Does associative learning require a mentalistic explanation?

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Beisecker on belief

David Beisecker. Photo courtesy of University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Whereas for Dretske (1999) the salient feature of beliefs is that they are internal representations, acquired through learning, which bring about changes in organisms' behaviour, for Beisecker (1999) the defining quality of beliefs is that they can be correct or mistaken. As he puts it:

...the hallmark of intentional states is their susceptibility to evaluation. For instance, a doxastic (or belief-like) state can be correct or mistaken depending upon whether or not some state of affairs, identified as its content, actually obtains. Believers are beholden to the way things are. Similarly, conative states (goals, desires, and other "pro-attitudes") may be fulfilled or unfulfilled, depending upon the satisfaction of some content condition. So intentional states are those that are associated with conditions of satisfaction or fulfillment (1999, p. 283).

The notion that susceptibility to evaluation is a distinguishing feature of intentional states may seem strange to people who regard mental states as quintessentially incorrigible - an idea expressed in the naive claim that I cannot be wrong about my own mental states, whatever else I am wrong about. Even if this claim were correct, it would in no way weaken Beisecker's point, which is that however well-acquainted I may be with my mental states, they are about something. It is in terms of their aboutness that they are vulnerable to evaluation as right or wrong, satisfied or unsatisfied.

The same goes for the Aristotelian claim that the senses cannot be deceived about their special objects (e.g. for sight, colour). We do not simply see colours; we see coloured things. And it is when evaluating the intentional object of our vision that we are capable of erring - a point well-understood by Aristotle (see De Anima 2.6).

For Beisecker, animals that are capable of a special kind of associative learning - operant conditioning - qualify as belief-holders. According to Beisecker, animals capable of operant conditioning should be regarded as having beliefs because not only are they educable, but they can make errors which they subsequently try to rectify.

Beisecker argues that animals capable of operant conditioning possess a special non-biological kind of intentionality. Unlike other organisms, whose ends are completely biological, these animals can be said to have expectations that their responses to certain kinds of events will bring about certain outcomes. Insofar as a creature engages in behaviour expected to bring about a certain outcome, we may regard that outcome as one of its goals. Beisecker call these goals non-biological, because we can identify them without having to know anything about the creature's biological evolution, which has determined its built-in ends through natural selection.

Of course, expectations may be disappointed: a creature may make errors of commission (when an animal's expectation - say, of obtaining food - is activated and it responds, but the expected consequence does not eventuate) and errors of omission (when the animal fails to respond because its expectation is not activated, but in fact, the response would bring about a desired consequence). But because creatures continually revise their expectations, they can be said to possess a kind of critical rationality:

Insofar as they are disposed to revise their expectations in the wake of the errors described above, educable creatures would be disposed to take steps to avoid similar mistakes in the future. There is of course no guarantee that these revisions will yield future success. The point is just that creatures displaying this sort of educable capacity would take expectation correctness or aptness to be a regulative ideal, at least in the sense that they are disposed to revise error-prone expectations while leaving correct expectations as they are... Since they can be evaluated as having gotten things right or wrong, we are justified in crediting these creatures with some sort of intentional capacity (Beisecker, 1999, p. 303).

In other words, animals that can undergo operant conditioning can be said to be capable of getting things right, because they can (and often do) get them wrong, and they revise their expectations and their responsive behaviour when they are wrong. On Beisecker's account, the capacity to self-correct one's mistakes is a sine qua non for having beliefs. I have argued above that we can adopt a mind-neutral goal-centred intentional stance, when explaining the behaviour of that an organism lacking beliefs. A minimal mind must therefore be capable of entertaining at least some beliefs, about which it can be right or wrong. We can propose the following normativity criterion:

N.1 An organism must be capable of self-correcting behaviour before it can be said to have cognitive mental states.

Beisecker's proposal deftly handles counter-examples associated with organisms that behave maladaptively, such as the bacteria containing magnetsosomes, which were discussed above. These bacteria should not be described as being "in error" when they move toward the bar magnet instead of the bottom of the water, because they cannot "tailor their responsive dispositions to their particular surroundings" (1999, p. 298), and hence do not qualify as holders of expectations or beliefs. Bacteria do not try to rectify their maladaptive responses, and it was found that a causal account could account for their behaviour.

Beisecker's model of animal behaviour makes a novel prediction that a purely causal, non-mentalistic account does not: animals that are capable of operant conditioning will revise their mistaken expectations and try to correct their mistakes. However, this "prediction" cannot be considered scientifically productive unless it can be fleshed out in behavioural terms. What kind of behaviour counts as self-correction, and why? Only if we can answer this question will we be able to identify animals with beliefs and desires.

Beisecker has proposed blocking as an example of behaviour that expectation-generating animals would engage in. I shall discuss this particular claim in detail, as it is a highly unusual prediction of one model of associative learning - the Rescorla-Wagner model - whose central ideas are usually expounded using mentalistic terminology.

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