Saturday, April 28, 2007

Propositions and Make-Believe

What philosophers call 'propositions' are useful theoretical entities. They are useful because they help to unify a range of otherwise disparate mental and linguistic phenomena. Thus, propositions are often thought to be (a) the contents of our mental representations, (b) the objects of intentional attitudes, (c) the meanings of sentences, and (d) the primary bearers of truth and falsity.

I won't take the time to elaborate on each of these points. Suffice to say, the virtues of propositions are widely agreed on by philosophers. Yesterday, however, at a department colloquium, my colleague James Woodbridge issued an interesting challenge to conventional philosophical wisdom. Basically, he argued for a fictionalist account of propositions. I don't fully understand the ins and the outs of his position, but the gist of it seems to be this: There are no such things as propositions. Proposition-talk is a kind of 'pretense' or 'make-believe', a kind of game in which, for various purposes like (a-d) above, it is convenient for us to pretend that propositions exist. Just as talk of 'Santa Claus' has its uses, so does proposition-talk. We should learn to recognize the pretense for what it is and not conclude that our habit of talking as if there were propositions carries with it an ontological commitment to existence of propositions.

James' primary target is a broadly Platonic theory of propositions that takes them to be "abstract objects that are non-spatiotemporal, mind- and language-independent, and not part of the causal nexus." But he was quite clear that he does not mean to argue merely that there are no propositions of a Platonist sort. No, he means to argue that there are no propositions of any sort. There is nothing in reality capable of playing the various roles (a-d) that philosophers ascribe to propositions.

Without going into the specifics of his arguments, I just want to record my reasons for thinking that there's got to be more to proposition-talk than what James' says it is, namely, that it's just a 'pretense'. My basic thought is that even if he's right that we should reject Platonism and even if he's right that there are no well-developed alternative theories of what propositions are that adequately explain how they can play the kinds of roles that philosophers ascribe to them, we should still say that there are propositions. I say that because it seems quite obvious to me that I do have mental representations of various states-of-affairs, that I have various intentional attitudes toward these represented states-of-affairs, that I attempt to communicate these representations to others in the sentences that I utter, and that I believe these representations to be true or false depending on whether I believe them to correspond to reality. Consequently, I find it very hard to take seriously the suggestion that there is nothing that actually plays all of these roles. I don't have an elaborate theory of propositions to offer, but for starters why can't we just say that a 'proposition' is whatever it needs to be to satisfy (a-d)?

Furthermore, to engage in make-believe requires the voluntary ability to enter the make-believe 'world' and to step out of it again. (People who can't voluntarily leave the make-believe world are prime candidates for the asylum.) Consequently, the very fact that I (along with a great many other philosophers) can't bring ourselves to disbelieve in propositions suggests not that we are pretending, but rather either (i) that we are deluded, blinded by our metaphysical ideology, or, more charitably, (ii) that there's something real to which the notion of a 'proposition' answers. So I doubt that a pretense interpretation of our proposition-talk is really a viable option here. Indeed, I suspect that it's really a euphemism for 'delusion'.

Finally, the activity of engaging in make-believe or pretense presupposes the ability to represent various possibilities and to distinguish those that are merely imagined from those that are thought to be accurate or true. Consequently, my worry is that James' proposal amounts to sawing off the branch that he's sitting on. If there is nothing (a proposition) that is the content of my representations, then how could I represent to myself different possibilities and draw any kind of distinction between the 'make-believe' world and the 'real' world? And if I can't do that, then how could I engage in make-believe at all?

In sum, it seems to me that, however difficult the issues confronting us when we try to work out the metaphysics of meaning, eliminating propositions is not the way to go. Instead, we should try to come up with better theories of what propositions are. In contrast to the suggestion that all of our proposition-talk is just a pretense, I would offer the counter-suggestion that that is the real pretense, one that amounts to saying "Let's pretend that we're just pretending when we engage in proposition-talk."