Knowing mental states: The asymmetry of psychological prediction and explanation

In Quentin Smith & Aleksandar Jokic (eds.), Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford University Press (2003)
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Abstract

Perhaps because both explanation and prediction are key components to understanding, philosophers and psychologists often portray these two abilities as though they arise from the same competence, and sometimes they are taken to be the same competence. When explanation and prediction are associated in this way, they are taken to be two expressions of a single cognitive capacity that differ from one another only pragmatically. If the difference between prediction and explanation of human behavior is merely pragmatic, then anytime I predict someone’s future behavior, I would at that moment also have an explanation of the behavior. I argue that advocates of both the theory theory and the simulation theory accept the symmetry of psychological prediction and explanation. However, there is very good reason to believe that this hypothesis is false. Just as we can predict the occurrence of some physical phenomena that we have no explanation for, we are also able to make accurate predictions of intentional behavior without having an explanation. Rather than requiring mental state attribution, I argue that the prediction of human behavior is most often accomplished by statistical induction rather than through an appeal to mental states. However, explanations are not given in these terms.

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Kristin Andrews
York University