Why I Evince No Worry about Super-Spartans

I'm a dispositionalist about belief. To believe that there is beer in the fridge is nothing more or less than to have a particular suite of dispositions. It is to be disposed, ceteris paribus (all else being equal, or normal, or absent countervailing forces), to behave in certain ways, to have certain conscious experiences, and to transition to related mental states. It is to be disposed, ceteris paribus, to go to the fridge if one wants a beer, and to say yes if someone asks if there is beer in the fridge; to feel surprise should one open the fridge and find no beer, and to visually imagine your beer-filled fridge when you try to remember the contents of your kitchen; to be ready to infer that your Temperance League grandmother would have been disappointed in you, and to see nothing wrong with plans that will only succeed if there is beer in the fridge. If you have enough dispositions of this sort, you believe that there is beer in the fridge. There's nothing more to believing than that. (Probably some sort of brain is required, but that's implementational detail.)

To some people, this sounds uncomfortably close to logical behaviorism, a view according to which all mental states can be analyzed in terms of behavioral dispositions. On such a view, to be in pain, for example, just is, logically or metaphysically, to be disposed to wince, groan, avoid the stimulus, and say things like "I'm in pain". There's nothing more to pain than that.

It is unclear whether any well-known philosopher was a logical behaviorist in this sense. (Gilbert Ryle, the most cited example, was clearly not a logical behaviorist. In fact, the concluding section of his seminal book The Concept of Mind is a critique of behaviorism.)

Part of the semi-mythical history of philosophy of mind is that in the bad old days of the 1940s and 1950s, some philosophers were logical behaviorists of this sort; and that logical behaviorism was abandoned due to several fatal objections that were advanced in the 1950s and 1960s, including one objection by Hilary Putnam that turned on the idea of super-spartans. Some people have suggested that 21st-century dispositionalism about belief is subject to the same concerns.

Putnam asks us to "engage in a little science fiction":

Imagine a community of 'super-spartans' or 'super-stoics' -- a community in which the adults have the ability to successfully suppress all involuntary pain behavior. They may, on occasion, admit that they feel pain, but always in pleasant well-modulated voices -- even if they are undergoing the agonies of the damned. The do not wince, scream, flinch, sob, grit their teeth, clench their fists, exhibit beads of sweat, or otherwise act like people in pain or people suppressing their unconditioned responses associated with pain. However, they do feel pain, and they dislike it (just as we do) ("Brains and Behavior", 1965, p. 9).

Here is some archival footage I have discovered:

A couple of pages later, Putnam expands the thought experiment:

[L]et us undertake the task of trying to imagine a world in which there are not even pain reports. I will call this world the 'X-world'. In the X-world we have to deal with 'super-super-spartans'. These have been super-spartans for so long, that they have begun to suppress even talk of pain. Of course, each individual X-worlder may have his private way of thinking about pain.... He may think to himself: 'This pain is intolerable. If it goes on one minute longer I shall scream. Oh No! I mustn't do that! That would disgrace my whole family...' But X-worlders do not even admit to having pains" (p. 11).

Putnam concludes:

"If this last fantasy is not, in some disguised way, self-contradictory, then logical behaviourism is simply a mistake.... From the statement 'X has a pain' by itself no behavioral statement follows -- not even a behavioural statement with a 'normally' or 'probably' in it. (p. 11)

Putnam's basic idea is pretty simple: If you're a good enough actor, you can behave as though you lack mental state X even if you have mental state X, and therefore any analysis of mental state X that posits a necessary connection between mentality and behavior is doomed.

Now I don't think this objection should have particularly worried any logical behaviorists (if any existed), much less actual philosophers sometimes falsely called behaviorists such as Ryle, and still less 21st-century dispositionalists like me. Its influence, I suspect, has more to do with how it conveniently disposes of what was, even in 1965, only a straw man.

We can see the flaw in the argument by considering parallel cases of other types of properties for which a dispositional analysis is highly plausible, and noting how it seems to apply equally well to them. Consider solubility in water. To say of an object that it is soluble in water is to say that it is apt to dissolve when immersed in water. Being water-soluble is a dispositional property, if anything is.

Imagine now a planet in which there is only one small patch of water. The inhabitants of that planet -- call it PureWater -- guard that patch jealously with the aim of keeping it pure. Toward this end, they have invented technologies so that normally soluable objects like sugar cubes will not dissolve when immersed in the water. Some of these technologies are moderately low-tech membranes which automatically enclose objects as soon as they are immersed; others are higher-tech nano-processes, implemented by beams of radiation, that ensure that stray molecules departing from a soluble object are immediately knocked back to their original location. If Putnam's super-spartans objection is correct, then by parity of reasoning the hypothetical possibility of the planet PureWater would show that no dispositional analysis of solubility could be correct, even here on Earth. But that's the wrong conclusion.

The problem with Putnam's argument is that, as any good dispositionalist will admit, dispositions only manifest ceteris paribus -- that is, under normal conditions, absent countervailing forces. (This has been especially clear since Nancy Cartwright's influential 1983 book on the centrality of ceteris paribus conditions to scientific generalizations, but Ryle knew it too.) Putnam quickly mentions "a behavioural statement with a 'normally' or 'probably' in it", but he does not give the matter sufficient attention. Super-super-spartans' intense desire not to reveal pain is a countervailing force, a defeater of the normality condition, like the technological efforts of the scientists of PureWater. To use hypothetical super-super-spartans against a dispositional approach to pain is like saying that water-solubility isn't a dispositional property because there's a possible planet where soluble objects reliably fail to dissolve when immersed in water.

Most generalizations admit of exceptions. Nerds wear glasses. Dogs have four legs. Extraverts like parties. Dropped objects accelerate at 9.8 m/sec^2. Predators eat prey. Dispositional generalizations are no different. This does not hinder their use in defining mental states, even if we imagine exceptional cases where the property is present but something dependably interferes with its manifesting in the standard way.

Of course, if some of the relevant dispositions are dispositions to have certain types of related conscious experiences (e.g., inner speech) and to transition to related mental states (e.g., in jumping to related conclusions), as both Ryle and I think, then the super-spartan objection is even less apt, because super-super-spartans do, by hypothesis, have those dispositions. They manifest such internal dispositions when appropriate, and if they fail to manifest their pain in outward behavior that's because manifestation is prevented by an opposing force.

(PS: Just to be clear, I don't myself accept a dispositional account of pain, only of belief and other attitudes.)

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