Mental States

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

The issue we are dealing with here is the question whether we are justified to assign “mental states” to other people on the basis of our experience, that is, based on weakly valid predictions and the use of some language upon them.

Hilary Putnam, in an early writing (at least before 1975), used the notion of mental states, and today almost everybody does so. In the following passage he tries to justify the reasonability of the inference of mental states (italics by H.Putnam, colored emphasis by me); I think this passage is not compatible with his results any more in “Representation and Reality”, although most people particularly from computer sciences cite him as a representative of a (rather crude) machine-state functionalism:

“These facts show that our reasons for accepting it that others have mental states are not an ordinary induction, any more than our reasons for accepting it that material objects exist are an ordinary induction Yet, what can be said in the case of material objects can also be said here our acceptance of the proposition that others have mental states is both analogous and disanalogous to the acceptance of ordinary empirical theories on the basis of explanatory induction. It is disanalogous insofar as ‘other people have mental states’ is, in the first instance, not an empirical theory at all, but rather a consequence of a host of specific hypothesis, theories, laws, and garden variety empirical statements that we accept.   […]   It is analogous, however, in that part of the justification for the assertion that other people have mental states is that to give up the proposition would require giving up all of the theories, statements, etc., that we accept implying that proposition; […] But if I say that other people do not have minds, that is if I say that other people do not have mental states, that is if I say that other people are never angry, suspicious, lustful,sad, etc., I am giving up propositions that are implied by the explanations that I give on specific occasions of the behavior of other people. So I would have to give up all of these explanations.”

Suppose, we observe someone for a few minutes while he or she is getting increasingly stressed/relaxed, and suddenly the person starts to shout and to cry, or to smile. More professionally, if we use a coding system like the one proposed by Scherer and Ekman, the famous “Facial Action Coding System,”  recently popularized by the TV series “Lie to me,” are we allowed to assign them a “mental state”?

Of course, we intuitively and instinctively start trying to guess what’s going on with the person, in order to make some prediction or diagnosis (which essentially is the same thing), for instance because we feel inclined to help, to care, to console the person, to flee, or to chummy with her. Yet, is such a diagnosis, probably taking place in the course of mutual interpretation of almost non-verbal behavior, is such a diagnosis the same as assigning “mental states”?

We are deeply convinced, that the correct answer is ‘NO’.

The answer to this question is somewhat important for an appropriate handling of machines that start to be able to open their own epistemology, which is the correct phrase for the flawed notion of “intelligent” machines. Our answer rests on two different pillars. We invoke complexity theory, and a philosophical argument as well. Complexity theory forbids states for empirical reasons; the philosophical argument forbids its usage regarding the mind due to the fact that empirical observations never can be linked to statefulness, neither by language nor by mathematics. Statefulness is then identified as a concept from the area of (machine) design.

Yet, things are a bit tricky. Hence, we have to extend the analysis a bit. Else we have to refer to what we said (or will say) about theory and modeling.

Reductionism, Complexity, and the Mental

Since the concept of “mental state” involves the concept of state, our investigation has to follow two branches. Besides the concept of “state” we have the concept of the “mental,” which still is a very blurry one. The compound concept of “mental state” just does not seem to be blurry, because of the state-part. But what if the assignment of states to the personal inner life of the conscious vis-a-vis is not justified? We think indeed that we are not allowed to assign states to other persons, at least when it comes to philosophy or science  about the mind (if you would like to call psychology a ‘science’). In this case, the concept of the mental remains blurry, of course. One could suspect that the saying of “mental state” just arose to create the illusion of a well-defined topic when talking about the mind or mindfulness.

“State” denotes a context of empirical activity. It assumes that there have been preceding measurements yielding a range of different values, which we aposteriori classify and interpret. As a result of these empirical activities we distinguish several levels of rather similar values, give them a label and call them a “state.” This labeling remains always partially arbitrary by principle. Looking backward we can see that the concept of “state” invokes measurability, interpretation and, above all, identifiability. The language game of “state” excludes basic non-identifiability. Though we may speak about a “mixed state,” which still assumes identifiability in principle, there are well-known cases of empirical subjects that we can not assign any distinct value in principle. Prigogine [2] gave many examples, and even one analytic one, based on number theory. In short, we can take it for sure that complex systems may traverse regions in their parameter space where it is not possible to assign anything identifiable. In some sense, the object does not exist as a particular thing, it just exists as a trajectory, or more precise, a compound made from history and pure potential. A slightly more graspable example for those regions are the bifurcation “points” (which are not really points for real systems).

