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3: A Theory of Reference

In the preceding chapters I have tried to show that present-day science does not provide a sketch of an “absolute conception of the world”, a sketch of a final metaphysics. In this chapter I will address an attempt by a well-known philosopher of cognitive science to solve Kant's problem, the problem of explaining the referential connection between our “representations” and the world. Jerry Fodor is one of the best-known philosophers of language working out of modern linguistic theory, especially the theories of Noam Chomsky, and he himself has been an important contributor to the field of psycholinguistics. Fodor's philosophy sometimes provokes violent disagreement (I disagree with much of it) but it is always enormously stimulating, and fertile in ideas. The new work is no exception. I find it of interest both intrinsically and also metaphilosophically—that is, from the point of view of what it reveals about contemporary philosophy.

Fodor's new theory1 is rather complicated. I shall describe it in broad outline. For our purposes, we may consider the theory as beginning just where the discussion ended in the last chapter: Fodor examines an attempt to explain just what reference is using counterfactuals, points out what the problem is—and the problem is very closely related to the problems I discussed in the previous chapter—and then proposes a solution, namely the notion of “asymmetric dependence”. I need to introduce Fodor's terminology, however.

Suppose someone makes an assertion which contains a token of the English word “cat”. In such a case, we shall say for short that the person has performed an act of “‘cat’ tokening”. Cats cause “cat” tokenings, but so do many other things; for example, I may see a picture of a cat and utter a sentence containing the word “cat”. In addition, I may utter the word “cat” simply because I see the letters C-A-T, or because someone else asks me to repeat the word “cat”, but we shall exclude these purely syntactic causes of “cat” tokenings from the discussion by fiat. We shall be interested in cases in which something extralinguistic causes a “cat” tokening.

Let us look a little more at the remark I just made, that is:

(1) Cats cause “cat” tokenings.

Fodor refers to this statement as a “law”, but it is important to understand the notion of a law that he has in mind.

Fodor is not thinking of laws in the sense in which Carnap thought of laws, that is, statements of fundamental physics which we can express as differential equations, or anything of that kind.2 Fodor regards it as highly unrealistic (and of course I agree) to expect that linguistics should model its notion of law on the notion of law employed in fundamental physics. Linguistics, Fodor thinks, should be regarded as one of the “special sciences”3—like geology or evolutionary biology—which do not pretend to arrive at exceptionless universal generalizations. If geologists say that, other things being equal, rocks belonging to stratum A will always be found below rocks belonging to stratum B, Fodor will call this statement a law even though it contains the phrase “other things being equal”. Laws containing these “other things being equal” clauses (Fodor calls them ceteris paribus clauses) are still able to support counterfactuals in many situations, and they enter into explanations which are fundamental in the particular special science, even if they are not fundamental in the sense that mathematical physics is fundamental. Of course, the statement that cats cause “cat” tokenings does not even mean that, other things being equal, a cat will cause a “cat” tokening. It rather means that cats frequently cause “cat” tokenings, or, perhaps, that they cause “cat” tokenings more often than any one other kind of object causes “cat” tokenings.4 But that is all right too, because all of the special sciences need to make statements about what is frequently the case, as well as statements about what is always the case, or what is always the case other things being equal.

Now, the idea that Fodor is trying to work out is that what a word refers to is a matter of its causal “attachments to the world”.5 At least in basic cases, what a word W refers to is going to be a matter of what causes W tokenings. But it is obvious that not everything that causes a W tokening is referred to by the word W. We already mentioned that pictures of cats cause “cat” tokenings, and the word “cat” does not refer to pictures of cats. Statues of cats and plastic cats may also cause “cat” tokenings. A meow may cause a “cat” tokening. And so on. The problem, then, is: given that there are many truths of the form

(2) Xs cause “cat” tokenings,

how can we determine which of these truths is fundamental, in the sense that it represents or determines the reference of the word “cat”?

Note that Fodor's question is not: what does such-and-such a particular token of the word “cat” refer to? On a particular occasion, a token of the word “cat” may very well refer to a cat in a picture, or to a cat statue and not to a cat. Fodor's problem is to determine the “basic” meaning of the type word “cat”. (What he wants to say about token reference, I do not know.)

Fodor's answer is that there is a dependence relation among truths of the form (2), and that this dependence relation is asymmetric. The dependence is expressed by a counterfactual:

(3) If cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings, then the other things that we mentioned (cat pictures, cat statues, the sound “meow”, and so on) wouldn't cause “cat” tokenings either.

In Fodor's terminology, the “law”

(4) Pictures of cats cause “cat” tokenings

depends on the “law” that cats cause “cat” tokenings, but not vice versa, and it is this asymmetric dependence that determines the position of the law “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings” at the top of the hierarchy of laws of the form (2). The fact that this law is at the top of the hierarchy is what makes it the case that the word “cat” refers to cats and not to pictures of cats, statues of cats, occurrences of the sound “meow”, and so forth.

