It's Not Just One Thing, to Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner

A couple of weekends ago, at the fabulous conference on the nature of belief at UC Santa Barbara, Elisabeth Camp said something that kind of bugged me. It wasn't her main point, and lots of philosophers say similar things, so I don't mean to criticize Camp specifically. Philosophers who say this sort of thing usually treat it as an obvious background assumption -- and in so doing, they reveal that they have a fundamentally different picture than I do of how the mind works.

I'm not going to be able to quote Camp exactly, but the idea was roughly this: If you and I both believe that there's a gas station on the corner, then we believe exactly the same thing. That is, we believe that there is a gas station on the corner. Furthermore, this thing that we both believe is exactly the same thing that I convey to Nicholle when I then turn to her and say, while you nod, "There is a gas station on the corner."

Of course, we might disagree about some related propositions. Maybe I think it's a Shell and you think it's a Chevron. Maybe I think that the corner is next to the freeway onramp and you think it's two blocks from the onramp. But still, we are in perfect agreement about the particular proposition that there is a gas station on the corner.

Suppose that Nicholle is new to town and almost out of gas, and that's why the topic arose. Now, plausibly, I might almost as easily have said "There's a gas station over by the onramp" or "There's a Shell on the corner" or "There's a station -- maybe a Shell? -- just over that way [pointing]" or "I think you can get gas just down that road a bit" or.... Quite a few things, some of which you would have agreed with, some you would have disagreed with ("There's a Shell on the corner"), and still others that would have been awkward in your mouth but with which you might not have exactly disagreed (... "maybe a Shell"...).

On one view of the mind and of communication -- the view that seems to me implicit in Camp's remark -- there's a fact of the matter exactly which propositions about this topic I believe and which I don't (and maybe which I have some intermediate credence in). All of the propositions that I might naturally have said (barring exaggeration, metaphor, misstep, etc.) are among the things I believe. Quite a large number! Somewhere on this large list is exactly the belief "there is a gas station on the corner"; and since that's what I ended up saying, that's the content I conveyed to Nicholle; and you, Nicholle, and I now share precisely this belief.

One challenge for this picture, and maybe the first source of trouble, is determining which propositions should go on the "yes I believe it" list. It might have been inept of me, but not beyond the pale, to say "Probably there's either a Shell or a 76, like, near that big blue building and the colorful sign with the flowers or is it cactus, you know, after that underpass we took on the way into campus, I think, if you were with us then?" Is that among the propositions I believe? It gets even worse if we forget conversational pragmatics and focus simply on cognition or philosophy of mind. Do I believe that there's a gas station less than 1 mile away, and less than 1.1 miles away, and less than 1.2 miles away, and... closer than Los Angeles and closer than where Saul Kripke probably lives, and farther than the parking lot, and farther than where Brianna (or was it Jordy?) accidentally left her laptop.... It looks like the list of propositions that I believe might be infinite and difficult to determine the boundaries of.

A second challenge is specifying the content of this proposition "there's a gas station on the corner" which you, Nicholle, and I supposedly all believe. Which states of affairs are such that this belief is true and which are such that it's false? What counts as a "gas station"? (What if there's a 7-11 with a single pump, or a single broken pump, or a single pump that is closed for construction, or a guy who illegally sells gas from a parked tanker truck?) Which possible layouts of nearby streets are such that "the corner" determinately refers to the corner on which the gas station is located? (What if one of us is wrong about the direction of the corner relative to us and the freeway? What if there are two gas stations and three corners?) If you, Nicholle, and I disagree about what would count as there being a gas station on the corner, do we not in fact have the same belief? Or do we still have exactly the same belief but we're somehow wrong in our understanding of its satisfaction conditions?

A fine mess! Now I don't really mind messes. It's a messy world. But our messy world demands a messy philosophy of mind and a messy philosophy of language -- and the fundamental problem with the view I'm criticizing is that it demands cleanliness: You and I believe exactly these things and exactly not these others; belief contents are precise, and shared, and delivered in sentence-sized packages.

So here's the alternative picture I prefer. You and I both have a wide range of dispositions to act, and reflect, and say things aloud to each other and silently to ourselves, concerning the presence or absence or location of that gas station or that Shell or whatever it is. For example, I'm disposed not to worry about whether it's possible to get gas nearby if the question arises; I feel like I know there's gas nearby. Also, I'm disposed to say "yes" if someone asks if there's a Shell around. If I wanted gas, I would drive a certain direction, and I'd feel surprise if it turned out badly. I'm disposed to form certain visual imagery if asked about nearby gas stations, etc., etc. You have a partially overlapping, partially divergent set of dispositions. Like me, you are disposed to drive roughly that direction if you want to get gas; unlike me, you'd be surprised by the Shell sign.

Of course, I can't convey to Nicholle in three seconds this whole chaotic tangle which constitutes my belief state concerning that Shell station -- so I choose some simplification of it to put into words, pragmatically focused on what I think is the most relevant thing: "There's a gas station on the corner". This isn't *exactly* what I believe. Exactly what I believe is immensely complex, maybe infinitely so, and certainly beyond my ability to shape into a shareable linguistic package.

You and I "share" the belief about the gas station in roughly the same way you and I might both share a personality trait. Maybe we're both extraverted. But of course the exact shape of our extraversion differs in detail: We'd say yes to a somewhat different range of party invitations, we'd be gregarious and talkative in somewhat different ranges of situations. To say we're both "extraverted" is blunt tool to get at a much more complex phenomenon beneath; but good enough for practical purposes, if we don't care about a high degree of precision.

ETA 1:55 PM, Feb. 28:

Elisabeth Camp and I had an email exchange about this post, which with her permission I've added to The Underblog here.



"A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box", in N. Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief (Palgrave, 2013).

"A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief", Nous, 36 (2002) 249-275.

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