Phenomenology, ABA and Challenging Behaviour

A key aspect of contemporary naturalistic analytic philosophy emphasises the fact that we cannot go directly to reality. Our grasp of reality is conceptually mediated. We do not have direct access to the thing in-itself. Our understanding of reality is of necessity mediated by our conceptual models. Naturalistic philosophers who argue against the Myth-of-the-Given (the idea that we have unmediated access to sensory data or the physical world), don’t all deny that we can refer to objects that exist outside of our conceptual scheme. Quine, for example, made heavy weight of observation sentences, sentences which hook onto aspects of the mind independent world. Even Quine’s biggest fans would acknowledge that he never managed to fully make clear the notion of an observation sentence and its relation to other sentences in our conceptual scheme. Philosophers of a more cognitive bent have tried to fix reference via internal cognitive structures with the role of conceptualization plays in fixing reference is still debated (See Fodor and Pylyshn’s 2014 criticism of Tyler Burge). Despite some impressive evidence from neuroscience; our best scientific theories still support the notion that our purchase on the world is gained in a theory laden way and we have no reasonable way of ripping our minds off and seeing the world as it is.

            Given this fact, I think it is worth reflecting on how the notion of observation is used in other schools of thought. In popular lore Phenomenology studies reality as it reveals itself to us in experience. On this caricatured view of phenomenology, we have experiences which are unmediated by conceptual schemes and it is the job of the philosopher to study these experiences prior to conceptualizing them. At the other end of the spectrum we are told observation plays a key role in behavioural science. Common lore has it that behavioural scientists refuse to acknowledge intermediate cognitive structures because they cannot be directly observed. Direct observation is the paradigm for the behavioural scientist; or so popular science tells us. Based on these two popular stories one could conclude that both behavioural science and phenomenology while approaching reality from different perspectives still agree on the same misguided premise; that we can directly observe reality. A critic who accepted the above caricatures could argue that both traditions haven’t kept up with developments in neuroscience, cognitive science and analytic philosophy.

            In this blog-post I will argue that the concept of observation used by both behavioural scientists and phenomenologists is much more sophisticated than the usual caricatures spouted by their critics. After explaining how both disciplines use the concept of observation I will then contrast them arguing that the behavioural notion of observation and measurement is incomplete and can be improved on by using insights from phenomenology.

            In tackling this project there is a danger that I will be applying labels in too broad a brush stroke. Phenomenologists from Husserl, Heidegger, Ponty and Derrida all start with radically different presuppositions. Likewise, in the field of Behavioural Science people like Watson, Skinner, Tolman, and Hayes all held widely divergent philosophical assumptions about the nature of the field. To avoid painting in too broad a brush stroke I will limit my approach to phenomenology as it is represented by Merlearu-Ponty and behavioural science as it is practiced by contemporary Applied Behavioural Analysis. By focusing on these different techniques and how they are used in the field I hope to be able to give a more grounded conception of how they use the notion of observation. In the final section I will draw some connections between behavioural science, phenomenology and their different ways of dealing with observation.

                          Behavioural Science and the Concept of Observation.

“Not to define precisely and to measure these behavioural excesses and deficiencies, then, is a fundamental error, it is akin to the malpractice of a nurse who decides not to measure vital signs (heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, and blood pressure), perhaps arguing that she is too busy, that subjective estimates of vital signs are quite adequate, the vital signs are only superficial estimates of the patient’s health, or that vital signs do not signify the nature of the underlying pathology. ( ABA p. 95)

While in the scientific community behavioural science is considered an outdated position, which was refuted by Chomsky half a century ago. In the applied sciences it is flourishing as a field. Applied Behavioural Analysis[1] focuses on behaviour modification and their chief clientele is people with autism and people with intellectual disabilities. They sell themselves as the only form of therapy that achieves predictable results which can be measured scientifically. Hence, they focus heavily on the notion of observation which they argue is the only way to guarantee that you can measure behavioural change.

            In ABA the emphasis isn’t so much on observation as on measurement of what is observed. And measurement is important for the ABA practitioner not because they want to sketch an epistemological theory of how we know what we know. Rather they argue that it is only through measurement we gain accurate descriptions and prediction and control of our subject matter. Without measurement our theories will be nothing more than subjective hunches. The key for the ABA practitioner is to gain predictive control over the subject matter they are studying. So rather than just relying on passive observation one is led down the route of using careful measurements of behaviours, so any behaviour change that occurs because of treatment can be precisely quantified.

            A behaviour is not just measured in isolation. So, for example, consider a form of self-injurious behaviour where a person is hitting themselves on the jaw. The aim of measuring this behaviour is to get answers about whether there are functional relations between the behaviour and environmental contingencies (ABA p. 94). To do this you need to ascertain when the behaviour began; what the antecedent events were that preceded the behaviour, the duration of the behaviour, the intensity of the behaviour, whether the behaviours varied or changed as a result of treatment. Furthermore, if you keep a detailed measure of anytime a particular behaviour occurs, you will be able to establish the possible effects of different environments on the intensity, duration and likelihood of the said behaviour occurring.

            ABA practitioners note that because behaviour occurs over time it has three primary qualities. (1) Countability: Instances of a response class can occur repeatedly through time. Hence, they can be counted. (2) Temporal extent: every behaviour occurs during some amount of time (which can be measured). (3) Temporal Locus: every behaviour occurs at a certain point of time with respect to other events (ibid p. 95).

            As a form of therapy ABA emphasises measurement because it is the only way to guarantee the efficaciousness of the treatment. As you cannot argue that a treatment led to certain problematic behaviours decreasing, unless you are able to quantify the how often the behaviour occurred prior to the treatment, and how often it occurred post treatment. While ABA’s emphasis on measurement is laudable and is a way of keeping honest about what you are achieving; there is a sense in which it gives an air of objectivity to your treatments that is not fully warranted.

                              Phenomenology and Intellectual Disability

“We must return to the social world with which we are in contact through the simple fact of our existence, and that we inseparably bear along with us prior to every objectification. The social world is already there when we come to know it or when we judge it. An individualistic or sociological philosophy is a certain perception of coexistence systematized and made explicit. Prior to this coming to awareness, the social exists silently and as a solicitation.” ( Phenomenology of Perception p. 379)

In our above discussion of behavioural science we discussed a person hitting themselves on the jaw repeatedly, the ABA beginning point was to count the amount of times the behaviour occurred, this approach in effect treats the person as an object in the world like any other object. The aim was to measure the intensity, duration, and temporal locus of an event because this type of accurate measurement made prediction and control of the subject more likely. This evidence-based approach is a useful tool which is favoured by many services because it is easier to justify spending on a form of therapy if one can objectively characterise its utility. However, from a phenomenological perspective this behavioural approach is open to criticism for ignoring a key form of evidence. The phenomenological approach asks us to key in on our lived experience of the world and this lived experience is sometimes ignored by behavioural methodology.

            From a behavioural perspective if an instance of challenging behaviour occurs the emphasis is on finding antecedents, measuring the behaviours that occurred during the incident, and measuring the consequences of the incident. Overtime, as we classify behavioural patterns into groups and measure how these patterns change based on treatment, we can map all this data statistically to demonstrate the rate of behaviour change. However, in all this measuring and classifying the lived world of experience is pushed out of our description of events.

In his Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty emphasized the lived world of experience which is at odds with the ABA conception of humans as just objects amongst objects waiting to be measured:

“…the whole escapes the well -known instruments of physical-mathematical analysis to open onto another type of intelligibility.” ( ibid p. 11)

When Ponty is criticizing the idea of studying humans using the tools of physical-mathematical analysis; he is attacking both empiricists such as Hume and the Logical Positivists. On Ponty’s view empiricists are guilty of ignoring the background conditions which give our observations sense. However, while his criticisms were directed to logical positivists and empiricists, they have clear relevance to the practice of ABA. Below Ponty describes what it is that he thinks the likes of ABA practitioners are missing:

“… we find, as a fundamental layer, a whole already pregnant with sense. This is not a series of incomplete sensations between which memories would have to be embedded, but rather the physiognomy-the structure of the landscape or of the world-spontaneously in accordance with our present intentions and with our previous experiences. Here the true problem of memory’s role in perception appears, and it is tied to the general problem of perceptual consciousness. It is a question of understanding how consciousness-by its own energy and without bringing along any additional materials in a mythical unconsciousness-can, with time, alter the structure of landscapes; how at each instant, its previous experience is present to it in the form of an horizon that it can reopen, if it takes the horizon as a theme for knowledge in an act of remembering, but can also leave “on the margins” and that thus immediately provides the perceived with a present atmosphere and signification. A field always available to consciousness that, for this very reason, surrounds and envelops all of its perceptions; it is an atmosphere, an horizon, or even the “settings” that assign consciousness a temporal situation-such is the present of the past that makes distinct acts of perception and remembering possible. To perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent  sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible. To remember is not to bring back before the gaze of consciousness a self-subsistent picture of the past, it is to plunge into the horizon of the past and gradually to unfold tightly packed perspectives until the experiences that it summarizes are as if lived a new in their own temporal place. To perceive is not to remember. (ibid p. 23)

In the above lengthy quote Ponty is describing our perceptions and their relations to memory in a vastly different manner to the way in which ABA practitioners do. Consider our above example of a service user engaging in self-injurious behaviour. We have seen above how an ABA practitioner would address the situation in terms of quantification of the class of behaviour, the number of times the behaviour occurred, and antecedents and consequences of the behaviour. But Ponty’s emphasis would be on different factors.

            When you see another human engage in self-injurious behaviour you do not just see the behaviour from the outside as a passive observer. Rather you are caught up in the events occurring. While you can try to count the behaviours occurring, and afterwards analyse what has happened; at the moment the behaviour is occurring, you are a participant in an event and not an observer of an event. You see a person in distress who is hurting himself; this behaviour impacts on you emotionally. Furthermore, when this distress occurs memories at the horizons of your consciousness will become more prominent, your memories of previous experiences similar to this one will flood forward, these memories will colour how you experience the current event.

            As well your memories colouring how you deal with the self-injurious behaviour; your mind will also be directed towards the future. Based on your past experiences you will anticipate how long this behaviour may go on for and this will colour how you feel about this behaviour. All of this happens in the moment. But each moment floods into the next one and your engagement with the service user as you try to calm them down will ensue a flow of events that is unpredictable. Any behaviour you engage in to minimize the self-injurious behaviour will impact the consciousness of the service user you are working with. The service user may recall instances in the past where staff try to intervene when they engage in self-injurious behaviour and this recollection will colour how they experience the intervention. Their past experiences of interventions may colour how they view this current interaction.  Furthermore, they may have an idea of how much frustrations the interventions typically bring them; this may cause them to anticipate an extended period of frustration[2]. In this interaction you have two people engaging in a struggle, who interact and react to each other in a dynamic process that is not subject to prediction and control.  For any idea of measuring the behaviour of the service user to make sense; one would need to also put in place measurement system for the staff, which detailed their history of interactions with the service user and a system to analyse the culture of interaction in relation to group dynamics. Furthermore, an analysis of the dynamics that shaped this group would be necessary. When trying to quantify a service users behaviour ABA style a more contextual approach is needed. No behaviour occurs in isolation.

            An approach to a person that engages in self-injurious behaviour that treats the behaviour as an independent event to be measured, will ignore the fact that the person doing the measuring is not an objective scientific instrument like a thermostat or a camera but is rather a subject engaged in the drama unfolding in the moment.  Whether the person is aware of their own behaviour, feelings and how they are affecting the way the event unfolds or not they will still be a part of the event. And being aware of themselves and lived experience in the moment can help them modify their role in the event that is unfolding and this may offer an insight that is more useful than simply passively measuring the challenging behaviour.

            So, for example, a health care worker experiencing a service user engaging in a bout of challenging behaviour such as self-injurious behaviour and loud screaming may re call that in the past this behaviour lasted for hours. This recollection may make the worker experience frustration, which will make them tense and hence less effective in implementing calming procedures and could result in the behaviour getting worse. No amount of observing the behaviour of the service user will tell you why they their behaviour got worse unless you factor in your own feelings and behaviour that played a key causal role in the unfolding drama.

            One difficulty in understanding in these situations is that we are not always good at that type of self-reflection:

       “In general, a manner of thinking that is unaware of itself and that is at home in the things cannot be refuted by describing phenomena. The physicist’s atoms will always seem more real than the historical and qualitative picture of this world; the physico-chemical processes more real than organic forms; empiricisms psychic atoms more real than perceived phenomena; and intellectual atoms (namely, the Vienna Circle’s “significations”) more than real consciousness, so long as one seeks to construct the picture of this world, life perception, or mind, rather than recognizing the experience we have of them as the immediate source and as the final authority of our knowledge.” (ibid p. 24)

Here Ponty is noting that to a person so committed a scientistic philosophy the world as we experience it will always recede to a background and appear unreal. Such unreflective people will either dismiss the lived world of both them and the service user they are working with. However, despite this dismissive attitude; whether they like it or not they are immersed in this world and their engagement in this world will have influences on them that cannot be measured from the point of view of an objective spectator.


