Evaluating Arguments, Part 12: Presupposing What Needs to Be Explained

philosophy-of-mind-part-2-of-piero-scaruffis-class-thinking-about-thought-at-uc-berkeley-2014-27-638I will continually update this evaluating arguments series with examples of ways one can evaluate, analyze, and critique philosophical arguments. One particularly forceful way to critique an argument is found in a passage from philosopher Edward Feser’s The Philosophy of Mind.

In this particular scenario, Feser is evaluating different naturalistic accounts of the mind’s intentionality, one of which is the conceptual role account of intentionality.

“This sort of theory proposes that the meaning or intentional content of any particular mental state (a belief, desire, or whatever) derives from the role it plays within a system of mental states, all of which, as we’ve seen, seem logically interrelated, since to have any one mental state seems to require having a number of others along with it. The idea is that what gives the belief that Socrates is mortal the precise meaning it has is that it is entailed by other beliefs meaning that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man, that together with a belief meaning that all mortals will eventually die it entails a belief meaning that Socrates will eventually die, and so on.

If we think of beliefs, desires, and the like as a vast system of logically interconnected elements, the theory holds that each element in the system gets its meaning from having precisely the place in the system it has, by bearing exactly the logical and conceptual relations it bears to the other elements. (More precisely, it is the objects of beliefs, desires, and the like that bear meaning or intentional content. But for the sake of simplicity, we can ignore this qualification in what follows.)

There seems to be a serious problem with the conceptual role approach, namely that even if it is granted that mental states have the specific meaning or content they do only because of their relations to other mental states, this wouldn’t explain how mental states have any meaning at all in the first place. That a particular belief either implies other beliefs or is implied by them presupposes that it has some meaning or other: nothing that was completely meaningless could imply (or be implied by) anything. The very having of logical and conceptual relations assumes the prior existence of meaning, so that no appeal to logical and conceptual connections can (fully) account for meaning.

Moreover, if belief A gets its content from its relations to beliefs B and C, and these get their content from their relations to beliefs D, E, and F, we seem destined to be led either in a circle or to an infinite regress. Either way, no ultimate explanation of intentional content will have been given. To provide such an explanation thus inevitably requires an appeal to something outside the network, something which can impart meaning to the whole.”

Explanatory accounts of certain features of reality, as Feser points out, must fit certain criteria to count as genuine explanations. An explanation E of fact F cannot itself presuppose the very thing to be explained (F). The explanation that the having of logical and conceptual relations explains the mind’s intentionality actually presupposes the very thing to be explained, since the very having of logical and conceptual relations assumes the prior existence of meaning/intentionality.

Furthermore, an explanation E of fact F, if it is to be a genuine explanation, cannot entail a vicious explanatory regress or a vicious explanatory circle. For instance, suppose I want to explain why there are three eskimos (E1, E2, and E3) at the bus stop. Suppose we have an explanation of why all three of them are there: E1 is at the bus stop because E2 is there (perhaps he followed him or walked beside him), E2 is there because E3 is there, and E3 is there because E1 is there. In this scenario, we end up not explaining why they are at the bus stop at all. We have merely explained the relations between the eskimos and have not given any account as to why they all are at the bus stop rather than (say) the supermarket (or for that matter why they even moved from their original starting point at all). This is a viciously circular explanation.

So, three common fallacies that explanations need to avoid are:

  • Assuming the existence of (or making use of) the very thing needing to be explained
  • Resulting in a viciously circular explanation
  • Resulting in a vicious infinite regress of explanation


One last way to evaluate arguments I want to touch on is the appeal to conceivability and imaginability. It is common to see people argue as follows:

“We cannot even imagine or conceive of any possible God-justifying reasons for allowing this evil state of affairs to obtain.”

“One can conceive of a bowling ball popping into existence without a cause; hence, such a scenario is metaphysically possible.”

However, we must be extremely careful with such claims. There is a subtle yet extremely important difference between being unable to conceive of X and being able to conceive of not x.

Similarly, there is a difference between not being able to imagine X and positively being able to imagine X not to be the case.

Another distinction to be made is between “conceiving/imagining X without also conceiving/imagining Y” and “conceiving/imagining X without Y”.

To illustrate this last point, take the example of the bowling ball. There is a crucial difference between imagining a bowling ball coming into existence without also imagining its cause and actually imagining the bowling ball coming into existence with no cause.

The latter is, in fact, incredibly difficult to do while the former is simple. Feser points out that to imagine a bowling ball actually coming into existence with no cause whatsoever, you would have to distinguish between such an imagining (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) a bowling ball merely being transported from another place with a transporting cause explaining its appearance. But such a delineation can only be done by reference to the causal origin of the bowling ball.

Specific details aside about bowling bowls and causes, the point is that merely to imagine X without also imagining Y is not identical to positively imagining X actually existing without Y.

Hopefully this post allows you to increase your critical thinking skills. Don’t get caught up in the details about the philosophy of mind, causation, etc. Rest assured that I will be covering such topics in much greater detail in the future. The aim of this series is simply to instruct readers about the analysis and evaluation of philosophical arguments. As always, stay tuned for future posts!

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

1 thought on “Evaluating Arguments, Part 12: Presupposing What Needs to Be Explained

  1. Pingback: An Index of Blog Series! | Majesty of Reason

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