At X-mas, it came to me. Honestly. It must be because of this forced rest. My brains not being made to study 12 or more hours in a day. It is not voluntary, this rest, you understand; it is just happening. We go to bed a little later, wake up up a little later; go for a walk, meet up for coffee. Decorate the tree, watch a movie, wrap a present, prepare a new recipe, drop in on a neighbour. Study for a few hours. See the Amsterdam light festival from a canal boat at night. Prepare Xmas dinner – game one day, fish the next. Survive my own desserts – I so love limoncello. And gin with lemons. And X-mas presents.
So what came to me? You are going to find it boring, I am afraid, but I am quite excited about it. Just a little thing that I have understood, you see. I have been working on my social cognition paper, the one I did the chimp research project for and have been talking about in past posts. It is not an enormous paper – at least 5000 words ex referencing, so about 10 pages, although I will likely write a bit more. However, a paper like this is like doing embroidery: so many things to get right. I have mapped the whole thing out in my new toy called Atlas.TI (forever grateful for student software discounts). It really is a wonderful program, allowing you to code texts and then build mind-map-style networks out of codes and quotations, across however many documents you like. The only drawback is that you need a large screen. Of which I now have three(!) which interconnect, thanks to Husband’s technical skills. He is joking that I need a second row of screens, on top of the first one. Like a cockpit.
This paper is about finding the roots of social and moral behaviour – the word used in Philosophia is “normative”. I am looking at articles by Kristin Andrews, on animal cognition. Animal includes humans. I really like the way Kristin Andrews writes. She is amazingly clear and knowledgeable. I would like to think that I have found her research myself, but on second sight she is no stranger to great researchers I read articles and books by before, including my own professor. Anyway, what she says, is that the idea that humans are morally/socially superior creatures because we reason/think about our behaviour, is actually wrong. We don’t. We are very bad at mindreading or at predicting other people’s behaviour. What we do, is attribute beliefs and desires to ourselves and to others in an attempt to justify our behaviour. Resolve cognitive dissonance (you feel better if you think someone you love mistreated you for a reason because then you don’t have to throw him/her out). We do have mechanisms which make us follow norms, but these mechanisms are exactly the same as they are in other animals. It is all about in-out group recognition, group membership, following group norms if you want to belong; and sanction/restoration mechanism if a norm gets violated. It does not matter what the norm is about.
Now this may be a little hard to swallow. Which why I have posted a picture of a particularly attractive group at the top of this post. But seriously, in the past months I have seen (not literally!) enough instances of non-human normative behaviour to see this theory at work. For instance, female chimps who on migration to another tribe stop using efficient tools for nut-cracking and adopt less efficient tools. For a chimp, to relinquish easy access to food, that means a lot! It also makes evolutionary sense. Obviously humans have a great deal of learning taking place in the long years of childhood, but this is cultural learning and the development of cultural learning abilities. The underlying cognitive abilities appear to be similar across the animal kingdom, or at least in the great apes.
This theory has a number of very interesting implications. Such as (this is going to be a haphazard list):
- a moral/social issue between individuals who do not regard each other as belonging to the same group, cannot be resolved;
- there is no point in passing laws before the relevant norms are in place and accepted;
- you cannot change a group from the outside (there is something to think about for all those 3-years-in-one-job managers);
- the worst thing that society can do to itself is anonymity (internet, corporations, committees) because this dissolves group-membership.
If I look at my job-life through this lens, a number of issues light up. Some of the things I have done are absolutely spot on (like setting up a community of practice, uniting professionals), and some are absolutely useless (like explaining things to people who do not regard themselves as part of my community). Interesting. Still, I have to learn lots more before I can start to think what to do with these new found insights.
I will leave you with an anecdote. Husband and I decided to watch this film. At Xmas Eve. I thought I could take a night off 🙂 It was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the original one. The subtitles were wrong, in Swedish or something. So we spent at least 10 minutes trying to get it right – until it finally became clear that this was the first joke. On us, yes. My own fault for becoming too serious. Although it is kind of amazing that Husband fell for it too, but we won’t tell anyone.