Is the Dependence Really Asymmetric?

The first thing we have to consider is whether the dependence Fodor is talking about really exists and whether it is really asymmetric. The first question reduces to this: is it really true that if cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings, then pictures of cats wouldn't cause “cat” tokenings either?

Fodor's thought is that if cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings then that would most likely be because the word “cat” didn't refer to cats. In the jargon of possible worlds semanticists,6 the idea is that the “closest possible worlds” (that is, the possible worlds which are closest to the actual world) in which cats don't cause “cat” tokenings are possible worlds in which the word “cat” refers to something else altogether. This seems reasonable (at least it seems reasonable if we take “possible worlds” to be hypothetical situations that are relevant to the truth value of a counterfactual, and not real worlds), so let us accept this for the sake of the argument. This shows that the dependence exists—that the “law” “cat pictures cause ‘cat’ tokenings” depends on the law “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings”—but it doesn't suffice to show that the dependence is asymmetric. To show that the dependence is asymmetric, we have to show that it is not the case that if cat pictures didn't cause “cat” tokenings. then cats wouldn't cause “cat” tokenings either. Fodor takes this to be obvious, but is it?

Wouldn't it be reasonable to suppose that the closest possible worlds in which it isn't a “law” that cat pictures cause “cat” tokenings are possible worlds in which most people have no idea what cats look like? If we take those to be the closest possible worlds in which cat pictures don't cause “cat” tokenings, then it would be the case that if cat pictures didn't cause “cat” tokenings, then cats wouldn't cause “cat” tokenings either, and the dependence would be symmetric.

One possible counter would be for Fodor simply to insist on the “intuition” that among those possible worlds in which cat pictures do not cause “cat” tokenings, the closest ones are the ones in which people are blind, or can't recognize things in pictures, or otherwise have a nature which is very different from actual human nature, and not the ones in which people don't know what cats look like. But this seems implausible.

A better move, I think, would be for Fodor to say that by “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings” he means not that cats frequently cause “cat” tokenings, but that they sometimes cause “cat” tokenings. To this one might object that this claim is too weak; after all, isn't it the case that

(5) For every observable kind of thing X, and for every word W, Xs sometimes cause W tokenings?

One can think of some far-fetched situation, for example, in which the sight of an apple will cause me to mention dogs,7 or the sight of a pig will cause me to mention the moon. I think I know what Fodor would say about such cases. I think he would say that while it may be true that

(6) Apples sometimes cause “cat” tokenings,

that truth is not “lawlike”. (“Lawlikeness” is a primitive notion in Fodor's metaphysics; moreover, it is a relation between universals and not a property of sentences, according to Fodor, which is how he meets the objection that using the notion of lawlikeness is employing a notion which is itself intentional.) While I have doubts about the supposedly non-intentional character of this notion, I shall, for the sake of argument, concede it to Fodor.

Now, even if ordinary people had no idea what cats look like, if the word “cat” continued to refer to cats, there would presumably be at least some people (biologists and other specialists) who still knew what cats looked like. And therefore there would still be some cases in which cats still caused “cat” tokenings (unless we imagine a case in which the species has become extinct, which would perhaps raise still further problems for Fodor's theory). If the closest possible worlds in which ordinary people do not know what cats look like are still possible worlds in which some people do know what cats look like, then in those possible worlds it is still true that cats sometimes cause “cat” tokenings, and hence the existence of those “possible worlds” and their “closeness to the actual world” does not establish that the counterfactual if cat pictures didn't (sometimes) cause “cat” tokenings, then cats wouldn't (sometimes) cause “cat” tokenings is true. It is still possible for Fodor to maintain that the dependence relation between the “laws” “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings” and “pictures of cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings” is asymmetric. But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Fodor's claims are correct, at least in the case of ordinary natural kind words like “cat”, it does not necessarily follow that the theory does succeed in providing necessary and sufficient conditions for reference.

In fact, the theory fails badly when the word in question is one whose extension is determined by an analytic necessary and sufficient definition. For example, let us suppose that someone introduces a word for someone whose wealth is at least a hundred billion dollars, say, “superbillionaire”. Let us imagine that there are a small number, perhaps five or six, superbillionaires in the world, but that these people either have not heard of this neologism or despise it so much that they and their friends and families and close coworkers and bankers do not use it. Suppose that the half-dozen superbillionaires successfully conceal the fact that they are superbillionaires from the general public; the general public knows that they are billionaires but has no idea that they are superbillionaires. Then it could be that there is no single case in which a superbillionaire ever causes a “superbillionaire” tokening; yet it would still be true that “superbillionaire” refers to superbillionaires. Again there are a number of possible responses Fodor might make. He might, for example, say that if people knew all the relevant facts, then superbillionaires would cause “superbillionaire” tokenings. But what is a relevant fact depends on the meaning of the word we are considering. To know, that is, what the reference of “superbillionaire” is, using the criterion that “if people knew all the relevant facts, then superbillionaires would cause ‘superbillionaire’ tokenings”, we would have to know what facts are relevant to determining the truth value of such sentences as “X is a superbillionaire”, and this would require having already interpreted “superbillionaire”.

