As we are such bunglers, then, shall I be so bold as to describe what knowing is like? I think it might help us.
Plato, Theaetetus, 197a.

There is much we do not understand about the human mind, much more than we readily grant. In many cognitive sciences, research proceeds unperturbed. There are results, but claims for them exceed their merits. Philosophers such as David Chalmers have called consciousness the big problem.1 Cognition is a bigger problem. Belief, intention, inferring, and hoping explain what we are and what we do, but they are not before us as are pains or moods. If not as pains or moods, then as what?

Cognitive faculties have not been subjected to the analytical investigation that must take place before researchers embark on biological or methodological inquiries. Examples have been badly skewed, misguided by conventional agreement, and too limited in their application.

Once on the wrong foot, wisdom lies in making a new start.

Reset to Zero

If we start from scratch, how might we make out the cognitive faculties? Do they present themselves to us as discrete operations of mind? Do they always merge together? Or do they appear in one context to be distinct from one another and commingled in another? The usual approach divides them into belief, memory, intention, hope, fear (of something), regret, and desire. This list is not exhaustive, but illustrative.

Marcel Proust’s concept of memory as the recollection of a past event will not do for every case. Sometimes we recall a moment from the past without wishing to, but at most other times memory serves to aid in understanding what is going on right now, what some person or community in these circumstances is likely to do, or where something misplaced might be found. Would recollection include the grammar and vocabulary of my language or the knowledge that I employ in speaking or writing? Is everything I have learned and everything I accept or act on, whether or not I compose it in my mind, remembered or the product of memory, and thus essentially dependent on memory?

Neither neuroscientists nor philosophers of mind grant or even suggest an affirmative reply to this question.

Primary Reasons

What I learn is often the explanation for what I believe. What I remember is sometimes indistinguishable from what I say I know or fear. What I believe often influences what I learn or am prepared to learn. I can go wrong. I can refuse to accept a reasonable proof because I already hold a belief that takes precedence. I can intend to do something and refuse to accept the demonstration that I cannot do it, favoring the explanation that someone or some force is preventing me. I doctor my memories, or they are revised in the context of later experience, because I will not accept the fact that I was capable of doing what I did.

If I intend to do something, I must remember what it is. Donald Davidson claimed that an intention joins with a belief to constitute a primary reason for an action. A primary reason is its cause.2 If I wish to illuminate a room, he said, I do so because I intend to turn on the light and I believe the switch on the wall turns it on. Why not describe intention and belief as one cognitive event? Why not ten thousand? Why should we separate cognitive faculties at all? If I come home from work, do I not intend to make dinner and afterwards read a book, and do I not intend every step along the way from opening the door to walking upstairs, to turning on the light, to opening the refrigerator, together with every discernible sub-part? Do I not further intend even the smallest intervening stage between the door and the prepared dinner, such as putting my left foot on one stair and my right on the next while holding the banister?

How do those basic actions to which Davidson refers take priority over others? Is it just because they are conventionally picked out in explanation? Or do some primary reasons actually dominate over other causes, controlling a cascade of them?

Davidson did not try to tell us, and nothing in his story provides an answer. He did not find memory to be a factor as essential to the primary reason as intention and belief, and he did not say why not. The divisions in cognitivity and causality are left to spontaneous agreement; they are not explicated.

If intention and belief, whether treated as mental or as brain events, assemble non-accidentally to form a cause of action, we may legitimately ask by what means their selection, combination, and effectuation came about. It cannot be the case that intentions float around in intention-land and beliefs in belief-land, floating territories that come into contact with one another randomly. If the amalgamation is itself controlled by some mysterious factor X, then X is the cause of the action, not such conjoined states, or events, as Davidson cites.

The intention behind an action may very well be stupid, wrong, counterproductive, impulsive, misguided, vicious, or superstitious, but it is an intention anyway. The language of opprobrium and approbation is applicable to intentions, and the language of excuses too. If there is an action, there must be a moment that triggers the intention to do it and that specifies the beliefs required to accomplish it. What lies behind the trigger seems to be another trigger, and behind this, another.

Something, too, calls for the program to stop. This is not an abstract problem. Our actions can only be understood in the terms we possess and put into practice. It is by their beliefs, intentions, and ambitions, that we interpret and respond to what others do, and why they have done it, rather than something else, or nothing at all. We often discover what we are like by inferring our own beliefs and intentions from our actions. If human beings had no intentions, they would have no reason to act. With no reason to act, no action would occur and whatever does occur would not be an action. Forming a plan of action is an action. The stopping problem is a research problem.

