Wink, Wink – Do You Understand What I Mean?
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on September 2, 2006
On Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel has interesting post about Sentence-Like vs. Map-Like Representations of beliefs, where he discusses the advantages and problems of those two types of representations.
I will cross-post the comment I left there…
Instead of analyzing having a belief, as some kind of statical representation that “suddenly appears” in someones mind/brain-state, it seems to me that it is needed to take a look at the notion of acquiring of belief.
For example, if I hear an uttered sentence by someone I trust,how does that sentence “make its way” to the belief-representation-system (whatever it might be)?
Putting attention to the phenomenology of acquiring the belief on base of that sentence (so explicitly ignoring the issues like implicit learning), it is unproblematical to say that the acquiring of belief is connected to comprehending of what that person is saying to us, understanding of the uttered sentence – understanding what the sentence means.
It seems to me that it is this understanding which can’t be divided from the issue of holding belief – if we trust our friend, we will end up believing what we understood the sentence to mean. Or we can say that understanding the sentence is necessary, but not sufficient for possibility of believing that sentence.
I guess it is obvious, what I want to say now, connected to the problems of representation of a belief. We believe something we understood. The representation of that something will depend on how that something is understood.
There are few things which might be noted here in connection the understanding and belief-representation…
Understanding most times happens, in some kind of motivated communication. That is, our friend is telling us something, because that something matters somehow. In such situation, the understanding involves not merely some superficial understanding of the sentence as some “closed” system, but we can say that we properly understood the sentence if we understand what that fact communicated to us MEANS, i.e. how it matters for us. If we fail to see such connection, we might be puzzled by the fact presented to us, and even ask “What do you mean?”.
So, it seems that always, the presented sentence needs to be understood by its implications. What the sentence means in such ways, should not be seen merely as some semantic content which can be found in the sentence itself, but it has meaning which connects to the seeing of.., well – what it means.
So, if my friend says to me:
“Gary has replaced Georgia as chair”, it might be motivated by my need to know that thing, because it will have consequences on MY work. I.E I need to send some documents to Gary instead to Georgia. Observe that we could say also that IT MEANS that I will nead to send the documents to Gary instead to Georgia.
Or if my friend says to me:
“The mountain peak is actually 15 km north of the river, and not 10 km”, it might be motivated by my need to know that thing, as I will need to go there, so it would MEAN that I need to e.g. leave earlier to get there on time.
But on other side, if we are working in e.g. cable company, the sentence will have different meaning, it would mean that we need to change the calculations of how to e.g. most efficently put the cable between all those places (mountain peak, river, coast, oasis).
This kind of use of “understanding” and “meaning” which is connected to motivated communication, can be also seen in other case in the ordinary language, when after someone has been told something, but doesn’t react as we expect, we can say: -He still doesn’t understand what that means.
So, basicly, I think that holding of a belief, is tightly connected to the understanding. As I said… we can only believe something we understand/comprehend. But this understanding/comprehension as motivated might include (or maybe must include), not just a mechanical remembering of the fact (would that even count as a belief?), but understanding what that fact means (as in – what it means for the person who believes it, for someone he knows, for the other persons -real or imagined, for society, etc…).
So, such understanding might include imagining of spatial relations, or imagination of communications between people, and what not.
It seems to me that acquiring of belief hence is not merely just ending with some static representation in the mind, but usually is more holistic. Involves all those mental processes of acquiring of belief, maybe leave us with problems we need to solve, and so on.