Monday 29 October 2012

The gap between explanation and understanding

I’m just back from giving a couple of talks in Utrecht, one of which was a teaching session on Wittgenstein’s rule following considerations and which made me think afresh about the role of the deviant student in §185 and the question of whether there is any gap between explanation and understanding.

Let us return to our example (§143). Now – judged by the usual criteria – the pupil has mastered the series of natural numbers. Next we teach him to write down other series of cardinal numbers and get him to the point of writing down series of the form
0, n, 2n, 3n, etc.
at an order of the form “+ n”; so at the order “+ 1” he writes down the series of natural numbers. – Let us suppose we have done exercises and given him tests up to 1000.
Now we get the pupil to continue a series (say + 2) beyond 1000 – and he writes 1000, 1004, 1008, 1012.
We say to him: “Look what you’ve done!” – He doesn’t understand. We say: “You were meant to add two: look how you began the series!” – He answers: “Yes, isn’t it right? I thought that was how I was meant to do it.” – Or suppose he pointed to the series and said: “But I went on in the same way.” – It would now be no use to say: “But can’t you see....?” – and repeat the old examples and explanations. – In such a case we might say, perhaps: It comes natural to this person to understand our order with our explanations as we should understand the order: “Add 2 up to 1000, 4 up to 2000, 6 up to 3000 and so on.”
[Wittgenstein 1953 §185]

One response is to think that this passage points to a genuine, empirical possibility – a possibility for us – which results from a gap between explanation and understanding. That is how Collins takes it in Changing Order . He concludes both that the notion of ‘sameness’ is ambiguous and that it is not possible fully to specify a rule (unless a limited range of responses is defined in advance). But ‘since in spite of this we all know the correct way to go on, there must be something more to a rule than its specifiability’ [Collins 1980: 14]. The extra element is described as ‘social entrenchment’ or a ‘shared form of life’ and also ‘tacit knowledge’. Thus it is tacit knowledge that underpins the ‘mysterious abilities that enable us to know when to continue ‘2,4,6,8’ with ’10,12,14,16’ and when with ‘who do we appreciate?’’ [ibid: 22 italics added].

So there is a gap between explanation and understanding and the gap is filled by tacit knowledge. Various problems, however, follow from this. But, further, it conflicts with what Wittgenstein himself says a little later.

But do you really explain to the other person what you yourself understand? Don’t you get him to guess the essential thing? You give him examples, – but he has to guess their drift, to guess your intention.” – Every explanation which I can give myself I give to him too. – “He guesses what I intend” would mean: various interpretations of my explanation come to his mind, and he lights on one of them. So in this case he could ask; and I could and should answer him. [Wittgenstein 1953 §210]

“But this initial segment of a series obviously admitted of various interpretations (e.g. by means of algebraic expressions) and so you must first have chosen one such interpretation.”–Not at all. A doubt was possible in certain circumstances. But that is not to say that I did doubt, or even could doubt… [ibid §213]

So, empirically at least, Wittgenstein thinks that there’s no gap. And this picks up again the naturalistic tone from the discussion of signposts that starts earlier in the Investigations but then returns in the mid point climax of the rule following discussion.

A rule stands there like a sign-post. – Does the sign-post leave no doubt open about the way I have to go? Does it shew which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one? – And if there were, not a single sign-post, but a chain of adjacent ones or of chalk marks on the ground – is there only one way of interpreting them?... So I can say, the sign-post does after all leave no room for doubt. Or rather: it sometimes leaves room for doubt and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition, but an empirical one. [ibid §85]

“Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?” – Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule – say a sign-post – got to do with my actions? What sort of connexion is there here? – Well, perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it.
But that is only to give a causal connexion; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the sign really consists in. On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.
[ibid §198]

So in the context of a custom, there’s no gap between explanation and understanding and the problems I’ve alluded to can be avoided. But there is a potential niggling worry here. Have we earned the right to dismiss the ‘gap’? It’s true that, naturalistically, we have no problem following the signpost. We do not act as though there’s a gap to be bridged. But once Wittgenstein has deployed the considerations of §185 perhaps we should realise that there is a gap, in principle, after all? That is, that we do not so act needs some sort of explanation akin to the invocation of tacit knowledge to plug the gap in principle even if we do not notice it in practice?

I think that the niggling worry is misplaced but is maintained as a potential concern because of a yen for a further explanation of our ability. Against the background of a mechanical explanation of understanding, the ‘gap’ is a real issue. But with the reminder of how an explanation works in the context of a custom, there’s no need for the hypothetical explanation. And without the request for mechanical explanation, we have all we need. So we need to stress the almost Strawsonian comment above: ‘I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom’.

Of course, there are other views available. Charles Travis thinks that there is a gap which has two elements (the relation between which I still have not got clear). First, any prior understanding of a rule is distinct from the novel understanding one has at the cutting edge of application because the latter is an object depending thought whilst the former is descriptive. Second, understanding is always a context-sensitive matter. 

Sunday 28 October 2012

Holt, J. (2012) Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Many years ago when I was still in the sixth form at school, I was given as a birthday present (from a suggestion) an edition of George Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom gathered together as Mr Tompkins in Paperback. Although I was studying physics at A level, with a view to reading it at university, and also owned such fine books as Herman Bondi’s introduction to relativity, nothing captured my imagination like Gamow’s book. The combination of a simple and rather old fashioned narrative frame (the staid and somewhat nerdish Mr Tompkins’ romance with Maud) with a serious if very simplified attempt to summarise both relativistic and quantum theoretical physics in everyday terms (Mr Tompkins repeatedly falls asleep and dreams about travelling at light speed or playing billiards with tiny particles) appealed to me neither as fiction (it isn’t very good) nor as popular science but as something that, perhaps, symbolised a rapprochement of both. I say ‘symbolised’ because I don’t think that I simply judged the book in its own terms but as something representing some broader possibilities for understanding the world.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story. The main theme of the book is quite simple. It addresses the title question (with world construed very broadly to mean everything that is), drawing on both philosophy and physics, or cosmology. But it is not an academic philosophy book (it is aimed at an intelligent general reader) nor a popular science book (since it is not covering science outside its very particular focus) but, rather, something distinct. Its question is very specific - why is there something rather than nothing - but general, since that question is of the widest possible significance or import, yet the treatment is also very personal. We read of Holt’s particular quest to talk to the right philosophers and physicists to try to find an answer. I will say something about both elements. 

As Holt says on more than a couple of occasions, the question of why there is something rather than nothing divides philosophers. Some, like Heidegger and the author of the Tractatus, seem to think it the most quintessentially philosophical question. It runs deep since its nature puts severe limits on what might legitimately be appealed to without begging the question. Pretty much anything that might serve as the explanans (ie the fact or thing invoked to do the explaining) will be a something and hence will beg the question of why there is something (ie the explanandum: the thing or fact to be explained) in the first place. But, perhaps because of that, many or most practising philosophers take no interest in it. (In the book, Holt talks to Adolf Grunbaum who takes such a line.)

As a professional philosopher, I fall, I realise, into the latter camp. I have read nothing on the question as part of my academic life. Thus I read Holt’s summary of the history of the question with practical interest. It is a very broad philosophical overview aimed at readers with no knowledge of the subject (ie either this question or the discipline) which is, nevertheless, entirely serious and engaging. Someone with an interest in philosophy but no background should be able to follow the discussion and get lots out of it.

What seemed odder to me, despite this also being an issue for Holt too and so something he does discuss, is the relation between the philosophers’ attempts to answer the question and physicists’ attempts to answer a question asked using the same words. Suppose that in the actual empirical world, the laws are such that a full size universe (!) can inflate out of a tiny universe and that a tiny universe can spring into being from nothing, under some interpretation of that term. Does that address the philosophers’ question? After all, the possibilities read back into the kind of nothingness in question seem cherry-picked to lead to this full sized universe. Could there have been a nothing which supported no laws that might lead to either stage of inflation? And if so, are we not just begging the question by selecting the right substantive sort of nothing with which to begin? I would have liked more to link the philosophical and physicist readings of the question.