[1] Henceforth Applied Behavioural Analysis will be referred to as ABA.

[2] The service user may have difficulties in projecting into the future or in remembering the past and this will impact on how they experience the interaction.

The Batman who Laughs, Freedom and Moral Responsibility

“I take Orwell’s claim that there is no such thing as inner freedom, no such thing as an “autonomous individual,”… That is there is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point…To be a person is to speak a particular language, one which enables us to discuss particular beliefs and desires with particular sorts of people. It is a historical contingency whether we are socialized by Neanderthals, ancient Chinese, Eton, Summerhill, or the Ministry of Truth.” ( ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 177)

Batman (along with Superman), is considered one of the most iconic heroes in our modern fictional world. To some Batman is the ultimate hero, as unlike other comic book heroes, he has no superpowers, he just relies on his own intelligence and training to save people in distress. While his persona is more dark and shadowy than the likes of Superman or Captain America, he is typically portrayed as the hero the world needs. But one wonders if the concept of a hero is one applicable to a creature whose actions are the result of a series of contingent accidents. Batman’s traditional biography has it that he was born as a hero when as a child he witnessed his parents being killed in a mugging. This accident of history gave Batman his sense of justice, and propelled him into developing his skills as a superhero. Another accident of history gave him the capacity to become who he was; he was born into one of the richest families on the planet. This gave him obvious advantages over his fellow man as he developed into the hero he later became. He didn’t have to worry about feeding himself or surviving so he could dedicate himself full time to becoming who he wanted to be. 

Each different accident of history could have resulted in an entirely different human being (including things that happened to his parents that may have altered his genetic make up being altered). Given that the type of person we become is contingent on a series of accidents; one wonders the degree to which a person can be held responsible for behavioural traits of which they have no say over. When thinking about what we could have become if things were different; it is helpful to use the tools of possible worlds: world’s which are like the actual world but differ because of a few contingent changes. 

The story ‘The Batman who Laughs’, is a story about a Batman who exists in a different world from the Batman we know (For a detailed synopsis of The Batman Who Laughs story see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63glDub0auo . In this world Batman fights and kills the Joker. Unknownst to Batman the Joker has laced himself with a neurotoxin and upon his death it is released and Batman inhales it. Slowly the neurotoxin modifies Batman’s personality until he eventually transforms into a sadistic monster akin to the Joker. This Batman develops a sick sense of humour who enjoys torturing his friends and family. This Batman who Laughs is a terrifying monster, but one with a tragic element. We know the type of person who he was prior to being exposed to the neurotoxin. We know he had little choice in the monster he became and this adds a tragic element to his story. 

From a moral point of view it could be argued that the Batman who laughs made a crucial choice that the Batman we know never made. He chose to kill the Joker; while our Batman always managed to deal with the Joker without resorting to murder. However, while it is possible to judge this choice and place it as a key causal factor in how Batman became the Batman who Laughs, this “choice” has to be placed within a context. Batman was driven to murder the Joker because of savage torture he recieved at the hands of the Joker. This torture may have played a role in his lack of control when he murdered the Joker. More importantly it was the neurotoxin which turned him into the Batman who Laughs and this neurotoxin could have been administered without the Joker being murdered. So it is fair to say that Batman had little choice in becoming the monster he became. 

To this extent it is also sometimes argued that while The Batman who Laughs is a tragic figure The Joker is evil because he consciously embraces the chaos and chooses to be who he is. However, this way of parsing the issue is implausible. Unlike Batman there is no cannon origin story of The Joker. His character has undergone various iterations and reimaginings. But the ambiguity of his origins aside; there are (or would be if he actually existed) some causal antecedents which lead to him becoming who he became. Some genetic markers which made him more likely to become a psychopath. He presumably had a life history where his genetic predispositions were molded by the environment he was shaped in. Despite the apparent glee the Joker takes in his diabolical acts there is little doubt that his personality would have been shaped by causal antecedents that are beyond his control. 

Despite our intuitions to the contrary, it would appear that the Joker, the Batman, and The Batman who Laughs had little say in who they became and so it would appear that we have little cause to morally judge any of them either as either good or evil. 

There is however another way to look at this issue. This issue relies on focusing on levels of explanation. Some scientists argue that colour doesn’t exist in the objective world. In the world as revealed by physics there is no colour. Colour is a feature of our neuropsychology that results from our brains interpreting light waves that reflect off objects, hit our retina and are interpreted by the occipital lobe in our brains. On this level some scientists argue that colour is a secondary quality one that exists only to perceivers with our kinds of brain, but colours have no mind- independent existence and don’t make up the ultimate furniture of the universe. 

Philosopher Daniel Dennett notes that despite the fact that physicists have no use for the concept of colour in their basic science there is little call to purge the concept of colour from our daily activities. Our rules of the road tell us that we must stop at a red light and we can drive slowly in an orange light, and are free to drive if the light is green. If a person drives through a red light and causes a car crash resulting in a death the person will be legally culpable. A physicist who argued that “because colours don’t exist at the level of basic physics, a person who drove through a red light and killed someone would not be morally culpable”; would be laughed out of court. But in a sense my above argument about the Joker and Batman is using a similar move. I am arguing that at one level of explanation people’s behaviour can be explained in terms of causal antecedents beyond the person’s control; therefore we cannot hold the person responsible for their actions.

But our intentional explanations in terms of beliefs and desires are a key tool we use in coordinating our behaviour in relation to each other. Our entire legal system, and moral system is meshed up in explaining our behaviour in light of beliefs and desires. We assume that people act on reasons and these reasons can be good or bad; all the while acknowledging that at the level of basic physics, beliefs do not exist. 

At the level of free choice there is little evidence to support suggestions it exists, if our universe is deterministic and causally closed there is no room for free choice, an indeterministic universe would leave no room free choice either. So from a scientific perspective, like colour, we are justified in arguing that freewill doesn’t exist. But from a pragmatic perspective of coordinating behaviour, like colour; freewill is a useful tool, whether it exists in the fundamental furniture of the universe or not.  

Dennett cites a paper by Vols and Schooler ‘On the Value of Believing in Freewill: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating’, which showed experimentally that subjects who read a text which encouraged a disbelief in freewill were more likely to cheat on a task than controls who didn’t read these texts. Vol’s and Schooler’s study is a single study and it hasn’t been replicated thus far, so we shouldn’t take its results as sacrosanct. But it does indicate that disbelief in freewill may lead to behaviours that are problematic. 

We know from behavioural science that by changing the consequences of certain behaviours we can increase or decrease the likelihood of the behaviours occurring. If Vols and Schooler’s study is replicated we will have good reason to think that a belief in freewill and moral responsibility will make the likelihood of moral behaviours we approve of increase. But it is early days and it would be too soon to say for sure; much more experimental data is needed. 

So where does this leave us with the Batman who Laughs and the Joker. In both cases we have good reason to judge them as criminally insane. Both while highly intelligent do not have the emotional wherewithal to curb their criminal behaviour. Therefore while they should be locked away forever they are not morally culpable.In the case of the Batman, pre his transformation, who killed The Joker: things appear to be a bit different. Here despite his torture we have a man who we know may have the cognitive control to desist from committing the murder. Though there were extenuating circumstances in leading him to committing the murder, we do have some reasons to judge him culpable. We are judging him culpable for pragmatic reasons, (consequences for society), not for metaphysical reasons. We do have reason to think he should have done otherwise.  In a society where such acts are viewed as simply deterministic acts with no moral connotations; this may lead  to a society which will increase the likelihood of amoral behaviour; just like in Vol’s and Schooler’s experiment. 

Every Thing Must Go and Institutional Power

“We demarcate good science-around lines which are inevitably fuzzy near the boundary-by reference to institutional factors, not directly epistemological ones.” (Every Thing Must Go p. 33)

‘Every Thing Must Go’ relies heavily on the notion of scientific institutions. Their justification for this reliance is pragmatic; i.e. these institutions have been highly successful in the past so we should trust them. They have a pragmatic view of science and argue that attempts of philosophers to explicate necessary and sufficient conditions of something being science will inevitably be inferior as the practices that have been honed through practicing scientists working in the field will yield more reliable results. 

“To reiterate; we assume that the institutions of modern science are more reliable epistemic filters than are any criteria that could be identified by philosophical analysis and written down.” (ibid p. 37)

Ladyman et al’s primary target is analytic metaphysics which they argue constitutes a crude caricature of scientific modelling. They applaud the clear and rigorous style of argumentation used by analytic metaphysicians, however they argue that despite the argumentative style such metaphysicians are engaging in crude pseudo-scientific reasoning.The majority of analytic metaphysicians would describe themselves as naturalists and would consider themselves to be theorising about the world in a way consistent with contemporary science; though using different techniques. 

Despite describing themselves as naturalists such metaphysicians rely on toy models of reality that are wildly at odds with contemporary discoveries in physics. Using examples from contemporary metaphysical papers, Ladyman et al demonstrate that analytic metaphysicians regularly rely on assumptions about the physical world that are not only pre-Quantum Physics, or pre-Relativity Theory but are pre-Newtonian. Self described physcialists gleefully speak of reality of at base being composed of atoms banging against each other. The ontology they presuppose is closer to Cartesian Physics than it is to anything discovered by contemporary physics. Furthermore aside from the crude ontology that is uncritically assumed, a key methodological assumption of analytic metaphysics is that a plus point for a theory is if it chimes with our intuitions. Ladyman et al, note that this methodological assumption is wildly at odds with the assumptions in our best science which assumes that our brains which were designed by evolution to mediate our interaction with middle sized objects are terrible at intuiting the nature of reality. 

Ladyman et al aren’t arguing a la the logical positivists that metaphysics per se is a meaningless discipline. Rather they are working within the tradition of people like Chomsky and Quine who argue that metaphysics is a perfectly sensible discipline; but that our best way to draw a metaphysical picture of reality is through understanding the world as our best science describes it. They offer two heuristic constraints on metaphysicians (1) The Principle of Naturalistic Closure: A new metaphysical claim is justified if and only if it involves the conjunction of two or more sciences (one of which is fundamental physics) jointly explain more than was explained by the two hypotheses taken separately (2) The Primacy of Physics Constraint: any theory we can construct must be consistent with our best contemporary physics. 

Ultimately the metaphysical picture they offer in place of analytic metaphysics is a form of structural realism. They argue for this picture based on two famous philosophy of science arguments. (1) The Pessimistic Meta Induction: Scientific Theories in the past with great predictive and explanatory success referred to entities we know today do not exist; e.g. Caloric and Phlogiston.  Therefore it is likely that our current scientific theories refer to entities that do not exist. Hence we shouldn’t be realists about the entities presupposed in scientific theories. (2) The No Miracles Argument: Given the pragmatic and predictive success of our best scientific theories; if they don’t pick out real things in the world their success is a miracle. If germ theory isn’t picking out real things e.g. germs then its success is inexplicable. The no miracles argument and the pessimistic meta induction are in tension with each other. Ladyman et al try to resolve this tension by arguing that we can have our cake and eat it. We can be realists about our scientific theories and account for theory change by arguing that what is preserved across scientific theories is not things but structure. 

The metaphysical theory they argue for is compelling and is a parsimonious way of thinking about the history of science. Furthermore their criticisms of analytic metaphysics for its reliance on intuitions and pre Newtonian models of physics are to the point. While I share their respect for science and their naturalism I am unsure of what to make of their claims about the institutions of science. Science is clearly our most successful way of interpreting reality and it gives us a level of prediction and control that is far superior to any other academic discipline. Nonetheless scientific institutions aren’t always the best metric as to what counts as a reasonable question to ask. 

Ladyman et al suggest that asking what hypothesis’ would be accepted for a grant proposal is a reliable determiner of the validity of the hypothesis:

“Here, then, is such a norm. Almost all successful participants in ‘bona fide institutional science’- on which we will say more below-learn in graduate school,  or soon after, which sorts of hypotheses one cannot propose as the targets of investigation in a grant proposal to a ‘serious’ foundation or funding agency with non-zero prospects of success.”  (ibid p. 33)

They even jokingly ask us to imagine the prospects for an analytic metaphysician seeking funding in a particle physics department. The prospect of a metaphysician appealing for funding in a physics department is hilarious; one could imagine them being laughed out of the room. But one wonders whether this would be a reliable metric?

