Thursday 28 January 2010

Searle's odd comments about intentionality

No time for the moment to think more about this (essays to mark, abstracts to read, the initial plans for the content of the Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry to review) but an undergraduate dissertation on Dennett made me look at Searle’s discussion of intentionality and the Background in his Rediscovery of Mind [Searle 1994]. Summarising the role that the Background has in helping out intentionality, he says:

1. Intentional states do not function autonomously. They do not determine conditions of satisfaction in isolation.
2. Each intentional state requires for its functioning a Network of other intentional states. Conditions of satisfaction are determined only relative to the Network.
3. Even the Network is not enough. The Network only functions relative to a set of Background capacities.
4. These capacities are not and cannot be treated as more intentional states or part of the content of any particular intentional state.
5. The same intentional content can determine different conditions of satisfaction (such as truth conditions) relative to different Backgrounds, and relative to some Backgrounds it determines none at all. [ibid: 177]

Points 1 and 5 seem most radical. Searle says a little more to unpack these:
All conscious intentionality, all thought, perception, understanding, etc. determines conditions of satisfaction only relative to a set of capacities that are not and could not be part of that very conscious state. The actual content by itself is insufficient to determine the conditions of satisfaction. [ibid: 189]

The argument for this starts with Wittgenstein’s example of a picture of a man walking up - or is it down? - hill. Searle says: ‘nothing internal to the picture... forces the interpretation we find natural’. From this example, and from examples of linguistic interpretation - of, for example, cutting various things - Searle concludes that the intentionality of such items is determined only relative to a background of both other intentional states but also of Background capacities which are themselves non-intentional.

But the surprising transition is from cases where we can identify the bearers of content (pictures, symbols, words), and where it makes sense to think of types which fall short of the determined intentional content, to intentional mental states. When he says that the same intentional content can determine different conditions of satisfaction he must surely mean something akin to: the same type of intentional content... But if so, that’s very odd. What is such a type, short of its content?

Now of course there are philosophically charged ways of articulating such types. One can, eg, split things into narrow and wide content and where the narrow sort falls short of full content. But Searle seems to be invoking Wittgenstein (not an obvious ally of the distinction of broad and narrow content) to make his claims and seems to think they follow from much less theoretical machinery.

In fact, pretty much the only argument for the transition from symbols to mental states is this:
it is useful to have a taxonomy that captures our intuition that there is a match between thought and meaning. For example, I want to capture our ordinary intuition that the man who has the belief that Sally cut the cake has a belief with ex actly the same propositional content as the literal assertion “Sally cut the cake”. [184]

From this he concludes that the same intentional content can determine different conditions of satisfaction. But that just seems very odd indeed.

Popping in for a G&T, Gloria suggested that what was odd was how Searle could be thinking of how things seemed from a first person perspective (how it would seem to have such an ambiguous-between-types sort of content). But I’m not sure that the problem turns on the first person. Rather, whilst the content is indeed that which can be captured in a suitable use of the words (“Sally cut the cake”, for example) it is the content of that utterance that is the same as the state. (That that utterance might have been taken by someone not in the know in some other way does not seem to me to the point. Nor thus a similar view of the mental state in question, if you forgive that phrase.) That seems to me to be what we should say whether describing the first person view or a (correct) third person ascription.
Searle, J.R. (1994) The Rediscovery of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Thursday 7 January 2010

Rough thoughts for a paper on explaining delusions

In accord with my original aim for the blog (of making my own efforts at writing transparent to my masters students), here are some very preliminary thoughts for a paper on explanation within psychiatry which I will develop over the next few days.

On the project of explaining delusions.

There are two aims in the project of explaining delusions.

One is to explain why delusional thinking comes about. An answer to that might be to postulate an extended mental structure or mechanisms whose output is the kind of thinking in question. Recent approaches within the philosophy of psychiatry can be fitted to this. Instances of both bottom up (such as those based on Maher) and top down (such as Campbell and Elian’s invocation of framework propositions) and dual factor theories can be seen as attempts to explain delusions according to this strategy. Ground level experiences or distortions of reasoning or combinations of both explain why agents form delusions.

At the same time, the explanans is of a particular sort: a particular sort of mental occurrence (state or expression) whose identity would be expected to be fixed by its content. It is the delusion it is in virtue of its content. (Pitched at the level of individual cases or general cases, or of content versus form (in one sense of ‘content’), it is the content that fixes things.)

But this idea comes under pressure in at least some delusional cases from the the difficulty of fixing those contents.

Now recent discussion of the application of an interventionlist model of causation might look to ease this. Campbell urges that whilst rational connectedness may be a deep seated model of mental causation (as communication of impulse is a model of mechanical/physical causation) it need not hold. (We should reject all such synthetic a priori claims when it comes to causation). So there is no genuine problem in developing a causal explanation of delusion even where the factors fail to ‘rationalise’ it. (A victory of explanation over understanding.) (Campbell himself is critical of the two factor model and has outlined a top down model based on deviant framework propositions.)

But this line of response fails to address the prior issue of the mental status of the state to be explained...

Kendler and Parnas (eds) Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry

I’ve been invited to contribute a paper on psychiatric explanation for an issue on ‘classification and explanation in psychiatry: philosophical issues’ of the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy. Since I’ve had the Kendler and Parnas collection Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry: explanation, phenomenology, and nosology on my shelves at home for a couple of months I’ve given it a quick skim over the last couple of evenings to help stimulate the digestive juices, as it were. (PS: The eventual paper is here.)

Two things strike me about the Kendler and Parnas collection. First, although the subtitle picks out explanation, phenomenology and nosology, the key issue seems to be the role of causation in psychiatric explanation (nearly half the titles of the chapters or commentaries have ‘cause’ of ‘causality’ in the title) and the question of how a compexity of causal pathways and distinct explanatory levels should be charted and then understood. Second, although there’s a chapter co-authoured by Parnas (one of the editors) and Sass on phenomenology and role of description in psychopathology, it sticks out like a sore thumb and neither the introduction nor commentary to it manages to fit it into the narrative structure of the rest of the book.

Well what is the significance of that? It suggests the centrality of one kind of explanation in thinking about psychiatry: one couched in terms of causal interventions on a complex biological organism. And of course, we are – obviously! – complex biological organisms concerning which/whom causal intervention is possible and a laudable aim for medicine. But it neglects the whole issue of fathoming what is going on in someone’s mental life that might go under the label of understanding.

Now one reason for that might be that the collection respects that post-Kantian and Jasperian distinction between explanation and understanding and thus takes the subtitle to rule out the latter. But I doubt it. The discussions of multi-level explanations (including John Campbell’s rejection of the view that higher level explanations must be short-hands for lower level mechanistic explanations) make no mention of the idea that some, at least, higher levels might be characterised in distinct understanding-orientated, normative terms.

Responding to this puts me in a slightly awkward position. On the one hand, I do not think that the issue of how to take a stereoscopic view of both the manifest image (of man in the world) and the scientific image should be the defining problem of philosophy. We should defuse that problem and look for local relations between aspects of each. But on the other, I think that we should take note of the important distinction between the kinds of concepts and not simply slide between levels.

Kendler, K.S. and Parnas, J. (eds) (2008) Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry: explanation, phenomenology, and nosology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Monday 4 January 2010

Teaching philosophy of science

I am teaching a philosophy of science module for the first time in a while (by contrast with a philosophy of science for psychiatry module) and it gives me the chance to think what overall view I have of the area (via the question of the overall narrative for the module).

Like both Rachel Cooper (to whom, congratulations on her first child, by the way) and Matthew Ratcliffe, I spent time in the Cambridge HPS department and thus was inducted into a view of the philosophy of science as a special and interesting approach to philosophy rather than just one area among others. That view, however, was (sequentially) held in place by two quite particular views of both science and the role of history and philosophy of science departments (of which there were a flurry in the 1960s and 70s).

On the first, science was held to have a central place in exemplifying rationality and thus inheriting the latter’s key importance for philosophy as a whole. The role of history and philosophy was (widely held to be) as follows: the latter outlined an a priori model of scientific rationality. The former then filled in the explanatory gaps when scientists failed to be governed by that model. (Normally, rationality was its own explanation. Only deviation needed further historical explanation.)

With the rise of modern sociology of science, that approach received a substantial tweak. Science still has a central role in exemplifying rationality but now rationality itself is seen as open ended. The ongoing development of scientific practice constructs the standards of rational thinking. And thus, whatever light philosophy can shed on them, there is a fundamental role for the history or sociology in charting those changing practices.

On both of these pictures, scientific method (and hence methodology) is the main focus. But on the second picture, and partly because of the failures, worked out by both sociologists and philosophers, of the first picture, there seems to be less and less work for a philosophy of science. Methodology has fallen out of favour with philosophers of science. That still leaves, of course, a number of important topics for philosophical exploration (including explanation, laws, causes, the nature of induction, the relation of theory and observation, the under-determination of theory by evidence etc), but the narrative that ties them together has changed. So what should the narrative be now?

My instinct is that that whilst the obvious answer to them has proved more complicated, the underlying questions are still the same: what is special about science as an instance of rationality? what account can and should we give of its status? what insight can we have into its success? Now, I think, the answers have to be more nuanced than I might once have thought.

There are some things important we can say about scientific method (and hence some gestures to why science is distinct from non-science) that seem particularly important given what hangs on science (eg the debates about climate change or MMR). But also some things where it is important also to say what paths are not taken by placing nomological explanation at the heart of our ways of making sense of the world. There are some issues where philosophical insight into science seems central and others where it is best to leave it to a local view (such as local questions of method).

So whilst it seems a mistake to think that science is our exclusive shot at rationality, the complexities make the relation between our ideas about what is rational in general, and this central family of approaches in particular, more rather than less interesting. The fact that scientific method cannot be codified says something good about human scientists - their judgement - rather than bad about science.


1: Induction and its problemsPerhaps science explains events by fitting them into inductive patterns. Patterns that have held in the past will hold in the future. But can induction be justified? What of counter-induction (the principle that patterns that have held in the past will not hold in the future)? And even if some form of induction holds, what properties should we project into the future (is grass green, or is it grue?).