But in fact, why I really liked the book was the almost breathtaking series of encounters with philosophers, physicists and novelists made all the more striking by the fact that they appear as characters in a kind of autobiography. We read that Swinbourne was ‘wearing a nicely tailored dark suit and a sweater, which was tucked into his pants’ [ibid: 95] and that Updike called having been playing ‘kickball with his grandchildren’ [ibid: 252]. Parfitt is generous with his time and offers lunch but does not go on the record. Grunbaum is a dreadful driver. David Deutsch lives amid piles of rubbish. None of these details really helps with the discussion and yet they help to set the abstract inquiry into a concrete world of real inquirers.

Holt himself does not escape unscathed, either. First, a visit to talk to Steven Weinberg (one of my own heroes when I was reading Mr Tompkins) in Austin is interrupted by news of the death of his dog. Later, his mother dies. Both of these details might have been used, clunkily, to make the question of existence more pressing. But I think that that is neither the effect nor the aim. Rather, if anything, they make the quest seem a little more absurd. And yet, having joined him on it over 250 pages, that absurdity does not block our interest or his. We ask because we cannot help it even though no plausible answer seems likely.

I wonder whether this would be a perfect Christmas present.

Holt, J. (2012) Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Lethem, J. (2012) Fear of Music, London: Continuum

(This review is in Metapsychology Online here.)

Fear of Music’ is the name of the third album by the US post punk, funk band Talking Heads and it is also the name of the American novelist Jonathan Lethem’s book about it, which sits in the Continuum series on pop music: 33 1/3.

What should we expect from writing about pop music? Is it as misguided a venture as is implied by analogy (attributed to Frank Zappa) ‘dancing about architecture’ cited here [Lethem 2012: 33]. How can writing, or analysis, relate to the simple joy and potency of cheap music?

One approach is to tell us something about how the music was put together, the instruments used, and perhaps the cultural influences or sources buried beneath the lyrics but nevertheless imprinted in the song writer’s intentions. Such an approach might aim at a kind of explanation of the music. It would also require a particular kind of authority over the facts from the author: an authority which the reader, ignorant of those hidden facts, may be in no position to challenge and has to take on trust. That is not what Lethem aims at here.

Instead, his account is a ‘reading’ of the music, concentrating mainly on the words but not ignoring the score and instrumentation, which stands or falls by its appeal to the reader. The truth or correctness aimed at lies in the account of the surface of the music (deep though that can be as the expression of human emotion can be both visible in the surface of human behaviour whilst still having depth) not the hidden background of pop music technology, or pop political shenanigans. Lethem offers a way of attending to the songs which makes a more or less coherent account of everything, including some of the difficulty of the album achieving coherence and hence the difficulty for Lethem’s account itself succeeding in joining all the dots.

Such an approach, though, may not appeal to all and a couple of representative disappointed reader reviews of the book on the Amazon website seem to me to be almost exactly right about it except that they want, I want to say, the wrong thing.

‘This book is not a story of the making of the rather superb Fear of Music album. Rather it is the author’s love affair with that album and relating his boy in the bedroom experiences... throughout. Each song is de-constructed chapter at a time...There is no research into the making of the record really. No illuminating insights into the process. Just a 140 page essay on the albums effect and impact on the listener.’

‘One of the worst in the series. No insight into the making of the music. Simply the author’s masturbatory ramblings and self-satisfying hyperbole. It would have been nice to include a few quotes from the band on the actual making of the record. Skip this one altogether. A total waste of a read.’

There is indeed no research into the making of the record, if but only if that necessitates historical inquiry and quotations from the band members on the actual making of the record. But there is painstaking research into the record if that involves, as the same reader admits, a deconstruction of it song by song. All depends on what research should be taken to involve. But what it should be so taken is not, it seems to me, easily settled by the nature of research, punkt. It is a matter of context. Nor does not mean that research understood as itself contextually invariant merely has to take account of the context of what is researched. What counts as the proper aims and methods of research of a discipline is a matter for local debate. Lethem’s short account of Fear of Music makes a good case for his model to be the right one for works like this for one over-arching reason. Reading the text makes one want to re-engage with the music.

Writing about music need not be like dancing about architecture if the latter is supposed to illustrate a kind of incoherent interaction of forms. (It would be rash, however, to stipulate that dancing about architecture must fail to resonate or even to fail to resonate to precisely architectural forms. Such stipulation would fail to take account of the insight of the resolute reading of the later Wittgenstein. But I assume that the aim of the metaphor, at least, is clear.) Lethem’s book is not a substitute for the music but neither is it entirely parasitic on it (as a dry account of the instruments used on each track and their electrical or financial properties would be). Rather, it presents an account that aims at a synoptic presentation whilst inevitably failing to address some aspects of the character of the whole.

To give the plot away, the key idea is that Fear of Music presents its many titular nouns from the songs – including some starkly single examples such as ‘mind’, ‘cities’, ‘air’, ‘heaven', ‘drugs’ – as objects of scrutiny. ‘Like a high school social studies teacher chalking a heading on a blackboard, the song titles function as “topics for discussion”. [ibid: 8] In each case, however, the songs highlight a kind of disaffected state of underlying anxiety, or fear, that the singer or listener does, or should, feel. Though named ‘fear of music’, the fear is all pervasive. ‘Like Mister Spock freshly landed on a strange new planet, we can use Fear of Music like a tricorder, to dissect the novelty and danger residing in things we take for granted , but shouldn’t’ [ibid: 16]

One song, however, resists this interpretation: the first song, ‘I Zimbra’. But this, Lethem suggests, does not undermine the general thrust of the album. Rather, through its nonsensical lyrics drawn from a Dadaist poet (Hugo Ball), it suggests modesty, caution, or even fear itself as the ‘method’ elsewhere: the rational discussion of the topics to come. This song finds even the assumptions of access to meaning and authorial presence made elsewhere in the album doubtful.

Does Lethem succeed in offering a coherent reading of the entire album? Perhaps. I need to listen again. He even offers a breathless phrase per song which offers a flavour of how the thesis is unpacked song by song.

But wait, wait, what does “Drugs” mean? We’re so near the end, let me try shuffling this tarot deck once more: “I Zimbra” (no-mind, non-sense), “Mind” (not a working number), “Paper” (old methods doubtful), “Cities” (flea, dance), “Life During Wartime” (quit dancing, find barricades), “Memories Can’t Wait” (party and war are in your mind), “Air” (no release on earth), “Heaven” (release from mind only in death), “Animals” (no dignity in bodily release), “Electric Guitar” (doubt rock) - so, does “Drugs” counsel a mixed state of happy impurity and ecstatic surrender on temporary organic terms? Conclusion: Fuck up the mind. [ibid: 134]

Without the slow build up to this overview, I risk, in quoting it, alienating potential readers. And I should further report that not everything in the book is successful. The reference to the author’s younger self (which permits a distinction between what the author now knows and what he first thought and enthusiastically experienced) palls and sometimes the writing itself is just too mannered. But, at the very least, the readings take one back to the music, to the interplay of lyrics and guitar work. I have not enjoyed Fear of Music as much, either when listening to it, or merely through its contemplation as an idea, so much in years.

Tuesday 16 October 2012


‘Reductionism’ is the name of a family of related approaches within epistemology and ontology. That is, it can be a view of how best to seek knowledge of the world by subsuming either higher level theories or explanations under lower level, and more general, theories or explanations. An often cited example is the reduction of Kepler’s Laws to Newtonian mechanics. But it can also be a view about the nature of the world itself, captured in the slogan ‘the physical is all there is’.

In the early part of the twentieth century, epistemological and ontological forms of reductionism were combined in the thesis that the sciences could, ultimately, be unified. The Logical Positivists gave a specific logical interpretation of the conditions for unification. They construed reductionism as a logical or semantic thesis about the relation between theories: in particular the relation between terms and laws in different scientific theories. Broadly, one theory could be reduced to another if its terms could be defined using the terms of the reducing theory and its laws be explained by the laws of the reducing theory. ‘Bridge laws’ would connect higher level types to lower level types. This sort of relation was supposed to have been exemplified by theories of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics [Nagel 1961: 338]. It was also supposed to be the general tendency of scientific progress that ‘higher level’ theories would be reduced to lower level or more basic theories.

Given the construal of reductionism as a claim about the eventual relation between theoretical terms one can see how it also dovetailed with an epistemological approach popular at the time and which still has an echo in contemporary mental healthcare. This involved the separation of theory and observation encapsulated in the ‘two language’ model [Feigl 1970]. If observation is to play a foundational role for assessing theories it has to be neutral between competing theories. The Logical Positivists attempted to ensure this by separating observation and theoretical languages. An epistemological thesis that one can know the truth of an observation statement independently of knowing the truth of any theory was underpinned by a semantic thesis about the meaning of observational and theoretical terms. This required that observation-language concepts could be defined by basic connections to experience presupposing no theory. Theoretical concepts were then supposed to be defined in observational terms.

This is a version of epistemological reductionism. Theoretical language can, and should, be reduced to a more basic and theory-free observational language. The atheoretical aspirations of DSM III and IV are recent instances of this approach. But one of the morals of recent philosophy of science is, however, that theory and observation are of necessity inter-woven [see eg Churchland 1979; Hanson 1958].
Whilst epistemological reductionism has fallen from favour, ontological reductionism and the general aim of the unity of science has not. Whilst not universal, the assumption is still widespread that psychological sciences will eventually be reduced to biology (which might be construed as physiology or evolutionary biology), biology to chemistry and chemistry to physics.

Although the emphasis on a semantic or logical characterisation was replaced instead by a more ontological approach, Paul Oppenheim and Hilary Putnam expressed this view in their classic 1958 paper ‘Unity of science as working hypothesis’.

It has been contended that one manifestly cannot explain human behaviour by reference to the laws of atomic physics. It would indeed be fantastic to suppose  that the simplest regularity in the field of psychology could be explained directly – ie. “skipping” intervening branches of science – by employing subatomic theories. But one may believe in the attainability of unitary science without thereby committing oneself to this absurdity. It is not absurd to suppose that psychological laws may eventually be explained in terms of the behaviour of individual neurons in the brain; that the behaviour of individual cells – including neurons – may eventually be explained in terms of their biochemical constitution; and that the behaviour of molecules – including the macromolecules that make up living cells – may eventually be explained in terms of atomic physics. If this is achieved, then psychological laws will have, in principle, been reduced to laws of atomic physics… [Oppenhiem and Putnam 1991: 407]

Oppenheim and Putnam go on to make two important and distinct kinds claims. Firstly, they argue that the unity of science is served by ‘microreductions’. These are reductions in which:

The objects in the universe of discourse of [the reduced science or theory] are wholes which possess a decomposition into proper parts all of which belong to the universe of discourse of [the reducing science or theory]. [Oppenhiem and Putnam 1991: 407]

In fact they argue more strongly that microreduction is the only method seriously available for the unity of science [ibid: 408]. They then go on to explore the consequences of this view by examining the preconditions for successfully attaining unity via microreduction (see below).

Secondly, they characterise the unity of science as a ‘working hypothesis’. In other word it is not a piece of a priori metaphysics (or corresponding conceptual analysis). It is, instead a high level scientific hypothesis to be tested by its success over time.

That is, we believe that it is in accord with the standards of reasonable scientific judgement to tentatively accept this hypothesis and to work on the assumption that further progress can be made in this direction, without claiming that its truth has been established, or denying that success may finally elude us. [ibid: 408]
Since microreduction is construed as the only serious possibility for the unity of science, and since its success rests on a number of other things being the case, the goal of unification has a number of presuppositions which are then outlined. The list begins:

1.       There must be several levels.
2.       The number of levels must be finite.
3.       There must be a unique lowest level…
4.       Any thing of any level except the lowest must possess a decomposition into things belonging to the next lowest level… [ibid: 409]

This list suggests the following view of nature. The world is made up of basic building blocks or atoms which display regularities that can be described in the law statements of the most basic science. The basic atoms also combine to constitute larger structures which display characteristic regularities of their own. These can in turn be codified in the law statements of higher level sciences. But the higher level regularities do not emerge out of nothing. They can be explained as the consequences of the more basic patterns of behaviour of atoms. So the structure of the world and the structure of science can be seen as two isomorphic hierarchies of levels.