Fodor might say that if English speakers were omniscient, then superbillionaires would cause “superbillionaire” tokenings. But omniscience is not only a non-actual state of affairs but an impossible state of affairs for human beings. Alternatively—and this is, I think, the most plausible line for Fodor to take—Fodor might say that his theory is not meant to apply to words which have analytic definitions.8 The trouble with this reply is that the whole raison d'etre of Fodor's theory is to be antihermeneutic; that is, Fodor rejects the view that one cannot determine the reference of a word in a language in isolation. According to hermeneuticists, whether of the Gadamerian variety or of the Davidsonian variety, to interpret a language one must make tentative assignments of extensions, that is, of reference, to the words; proceed to see whether the speakers of the language come out talking sense or nonsense according to these reference assignments; and then make adjustments in the tentative reference assignments until one finally ends up with an interpretation which makes maximum sense of the linguistic behavior of the people being interpreted. According to hermeneuticists there can be no such thing as necessary and sufficient conditions for a word W to refer to Xs. The best we can hope for are criteria of adequacy for translation schemes, or reference assignments, or assignments of truth-conditions. This view, the hermeneutic view, is anathema to Fodor. It leads, according to him, to “meaning holism”, which in turn leads to “meaning nihilism”,9 which leads to the denial of the possibility of a “special science” of linguistics. To determine whether a word in a language has an analytic definition or not, what we need is precisely an interpretation of the language. If Fodor's theory of reference applies only to a class of words, not to all the words of the language, and we can determine whether a word belongs to the class to which it applies only by first interpreting the language, then the theory does not do what Fodor wants it to do. It does not provide us with a reductive and non-holistic account of reference in terms of “causal attachment”.

Fodor might reply that the theory is really meant to apply not to natural language but to his hypothetical innate language of thought, “Mentalese”.10 According to Fodor, all the concepts that appear in all natural languages are already available in Mentalese, available innately, and Fodor may well think that the innate structure of Mentalese determines which concepts have, and which do not have, analytic definitions. But if this is his view, then his entire theory is of no interest to those of us who find the idea that all concepts are innate preposterous.

In any case, Fodor's theory fails on still other kinds of words as well. Consider the word “witch”.11 It may be analytic that true witches have magical powers and that they are female; but having magical powers and being female is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being a witch. Many female saints are ascribed magical powers, but they are not considered witches. Nor must a witch have magical powers which come from an evil source or which are used for evil; anyone who has read The Wizard of Oz knows that there are good witches as well as evil witches. The word “witch” seems to have expanded its semantic range through a process of “family resemblance”. The first witches to be mentioned in the Bible are, in fact, pagan witches; the characteristic Christian witch who has sold her soul to the Devil represents a much later idea. The problem posed by the word “witch” is that the “law”

(6) Witches cause “witch” tokenings,

is false. There are no witches to cause “witch” tokenings.

I believe that Fodor would meet this objection by saying that still it is counterfactually true that

(7) If there were witches, they would cause “witch” tokenings.

But it is far from clear that this is true. If a witch must have magical powers, then it is far from clear that the concept of a witch is a coherent one, because it is far from clear that the concept of a magical power is a coherent one. We can certainly imagine possible worlds in which things regularly happen that superstitious people would regard as magic; but the very fact that they regularly happen in those possible worlds is strong reason for saying that in those possible worlds those things are not really magic—it is just that those worlds have different laws than the actual world. The notion of a world in which things happen that are “truly magical” is, I think, an incoherent one; and that means, I think, that the notion of a witch is an incoherent one.

One might try to meet this difficulty by defining a witch not as someone who has magical powers but as someone who has supernatural powers, where the supernatural is understood not in terms of the notion of magic, but in terms of not falling within the categories of substance, space, and time. It is extremely doubtful that the pagan witches, or the witches of present-day African tribes, are supposed to derive their powers from something which is supernatural in that sense. It is a feature, in fact, of pagan thought that the gods, demons, and so on, are not supernatural in the sense which came into existence with the rise of Greek philosophy and the incorporation into the Jerusalem-based religions of a certain amount of Greek philosophy. The notion that what is magical must derive from the supernatural, in the philosophical/theological sense of “supernatural”, is not part of the original meaning of the term.