Global Warming

In addition to cool comprehension, thinking is warmed by beliefs, intentions, and memories. Warming is easier to illustrate than to explicate, but at issue is something even more basic than our orientation to behavior.3 In an essay titled “A Puzzle about Belief,” Saul Kripke touches upon a philosophical problem about language that illustrates the warmth that believing infuses into our understanding of what is said.4 This infusion is not subtle but it is rarely noticed. Kripke argued that the problem is intractable. At first, it seems to turn on the interpretation of naming and referring, rather than belief. Someone might believe that Hesperus (the evening star) and Phosphorus (the morning star) are not identical, when they are, in fact, the same. To say that Hesperus is not Phosphorus involves a naming contradiction of the form, “A is not A.” But this is not, as Kripke says, a puzzle of belief and names. It is a puzzle about believing.

The puzzle is not a puzzle until someone believes that A is not A, or that Hesperus is not Phosphorus. Sentences are just sentences. It is only believing what such sentences affirm that is puzzling, and to understand the puzzle, we must consider the nature of belief regardless of the propositions expressing it. Believing is a question of fact, not of logic, grammar, or linguistic convention. Kripke correctly presumed that human beings, and not rocks, have beliefs. He pursued the observation no further. A conception of human life is called for here. What happens when a man believes something such that his words become puzzling?5

Our cognitive faculties have powers that we do not assign to matter: initiating actions, generating thoughts, delineating ideas, and managing things in detail. We do not assign these powers to computers. In Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel declares marvelous the appearance of reason and value in the world.6 “What we take ourselves to be doing,” Nagel writes, “when we think about what is the case or how we should act is something that cannot be reconciled with a reductive naturalism.”


Whereupon Nagel changes the subject:

The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world, that many questions, both factual and practical, have correct answers, and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers to those questions.7

The appearance of what Nagel calls norms of thought cannot be not reduced to a material basis because an appearance involves no mechanism. Nagel is aware of this. The damage is done. Our attention switches from the emergence of such norms, which is marvelous, to the norms themselves. He does not pay any attention to what he calls the internal stance, or to what goes on when the stance is taken.

There is one exception:

It is not adequate to say that, faced with a contradiction, I feel the urgent need to alter my beliefs to escape it, which is explained by the fact that avoiding contradictions, like avoiding snakes and precipices, was fitness-enhancing for my ancestors. That would be an indirect explanation of how the impossibility of the contradiction explains my belief that it cannot be true. But even if some of our ancestors were prey to mere logical phobias and instincts, we have gone beyond that: we reject a contradiction just because we see that it is impossible, and we accept a logical entailment just because we see that it is necessarily true.8

It is odd that Nagel scorns logical phobias and instincts without substituting other terms to qualify our thinking. In a fit of passion, we think more like someone avoiding snakes than someone who rejects a contradiction because it is impossible, and affably accepts an entailment because it is necessary.

The internal stance I must take is not simple and it is rarely detached. I must know that this is a piece of paper and this a pencil, or this a keyboard and a video screen, but, of course, far, far more than that. I have intentions motivated by affections, appetites, grievances, and hopes. Along with memory, they modify progress in my reasoning. It is marvelous that there exists something in the world that is able and disposed to give a damn. Nagel argues that consciousness, action, and cognition have a teleological explanation. That is not what I want from him. I want an account of belief, memory, and intention, that places those faculties in the world. Such an account would entail getting our categories right, beginning with the close and careful description of how we experience our cognitive faculties. The first person is absolutely indispensable to any account of cognition. A belief becomes a belief in action because I intend something that beliefs specify; what I intend is nothing at all without me. The same is true of all the rest.

I believe, I worry, I hope, I want, I accept, and I refrain.

Two Impossible Theories

There are two psychological possibilities that might ground a theory of behavior, but it is difficult to accept either one. One is that a person holds a belief and, when a concatenation of conditions provokes the formation of an intention, a spatially and temporally complex act ensues. A few such episodes are enough to get us from one undertaking to the next. Some form of agency takes over to fill in the gaps. This form of agency cannot be perfectly automatic like digestion, or nearly automatic like breathing, because it must be adjusted to countlessly many emergent factors in the world. The adjustment itself must involve a form of cognition. These cognitive mechanisms must be a part of any psychological theory. No one knows what they might be.

This theory portrays us as if we possessed innumerable mechanisms that adapt to the unique details of each occasion automatically.

If action at a distance is a problem in physics, then action without intelligence is a problem in psychology.

The other possibility is that intentions and beliefs (and other cognitive faculties) are at work at every level of our behavior. Let us take a case of behavior in ordinary life. I attend an office party. I intend to be friendly and amusing. Whatever I do at the party, whether it is at the dining table or on the dance floor, I must assume that my deportment will be noticed; therefore, I intend to be correct, but not so correct as to give the appearance of artificiality. When dining, I must talk to others, use the right silverware, avoid knocking over drinking glasses, and I must be aware of the waiter’s questions, and greetings or conversation. I must have knowledge of the places, manners, and people with whom I have different social and business relations and obligations. I must not be rude; I must know what counts as rudeness, whether it is in language or in table manners. I have many intentions to satisfy, beliefs to bear, and recollections to orient me. Whatever the theory I am using, it must account for the fluidity of my actions in every detail. The first theory left them to prearranged mechanisms, but according to the second theory, nothing I do can be left to itself. My cognitive authority holds sway over all. Which cognitive faculty do I command in order to set myself to be friendly, amusing, and correct? Is there a comprehensive authority within the mind that manages recollections, beliefs, and intentions? The first theory acknowledged the cognitive faculties for which we have names, but this one requires a higher, more comprehensive authority to take charge of them.

In everyday usage, we speak of an intention, a belief, or a recollection, in connection with undertakings that may take minutes or years to carry out. This time scale is not sufficiently fine grained. Is an intention with respect to a career choice comparable to the intention that accounts for bending my arm to raise a cup of tea? If I raise my arm and knock over someone’s soup, am I not responsible for being an oaf? And if I am for a moment an oaf, this could only be because I lacked the intention to behave in a considerate fashion.

My opinions about my friends are very often subject to moral constraints, but what I think seems to belong to another, an interior person, another me. The thoughts of man, as Lord Blackburn remarked, are not triable.9

There is an alternative to the two theories just described. Both have responded to the need to assign to some part of the mind the capacity for supervision. Suppose there is no such power. I rise to each occasion as the situation demands. This might seem to represent the presence of free will in our lives. But on second thought it is incoherent. What any situation demands is a moral imperative (apologize for spilling the soup) or a utilitarian imperative (be careful with the steak knife), and these are abstractions, not descriptions. Abstractions cannot designate a cause of action.


Ludwig Wittgenstein imagined a machine that wires two people together so that if one experienced a pain, the other would feel it, too. You and I are now connected. Oaf that you are, you have just dropped an anvil on your toe. There is no point saying, Wittgenstein insisted, that I have your pain. The pain in your foot that I feel is my pain; I do not feel your pain.

Contrast this with a superficially similar case Wittgenstein did not examine. We are still hooked up together. You are asked whether you believe A or B. You answer, B, absolutely. What about me? I cannot acquire your beliefs as mine. To be credited with a belief means that I must also hold other beliefs that support it. I cannot believe the earth is flat unless I disbelieve many things I presently hold to be true. There is nothing in the electrical wiring story that could account for such a massive change. I cannot believe incidentally. To acquire your beliefs by wire, I must to a great extent become you. I may entertain propositions of all kinds; I can be entreated, encouraged, berated, enticed by others to adopt B. I still may not believe B.

Belief is not a proposition; nor is it in the same category as propositions. If one says the aspect of believing that is over and above the proposition believed is a feeling, one would be wrong—wrong, because we possess countless beliefs simultaneously. We do not possess countless feelings simultaneously. But we would be wrong for a better reason. If I believe that Darwinian evolution is true, no single proposition and nothing that would look like a proposition represents what I believe. To believe that evolution explains the natural world is to believe a vast and complex story the whole of which is not only greater than its parts but different from their mere conjunction; the whole tells a story, the parts do not. My belief is not of fixed length or content.

Belief is more than a sincere claim; it is conduct too. The world in which I live is one in which “I believe” is a fact about me, and that is a world we do not have a way of describing other than by providing examples.

The Librarian

Could my stock of memories be discerned by an fMRI scanner? Under current assumptions, with suitably advanced technology, anyone’s brain could be copied into another medium, such as a computer. The reasoning is straightforward. Memory is storage. My brain stores events I witnessed. To remember is to recall. Everything stored in the brain is potentially accessible. What is accessible to me in remembering is theoretically accessible to an external scanner.

Few will find this credible.

This account is flawed from the start. What exactly is stored in memory? Memory belongs with the cognitional faculties not only because its subjects, unlike itches or moods, lie outside itself, but also because it is not passive. The neurosciences treat memory as a warehouse.10 Corruptions in the warehouse may disrupt and destroy my memories, but nothing in this account could accommodate changes that adjust my memories to my needs. Articles worthy of my memory are not like books worthy of my library. Their worthiness is produced, not inherent. They are curated by an intelligent librarian who acts to skim, rearrange, condense, collect, and emphasize, and then submits to my mind a presentation tailored to the occasion.

