lines up with the way the world is? Maybe it tends to be the case that when we face a tiger, our soul gets primitive intentional content about tulips. It seems pretty plausible that, apart from theism, the probability that things in mind and out of mind line up favorably is low (as there intuitively are more ways not to line up than to line up) or inscrutable, whether or not the mind is material or not.
    Here’s something interesting, though, that has just occurred to me.
    1. If the causal accounts of intentionality are correct, then EAAN fails, because intentional content will automatically have to match up with causal stimuli–oversimplifying grossly, what it is to be an about-rabbits-belief will be to be typically caused by rabbits, and hence one can’t have an about-rabbits-belief without rabbits.
    2. If the causal accounts of intentionality are not correct, then the naturalist faces a double problem. The first problem is with coming up with a better account of intentionality. The second is that if intentionality doesn’t come from causal relations, it seems pretty plausible that reliability will be unlikely or inscrutably likely.
    If so, then both the original EAAN and your version, rides on whether there is any hope for the causal accounts of intentionality.

    June 7, 2010 — 15:46
  • Ted Poston

    Alex: I’m fine with the way you put the problem but it seems to me that there are two problems: Brentano’s problem and then a general skeptical problem. This way of looking at it seems to minimize the distinctness of the EANN. That’s not an objection to it, of course. But just a worry that what’s really going on is Brentano’s problem and Sellars’ worry. (Sellars saw the skeptical challenge with how intentional states match up to states in the world).
    Lewis: I’ve had a similar thought, but externalist/causal semantics don’t work. Evidently, William Ramsey tries this line out in Beilby’s book.

    June 7, 2010 — 17:01
  • By the way, a couple of years ago I tried pressing Al by email on the externalist ways out of EAAN. For what it’s worth, he found such externalist approaches utterly implausible, and it was my feeling that it was not because of the details of the proposals, but simply because of how externalist they are.
    One related thing I’ve wondered about over the years is this. Could there be a sceptical problem raised about whether we have intentionality at all? If Brentano is right that all consciousness requires intentionality, and I’m with him (biting the bullet on itches, etc.), then the fact that we have consciousness shows that we have intentionality. But if Brentano is wrong, then we could have the really weird sceptical problem: “Maybe we’re not thinking.” (I stipulate that thought, as opposed to consciousness, has to have intentionality.) One might think this is too absurd a thought to think! But, then again, the Churchlands think they’re not thinking.

    June 8, 2010 — 9:43
  • Andrew Moon

    I already sent you the e-mail, but I thought this paper would be beneficial to other followers of this blog thread:
    I want to point specifically to Plantinga’s forthcoming PPR paper “Content and Natural Selection”, where he argues that many of the major naturalistic/materialist theories of content do not help the proponent of EAAN. The paper’s available on that website, and I enjoyed it very much.
    (Of course, of relevance is Plantinga’s now-well-known article “Against Materialism” and his discussion w/Michael Tooley in the book “Knowledge of God”. We discussed that book on this blog a couple of years ago.)

    June 8, 2010 — 14:36
  • Andrew Moon

    btw, it’s normally referred as ‘EAAN’ (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism), not ‘EANN’.

    June 8, 2010 — 14:45
  • Ted Poston

    Andrew, Thanks for the references and for catching the persistent typo (I’ve fixed the main entry). It’ll be interesting to see if that paper addresses the concern that the EAAN is fundamentally Brentano’s problem. Another issue: is how/whether Plantinga interacts with atheistic dualist views that take intentional content as primitive. From the conversation with Alex, I think of the EAAN as two problems: Brentano’s problem for materialists and then a general skeptical problem for non-theistic dualists.

    June 8, 2010 — 16:06
  • So, Al’s PPR paper makes this move with regard to the externalists: maybe it works for empirical content; but the externalists have no hope of getting an account of the content of such non-empirical beliefs as that naturalism is true.
    Here’s a representative portion, addressing Millikan, and delightfully written:
    “What response r to naturalism (the belief) is such that a necessary condition of the proper function of whatever makes r is naturalism’s being true? There are many different responses to this belief: despair, relief, indifference, skipping church, or, in the case of the more evangelical naturalists, preaching the truth of naturalism and writing such balanced and subtly nuanced tracts as The God Delusion or God is not Great. But these responses, obviously enough, are not normal in Millikan’s sense; they haven’t been selected for by virtue of their adaptive character. (It is only the occasional member of the Young Atheist’s Club whose reproductive prospects will be enhanced by
    proclaiming naturalism.) And even if there were a normal response to belief in naturalism, the truth of naturalism would not be a necessary condition of the consumer’s functioning properly in making that response. So it looks as though, if teleosemantics were true, there wouldn’t be any such belief as naturalism.”
    I am guessing that the content externalist will try some move like this. We use content externalism to explain the content of some basic beliefs, and then try to build up from there, using compositionality and more basic externalistically-explained concepts figuring in the basic beliefs. Maybe the building-up can’t be done. But I don’t think the paper shows that it can’t be done.