If the existence of witches is incoherent, then there are no possible worlds in which there are witches, and then (7) is senseless. But let us be charitable and suppose that somehow coherent sense can be made of the notion of a witch, and that there are possible worlds in which there are witches. Then, Fodor might say, the counterfactual (7), “if there were witches, they would cause ‘witch’ tokenings”, is true. This, he might claim, is the “law” at the top of the relevant hierarchy generated by the asymmetric dependence relation.

If this counterfactual is true—and I have just given reasons for thinking it isn't—then its truth is certainly not explained by natural law. For this counterfactual refers to what would be the case if some beings really had magical powers. If it is a truth that “in the closest possible worlds in which there are beings of a certain kind with magical powers, those beings cause ‘witch’ tokenings among English speakers”, then that truth is certainly not a truth which belongs to any natural science. It would, in fact, be a metaphysical truth. If Fodor's theory succeeded in this case, it would not provide a reduction of reference to the notions of the special sciences considered as natural sciences, but a reduction of the notion of reference to some very suspicions metaphysical notions. Similarly, if Fodor has to appeal to counterfactuals about what people would say if they were omniscient, he will again have to appeal to counterfactuals whose antecedent is physically impossible—impossible on the basis of natural law—and this involves the same kind of metaphysics.

Now let us consider a perfectly ordinary word, “soldier”. It is perfectly true that

(8) Soldiers cause “soldier” tokenings.

But it is also true that

(9) People who pretend to be soldiers cause “soldier” tokenings.

For the right “asymmetric dependence” to hold between these two “laws”, it is necessary that the following counterfactual be false:

(10) If people who pretend to be soldiers didn't cause “soldier” tokenings, then soldiers wouldn't cause “soldier” tokenings.

Now, of course, there is something funny about all of the counterfactuals that Fodor needs. For example, the counterfactual “if cats didn't cause ‘cat’ tokenings, then pictures of eats wouldn't cause ‘cat’ tokenings either” is not one that would ever be heard in ordinary life. If someone asked me “What would happen it eats didn't cause ‘cat’ tokenings?” my response would be to ask “What situation do you have in mind?”. If the person said, “well, suppose the word ‘cat’ referred to a different kind of thing”, then I might know how to evaluate various counterfactuals about what would happen if cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings. But to say that what I am to imagine is that the word “cat” has a different reference would be to beg the whole question, for Fodor's whole enterprise is to define reference without appeal to any notions which presuppose it. To do this, he must assume that counterfactuals like “if cats didn't cause ‘eat’ tokenings, then pictures of cats wouldn't cause ‘cat’ tokenings either” already have a truth value—that the semantics of counterfactuals (whatever that may come to) already assigns a truth value to such bizarre counterfactuals. If we are going to play that game, however, then I don't see why we shouldn't say that if people who pretend to be soldiers didn't cause “soldier” tokenings, that would almost certainly be because the word “soldier” had a different reference. After all, wouldn't we expect that as long as the word “soldier” continues to mean soldier, then people who tell other people that they are soldiers cause “soldier” tokenings?

If the closest possible worlds in which people who pretend to be soldiers do not cause “soldier” tokenings are the worlds in which “soldier” has a different reference, however, then the counterfactual “if people who pretend to be soldiers didn't cause ‘soldier’ tokenings. then soldiers wouldn't cause ‘soldier’ tokenings” is true, and not false as the asymmetric dependence theory requires.

Fodor would perhaps say that if people were able to distinguish pretend soldiers from real soldiers infallibly, then soldiers would cause “soldier” tokenings, but people pretending to be soldiers would not cause “soldier” tokenings; but worlds in which people have such extraordinary abilities would seem to be extremely far from the actual world. Moreover, the notion of knowledge which is involved in the description of such possible worlds is itself one which presupposes the possession of a language, that is, the ability to refer.

Fodor's Notion of a Cause

In this discussion I have not questioned Fodor's free use of the notion of something causing something else, e.g., a cat causing an event which is a “cat” tokening. But let us examine this notion a little more closely. The notion of cause in ordinary language is both context bound and interest dependent, as Hart and Honoré pointed out many years ago.12 For example, if John eats foods high in cholesterol for many years and refuses to exercise, against the advice of his doctor and even though he has been told he has high blood pressure, and as a result suffers a heart attack, we may say that (i) his failure to exercise and eat a proper diet caused the heart attack, or that (ii) his high blood pressure caused the heart attack, depending on the context and our interests. If fact, even if A is a contributory cause of B we are unlikely to refer to A as “a cause” of B unless A is the sort of contributory cause that it would be natural to refer to as “the cause” of B in at least some contexts. For example, if a pressure cooker has a stuck valve and explodes, the absence of holes in the vessel of the pressure cooker is clearly a contributory cause of the explosion, as any engineer will tell you, but we would never in ordinary language say that the absence of holes in the vessel of the pressure cooker was “the cause” of the explosion, nor would we normally say

(11) The absence of holes in the vessel of the pressure cooker was a cause of the explosion,

although we would say that the stuck valve caused the explosion (and to say that a valve is stuck just means that there isn't a hole in a certain place where there ought to be a hole).