With this picture in place, the most basic level can assume a metaphysical role as a touchstone for what is really real. A good example of this relevant to psychology is an explicit argument for reductionism about mental content offered by Jerry Fodor in his book Psychosemantics [Fodor 1987]. Fodor’s project is to explain the intentionality of mental states. (In the context of the philosophy of thought and language, the term ‘intentionality’ generally means the aboutness or world-involving nature of both mental states and linguistic utterances. This scholastic term was reintroduced to philosophy by Franz Brentano (1838-1917) a philosopher and psychologist.) Fodor puts forward an argument for reductionism about intentionality thus:

I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see, in face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with... properties that are neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else. [Fodor 1987: 97]

This passage summarises the motivation for reductionism about the mind, and especially mental content, but it applies more generally. If the full extent of what exists in nature is describable by physics (by a future physics, that is), then it should be possible in principle to show how any genuine feature or property will either be found in a list of basic physical properties or can be reduced to some underlying physical description. If not, then it is not a genuine feature of the world. Since meaning or intentionality is a genuine aspect or feature of the natural world it must be reducible to more basic terms which make no essential use of – do not themselves presuppose - the notion of meaning.

It is, however, one thing to argue that reduction of mental to more basic properties must be possible and another to show how that might be done. The most influential version of reductionism about the mental is called ‘representationalism’ of which Jerry Fodor’s Psychosemantics was also a clear statement. He combined the idea that the systematicity and compositionality of thought is explained by structured mental representations or symbols in a language of thought with a variant of a causal theory of how the symbols come to have worldly content or reference. Mental representations mean what causes them.

An alternative form of representationalism accounts for intentionality not merely through a complex causal mechanism, or what typically causes a representation, but through the idea of biological or proper function and thus what the representation is biologically designed to represent. This approach – teleosemantics – came to prominence through the work of Ruth Garrett Millikan who distinguishes between biologically mechanisms which produce representations, such as perceptual systems, and mechanisms which ‘consume’ them [Millikan 1984]. These might include mechanisms designed for predator evasion. It is the contribution that the representation makes to the consumer mechanism that determines its content: such as representing the presence of a predator.

This is an ongoing research programme [Macdonald and Papineau 2006]. But it has recently received a substantial and sustained criticism which threatens to undermine the key idea of mental representations deployed to explain the everyday intentionality of mental states.

In a summary of attempts to naturalise content through the idea of biological representations, Peter Godfrey-Smith expresses pessimism. ‘I doubt that teleosemantics, or any theory like it, will deliver the direct, reductive, puff-of-papal smoke solution that the 1980s literature envisaged’ [Godfrey-Smith 2006: 66]. His reason is that 30 years of philosophical theorising has delivered something in the same area but more basic.
One of the intuitions that has driven teleosemantics is the idea that rich biological concepts of function pick out a special kind of involvement relation between parts of organisms and their environments. Edging even closer to the semantic domain, there is a kind of specificity or directness that an evolved structure can have towards an environmental feature that figures in its selective history… But this relation is found in many cases that do not involve representation or anything close to it. [ibid: 60]

In other words, reductionist accounts of meaning simply have not been forthcoming. A more general critique is provided by William Ramsey in his book Representation Reconsidered [Ramsey 2007]. Ramsey points out that a lesson from the history of the philosophy of mind is that, as Daniel Dennett noted, it is nearly always possible to describe physical processes in representational terms but it is never necessary. Just as one can avoid biological descriptions by describing biological systems in lower level physical and chemical terms, so representational terms need not be used. What then justifies the use of representational terms for complex systems? What is the explanatory benefit? Ramsey argues that all the dominant approaches to explaining intentionality fail this test.

Take the case of a Venus fly trap which, according to Fred Dretske’s teleosemantic analysis, is supposed to have an internal trigger which responds to movement and thus signals the presence of insects [Dretske 1988]. Drekske says ‘there is every reason to think that this internal trigger was selected for its job because of what it indicated, because it told the plant what it needed to know.’ [ibid: 20]. But Ramsey asks why we need think of this in representational terms in addition to thinking that because of the lawlike connection between movement and plant closure plants with the trigger would be selected. ‘[T]here is no reason to think that structures recruited because their states have the property of being nomically dependent on some condition are also recruited because they carry information about that condition’ [Ramsey 2007: 135]. This mirrors the case of the firing pin in a gun which bridges the gap between pulling the trigger and firing the round. That lawlike connection is why the pin is part of the design. But there is no reason to think that the firing pin is a representation of anything.

Such criticism threatens the prospects for a reductionist account of intentionality or mental content. But that is not yet to diagnose a mistake in Fodor’s argument that, in principle at least, a reductionist account must be possible. Anti-reductionists may seem to have to deny the reality of mental states in general and intentionality in particular [cf Churchland]. But there is another option which is to reject the implicit premiss that physics alone sets limits to what is real. John McDowell, for example, argues that that whilst scientific method has been a genuine achievement of the modern era, the assumption that scientific descriptions of the world also exhausts its nature is ‘not the educated common sense it represents itself as being; it is shallow metaphysics’ [McDowell 1995b: 164; 1998b: 182 cf McDowell 1994: 82]

The cost, however, of such an anti-reductionist view of the mental is that it can seem to make the relation between mind-presupposing person-level descriptions and more basic sub-personal mechanisms mysterious in principle. Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89), for example, argued that the central task for philosophy was to reconcile the ‘manifest image of man in the world’ with the scientific image, derived from ‘postulational theory construction’ [Sellars 1963: 19]. Sellars is not alone in taking there to be a key distinction between person-level descriptions and underlying natural scientific accounts. Building on Sellars’ work, McDowell, for example, contrasts the logical space of reasons with the realm of law or of natural science [McDowell 1994]. Donald Davidson argues for the ‘constitutive ideal of rationality’ which has ‘no echo in physical theory’ [Davidson 1980: 223, 231]. All three authors share an assumption about the central importance of the normativity of person-level descriptions and thus face, in different ways, the challenge of explaining how two such distinct levels can both be a part of the same natural world.

One frequent claim is that, whilst distinct, the mental supervenes on the physical. The idea of supervenience was originally articulated by GE Moore (1873-1958) to relate moral properties to physical properties given the assumption that moral properties cannot be analysed into physical descriptions.

[I]f a given thing possesses any kind of intrinsic value in a certain degree, then not only must that same thing possess it, under all circumstances, in the same degree, but also anything exactly like it, must, under all circumstances, possess it in exactly the same degree. … it is not possible that of two exactly similar things one should possess it and the other not, or that one should possess it in one degree, and the other in a different one. [Moore 1922: 261]

More recently, it has been used most often in the philosophy of mind. It claims that determining the physical properties of a system determines its mental properties but not vice versa. It was most famously asserted by Davidson to further characterise his token identity theory which claims that every particular mental event is a physical event even though types of mental event cannot be identified with types of physical event [Davidson 1980: 207-27]. But as John Haugeland pointed out, it need not be associated with a position even as apparently weakly reductionist as a token identity theory [Haugeland 1982]. It could be used to characterise a yet weaker relation between mental and physical descriptions as a whole even where there is no claim that the same individuals (entities or events) can be identified in both. Haugeland calls this ‘weak supervenience’ (although that ambiguous label is also used for modally constrained versions of supervenience). There remains, however, some doubt as to whether supervenience is a stable middle point between full blown reductionism and some form of dualism [Evnine 1991, Thornton 2009].

Accommodating mental content into a scientific account of nature is not the only opportunity for a reductionist account of clinical psychology. A distinct second area concerns the nature of pathology itself. Can facts about illness be explained in underlying and purely biological terms or are they essentially evaluative and thus resistant to such a reduction as, for example, Bill Fulford argues [Fulford 1990]? The most promising weapon in the reductionists’ armoury is – like teleosemantics – the idea of the biological function of a trait or mechanism. Thus Jerome Wakefield argues that a disorder is a biological dysfunction which can, itself, be explained in value-free biological terms using evolutionary theory [Wakefield 1999]. He himself retains a role for the value harm in picking out the composite notion of illness or disease as a harmful dysfunction. It remains a matter of debate, however, whether this reductionist analysis is correct [eg Bolton 2008, Thornton 2000].


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Churchland, P. M. (1979) Scientific realism and the plasticity of mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davidson, D. (1980) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Fodor, J. A. (1987) Psychosemantics: the problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Fulford, K.W.M. (1990) Moral theory and medical practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Godfrey-Smith P. (2006) ‘Mental Representation and Naturalism’ in Macdonald, G. and Papineau, P. (eds) Teleosemantics, Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 42-68
Hanson, N. R. (1958) Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haugeland, J. (1982) ‘Weak Supervenience’ American Philosophical Quarterly 19.
Macdonald, G. and Papineau, P. (eds) (2006) Teleosemantics, Oxford: Oxford University Press
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
McDowell, J. (1998) Mind value and reality, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Millikan, R.G. (1984) Language, thought and other biological categories. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oppenheim, P and Putnam, H. (1991) ‘Unity of science as a working hypothesis’ in Boyd, R. Gasper, P. and Trout, J. D. (eds.) Philosophy of Science London : MIT Press.
Ramsey, W.M. (2007) Representation Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Sellars, W. (1963) ‘Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man’ in Science, Perception and Reality, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Thornton, T. (2000) ‘Mental Illness and Reductionism: Can Functions be Naturalized?’ Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 7: 67-76
Thornton, T. (2009) ‘On the interface problem in philosophy and psychiatry’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 121-136
Wakefield, J.C. (1999) Mental disorder as a black box essentialist concept. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108, no 3: 465-472.

Friday 5 October 2012

Philosophical issues in crime and mental illness: AAPP conference May 18 & 19, 2013

25th Anniversary Annual Meeting
May 18 & 19, 2013
San Francisco, California

Conference Co-Chairs:
Christian Perring, Ph.D. Dowling College
Peter Zachar, Ph.D. Auburn University Montgomery
John Z Sadler, M.D. UT Southwestern Medical Center

For better or for worse, crime, criminality, and mental illness have been connected in Western societies in spite of the Enlightenment effort to parse out different kinds of social deviance For the 25th Anniversary meeting of AAPP, our theme focuses on the complex relationship between the concepts of “criminal vice” and “mental disorder.” The relationships between criminality and mental disorder can be organized around 10 themes: (1) mental disorder as a criminal excuse or compromise in criminal/moral responsibility; (2) the “mad versus bad” problem – whether some mental disorders such as psychopathy are moral failings that are being labeled diseases as well as the converse – whether criminality is a disease; (3) the proper role of mental health care in criminal justice settings – adult and juvenile; (4) the differing conceptual and epistemological standpoints of law and psychiatry (for example the nature of evidence in jury trials
versus experiments); (5) conceptual and ethical issues in forensic psychiatry and psychology – questions ranging from whose interests does the practitioner serve, to capacity to stand trial or be executed, to duties to warn; (6) the ethics of psychiatric research with criminal offenders; (7) issues of consent and voluntarism in psychiatric treatment of criminal offenders (8) particular issues concerning the social control of deviance, such as sexual predator laws, the role of punishment, rehabilitation, containment, and deterrence in penal approaches, and as well as care of the mentally ill in penal systems; (9) issues around the doctor-patient relationship in working with mentally ill offenders in inpatient and outpatient settings; and (10) miscellaneous issues including conceptual issues in criminal profiling, the concepts of victim and victimization, the use of the DSM in forensic settings, and the issue of forgiveness of offenders in mental health
settings. Abstracts may address one or more of these aspects.

Full Presentations will be strictly limited to 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes for discussion.

A Poster Session is offered for a limited number of abstracts in additional to Full Presentations. Abstracts will be blindly reviewed, so the author's identifying information should be attached in a coversheet separate from the abstract text, giving names, degrees, academic affiliations, and e-mail addresses of authors and co-authors
Abstracts should be 500-600 words and should be sent via email by October 15, 2012 to both Christian Perring ( and Peter Zachar ( Notices of acceptance or rejection will be distributed in December.