Occurrent and Conscious Belief

I’ve been thinking a bit more about what it is for a belief to be occurrent.  For a long time, I’ve been fine with Tom Senor’s definition,

1) “A belief is occurrent at t iff it is conscious at t ” (“Internalistic Foundationalism and the Justification of Memory Belief”, Synthese, pp. 461-462)

Whenever I define in a paper what it is for a belief to be occurrent, I just cite Senor’s quote and then move on.  But lately, it’s become less clear to me what it is for a belief to be conscious.  First, assume that the relevant notion of consciousness here is Block’s phenomenal consciousness, the “what it is like”-ness of a mental state.  With that in mind, I’ll give a try at a more precise definition:

2) S’s belief that p is conscious at t in W iff S believes that p at t in W, and it is impossible that (S does not believe that p at t, and S’s conscious state is exactly the same at t as it is in W at t).

What I’m trying to get at with this definition is this.  If a belief is conscious, then if one were to lose this belief, then one’s conscious state would necessarily change.  This would not be so for nonoccurrent beliefs, which one could possibly (in the broadly logical sense) lose without any change in conscious state.

But I’m worried about (2).  It seems, I think, that no belief turns out to be conscious in this way.  Here, I wonder if Certain Doubts readers share the intuition that

3) It is logically possible that, for any (purported) occurrent belief that I have, that a demon could delete that belief and I still be in the same conscious state.

Does (3) seem possible?  Contrast belief with a feeling of a pain.  The feeling of a pain is clearly conscious.  And not even a demon could delete the feeling of the pain while at the same time keeping me in the exact conscious state.

Also, anybody aware of any more literature on this?  I think I recently read Andy Clark in the appendix of his “MindWare” book saying that there is no what it is like to have some belief that p.  If so, then that would support (3).  But that isn’t obvious to me.  Any thoughts?


Occurrent and Conscious Belief — 33 Comments

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I wonder if you are conflating (a) whether my conscious state has changed with (b) whether my conscious state’s *phenomenal character* has changed. If I lose a conscious belief without a difference in phenomenal character, it’s still true that my consciousness has a different composition, and likely different content.

  2. Interesting question. Here’s one way to approach it: Suppose I consciously judge that p. My inner voice vocalizes the thought that p, and the thought comes with a feeling of confident endorsement that marks it as a genuine judgment rather than as a mere supposition or the like. Is such conscious judgment sufficient for occurrent belief? Or to qualify as a “belief” does it also need to be backed by sufficiently stable dispositions, etc.? If the latter, then the evil demon could remove the necessary dispositions without altering my immediate phenomenology, as per your (3). But there’s at least something in the neighbourhood — what I’ve here called “conscious judgment” — for which an analogue of (2) plausibly holds.

    • Suppose that beliefs require dispositions and I lose the disposition but everything else remains the same. Doesn’t this count as a change in my conscious state that isn’t a change in phenomenal character?

  3. Richard,
    Thanks much for the comments; good thoughts. Based on your remarks, here’s an idea. Maybe a better definition of occurrent belief would be this:

    4) S’s belief that p is occurrent IFF S believes that p AND S has the feeling of an endorsement that p.

    And we could define a nonoccurrent belief similarly, but add a negation to the second conjunct of (4)’s analysans.

    I’ll have to think about this. I’d have to think about what the “feeling of an endorsement” is. Also, I took out your “confident” from “feeling of a confident endorsement” because I think that we hold some occurrent beliefs hesitantly, but there must be some feeling of endorsement.

  4. Richard,

    You talk about an inner voice “vocalizing the thought that p”, but it seems to me there’s something like a category mistake here. Grant that inner speech has a kind of auditory phenomenology. But there’s a further question what hooks up that sort of auditory phenomenology with one proposition rather than another. Saying that inner speech vocalizes a thought seems to me to just skirt over this difficulty. If inner speech can vocalize an auditorily individuated sentence, but then it’s only something further that gets sentences to be associated with particular thoughts (e.g., something like what Griceans tell us), then we’re not really any closer to something that’s both occurrent, and belief-like.

  5. My original comment was apparently lost in the purgatory of moderation, so here it is:

    Hi Andrew,

    I wonder if you are conflating (a) whether my conscious state has changed with (b) whether my conscious state’s *phenomenal character* has changed. If I lose a conscious belief without a difference in phenomenal character, it’s still true that my consciousness has a different composition, and likely different content.

    • Chris,
      Hmm, I’m not quite following you, but I think you know more phil. mind than me. So, you’re saying

      5) S’s conscious state can change without any change in the phenomenal character of S’s conscious state.

      Is that right? And so you think the following?

      5a) S can lose a conscious belief without any change in his phenomenal consciousness.

      But if this is possible, then I think I’m losing my grip of what it is for S’s belief to be conscious is. I’ll have to think about this a bit more.

      • 5 gets at the key issue. I’m willing to assume 5a for the sake of argument, though I take no stand on it (or really on any of this). Here is a different way of making the same point. You assume that the only possible changes in one’s conscious state are changes in its phenomenal character. But why make that assumption? If your conscious state consists in a belief and now doesn’t, why doesn’t that suffice as a change in your conscious state?

        • Chris,
          Okay, I’m inclined to think you’re right, although I have to think more carefully about what’s picked out by ‘conscious state’.

          So what do you think about my (4), in reply to Richard?

          4) S’s belief that p is occurrent IFF S believes that p AND S has the feeling of an endorsement that p.

          OR I’m considering

          4a) S’s belief that p is occurrent IFF S believes that p AND S has the feeling of an endorsement that p that is caused by S’s belief that p.

          In both (4) and (4a), S’s belief state could change and S could remain phenomenally the same. But that’s okay. And I’m assuming I could interchange ‘conscious’ with ‘occurrent’ in (4) and (4a).

  6. There’s a much more serious worry about definition (1). Evidence from cognitive psychology makes it overwhelmingly likely that lots of representational states, including beliefs, are occurrent but unconscious. As a good first approximation, occurrent beliefs are beliefs that are *currently* affecting behavior or cognition. Lots of unconscious beliefs do that.

    • John, who uses occurrent in such a way that a belief affects behavior only if it’s occurent? It’s commonly assumed in the epistemology that background knowledge affects your behavior and cognition. To me, that sounds like people are assuming that a belief can affect behavior and cognition without being occurrent. I think what’s intended by the term ‘occurrent belief’ is a belief occuring now in consciousness or some such, not that a belief currently affecting behavior or cognition.

  7. Chris,

    I do.

    Background knowledge can be occurrent. It can also be dispositional.

    It would be kind of pointless invent a new name, ‘occurrent belief’, to re-name a category that already has a good name, ‘conscious belief’.

    • I agree, John, that it would be kind of pointless, and using just ‘conscious belief’ for conscious belief (and not ‘occurrent belief’) would be better. But I think that Chris’ point is that many (most? almost all?) contemporary epistemologists, for whatever reason, use ‘occurrent belief’ to express what is already expressed by ‘conscious belief’. They take (1) to be more like a stipulative definition. I’m not sure what Senor intended.

      At this point, I think there isn’t a substantive, philosophical disagreement here, but maybe just a disagreement about how terms should be used.

    • Hi John,

      I think your suggestion to just use ‘conscious belief’ instead of ‘occurrent belief’ is a reasonable one. The two terms are redundant, though I’m guessing the latter term was introduced because the former term was not already in common usage.

      Nonetheless, I have a hard time seeing how ‘occurrent belief’ is a good term for what you are using it for. In what sense is it natural to speak of a belief “occurring” when it is partly explaining my current behavior or cognition? Although I agree ‘occurrent belief’ isn’t the best term for conscious belief, I can at least see why someone thought it was a good term (they wanted to distinguish between belief when its occurring in consciousness and when it’s not). Using ‘occurrent belief’ to describe a belief that is affecting current behavior and cognition does not seem natural to me.

      What’s a better term for what you have in mind? I’m not sure. If we are in the grip of a computational understanding of how cognition and behavior works, and if the belief has to be part of the computational process that produced the relevant belief or behavior, we could use “accessed beliefs” to refer to the beliefs you have in mind. Though, if a belief can be occurrent in your sense without directly being a part of the processing, but by contributing to a disposition, say, for the processing to be set up in a certain way, then ‘accessed belief’ is probably not a good term. Maybe something like ‘behaviourally or cognitively relevant’, despite its cumbersome nature, would do.

      • Chris,
        I think that Tom Señor once told me that psychologists will normally use ‘active belief’ for what John’s calling ‘occurrent belief’.

        Hmm, I normally use ‘accessed belief’ for ‘conscious belief’. Now, I’m not sure whether ‘accessed belief’ is better for conscious belief or active belief. I think that epistemologists normally mean by ‘accessed belief’ conscious belief, because conscious belief is what is relevant to debates about internalism, and internalists normally care about what is conscious (when they are discussing their versions of internalism, such as access internalism).

  8. Andrew, in the OP you were asking about “what it is for a belief to be occurrent,” not trends in epistemologists’ use of the noun phrase ‘occurrent belief’, so I agree that Chris’s reply to my initial point changed the subject. (My response in turn directly addressed his question and point.)

    In any case, what’s the evidence for the sociolinguistic hypothesis that’s now been put forward? I doubt it for several reasons. First, it would be pointless to coalesce around such a stimulative definition. Second, it does not reflect my experience communicating with epistemologists. Third, the textbooks do not exhibit consensus on this. I just checked Audi’s textbook (1ed), which has the only extended discussion of this I’m aware of, and he seems to use ‘occurrent’ very similarly to what I proposed initially. Fumerton’s textbook seems to use ‘occurrent’ (in a footnote) in a sense similar to what Señor proposes. Several others have no entry for ‘occurrent belief’ (e.g. BonJour, Pritchard, Steup, Feldman).

    • John, hmm, well those are good points. Thanks for taking a look at those texts. That ‘occurrent belief’ is most commonly used to express what is expressed by ‘conscious belief’ among contemporary epistemologists was my impression (and apparently Chris’ as well), but I see your evidence indicates that that is not clearly so.

      Given this discussion, in my own writing, I am now more likely to just use ‘conscious belief’ instead of ‘occurrent belief’ since it is less likely to be misunderstood (as in this discussion), and I’d probably analyze ‘conscious belief’ close to my (4) and (4a) above:

      6a) S’s belief that p is conscious IFF S believes that p AND S has the feeling of an endorsement that p.

      OR maybe

      6b) S’s belief that p is conscious IFF S believes that p AND S has the feeling of an endorsement that p that is directly caused by S’s belief that p.

      In the stuff I’m currently working on, it’s the conscious belief, not occurrent belief (where I am now using ‘occurrent’ as you use it) that is relevant.

  9. for what it’s worth, the trend in the philosophy of mind is not to use the term “occurrent belief” at all, seeing it as a sort of category mistake: beliefs are states (probably dispositional states) whereas the relevant occurrent entities are acts. rather, people talk about beliefs (the states) and judgments (the acts). i suppose that judgments are always occurrent at least in the weak sense of being occurrences, as acts are. some judgments are conscious and some judgments are unconscious, so only some judgments will be occurrent in the weak sense of the original post. most of this is verbal, but i think it’s probably a clearer way to talk than is the highly ambiguous talk of “occurrent belief”.

    • Dave, do you think a belief , strictly speaking, can be a state of conscious awareness? Or are beliefs, by their very nature, never part of one’s conscious state? You seem to think some sort of judgment can be a or partly compose one’s conscious state. I’m just wondering whether you think these conscious judgments, strictly speaking, can ever count as beliefs.

      • CT: “You seem to think some sort of judgment can be a or partly compose one’s conscious state. I’m just wondering whether you think these conscious judgments, strictly speaking, can ever count as beliefs.”

        ‘I believe that yellow labs are easier to train to come, than black labs (extended meaning: based on my experience).’

        It seems to me that I can be conscious of the conscious judgments that compose the basis of beliefs when using the verb “believe”. I think it is usual for there to be more than one judgement to rely upon. The process falls under analogical reasoning.

        But we have a phrase “a tenuous belief” which often indicates the sample size of the underlying judgements(s). Consider the usage, ‘I believed that when the Senate indicated it would approve the Budget bill, that the price of silver would fall, so I delayed buying silver until after the anticipated fall in the price of silver happened.’

        The judgements underlying this belief are more diffuse than the judgmental connections used for the lab training belief. One can’t compare it precisely to silver prices and exactly to the passage of budget bills, only closely. Now I could have judged that silver would fall, but not committed to an action of waiting. So prone to action seems like a good inkling to associate with conscious beliefs underwritten by conscious judgements. Unconscious judgments which comprise conscious beliefs lead to behavior which will never be listable, so then quite speculative.

  10. Hi Chris,

    ‘Occurrent’ is basically the opposite of ‘dispositional’. Active/non-active or non-dispositional/dispositional would be fine alternative pairs. Occurrent/dispositional has the small advantage of featuring two positive terms.

    While it’s definitely fine (felicitous, not the least bit incompetent, etc.) to say that beliefs “occur,” the metaphysician in me has always protested a bit, for considerations loosely related to those Dave Chalmers mentioned upthread. So perhaps active/dispositional might be the best pair of all.

    (Incidentally, this has nothing to do with computationalism.)

    • I think I like the active/non-active distinction the best for what you had in mind (and this is so independently of computationalism). The active/dispositional distinction is infelicitous insofar as the active beliefs are still dispositions.

  11. Hi, Chris. I’m basically fine with any of these ways of marking the important underlying distinction, but, really, it’s not the least bit infelicitous to say that a disposition is active. In any case, a better way to think about it is that beliefs are informational states (of a certain sort), in virtue of which people are disposed in various ways.

    • Hi John,
      I agree that “it’s not the least bit infelicitous to say that a disposition is active.” That’s partly why i prefer the active/non-active distinction over the other suggestions mentioned. My concern with the active/dispositional way of drawing the distinction is with the dispositional side, not the active side. Since active beliefs are still dispositional, it is misleading to reserve “dispositional” for only non-active beliefs.

      Re: the better way. Given the controversy over what counts as “informational”, I would hesitate to bring ‘informational state’ into the kinds of definitions at issue. But, then again, there may be no theory neutral way of drawing the distinction.

  12. I’m late to the party, but wanted to throw in my $.02. I think Dave’s comment is basically right (but there might be details to quibble over), but wanted to add a few things about Andrew’s original question. I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a conscious belief if that’s supposed to mean a state of consciousness because those are things that should ‘switch off’ when consciousness ceases and are like occurrences in having beginnings and ends that can be timed. I don’t think belief is like that. Instead of talking about conscious belief, perhaps we should talk instead about judging that something is so or thinking about something.

    Chris asked Dave whether he thinks that a belief can ever be a state of conscious awareness. I don’t know what Dave’s views are here, but I’d think not for just the sort of reason mentioned above. I’d also worry about the idea that belief might be a kind of conscious awareness. The relevant kind of consciousness, it seems, would be transitive consciousness and thinking of any belief as a state of conscious awareness would force us to think hard about the objects of such conscious awareness. I don’t see any good candidate for object here. (If you’re aware that something is so, it is so. If you believe something is so, it needn’t be so. Is this too quick? Maybe, but I’m really, really jetlagged and the radio is on. Maybe I can think of a better argument on this front with some sleep and quiet.)

    I’d agree that your (3) is correct, Andrew. I think the clearest discussions of the relevant issues will require trudging through Peter Hacker (e.g., The Intellectual Powers) and Bede Rundle’s work on these issues.

  13. there are various ubiquitous ambiguities in asking whether a mental state is conscious. one is of course the phenomenal/access/reflective consciousness ambiguity, but even once one resolves this to e.g. phenomenal consciousness, there are others.

    in particular, in one sense a mental state is one that is identical to a state of (phenomenal) consciousness, so that the state will come and go as the state of consciousness comes and goes. that’s the sense that various people (john, clayton) seem to be invoking above. in this sense i think there plausibly aren’t conscious beliefs and it’s by no means obvious that there are even conscious judgments (though some advocates of cognitive phenomenology will hold that there are).

    but i think that when people talk about conscious mental states, they typically mean something weaker — roughly, mental states that are manifested in consciousness, or that have some appropriate trace in consciousness. andrew’s definition is closer to the spirit of this one. in this sense, it’s extremely plausible that there are conscious judgments (even people who deny a nonsensory phenomenology of judgment typically allow some sensory/imagistic phenomenology). and it’s arguable that in this sense beliefs can be conscious (at certain times), perhaps by manifesting themselves in consciousness through a judgment, or just perhaps because there can at least sometimes be an ongoing a background phenomenology, of say, believing oneself to be a philosopher.

    • I’d forgotten that Andrew had stipulated, “First, assume that the relevant notion of consciousness here is Block’s phenomenal consciousness, the “what it is like”-ness of a mental state.” I think this assumption should largely drive the conclusion he reaches.


      … “Block argues, in essence, that current scientific practice in consciousness studies has been targeting the wrong phenomenon. After distinguishing between what he calls access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, Block considers carefully the main scientific approaches to consciousness and argues that they can only be taken to shed light on the former [access], not the latter. I will argue that although phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness are logically independent, as Block indeed claims, there is still some intimate connection between the two: access consciousness is a dispositional property, and when its categorical basis is correctly identified, it is seen to be a component of phenomenal consciousness. That is, although access consciousness is separate from phenomenal consciousness, its categorical basis is not. ..
      To say that my experience has a subjective character is to say that I am somehow aware of my experience. Conscious experiences are not sub-personal states, which somehow take place in us and which we “host” in an impersonal sort of way, without being aware of them. Mental states we are completely unaware of are unconscious states. So when I have my conscious experience of the sky, I must be aware of having it. In this sense, my experience does not just take place in me, it is also for me.”

      And in August of 2010, the topic “Does Knowledge Require Belief?” was discussed on this forum which I think relates to this topic.
      “Josh – the word “believe” is polysemous between a dispositional and an occurrent sense. It’s obvious that if you are asking someone about whether S believes that p, when what is at issue is what states are guiding S’s action at a time, they are going to be thinking about the occurrent sense of “believe” rather than the dispositional sense. And I’m not aware of any philosopher in long history of epistemology who has defended the view that knowledge entails belief, in the occurrent sense of “believe”.”

      • david chalmers said, “there are various ubiquitous ambiguities in asking whether a mental state is conscious. one is of course the phenomenal/access/reflective consciousness ambiguity, but even once one resolves this to e.g. phenomenal consciousness, there are others.”

        uriah kriegel wrote, “A problem with Block’s distinction is that any function we may wish to attribute to phenomenal consciousness would be more appropriately attributed to access consciousness, leaving phenomenal consciousness devoid of any functional significance it can properly call its own (Chalmers 1997).

        The source of this unhappy consequence is the picture of phenomenal and access consciousness as two separate properties sitting side by side at the same theoretical level. But if, as I have argued, phenomenal consciousness(or part of it) is the categorical basis of access consciousness, then the latter can be readily construed as the functional role of phenomenal consciousness.”

  14. To second Turri, there is an interesting class of cases that appear to compromise the left-to-right direction of (1). These are cases of enthymematic reasoning which may be characterized (roughly) as reasoning that involves unconscious premise-beliefs. But since those beliefs are operative in the reasoning and, hence, as causally efficacious as their conscious counterparts, they are occurrent. To explicate a bit:

    (i) Some premise-beliefs of occurrent enthymematic reasoning are unconscious.
    (ii) All premise-beliefs of occurrent reasoning are occurrent.
    (iii) Some unconscious beliefs are occurrent.

    It seems to me, then, that the defender of the left-to-right direction of (1) must reject (i) or (ii). Of course, as the above discussion indicates, both the notion of consciousness and that of occurrence are real headaches. But (i) just seems to mark the key characteristic of enthymemes. And (ii) seems reasonable on any notion of occurrence.

  15. I want to express appreciation to everybody who contributed to this discussion. I’ve read all the comments and have learned a lot. I especially know less about phil. mind, so it was good to learn more from that perspective. I will have a follow up post on some of these issues, in which some of you might be interested.

  16. I wish I’d seen this conversation when it was happening… I’ve been working on the nature of occurrent states lately, and this is a nice discussion, and it’s so rare to find any discussion of the nature of occurrent states! Your focus on belief is slightly off to one side from what I’m doing, because my interest is in phil mind rather than epistemology. But fwiw, and in case anyone’s still listening: the locus classicus for the idea of an occurrent belief seems to have been Goldman’s ‘A Theory of Human Action’, in 1970. (And he acknowledges inspiration from Bill Alston’s entry on ‘Motives & Motivation’ in Paul Edwards’ encyclopedia, in 1967: Alston distinguishes ‘aroused wants’ from ‘latent wants’. You can find this sort of distinction being made before that, but only sporadically. The earliest use of “occurrent belief” I’ve found is in C. J. Ducasse’s Carus Lectures in 1949.) Anyway, Goldman says that occurrent beliefs and wants – which he opposes to “standing” beliefs and wants – can indeed be unconscious, for exactly the reason John Turri said: they can (directly) affect action. So that seems to have been Goldman’s main criterion for an occurrent state. However, he also said that unconscious wants are a “nonstandard form” of want, because they lack one of the normal features of wants, that of consciousness.

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