An experimental example being also well visible are represented by arrangements like so-called Reaction-Diffusion-Systems [3]. How to describe such a system? An atomic description is not possible, if we try to refer to any kind of rules. The reason is that the description of a point in their parameter system around the indeterminate area of bifurcation is the description of the whole system itself, including its trajectory through phase space. Now, who would deny that the brain and the mind springing off from it is something which exceeds by far those “simple” complex systems in their complexity, which are used as “model systems” in the laboratory, in Petri dishes, or even computer simulations?

So, we conclude that brains can not “have” states in the analytic sense. But what about meta-stability? After all, it seems that the trajectories of psychological or behavioral parameters are somehow predictable. The point is that the concept of meta-stability does not help very much. That concept directly refers to complexity, and thus it references to the whole “system,” including a large part of its history. As a realist, or scientist believing in empiricism, we would not gain anything. We may summarize that their is no possible reduction of the brain to a perspective that would justify the usage of the notion of “state.”

But what about the mind? Let the brain be chaotic, the mind need not, probably. Nobody knows. Yet, an optimistic reductionist could argue for its possibility. Is it then allowed to assign states to the mind, that is, to separate the brain from the mind with respect to stability and “statefulness”? Firstly, again the reductionist would loose all his points, since in this case the mind and its states would turn into something metaphysical, if not from “another reality.” Secondly, measurability would fall apart, since mind is nothing you could measure as an explanans. It is not possible to split off the mind of a person from that very person, at least not for anybody who would try to justify the assignment of states to minds, brains or “mental matter.” The reason is a logical one: Such an attempt would commit a petitio principii.

Obviously, we have to resort to the perspective of language games. Of course, everything is a language game, we knew that even before refuting the state as an appropriate concept to describe the brain. Yet, we have demonstrated that even an enlightened reductionist, in the best case a contemporary psychologist, or probably also William James, must acknowledge that it is not possible to speak scientifically (or philosophically) about states concerning mental issues. Before starting with the state as a Language Game I would first like to visit the concepts of automata in their relation to language.

Automata, Mechanism, and Language

Automata are positive definite, meaning that it consists from a finite set of well-defined states. At any point in time they are exactly defined, even if the particular automaton is a probabilistic one. Well, complexity theory tells us, that this is not possible for real objects. Yet, “we” (i.e. computer hardware engineers) learned to suppress deviations far enough in order to build machines which come close to what is called the “Universal Turing Machine,” i.e. nowadays physical computers. A logical machine, or a “logics machine”, if you like, then is an automaton. Therefore, standard computer programs are perfectly predictable. They can be stopped, hibernated, restarted etc., and weeks later you can proceed at the last point of your work, because the computer did not change any single of more than 8’000’000’000 dual-valued bits. All of the software running on computers is completely defined at any point in time. Hence, logical machines not only do exist outside of time, at least from their own perspective. It is perfectly reasonable to assign them “states,” and the sequence of these states are fully reversible in the sense that either a totality of the state can be stored and mapped onto the machine, or that it can be identically reproduced.

For a long period of time, people thought that such a thing would be an ideal machine. Since it was supposed to be ideal, it was also a matter of God, and in turn, since God could not do nonsense (as it was believed), the world had to be a machine. In essence, this was the reasoning in the startup-phase of the Renaissance, remember Descartes’s or Leibniz’s ideas about machines. Later, Laplace claimed perfect predictability for the universe, if he could measure everything, as he said. Not quite randomly Leibniz also thought about the possibility to create any thought by combination from a rather limited set of primitives, and in that vein he also proposed binary encoding. Elsewhere we will discuss, whether real computers as simulators of logic machines can just and only behave deterministically. (they do not…)

Note that we are not just talking about the rather trivial case of Finite State Automata. We explicitly include the so-called Universal-Turing-Machine (UTM) into our considerations, as well as Cellular Automata, for which some interesting rules are known, producing unpredictable though not random behavior. The common property of all these entities is the positive definiteness. It is important to understand that physical computers must not conceived as UTM. The UTM is logical machine, while the computer is a physical instance of it. At the same time it is more, but also less than a UTM. The UTM consists of operations virtually without a body and without matter, and thus also without the challenge of a time viz. signal horizon: things, which usually cause trouble when it comes to exactness. The particular quality of the unfolding self-organization in Reaction-Diffusion-System is—besides other design principles—dependent on effective signal horizons.