My favourite animal in all the world is the Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland. You know the one, with the grin: “It vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin which remained some time after the rest of it had gone”. The image from the top of this post is from the Walt Disney movie. The original one is in black-and-white. Usually I prefer that one, but there is something in the vivid blue-green of its eyes that attracted me today.
I suppose this is the third and final part of my triptych on humanity. Today I am lamenting my feebleness. I can feel the cat disdainfully staring down at me. Such a weak human. And yes, so I am. This week I was out late on Tuesday (uni-assignment, an event I had to write a report on) and Thursday (good-bye dinner sending a colleague off to retirement). ‘Late’, for me, means, home by 22:30. I also ate out on Wednesday (pizza at the uni ‘coz we try to avoid the traffic back to Apeldoorn) and on Thursday (full dinner). I suppose it was the latter that did me in. In spite of Husband driving me everywhere. I handle restaurant food badly. It usually interferes with my CFS. I also handle staying out late badly. I need my rest. So now I am writing this draped in lounge wear feeling sorry for myself. Everything hurts. I tried to get through the day, but had to go to bed in the afternoon. I was so cold! Not fit for human consumption. I can feel the Cheshire Cat grinning at me, baring its teeth ever so slightly. Never mind.
So what can I tell you? I have been off work since the beginning of December. Belated summer holiday. It feels great, just to concentrate on studying. Had to complete the project report on chimps and language, which I told you about in my last post. If you want to read the report, it is here. My professor was impressed with the report, which was a novel experience. I have never known him to be so full of praise. Maybe he is overcome by the Xmas spirit. But to be honest, the report turned out so well because of the last-minute data-analysis. And I only did that because the professor more or less forced us to abandon our own inquiry and look into the relationship between normative behaviour and various types of coordination. I found evidence that implies we should distinguish between an animal acting as a group member (according to an existing group norm) and that same animal solving a problem in a social context. May sound obvious to you, but researchers are not currently making this distinction. If you want to think about the origins of language, it is the problem solving in a social context that is of interest, so this distinction may be important.
Silly, right? Well, not half as silly as what I nearly did. I had joked about morphing my professor’s head into a chimp and a student took me up on it. So I promised to create it, and then as I did it, felt awful about it. Husband said, you cannot send this. They won’t be able to keep it to themselves. And I suddenly woke up. What is the point of being a security architect and knowing the GDPR inside-out, and then failing to realise you cannot do things to people’s head without their permission? Let alone the head of someone who had been very supportive of me and would probably hate this silly joke. So I chickened out and offered my own head in a morph instead. Stupid woman, I can hear the Cheshire cat murmuring out there on his branch. Well, yes.
The other major thing was the presentation of the position paper. We had to do a 10 minute “pitch”. This kind of thing I did before in part II of this course, so no big surprises. The good thing was that there was a professional coach available who gave really good feedback. It does not matter how many times you have given a presentation, there is always something to learn. The pitch went fine. I put a lot of work into it, but because of my argument with the lecturer on the content (yes, he is the one the great grades before) I got nervous and blanked out for a second. Apparently no one noticed. Lots of nice things were said about the presentation. It is here, if you want to look at it. I was happy I got the Escher metamorphosis animation in, and with the way the Daniel Dennett character turned out (he is the bearded man towards the end of the presentation) coz I sort of constructed him myself in Adobe Illustrator. I love that kind of work. In my next life I want to be a graphic designer. Maybe Escher or his granddaughter. Please God, give me a little talent. Just a bit. It is such fun to create this stuff.
Currently, I am trying to solve the problem of my lecturer’s criticism of my metamorphis argument. I really do not understand what he is saying. Not even after making an appointment to see him. That is, I have understood that he wants the paper to be written in a specific format, and that what I did was much too grand. I put far too much work in to it. It needs simplification, trimming down to size. Which I will do. But there appears to be another problem. He keeps repeating that what I suggest, that you should test your metaphors before sending them out into the world, cannot be true, because I also claim that there are metaphors in every sentence we use. So therefore, as a philosopher, you cannot test for them. Too much work. It seems such a silly argument, not at all like him. I have been wrecking my brains what can be the cause. I did notice that in the Philosophy department there is virtually no knowledge of the so-called analytic side of philosophy – philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I checked with my own professor, and he said, yes, that is so. Apparently part of his job is to read to the Philosophy MA and PhD theses, so he knows. He said that recently they gave him a thesis to read on the Philosophy of Language based entirely on Merleau-Ponty. Right. That is like calling asking the Cheshire Cat to share its branch with a mouse. I teased him that he should be the next lecturer for the ReMa course, but somehow I doubt it is going to happen.
