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Success Semantics: Motivations, Problems, and Solutions Open Access


Other title
Mental Content
Naturalizing Mind
Success Semantics
Frank Ramsey
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Shojaeenejad, Meysam
Supervisor and department
Nye, Howard (Philosophy)
Examining committee member and department
Linsky, Bernard (Philosophy)
Brigandt, Ingo (Philosophy)
Department of Philosophy

Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Master of Arts
Degree level
Inspired by Frank Ramsey’s ideas on the relation between the truth of agents’ beliefs and the success of their actions, J.T. Whyte developed the first fine-grained version of success semantics as a naturalistic account of the broad content of psychological mental states such as beliefs and desires (i.e. contents which depend not only on the agent’s internal states, but also the external environment). The basic idea of success semantics is that what makes it the case that a state of an agent (e.g. a neural state) is a belief that P is that it tends to combine with the agent’s desires to cause behaviour that would fulfill those desires if P. In this thesis I begin by discussing why we need a naturalistic theory of the content of mental states, and then evaluate the most well-known naturalistic accounts. On the basis of these evaluations I show how success semantics, as theory of broad content, fits into an ideal naturalistic theory of the content of mental states. Drawing on the work of Ned Block, I argue that success semantics yields the best account of broad content in a “two-factor” theory, the narrow content factor (i.e. the content that depends only upon the thinker’s internal states) of which is accounted for by conceptual role semantics. However, Whyte’s version of success semantics faces some problems. Some authors argue that the success of the actions that beliefs motivate under given circumstances is neither sufficient nor necessary for them to have such circumstances as their content. Some authors also charge the core idea of success semantics with vicious circularity, since it seeks to explain the content of beliefs in terms of that of desires, and Whyte’s attempt to explain the content of certain “basic” desires without reference to the content of beliefs can seem to presuppose rather than explain their content. Finally, some authors question whether success semantics can explain the content of complex beliefs and desires, which depend for their influence on the content of the agent’s other representations and seem far removed from basic desires and actions. In order to defend success semantics against these objections, I make several contributions to current debates, offering a novel defense of some of Whyte’s early ideas. First, I argue that, to solve the problems of insufficiency and non-necessity, we can return to Whyte’s strategy of beginning by explaining the content of whole sets of beliefs influencing agents’ conduct, and replace his view that accurate representations guarantee success with Bence Nanay’s idea that they increase the probability of success independent of the accuracy of agents’ other representations. Second, I argue that we can solve the problem of circularity by beginning with an explanation of the content of what I call “immediate desires,” the content of which, unlike what Whyte identified as “basic desires,” is independent of the content of the agent’s other mental states. Finally, I argue that we can complete the solution of the problems of circularity and explaining the content of complex attitudes by adding to the basic idea of success semantics and my account of the content of immediate desires the idea that what for a state to be a non-immediate desire that O is for it to combine with the agent’s beliefs to cause behaviour that would increase the probability of bringing about O if those beliefs were true. I use these ideas to propose a recursive success semantical account of beliefs and desires of arbitrary levels of complexity, explaining the content of each level of beliefs in terms that of desires of the same level, and explaining the content of each level of non-immediate desires in terms of that of beliefs of the level below it.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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