Complex systems are different, and so are living systems (see posts about complexity). Their travel through parameter space is not reversible. Even “simple” chemical processes are not reversible. So, neither the brain nor the mind could be described as reversible entities. Even if we could measure a complex system at a given point in time “perfectly,” i.e. far beyond quantum mechanic thresholds (if such a statement makes any sense at all), even then the complex system will return to increasing unpredictability, because such systems are able to generate information [4]. Besides stability, they are also deeply nested, where each level of integration can’t be reduced to the available descriptions of the next lower level. Standard computer programs are thus an inappropriate metaphor for the brain as well as for the mind. Again, there is the strategic problem for the reductionist trying to defend the usage of the concept of states to describe mental issues, as reversibility would apriori assume complete measurability, which first have to be demonstrated, before we could talk about “states” in the brain or “in” the mind.

So, we drop the possibility that the brain or the mind either is an automaton. A philosophically inspired biological reductionist then probably will resort to the concept of mechanism. Mechanisms are habits of matter. They are micrological and more local with respect to the more global explanandum. Mechanisms do not claim a deterministic causality for all the parts of a system, as the naive mechanists of earlier days did. Yet, referring to mechanisms imports the claim that there is a linkage between probabilistic micrological (often material) components and a reproducible overall behavior of the “system.” The micro-component can be modeled deterministically or probabilistically following very strong rules, the overall system then shows some behavior which can not described by the terms appropriate for the micro-level. Adopted to our case of mental states that would lead us to the assumption that there are mechanisms. We could not say that these mechanisms lead to states, because the reductionist first has to proof that mechanisms lead to stability. However, mechanisms do not provide any means to argue on the more integrated level. Thus we conclude that—funny enough—resorting to the concept of probabilistic mechanism includes the assumptions that it is not appropriate to talk about states. Again a bad card for the reductions heading for the states in the mind.

Instead, systems theory uses concepts like open systems, dynamic equilibrium (which actually is not an equilibrium), etc. The result of the story is that we can not separate a “something” in the mental processes that we could call a state. We have to speak about processes. But that is a completely different game, as Whitehead has demonstrated as the first one.

The assignment of a “mental state” itself is empty. The reason is that there is nothing we could compare it with. We only can compare behavior and language across subjects, since any other comparison of two minds always includes behavior and language. This difficulty is nicely demonstrated by the so-called Turing-test, as well as Searle’s example of the Chinese Chamber. Both examples describe situations where it is impossible to separate something in the “inner being” (of computers, people or chambers with Chinese dictionaries); it is impossible, because that “inner being” has no neighbor, as Wittgenstein would have said. As already said, there is nothing which we could compare with. Indeed, Wittgenstein said so about the “I” and refuted its reasonability, ultimately arriving at a position of “realistic solipsism.” Here we have to oppose the misunderstanding that an attitude like ours denies the existence of mental affairs of other people. It is totally o.k. to believe and to act according to this believe that other people have mental affairs in their own experience; but it is not o.k. to call that a state, because we can not know anything about the inner experience of private realities of other people, which would justify the assignment of the quality of a “state.” We also could refer to Wittgenstein’s example of pain: it is nonsense to deny that other people have pain, but it is also nonsense to try to speak about the pain of others in a way that claims private knowledge. It is even nonsense to speak about one’s own pain in a way that would claim private knowledge—not because it is private, but because it is not a kind of knowledge. Despite we are used to think that we “know” the pain, we do not. If we would, we could speak exactly about it, and for others it would not be unclear in any sense, much like: I know that 5>3, or things like that. But it is not possible to speak in this way about pain. There is a subtle translation or transformation process in between the physiological process of releasing prostaglandin at the cellular level and the final utterance of the sentence “I have a certain pain.” The sentence is public, and mandatory so. Before that sentence, the pain has no face and no location even for the person feeling the pain.

