Friday, 7 February 2014

Utrecht workshop, second day

Back at the second day of the workshop, Dr. Gottfried Vosgerau (Düsseldorf) (pictured) kicked off with ‘The role of Verstehen and Erklären for psychiatric symptoms. The case of thought insertion’. He began with a reasonably familiar outline of Kant’s characterisation of the unity of consciousness: The ‘I think’ must be able to accompany all my thoughts - and both Wittgenstein on I as subject vs object and Shoemaker on immunity to error through misidentification. In such cases of thinking that I am hungry, one cannot be wrong about to whom the predicate applies (though the predicate may be wrong).  It is plausible to interpret all three as including the production of thoughts as well as passive experience. But such a priori views seem to conflict with the pathological experience of thought insertion.

There followed some further ground clearing on whether just as the phrase "my movement" is equivocal between mere mineness and agency so might "my thought" also be equivocal. Since subjects with thought insertion do not deny the former sense of mineness their problem must concern authorship. But there seem no plausible analyses of authorship which concern the mechanisms, as it were, of thought production. Instead, and adopting an approach borrowing from Verstehen, we should ask what the purpose of ascriptions of authorship is. Responsibility? Praise? In everyday life it is connected to a social praxis: so it is not merely an individual matter. Authorship is not inherent in a thought but a social property like the value of a coin. I can only infer authorship. But if so, just as one cannot feel that one’s luggage is not on board a plane, so there is no feeling of authorship. Possible feelings are restricted to qualities such as: effort, coherence etc. So self-ascriptions of authorship are based on background beliefs: a higher order complex process applied post hoc.

With this (helpful and clear) background in place, a more familiar theory of thought insertion emerged. The reason for the denial of authorship was the experience of a thought that runs contrary to a subject’s sense of self coupled with a second factor (cf two factor models of other delusions) of jumping to conclusions.

As well as the fact that no such violation of a sense of self seems present in the famous Eamonn Andrews example quoted in the talk (though GV stressed that the available data was very poor), I worried that this is an overly intellectual account. Just as one might self-ascribe abilities or understanding that goes strictly beyond the facts available to oneself at a moment, so one might take oneself to be the author of some thoughts and not of others even on this broadly social reading of the facts that authorship comprises. If that were the case in non-pathological cases, then pathological cases might simply involve a breakdown of just that experience (or sense or feeling) rather than a post facto explanation requiring a mismatch between thought and self image.

Rejecting my worry of being overly intellectual, GV suggested that one might infer in normal cases one’s authorship from a 'sense of effort’ of thinking. But this seems both phenomenological nonsense (in flow, I feel no effort) and to highlight a restriction on the sense of 'feeling’ that drove the account (in the idea of a feeling or sense of authorship). If that were all that could immediately inform direct self ascriptions one would, eg., have to infer one’s understanding of a word and hence ability to use it in the future from the merely local and occurrent features of experiences. But this is hopeless. And in any case, one should always ask of the invocation of a sense of effort to pin down ownership: whose effort?

Next was Dr. Annemarie Kalis (UU): ‘Interpretationism as integrative method for the mind sciences’. Having sketched the general aim of psychology as aiming at causal explanation, she asked what kind of mental state ascription could be used in the mind sciences. What would balance the causal aspirations with a role for mentality? Her suggestion was some form of interpretationism but she argued that it faced an unpleasant choice between two versions: a strong version according to which ascription brings about or determines the possession of intentional states (Dennett's loose talk of the intentional states of thermostats welcomes this reading) or a weak version according to which interpretation merely uncovers states are are independently there. It is a merely epistemological view and thus intentionality does not need the interpretation.

AK advocated an intermediate position: possession of mental states depends partly, but not completely, on them being ascribed. The key idea was that there have to be, on the one hand, metaphysical criteria tied to a pattern of related phenomena. For example, in the case of someone feeling worthless, there has to be a relation between the physical phenomena of stooped shoulders, subjective experiences and response tendencies. But in addition, and on the other hand, this pattern has to be thought significant in some meaning-giving practice. The former pattern can be studied by traditional psychological explanatory methods. But this leaves a non-empirical question of why is our meaning giving practice the way it is? Which aspects have to be woven together to make up the metaphysical criteria? (This was an open question raised at the end of the talk.)

I realised only after the talk finished that I wasn’t sure about the relationship between the strong, weak and intermediate positions. Was the worry about the weak version that it might have been the case that intentional mental states might, implausibly, exist outside of any practices of interpretation? Or was it that on any given occasion of someone framing a thought that they might not then be interpreted by anyone else? And was the worry about the strong reading that each act of interpretation implausibly fixed, rather than answered to, an intentional state or more minimally that the practices as a whole determined meaning (eg so that the very idea of feeling worthless only became possible in a culture with the appropriate shoulder behaviour, subjective feelings and appropriate language). Interestingly, in questions, it seemed likely that the intermediate position combined a version for the strong and weak version rather than attempting not to choose. The originally extra-intentionalfacts exist anyway. But they are constituted as mental by the interpretation. So that sounds like a weak reading applied to what is originally extra-intentionaland a strong reading applied to the intentional facts. So the causal force of mental states is entirely determined by the metaphysical criteria independently of whether mentality is then read into them.  If so, I think I would prefer not to choose rather than combine them in this way.

I gave myself time off writing notes to listen to Rolf Viervant (EUR): ‘Hermes through the microscope' discussing biological research on micro tubules. There is an interesting challenge to such work, reminding me of colleagues' work on the sociology of contemporary science when I was doing my PhD. It needs to balance going sufficiently native to grasp the nature if the science itself whilst also standing back so as to be able to highlight how, for example, metaphors are deployed or how such ideas are represented in animation without being held captive by them. As an outsider, I in truth don't really get it, sadly. That is, I do not understand its normative standards.