    June 9, 2010 — 11:45
  • Ted Poston

    Bill Lycan has a few papers in draft that shows why the “building-up” can’t be done. Here’s a quote from his paper “Giving Dualism its Due.” The quote is found in footnote 8.
    “For the record, I think intentionality is a much greater obstacle to materialism than is anything to do with consciousness, qualia, phenomenal character, subjectivity, etc. If intentionality itself is naturalized, those other things are pretty easily explicated in terms of it [Lycan 1996]. But in my view, current psychosemantics is feeble: it treats only of concepts tied closely to the thinker’s physical environment; it addresses only thoughts and beliefs, and not more exotic propositional attitudes whose functions are not to be correct representations; and it does not apply to any thought that is even partly metaphorical. More on these failings in a subsequent paper.”
    I’ve had some recent discussions with philosophers inclined to atheistic dualist views. I’d be interesting if there were good arguments from dualism to theism. One argument that might show promise is the skeptical argument Alex mentioned. Grant that intentional content is primitive and different in kind from the physical. Thus, the intentional floats free from the physical. Hold all the intentional facts fixed and you don’t thereby hold fixed the physical facts. What reason is there for thinking that the intentional facts track the physical facts in this case? Perhaps, the theist can exploit an EAAN-style argument against “Atheistic dualism”. Call it “SAAAD”: Supervenience Argument against Atheistic Dualism. (Or, just plain ‘SAD’ for short). The Pr(R/AD) is low or inscrutable and the Pr(R/Theism)>>Pr(R/AD). So, as long as the priors of atheist dualism and theism are roughly equal, the belief that R is true provides a reason for T.

    June 9, 2010 — 13:04
  • Ted:
    How about this way to enhance your the move.
    Run all the arguments against materialism. The conclusion of these arguments is not dualism. It’s the disjunction of dualism and idealism. So in fact we should be conditionalizing not on AD but on A(D or I). Intuitively, P(I|A(D or I)) is at least a half, maybe more. Why? Well, I seems at least as simple as D, maybe a lot simpler. Simplify by supposing it’s exactly 1/2.
    Now, P(R|I) is essentially zero given our background: so much of our thinking is about material stuff that we can’t count as reliable if all that’s wrong. (I realize the idealists have a way of reconceiving our beliefs about matter. But they’re wrong there: if idealism is true, our beliefs about matter are, simply, mistaken.) Simplify to suppose it’s exactly zero. Then P(R|A(D or I))=(1/2)P(R|AD). Now, P(R|AD) isn’t very high. I think it should be uncontroversial that it’s not higher than 0.9. So, P(R|A(D or I)) is no higher than 0.45.
    Here’s a sketch of a way to combine your suggestion with a design argument. Suppose dualism. How, then, does the non-material arise? Well, either brutely or nomically or by a personal cause. If by a personal cause, then we’re well along our way to a design argument. If brutely, then P(R|AD) is low (maybe–maybe it’s inscrutable? I don’t know what to do then) and we go as you do. We just don’t expect correlations between brute stuff. So, that leaves: nomically. Now, if nomically, then the laws are either brute or not. If the laws are not brute, then they have a personal cause, or else we get a regress of laws. And again we have a design argument. But if the laws are brute, then we wouldn’t expect the laws to be such that R, since R requires a very special correlation between the mental and physical. And so, once again, P(R|AD) is low (or inscrutable?). So the only way for the dualist to avoid falling into the EAAN trap is to embrace personal explanation.
    (I suppose there are also optimalist or axiarchic options. But as Rescher has noted, optimalism entails theism: it is better that there be a maximally great being.)

    June 9, 2010 — 15:22
  • It’d be interesting to see, though, a discussion of the sort of naturalistic dualism people like Spinoza and (more recently) Chalmers advance: a view according to which there is just one type of substance, but it has both physical and representational (or proto-representational) properties as a part of its essence.

    June 9, 2010 — 17:46