It started to dawn on me that with my little project on metaphors, I have landed myself right inside several heated philosophical debates. On the usefulness of Philosophia as compared to science. Because I regard thought experiments as metaphors. On the use of empirical methods in philosophy. Because I want to test for effects on real people. On the responsibility of philosophers for what they say to the public. On a philosopher’s supposed right to use language in any way he or she pleases. Plus some other things that have not occurred to me yet. So, I am in trouble. Whatever I say will be wrong. Great.
So, I have embarked on a different course. Once I had to solve a problem in the office where everybody disagreed and got rather violent about whatever they felt. The issue then was Open Source – very dangerous programming practice from a security point of view – which has the status of a cult religion. Anyway, I got around that by creating cartoon videos of the problems Open Source was creating for us. I thought I might try something like that with this. So I asked and got permission to write my position paper in the form a play. Which is what I am doing now. It is fun to write out dialogues. Hopefully it will make my lecturer smile. That might help.
Time for Nature’s remedy for everything: Tea. The Cheshire Cat grins. Never mind him. The fire place in the living room is crackling with burning wood. Nice and warm and cozy. Just what the doctor ordered.
I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from Tomasello’s new book: on becoming human. You will have gathered from the picture at the top that this is about the evolution of humans. Us. Or, as my professor puts it, “how chimp-style communication developed into human discourse”. Why? Well, it is all in the family:
I told you about my adventures with my research groups in an earlier post. Now I want to tell you what I am learning. I will resist the temptation to tell you how much there is to read or how I felt obliged to to draw up a project charter as a structuring aid (if you do decide to visit the links, do click open all the boxes). So with that out of the way 🙂 let go for some new, well, new to me, ideas.
Because I tend to think outside-in when I am trying to make sense of something, I needed to immerse myself in the current literature about human evolution. No way I have time to read all those big books, so I have I been listening to them. Audiobooks are wonderful. I listen to them as I walk to the office, when cooking, when not being able to sleep, when waiting for the lift, when walking from one end of the office to the other (10 minutes), well, you get the idea.
These books were great. You must read them too. Seriously. Here is the list:
- Jared Diamond – the Third Chimpanzee
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Sapiens
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus
- Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse – The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story
- Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier – A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens
- Cecilia Heyes – Cognitive gadgets
- Michael Tomasello – Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny
Well, perhaps not all. But do not miss out on the first three. Husband is smiling at this, I am sure. Because the first three books he received from me as a present, years ago. At his request, I might add. I never even looked at them. Until I devoured them last month.
So, armed with all this background I dived into the project. For the first couple of weeks I kept trying to find the beginning of an answer to the project’s question (chimp-style communication -> human conversation), but after a while it became clear that the professor wanted us to look at real data. Lots of data. We looked at over a hundred examples of “normative” animal behaviour. “Normative” is when the animal(s) in question appear to have strong expectations of what other animals should do or not do. Not just chimpanzees, but also bonobo’s, whales, dolphins, and orcas. As an example, look at this one by Frans de Waal. It is about how one monkey reacts to a piece of cucumber whereas the other one gets a grape (monkeys love sweet fruit).
Convinced the monkey is angry about being treated unfairly? Frans de Waal is. I was too, at first. But on reflection, it is not so clear what we see here. It may well be a simple case of the monkey seeing there are grapes to be had and wanting them; then expressing its frustration at not getting any. I forget who said it, but the researchers in this field are either Believers (animals are like humans) or Party Poopers (don’t believe anything until you have to). Frans de Waal is a Believer. Being a philosopher (well, a budding one), I am supposed to by a Party Pooper. Tomasello (see the beginning of this post) is a Party Pooper. According to him, chimps are wonderful animals who only think of themselves. Me, myself and I. They regard other chimps as social tools. There is no sense of “we”.
Actually, my research group found other evidence that supports this view. Empathy is correlated with low social status in chimps, but with high social status in bonobos. Interestingly, chimps have a patriarchal social structure, whereas bonobos have a matriarchy. Do we see any parallels with our own world? I would say that we humans are very chimp-like in this respect!
Tomasello is also a psychologist. Which, according to my professor, is a problem, because Tomasello keeps reading intentions into behaviour (human or animal) that are just not there. He may well be right. As I remember from my earlier studies, psychologists always attribute more importance to differences between individuals than, say, sociologists. And you find what you are looking for (expectancy bias). Still, Tomasello found that chimps cannot “share attention”. They can both look at the same thing, but they cannot look at it together.
My research group has come to a similar conclusion. Chimps are clever and social creatures. Did you know? They live long (50 years), in large groups (up to 70 animals) with a strong social hierarchy. They solve puzzles and do some forward planning. They use meaningful gestures, some of which other great apes also use. You can look these gestures up in the Great Ape Dictionary. Chimps even go hunting together. But their behaviour appears largely one-directional, from “me” to the world. They either use imperatives (groom me, play with me, have sex with me), or they broadcast (I am here). There does not appear to be any sense of “we”.
I am fascinated by this sense of “we” that according to Tomasello is an essential building block for cognition. If you do not “share” a world with someone, you will never understand the difference between subjective-objective views. Or that one word of gesture may have different meanings for different people or in different circumstances. You will also not expect the other to share your world. So you will never build a view, an idea, a project or a story together. Tomasello convincingly shows how human babies learn these things within the first year of their life, whereas the chimp never gets beyond simple gaze-following (to look where another is looking), and even that takes several years.
Assuming my professor is right, this “we” is not: shared intentions, beliefs etc. But surely it can be something hard-wired, i.e. neurological? Or social? He says, social. Maybe it is a matter of chimps not being interested in others. In which case the bonobos, who are much friendlier, should do much better. I will look for research on this. Anyway, all this to give you an impression of what I have been doing in this project. If you like, you can have a look at our work in progress. It is all here, until the end of the year at least.
Having seen how very important this “we” appears to be to human cognition (and from there, to everything human), I got thinking. How is it ever going to work with humans in the new digital world? Aren’t we turning back to the chimp world, by speaking our imperatives or broadcasts into digispace? It does not seem an improvement at all.
There were other things to learn. For instance, how difficult it is to determine whether any behaviour is “intentional”. You get a feeling that is it deliberate, but after that it may be instinctive, emotional, intentional, conditioned – we learned to give up on assigning motives. Probably just as well, because we would always be in danger of assigning human-like behaviour to animals.
Also, wonderful stories from the animals themselves. They all show amazing ritualistic behaviour around their dead, caring for them, defending them, even washing them. Dolphin mothers showing their babies how to hunt with bubbles. Whales singing to each other. Orcas rescuing a human. Chimps grooming and sharing food. And then me, searching for the origins of language. Somehow I think it might take a while 🙂
Something weird is happening to me. I am changing. I had no idea this would happen. But it is. As Husband puts it: you are turning into a normal person. Right. So I am. I really want to tell you about it, but I don’t know how. I mean, I don’t want to tell you some self-obsessed and tearful story about my mangled psyche. And some Martian in shining armour, invoked by my shiny new insight into my deepest innards, sweeping me off my downtrodden feet and carrying me off to Heaven.
Let go straight for the jugular. Hold tight. Last week, I received this email from the professor teaching this term’s Methods & Skills class. He also happens to be the Dean of our faculty. I told you about him in some previous posts.
Imagine me reading this. I was sitting at my desk and just stared at this mail. I felt as if I had been thrown from a plane. Floating in a tin can, well, Major Tom knows how (this is the music I grew up with).
You may think I am exaggerating. Not so. I had been told on several occasions that “10” were never given – just forget it, several professors had said, we never give them. Ne-ver. Not on principle, but there is always sómething that can be improved. And now I get, not one, but two!
So I went up in the air, came down, bounced about, kissed Husband, and was deliriously happy. Until I realised that I would never (yes Ne-ver) be able to top this. I might as well stop. Shit. This is terrible.
It took a couple of days to get things in perspective again. You may think that I am exaggerating about that too, but do you remember how scared I was I could not do this, back in Februari? I told you, honestly! Anyway, if you want to read them, there is one on “what is philosophy“, one on Heidegger and Plato, and one on the question of animals being persons. Just short papers. Don’t worry, I am never going to ask you about it. But they are there if you want.
I was going to tell you about how I am changing. Well, it is a bit weird. I get angry. I cannot remember when I last got angry or really lost my temper. I remember being upset, hurt, frightened, ashamed, silly, all of those things. But when was I last able to become angry? Many many years ago. Spectacularly. But not beyond 30. I have been so – I don’t know. Sad, maybe. Anyway, I am waking up. My mind is sharp again, and I am enjoying it. Somehow it makes me more courageous.
Hello world. It’s me.
PS. Husband has just read this and feels obliged to comment. I am supposed to tell you what I get angry abóut. There will be some amusing stories in posts to come …
PPS Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Results. My new found courage today led me into an argument with the same professor that gave me this great grades. Oops. Well, I will have to regulate my new found self 🙂 Will tell you about it some other time.
The evolution-of-language project is coming together now that I have moved to the new group, as I told you in my previous post. We are still struggling a bit because we have to try to understand chimpanzee behaviour without the aid of proper definitions for concepts like “norm”, “intentional behaviour”, “coordination”, and “communication”. This is intentional on the professor’s part: because most definitions from literature are either wrong or not useful, his idea is that we have to work things out for ourselves by starting from scratch.
I attended a couple of Skype meetings with my new group, and we have waded through nearly 100 examples of possible normative animal behaviour. I had fun setting up a data sheet and translating our decisions into a ruleset. The ruleset helps in detecting inconsistent judgements, very useful when you have to look at this many examples. If you want to get an idea of the things we are looking at, check out this link. It is a kind of dictionary of ape gestures, including video fragments and an explanation of what each gesture might mean.
Did we arrive at any conclusions as yet? Well, the clearest examples of normative behaviour seem to occur when there is danger, death, sex or food (shortage) to be dealt with. So we are going to dive into those and see what components these behaviours consist of that might be a precursor to communication. I will report back on this when there is more to say. Although I think the project might not be entirely successful, because its organisation flaunt virtually all the rules of proper project management. Which in itself is not so bad – project management is not a religion – but I think the project has too many variables – in terms of goals, structure and method. Still, things may be different in Philosophia as compared to Real Life. I will wait and see. At the very least I get to keep the extensive library that the professor has shared with us. I have put all the books and articles into my citation system. Have a look if you like, it is all here. The index that is, I cannot share the books and articles themselves. Eh … and I have not read all of that. Some. More later.
Meanwhile, there is my other seminar. I already told you a bit about the seminar and its professor in this previous post. It is the Skills & Method class which runs for an entire year, and I am greatly enjoying this semester. Already I have written three short papers which got an “excellent” or some such- but I am holding my breath, because I will have to wait until next week to find out the actual grades.
The “big” paper for this class is a so-called “position paper”. The idea is that you take a methodological issue, describe it and then position your own ideas in relation to it. It is not meant to be terribly long – only 3000 words, which is about 6 pages excluding footnotes and biography. I have decided mine is going to be on “metaphors” as a philosophical instrument. I tried to confer with my supervising professor, but he is not much into methodology at this moment. He did warn me that one might spend a lifetime on metaphors. Right. So I have found out. I have been reading several books and articles on metaphors. Last week I was off work and bliss! could study 14 hours a day without interruption, only surfacing for domestic chores, the obligatory walks and the occasional shared leisure with Husband (we are watching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid plus we went in search of mushrooms in the big woods surrounding Apeldoorn). I wish every week was like this, for the rest of my life. Only 3654 days until retirement 🙂
Let me tell you a bit about metaphors:
- Metaphors are omnipresent. The average person utters one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, about six metaphors a minute.
- Metaphors are powerful. They can explain and amuse but also persuade and deceive. For that reason, they are often used in politics and advertising. Did you know the GDPR (the data protection act) contains metaphors depicting Europe as a land of milk-and-honey where democracy and freedom and wellbeing reigns, surrounded by hostility that we need to protect ourselves against?
- Metaphors are mysterious. There is no consensus about what exactly a metaphor is, how it is constructed or how metaphoric meaning is related to literal meaning
- Philosophers have widely differing opinions on the significance of metaphors to philosophy ranging from condemnation to embrace
So, metaphors are a big topic. My position paper will be about how philosophers should deal with metaphors. I will argue that they can either study metaphors, as a philosophical topic, or use them, just like ordinary people. A metaphor or a thought experiment (remember my post on thinking tools?) does not become philosophical because a philosopher uses it, whatever Daniel Dennett says. The interesting bit will be on how you can use metaphors responsibly. I will borrow from my work-life and suggest extensive testing – the only thing to do when you cannot fully predict the result of your metaphoric exploits.
Just for fun, I want to show you this wonderful video. It is just geometrical shapes moving about, but the curious thing about us humans is that we tend to see a story unfold:
In my last post I promised you the story of the philosophy of language research project. Well, as you can tell from the featured image on the blog, I am out there, in the woods. Intentionally speaking (this is a joke which I will explain some other time). Anyway, some serious research is really happening out there because the research project is about the evolution of language. In a nutshell, how did language happen to us, and not to, say chimpanzees. Given that chimps only differ from us in 1.2% of our genes, how come they don’t talk? Because they cannot? Because they have nothing much to talk about? Because all the important things can be expressed without language? Because … well, use your imagination. That is what we students have to do. Apart from reading stacks of research. And doing “some good old-fashioned thinking” (the professor’s famous last words).
It is a wonderful project that speaks to the imagination and can be explained to normal people. Like my 85 year old neighbour who is the queen of our little neighbourhood. As she put it: “how nice that you are doing something I can understand!”… note the unspoken “I did not have a clue what you were on about before”. Well, yes. It is a change. Normally philosophy of language would not a popular choice as a conversation piece at parties, as I explained in this earlier post. But evolution of language really is a lot of fun. Even Husband is engrossed in Frans de Waal and his chimps. Can you imagine us sitting talking late at night about how chimps may or may not show normative behaviour? We do! There is me marking the pages for the examples he has found. I want him to read much more, but he is holding back for some reason 🙂
You might think, how come she is suddenly interested in evolution? I will have you know that I have always been interested in biology. And evolution. I will quickly bandy some proofs around. I took Biology at A-level. From a Welsh teacher, who fancied himself speaking English. Imagine me fresh out of Holland, trying to understand him. A nightmare. I got a C for Biology, which was my lowest grade but also the highest grade in Biology that year, and he came up to me, saying: how on earth did you get that? Emphasising the “you”. Well, it was not for his help in having his assistants sharpening my dissection knives without my knowing about it. When, during the examination, I tested the blade on my hand I bled profusely all over my dogfish and then I still had to separate out all the nerves.
Also, I went on a Biology marine field course in Wales which must have been the best course I took in my entire life. I remember how it felt strange to be back in a world where all the lines were straight. Anyway, this was when I was eighteen. Since then, my biology-exploits have restricted themselves to participation in National Geographic gene project. I have about 4% of Neanderthal genes, and at the time they said that was a lot. Perhaps I should have my genes re-tested, because I think they know much more about Neanderthals now.
It is useful to know a bit about biology and genetics when you do a project like this. Mendel is all a-b-c to me, as are double-helix DNA structures and stuff. But there is also such a thing as “philosophy of biology” and particularly “philosophy of evolution”. Had to look into those, because I needed to clarify all concepts I came across. Took me about a week, but now I know that concepts like “species” and “fitness for survival” are not the clear concepts I took them for.
I was going to tell you about what happened in my research project. Remember, I had to ask my professor to help me sort out my group? Well, I will not bore you with all the things an elderly student may say about a younger generation. It all happened. It was not as bad and it was worse. But the curious ingredient into the mix was me.
Image. There is me who know how to run a project. I have been a project and program manager, spending millions of tax-payers’ money on projects which were not entirely unsuccessful. There is also me who is an architect. I know how to translate complex concepts into projects; manage interfaces, scope creep, stakeholders, requirements, scenarios, dependencies, the lot. Including all the tools of the trade. Then there is the student me who, unlike most of the other students in my seminar, already knows some of the important concepts because I happened to take a seminar with the professor last year.
So what do I do in my new research group? Do I take charge, outline the work, divide the labour and make the group produce results? Ah no, nothing of the sort. Of course I suggest things. I make things. I organise. I read. I explain. But when my group mates want to go off on their own track, or are plainly uninterested, I just let it go. Because I don’t want to push. After all, they are the student and I am ? Yes, there is a thinking error there.
In the end, and much too late, I showed my professor what was happening, or rather, what I could not make happen. There was a simple but sensible solution. Just go to another group. As it turns out, the other group really wanted me to join. So, there is me camping out in the woods. The chimps are out there and waiting.
Sometimes my current philosophy course reminds me of my Oxford days, where a professor’s claim to fame would consist in investigating a niche subject, like “beekeeping in the 4th century A.D.” I am not being fair. I love my own “niche” subjects but I lose my patience when others do the same. Ahem. Still, I find most of Philosophia interesting, even if, as I have explained before, a philosopher needs a cow’s bell to signal his position, for lack of maps and structure.
Today, however, was an exception. It was about thought-experiments. Now don’t get me wrong: I wanted to know about this. Thought-experiments as a tool, or as some would say, as a method. But that was not what the lecture was about. It was about an ongoing controversy between scientists and philosophers. Whether philosophical thought-experiments are essentially different from scientific experiments. Because scientists feel that the term “experiment” belongs to science and not to philosophers. Because philosophers should leave empirical (read: scientific) work to scientists. The cartoon below says it all. It is from existential comics, a fantastic source if you want to see philosophers laughing at themselves.
To me, this controversy is much like the analytic/continental divide. It only looks like a debate, but underneath it is all about funding. The scientists get much more, whereas philosophy has to get by on crumbs. Follow the money, Husband would say. Grossly unfair and not very sensible in the long run. And yes, philosophers need to speak up and defend themselves. Yet by itself, such a consideration does not make a topic interesting.
There was an interesting part to this lecture, the historical focus: how well-known philosophers like Galileo or Locke used thought-experiments, not just to argue their point, but also to draw attention to controversies or confusions. If you are into these historical figures, it must be wonderful to find new layers to their text. Somewhat like re-reading your favourite author, say Murakami (my personal favourite) and discovering a new meaning. However, I have no interest in Galileo or Locke, so it was all a bit wasted on me. Which, in a way, is good news. At least now I know there are topics in Philosophia that I can live without.
So what are thought-experiments, you might ask? Well, this was also my question, and it was not answered. That is not quite true. The lecturer did not. My fellow students did not seem to understand my unease with the general claim that thought-experiments are the designated instruments of philosophy. The professor in charge of the Skills seminar understood my objection well enough though, even tried to explain it to the class, but I don’t think anyone really cared that much. Maybe they were tired. It was the end of a long day. Never mind.
So now we are amongst ourselves :-), what are thought-experiments? You may look it up on Wikipedia, but let’s give you some nice examples. Ever heard of Achilles and the tortoise racing each other and Achilles not winning?
Or this one, the trolley experiment in ethics, where you get to decide who dies how in order to save lots of other people.
Now have a look at this sketch. This is from the world of business and no philosopher would – at first glance – think to call this a thought-experiment. But it is. Have a look. You must watch it to the end. It is about integrity.
Or this one, inspired by George Orwell’s animal farm. We all know how it ends: some animals are more equal than others.
I suppose you get the idea, without me throwing more books, cartoons, plays, paintings, riddles, poems, simulation models, fairy tales etc at you.
So what do I think thought-experiments are? Well, apart from lots of complicated questions about how our thoughts work, I think they are a means to an end. For the use of philosophers and non-philosophers alike to clarify whatever needs clarifying. Just like “real” experiments, the only restriction being that thought-experiments do not take place in the real world but in our imagination. I think there are no essential differences between a mental model, a guided meditation, a play, a painting or a mathematical formula IFF (if and only if) they are being used for instructional purposes. It does not matter who you are trying to instruct. It may even be yourself.