The notion of cause that Fodor is using is just this ordinary-language, context-sensitive, interest-relative notion, and not the relatively more context-independent notion of contributory cause.

To see this, consider what would happen if we tried to interpret Fodor's theory using the notion of contributory cause as the relevant notion. When Fodor says “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings”, what he means on this interpretation is that the presence of a cat is a contributory cause of many cat tokenings. But then it is certainly true that the past behavior of English speakers (not to mention speakers of Anglo-Saxon and other ancestors of English) is also a contributory cause of “cat” tokenings, since we would not be using the word at all if the past linguistic behavior of English speakers (Anglo-Saxon speakers, etc.) had been different. So

(12) The past behavior of English speakers causes “cat” tokenings

would also be true on this interpretation of causes; that is, the past linguistic behavior of English speakers is a contributory cause of “cat” tokenings. What is the relation of counterfactual dependence between (12) and “cats cause ‘cat’ tokenings”? Is the dependence asymmetrical? And if so, in which direction is the asymmetry?

Well, if cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings, the word “cat” would probably mean something else (this assumption is essential to Fodor's whole argument), but even if it meant something else, as long as it was still a word in English, it would still be the case that the past behavior of English speakers was a contributory cause of present “cat” tokenings. It is not true that

(13) If cats didn't cause “cat” tokenings, then the past behavior of English speakers wouldn't cause (be a contributory cause of) “cat” tokenings.

On the other hand, if the past behavior of English speakers were not a contributory cause of “cat” tokenings, that would almost certainly have to be because “cat” wasn't a word in the language. Thus it is reasonable to say that the set of closest possible worlds in which the past behavior of English speakers is not a contributory cause of “cat” tokenings is the set of possible worlds in which the word “cat” is not a word in the English language. If so, then the following counterfactual is true:

(14) If the past behavior of English speakers didn't cause (wasn't a contributory cause of) “cat” tokenings, then cats wouldn't cause “cat” tokenings.

On this interpretation of “cause” as “contributory cause”, (i) the dependence is asymmetrical, and (ii) the dependence goes the wrong way for Fodor's theory.

However, this is, as I said, pretty clearly not the interpretation of cause that Fodor has in mind. All of his examples, as well as his references to other special sciences like geology, indicate that he simply wishes to take the ordinary-language notion of cause as primitive. What is strange about this, is that this notion of causation is interest relative. Whether we say that A caused B or not depends on what we take to be the relevant alternatives. If we are interested in what would have happened to John if he had obeyed the doctor's orders, then we are likely to say that his eating habits and lack of exercise caused his heart attack, but if we are interested in what would have happened to John if he had not had high blood pressure to begin with, then we are likely to say that his high blood pressure caused the heart attack. Notice that being interested in something involves, albeit in a slightly hidden way, the notion of “aboutness” that is, the central intentional notion. To be interested in something, in this sense, you have to be able to think about it—you have to be able to refer to it, in thought or in language. Fodor uses a notion which has an intentional dimension; his notion of things “causing” other things is not a notion which is simply handed to us by physics. For in fundamental physics, at least, one usually ignores the distinction between contributory causes and “the cause”, and tries to provide a formalism which shows how all of the factors interact to produce the final result.