In the Harvard psychology department  in the late forties if you were to seek funding for studying the neural correlates of consciousness you would have been laughed out of the room. With B.F. Skinner’s brand of behaviourism being the dominant strand of psychology in America of the time, studies of subjects such as consciousness were deemed to be beyond the pale in terms of science. Pre Skinner behaviourists would have rejected studying consciousness on methodological grounds. They would have argued consciousness existed but couldn’t be studied scientifically because of its subjective nature. So early behaviourists would leave it to philosophers to speculate over the nature of consciousness. Skinner’s radical behaviourism held the position that consciousness was real but was best understood interms of behaviour. He would have argued that to study consciousness the best approach would be to study how the contingencies of reinforcement were arranged to help us develop tools to speak about our private experiences. The key point is that during the heyday of behaviourism certain questions about the nature of consciousness would have been deemed silly and would have been laughed out of court by the dominant scientific institutes of the time. 

Even after the rise of cognitive science in the 50s most psychologists or neuroscientists would have been afraid to seek funding for a study on consciousness. It was only in 1990 when people world famous scientists such as Francis Crick started studying consciousness that the taboo was broken. When Ladyman et al make the following claim:

“We seek a principle, referenced to the institutional factors that make science  epistemically superior, for distinguishing well-motivated from ill-motivated metaphysical proposals; we do not seek a principle for distinguishing sense from nonsense. (ibid p. 34)

One wonders whether they would argue that the institutional factors that kept consciousness a taboo subject matter in science for over fifty years were justified?

And it’s not just in psychology that institutionally sanctioned taboos are enforced. In his book ‘What is Real? Adam Becker tells the story of how physicists who wanted to interpret Quantum Mechanics were actively ran out of the field. The dominant mantra in Physics was ‘shut up and calculate’, physicists who questioned this approach and offered an interpretation to explain the experimental results in Quantum Mechanics risked serious harm to their career prospects. So here again one wonders whether Ladyman et al think that the institutional factors in physics that were used to weed thinkers like Tim Maudlin, and David Albert out of the physics department and into the philosophy department were justified?

While I admire Ladyman et al focus on scientific practice and criticisms of philosophy that is wildly at odds with what we know about the world through experimentation. I think their views of institutional science are too rationalistic. Thomas Kuhn’s historical approach to understanding scientific revolutions reveals scientific institutes as a much more human and fallible and tribal scene than the objective picture presented by Ladyman et al. And as we have seen with our brief discussion of behaviourism and quantum mechanics sometimes dominant scientific institutes can stand in the way of understanding not enhance it. 

Le Doux, Jablonka, the Cambrian Explosion and Anxiety

“Survival behaviours thus have very old roots that make them universal. But the kinds of experiences humans call conscious feelings-that is emotions-I propose are a much more recent development, possibly emerging via evolutionary changes in the human brain a mere few million years ago” (Le Doux ‘A Brief History of Ourselves’ p.4 )

In Jablonka and Ginsburg’s[1] recent book ‘The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul’, they argued that once animals developed an ability called ‘Unlimited Associative learning’ as a by-product they would acquire sentience. Their fascinating and detailed story attempted to discover how sentience evolved and traced it back 550 million years ago to the Cambrian Explosion. While the story they told involved detailed scientific analysis it also had a dramatic feel. In the world of the Cambrian explosion you not only had the most complex predator/prey interaction in the history of the world up to that point; but according to Jablonka, creatures of the Cambrian explosion were creatures whose lives involved constant anxiety. These creatures were the first creatures to have feelings about the world they inhabited; however, they had not developed systems that helped them manage these feelings. So, they lived in a state of constant fear. Jablonka goes as far as to imply that such creatures lived in an emotional paranoid state that was a-kin to psychosis:

“The Cambrian probably witnessed the first nervous breakdowns: the first Cambrian subjectively feeling animals would have been nervous wrecks, with the equivalents of paranoia and posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD) Dominating their mental lives (‘The Evolution of The Sensitive Soul p. 430)

 

Jablonka’s grim but dramatic story portrays the Cambrian Explosion as a kind of subjective nightmare for its inhabitants.

The story she tells in one that has interest for the philosophy of mind, biology, neuroscience etc. Another area where her story of the evolution of consciousness will have importance is in the subject matter of psychiatry. When scientists try to understand human suffering, and mental pathologies, they partially rely on models derived from the study of other mammals.  The assumption is that such mammals because they have similar brain structures as humans; provide reliable but fallible ways of understanding the neuroscience of human suffering. Scientific studies of mammals in various different threatening situations indicate that they behave in ways that are similar to the way humans behave (the fight or flight response), and that their brain states when they engage in fear behaviour, are similar to our brain states when we engage in fear behaviour. In all mammals the walnut area at the centre of the brain (The Amygdala) plays a key causal role for in their fear behaviour. For this reason when psychiatrists and psychologists are trying to understand psychological disorders such as anxiety disorders, or phobias they heavily rely on animal models.

The reason that we rely heavily on animals when trying to understand human behaviour is that it is easier to study animals directly than it is to study humans. There are obvious ethical constraints on doing invasive experiments on humans. When it comes to studying other animals, millage varies on the degree to which we can study them invasively. Humans are typically reticent when it comes to studies on animals who they have emotional attachments to; such as fellow primates e.g. Chimps, or Dogs.  Such reticence will be tempered when experiments seem likely to cure diseases that plague humanity such as cancer or various neurological disorders. But unless there seems to be a direct practical benefit in doing invasive experiments most humans would deem it an unjustified practice[2]. Hence the majority of invasive research on animals is performed on animals who humans have a less close attachment to; Rats are a paradigm experimental animal. As mammals they have brains which are structured similarly to our own and Rats don’t typically trigger our empathy; hence they are the go to animal neuroscientists study when trying to understand the neuroscientific nature of our subjective experiences.

Studies of Rats indicates that not only do they have brain areas structured similarly to our own but they also have behavioural patterns similar to ours. Jaak Panksepp has argued based on behavioural and neuroscientific evidence that all mammals share with humans seven basic emotional systems: (1) Fear, (2) Panic/Grief, (3) Seeking (4) Lust, (5) Care (6) Play (7) Rage. There is little debate with Panksepp’s characterisation of the similarly structured brain states and behavioural patterns in all mammals. The issue is with whether all mammals actually subjectively experience fear when they engage in fear behaviour. For Higher Order Theorists of Consciousness like Joe Le Doux there isn’t sufficient evidence for us to attribute conscious states to non-human mammals as they lack certain cortical features that Le Doux deems necessary for a state to be conscious.  In his book ‘Anxious’ Le Doux argues that the ineffective nature of contemporary neuro-pharmacological treatments for mental illness stem from the fact that theorists think that the drugs are attacking conscious feelings; when in fact the drugs are merely attacking behavioural responses (a rat freezing) that may not be accompanied by subjective states of any kind.

Given that the debate as to whether all mammals have subjective experiences has a practical bearing on subjects such as neuropharmacology; Jablonka’s argument that subjective experience predates mammals by millions of years isn’t just a theoretical but a very practical question.

 

 

Ginsburg and Jablonka’s Evidence

“Using these criteria, we identify four new transitions in the evolution of neural animals: the transition from multiple exploratory and directed reflexes to limited associative learning; the transition  from limited associative learning to UAL and minimal consciousness;  the transition from imagination to symbolic representation and communication” ( ‘The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul’ p. 343)  

Like Le Doux, Jablonka focuses on the evolution of movement and on creatures who have the capacity to move towards nutrients and away from danger. Even simple Bacteria have this capacity. Jablonka agrees with Le Doux such simple creatures probably do not have sentience.  Jablonka’s story diverges from Le Doux’s story in that she argues that with the evolution of Unlimited Associative Learning creatures develop consciousness, whereas Le Doux argues that higher cortical areas are the magical sauce that creates consciousness.  However, before discussing Unlimited Associative Learning, I first need to outline the nature of its simpler ancestor Limited Associative Learning.

Limited Associative Learning: Skinnerian Organisms

The evolution of Limited Associative Learning[3] provided a massive advantage for creatures who had it. The advantage it provided can be seen in the amount of living creatures today who still use it as a form of learning. Jablonka notes that as well as fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, even invertebrate groups including nematodes, Platyhelminthes, crustaceans, chordates, arthropods, annelids and molluscs display LAL (ibid p. 294).  She also notes that all animals that demonstrate evidence of limited associative learning are bilateral, have brains, and probably evolved in the Cambrian era (ibid p. 293).

In order to understand LAL one must first understand how it relates to conditioning. Since Pavlov discovered classical conditioning and Thorndike and Skinner discovered operant conditioning there has been much debate on how they relate to each other. The primary question that people have wanted to resolve is which is more fundamental; classical or operant conditioning? The consensus; backed more by tradition than evidence, is that classical conditioning is the fundamental form of conditioning and operant conditioning was derived from classical conditioning.

Jablonka, parses classical conditioning as a type of perceptual learning, and operant conditioning as a kind of world learning. In classical conditioning a particular stimulus (food being presented), causes an unconditioned response (salivating). By pairing the food stimulus constantly with a neutral stimulus (a bell ringing) the animal eventually develops a conditioned response of salivating when the bell rings. In this experimental setting the animal is being passively conditioned to associate one stimuli with another stimuli. In operant conditioning the animal is more active. The animal engages in a type of behaviour and this behaviour have certain consequences. A form of behaviour which becomes more frequent as a result of a certain class of response is said to be positively reinforced.

Jablonka noted that despite the distinction between classical and operant conditioning seeming to be very clear; it is a hard distinction to parse from an experimental perspective. Pavlov’s experiments did stop the dog from exploring their environment and so to a certain degree did manage to focus on the dog’s perceptual associations instead of consequences of the dogs’ exploratory actions in the world. Jablonka argues that despite some limited success (Colomb and Brembs 2010), in disassociating the two different forms of conditioning; in reality they form a continuum. Operant conditioning is a type of conditioning involved in self-learning; which involves assigning value to a particular action or movement, and classical conditioning is a form of  world learning which involves assigning value to sensory stimuli (ibid p. 298).

Jablonka defines LAL as follows:

“We define LAL as conditioning that includes both self and world learning and involves the formation of predictive relations between non compound stimuli, actions, and reinforcers” ( ibid p. 321)

To explain LAL Jablonka leans on the phenomena of blocking which she argues demonstrates an organism inhibiting the effects of learning irrelevant stimuli. The psychologist Leon Kamir first studied blocking, where the presentation of a new CS along with an already perfectly predicted CS fails to support new learning (ibid p. 322). Jablonka describes this in terms of an organism predicting reinforcement. She situates this in the prediction error paradigm. What an animal already knows (certain smells lead to food), doesn’t need learning, but if an animal learns that (a bell ringing) also lead to food this will be a ‘surprise’ and will require the animal to update its model of the world. Jablonka parses this as an animal constantly generating predictions about the value of the stimuli it encounters. With a novel, surprisingly reinforced input the most efficient strategy is to adjust the predictions to minimize future surprise (ibid p. 322).

Adopting this approach to LAL can help us explain the nature of blocking:

“A model of blocking posits that the effect of the new concurrent stimulus Y is inhibited because there is no difference between the reinforcing effect of X and that of XY. This makes evolutionary sense: mobile animals with LAL encounter many incidental that co -occur with and already reinforced stimulus but do not contribute to reinforcement, and learning about these stimuli would be a waste of time and energy.” (ibid p. 323).

                          Unlimited Associative Learning and Minimal Sentience

 

Jablonka argues that UAL has four key features:

(1) Hierarchical processing, which enables compound perception and compound action.

(2) Integration between perception and action models.

(3) Memory for compound percepts.

(4) A flexible global reinforcement system. (ibid p. 360)

In essence UAL involves a creature being able to string together non-reflex eliciting input such as a specific conjunction of several features (green, stick shaped, large), or the stringing together of a non-reflex series of actions. For Jablonka with the arrival of UAL we get creatures with the capacity for minimal consciousness. But a problem that she associates with this arrival of consciousness is that unlike with LAL, UAL doesn’t have a built-in capacity to stop overlearning. Hence, she argues these creatures were not only capable of minimal sentience these creatures were capable of severe anxiety.