You might say, o.k. there is physics and biology and molecules and all the things we have no direct access to either. Yet, again, these systems behave deterministically, at least some of them we can force to behave regularly. Electrons, atoms and molecules do not have individuality beyond their materiality, they can not be distinguished, they have no memory, and they do not act in their own symbolic space. If they would, we would have the same problem as with the mental affairs of our conspecifics (and chimpanzees, whales, etc.).

Some philosophers, particularly  those calling themselves analytic, claim that not only feelings like happiness, anger etc. require states, but also that intentions would do so. This, however, would aggravate the attempt to justify the assignment of states to mental affairs, since intentions are the result of activities and processes in the brain and the mind. Yet, from that perspective one could try to claim that mental states are the result of calculations or deterministic processes. As for mathematical calculations, there could be many ways leading to the same result. (The identity theory between physical and mental affairs has been refuted first by Putnam 1967 [5].) On the level of the result we unfortunately can not tell anything about the way how to achieve it. This asymmetry is even true for simple mathematics.

Mental states are often conceived as “dispositions,” we just before talked about anger and happiness, notwithstanding more “theoretical” concepts. Regarding this usage of “state,” I suppose it is circular, or empty. We can not talk about the other’s psychic affairs except the linkage we derive by experience. This experience links certain types of histories or developments with certain outcomes. Yet, their is no fixation of any kind, and especially not in the sense of a finite state automaton. That means that we are mapping probability densities to each other. It may be natural to label those, but we can not claim that these labels denote “states.” Those labels are just that: labels. Perhaps negotiated into some convention, but still, just labels. Not to be aware of this means to forget about language, which really is a pity in case of “philosophers.” The concept of “state” is basically a concept that applies to the design of (logical) machines. For these reasons is thus not possible to use “state” as a concept where we attempt to compare (hence to explain)  different entities, one of which is not the result of  design. Thus, it is also not possible to use “states” as kind of “explaining principle” for any kind of further description.

One way to express the reason for the failure of  the supervenience claim is that it mixes matter with information. A physical state (if that would be meaningful at all) can not be equated with a mind state, in none of its possible ways. If the physical parameters of a brain changes, the mind affairs may or may not be affected in a measurable manner. If the physical state remains the same, the mental affairs may remain the same; yet, this does not matter: Since any sensory perception alters the physical makeup of the brain, a constant brain would be simply dead.

Would we accept the computationalist hypothesis about the brain/mind, we would have to call the “result” a state, or the “state” a result. Both alternatives feel weird at least with respect to a dynamic entity like the brain, though the even feel weird with respect to arithmetics. There is no such thing in the brain like a finite algorithm that stops when finished. There are no “results” in the brain, something, even hard-core reductionistic neurobiologists would admit. Yet, again, exactly this determinability had to be demonstrated in order to justify the usage of “state” by the reductionist, he can not refer to it as an assumption.

The misunderstanding is quite likely caused by the private experience of stability in thinking. We can calculate 73+54 with stable results. Yet, this does not tell anything about the relation between matter and mind. The same is true for language. Again, the hypothesis underling the claim of supervenience is denying the difference between matter and information.

Besides the fact that the reductionist is running again into the same serious tactical difficulties as before, this now is a very interesting point, since it is related to the relation of brain and mind on the one side and actions and language on the other. Where do the words we utter come from? How is it possible to express thoughts such that it is meaningful?

Of course, we do not run a database with a dictionary inside it in our head. We not only don’t do so, it would not be possible to produce and to understand language at all, even to the slightest extent. Secondly, we learn language, it is not innate. Even the capability to learn language is not innate, contrary to a popular guess. Just think about Kaspar Hauser who never mastered it better than a 6-year old child. We need an appropriately trained brain to become able to learn a language. Would the capability for language being innate, we would not have difficulties to learn any language. We all know that the opposite is true, many people having severe difficulties to learn even a single one.