2: FalsificationismPopper argued that the problem of induction can be solved (or perhaps more accurately side-stepped) by saying that science should aim at conjecture (forming a hypothesis or perhaps just a guess) and refutation (trying to prove it wrong) since whilst it seems impossible to prove through enumeration that all swans are white, a single black swan refutes that hypothesis. But how straight-forward is refutation? And what kind of positive explanation does Falsificationism permit?

3: The Theory Dependence of ObservationWhether one aims to confirm or refute theories, observational evidence surely plays a key role in the rise and success of science. That seems to require that theory and observation are distinct so that the latter can be a true test of the former. But there are powerful arguments to think that both observation statements or reports and the very process of observation is theory dependent. So how should we understand the role of observation?

4: Duhem-Quine thesis and Falsificationism #2The thesis that observation is infused with theory suggests a complication to the relation of theory and data. If theories can only be tested against a background of other, assumed, hypotheses, then a theory could be defended against contrary evidence by suitable changes to these auxiliary hypotheses. This suggests that science is a matter of convention rather than truth. Can this be domesticated within a picture which is still broadly falsificationist?

5: The Deductive-Nomological (DN) model of explanation
So far we have assumed that explanation has something to do with fitting particular events to general patterns and then worried about how general theoretical patterns can be established. But what, exactly, is explanation. One influential model says that it is a matter of inferring the event to be explained from general laws in logical arguments.

6: Laws and accidentsIf explanations do depend on laws of nature, how are they characterised? One way to approach that question looks back to Hume’s analysis of causation and asks what real progress is made by moving from singular instances of causation to general patterns, as Hume suggests. What is the difference, at the general level, between accidentally true generalisations and genuine laws?

7: Objections to the DN model and an alternative causal model of explanationSo let’s assume that we can tell the difference between laws and accidents, does that fill out the DN model of explanation? Not yet. First there are some standard objections to the DN model (both apparently good explanations it rules out and crazy ones it lets in) and second there’s a rival causal account. It claims that the difference between genuine and fake explanations is that the latter trades in causal information. But perhaps laws are the way that genuine causal information is presented?

8: The challenge of epistemological anti-realism
So now it seems that causal information is key to science, that laws may play an important role in charting genuine causal relations and that evidence, although ‘infected’ by theory, is still key. But this package of ideas still comes under threat. Since evidence is, by definition, observable but since the observable evidence is consistent with an infinite number of different theories about the unobservables, it is irrational to be other than agnostic about whole tracts of the world.

9: Two responses to anti-realism: causal agents and inference to the best explanation
Two responses are critically examined. First, the view that whilst what are advanced as laws of nature may well be false, that is no reason to doubt explanations which invoke unobservable causal agents. Second, there is more to the relation of theory and evidence than mere consistency (ie that their joint truth is not logically ruled out). We can infer from observable evidence to what best explains it. On this view, explanation is, again, key to science.

10: Kuhn and the later rise of the sociology of science
The difficulty with outlining either a confirmatory or a falsificationist methodology of science together with the various challenges to simple accounts of explanation, observation and evidence suggests the opportunity for a more detailed account of scientific development. In this session we look to Kuhn’s account of revolutionary jumps between incommensurable paradigms.

11: Explanation versus understanding
The module has placed explanation at the heart of scientific thinking (and looked at the connections between it, causation, laws and evidence). But what does this rule out? In this session we look at the idea that understanding and explanation are distinct and thus that there can be no such thing as social science. Can that really be true?

PS (one year later): I taught the module pretty much as described here. Two problems: I took too long to get going (in effect, two introductory sessions rather than one) and the discussion of the metaphysics of laws got in the way of the main storyline. So this is a link to the revised module for 2011.

Sunday 3 January 2010

The end of time?

There’s something miserable about the final day of the Christmas holidays. This year, because New Year’s Day fell on a Friday, there is a clear and widespread sense that tomorrow is the day everyone is going back to work and thus the holiday is over. This year, also, because, in each case unusually: I spent Christmas abroad in Chicago; the holiday period has coincided in the UK with 2 weeks of long lasting snow, heavy frost and hence barely passable country roads and urban pavements; and we have just said goodbye to the best of Doctors, it has seemed a very, er..., particular or singular time. This reminds me of the first time I really understood the everyday ‘mortality’ of time.

I’d been allowed to go on a cub-scout day trip in the year before I joined at age seven. Back home oddly melancholy I tried to explain my mood to my older brother. But it’s not a problem, he reasoned, I could simply join the cubs and thus go on the same trip the very next year. But that wouldn’t be the same, I realised, because it would be a different though similar event. The one I was already missing was the one I’d just had and would never have again.

So on a gloomy Sunday, independent of philosophical debates about the reality or otherwise of the past or future, it’s the mundane way we treat later events (next Christmas and New Year, for example) not merely as like past events but as somehow more thoroughly equivalent that seems of most interest. So it is not just that there will be cold days next winter but that there will be another New Year’s Eve, for example, the sibling of this year’s. It is an example of the general Wittgensteinian idea that what unites distinct instances under a rule is less than rampantly independent of us.