Moreover, Fodor assumes that counterfactuals have definite truth values, including many counterfactuals that would baffle any ordinary speaker. Here his defense is that counterfactuals are used in geology, evolutionary biology, and other “special sciences”. He might also say that I have made his use of counterfactuals look more suspect than it is by referring to the possible-worlds semantics for counterfactuals. Perhaps Fodor would reject the possible-worlds semantics. He could certainly say that, whatever the status of that semantics, all he is assuming is that counterfactuals make sense and have truth values, not that it makes sense to talk about possible worlds, or about possible worlds being closer to or farther away from the actual world. This would certainly be fair; and I did not mean, in using this vocabulary, to indicate that I myself regard possible-worlds talk as metaphysically satisfactory, or that I regard talk of closeness of possible worlds as explaining how it is that counterfactuals are true. The possible-worlds semantics, as I see it, is simply a model which enables us to formalize the deductive relations among counterfactuals, and no more. But that formalism does have a close connection with counterfactuals in the following way: just looking at how we employ counterfactuals, we will notice that—even if we think of possible worlds as mere stories or hypothetical situations—we do not treat all possible worlds in which the antecedent is true as equally relevant to the truth of a counterfactual. If I say “If I had put this lump of sugar in my coffee, it would have dissolved”, then there are an enormous number of possible worlds in which the antecedent of that counterfactual is true—that is, there are an enormous number of hypothetical situations in which the antecedent is true—but I do not regard all of them as relevant. In the case of that counterfactual, for example, I would ignore hypothetical situations in which the laws of physics are different. From some counterfactuals that exclusion, of hypothetical situations in which the laws of physics are not as they are in the actual world, suffices. If A and B are related in such a way that the material conditional “if A, then B” follows deductively from a finite set of true laws of physics, then the counterfactual “if A were the case, then B would be the case” is certainly true. For counterfactuals of this kind—I have elsewhere called them “strict counterfactuals”—a “similarity metric on possible worlds” is easy to specify: a world is “sufficiently close” to the actual world just in case it obeys the same laws of physics as are true in the actual world. But many counterfactuals are considered as true even though there exists some physically possible world in which the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. For example, there are physically possible worlds in which a lump of sugar is put in hot coffee and does not dissolve. This is true because of entropy considerations and also because of quantum mechanical considerations.13 We regard these possible worlds as somehow too abnormal to falsify the counterfactual “if I had put the sugar in the coffee it would have dissolved”. So even if we drop the language of “possible worlds”, and drop the language of possible words being “closer to” or “farther away from” the actual world, we still have to recognize that a counterfactual may be true even though there exists a hypothetical situation (one representable as a physical state of affairs in the formalism of physics) in which the antecedent of the counterfactual is true, all the fundamental physical laws which hold in the actual world hold in the hypothetical situation, and the consequent of the counterfactual is false. Indeed, almost all of the counterfactuals that we use in the special sciences are of this kind. For this reason, we may say that the very use of counterfactuals, whether it explicitly presupposes a similarity metric on possible worlds or not, implicitly determines such a metric. By looking at which counterfactuals we count as true, we can see which hypothetical situations we consider more relevant to determining the truth value of the counterfactual and which we consider irrelevant (or abnormal); and if we call the more relevant ones “closer”, then it does not seem that any great harm will be done.

Still, Fodor might reply, this way of looking at the situation is misleading because it gives an unreasonable pride of place to the laws of physics, that is, it gives too much weight to what is physically possible and what is physically impossible, and not enough weight to “laws” in another sense, the laws of the special sciences. Why should we, after all, emphasize possible worlds which can be represented as states of affairs in the physicist's sense—regions in phase space, states of affairs whose timedevelopment obeys the laws of fundamental physics, possible worlds in which nothing “physically impossible” happens? If we think of such states of affairs as unproblematic, and then think inherently problematic any selection from those states of affairs which involves treating some of them as more relevant than others, then, of course, we will be led to look for something like a “similarity metric on possible worlds” in order to account for the fact that there are true counterfactuals which are not what I called “strict counterfactuals”. (Another motive for looking at possible-worlds semantics, a very different one, is to have some account of the truth of some counterfactuals whose antecedents are physically impossible.)

To meet this objection, suppose we took the view that the laws of the special sciences are just as unproblematic as the laws of physics, and that it is at least a sufficient condition for the truth of a counterfactual that (i) there are situations in which the antecedent holds and in which all laws of nature (not just the laws of fundamental physics) hold; and (ii) the consequent holds in all those states of affairs. This suggestion doesn't quite work (which may be why Fodor does not put it forward).

To see that it does not work, consider again the counterfactual “if I had put this lump of sugar in my coffee, it would have dissolved”. According to the suggestion being considered, that counterfactual is true if the lump of sugar dissolves in all hypothetical situations in which it is put into the coffee and all the laws of the special sciences, including laws with an “other things being equal” clause in them, hold. Now, the suggestion may seem to work, because one law of ordinary chemistry—which is certainly a “special science”—is “other things being equal, a piece of sugar will dissolve in hot coffee”. But things are not so simple. For the truth of the statement that other things being equal a piece of sugar will dissolve if put into hot coffee is perfectly compatible with its being the case that this piece of sugar will not dissolve if put into hot coffee. It could be the case that this piece of sugar is in some way “not normal”. The truth of a law of the form “other things being equal, an A will do B in circumstances C” does not imply that any particular A will do B in circumstances C, nor does it imply any counterfactual of the form “this particular A would have done B if it had been in circumstances C”. This is why I think that Fodor doesn't want one to try to give necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of a counterfactual using any notion of “law”, not even his broadened notion.

