Eric Schwitzgebel doubts in his latest post the coherence of ‘mad belief’. Mad belief is constructed on the lines of David Lewis’s mad pain. Supposing beliefs to be a kind of internal representations individuated typically by their causal-functional properties, one could switch to atypical situations and ask what happens. To make a belief mad, you need to seriously mess with its causal/functional properties. Belief fixation, inferential contribution, emotional coloring, or behavioral influence go, well, mad. The suggestion, as you might know by now, is that representationalists might be stuck with mad belief, and that we’re better off with token functionalism. Once you keep your eyes on the local actual causal/functional patterns and not on the internal representations, madness is cured.
This is plausible, I think, if we consider how attributions of belief vs. pain work. Attributions of belief do have an inherent normative flavour, at least in the sense that beliefs organize (epistemic) behavior in some sense. We might be less convinced if we’re after a notion, call it belief*, adequate for explanation in various branches of psychology (and if we don’t pay much attention to attributions).
There might be mad belief*, but this is not what concerns me here. There surely are bizzare beliefs, cases in which attributions survive, but causal/functional patterns are seriously disrupted. Even if there are no mad beliefs, there are, for example, psychopathic beliefs. I’m not impressed by slippery slopes; what I want to draw attention to here is the troubles we always have with understanding mental illness. We’re naturally ill prepared for the task.
John Seabrook has a sexy piece on psychopathy in the NewYorker. There’s enough there to understand that psychopaths are quite different from e.g. delusional individuals. Belief fixation seems ok, but a whole continent from the normal causal/functional map of belief is missing. Imagine someone asking ‘Are you in pain?’, and smiling happy at your confirmation. The belief that you are in pain would miss its emotional aura. This means that the belief’s motivotional force is not what you might hope for. There’s a domino effect here.
The pretext of Seabrook article is the neuroimaging (fMRI) research conducted by Kent Kiehl at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. Here’s a fragment that will give you the nasty taste of the business:
Kiehl’s most memorable “perfect forty” on a PCL was an inmate I’ll call George. Kiehl was at the prison on the morning that George arrived. After being processed, George stripped naked and walked around the track outside the cellblock in the pouring rain. “I was new here,” he later explained to Kiehl, “and I wanted to establish right away that I am a crazy motherfucker so leave me alone.” George described his criminal past in full detail. He started out committing petty crimes as a child and by seventeen had been convicted of arson. In the early nineties, after serving eighteen months in prison for breaking and entering, he moved back in with his mother. One day, the two had a fight, and his mother picked up the phone to call the cops. “Man, can you believe the balls on that chick?” George asked Kiehl. He wrapped the phone cord around his mother’s neck and strangled her. “Then I threw her down the basement stairs, but I wasn’t sure she was dead, so I got a kitchen knife and stabbed her, and her body made these weird noises, I guess gas escaping, but I wasn’t sure, so I grabbed a big propane cannister and bashed her brains in.” Then he went out and partied for three days. “When I came back, that house stank – what a stench.” He cleaned the whole basement with bleach, wrapped up his mother’s body, put it in the trunk of her car, and drove to the mountains.