Donald Davidson Among the Aliens

On December 10, 2010, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

The speculative posthumanist holds that a) radically alien forms of life that could not be interpreted or evaluated in ‘our’ (human) terms are possible and b) humans or their ‘wide’ descendants could evolve into such beings.  So speculative posthumanism (SP) is  committed to the possibility of radical aliens. But how are we to understand the claim that there could be radical aliens, let alone motivate it?

At first sight the possibility claim seems exposed to standard objections to the possibility of radically incommensurable conceptual schemes or languages. Some philosophers advert to the apparent absurdity of claiming that some terms or concept from a historical culture is incommensurable with ours while at the same time spelling it out. Thus Hilary Putnam claims it is incoherent for Thomas Kuhn to say that Galileo had ‘certain incommensurable notions and then go on to describe them at length’ (Putnam 1981).

If we can describe the incommensurable in our terms of our language or conceptual framework, it seems, it can’t be incommensurable with it. However, citing specific incommensurabilia is not an issue when considering hypothetical aliens. SP is consistent with the dated non-existence of posthumans so it cannot require examples of incommensurable posthuman forms of life.

However, the air of paradox remains since it can be objected that any thinker must meet satisfaction conditions for mentality that preclude drastic recalcitrance to interpretation.

The strongest challenge to the possibility of uninterpretable mental lives is  found in philosophies that tie  mentality to the possibility of interpretation. Donald Davidson’s integrated theory of mind, meaning and interpretation is perhaps the most systematic of these, so it is worth considering whether it might still leave space for the radical alien.

Davidson’s theory of mind is primarily concerned with the propositional attitudes – states of mind whose contents are expressible using declarative sentences. It holds that there are no intrinsically hidden or private intentional facts. This is because belief-desire discourse is utterly enmeshed in inter-subjective practices of interpretation. To be a true believer (or true desirer, etc.) is to be the kind of creature that can be interpreted as holding fine-grained, inter-articulated beliefs and desires.

Davidson claims that understanding fine-grained intentional distinctions such as between the belief that a predator is around and that a tiger is around requires a grasp of their different inferential consequences for other beliefs, or for action (The latter belief could warrant the action ‘Run!’, whereas the former might not). Moreover, even the capacity to have beliefs requires a grasp of the role of belief in intersubjective belief attribution since holding a belief requires an understanding of the possibility of being mistaken, an understanding which arises ‘only in the context of interpretation’ (Davidson 1984, p. 169). We thus have no choice but to attribute beliefs using the common coin of public language. The only publicly accessible nuances that could warrant fine-grained distinctions between attitudes are utterances of structured sentences.

The intensionality we make so much of in the attribution of thoughts is very hard to make much of when speech is not present. The dog, we say, knows that its master is home. But does it know that Mr Smith (who is his master), or that the president of the bank (who is that same master), is home? We have no real idea how to settle, or make sense of, these questions (Davidson 1984 Ibid. 163).

So being a true believer is predicated on part of one’s behaviour being interpretable as utterances. Conversely, for a creature’s behaviour to be thus interpretable presupposes it has attitudes with content as fine-grained as the sentences it asserts. It is only if assertion evinces belief that we can reconcile evidence for the truth conditions of sentences with occasional errors which owe not to differences in meaning but differences in belief: “belief is built to take up the slack between sentences held true by individuals and sentences true (or false) by public standards” (Davidson 1984, 153).

A creature whose behaviour is interpretable as sentences in a recursively-structured language would thus be a true believer. From this we can infer that the constitutive principles of rationality for such a creature would be like ours. For example, its beliefs would have to be generally consistent. Incoherence would sunder the links between beliefs that secure their content; making efforts of interpretation fruitless. Likewise massive error would render a cognizer uninterpretable since there would be no basis for inferring truth conditions from states of the speaker’s environment or for testing recursive truth theories that predict these correlations.

So Davidson-style interpretationism presents the speculative alien lover with a dilemma. Posthumans presumably do not merit the name if they are not some kind of sophisticated thinker. Yet if interpretable as sentence users their intentional states would satisfy constitutive conditions for belief. But beings whose mental lives are characterized by belief-desire psychology and holistic rationality and truth could not be all that alien it seems. Indeed, if the possession of beliefs entails the concept of belief, posthumans would need second order mental states (beliefs about beliefs or desires, etc.) and could be expected to evaluate their beliefs and actions in terms humans could understand in principle.

Thus our ‘posthuman’ successors might have beliefs nuanced  in ways that we flat footers can only imagine, but they would still be beliefs and desires and not weird hermeneutically opaque entities like Churchlandish brain-states.

Likewise, posthuman phenomenology might be alien in content. Posthuman pleasures might have phenomenal characters that require some currently unavailable body plan. Nonetheless, if the interpretationist is right, posthuman phenomenology could not be radically ‘other’ in form. Evaluating beliefs in the light of consistency requirements, planning utility-maximizing actions requires the capacity to self-attribute beliefs and desires. This, in turn, arguably supposes the capacity to think of oneself as an enduring ‘I ‘ – a persistent subject of mental states.

Thus, it seems, beings would need to be rational to qualify as posthuman and need phenomenological subjectivity to qualify as rational. Virnor Vinge’s suggestion that post-singularity intelligences might have non-subjective phenomenology would be demonstrably misplaced (Vinge 1993). However they might differ from humans outwardly or inwardly, our technologically uplifted successors would be people capable of evaluating their agency in the light of rationality norms.

So either we reject interpretationism tout court or we motivate the claim that posthumans might be recalcitrant to interpretation of the particular kind that Davidson envisages.

Interpretationism might be worth saving in some form because it secures a conceptual link between what a creature thinks and its activity; thus explaining intimate relationships between public psychological attribution and the folk ontology of propositional attitudes. However, interpretationism appears committed to a kind of regional ‘correlationism’ (Meillassoux 2006). It holds that thinking about the attitudes is at bottom equivalent to thinking about how attitudes are interpreted. By contrast, the speculative posthumanist needs a way of thinking about posthuman mentation without committing to a theory of interpretation for posthumans. If this philosophical account can be rendered coherent, then we will have left space for a hermeneutic obstruction that is not vitiated in the very act of thinking it.


Davidson, D. (1984), Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 155-70. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Meillassoux, Q. (2006) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Ray Brassier (trans.). New York: Continuum.

Putnam, Hilary [1981], Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vinge, V. (1993), ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’, Accessed 24 April 2008.

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