Wednesday, February 13, 2008

French Kisses and Butterfly Kisses

I think that the following puzzling case about belief ascriptions is very important to studies of: (i) the nature of belief, (ii) the contents of belief, and (iii) the nature of representation. The case comes from an example that David Barnett communicated to me in person.

Harry and Harriet are both young and sexually unschooled. Last night was a romantic encounter for the two of them. They played footsie at the show, held hands waiting for the taxi and snuggled together during the taxi ride home. The next day, Harry writes in his diary:

Last night, Harriet and I French kissed. It was fabulous. I love French kissing. I didn't know if I would like it. It seemed weird before we tried it. But now I know. French kissing is amazing!!! My friends told me that if Harriet and I French kissed, then we reached second base. So, Harriet and I reached second base. They also said that many diseases, like Strep throat, can be spread through French kissing. For that reason I especially hope that Harriet wasn't sick. I don't want to catch Strep throat!

According to Wikipedia, a French kiss is a passionate, romantic or sexual kiss in which one participant's tongue touches the other's tongue (or lips) and usually enters his/her mouth. Harry and Harriet did no such thing. Neither Harry's lips nor his tongue ever touched Harriet. In fact what happened was that the two put their eyes close to each other and fluttered their eyelashes. Harry and Harriet didn't French kiss, they butterfly kissed.

There is a tension here. On what hand it seems:

(1) Harry believes that he French kissed Harriet.

After all, he says that he believes that he French kissed Harriet. He wrote it in his diary. He uses the belief in his reasoning, as when he uses his belief that he French kissed Harriet to infer that he reached second base with Harriet, or when he uses his belief that he French kissed Harriet to ground his desire that Harriet was not sick. Moreover, he may well have used a modus ponens style argument to form his belief. (a) Harriet and I co-fluttered out eyelashes. (b) If Harriet and I co-fluttered our eyelashes, then we French kissed. So, (c) Harriet and I French kissed.

But on the other hand, it seems:

(2) Harry does not believe that he French kissed Harriet.

After all, he has no illusions about what took place between him and Harriet. He doesn't believe that his lips touched hers, or that he ever put his tongue in her mouth.

(1) and (2) seems to be contradictory.

Clearly, Harry misunderstands the phrase 'French kiss'. He thinks that the co-fluttering of eyelashes is called 'a French kiss' when in fact it is called 'a butterfly kiss'. What is unclear is whether Harry believes that he French kissed Harriet.

One important thing that seems to me to hang in the balance is the following sort of thesis.

No Surprise if You’re Right Thesis: Suppose that S has consistent beliefs, and we number his beliefs B1, …, Bn. Take Bi such that there are possible worlds in which all of B1-Bn including Bi are true and there are possible worlds in which all of B1-Bn except for Bi are true. The No Surprise if You’re Right Thesis has it that because S has the belief, Bi, S will be more surprised if a world in which all of B1-Bn except for Bi is true is actual than if a world in which all of B1-Bn including Bi is actual. In other words, if S had to guess among the the many possible world as to which is actual, S would choose a world in which Bi is true.

Notice that Harry would be shocked if in fact he and Harriet French kissed last night. That would imply that he had forgotten his lips touching hers!

11 comments:

Richard said...

Is this a variation on Frege's puzzle, do you think? 'French kissing' has (for Harry) different cognitive significance from 'tonsil tennis', even though they're actually identical.

Compare: Bob goes around asserting: 'Hesperus is not Phosphorus.' Suppose he's sincere, and believes what he says. In another sense, we might be reluctant to ascribe this belief, since he sure doesn't think that Venus is non-self-identical. The (impossible) worlds where this is so would be very surprising to him! It's the same conflict.

Perhaps the best solution, in both cases, is to technically reject (and replace) the belief ascription. The possible worlds where Harry and Harriet french kissed are not, in fact, given any credence by Harry. That's not what he believes happened at all. But, technicalities aside, your (1) is perfectly assertable. We just have to interpret the phrase 'french kiss' there according to Harry's idiolect (rather than English). That is:

(1*) Harry believes that he and Harriet did that which he thinks of as 'french kissing'.

That's awfully long-winded, so we use phrases like (1) to say (1*) - which is to say something perfectly true.

Jack said...

Richard,

There are similarities between this case and Frege's Puzzle. But I think the cases are better thought of as separate. The main reason is that this puzzle can arise even if in English there is no expression that is equivalent to 'French kissing.' But Frege's Puzzle can only arise if there are two names for the same thing.

