Are Beliefs "In the Head"?

We understand the word "belief" but not what it is or the mind where it resides.

Posted Mar 04, 2019

Shireen Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Jeejeebhoy

Initially, this question seems like one with an obvious answer because the propositional attitude of belief, a mental state, seems to emerge from inside the head; we then communicate it and its propositional content to others through talking or writing. The propositional content of a belief could be something like "it's raining outside" or "life is short" or "that's a lake."

René Descartes conducted an introspective experiment upon himself to determine what his mind was, whether it was separate from his body or the same as his body, using what he called "the method of doubt." If any belief was even a little susceptible to doubt, he discarded it. He also introduced an evil demon whose purpose was to deceive him into thinking an external world that doesn’t exist caused his experiences and subsequent beliefs of that world. How could he know if something external to him was true? He decided he could not. The only thing he knew for certain: he was a thinking thing, and he knew he could trust his beliefs about how the world seemed to him. He concluded that his mind has the essential properties of thinking, including believing; that his mind was himself; and that his mind differed in substance from his body.

Yet Descartes’ theory is not completely satisfactory. Can it be true that everything external to us is deceptive? It seems exaggerated to say such a thing. When we look at what we call a “lake,” we all agree it is a lake. Our belief about the word “lake” has the same propositional content to all of us. We believe that its essence includes a body of fresh water bordered by land on all sides. We could not have that belief without a lake existing in the way it does and without our knowledge of lake. Hilary Putnam stated that this wide psychological state explains where our beliefs come from: outside the head. That is why, unless we are in the midst of a psychosis, we can look at any lake, let’s say Lake Ontario, and state that we believe it is a lake.

Still, one person’s belief about Lake Ontario may not be exactly the same as another’s. Each person could have a different sensory perception or emotional reaction and thus qualia upon seeing Lake Ontario—and upon having seen other lakes that they would instinctively compare it to. Qualia is the internal, raw feel of a sensory experience and is directly experienced in one's consciousness. These mental states that have qualia would influence a person’s thoughts about Lake Ontario and thus create different beliefs in each person. Each person’s narrow psychological states, in which the content of their beliefs about the lake exist completely inside the head, moderate the wide psychological state. Thus, their propositional contents for the propositional attitude of belief would differ significantly one from the other and thus Lake Ontario would have different meanings for each.

For example, one person, being from the shore of an Arctic lake, could look at Lake Ontario in winter with its broken ice floating on the surface and say that they believe it is not a very cold lake. Another person, being from the tropics, could look upon it and say that they believe it is frozen. One person, having grown up in the inner city where trees do not grow and water is only seen gushing from taps or filling bathtubs, could believe that it is enormous and wild, while another person, having grown up near the Pacific Ocean at the far western edge of the North American continent, could believe Lake Ontario was small and tame. The broad meaning of lake may be the same for each, but the specific, narrow meaning of Lake Ontario would not.

If all beliefs are outside the head, then the propositional contents of beliefs about Lake Ontario could not differ between people because it does not change its colour, shape, wave height, temperature, or size depending upon who is looking at it. Yet contents do differ. If beliefs are only inside the head, then beliefs about the word “lake” could not have the same meaning for everyone. In that case, a “puddle” would have the meaning of “lake” to one person, an “ocean” to another. Could we learn or acquire beliefs about the external world or from others if beliefs are totally inside the head? It would be difficult.

Each of these two theories explains only partly where beliefs reside, each theory complementing the other. Thus beliefs are both inside the head and outside the head.

But why does it matter where beliefs as a mental state reside? The mind-body problem is the hard problem of consciousness, according to David Chalmers. We cannot yet explain the relationship between physical reality and internal experience, between brain processes and our specific internal experiences. We don't know what mental states such as beliefs are. We think the mind is the brain, yet internal experiences and external phenomena challenge that belief. I believe that when we discover what mind is—what mental states really are—we will see trauma and human relationships in a completely new light, perhaps undergo radical societal change, and, as well, discover novel ways of treating trauma, including brain injury.

Copyright ©2012 and 2019 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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