A Few Brief Criticisms

A key problem with the story that Jablonka tells is that while her behavioural capacity story is well justified her projection of consciousness goes beyond the evidence. Detailed studies over the last fifty years give us strong evidence that intuition aside complex behaviour is not a reliable indication of consciousness. Le Doux recounted some of these reasons in his recent book ‘The Deep History of Ourselves’: (1) Split Brain Patients: when the corpus collosum is cut in human subjects stopping the left hemisphere from communicating with the right hemisphere. Subjects respond to commands that are flashed to the left hemisphere (the non-verbal part of the brain). If ‘Stand Up’ is flashed to the subject then they will stand up. When asked why they will give a confabulated reason. One interpretation of this is that the behaviour of ‘standing up’ is an unconsciously controlled behaviour. (2) Blindsight: After a stroke patients are blind to things on the left side of their visual field. Although the patients claim they cannot see on their left hand side of their visual field they can accurately grasp for objects on this side and perform better than chance on experiments indicating that they were perceptually registering objects on this side even though they had no phenomenal consciousness. Again, this indicates that some complex behaviours don’t need consciousness to perform them. So why assume that creatures in the Cambrian Explosion were conscious? (3) Patients who had their hippocampus removed causing global amnesia. Such patients when giving verbal reports indicating they were not updating their memories. Nonetheless these patients retained learn complex motor tasks. So despite their conscious memory being destroyed they could still learn procedural tasks. Indicating that their complex motor behaviours need not be conscious (Le Doux ‘The Brief History of Ourselves pp 266-268). Overall what these studies indicate is that complex motor behaviours do not require consciousness. So Jablonka’s assumption that creatures in the Cambrian who had UAL also had minimal consciousness is somewhat of a stretch. Jablonka hasn’t done enough to distinguish unconscious motor behaviour from consciousness driven behaviour.

At this stage the empirical doesn’t conclusively support or refute Jablonka’s claims. To use a tired cliché; more research is needed. A possible way out of this impasse is in Le Doux’s claim that a central weakness with neuro-pharmacology is that it is based on animal models that track fear behaviour instead of the feeling of fear. In his book Anxious Le Doux suggested a different way of understanding Anxiety. If future neuro-pharmacological studies based on Le Doux’s recommendations are more pragmatically successful than current techniques, then this would be evidence that his theory of consciousness is superior to Jablonka’s theory.

Once this data is in we will have more evidence to help us decide between the competing pictures of the Cambrian Explosion. We will have data that will help us decide whether the creatures of the Cambrian Explosion were perpetually horrified creatures like characters from a David Lynch Film or whether they were merely beautifully designed unconscious robots competing with each other.

[1] Jablonka and Ginsberg are co-authors of ‘The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul’ throughout this blog-post for ease of reading I will refer to Jablonka as short hand for Jablonka and Ginsberg. I use Jablonka’s name as opposed to Ginsberg because I am more familiar with her work. But the post is about the book they co-authored.

[2] Obviously experiments still go on today on Chimps, Dogs etc. and sometimes these experiments are done for commercial profit and not to cure diseases that plague humanity. However, overall scientists need to justify their experimental practices on animals now to a greater degree than a hundred years ago.

[3] Henceforth Limited Associative Learning will be referred to as LAL.

The Rise of The Care-Bots

In his 2017 blog-post ‘The Carebot Dystopia: An Analysis’ Patrick Danagher criticized the idea that future care provided primarily by robots would necessarily lead to a dystopian state of affairs. Danagher’s blog-post focused on two papers which painted dystopian pictures of the robot care world: ‘Coecklberg’s ‘Artifical Agents, Good Care, and Modernity’, and Sparrow and Sparrow’s ‘In the Hands of Machines? The Future of Aged Care’. Danagher’s argument, as well as the argument of the papers he critiqued, focused primarily on the care of the elderly; which is an understandable focus. As he correctly noted people are living longer and longer, and the older we get the more likely we develop diminished capacities in a variety of different areas. The elderly don’t necessarily need to be cared for, some people in their 90s live independent lives without any care. Nonetheless as we age we typically require care as a function of some form of disability which may be a consequence of aging. Various disabilities in mobility become more likely as we age, and likewise cognitive disorders such as dementia become more likely as we age. So given that humans are living longer and longer finding better techniques to care for the elderly becomes more important.

While Danagher’s focus on the care of the elderly is understandable, the focus is unnecessarily narrow. Other areas where robot help could become a possibility, and which would raise the same ethical concerns is in the care of the disabled in general. Care-bots can be used to help people with intellectual disabilities and people who are disabled as a result of neurological disorders, strokes, car accidents etc. Since the real focus is on the issue of using care-bots to help people who are disabled; focusing primarily on the elderly, not all of whom are disabled seems to be off target.

One of the key arguments made against the use of care-bots was that such care-bots cannot provide loving care for the people whose needs they are supposed to support, and that they are therefore deficient tools (Sparrow and Sparrow p.17). Sparrow and Sparrow make this claim about the deficiencies of the care-bots a central tool of their dystopian thesis:

“In the meantime, robots are clearly not capable of real friendship, love, or concern- only (perhaps) of their simulations. This has a number of important implications for their involvement in caring roles… as we argued above, robots will by-and-and large not be capable of succeeding in aged-care roles where emotional work is an important part of the role” (ibid p. 17)

 

Sparrow and Sparrow go on to make an even stronger case that since such robots are incapable of actually caring for those they are serving it is morally reprehensible to use them as tools, because it may result in those in care becoming deluded into thinking that the care-bot is a friend. Danagher gave a convincing argument that there is little reason (other than meat chauvinism), to assume that a care-bot won’t eventually be capable of really empathically ministering for those who employ them. While Danagher has a point; the fact is that we have no idea whether we will ever be able to create care-bots that actually care. Rather than engaging in speculation about whether future AI research will ever solve the hard-problem of consciousness; I think we should be asking a different question. The question I think should be asked is; ‘do disabled people actually want their care-bots to care for them?’.

Research in disabilities studies indicates that people may not actually want a care-bot ( or human carer) to act as a friend. Philosopher Eva Feder Kittay in her ‘Learning from My Daughter: The Value and Care of Disabled Minds’ noted; lots of people with disabilities would prefer to view the people who provide their care as professionals doing their jobs, as opposed to people who are in a loving relationship with them:

“Although family members most often fill the role of the paid attendant, the preferences of many disabled, adults, interestingly, do not favor this arrangement. The sense of independence disabled people hope to attain, is according to some, best served by a paid stranger with whom one has a thin relationship of employer to employee instead of the thick relationships of family. In order to sustain a sense of independence-or as I shall suggest, the illusion of independence, the personal attendant must become invisible. In the words of Lynn May Rivas, the carer needs to turn over the “authorship” of her work to the disabled person” ( Kittay 2019 p. 158)

 

To such people the fact that a robot which is helping them doesn’t care for them would not be a draw back; in fact it would be a positive thing. In fact one of the benefits some disabled people would see in the use of care-bots, would be that the care-bots are tools that they can use to increase their own independence. People with disabilities like everyone else have friends and family, and are not looking for care-bots to fill a caring void but rather want tools they can use to increase their independence as they interact with their world.

Missing from the normative claims about the use of care-bots is asking the disabled and elderly whether they would like to use them or not. Asking them whether they would want to use them would need to be done in tandem with ascertaining the degree of understanding of the nature of the care-bots. Instead of asking such questions we get the opposite course where what they want is ignored and we are given a normative argument that such bots are intrinsically bad independent of what the patient wants. Now such normative arguments aren’t bad per se but they do have the draw-back of ignoring the descriptive wants of the people in need.

Sparrow and Sparrow do note the importance of ascertaining whether people actually want to be looked after by care-bots. They even acknowledge (in a foot note at the back of their paper) that there is some evidence that some elderly people do have positive attitudes towards care-bots. Though there is still no conclusive evidence, positive or negative, about what attitudes the elderly, who need assistance, or other disabled people would have towards care-bots.

Sparrow and Sparrow worry that even if the elderly do have positive attitudes to care-bots this may reflect their ignorance of the nature of the care-bots. To avoid this difficulty they suggest a deliberative process where they can debate the pros and cons of the issue and come to an informed decision before they decide what their views on the topic are. I am sympathetic to such approaches; but there is a difficulty that such a process leaves out a substantial proportion of disabled people, who may be incapable of engaging in this deliberative process.

There are an incredible amount of people with disabilities who have either no linguistic competence, or who have linguistic competence which is so limited that it effectively bars them from engaging in the deliberative process. People who suffer damage to the Brocas area of the brain (as a result of accident or stroke) can sometimes lose their ability to produce natural language sentences. These people still have preference and wishes, even if they can no longer express these wishes/preference through language. Similar considerations apply to various different developmentally disabled people who for whatever reason don’t develop a fully functional language. Despite the fact that they cannot speak they can think and have preferences about the things they like in their lives.

Now people like Sparrow and Sparrow would probably agree with me that it is a pity that people without a language are barred from the deliberative process when it comes to the care-bot issue. But they could add that there is little to be done on the issue; if people are incapable of engaging in public deliberation, they are unfortunately barred from the choice in relation to care-bots.

I would argue that it would be a mistake in excluding non-linguistic people from having a say in who helps provide their care. We regularly discover people’s preferences by looking at their behaviour. A person’s behaviour can reveal a lot about what they prefer doing. In a care setting people without language regularly indicate their food choices by pointing to a picture of the food they want, pointing to the actual food they want; or by handing back food they don’t want. Even with people who have a language we can discover facts about them by looking at their behaviour. Thus some people make claims that they don’t like Facebook because of ethical concerns about what it does with our data; nonetheless they spend hours every day playing on Facebook. Their behaviour indicates revealed preferences that contradict their express verbal pronouncements. In the case of non-linguistic people all we have to go on is their behaviour when trying to discover what they want.

We do not know whether non-linguistic disabled people would prefer to have their needs met by care-bots. But it is possible to find out by using some care-bots to help them on a limited basis and seeing if they find the process helpful. If they choose to interact with the care-bots as much as they do ordinary carers this is an indication that they find using the care-bots useful. Now doing studies to discover revealed preferences in relation to care-bots would be a difficult thing to research; and would involve complex ethical considerations. Furthermore, it may turn out that after the study was done it was conclusively shown that people do not like interacting with them. But what if non-verbal disabled do like being cared for by care-bots?

Sparrow and Sparrow are committed to the view that care-bots are by nature unethical. They note that the care-bots have the potential to mislead people about their nature and hence are inherently unethical. People will erroneously think that the care-bots are their friends; all the while the care-bots will be nothing more than uncaring mechanical devices. As we saw above not all people with disabilities want their carers to be their friends so this mitigates some of Sparrows concerns. It is of course possible that some people will be deceived about the nature of the care-bots. But if the care-bots do end up increasing the quality of life of the people they help, and if the people prefer interacting with the care-bots; one could argue that this out-weighs any concerns of people being potentially confused about the nature of the care-bots. Furthermore it is of course possible that people will be confused about the nature of their relationship with the people who care for them; such concerns are not limited to care-bots. So it would be unfair to rule out the use of care-bots because they have the potential to mislead some of the people they are helping.

Coronavirus, Intellectual Disability and Language

The Limits of my Language are the Limits of my world”  Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

In a recent interview with Joe Rogan engineer Elon Musk speculated that within three years his neural nets will have rendered language obsolete as a mode of communication. Whatever the prospects of Musk’s wildly speculative views on the future of language as a mode of communication; at the present time language is a vital tool in coordinating our behaviour. In this blog-post I will discuss some of the challenges that face non-verbal people with intellectual disabilities, who are in full time care during the Covid-19 lockdown. My reflections will be to some degree region specific as I will be speaking about lockdown as it was implemented in Ireland. Obviously, however, the difficulties I speak of are ones that universally apply to the problem of maintaining social isolation for people who have extremely limited understanding of the reasons for the isolation. 

Language is a wonderous tool that enables us to achieve magical things. Using words we can refer to objects which are millions of miles away from us (the Sun), we can refer to objects that existed millions of years in the past (a T-Rex) and we can refer to non-existent objects (a Unicorn). Furthermore we can refer to unimaginably large objects (the Andromeda Galaxy), and unimaginably small objects ( a Quark). We can combine our words using grammatical rules that give us the ability to say an unlimited amount of things true or false about the objects we are referring to. We use language not only to speak about our shared world but to discuss possible worlds with various different properties. Not only do we use words to refer to objects in the external world but we also use words to refer to our own internal states. My headache or toothache may not be visible to you but if we speak the same language I can tell you I have a headache or a toothache. 

There are many different people who to varying different degrees lack the linguistic competence we take for granted. There are a dazzling array of different ways people can have difficulties with language. Some people can form sounds and repeat a few words they have heard but lack the capacity to attach concepts to the sounds they can form. Others can use a few words to refer to things in their environment but lack the grammatical capacity to combine words into sentences. Such people can say ‘Ball’ but cannot say ‘I want the Ball’, ‘Isn’t that a nice Ball’ etc. Some people can understand some language e.g. ‘Dinner time’, ‘Time for a Bus Drive’ etc, but are completely unable to produce any language of their own. 

Lacking the ability to use language doesn’t imply lacking the ability to think thoughts. Work in developmental psychology indicates that prior to learning language children have conceptual abilities about object permanence, agency, causation etc ( Carey 2006, Burge 2006, Spelke 1997). There are people who have never developed a language of their own who have thoughts and interests of their own. Nonetheless because such people lack a language their ability to communicate their needs is limited. 

