Mental confusion

by Neil Rickert

I decided to have a little fun with the title, so it might be a tad misleading.


There is a thesis going by the name “mentalism” which is common in philosophy of mind. And there are things about mentalism that I find puzzling. So that’s the topic for today’s post. In his book “Psychological Explanation”, Jerry Fodor defines “mentalism” as the rejection of behaviorism. A large part of his book is engaged in criticizing Gilbert Ryle’s “The concept of mind”.

A side note. I looked up Fodor’s book in preparation for writing this. Amazon lists it as a paperback for $1500. Wow! I read it some time ago, borrowing from the university library. It is surely not worth $1500. (Amazon does also list less expensive used copies).

For myself, I guess I am really a behaviorist. And that may be why I find mentalism to be puzzling.

I take the term “mental” as having to do with the mind. So thinking would count as a mental activity. But it gets more complicated,, because some people talk about unconscious thinking. I doubt that there is any such thing.


I already have problems with the word “belief”. The verb “to believe” is straightforward. No doubt there are many statements that I would believe. But I never sure what is a belief. The noun “belief” used as an abstraction to refer to the concept of believing seems unproblematic. But that is not how “belief” is used.

It is as if our heads are filled with sentences. I very much doubt that our minds work that way.

Back in my school days, I would memorize some history dates in preparation for the examinations. Maybe those count as beliefs. However, in our physics class, I never did try to memorize Newton’s laws. They seemed obvious, once the concepts are understood, so there was no need to memorize those. Does that mean that history dates are beliefs but Newton’s laws are not? You can perhaps see why this is puzzling.

Back in elementary school, maybe 2nd or 3rd grade, I memorized the addition table. So I memorized statements such as 2+2=4. Does that make those into beliefs? The odd thing is that I already believed those before I tried to memorize. The purpose of memorizing was to make their use so automatic that I didn’t need to think about them.

One of the puzzling things about beliefs, is that they are said to be mental states. When I am actually doing arithmetic, some of those rules will be part of my thoughts. In that case, it makes sense to say that their is something mental about them. But if I am doing something unrelated to arithmetic, then those rules are not part of my thoughts at all. So there is nothing mental about them, as far as I can tell. Yet they are still referred to as mental states.

From my perspective, I don’t have many beliefs. I look out the window and see a squirrel. So maybe I can be said to have the belief that there is a squirrel in the yard. But, after a few minutes, any thoughts about that will be gone. Such beliefs seem short lived.

Some philosophers defined beliefs as dispositions to behave. With that definition, it is perhaps reasonable to say that “2+2=4” is a belief. But there isn’t anything obviously mental about dispositions to behave. So why are they said to be mental states?


I could say much the same for desires as I have said about beliefs. I might, from time to time, desire some ice cream. But I doubt that there is a mental thing called a desire. The verb form, desiring, can describe some part of my thinking and could reasonably be said to have a mental aspect. But the noun form suggests that I have some desires stored up inside me. And saying that they are mental states seems to suggest that I am constantly thinking about them. This seems mostly wrong.

I hope these examples illustrate what I find puzzling about mentalism.

One Comment to “Mental confusion”

  1. Belief is a world-view structure we use as a heuristic to simplify a very complex world. The “belief” functions as a proxy for things going on that we may not fully understand, but only have a few pieces of the puzzle. In the end, believing in belief is the sanest option.

    — Catxman

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: