Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Overly rational? Overly simple?

One of the projects undertaken by recent philosophy of psychiatry has been to try to resist Jaspers’ claim that primary delusions are un-understandable. It is the subject of chapter 3 of my Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry. The idea is to take seriously the strangeness of expressions of delusions but at the same time to try to understand them as from within. So it is not just a matter of predicting that such and such a lesion might lead to a particular kind of utterance. Understanding rather than explanation. But at the same time, an interpretation which was too straight forward would fail to capture what makes delusions difficult. So the aim is to ‘solve simultaneously for understanding and utter strangeness’ in Naomi Eilan’s phrase.

There are a number of strategies then available. Sass, eg., compares delusions with the philosophical ‘theory’ of solipsism. Maher suggests that delusions are rational responses to unusual experiences. Campbell and Eilan suggest that they are deviant framework propositions. And so on.

But as Richard Gipps suggested to Gloria and me at a seminar we gave in Uclan yesterday, perhaps philosophers (I should say ‘we philosophers’ to flag my shared guilt in this) are too obsessed with rational, successful utterance and belief. Perhaps, although most people hold mostly true beliefs, they misfire in some areas, not just in the sense of being false (well formed but false) but being bizarre.

I am quite sympathetic to this thought but it would need to be augmented by a kind of philosophical therapy, with, perhaps, comparisons with more familiar cases of beliefs and utterances which are not just like successful everyday cases. Today, three spring to mind.

1) Dennett’s case of the lemonade salesman.
The boy's sign says "LEMONADE—12 cents a glass." I hand him a quarter, he gives me a glass of lemonade and then a dime and a penny change. He's made a mistake. …but exactly which mistake? This all depends, of course, on how we tell the tale—there are many different possibilities. But no matter which story we tell, we will uncover a problem. For instance, we might plausibly suppose that so far as all our evidence to date goes, the boy believes:

(1) that he has given me the right change (2) that I gave him a quarter (3) that his lemonade costs 12 cents (4) that a quarter is 25 cents (5) that a dime is 10 cents (6) that a penny is 1 cent (7) that he gave me a dime and a penny change (8) that 25 - 12 = 13 (9) that 10 + 1 = 11 (10) that 11 not= 13
Only (1) is a false belief, but how can he be said to believe that if he believes all the others?

Dennett suggests that belief ascription turns on an ideal of rationality that can simply fail to apply and if so then there just isn't a fact of the matter as to what is believed.

2) The theological disagreement between Anglicans and Catholics concerning transubstantiation. Or rather: my Divinity O level understanding of this according to which the latter believe the bread becomes the body of Christ whilst the former take there to be a merely symbolic relation between them. But it is worth asking what it would be to believe that the bread becomes body? In what sense are these words used? Is there really a clear distinction between the theological approaches?

3) Cora Diamond’s example of the Lives of the Saints.
In her Realism and the Realistic Spirit she mentions the strangeness of the narrative structure of lives of the saints in which, for example, a saint might suffer the stigmata, might modestly keep them hidden and yet, straightaway, his followers detect them. In this narrative context, the rational stress between these elements is simply disregarded. A saint must be modest and yet the blessing of the stigmata must be detected.

Cases like these suggest that there are cases with which are more familiar in which the quest for a simple, literal, empirical perhaps, interpretation is vain. Perhaps they can relax the impulse to interpret the content of delusions in an overly rational and overly simple manner.