Monday, October 1, 2007

Superman and Language

Brian Montgomery, over at Show-Me The Argument (the blog of the University of Missouri's philosophy department) raised this issue in his post today. One of the other contributors made a comment that I thought was on the right track, and I expanded on it a little bit. Here's the whole exchange, starting with Brian's post:

Please let me know what you think, as it may effect my phil. language paper. (sic)

Consider the following sentences:

1) Lex Luthor believes that Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Clark Kent, is a troublemaker.

2) Lex Luthor believes that Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Superman, is a troublemaker.

Can 1) be true and 2) be false? Do 1) and 2) have the same content?

And Christopher's comment:

I am not exactly sure what Lex is thinking here. With regard to the pair, is it the following?

(1*) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Clark Kent, is a trouble maker.”
(2*) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Superman, is a trouble maker.”

If this interpretation, then (2) is false for Lex Luthor does not believe that Lois Lane is a coworker of Superman (i.e. Lex doesn’t believe that she monitors the world from the Fortress of Soliture—boy am I a geek).

Perhaps it is not (1*) and (2*); perhaps it is the following:

(1^) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane is a trouble maker” and she is a coworker of Clark Kent.
(2^) Lex Luthor believes “Lois Lane is a trouble maker” and she is a coworker of Superman.

Both (1^) and (2^) can be true in this case for they are each a conjunction of a belief Lex has, and a statement about who Lois works with; in other words, both (1^) and (2^) can be true for who Lois works with is not part of Lex’s belief.

My thoughts:

Christopher's interpretation seems on the right track to me--I agree that the beliefs expressed in both (1) and (2) are "complex," in the sense that they have multiple parts to them; obviously all parts need to be equivalent if the two are to be considered equivalent. Each statement really expresses three beliefs relating a relationship between Lex Luthor, some entity who may or may not be a troublemaker, and that entity's co-worker. Formally, we might express them like this (pardon the lack of symbols...I'm not going to try to find the fonts):

1. There exists some x such that Lex Luthor believes x to be a trouble maker, x to be named 'Lois Lane,' and x to be a co-worker of Clark Kent.

2. There exists some x such that Lex Luthor believes x to be a trouble maker, x to be named 'Lois Lane," and x to be a co-worker of Superman.

(1) can be (and, presumably, is) true, while (2) is false--Lex Luthor does NOT believe that Lois Lane is a co-worker of Superman, and since the complex belief in (2) is a conjunction of three simple beliefs, the falsity of one simple beliefs entails the falsity of the entire complex belief. But how can this be? We know that 'Superman' has the same referent as 'Clark Kent,' that the two men are, in fact, identical. By Leibniz' Law, then, it seems that any statement true of Clark Kent just must be true of Superman--that is, we should be able to swap 'Superman' for 'Clark Kent' in any true statement, and the statement should remain true.

The explanation for this, it seems to me, lies in the interesting relationship between intensionality and intentionality--between language and mental states. When I make a statement of the form "I believe that x is y," the truth functionality of that statement has to do with more than x and whether or not it actually is y. In short, it depends on certain facts about my mental states. When Lex Luthor thinks about Superman, he has a certain cluster of intentional states (beliefs, desires, etc.) that have to do with him: "Superman is my enemy," "Superman can fly," "Superman wears lots of spandex," "I want Superman dead," "Superman is allergic to Kryptonite," and so forth. This belief network does not, presumably, include any beliefs about the relationship between Superman and Clark Kent (particularly any beliefs about the identity of the referent of 'Superman' with the referent of 'Clark Kent'). Thus, when Lex Luthor has a belief that includes anything about Superman or Clark Kent as part of its content, there is the potential for odd intensionality of expression.

Again, this is due to the relationship between language qua representation and the mental states represented; the inherent subjectivity of mental content creates oddity when it is transferred into the more public sphere of shared language.


Nick said...

Excuse my postmodernity... but isn't all language intensional? Isn't all language based on the given individual's belief system, desires, etc, whether explicit or not?

I guess I'm arguing with the idea that language (which is really just expressed ideas) suddenly becomes objective once it's on paper. After all, you yourself say that mental content is inherently subjective. Does language, which is subjective when it is inside one's head, become objective merely when it is put on paper and presented to the public? how and why?

Jon said...

That's an interesting point, and one that definitely deserves some consideration. My off the cuff response would be "no, all language is not necessarily intensional, or maybe more accurately, all language is not intensional in the same way as is language that directly references mental content," but who knows if that's satisfactory. Let's think about an example or two.

There seems to me to be a difference between my uttering something like "Let's go to the park" or even "My blue car cost $5000" and "I believe that your brother's name is Jason, and that Jason works at a toy factory." Intuitively, it seems like in the first two propositions I'm expressing something a good bit more objective than in the third case.

I suppose that a hard core epistemic skeptic could object that both of the first two statements contain "hidden" beliefs (e.g. in order to want to go to the park, I have to believe that the park hasn't been destroyed in a tiny nuclear holocaust), but that seems to me to fall outside the scope of true intentionality and into what Searle would call the "Background"--that is, pre-intentional states which, though they can be brought into conscious consideration and thus made into full-fledged intentional states, are generally too obscure and basic to be plausibly considered intentional.

When I express something like "My blue car cost $5000," (leaving aside for the moment claims that I'm expressing a belief that the care before me is not an identical double of my car that has been just switched, etc.), it seems that I'm expressing something objectively true or false--the truth functionality of the statement can be decided just by looking at the world. Is the car mine? Check. Is it blue? Check. Did it cost $5,000? Check. True statement.

However, consider the original examples we discussed, particularly (2): "Lex Luthor believes that Lois Lane, who is the coworker of Superman, is a troublemaker." There seems to be clearly something different happening here: I can't decide on the truth functionality of this statement simply by going out and looking at facts in the world, because the statement's truth value has (in part) a reliance on the fundamentally subjective contents of Lex Luthor's mind. If we take Rorty's incorrigibility criterion of the mind to be true, we can't hope to accurately assess the "Lex Luthor believes" part of the statement from outside Lex Luthor.

The situation is further complicated when you add in the fact that it is possible for the contents of the belief to be true (e.g. "Lois Lane, who is a coworker of Superman, is a troublemaker") without it being true that Lex Luthor believes those contents to be true--this is the case even if Lex Luthor knows who Superman is, knows who Lois Lane is, and knows what a trouble-maker is.

Again, I think the problem is one of proto-self-referentiality (for lack of a better term). Linguistic expressions that reference mental states simply engender certain peculiar difficulties.