Normativism and Mental Causation by Justin Thomas Tiehen, B. A. Dissertation

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4. Normativism and Irreducibility

Like Davidson, I hold that the mental realm is governed by constitutive principles of rationality. The past two chapters were devoted to explaining what I take this to mean exactly and providing arguments for why I think it’s true. Also like Davidson, I hold that the mental realm’s being so governed entails that the mental is normative, and that this normative dimension ensures the mental’s irreducibility to the physical. The present chapter is devoted to arguing for these claims.

4.1 Normativism

Let normativism be the thesis that mental states are normative in nature.105 In this section I will argue that the (CRT) entails at least a restricted form of normativism. The central claim of my argument is that counterpossibles like (CP) from Chapter 3 can be used to test a property’s normative status: if (CP) is true, then it follows that belief is normative. I take there to be a good deal of prima facie plausibility to this thought. (CP) says in effect that if no normative properties were instantiated, belief properties wouldn’t be instantiated. If this doesn’t show that belief is normative, what would? If my proposed test for normative status is adequate, then since the (CRT) entails that (CP) is true, as I argued in Chapter 3, it follows that the (CRT) entails normativism about belief. The central question that will occupy this section is whether my proposed test for normative status is indeed adequate.


How can the proposed test for normative status be useful? In order to assess what would follow if normative eliminativism were true, we need to have a prior grasp on what normative properties are. And this might seem incompatible with using a counterpossible like (CP) to argue for a property’s normative status. It’s not though. For, the intuitive idea behind my use of the test is that belief’s normative status follows from its intimate relation with certain properties that are uncontroversially normative.

Without trying to say what normativity itself is, we can at least say that certain properties are uncontroversially normative in nature. Examples include properties like that of being such that one ought to do certain things, and that of being such that one has done certain things that ought to have been done. When we conceive of normative eliminativism, we are in the first place conceiving that uncontroversially normative properties of this sort are not instantiated. This is the prior grasp on normative properties we must have. Now, these uncontroversially normative properties stand in various relations to other properties, including properties whose normative status is more controversial. Belief properties are a case in point. If the (CRT) is true, then the relations between belief properties and certain uncontroversially normative is extremely intimate – so intimate that the former wouldn’t be instantiated if the latter weren’t. What the proposed test for normative status in effect entails is that when a given property P is intimately related in this way to uncontroversially normative properties, P itself is normative. Thus, the test entails, given the (CRT), belief properties are normative.

In connection with these thoughts, again consider knowledge. A natural way to try to establish that knowledge is normative is by pointing to the intimate relation between knowledge and justification, which itself is uncontroversially normative. This is what Kim does in his objection to Quine, as we saw. My use of (CP) to test for belief’s normative status is meant to rely on the same sort of idea.


Are there any counterexamples to the sort of test for normative status I’m proposing? That is, are there any properties that are intimately related to normative properties, in much the way belief is, but which aren’t themselves normative in any interesting sense? If there are any such properties, this would call into question whether I can use (CP)’s truth to argue that belief is normative.

Consider the following Davidson-inspired potential counterexample: the property of being the collision of two distant stars in a world in which a rationally justifiable inference is drawn somewhere. If normative eliminativism were true then this property couldn’t be instantiated since there would be no rationally justifiable inferences. Given my proposed test for normative status, it thus follows that this star collision property is normative. But, if this counts as a normative property, then everything will possess lots and lots of normative properties. Is this a reductio for my proposed test?

I don’t think it is. For on the one hand, it doesn’t strike me as all that counterintuitive to say that the property in question is normative. Not the star collision part, to be sure, but the part about occurring in a world where a rationally justifiable inference is drawn. And on the other hand, it seems to me that whatever lingering counterintuitiveness remains here can be handled by relying on a distinction I want to draw anyway, that between natural and unnatural properties.106 Given my proposed test for normative status, it does follow that everything possesses lots and lots of normative properties. But, the vast majority of these will be unnatural properties, and everything possesses lots and lots of unnatural properties anyway, even independently of the proposed test: the property of being an alarm clock made in 1989, the property of being an alarm clock made in 1989 or an ostrich, etc. Since belief properties are plausibly natural, if they pass the proposed test and thus count as normative, they will be importantly unlike any of the unnatural normative properties in question.

A different kind of potential counterexample to the proposed test is provided by pain. Suppose that it’s part of pain’s essence to cause certain beliefs, like the belief that I’m in pain. Then the truth of (CP) would then presumably entail that if normative eliminativism were true, there would be no pains: if normative eliminativism were true there would be no beliefs, but if there were no beliefs there would be no pains. By the proposed test, pain would then count as a normative property. That is, a rational (as opposed to strictly moral) normative property. But, one might think, this is implausible. Pain is outside the bounds of rationality in any interesting sense, and so whatever relations it might bear to various rational normative properties, those relations had better not count as intimate enough for pain itself to qualify as something (rationally) normative.