To understand one operation, another is invoked. Simply having an occasion for recall does not account for the production of a recollection; the relevant content is not commanded in format or detail by an occasion, but by me and what I think I need. I may be quite conscious of what I want to remember, but remembering it is a different cognitive activity.

I answer the telephone and recognize the voice of my uncle Timothy with whom I have not spoken in several years. I remember the voice. I remember him very well. Very little of what I remember is in episodes; much of what is there is general or oblique, hardly the stuff of moving pictures. What I remember prepares me for our conversation. It is not happenstance that I remember Uncle Tim when I hear his voice. I do not instruct myself in what to recall, nor do I supervise a search through the records; nor do I consciously collate, rearrange, select, or dictate what at this moment comes to mind. My memory and the intelligent activity it performs does all the work.

This activity cannot be studied by means of any conceivable scanner. It is not the sort of thing that can be looked for in a biological process.

The librarian oversees my memories; it does not appear in them.

Actions and Causes

Is an intention an event, a process, or a state? Is there a metric in which intentions are causes and for which causes can reasonably be found? Sometimes it seems that there is. I may formulate an intention and this may be a mental act, and so a further cause of other events—but not always. If I intend to leave the car in the garage and take a bus to work, I may not know when I formed the intention. If I intend to become a vintner or a thief, I may not know when I formed the intention, and I do not know until each opportunity arises what might implement or modify my intention. Contingencies are rarely predictable. Nor do I have a time frame when my intention is to begin or when, if ever, it will come to an end. Most of my intentions, as I know them, are not events.

Many intentions may be inert. If I intended to speak to my employer about a raise and never did, I nevertheless intended something. On the other hand, I cannot intend to jump ten feet in the air. I cannot intend to hold my breath for ten minutes. These are not the obvious properties of a cause. If a child says he intends to become president of the United States one day, and one day he becomes president, and even if he truthfully says he always intended to be president, we still will not say his intention was the cause, or even a cause, of his rise to the presidency. We can grant that had he not so intended, he would never have run for office.

If an intention is a cause, what could prolong it beyond its effect, and if nothing, what could lead us to modify our behavior when the intention is extinguished? My habits are subject to my intentions. I know and sanction what I habitually do. By intending to change my habits, I also change my intentions. It is an odd way to put it, but the fact is not far-fetched; it is a commonplace experience. Intentions of one kind may rule over intentions of another kind, but to complete this hierarchy one needs something like an intention in chief, or a willingness to accommodate an infinite regress.

An infinite regress cannot explain empirical facts. But human life has a long history. Of the hierarchies of cognition some, at least, might be explained by the inheritance of values, perspectives, judgments, ways of doing things, and forms of reasoning, that are given to us by parents, family, associates, and community. The differences between cultures, communities, and individuals are puzzling but real. The history of our various societies has sunk down deeply into our cognitive regimes. What we remember is constructed according to our understanding of what there is and can be; it is not an indifferent means of retention. Perhaps all cognition is inherited, not genetically, but gregariously.

I cannot conceive of attributing a series of intentions to anything other than the authority of a superior faculty of cognition. Intending is not a matter comprehended in a single happening. It is not a particular mental event. Brain events are single happenings. To have your intentions, I must occupy your place in the world and empower them with your experience and impulses, but all the while with my authority.

This is not a wiring job.

No scientific theory encompasses intention, memory, and belief. They are unique. The problems we are left with are impenetrable today. A theory of supreme novelty is required to fathom the nature of our cognitive faculties, and so to make them the proper subjects of the cognitive neurosciences. Such a theory will, I suspect, be forthcoming, but not very soon.

  1. David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995): 200–19. 
  2. Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” in Essays on Actions and Events, by Donald Davidson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 4–13. 
  3. In this essay philosophers provide my examples. In an earlier essay I used examples from a cognitive neuroscientist. Each is illustrative according to its discussion. 
  4. Saul Kripke, “A Puzzle About Belief,” in Meaning and Use, ed. Avishai Margalit (Dordecht, Netherlands: Springer, 1979), 239–83. 
  5. Sam Harris et al., “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief,” PLoS ONE 4, no. 10 (2009), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272. 
  6. For a review see George Scialabba, “Mindfulness,” Inference: International Review of Science 2, no. 2 (2016). 
  7. Thomas Nagel, Mind and the Cosmos: Why the Naturalist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 83f. 
  8. Thomas Nagel, Mind and the Cosmos: Why the Naturalist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 83f. 
  9. Wikipedia, “Brogden v Metropolitan Rly Co.”

  10. Researchers make many distinctions; there is not perfect agreement. Here are some: short term memory (less than a minute); and long term memory (up to a lifetime), which is divided into explicit (conscious), declarative, episodic, semantic, implicit (unconscious), and procedural.