Language and communication are not synonymous. It is possible to communicate one’s needs without being able to speak. Such communication typically involves establishing a joint frame of reference. A person can tell you they want something by pointing at it. Or if they lack the ability to use pointing as a tool they can bring you to the object they want. They can communicate that they don’t want food by handing it back. A person can indicate that they are happy by smiling and sad by frowning. 

But even a simple tool such as pointing isn’t a universal gesture. Few non-human animals can understand pointing at all. And while some non human primates can be trained to point their understanding of the pointing gesture is limited.  Typically developing children begin using pointing at the age of 1. Infants typically use pointing for three different purposes, (1) to request help, (2) to offer information, and (3) to express an attitude (excitement, fear)etc. (Tomasello 2019 p. 98). So when a non verbal person uses pointing to communicate, it takes more than just interpreting the pointing; it involves interpreting facial expressions and behavioural cues to understand the meaning of the pointing gesture. Furthermore, some people with developmental disorders such as autism will have trouble in using and understanding pointing. So they may only be able to tell you they want something by bringing you towards the object they desire. 

Having the ability to understand and use concepts and having preferred activities you like to engage in but lacking the ability to communicate what you want can be frustrating at the best of times. In the case of non-verbal people with intellectual disabilities they rely on their families and carers to help facilitate their needs and ensure that they get to engage in the activities they enjoy. Providing care in this sense involves getting to know them very closely and detailing what they like so you can narrow the search space when trying to interpret what it is they are looking to do during the day. 

Today with the Coronavirus governments have lock-downs in place to try to slow the spread of the virus. The reasons they want to slow the spread is to try and ensure that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by infected people; as such if the hospitals are overrun they won’t be able to provide sufficient care and more people will die than would have died otherwise. Another reason to try to slow the spread of the infection is that it gives scientists time to try and develop effective treatments for the virus; and possibly even develop a vaccine. 

Understanding why there is a lockdown requires the peculiar features of language we discussed above. Understanding a word like ‘Virus’ even at the most rudimentary level involves being able to refer to something very small and to understand its behaviour by describing its properties. The concept of a  ‘lockdown’, involves an understanding of abstract things like ‘the rule of law’. While an understanding of ‘Social Distancing’ requires an understanding of units of measurement such as distance you stand near a person without being infected, time you can spend near a person and how this effects the probability of being infected. While understanding the possible outcomes if we don’t adhere to social distancing involves either reference to far away in space such as other countries who haven’t implemented social distancing; or far away in time people in the past who didn’t follow social distancing (the 1918 flu). A lot of our thinking about the coronavirus and how we should react to it involves thinking about possible worlds; if we don’t do this we will live in world x but if we do that we will live in world y. 

For the non-verbal person with an intellectual disability they have been thrown into a world where everything is different. As we discussed above they can think about their world, be anxious, scarred about the changes they are going through. They can communicate their immediate needs but without language it is difficult to convey their more complex wants. 

Some effects of the lockdown here in Ireland are that Day Activation Centres are closed, Schools are closed and visiting care homes and community houses are not allowed. So a lot of non verbal people with intellectual disabilities who either live in a residential home or in community housing suddenly find themselves not going to work or school anymore. They find themselves having limited access to their community; they can no longer go to the places they like e.g. they can’t go for a coffee or a walk in the park or to visit friends. Most worryingly they cannot be visited by their family anymore. It is a frightening thing to suddenly be cut off from your family, your community and your daily activities without having any understanding of why. 

While explaining to a non-verbal person with intellectual disability why there is a lock down, or even what a lock down is; is probably a non-starter, there are some practical things that can be done. With technology we have the capacity to engage in live chats with friends and family with apps like zoom or WhatsApp. Even if the non-verbal person cannot engage with the chat aspect, seeing their friends and family and hearing their voices will provide some comfort for them. It hopefully will let them know that their family is still out there and still cares about them.. Another useful tool to implement would be the use of a visual schedule indicating what daily activities are being used. The visual schedule could be mapped out further to take in the weeks and plans could be made for future activities that will become available as the various different stages of the lockdown are lifted. Obviously though the degree to which the use of long term plans based on visual schedules can be work will depend on the cognitive abilities of each different person. Primarily though what is needed is to provide a rich environment in their residence so that they can still enjoy multiple activities so that at least their lives are still rich and enjoyable even while restrictions are in place.

Quine and Skinner and Unconscious Reasoning

“There is a startling irony in these discoveries about how the brain makes choices. It entirely vindicates a research program in experimental psychology that pretty much everyone thought was consigned to oblivion fifty years ago: behaviourism…But the behaviourists may yet have the last laugh because it turns out that the “whole-animal” conditioning they discovered and thought was enough to explain human and nonhuman animal behaviour really does explain it. But it does so only when it operates on the neural circuits of the brain. All of which appear to be built by classical or operant conditioning. Behaviourism is vindicated in the brain by a process roughly the same as the one Eric Kandel discovered builds synapses in the hippocampus” ( Alex Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ p.  155)

 

 In this blog-post I will discuss Quine and Skinner’s attempt to understand reasoning and rule-following in terms of humans explicitly following the rules and being able to state them. Their explanation of reasons which flirts with eliminativism but doesn’t cross that line will be contrasted with Alex Rosenberg’s mad dog eliminativism. I will argue for the practical indispensability of folk psychology even though it probably doesn’t pick out a real feature that can be discovered in science. 

In cognitive science it is common to explain cognitive competencies in-terms of a plethora of rules that are represented in the brain. Thus in the early days of generative grammar it was argued that there were certain innate rules that governed how people constructed the sentences they spoke. It was argued that while we didn’t have conscious access to the grammatical structure underlying our sentences our brain was unconsciously following rules when we constructed them. Similar arguments were made about how the brain judged distance in perceptual acts. Now there is an ample literature in the philosophy of cognitive science explicating what is meant by the notion of ‘unconscious rules’; I won’t discuss this literature here as I have done so elsewhere (  (https://www.academia.edu/35758450/QUINE_AND_CHOMSKY_RULES_AND_DISPOSITIONS ). Here I will discuss a criticism of the cognitive concept of rules made by two famous behaviourists; Quine and Skinner.

                                 Skinner on Rule Following

 B.F. Skinner distinguished between rules which we consciously understand and behaviour which is shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. For Skinner we are following a rule if we can verbalize what the rule is and act accordingly. To illustrate this point he makes the odd comparison of a person who speaks correctly by  consciously applying the rules of grammar and the one who has learned to speak correctly by his verbal behaviour being shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement ( Contingencies of Reinforcement p. 125). In his 1974 book ‘About Behaviourism’ Skinner made a similar point. He noted that a normal human who is speaking grammatically is no more following an explicit model of the grammar he speaks than a dog catching a ball is explicitly following the relevant part of the science of mechanics before he catches the ball.  Skinner is not dogmatically demarcating all behaviour into two distinct camps; explicit rule governed behaviour and unconscious causal sequences shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. He does acknowledge that there may be intermediate cases not neatly described by either scheme (About Behaviourism pp. 126-128). But Skinner does seem to think that the most natural way to speak about rule following is to speak about explicitly following the rule and being able to state the rule one is following.

                                               Quine on Rule-following

Quine discussed rules in the context of his critique of Chomsky’s views that our brain was restricted to following certain rules when constructing and interpreting our sentences. Chomsky had argued that there were underlying syntactic rules which governed all of the world’s languages.  In his 1972 paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ Quine criticized Chomsky’s conception of a rule arguing that it was unnecessary. Quine argued that there was a simpler way of conceiving rules than the one Chomsky used:

 

“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).

 

I will not discuss the debate between Chomsky and Quine on this topic; as I have done so elsewhere (https://www.academia.edu/35758450/QUINE_AND_CHOMSKY_RULES_AND_DISPOSITIONS ). Rather here I will just consider Quine’s conception of rules and explore its relation to Skinner’s views and the relevance of this conception for understanding the reason based explanations in general. 

Quine’s conception of a behaviour conforming to a rule even though the agent engaging in the behaviour isn’t explicitly following the rule, is similar to Skinner’s conception. Think of Skinner’s example of a dog catching a ball. We can explain the behaviour of the dog in a variety of different ways.  Thus an evolutionary scientist can explain the dog’s disposition to chase moving small things in terms of an instinct that had survival value in the dogs ancestors’ past. A behavioural scientist can explain the reinforcing contingencies which have shaped the dog’s instinctual behaviour. A biophysicist can explain physical constraints on the way the dog can move. And there are many other different scientific ways of explaining the dog’s catching the ball. On the Quinean picture; one can say that the dog’s behaviour fits with behavioural laws, laws of physics etc. but isn’t guided by these rules.

A reasonable way of cashing out Quine and Skinner’s views is in terms of free-floating rationales and competencies without comprehension[1]. A famous example of competence without comprehension is Deer Stotting. When Deer are being chased by Lions they engage in a behaviour called Stotting. Stotting involves jumping high while they are being chased. Detailed observations of Lions hunting Deer indicates that Lions are statistically more unlikely to hunt Deer who are proficient at stotting. Now the reason for this is pretty obvious; the deer who engage in dramatic stotting are signalling fitness and strength because of ability to jump high while being chased. It would make more sense for the Lion to chase the Deer who is bad at stotting as they are obviously easier to catch. However, there is no reason to think that Lions are capable of explicitly thinking such thoughts about the fitness of their prey. The Lions have a competence to distinguish between fit and unfit prey; but they lack the comprehension of why they behave as they do. There are reasons for what the Lion does; but the reasons aren’t represented to the Lion. Dennett call’s these reasons which aren’t represented ‘Free-Floating-Rationales’.

In a way the cases we have reviewed are a bit too easy. Few people think that Dogs represent reasons for catching a ball, or Lions represent reasons for attacking poor Stotters. But when it comes to linguistic creatures; things are a bit different. Both Skinner and Quine argue that we should only say that a person is following a rule if they are consciously following and can state what the rule is. But even in this case things can get messy. People can state reasons for what they are doing and the reasons may not be accurate; likewise people can state the rules of the language they are speaking but scientific investigation will reveal that the rules they state do not correspond with the structure of the language the scientist discovers. Skinner gave a clichéd example to illustrate his point using a psychoanalytic explanation:

  “Freud would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbalWhen you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mother’s face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.” (Skinner ‘Quine- Skinner Conversation’)

 

Skinner’s example is interesting. When Freud explains our behaviour in-terms of unconscious motivations he was typically using quasi agents like the ID, the Ego etc and deep repressed feelings. Skinner’s explanations on the other-hand are brute causal. The person is caused to be attracted to a woman who resembles his mother, and the person gives various different reasons to explain why he is attracted to the woman. The reasons he gives are false reasons; the real reason is a causal Freudian story. And the reason the person finds the woman attractive isn’t even a reason in the sense of something that the person represents to himself. On the above story the person’s attraction to that particular woman can be explained in a similar way to the way we explain the Lion’s bias against  attacking stotting deer. There are reasons we can derive to explain the person’s attraction but the reasons are not reasons that the person represents to himself. 

When discussing this issue with Skinner; Quine noted that in this sense the real reasons are actually causes while the reasons the person gives are only pseudo-reasons:

 

 “So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they are really causes as well…so all reasons are causes...A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause…” (Quine ‘Quine-Skinner Conversation’)

 

Quine’s clarification is to the point. Something is a real reason if it tracks a causal sequence. However, the real reason for a behaviour doesn’t have to be represented to the person engaging in the behaviour.  The reason can be discovered and represented to a scientist studying the behaviour (think of stotting deer). Quine adds a twist that I see no reason to accept. Quine notes that in order to be a real reason it must be accepted by the subject as the correct reason and the subject must be aware that the reason given is the cause of his behaviour. Here Quine was thinking of Skinner’s Freudian example and of the accepted Freudian practice where the subject in analysis would come to realise the truth of the Freudian explanation. However there is no reason for us to adopt Quine’s conception of the nature of reasons. If a scientist can discover the reason a deer stotts independently of whether the deer can represent that reason then why can’t the same be true of humans? A psychologist discovers the real reason a person does x but the person may be incapable of understanding the truth of that explanation; nonetheless the scientific explanation will still be the correct one. 

A dissenter could argue that I am too quick in assuming that a scientist can discover the real reason a person behaves as they do; even if the person the scientist  is studying does not accept that the purported explanation is correct. If we think of our discussion of a dog catching a ball from earlier in the essay. In the case of the Dog we discovered many possible explanations of the dogs behaviour in terms of biophysics, operant conditioning, instinctual behaviour etc. The dog’s behaviour can be explained through a multi faceted series of scientific laws and tendencies. But as Quine and Skinner noted above; when discussing rules, there is little reason to think that the dog represented any of these laws when behaving. If we can explain the dog’s behaviour causally in terms of a battery of laws; why do we need to use the language of reasons at all. All we would have would be a causal story about why the dog behaves as he behaves. There seems to be nothing added by saying we are explaining the reason the dog behaves as he does. 