Here is what I myself think about counterfactuals: I think that what makes a counterfactual true is simply that the consequent follows from the antecedent together with various relevant natural laws or general truths, plus the initial and boundary conditions in those situations that it would be reasonable to regard as compatible with the intentions of the speaker who uttered the counterfactual. By this I don't mean to suppose that a speaker who utters a counterfactual can imagine all conditions that might be relevant to what the speaker has in mind. To describe the conditions which are relevant to what he or she has in mind might require quantum mechanics, for example, or even some physical theory which has not yet been thought of, or some theory in some other science which has not yet been thought of. What I am saying is that an cvaluator of the counterfactual who does know the relevant theories, and who thinks of some case in which the antecedent of the counterfactual is true and the consequent of the counterfactual is false, must decide whether the case actually falsifies the counterfactual, or whether it is more reasonable to think that the case is too far-fetched to be relevant to what the speaker intended to say. In effect, the evaluator imagines himself as being the speaker, and as having the same intentions as the original speaker, but with much more knowledge of natural science, or whatever, than the original speaker. Fodor would presumably reject this suggestion because it implies that counterfactuals ineliminably presuppose the point of view of reason. To say that taking into account one state of affairs is “reasonable” while taking another state of affairs into account would be “unreasonable” is to make a normative judgment; and what I am going to argue in the lectures to come is that the desire to leave all normative considerations out of the philosophy of language is precisely what leads to the failure of the various attempts to “naturalize the intentional”.

Fodor's Metaphysical Picture

Let me now say a word or two about Fodor's metaphilosophical stance. It is clear that Fodor's aim is to provide a reductive account of reference in the following sense: he views the special sciences which do not especially refer to the human race, sciences like evolutionary biology and geology, as somehow belonging to the realm of the non-intentional (or the pre-intentional).14 These sciences describe reality as it is, in itself, before symbol users and referers appear on the scene. Moreover, he seems to think15 that any concept which is essential to such a special science is philosophically kosher, that is, is a concept which we have a philosophical right to regard as unproblematic.16 (This is somewhat strange, since one would think offhand that what we have a right to regard as unproblematic should depend on the question being asked.) Geology uses laws with “other things being equal” clauses in them; therefore, “other things being equal” is an unproblematic notion which we can use anywhere in philosophy. Geology uses the ordinary notion of something causing something else; therefore the ordinary notion of causation is an unproblematic notion which we can use anywhere in philosophy. Geology uses counterfactual conditionals, therefore the counterfactual conditional is an unproblematic notion which we can use anywhere in philosophy.

I certainly agree that there is nothing wrong with a geologist, or an evolutionary biologist, or a psychologist, or whoever, using a counterfactual conditional, or saying that something is the cause of something else, for that matter. My opposition to Fodor is by no means diametrical. Fodor's view has both a reductionist and an anti-reductionist element. Fodor is anti-reductionist in that he does not think that the special sciences can be reduced to fundamental physics. He has argued for many years and very persuasively that it is impossible to require geology or evolutionary biology or psychology to use only concepts which are definable in terms of the concepts we need to do mathematical physics. This anti-reductionist side of Fodor's thought is one that I hail. Fodor also recognizes that the nature of reference and the nature of general intelligence are not questions to which present-day Artificial Intelligence offers even a sketch of an answer. He would have no quarrel, as far as I can see, with the arguments I advanced in the first chapter. At the same time, however, Fodor clings to the picture of the natural sciences—that is, the sciences below psychology—as describing the world as it is independent of intentional or cognitive notions, a ready-made world. His anti-reductionism simply leads him to view any notion used by those sciences as descriptive of what is “out there” independent of mind and independent of language users. If geology needs counterfactual conditionals, then counterfactual conditionals are “out there”; if geology needs to say that something causes something else, then causation (in that sense) is “out there”. His retention of the old desire to reduce consciousness and mind to something wholly physical remains, but in an altered form, as the desire to reduce the central intentional notion, the notion of reference, to these notions. It is this reductionist side of Fodor's thought that I reject. But I have argued here that even if I give Fodor all that he wants to use—his notion of “law”, his peculiar counterfactual conditionals, his notion of causation—still he has not successfully defined reference in such terms. The reduction has failed.

On Fodor's picture, just as physicists discovered at a certain stage of the game that you cannot give a complete description of the world in terms of the forces known to classical physics alone, and so had to add new primitives in order to talk about new forces—for example the so-called “strong force” that holds the nucleus of the atom together—so geologists and biologists discovered that, just as the strong force and the weak force and mass and charge are out there in the world, independent of mind, so “ceteris-paribus-hood” (or “other-things-being-equalness”) is out there in the world, independent of mind, and one thing's “causing” another is out there in the world, independent of mind, and something's being a “law” is out there in the world, independent of mind. It is at this point that Fodor and I part company. From the fact that a statement is not explicitly about anything mental it does not follow that none of its presuppositions make any reference to our cognitive interests, our way of regarding different contexts, or our intentional powers. I have argued that the notion of causation, for example, has a cognitive dimension, even when we use it in a statement about inanimate objects, for example the statement that the stuck valve caused the pressure cooker to explode. The cognitive or “intentional” dimension lies in part in the presupposition that hearers of the statement regard such facts as that the vessel of the pressure cooker does not have a hole in it as “background conditions” which may be taken for granted, as well as in our knowledge of the salience that others attach to the condition of the valve. When I say that the water would have boiled if the gas stove had been turned on, there is an even more complex cognitive dimension.