Now, the questions of (1) how to become able to learn a language and (2) how to program a computer that it becomes able to understand language are closely related. The programmer can NOT put the words into the machine apriori as that would be self-delusory. Else, the meaning of something can not be determined apriori without referring to the whole Lebenswelt. That’s the result of Wittgenstein’s philosophy as well as it is Putnam’s final conclusion. Meaning is not a mental category, despite that it requires always several brains to create something we call “meaning” (emphasis on several). The words are somewhere in between, between the matter and the culture. In other words there must be some kind process  that includes modeling, binding, symbolization, habituation, both directed to its substrate, the brain matter, and its supply, the cultural life.

We will discuss this aspect elsewhere in more detail. Yet, for the reductionist trying to defend the usage of the concept of states for the description of mental affairs, this special dynamics between the outer world and the cognitively established reality, and which is embedding  our private use of language, is the final defeat for state-oriented reductionisms.

Nevertheless we humans often feel inclined to use that strange concept. The question is why do we do so, and what is the potential role of that linguistic behavior? If we take the habit of assigning a state to mental affairs of other people as a language game, a bunch of interesting questions come to the fore. These are by far too complex and to rich as to be discussed here. Language games are embedded into social situations, and after all, we always have to infer the intentions of our partners in discourse, we have to establish meaning throughout the discourse, etc. Assigning a mental state to another being probably just means “Hey, look, I am trying to understand you! Would you like to play the mutual interpretation game?” That’s ok, of course, for the pragmatics of a social situation, like any invitation to mutual inferentialism [6], and like any inferentialism it is even necessary—from the perspective of the pragmatics of a given social situation. Yet, this designation of understanding should not mistake the flag with the message. Demonstrating such an interest need not even be a valid hypothesis within the real-world situation. Ascribing states in this way, as an invitation for inferring my own utterances,  is even unavoidable, since any modeling requires categorization. We just have to resist to assign these activities any kind of objectivity that would refer to the inner mental affairs of our partner in discourse. In real life, doing so instead is inevitably and always a sign of deep disrespect of the other.

In philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari in their “Thousand Plateaus” (p.48) have been among the first who recognized the important abstract contribution of Darwin by means of his theory. He opened the possibility to replace types and species by population, degrees by differential relations. Darwin himself, however, has not been able to complete this move. It took another 100 years until Manfred Eigen coined the term quasi-species as an increased density in a probability distribution. Talking about mental states is noting than a fallback into Linnean times when science was the endeavor to organize lists according to uncritical use of concepts.

Some Consequences

The conclusion is that we can not use the concept of state for dealing with mental or cognitive affairs in any imaginable way, without stumbling into serious difficulties . We should definitely drop it from our vocabulary about the mind (and the brain as well). Assuming mental states in other people is rendering those other people into deterministic machines. Thus, doing so would even have serious ethical consequences. Unfortunately, many works by many philosophers are rendered into mere garbage by mistakenly referring to this bad concept of “mental states.”

Well, what are the consequences for our endeavor of machine-based epistemology?

The most salient one is that we can not use the digital computers to produce language understanding as along as we use these computers as deterministic machines. If we still want to try (and we do so), then we need mechanisms that introduce aspects that

  • – are (at least) non-deterministic;
  • – produce manifolds with respect to representations, both on the structural level and “content-wise”;
  • – start with probabilized concepts instead of compound symbolic “whole-sale” items (see also the chapter about representation);
  • – acknowledge the impossibility to analyze a kind of causality or—equival- ently—states inside the machine in order to “understand” the process of language at a microscopic level: claiming ‘mental states’ is a garbage state, whether it is assigned to people or to machines.

Fortunately enough, we found further important constraints for our implementa- tion of a machine that is able to understand language. Of course, we need further ingredients, but for now theses results are seminal. You may wonder about such mechanisms and the possibility to implement them on a computer. Be sure, they are there!

  • [1] Hilary Putnam, Mind, language, and reality. Cambridge University Press, 1979. p.346.
  • [2] Ilya Prigogine.
  • [3] Reaction-Diffusion-Systems: Gray-Scott-systems, Turing-systems
  • [4] Grassberger, 1988. Physica A.
  • [5] Hilary Putnam, 1967, ‘The Nature of Mental States’, in Mind, Language and reality, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  • [6] Richard Brandom, Making it Explicit. 1994.


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