When Dennett speaks of Free Floating Rationales he is speaking of a reason the Lion hunts the way he does. These are reasons the Lion doesn’t represent, and they are reasons that nobody represented a few hundred years ago prior to scientists studying the behaviour. Nonetheless Dennett would argue that the reasons the scientists discovered are the real reasons that explain the Lions behaviour. These reasons were the real reasons prior to anyone representing these reasons. 

One wonders what work the word ‘reason’ (in the sense of a free floating rationale that nobody has represented) is doing, that couldn’t be done by simply using the word ‘cause’. It seems to me that the word is doing no extra work that couldn’t be done by the word ‘cause’. A better verbal choice would be to restrict reasons to speak about explanations that have been represented verbally by the person who engaged in the behaviour. And to use the word cause to explain behaviours such as Dogs catching balls, and Deer Stotting. A scientist can discover the causal sequences that lead to a behaviour occurring and this explanation can contradict the reasons that the person gives to explain their behaviour. In this case the simplest way of parsing it would be to say that the person’s reasons for why they did x was a false reason, and that the scientist has discovered the true causal explanation of the behaviour. There is no point in arguing that the scientist has discovered the real reason the person has behaved in way x; the simpler solution would simply be to say that the scientist has hit on the right causal explanation of behaviour x. We should leave reason based explanations to be folk psychological explanations people use to explain their behaviour; and add the proviso that such explanations will more than likely turn out to be false and be replaced by causal explanations.  Though in practical day to day interactions reason based explanations will probably always be necessary and useful. 

                          

 

                         Rosenberg’s Radical Eliminativism 

 

In his book ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’,  Rosenberg goes even further than Quine and Skinner and attempts to explain away all reason based explanations into explanations in terms of causes. When discussing narrative explanations used by some historians; Rosenberg is dismissive. He argues that such explanations rely on outdated theory of mind explanations which have been refuted by modern neuroscience.  The famous french diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand has inspired thousands of biographies trying to explain the various different reasons for his behaviour leading up the French Revolution, and beyond it. However, Rosenberg dismisses these detailed biographies as being nothing more than fairy stories:

“But now it can be revealed that all of their purported explanations of Talleyarand’s decisions to backstab are fundamentally and profoundly wrong; they are not even close to the truth of what was going on inside his mind. That is because their explanations all relied on the theory of mind, and, alas, that theories claims are completely irrelevant to Talleyrand’s actual thought processes.” (ibid p. 142)

 

Rosenberg argues that because narrative history relies on theory of mind explanations and there is no evidence of a theory of mind module in the brain we can dismiss such explanations as meaningless. He also appeals to the fact that biographies about famous figures are constantly churned out and they seem to reveal no fact of the matter about what the subjects of the biographies reasons for their behaviour are. There are multiple different explanations of why Hitler hated Jewish people that are compatible with the known facts of his behaviour and no way to discover which explanation is the correct one. Rosenberg argues that the only way to actually discover why people like Hitler and Talleyarand thought as they did would be to look at their brains. However, when neuroscientists do study the structure of brains they find nothing resembling belief/desire explanations. 

 

To justify his claim that the brain doesn’t contain anything like the kind of explanations that one finds in folk psychological explanation Rosenberg gives us a whirlwind tour into findings in the neuroscience of memory and decision making:

“What they had discovered in the sea slug was nothing less than Pavlov’s classical conditioning mechanism…When we acquire new beliefs and store them in memory, the neurons in our brains do exactly the same thing that the neurons in the sea slug’s brain do when it acquires and stores new behaviours-only with a lot more LTP and lots of neurons growing new synapses…Kandel and his colleagues were able to show that the same molecular mechanisms and the same somatic genes that build new synaptic connections responsible for acquiring and storing implicit long-term memories in the sea slug, roundworm, and fruit fly are also responsible for acquiring and storing explicit long-term memories in vertebrates, mammals, primates, and us.” (ibid p. 128) 

 

Rosenberg goes on to discuss the Nobel Prize winning work of O Keefe et al on place cells and uses it to demonstrate that rats behaviour when understood at the neural level involves nothing that looks like a theory of mind module. He then goes on to argue that all the evidence we have so far indicates that humans are just more complicated versions of a rat’s brain doing more of the same thing (ibid p.139) 

 

Rosenberg’s eliminativism about belief-desire explanations is stunningly radical. While famous eliminativists like the Churchlands describe their eliminativism about folk psychology as an empirical hypothesis about what discoveries future research into neuroscience would bring. Rosenberg acts as if all of the relevant science has been done and eliminativism has been vindicated; but this is utter nonsense. At this state of play we don’t have a fully sketched out theory of consciousness. At the moment illusionists, emergentists, and pan-psychists are debating the nature of consciousness. Heavy rhetoric aside as things stand we don’t know which explanation of consciousness is the correct one. Furthermore the question of the degree to which our belief-desire psychology is dependent on the type of consciousness we have, or the relation of language to folk psychology is a complex one that Rosenberg casually glosses over. 

As we saw above when discussing Quine and Skinner I have no difficulty accepting that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour in terms of reasons may turn out to be false and be eliminated in terms of causal explanations. But such eliminations have to be done on a case by case basis. From a pragmatic point of view there seems to be no alternative but to use our folk psychology to predict and explain behaviour in most cases. Narrative explanations may not be perfect but it is doubtful they will ever be entirely replaced by findings in neuroscience. 

 

 

 

[1] For details see Dennett 1995, 2018.

E.O. Wilson’s Criticism of John Rawls

John Rawls would be almost universally regarded as one of the most important political philosophers in the last hundred years. To most philosophers his ‘A Theory of Justice’ would be considered a classic and would be a set text for pretty much all political philosophy courses. His work has plenty of critics but most of his critics acknowledge the importance of his work (see criticisms from Nozick, Habermas, and Rorty etc.). Not all of Rawls’ critics employ the same level of respect and careful reading as Nozick et all. In his article for the Atlantic ‘On the Biological Basis Morality’ (1998) biologist E.O.Wilson savagely attacked Rawl’s views on political philosophy (and political philosophy in general). According to Wilson, Rawls’ focus on transcendental arguments and ignorance of science makes his work of little importance. Unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson seems to find little of value in Rawls work. Furthermore unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rawls’ work before criticizing it.

Rawls wasn’t the primary target of Wilson’s article. Wilson wrote his article as a criticism of philosophers and theologians who constructed moral theories while ignoring basic findings in biology. I agree with Wilson on the importance of any theory of morality and political philosophy being constrained and informed by evolutionary psychology and biology. However, I find little of value in Wilson’s ignorant attack on Rawls which ignored Rawls’ actual views and instead attacked a caricature. The scope of this blog-post will be limited to criticizing Wilson’s criticism of Rawl’s views it will leave it to other authors to engage with Wilson’s overall polemic against political philosophy and theology.

Wilson’s primary criticism Rawl’s theory is that it is ignorant of relevant facts about science. In his 1998 Atlantic Article Wilson makes the following blanket criticism of Rawl’s work:

“Rawls ventured no thought on where the human brain comes from or how it works. He offered no evidence that justice as fairness is consistent with human nature, hence practicable as a blanket premise…Transcendentalism remains firm in the hearts of…countless scholars in the social sciences and the humanities who, like Moore and Rawls, have chosen to insulate their thinking from the natural sciences” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’ )

 

Wilson makes a number of points in the above paragraph which warrant a bit of discussion. Firstly I should note the one area where I think Wilson is correct. Rawls does offer little by way of an examination of how the human brain works; but this isn’t because Rawls has chosen to “insulate his thinking from the natural sciences”. Rather Rawls focused on evidence from psychology, economics, and evolutionary science; his focus on these subjects in 1971 was sensible as these empirical disciplines were much more advanced than the neuroscience of the time.

The absurdity of Wilson’s claim that Rawl’s was ‘insulating himself from the science of his time” can be seen by considering the scientists Rawl’s cited and incorporated into his theory in chapter 8 of ‘A Theory of Justice’ called ‘A Sense of Justice’:

W.R. Ashby ‘Design for a Brain’, Harvey Leibenstein ‘Economic Backwardness and Economic Growth’, Albert Bandura ‘Principles of Behaviour Modification’, Roger Brown ‘Social Psychology’, Paul H. Mussen ‘Carmichael’s Manual of Psychology’, Ronald Fletcher, ‘Instinct in Man’, Jean Piaget ‘The Moral Judgement of the Child’, Lawrence Kohlberg ‘The Development of Children’s Orientation towards a Moral Order’. Goslin D. A. ‘Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research’, William Mc Dougall ‘An Introduction to Social Psychology’ E.E. Maccoby, ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’, John Flavell ‘The Development of Role-Taking and Communication Skills in Children’, G.H. Mead, ‘Mind, Self and Society’, A.F. Shand ‘Foundations of Character’, G.C. Homans ‘The Human Group’, G.C. Homes ‘Social Behaviour its Elementary Forms’, R. B. Trivers ‘Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ , G.C. Williams ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt ‘Ethology’.

Rawls critically engaged with all of the above scientists when trying to understand how humans developed their sense of Justice. It is utterly absurd for Wilson to accuse Rawl’s of insulating himself from natural science.

What is most notable in Wilson’s comments is his claim that Rawl’s offered no evidence that justice as fairness was consistent with human nature. On the contrary Rawl’s believed that a strength of his theory, as opposed to, alternatives such as utilitarianism, was that it was more consistent with our human nature. Rawl’s argued that it was very important his theory was psychologically plausible:

However attractive a conception of justice might be on other grounds, it is seriously defective if the principles of moral psychology are such that it fails to engender in human beings the requisite desire to act upon it…Most traditional doctrines hold that to some degree at least human nature is such that we acquire a desire to act justly when we have lived under and benefited from just institutions. To the extent that this is true, a conception of justice is psychologically suited to human inclinations…The task of this chapter is to explain how justice as fairness generates its own support and to show that it is likely to have greater stability than the traditional alternatives since it is more in line with the principles of moral psychology. To this end, I shall describe briefly how human beings in a well-ordered society might acquire a sense of justice and the other moral sentiments.” (‘A Theory of Justice pp.455-456)

 

Rawl’s considers two main theories of our moral sentiments. The first theory is empiricism which he says runs from Hume, to Sidgwick up to present day social learning theory. Rawls puts Freud in the empiricist camp. He parses the empiricist position as:

“The aim of moral training is to supply missing motives: the desire to do what is right for its own sake” (ibid p. 458)

 

The other tradition of moral learning is rationalist. In this tradition Rawl’s places Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and Piaget. He parses the rationalist theory as follows:

“Moral learning is not so much a matter of supplying missing motives as one of the free development of our innate intellectual capacities according to their natural bent” (ibid p. 459)

 

Rawl’s consideration of the two major schools of thought is interesting in that he branches philosophers and psychologists into categories together depending on the emphasis they give to innate architecture in humans cognitive development. He doesn’t just focus on philosophical arguments but he makes use of empirical data in constructing his theory.

In theorising how humans acquire their moral sense Rawls offers three psychological laws that he argues play a role in humans acquiring their moral sense; (1) The Morality of Authority, (2) The Morality of Association, (3) The Morality of Principles. Discussing the nature of these laws and the evidence he offers for them will be revealing of Rawl’s respect for the findings of natural science.

The Morality of Authority:

Rawls discussion of the morality of authority involves a consideration of how a child comes to accept the authority of their parents as valid and develops the capacity to feel guilty for circumventing that authority. He sums up his conjecture with the line “The child comes to love the parents only if they manifestly love him first”. Rawl’s speculates that the child will experience his parents as all powerful creatures who get to decide how things should be done. But the child will recognize that the parent loves him and will eventually internalize the capacity to follow the simple rules the parent sets. Because the child will recognize the parents love for them they will learn to follow the rules even when the parents are not there or aren’t offering rewards for the good behaviour. The child will even develop the capacity to feel guilty for transgressing these simple rules. But the child won’t really have any concept of what justifies these rules. Rawl’s cites E.E. Maccoby ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’ to support his claims about the child’s development of the morality of authority.

 

                           The Morality of Association:

In the beginning of the child’s development his primary association is the family group. But as the child grows up into the world they become members of many different intersecting groups. Each of these groups has its own idiosyncratic rules that the child must learn to follow. By becoming skilled at adopting to his role in various different groups; school, the neighbourhood, friends, team mates etc. the child learns the contextual nature of his role in groups. His identity means something different in each different group. When the child starts growing up and recognizing different groups he is no longer just following the precepts given by his parents. The child must learn to understand himself and others from a variety of different points of view depending on the various different groups he is a member of (Rawl’s cites Mead ‘Mind, Self, and Society’, and Flavell ‘The Development of Role taking and Communication Skills in Children’ in support of his conjectures). Rawl’s argues that through a similar process as the child learns the precepts of his parents; the child comes to learn the rules of the other groups he joins. But by immersing himself in many different groups the child gives himself a deeper understanding of these different moral rules.

The Morality of Principles:

The morality of association is a step up from the morality of authority in the sense that the developing person now has an understanding of rules and how they apply relative to the different groups. However, the morality of association still has severe limits in that it still relies on a sense of fellow feeling between the person at that stage of his development and the members of the various different groups he is in. The person still hasn’t developed any sense of principles that apply independent of contingent ties of affection and friendship. For Rawl’s a person becomes a true moral agent when they will need to acquire an understanding of abstract principles that go beyond contingent friendships. Rawl’s parses the acquiring of the morality of principles as follows:

“Now this leads to an acceptance of these principles by a third psychological law. This law states that once the attitudes of love and trust, and of friendly feelings and mutual confidence, have been generated in accordance with the two preceding psychological laws, then the recognition that we and those for whom we care are beneficiaries of an established and enduring just institution tends to engender in us the corresponding sense of justice. We develop a desire to apply and to act upon the principles of justice once realize how social arrangements answering to them have promoted our good and that of those with whom we are affiliated. In due course we come to appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation.” (ibid p. 474)

 

                           Justice as Fairness versus Utilitarianism

As we saw above in his 1998 article ‘The biological basis of Morality’ Wilson criticized Rawl’s for insulating himself from the discoveries of natural science and ignoring the question of whether his theory of justice as fairness is compatible with what we know about human nature. Wilson didn’t present any evidence to support his contention and as we have seen contrary to what Wilson claimed Rawl’s was very cognizant of the importance of empirical findings on human nature and its relevance to his theory of justice. Another accusation that Wilson threw at Rawls was that he simply made dogmatic claims which other philosophers denied by making contradictory dogmatic claims of their own. Wilson presents a bleak picture of moral and political philosophy:

“Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility… Rawls opens ‘A Theory of Justice’ with a proposition he regards as irrevocable…A very different premise is presented by Robert Nozick in ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’…Rawls would point us toward egalitarianism regulated by the state, Nozick toward libertarianism in a minimal state.” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’)

 

Wilson’s interpretation of moral philosophy is utterly bizarre. He seems to think that there is no argumentative rigor in the discipline and that empirical data that would bear on the issue is entirely ignored. Wilson offers no evidence for this strange interpretation other than the fact that two philosophers have a fundamental disagreement on a particular issue. He entirely ignores the evidence provided by each theorist and the arguments they present and simply asserts that because they disagree on something this proves that moral philosophy involves nothing more than dogmatic assertions. His reasoning would be on a par with a creationist who believed that because Wilson and Dawkins disagree on group selection then this proves that evolutionary theorists are simply making up things as they go along.

After asserting without argument that moral philosophers are simply making up their theories and are ignoring science, Wilson claims that making use of discoveries in biology would have been a good starting point for these errant philosophers. Interestingly Rawls does in fact appeal to evolutionary science as a reason that his Theory of Justice is a more plausible theory than utilitarianism.

Rawls notes has famously argued that a person who is in the original position would be rational to want to adopt the justice as fairness conception. However, he noted that in practice such a cooperative scheme would be vulnerable to free-riders who took advantage of the cooperative scheme without contributing much themselves. Hobbes had argued that to stop free-riders taking advantage of a scheme of cooperation it would be necessary for a sovereign to be in place who could punish those who chose to be free-riders.

Rawl’s however thinks that the three psychological laws; (1) Morality of Authority, (2) Morality of Association, (3) Morality of Principle, would be sufficient to ensure that the vast majority of people reared in a functioning democratic system would be encultured to find the idea of being a free-rider distasteful. So the stability of our cooperative scheme would be made more likely because of our psychological nature within the particular system of justice.

He contrasts this state of affairs with a well ordered society paired with the principle of utility. In such a society the psychological laws would have to be altered. The second psychological law would have to be “people tend to develop friendly feelings toward those who with evident intention do their part in cooperative schemes publically known to maximize the sum of advantages, or the average well-being” (ibid p. 499). Rawl’s correctly notes that this psychological law isn’t as plausible as the one he sketched under justice as fairness. He furthermore noted that such principles are less likely to be accepted by people who are less fortunate and told that the principle must be accepted because it is for the greater good. Ultimately Rawl’s argues that a utilitarian principle will lead to a less stable society than the justice as fairness conception. He argues that this is because people will find it psychologically difficult to accept the utilitarian philosophy.

Rawl’s offers an evolutionary argument to explain why people will be naturally more inclined to accept justice as fairness than its utilitarian rival. Citing the work of Konrad Lorenz, he notes that there is amble evidence that behavioural patterns have been as much shaped by natural selection as has our bodily parts such as arms and legs etc. (ibid p. 503). He notes is mountains evidence from evolutionary science (he cites: Trivers, Williams, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) that indicates that humans evolved in small groups where there was selection pressure on cooperation within these groups.

Finally he asks whether these selection pressures will have made humans more psychologically prone to utilitarian philosophy or justice as fairness:

“if selection is always of individuals and their genetic lines, and if the capacity for the various forms of moral behaviour has some genetic basis, then altruism in the strict sense would generally be limited to kin and the smaller face-to-face groups. In these cases the willingness to make considerable self-sacrifice would favour one’s descendants and tend to be selected. Turning to the other extreme, a society which had a strong propensity to supererogatory conduct in its relations with other societies would jeopardize the existence of its own distinctive culture and its members would risk domination. Therefore one might conjecture that the capacity to act from the more universal forms of rational benevolence is likely to be eliminated, whereas the capacity to follow principles of justice and natural duty in relations between groups and individuals other than kin would be favoured. We can also see how the system of the moral feelings might evolve as inclinations supporting the natural duties and as stabilizing mechanisms for just schemes. If this correct, then once again the principles of justice are more securely based.” ( Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’ pp.503-504)

 

Now obviously Rawl’s isn’t claiming that these evolutionary speculations prove that his conception is superior. Rather he is merely arguing that they offer an explanation as to why justice as fairness is more psychologically plausible than utilitarianism.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to take sides on the debate between Utilitarianism and Justice as Fairness. Nor am I claiming that Rawl’s sketch of evolutionary considerations is remotely complete. Rather all I have aimed at in this blog-post was to demonstrate that contra Wilson there is no evidence that Rawls is trying to shield himself from scientific findings.

Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History

 

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Jury-man, the Judge, long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” (Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities p. 292)

In this blog-post I will evaluate Ben Shapiro’s claim that the different levels of violence in the French Revolution and the American Revolution can be accounted for in terms of the different underlying philosophies which motivated both revolutions. In part 1 of the blog-post I will show that from a logical point of view Shapiro’s argument doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. While in part 2 I will evaluate the empirical data Shapiro presents. The overall conclusion of the blog-post will be that Shapiro’s argument doesn’t go through on either logical or empirical grounds.

                              Part 1: A Logical Analysis:

In his 2019 book ‘The Right Side of History’ Ben Shapiro made a causal claim about the nature of the Enlightenment. According to Shapiro the Enlightenment has two major strands:

“The Enlightenment straddled two sides of a thin line. On the one side was the American Enlightenment, based on the consummation of a long history of thought stretching back to Athens and Jerusalem, down through Great Britain and the Glorious Revolution, and to the New World; on the other was the European Enlightenment, which rejected Athens and Jerusalem in order to build new worlds beyond discoverable purpose and divine revelation.” ( Ben Shapiro ‘The Right Side of History’ p. 122)

Shapiro argued that history performed a comparative experiment as to which form of Enlightenment was the superior one. He reasoned as follows: the American Revolution was primarily influenced by the Judeo-Christian philosophy and the Greek philosophical tradition whereas the French Revolution was influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau with his emphasis on the general will and Voltaire’s general scorn for tradition (ibid p. 122). He went on to note that the French Revolution was much more violent than the American Revolution. So he concluded; X and Y had different levels of violence and the different levels of violence are best explained by different underlying philosophies p and q. Therefore since p and q are the only relevant differences between X and Y they are assumed to be the cause of the difference. This explanation is a simple billiard ball explanation. If a ball 1 hits ball 2 and then ball 2 moves then the only logical explanation is that ball 1 hitting ball 2 is the cause of its moving.

Shapiro’s reasoning is somewhat clear. If there is one clear difference between two distinct outcomes e.g. (a particular philosophical system being adopted) then it is a reasonable conjecture that this difference is the cause of the distinct outcomes. Nonetheless, prior to looking at the details it is important to note some obvious flaws in Shapiro’s reasoning. It is (or should be) a truism that correlations aren’t identical with causation. To use a clichéd example, imagine a bell and horn which are built to go off in sequence, the bell goes off and immediately a horn goes off. The reason they follow each other in sequence is because of a timer built into the bell and the horn by a designer. A naïve theorist who hears the bell go off and immediately hears the horn follow a few hundred times could make the erroneous conjecture that the bell is the cause of the horn going off. Such a naïve theorist would be guilty of confusing correlations (x always preceding y) with a causal statement that x is the cause of y. To avoid such simple confusion of correlation with causation our naïve theorist should have tried a variety of different experiments to disentangle whether x was actually the cause of y.

Shapiro’s reasoning is a paradigm case of confusing causation with correlation. He assumes that because something {distinct philosophical systems} can be correlated with different outcomes; therefore the distinct philosophical systems are the cause of the different outcomes. We know from the physical sciences how difficult it can be to isolate a singular cause of a particular state of affairs. A good technique to use is Mill’s method of differences where you do experiments where you can isolate various different factors { selectively removing or adding them} to see what outcome their addition or subtraction has to the phenomena you are studying. Shapiro seems to think that the different outcomes of the French and American revolutions in terms of violence are a natural experiment which show that Judeo Christian/Greek philosophies are the relevant factor in causing a less violent outcome.

Even if we grant for the sake of argument Shapiro’s empirical premises (1) The French Revolution was more violent than The American Revolution, (2) The only difference between the two different revolutions were the different philosophies adopted. It still wouldn’t follow that Judeo Christian Philosophy/Greek Philosophy made the American Revolution less violent. One could instead conjecture that the key variable was the influence of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophy which made the French Revolution more violent. One could argue consistently with Shapiro’s premises that the Judeo Christian/ Greek Philosophies do little work and the primary thing to emphasise is the importance of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophies in in causing the levels of violence. The primary point to note is that Shapiro’s natural experiment isn’t fine grained enough to decide between the different alternative interpretations we presented above. Contrary to Shapiro’s confident assertions his “natural experiment” does not tell us that adoption of Judeo-Christian/Greek philosophy is the key causal factor in the levels of violence that occurred in the revolutions. His natural history experiment leaves it underdetermined what the relevant causal factor was in the different levels of violence in the two Revolutions were.

In the above discussion we took Shapiro’s generalizations at face value and showed that even if we accept his generalisations they do not demonstrate what the causal factor is in the different levels of violence in both revolutions. In the next section we will look at the Shapiro’s empirical claims and examine whether he has provided sufficient support to justify them. By the end of the next section we will have conclusively shown that Shapiro’s empirical assumptions aren’t even remotely justified. We will have shown that Shapiro’s analysis of the French and American Revolution is unsupported on either empirical or logical grounds.

                     Part 2: An Empirical Analysis

When trying to evaluate Shapiro’s claims about both revolutions it is striking how rationalistic his interpretation of both revolutions is. On Shapiro’s world view both revolutions are idea lead and any difference in outcome can be explained by the influence of these ideas. On his picture; people subscribe to certain philosophies, and these philosophies dictate their actions in the world. In the words of Shapiro’s friend Sam Harris “Beliefs have Consequences”. If the people leading the French Revolution held the philosophy that there “were are no rights over and above the will of the people”, and that “traditions are there to be torn down” then this belief would have certain consequences.

At one level the “beliefs have consequences” mantra is a truism that is hard to deny. If I believe that it is going to rain today this may have the consequence of me wearing a rain coat. But when it comes to more complex behavioural patterns it becomes harder to tell a rationalistic view of the beliefs that people are subscribing to and how these beliefs effect behaviour. Firstly individuating beliefs is no trivial matter. A person says that he is behaving is a particular way x because of certain beliefs that he holds, nonetheless we can have good reason to doubt that the person is actually acting because of these professed beliefs. In the psychological literature there is an abundance of data which indicates that people’s reasons for their actions are not transparent to them. So, for example, in some psychological experiments words are flashed at people on a screen at such speeds that the mind cannot consciously register the words and would deny seeing them. Nonetheless when experimenters use various different word association tests the experimental subjects show a preferential bias for the word that has just been flashed before them. When asked about this preferential bias the subjects typically offer a series of confabulations to explain their behaviour and are surprised to learn that they are confabulating and that the real reason they show the preference is because the image was flashed before them below the level of consciousness and these subliminal images are the cause of their preferential word biases. In these controlled experiments people’s expressed reasons to explain their behaviour are less reliable than it may first appear. There are hundreds of experiments of this type, which indicate that our cognizance of the reasons for our behaviour are less transparent to us than we typically think.

Nonetheless, it could be objected to the above claim that the experiments in the psychological literature involve casual belief desire explanations by subjects in highly artificial circumstances. Hence the experiments have little to say about how a subject’s beliefs on philosophical subjects they have thought deeply about effect their behaviour when acting in the world.

However, despite there not being an abundance of controlled experiments on people’s philosophical beliefs and their effects on behaviour in political situations; there is reason to be sceptical of Shapiro’s cheerful rationalism. A brief discussion of the French Revolution will serve to disabuse one of the simple belief that it was a natural consequence of a particular philosophy playing out. Any reading of the French revolution will have to give contingent events as big role to play in the explanation as the role of abstract philosophical systems.

The terror of Contingency

Shapiro focuses on philosophical tracts which influenced the main protagonists in the French Revolution. He spends less time considering art and its influence on the emotions of French people from various different strata. Literacy rates were extremely high (Citizens p. 180) in France at the time of the French Revolution and various different art forms were extremely important to people of various different social standing. Comic Operas such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ captivated and amused people through a series of jokes, sardonic sneers, etc. Paintings by people Greuze’s, Diderot’s plays, etc captured the publics imagination. These various different art forms moved people in ways that are not precisely quantifiable and had as much influence on people’s behaviour during the revolution as any philosophical text did. It is impossible to pick out a few abstract ideas and to claim that these ideas governed the behaviour of the various different players in the revolution; human behaviour is never that simple.

One of the most hated figures of the French Aristocracy was Mary Antoinette. But the French public’s general relationship to her wasn’t one of abstract philosophical ruminations on the nature of aristocracy. On the contrary she roused misogynistic fantasies amongst the French public, gossip and short stories about her centred on her engaging in orgies, having incestuous relationships with her son etc. When trying to understand the behaviour of people during and in the lead up to the Revolution it is important to view people as emotional and not always rational agents and to not pretend that they are simply acting on dry philosophical ideas.

Even idiosyncratic acts of nature can influence the behaviour of people and direct it in ways it may not have gone in otherwise. So, for example, in France in 1788 there was hailstorm burst, and in much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of a severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709 (Citizens p. 305):

“Frozen rivers stopped water mills from turning what grain there was into flour, and prevented transportation of emergency supplies to areas of greatest want. Deep snow lay on the ground as far south as the Haute-Garonne, west of Toulouse, where between Feburary 26 and April 10th there were fresh falls almost every other day. In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. “Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.”

The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours…the cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than medicore…” ( Citizens p. 305)

All of this caused the doubling of bread prices and firewood which were basic requirements of the French peasants. Such contingent hardships can have wild effects on a groups political persuasions. With people cold, hungry and desperate it is more and more difficult to please them in trying to appease them in negotiations about how society is to be run.

None of the points I have touched on are decisive points in French Revolution or the Terrors that followed. I am merely pointing out that Shapiro’s emphasis on the key role played by philosophical views in distinguishing the French Revolution from the American Revolution is too disembodied and abstract. It ignores the lived experience and emotional lives of the people who lived through the revolution. Shapiro argues as if the revolution was simply the result of abstract philosophical principles being followed and ignores the concrete experiences of people living through the revolution.

Another weakness of in Shapiro’s account is that he argues as though there were no other differences between the French and American Revolution. He ignores the obvious difference that the colonists in America saw themselves fighting an external force from another country. Whereas in the French Revolution they were fighting not an external force but internal forces who represented different class interests.

Unconscious Logic and Group Cohesion

“Have you ever been a stranger to yourself? Many many times…” (Picard)
We all live in groups; family groups, work groups, society at large etc. In our individualized society we sometimes focus on ourselves and how we can improve our own behaviour and make our lives better. But people tend to forget that they are always embedded within a mishmash of different groups and a large part of who we are is determined by the groups we are embedded in. Saying that our behaviour is partly determined by the groups we are a part of isn’t meant to imply we have no agency. We have agency to the degree we can engineer some of the groups we are a part of; we can decide what these groups aims are and design them to better fulfill our aims.
In this blog-post I want to discuss group interactions and how structural dynamics can sometimes lead people to behave in ways that seem out of character when judged by their previous behavioural patterns. I will explore how these structural dynamics can result in difficulties in small group interactions. For simplicity sake I will focus primarily on workplace interactions; though these interactions can occur in any small group. Finally I will discuss scientific techniques that help minimize the possibility of such group conflicts. A good example of our behavioural patterns being determined by structural features can be seen in Peter Turchin’s work on history which through cross cultural comparisons details how we sometimes get dragged into wars revolutions etc. Our decisions are sometimes made by structural features of our social environments. So, even though we like to think we are the author of our decisions, our choices are determined by outside factors. In his ‘Ages of Discord’ Turchin discussed some factors that may have led to periodic breakdown of agrarian societies. The agent’s living in the agrarian society would have believed that they were making decisions x or y for various different reasons. However, Structural Demographic Theory argues that population growth in excess of productivity can have several effects on social institutions: (A) It leads to persistent price inflation, falling real wages, rural misery, urban migration, and increased frequency of food riots and wage protests, (B) Rapid expansion of population results in elite overproduction which results in an increasing number of aspirants competing for limited resources, (C) Population growth leads to expansion of army and bureacracy and to rising real costs (‘Ages of Discord’ p. 11). Turchin reworked this principle in order to describe revolutionary leaps in industrial societies; (1) The Neo-Malthusian Principle, (2) the principle of elite over- production, (3) the structural demographic causes of political instability. Turchin’s theory explains human behaviour as being governed by laws of which we are not aware. We may give reasons for acting in the way we do but the reasons we give may be nothing other than rationalisations; our behaviour may actually be caused by structural features that are outside of our control. While Turchin’s analysis details large societal fluxuations his work is an example of structural features influencing individual decisions. As we will see later in this structural features also have effects on people’s interactions in small groups as well. We may give certain reasons to explain our interactions within our group but the reasons we give may be pure rationalisations; likewise our speculations as to why our colleagues behave towards us in certain ways may be pure fiction as well. For this reason it is useful to try to understand group interactions in a scientific manner instead of relying on folk-psychological speculations. Nonetheless, with the science of group interaction still in its infancy any theory of group behaviour will still rely somewhat on folk psychology in its explanations.
In daily interactions with one another people typically engage on a personal level. They interpret each others behaviour in terms of their shared history of interactions, and by interpreting gossip and other pieces of information to update their implicit models of each other. However, aside from using implicit models of who a person is when we interpret each others behaviour we also think using abstract categories. When we talk to other people we are unconsciously categorizing them in various different ways; so a person can be interpreted under classes such as Mother, Professor, British, etc.
In a work-place environment people are typically bracketed into various different groups. You have Managers, Front line workers, Admin staff etc. When interacting with each other people can interpret each other using folk psychology (attributing various different beliefs/desires) to each other; and these folk psychological ascriptions can be skewed by the type of categorisation we implicitly employ when interpreting each other. Thus, consider two employees who are interacting with each other in work; they will have a shared history together, common experiences in the job, and all of these connections will be interpreted under various different emotional hues depending on the relationship. In these interactions some abstract ways of categorising each other can become salient, and the abstract categorisation can become the primary mode of interpreting the others behaviour. A concrete example may help.
Consider two people talking in work one of whom is a nurse and the other is a health care assistant. While these people have an incredibly complex network of relations with each other, in some situations the abstract category of nurse or health care assistant can become important. Psychologist Matte Blanco (1975) noted that in times of emotional stress humans can engage in thinking that involves thinking of an entire category in terms of a subset of that category. Thus in an argument between a nurse and a healthcare assistant they may end up as seeing each other; almost primarily, as representatives of an entire category. Furthermore how the category is structured can depend on arbitrary associations that make up the concept. Work in concept acquisition done by relational frame theorists has shown that our concepts have rich interconnections that are strung together in a somewhat arbitrary manner as a result of our contingent life experiences. Now a health-care assistant will have a string of associations attached to the term Nurse and he may not even be entirely conscious of what these associations contain. However, if in his dispute with the Nurse he more and more thinks of her in terms of the abstract category of Nurse this will mean that he will be thinking of her in terms of an abstract, arbitrary set of associations that he is not aware of. When this occurs, rich interpersonal relationships between the two people can be pushed to the background and people end up thinking of each other in terms of a static set of associations that they have internalized. This can lead to rigid thinking, a decrease in terms of compromise and an inability to understand the person you are talking to as a person.
Furthermore people don’t converse in isolation. These people in the discussion will be operating within a network of other people. And a lot of people will fall under the category of ‘Nurse’ or ‘Health Care Assistant’, and if people start identifying with a particular category then there is a danger that unconscious categorisation combined with humans innate territorial nature will result in interacting in an increasingly territorial manner in their dealings with each other.
Obviously a work-place where people are unconsciously interacting with each other in terms of evolutionary driven emotional behaviour isn’t ideal. The question is whether we can design our groups interactions in ways that can minimize these type of rigid emotional thought processes from infecting group interaction.
Firstly, it is important to note that the abstract rigid structures which can have a structuring and polarizing effect on interactions are multifarious so a variety of different factors will influence workers thinking; ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘attractiveness’ etc will infect thinking. People will implicitly rank people into various different categories and will typically rank the importance of these categories so implicit aligences may shift depending on context. One person may think the ‘Nurse’ ‘Care Staff’ divide is important but something like ‘Class’ may be more important to them so in interactions their implicit rank value system will inform how they form aligences. These factors will have a recursive feedback loop where one person thinks that another person has been disloyal to their group and shifts their attitudes towards that person. This information will spread throughout the community and may again have negative consequences for group interaction.
A useful tool that may help with group interactions is a discovery made by the nobel prize winning economist Elinor Orstrom. She researched how groups managed the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting independently in their own self interest, act in ways that are bad for the common good. By empirically studying groups that successfully managed to overcome the tragedy of the commons, Orstrom managed to distill out the core rules they were following. Furthermore it has been shown that groups who adopt these rules increase their productivity and harmonious group interaction.
Below we will look at Orstrom’s 8 core design principles for group interaction and see how they can be applied to workplace interaction:
Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose: As we discussed above people interacting can all be grouped into various different categories and these categories can rigify in people’s minds in times of stress and this can cause intense conflicts. However, if the overall group has a strong identity and everyone understands the purpose of the group this can operate like a kind of guiding light that focuses people away from interpersonal conflicts and towards achieving the purpose of the group.
Proportional Equivalents between benefits and costs:
Again conflict can be reduced and people will be less likely to build up lingering resentments if the rationale behind the various different benefits people receive relative to each other is explained in terms of the costs accrued by the people doing the work.
Fair and Inclusive decision making:
People don’t like being dominated. But they do like structure. Talking as a group about what you want to do and the best way of doing it is a great way of developing team spirit. But a clear leader within the discussion is necessary.
Monitoring agreed upon behaviours:
Some structure in place where agreed rules are monitored by independent staff.
Graduated Sanctions:
If work isn’t done direct friendly criticism is necessary with incremental sanctions if work continues to be undone.
Fast and Fair Conflict resolution
Rather than let issues fester management need to step in quickly with ways to minimize disputes.
Local Autonomy;
There needs to be some kind of authority within a group that helps form a common purpose. If the group is a small group within a larger organisation then that small group should have decision making capacities slightly independent of the overall organisation. This gives people a sense of agency and responsibility to the small group they are a part of.
Polycentric Governance: Apply the above seven principles in an attempt to relate collaboratively with other groups that your own group is nested within.
Ostrom’s core design principles have been shown to have great explanatory value in explaining how successful group interaction can be achieved. Her principles show that if a group is organized in a particular way this will select for a type of behaviour that benefits the overall group. The psychological principles which we discussed earlier can result in tensions occurring during times of stress and such psychological stressors can result in people thinking game theoretically in terms of rigid abstract categories. Groups structured according to Orstrom’s core design principles have been empirically demonstrated to have created successful group interaction. Using her core design principles may be a way of successfully avoiding people’s darker psychological nature’s destroying group dynamics.
We saw above how at a large scale societal level there is evidence that group dynamics can result in people’s behaviour switching based on structural features of their group and this can have dramatic effects from wars to workplace disputes. Work such as Ostrom’s can help in designing our groups in more effective manner. But much scientific study is needed to help us create more nurturing groups that people can thrive in.