If Fodor (the side of Fodor that I agree with) is right, and ordinary-language notions of causation (as opposed to the technical notions used in mathematical physics), and ordinary-language counterfactual conditionals, and ordinary-language notions of scientific law (however much Fodor may overblow and distort both counterfactual conditionals and the ordinary notion of scientific law) are essential in sciences which do not deal especially with human beings (like geology or evolutionary biology), what that shows is not that the statement that one thing caused another has no intentional dimension, but rather that concepts which do have an intentional dimension, concepts whose very use presupposes an identification with the interests and saliencies of human beings rather than a “view from nowhere”, are indispensable even when we talk about rocks or species.

To deny, as I do, that there is a “ready-made world” is not to say that we make up the world. I am not denying that there are geological facts which we did not make up. But I have long argued that to ask which facts are mind independent in the sense that nothing about them reflects our conceptual choices and which facts are “contributed by us” is to commit a “fallacy of division”. What we say about the world reflects our conceptual choices and our interests, but its truth or falsity is not simply determined by our conceptual choices and our interests. To try to divide the world into a part that is independent of us and a part that is contributed by us is an old temptation, but giving in to it leads to disaster every time. If one accepts this point of view, then both the successes of Fodor's criticism of reductionism with respect to the special sciences and the failures of his own attempt at reductionism with respect to semantics take on a different aspect. It does not look as if the intentional can simply be reduced to the non-intentional; rather, it begins to look as if the intentional intrudes even into our description of the non-intentional, as if the intentional (or, better, the cognitive) is to some extent ubiquitous.

One thing that interests me in this book is why we are so reluctant to admit this. What does it show about our culture and our entire way of thinking that it is so hard for us to admit this, and what might a philosophy might be like that began to give up all reductionist dreams?

  • 1.

    See Jerry Fodor, A Theory of Content (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990). A useful introduction to the theory is Fodor's earlier “Meaning and the World Order,” in Psychosemantics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), pp. 97–127.

  • 2.

    To be more precise, Carnap (as of the begining of 1954, which is the last time that we discussed this problem) proposed to define a law as a logical consequence of fundamental laws, and a fundamental law as a true statement of nomological form. A statement has nomological form if it (i) “does not contain space-time coordinate constants, but only variables” (Carnap referred to this as “the Maxwell condition”, because it was first formulated by Maxwell); and (ii) satisfies certain further conditions. The exact nature of those further conditions was an unsolved problem, but Carnap thought that fundamental laws would have to be quantitative: “I believe we must find a quantitative language; at least all my attempts of thinking to find a distinction in semantical terms for statements of nomological form fail if we have no quantitative language.” With respect to the mathematical form of a fundamental law, Carnap had this to say: “It would be nice if we could say they must have the form of differential equations, but I am not sure we should really require that.” (The quotations are from Carnap's notes to a discussion on January 2, 1954, with, in addition to myself, Herbert Feigl, C. G. Hempel, Ernest Nagel, Paul Oppenheim, and Michael Scriven.)

  • 3.

    See Fodor's essay “Special Sciences,” in his RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), pp. 127–145.

  • 4.

    If what statement (1) means is that cats cause “cat” tokenings more often than any other one kind of object causes “cat” tokenings, then, of course, we also need a theory of what counts as a “kind” of object—one which does not use any intentional notions.

  • 5.

    See “Observation Reconsidered,” in A Theory of Content, esp. p. 237.

  • 6.

    See David Lewis, Counterfactuals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).

  • 7.

    In fact, my dog Shlomit frequently eats the apples from our tree; thus, at a certain time of the year the sight of an apple is likely to cause “dog” tokening on my part!

  • 8.

    It has been suggested to me that Fodor might also say that his theory is meant to apply only to words which have intersubjective stimulus meaning, in Quine's sense. Not only do I not think Fodor would accept this, but the suggestion does not work: if people mistakenly call the same persons superbillionaires because they mistakenly think that certain obvious signs of great wealth indicate superbillionaire status, the word “superbillionaire” will have intersubjective stimulus meaning, but it will not refer to the people to whom it, so to speak, stimulus-refers.

  • 9.

    Fodor, Psychosemantics, p. 66.

  • 10.

    See Fodor, The Language of Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

  • 11.

    See the discussion of this word in my Representation and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988).

  • 12.

    H. L. A. Hart and A. M. Honoré, Causation in the Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959).

  • 13.

    See my The Many Faces of Realism, Lecture I (LaSalle: Open Court, 1987).

  • 14.

    In Psychosemantics, pp. 126–127, Fodor writes that he has “wasted a lot of time that I could have put in sailing” if “the cause” is indeed intentional/semantic.

  • 15.

    See “Special Sciences,” and Psychosemantics, esp. pp. 4–6 and pp. 126–127.

  • 16.

    See Psychosemantics, pp. 4–6.

From the book: