On the Nature and Origin of Mental Content

In the philosophy of mind, the issue of “content” has always been a central and guiding concern. What is mental content? Colloquially, when we speak about mental contents, we are referring to “what’s inside” someone’s mind. Laypersons talk about content like beliefs, desires, perceptions, fantasies, intentions, etc. If someone is looking at a red apple, we might say they have the content of a red apple stored in their mind in a perceptual format. This can lead to the production of belief content, such as content about the location, color, and tastiness of the apple, as well as beliefs about its nutrition or domestic origins. If someone knows where the apples are in the kitchen, we might say that the person has mental content stored in their mind, which can be brought up and manipulated when it is appropriate to do so. Hence, the popularity of “information manipulation” accounts of mental content that use metaphors based on digital computing.

There are many philosophical puzzles associated with content. Is mental content a physical process? Or is it immaterial? If so, what is the relationship between immaterial content and physical brains? How is content structured? Is it structured in terms of symbolic patterns and meanings, or is it structured in some kind of causal-functional manner? Where does content come from? Is content manipulation based on semantic or syntactic properties? Are there different kinds of content? If so, how many and what is their evolutionary trajectory? Is there content unique to human minds? What human content is shared across species? What is the relationship between scientific accounts of content and “folk psychological” accounts? Is the folk psychological account conceptually structured in the same way as a physical account is? How does content “work”? Is content necessarily representational? How does content “refer” to things or how can it be “about” things, especially if it is just physical?These are but a few of the philosophical questions associated with the problem of content. The issue is deep and crisscrosses multiple philosophical disciplines.

Personally, I’m greatly interested in the problem of (1) the varieties of content in the animal kingdom (2) the question of human-unique content (let’s call it H-content) and (3) the question of the evolution of H-content in relation to content that is shared across species.

Let’s approach issue (1) first: the variety of content. This is the kind of inquiry where drawing distinctions is essential. Theorists make the broadest distinction of kinds of content differently. Some make a distinction between nonconceptual and conceptual content, which kind of looks like the distinction between nonpropositional and propositional content, which in turn is kind of like the distinction between nonverbal and verbal content. You can also make a similar distinction between nonreflective and reflective content, automatic vs controlled content, nonsymbolic versus symbolic content, unconscious vs conscious content, and so on.

If you kind of extract a common core to all these broad distinctions, you start to see our answer to the question about H-content. If you can come up with a good argument to show how verbal, propositional, symbolic, reflective, and conscious content depends on there being in place certain cultural-linguistic scaffolding, then it looks like H-content is somehow tied up with our ability to reflect and verbally articulate propositional content.

This ability to articulate propositional attitudes grounds a distinction between two types of information: what we can call a more “causal-functional” type of information related to nonrandom covariation of physical matter (which leads to explanations in terms of causal functions) and a “symbolic-semantic” type of information which is related to there being a communal practice of discursive communication through information content bearing symbolic and conventional meaning e.g. the handsign for “distant foodsource” came to bear it’s symbolic content in virtue of system of communal norms which make the signer pragmatically responsible for adhering to a shared, communicative system of norms which has slowly accumulated through the ratcheting processes of cultural/behavioral evolution.

This kind of normative content based on communitarian and conventional norms mediated through behavioral learning strategies like imitation can be called semantic content, and it “works” in virtue of a kind of holist, rational, “web-of-belief” type normativity which seems to be the unique product of growing up in a linguistic-symbolic cognitive niche while possessing the appropriate biological learning dispositions for the acquirement of such symbolic content. This semantic content is in contrast to a kind of nonsemantic content that is applicable to perceptual-motor cognition shared with nonhuman animals. Thus, when we say that a frog has the mental content for “a fly”, we do not mean that it understands fly-content symbolically in the way a human would perceive/understand “a fly”. Rather, the mental content is purely functional-causal insofar as the mental content for fly must be ontologically understood strictly in terms of how the stimulus-perturbation of a “small black dot” or something like it starts a causal chain reaction which eventually leads to evolutionary adaptive behaviors like flicking out its tongue and capturing the object. It is difficult if not impossible to properly describe the mental content of the frog in the vocabulary of propositional attitudes such as belief, desires, intentions, etc. Although it kind of makes sense to us to say that the frog “believed” the fly was good for him, and that’s why he flicked his tongue out, there is another sense in which these ascriptions of semantic content to the frog are ontologically inappropriate. The frog didn’t flick his tongue out for any reason; rather, it was a reaction to a physical perturbation in the ambient energy field which surrounds the frog.

Although it can be pragmatic and useful to ascribe semantic content to frogs, it is not appropriate if it is true that semantic content is generated by the linguistic-function. If genuine semantic content is only generated in bio-cultural situations analogous to Homo sapiens sapiens wherein there is a biological readiness for learning symbolic cognition and a community of systematic language users, then it is simply not appropriate to ascribe certain kinds of content to many animals (or humans). Perhaps dolphins or other animals possess content similar to humans, in which case we will have to modify our conception of H-content, allowing for convergent evolution or types of proto-H-content.

I should add, just because the distinction at hand is between a causal-functional type of content shared by nonhuman animals and a kind of symbolic-semantic type of content specific to humans, that does not mean that symbolic-semantic content fails to play a functional role, or is not amenable to functional analysis. Although the explanation works differently, symbolic cognition is amenable to functional analysis, although an analysis which recognizes the unique way in which symbols operate in our cognitive economy. Such a functional analysis is going to probably look different than a functional analysis of a toaster since “language functions” are incredibly complex and structured by complex information processing. The explanation of such functions will probably require norms of explanation which differ from those of physics. Instead, the norms of explanation are more closely related to those of psychology and biology, where mechanisms are more important than universal covering laws and we recognize the ontological reality of normativity.


1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “On the Nature and Origin of Mental Content

  1. William Boileux

    Hi, William Boilieux here,

    If I say “oh I have a thought that I wish to express and I have not quite said it correctly yet these past 4 tries but I hope to get it right this time”—then one can be forgiven for thinking that I have a thing in me that I am trying to describe–a thing existing like an object we might see or taste—that I wish to describe, a thing we call “semantic content”. And how would we know, goes the argument, if we got the expression correct if we had nothing to compare it with?–If we had no “semantic content ” thing to compare the utterance with?
    But where is the necessity to posit such an object when we could just say
    that an expression arose in me this time that I felt was correct. Why would
    feeling a correctness of expression require and entity to compare with?
    No, I don’t see any necessity for it. I certainly do not see any such entity when I utter or write something. So, I invoke Ockham.
    Like the split between mind and body and material and mental, the split between words and content or words and what they express seems, again, to be without necessity. I am not saying it can’t be an interesting speculation—
    but necessitous? no. Convention. Option.
    But I would ask, what does it contribute to the clarification of what is happening when I say “I feel that statement is the best statement”, to invoke some thing other than the statement itself? To say ” I feel I want to say something but don’t know how to say it” or ” That does not quite say what I wish to say”—is just another way of saying nothing in the way of statement has shown up that satisfies me. It is not necessarily that there is some thing I am comparing my expression to or drawing inspiration from or something.
    I feel I want to say something and I wait for the expression to show up in me; I don’t know what I wanted to say until a satisfying statement shows up–then I know. That is, I think, the more truthful and valid way to describe the event.
    An extra entity is not crucial at all, it seems to me. Ockham again. The “semantic content” thing is unecessary.
    If you say somehow the semantic content is clear but the words are vague and poorly describing the clear content or the semantic content is vague and so the words are vague until the semantic content gets clear or some such scheme—
    –fine —go to town, have fun with words—but necessity? NO. The bottom line is, a statement like, “that captures my thought exactly” does not necessitate a thing exists—-it could just be a metaphor,a notion.
    There is no necessity to choose realism over nominalism—tell me the necessity?

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