In the 70’s & 80’s some philosophers were interested in the nature/essence/definition of “beliefs. ” Some argued “if a blind man and a sighted man are told ‘there is a cat in the next room’ they both have the same belief (i.e. that there is a cat in the next room), therefore there is no difference between beliefs in blind and sighted people.” I challenge this position.
This essay will evaluate an argument considered by Brian Loar in the Twin Earth Chronicles (TEC). The argument as it appears in the text goes as follows:
- The ability to use sense perception to identify objects of a given thing is the same as having a concept/belief of that given thing.
- Thus, the capacity to have a belief about some thing (cat) involves the ability to use sense perception to identify the thing (cat).
- However, if a blind and a sighted person are told “there is a cat in the next room,” they both have the same belief (i.e. that there is a cat in the next room).
- Therefore, any theory that implies the sighted and blind person’s beliefs are different is false.
There are two points of interest in the above argument. First, the argument greatly depends on the definition of “belief,” (i.e. what things should and should not be counted as beliefs?). Second, in its current form the argument is very weak. It is weak because it cites one situation where blind and sighted people’s beliefs are the same and simply asserts this is true for all beliefs (the obvious objection via reductio ad absurdum – my dad and my mom have the same color hair, therefore any theory that states men and women are physically different is false). Thus, at the very least the argument must also show (or claim) that because blind and sighted people’s beliefs are the same in this instance, the same is true in every other situation too (because my mom and dad have the same color hair it necessarily follows that the rest of their bodies are the same). So to be charitable (aka make the argument logically valid) let’s add the premise 3a. “This is true for all beliefs” (although I cannot come up with any reason for thinking this to actually be the case).
I don’t believe this position is tenable when fully flushed out. To see why, let’s consider the kinds of beliefs we normally think we can have. Yes, I can believe there is a cat in the next room, but I can also believe my mother looks a certain way, a piano sounds a certain way, a rose smells a certain way, and hunger feels a certain way. I want to call the first kind of beliefs Type A beliefs and the second kind Type B beliefs. A Type A belief is a psychological state whose contents are not sense perception specific and whose truth is objectively verifiable. Most beliefs are Type A beliefs: “cats have four legs,” “ripe tomatoes are (usually) red,” etc.
A Type B belief is one that can only be achieved through sense perception. They are often signaled by the word “like” in our every day language: what a sunset looks like, a rose smells like, etc. It is important to understand what I mean by “what a sunset looks like.” A blind person can have a belief about what a sunset looks like (e.g. a yellow and orange semi-circle, etc.) but this is a Type A belief. “What a sunset looks like” as a Type B belief is the imagery that comes to mind. Simply put, a person with a Type A belief of a thing wouldn’t necessarily be able to readily identify (or re-create) it in the real world.
Going back to the argument, Type A beliefs are perfectly consistent with the conclusion. However, this isn’t really saying anything at all because Type A beliefs are independent of sense perception. Of course a blind and sighted person’s Type A beliefs will be the same because Type A beliefs don’t involve perception. Type B beliefs are a big problem for the argument. If Type B beliefs exist, the argument fails. The following example will show why. Recall with “what a sunset looks like” it is possible to have both Type A and Type B beliefs. A blind person will only have Type A beliefs about what a sunset looks like but a sighted person will have both Type A and Type B beliefs. Therefore, the blind and sighted person’s beliefs have distinct contents with respect to what a sunset looks like. This can easily be shown with the following thought experiment. Two people, one blind and one sighted, are put in separate enclosed rooms each with a box of crayons and a piece of paper. The blind person’s sight is restored and then both are asked to draw a picture of what they believe a sunset looks like. The completed drawings will certainly differ in many relevant ways. Thus, the blind and sighted person’s beliefs are different with respect to Type B beliefs, which is a counterexample to the argument.
The only way for the argument to survive in the face of Type B beliefs is to maintain “Type B beliefs aren’t actually beliefs; the only kind of real beliefs are of the Type A sort.” According to this position, we cannot form beliefs about anything we experience through our senses. Again, be clear about the point here. The issue is not if we “should” believe sense data, or even if sense data is true/false/has no truth value. The issue is if we can form beliefs about what we experience through our senses. If we do have the ability to form beliefs from sense experience the argument fails.
I believe we can and do form Type B Beliefs and the argument ultimately fails.