Aliens, dreams and strange machines: an investigation into thought, interpretation and rationality

Change log
Cameron, Christina 

Interpretationism about the mind claims that we can gain a philosophical understanding of the nature of thought by considering how we interpret the thoughts of others. My thesis aims to develop a version of this theory which is plausible in the sense that:

(1) it has the potential to retain certain advantages attaching to theories of mind which focus on the behaviour, rather than the internal make-up of candidate thinkers; (2) it can fend off certain apparent counterexamples.

The thesis is split into four parts.

Part I explains why one might want to answer ‘No’ to the question ‘Are there particular sorts of internal organisation which a being must have in order to count as a thinker?’ It then introduces interpretationism as a position which will allow us to answer ‘No’ to this question. My version of interpretationism claims that a being has a thought iff it is interpretable as having that thought, and that all thinkers are rational. Both claims face several apparently obvious counter-examples. Parts II and III address these counterexamples by developing the crucial notions of interpretability and rationality.

Part II starts by considering the problem of seemingly hidden thoughts which occur during dreams, and uses this to develop an account according to which a subject is interpretable as having a thought if either a) there is sufficient evidence concerning the thought in the subject’s actual situation and actions, or b) there would be sufficient evidence in at least one suitable counterfactual situation. I consider and reject an objection that this understanding of interpretability is incompatible with a commitment to the holism of interpretation, and then show how it can be used to address further proposed counter-examples, such as cases involving deception or paralysed thinkers. However, I agree with Block (1981) and Peacocke (1983) that their string-searching machine and Martian marionette must be counted as thinkers by this account. I argue that these are not counterexamples to the theory, however, because the intuitions against counting such beings as thinkers can be discredited.

Part III uses considerations about human limitations and propensities towards reasoning errors to argue that the interpretationist cannot adopt a deontological understanding of rationality that seems prevalent in the literature, nor a purely consequentialist account of rationality. I explain how Cherniak’s (1986) conception of minimal rationality may be adapted for the interpretationist’s purposes. I then consider and reject the idea that the emphasis on the rationality of thinkers will leave us unable to fit paradigmatically non-rational thoughts and thought processes (dream thoughts, imaginings and association) into our account.

Part IV shows why interpretationism so developed is well placed to retain the advantages of a theory of mind which focuses on behaviour, and outlines potential avenues for further research.

Interpretation, Interpretationism, Thought, Rationality
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge