woensdag 14 september 2011

Der Widerstand der Steine

The role of ideals in reasoning (4)

I used to think there was a German expression Der Widerstand der Steine ["the resistance of the stones"], which denoted the way in which things prove our theories wrong and resist all too liberal interpretations. An apparent category mistake because it is facts, not things, that disprove other facts. I have been unable to retrieve the reference and it might well be that the expression does not exist, in which case I am introducing it here because it illustrates a by and large neglected aspect of two rather weighty and interrelated problems in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. These two are the logical structure of reality and the mind/mind problem.

I. Kinds of resistance

The first problem is what Carnap calls Der Logische Aufbau der Welt. There is no inherent reason why the world should be mathematically or logically structured (treating the two as co-extensive for convenience's sake). After all, mathematical/logical structures are not material objects. People before Galileo did not think that "the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics", and present-day scientists do not believe in the harmony of the spheres as Galileo did. It seems plausible enough that the formal structures of exact sciences have a basis in the underlying structure of human cognition which, again, has either a direct material basis in the stuff it's made of or an indirect material basis in evolutionary adaptation. But a good deal of further cultural development went into logics and mathematics before they became sufficiently formal and abstract; for one thing, the non-Euclidean geometries and non-commutative algebras which match so neatly with relativity theory and quantum physics certainly are not 'wired in', and even at the level of elementary syllogisms there is a discrepancy between people's intuitions (or 'natural logic') and syntactic and semantic proofs.

The second problem is what Jackendoff calls the Mind/mind problem, or the relation between consciousness and the computational mind. The greater part of cognition goes on subliminally (including most of visual/aural cognition, memory storage and retrieval, and language processing and production) and some parts of it are even a mystery to us: how memory stores data, or how we recognize a (particular) object and link it to a (general) concept, or how we understand what words mean. Yet on a conscious level we are well able to 'see through' these workings: we can discuss whether a certain concept applies to an object, analyze the sentences we hear and make, use language creatively and anomolously, and even train our memory (or use memo tools). The current state of cognitive psychology has it that decisions are made in the brain before we are aware of them, and that we do not make better (more rational) decisions after conscious reflection; one popular scientist even describes inner speech as a "chatterbox". So it seems that conscious deliberation is neither a sufficient nor an adequate condition for rational behaviour, and yet it is indispensable to goal-oriented action and reflection.

In both problems we encounter the Resistance of the Stones. We encounter it in physics because the laws of physics are not more or less exact but really exact. Stubborn sticklers for facts like Newton and Herschel who in the end got it right are a real challenge to constructivism in the philosophy of science: for the sake of consensus or explanatory convenience alone, there was no need for Newton's "dark force" or Herschel's deep sky, which Newton tried for years to get rid of and which took Herschel by slow surprise. And we encounter that material resistance in making decisions, in using language, in making ourselves explicit, where we have to struggle with ourselves to be the author of our acts.

Das Eingedenken der Natur im Subjekt - that was how Adorno described his project of critical theory. Leaving historical materialism by the side for the moment, that is indeed what we have to do to meet the resistance of the stones. The reference to Adorno is not far-fetched because criticism, indeed, is paramount both to scientific and to practical reasoning. Sellars' dictum, in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, that "Science is a rational enterprise not because of its supposed foundation in experience but because it is a self-correcting enterprise" applies equally to our moral conduct and our linguistic competence. If we do not critically reflect upon our ends, upon what we are trying to say, do, and be, without a metalanguage to comment upon the use of expressions, we are quite literally powerless and speechless. To some extent, self-correction is even wired in (along with some functional narcissism and cognitive dissonance).

Quine argued that we might have to revise the basic laws of logic with regard to findings in quantum physics. If that implies a continuum between formal and material structure it is indeed a way to "think nature into the subject" but it comes at a price at the semantic level: it makes our language replete with lying Cretans. The very solution that Tarski brought in against the Epimenides paradox ("all Cretans are liars") was to distinguish between a language L in which things were denoted, and a metalanguage L' in which statements were made about the truth of statements in L. Of course that is not how normal language works but if you give up the distinction between logic and physics it does not even work on a theoretical level. At that point, the stones start to speak.
This is equally a problem for Davidson whose main point of divergence from Quine is that he adapts Tarski's Convention T and concurs with Sellars that meanings and beliefs belong to the sphere of reasons, whose interrelation is logical not causal. To make such a distinction also raises the question: how do you get in? Davidson's rather brief reply was that true beliefs are "caused"; McDowell's Mind and World suggests that we should "re-enchant nature", view concept acquisition as a process of acculturation or Bildung, and apply "philosophical therapy" to allay our skeptical doubts. From a moral as well as an epistemic point of view, this latter position is particularly weak. It is basically an invitation to cognitive dissonance.

II. Moral implications

Bildung, shaping yourself as an individual and a moral agent, is not a bad concept to think nature into the subject however. It just needs a bit more critical flavour than it has in McDowell's formulation (which comes with a plea for 'moral realism'). Normativity, in the philosophy of language, so far has mainly meant abiding by the rules. This is something that your back brain could do - Wittgenstein says: Ich folge der Regel blind. Now the problem is not that most moral conduct and cognition goes without saying, and that some of it may be due to (moral) instinct, but that reasons require motivation. And in motivating beliefs and actions, we cannot get away with leaving it to the computational mind - conscious imagination is paramount to deliberation on both. In a blog post three weeks ago, I have elaborated this brand of idealism in more detail; what is relevant here is how it relates to the Resistance of the Stones and the mind/mind problem.

One response to epiphenomenalism, or the idea that the conscious mind dreams while the computational mind decides, has been to put consciousness in a monitoring position, as a sort of control mechanism to mental processes. I remain unconvinced of this: it is an entirely negative conception; it still pictures consciousness as a homunculus; the decision-making does not become more transparent through longer deliberation; and consciousness is not particularly effective as a control mechanism (try keeping your hands off the cookie jar by telling yourself to keep your hands off the cookie jar).
To develop a more positive normative position, we have to make a distinction on the level of reasoning between strictly formal inferences (which could proceed by mechanical computation) and open argument. The crucial thing is that arguments are something that you can disagree with; a formula, in itself, is not an argument. The distinction between these two types of reasoning is fluid: formal types of reasoning can be argued over, and argumentation can be formalized for greater clarity. It should be fluid. Otherwise our motivations would be free spinning. To get real, imagination has to meet the Resistance of the Stones.

Full-bodied moral deliberation and imagination puts you in a position of functional schizophrenia. It entails a third-person perspective in which you see yourself act and hear yourself talk, and accept part of your shortcomings as a fact of life. To the extent that they cause no harm, you could better embrace them full-heartedly than indulge and feel sorry. But it also means that you have to be the author of your actions. A moral person is not an impish rule-follower: it is someone with original ideas who can take moral risk.
Decision-making is always underdetermined: if there was a knock-down reason for choosing this or that it would not be a proper choice. In that regard, every choice is a small tragedy. There is no moral deliberation ex ante which can solve this; rather, we construct our moral agency as we go along, improvising, struggling with ourselves. But this does not make us the slaves of our inclinations; rather, it puts us in a position to see ourselves through and to surprise ourselves, doing or saying things that we could not predict or anticipate. Shaping moral agency against the Resistance of the Stones, you both profess amor fati and hate fate.

This distinction between formal and motivated reasoning applies in a different way to scientific knowledge and the logical structure of reality, with less direct moral impact though with a relation to the mind/mind problem when it comes to scientific reasoning about humans.
Ian Hacking, building upon Crombie's three-volume history of Styles of scientific thinking in the western tradition, has developed an analysis of "styles of reasoning" within which certain scientific observations and claims are made possible and can be argued for. He titled this an Historical Ontology of "how these various concepts, practices, and corresponding institutions, which we can treat as objects of knowledge, at the same time disclose new possibilities for human choice and action", thus making it possible to "constitute ourselves as subjects". This, in an ex post definition, is what Hacking has done in his archaeologies of transient mental illness and statistical thinking.
Although Hacking is explicitly not a constructionist, these styles of reasoning indeed "create facts". By undergoing psychological treatment, child soldiers will now "have traumas". But that does not make the traumas less real. Without the Resistance of the Stones, these styles of reasoning would be (in McDowell's phrase) "free spinning". And in linking this to an account of "how we constitute ourselves as subjects", Hacking's work could form a more solid basis than McDowell's for rebuilding the notion of Bildung.

III. My own stone

To close off, let me explain how this relates to my own philosophical research projects. For the past few years, these have been:
1. Theory choice in linguistics and
2. Conceptual change in the history of the humanities.
In both of these projects, Bildung has been at the back of my mind. This requires a disclaimer because I have no good words for culturally conservative educational programmes which employ this notion whatsoever, and feel nothing but contempt for the likes of Rob Riemen and Ad Verbrugge. What interests me is critical self-formation and the relation between reason and creativity.

1. Theory choice in linguistics is a crucial though neglected problem in the philosophy of language because it grapples with mutually exclusive models of people's linguistic competence. Linguistics is currently in a state of conceptual anarchy, in which there is no theory-independent way to judge which is the most succesful theory; but a pragmatic pluralism about theories can only be local, because the rival theories posit different psychological processes. Moreover, in constructing a theory of how people understand and create language, language creativity is also a distorting factor: actual people are much smarter in using language than the rules and processes described by linguistic theory. To assume that you can study competence independently from performance would already imply a theory choice for generativism. Still, the fact that people use and understand language stands in need of explanation.

2. Conceptual change in the history of the humanities gives a new perspective on how scientification processes affect the way in which people define themselves. My aim throughout is to study how. The history of the humanities has mainly been a backward fight; but the study of history, foreign language and culture, and the budding science of sociology and anthropology were also at the heart of the Enlightenment project - drastically increasing common and scholary knowledge in the process.
In the passage from humanism through Enlightenment to Romanticism, the resistance of hard facts has often acted as a spur on secularisation: the failure of chronology as a research programme (see Grafton, Defenders of the Text), the discovery of non-Adamite peoples (see Hazard, La crise de la conscience Européenne), the discovery of "deep geology" by Lyell and of "deep space" by Herschel have also affected the sense of history. The excavation of Pompeï is probably the most literal example of "resistant stones" that changed the study of antiquity. Historically comparative linguistics replaced the reconstruction of the language of Eden by sheer weight of evidence, striking William Jones headfirst in Calcutta. In that sense, der Wiederstand der Steine has a role to play here too.

This has been a lengthy blog post. Initially it was intended as a short quip to introduce a postcard and a new expression. But the material wanted it otherwise. Even in blogging, one still encounters the Resistance of the Stones.

Footnote (27 May 2012):
I discovered today that there is a jocular theory called "resistentialism", whose central tenet is "les choses sont contre nous". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resistentialism). It is also known (in German) as Die Tücke der Dinge. So even if the expression "Der Widerstand der Steine" is new, there are cognates. Still, resistentialism is not quite the same thing as what I describe as Der Widerstand der Steine. Resistentialism is a more extreme and absurd case of the "the object stares back" metaphor, the resistance of the stones has to do with epistemic relations between theory and reality. Honesty demands.

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