There are different responses available here, including biting the bullet (supposing it is a bullet) and concluding that pain is normative in the relevant sense. My response, though, is to deny that it’s part of pain’s essence to cause beliefs. Pain does cause beliefs of course; just not essentially. If a power to cause beliefs were part of pain’s essence, then it would seem to follow that beings who are incapable of belief, or perhaps even just beings who lack the concept of pain but who are otherwise capable of belief,107 are incapable of being pained. This presumably includes a number of actual beings, such as various lower animals and perhaps even pre-linguistic children. Any view that entails that these beings are incapable of being pained is absurd, and so I deny that it’s any part of pain’s essence to cause beliefs. Because I deny this I’m able to deny that if normative eliminativism were true there would be no pains, and thus in turn I’m able to deny that pain is normative..

More generally, while I don’t deny that there’s a good deal of truth to the thought that the mental is “holistic” or that mental states “stand or fall together,” the point seems to me to be occasionally overstated, at least when it comes to specifying the essences of mental states. It doesn’t strike me as obviously incoherent to hold that there can be full-fledged perceptual states in beings that are incapable of belief.108 Nor does it strike me as obviously incoherent to hold that there can be full-fledged desires in beings that aren’t capable of full-fledged beliefs – perhaps beings that are capable only of “proto-belief” states.109 Without defending either of these particular claims or anything else so controversial, let me just note that of all mental properties, the only ones I’ll be explicitly arguing are normative are belief properties. If my argument is sound and belief is normative, it then may be fairly difficult to block the inference that certain other mental states are normative as well. For instance, it then may be hard to deny that intending is normative too. Officially, though, my commitment to normativism in this work is restricted entirely to belief properties.

In close connection with this point, let me note that none of the arguments in favor of the (CRT) that I advanced in Chapter 3 turned directly on belief’s intentional content as opposed to its psychological mode. Thus, in arguing presently that belief is normative, I’m not committed to the claim that the content component of a belief state is what makes it normative. It’s perfectly consistent with the view advanced in this work that standing in the belief relation to the proposition P is something normative while standing in, say, the perception relation to the same proposition P is not. More generally, my present argument that belief is normative takes on no major commitments regarding the nature of intentional content – I’m not committed to an inferentialist or otherwise holistic account of content. In not basing my argument for belief’s normative status directly on considerations having to do with belief’s intentional content, I depart from most normativists, including Davidson himself.110 Though obviously less sweeping than the thesis that all intentional states are normative, I take my limited thesis that belief is normative still to be of significant philosophical interest.

Neither pain nor the star collision property considered above has provided us with a counterexample to my proposed test for normative status. I cannot think of any additional potential counterexamples that seem interestingly different from these two. Even if there are no clear counterexamples, though, maybe there are other reasons to think that the test is inadequate.


Here’s a potential concern. According to the proposed test, the truth of counterpossibles like (CP) can entail certain metaphysical conclusions. I’m taking (CP)’s truth to establish something about the metaphysical nature of belief, namely that it’s a normative property. But, one might wonder, how can a metaphysical conclusion of this sort be sustained by a conditional whose antecedent is conceivable but not possible? Think about the role phenomenal zombies play in discussions of consciousness. If phenomenal zombies are conceivable, this may by itself tell us something about our phenomenal concepts. Specifically, it might tell us that they are distinct from both our physical and causal-functional concepts.111 In order to establish the metaphysical claim that phenomenal properties are distinct from both physical and causal-functional properties, though, it’s generally thought that phenomenal zombies must be more than merely conceivable, they must be genuinely possible. In light of this, even if we grant that (CP) is true, why think that this reflects something about the property of belief as opposed to just our concept of belief?

I have two responses to this objection. First, regardless of whatever we ultimately decide about (CP), it’s clearly the case that at least some counterpossibles can be used to reach metaphysical conclusions of the sort in question. Imagine two physicalists who agree that it’s conceivable but not possible that a physical and causal-functional duplicate of me could be a phenomenal zombie. Where these physicalists disagree is on whether my phenomenal zombie duplicate would have all the same beliefs I do.112 The first physicalist says he would, the second says he wouldn’t. According to the second physicalist, certain belief contents are partly determined by their subject’s phenomenal states, and so since my phenomenal zombie duplicate and I differ in our phenomenal states, we differ in some of our belief contents.113

A natural way of capturing this disagreement is by using the following counterpossible.

(CP6): If there were a phenomenal zombie duplicate of me, he would share all my beliefs.

The first physicalist asserts that (CP6) is true, the second that it’s false. They both agree that (CP6)’s truth value reflects something about the metaphysical nature of belief content – namely, whether it’s partly determined by a believer’s phenomenal states. They both deny that (CP6)’s truth value reflects something merely about our concept of belief content.