Strange that you think (1) is assertable. Many think that truthfulness is a necessary condition on assertability, including everyone who thinks that knowledge is the norm of assertion.

I agree that (1) is the belief ascription that needs to be rejected and replaced. But I would prefer to reject and replace (1) without ascribing to Harry a meta-linguistic belief content about the words 'French kissing'.
What do you think of:

(1#) Harry believes/thinks that he believes that he French kissed Harriet.

Richard said...

Hmm, is (1#) any better off than (1)? (He doesn't seem to be under any more illusions about his own beliefs than he is about what happened. It's just that, in both cases, he lacks the linguistic resources to accurately describe it.) After all: Harry sure would be surprised if a world where he believes that they French kissed turned out to be actual!

I wasn't thinking of (1*) as having meta-linguistic content. That's just a surface feature of the particular way I described it. We might just as well restate it: "Harry believes that he and Harriet phi-ed," where phi-ing is that which Harry thinks of as 'french kissing', viz. butterfly kissing. (But you may not like such coarse-grained theories of content.)

jack said...

Richard,

Your first point is very good.

This issue might turn on how we describe the worlds. If we describe them as containing Platonic propositions and having genuine belief relations between believers and those Platonic entities, then Harry would not be surprised at all if a world in which he stands in the belief relation to the Platonic entity {that Harry French kissed Harriet} is actual. If instead, we think that propositions are sets of possible worlds so that, roughly, Harry believes that he French kissed Harriet iff Harry believes that he romantically kissed Harriet, then my (1#) is in trouble. Harry would certainly be very surprised if he believed anything that is equivalent to “that Harry French kissed Harriet.” Indeed he is probably more confident that he doesn’t believe that he French kissed Harriet than he is that he didn’t French kiss Harriet.

What do you think? Do you think, like I am suggesting, that the issue depends on what the objects of belief are?

Richard said...

Perhaps, or it may turn on how beliefs get their contents. Mightn't even a Platonist deny that Harry could stand in the belief relation to {that Harry French kissed Harriet} without having discernibly different internal (qualitative) states? It seems to me that, whatever we think the objects of belief are, things would have to be very different for Harry to really have the belief in question. (If a Platonist denies this, then I haven't a clue what this 'belief relation' they're talking about is!)

Jack said...
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Jack said...

I find your comment puzzling. The Platonist that I am imagining--namely me--agrees with you, and denies that Harry stands in the belief relation to {that Harry French kissed Harriet}. What I maintain is that that Harry stands in the belief relation to the higher-order content {that Harry believes {that Harry kissed Harriet last night}}.

The point of the move to Platonism is to make it seem possible that on the one hand, Harry would be surprised if he French kissed Harriet, but on the other hand, he would not be surprised if he believes that he French kissed Harriet. Harry would be shocked if his lips had touched Harriet, as it required to for it to be true that he French kissed Harriet. But Harry wouldn't not be shocked if (as it happens he doesn't) he stands in the belief relation to {that Harry French kissed Harriet}.

Richard said...

Right, my point was that things would still have to be shockingly different for Harry to have the first-order belief. So the meta-belief still fails the no-surprise test.

Jack said...

Granted, things would have to be very different than they actually are for Harry to believe that he French kissed Harriet. That's what makes it false that Harry believes that he French kissed Harriet.

What matters, though, is how shocked *Harry* would be upon (hypothetically) finding that the actual world is a world in which he believes that he French kissed Harriet. I don't see any reason for thinking that Harry would be shocked. Indeed, Harry is going to be very surprised to find out that, in fact, he *doesn't* believe that he French kissed Harriet.

Is your view that Harry will be surprised both if the actual world is such that he believes that he French kissed Harriet and if the actual world is such that he does not believe that he French kissed Harriet?

Richard said...

No, I think you have this backwards. The world where Harry believes that he French kissed Harriet is a world where Harry's qualitative states are discernibly different from how he takes them to be (how they actually are). He would need to have, e.g., memories of their lips touching. Harry would be extremely surprised to learn that he has any such memories (since he actually doesn't).

In contrast, the world where he does not believe that he French kissed Harriet is simply the actual world. He isn't under any gross misconceptions about this world; he won't be terribly surprised to learn the truth. He'll realize that he's been misusing language, which may be mildly surprising, but not nearly as surprising as having qualitative states he'd never noticed.

Richard said...

(I'm interpreting the 'No Surprise if You’re Right Thesis' as asking how surprising the whole world in question is; not merely how surprised one would be to hear reported the partial description 'A world where Bi is true is actual', which gives us no more information than 'Bi' alone, and conceals all the same linguistic confusions.)