Real Patterns

Journal of Philosophy, LXXXVIII, 27-51, January 1991.

Real Patterns

Daniel C. Dennett
Center for Cognitive Studies
Tufts University

1. Realism about beliefs

Are there really beliefs? Or are we learning (from neuroscience and psychology, presumably) that, strictly speaking, beliefs are figments of our imagination, items in a superceded ontology? Philosophers generally regard such ontological questions as admitting just two possible answers: either beliefs exist or they don't. There is no such state as quasi-existence; there are no stable doctrines of semi-realism. Beliefs must either be vindicated along with the viruses or banished along with the banshees. A bracing conviction prevails, then, to the effect that when it comes to beliefs (and other mental items) one must be either a realist or an eliminative materialist.

This conviction prevails in spite of my best efforts over the years to undermine it with various analogies: are voices in your ontology? Endnote 1 Are centers of gravity in your ontology? Endnote 2

It is amusing to note that my analogizing beliefs to centers of gravity has been attacked from both sides of the ontological dichotomy, by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are useful fictions, and by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are perfectly real:

The trouble with these supposed parallels . . .is that they are all strictly speaking false, although they are no doubt useful simplifications for many purposes. It is false, for example, that the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Moon involves two point masses; but it is a good enough first approximation for many calculations. However, this is not at all what Dennett really wants to say about intentional states. For he insists that to adopt the intentional stance and interpret an agent as acting on certain beliefs and desires is to discern a pattern in his actions which is genuinely there (a pattern which is missed if we instead adopt a scientific stance): Dennett certainly does not hold that the role of intentional ascriptions is merely to give us a useful approximation to a truth that can be more accurately expressed in non-intentional terms. Endnote 3

(The whole paper is now available in Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren, Essays on Designing Minds, MIT Press and Penguin, 1998.)


1.Content and Consciousness, London: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1969, chapter 1.

2."Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology," in R. Healey, ed., Reduction, Time and Reality, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, and The Intentional Stance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

3.Peter Smith, "Wit and Chutzpah" Times Higher Education Supplement, review of The Intentional Stance and Fodor's Psychosemantics, 8/7/88, p.22