Setting this first point aside, the second point I want to make will be clearest if we develop the phenomenal zombie analogy a bit further by setting out a certain account of normativity. Metaphysical reductionism is the normative realist view according to which the totality of non-normative truths does not analytically entail the totality of normative truths (and so analytical reductionism is false), but normative properties are reducible to non-normative properties, and so the totality of non-normative truths metaphysically entails the totality of normative truths.114 Metaphysical reductionism is naturally combined with the view that our normative concepts are distinct from our non-normative concepts, including our physical and causal-functional concepts.115 In fact, this difference in concepts presumably is required if, as metaphysical reductionists hold, the totality of non-normative truths fails to analytically entail the totality of normative truths. Thus, metaphysical reductionism about normativity is closely analogous to the physicalist view in the philosophy of mind we’ve been considering, according to which phenomenal properties are reducible to physical or causal-functional properties but our phenomenal concepts are distinct from our physical or causal-functional concepts.

The metaphysical reductionist will grant that normative eliminativism is conceivable, and thus that (CP) is capable of expressing a substantive truth. Supposing that (CP) is in fact true, as I’ve now argued, what should the metaphysical reductionist take this to reflect? In the first place, I propose that she should take it to reflect that our concept of belief is a normative concept. But wait, doesn’t this concede the present objection? No, because normative concept pick out normative properties. And so in the second place, the metaphysical reductionist should take (CP)’s truth to reflect that belief is a normative property. Of course, given her views, the metaphysical reductionist will take this normative property to be reducible to some non-normative property. However, this commitment to reductionism by itself gives the metaphysical reductionist absolutely no reason to deny the claim we’re presently considering, that if (CP) is true then belief is a normative property. Compare: physicalists of the sort we’ve been considering don’t deny that phenomenal concepts pick out phenomenal properties, they deny just that these phenomenal properties are physically irreducible. Thus, the metaphysical reductionist can (and should) agree that my proposed test for normative status is adequate.116


More generally, the proposed test for normative status appears to be compatible with a wide variety of views about the nature of normativity, although precisely what the truth of (CP) will be taken to reflect might differ from view to view. The antireductionist account of normativity that I’ll begin defending in the next section will take (CP)’s truth to reflect that the property of belief possesses certain features that no non-normative property possesses. A normative eliminativist will take (CP)’s truth to reflect that belief is purported to have such features. Since nothing in fact has those features, belief eliminativism ensues.117 At least some alternative forms of normative antirealism, which aren’t naturally categorized as eliminativist, will be able to give their own gloss on (CP).118 For instance, a philosopher who takes normative properties to be mind-dependent in a sense that’s incompatible with a thoroughgoing normative realism might take (CP)’s truth to reflect that belief properties are mind-dependent in the same realism-undermining way. Such a position would seem to fit well with the antirealist view often attributed to Davidson and Dennett, according to which having a belief is nothing more than being such that a suitable interpreter would take you to have that belief. I myself reject such antirealist views and will be defending a realist account of normativity and belief instead. And so, if Davidson really is best classified as a kind of antirealist about the mental,119 this marks a further point of divergence between his position and my own.

The one view that clearly must deny that the proposed test for normative status is adequate is analytical reductionism, the view we first considered in Chapter 3. Because analytical reductionists maintain that the totality of non-normative truths analytically entail the totality of normative truths, they will deny that (CP)’s antecedent is conceivable and thus that (CP) is capable of expressing a substantive truth. Analytical reductionism is not incompatible with normativism about belief however. If analytical reductionism is true, then an alternative test for normative status will be available: normativism about belief will be true just in case the totality of normative truths, which are analytically entailed by the totality of non-normative truths, includes the truth that belief is normative.

While we’re on the compatibility of different theses, let me also note here that both normativism about belief and my proposed test for normative status are compatible with causal functionalism. To see this, imagine a causal functionalist who’s also a metaphysical reductionist about normativity, holding that normativity can be given a broadly causal reductive analysis. Given her metaphysical reductionism, this philosopher can accept that (CP) is true and that it follows from this that belief is a normative property, just as was explained in the above discussion. Since on her view normative properties are causally reducible, none of this compromises her causal functionalism. She can still hold that belief has a causal-functional real essence.120 My argument against causal functionalism hasn’t arrived yet; it’s still coming.


Returning to the point we started with, I think there’s a good deal of initial plausibility to the thought that if (CP) is true, then normativism about belief follows. In this section we considered a series of objections aimed at challenging this thought, but none of these objections were found to be very compelling. At this point, then, I conclude that my proposed test for normative status is adequate, and thus that if (CP) is true then belief is normative. Given the pair of arguments for the (CRT) I provided in Chapter 3, each of which entails (CP)’s truth, I now conclude that belief is in fact normative. I now will argue that this normative status entails that belief is irreducible to any physical properties.

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