A thought-experiment has succeeded when it has clarified whatever it meant to clarify. Full stop. It also means that a philosopher (or any other person imparting information to a less knowledgeable audience) should try his or her utmost to provide clear thought-experiments, models, explanations. Because that is an important purpose of Philosophia: to clarify. If it does not do that, it might as well not be there.
On this slightly belligerent note, I conclude this post. Next, I will tell you about how things are going in the research project on the language evolution. As so many times before during this ReMa, I am learning things that I did not know I had to learn. It is still very recent as today I had to ask my professor to help sort out my group, so I am still sorting out my own thoughts. Plus, I am tired. I worked very hard these past few weeks. Next post, I promise.
The start of the new school year. I loved that time when I was a child. Everything new: new teachers, books, notebooks and a fresh set of pens and pencils (you might remember I am a stationary fetishist, from this earlier post). This stayed with me: the nostalgia of the New Year starting in September. Even if it did not, for the past 30+ years, but now it does again. Such a pity I have gone all digital. I toyed with the idea of getting some pens and paper just for the fun of it, but in the end I did not: I have so much stationary already. I did buy myself a scanmarker air, for scanning bits of text from non-digital books. With student-discount. The Dutch love their discounts and I am no exception.
The academic year started with lots of information and introductions and meetings for new Research Master students. I had missed out on that info when I started back in January. I found that by now I was fully up to date, but still, it was nice to check and make sure I had missed nothing. I was reminded we all have to write a study plan which has to be officially approved before you can complete your thesis. Also, it was fun to see all the new students. I bet they were not half as nervous as I was when I started, but still, I could tell they were. And I was not! Amazing how I have changed in just 6 months. Remember me being shaky on my first day, afraid they were all going to laugh at me and worrying if my memory would hold up? Anyway, I know all of them will turn into confident graduates soon, coz I have already seen it happen.
As I explained in my previous post, I will do two seminars and one position-paper this semester. I have spent all summer doing the background for the background for my position-paper (which is on speech acts, common ground and intentionality). A large part of that background is “consciousness” and there are literally hundreds of different theories about what consciousness is and how it works. In my time at Oxford, Philosophy of mind was about Analytic Philosophy (is there any other kind:-)?) I talked about that in a previous post. At length, because the existence of continental philosophy had passed me by completely. Anyway, these days, Philosophy of Mind is all about consciousness, starting out with generic denial of Descartes mind-body theory (Descartes claimed that mind and body are essentially made out of different stuff). To be able to say anything about the deliberate use of language, particularly if understanding language is not about mind-reading or some such psychological notion, you need to be able to say what it means to express something deliberately. I think so, anyway. So I spent a lot of time sorting out these new theories. It is all on my wiki, have a look at the topic “consciousness”. if you like. The main taxonomy is in the pink bit; every line is a separate page. It is not finished by any means: I have now started to catalogue arguments which connect and separate theories. You might notice I sometimes copy in cartoons. This is to liven things up. It is dry stuff. So let’s be thankful for existential comics.
My seminars for this next half year are: the Skills course, which is compulsory, the first part (I did the second part before the summer). The other one is a seminar on the evolution of language. That will be great I think. I know most of the students there from previous seminars. We will look at communication in apes and other animals and see how that might translate to humans. The basis is a theory by my professor, which says that language is not about expressing ideas or mind-reading others, but about cooperation and getting others to cooperate. By the way, he seems to be in a good mood, much better than last semester. He has been publishing a lot, one paper after the other, and I think his new theory has reached a stage where it is becoming widely recognised. So all the academic work is new and shiny and interesting and very much “now”. Who needs the ancient Greek philosophers?
The Skills class is taught by the Dean of our department. It turns out he was also at Oxford, a few years after me. An amazing guy: he has so much energy, such a devoted teacher and interested in everything. The Dean reminds me a bit of myself before I got CFS. Energy wise. Academically there is no comparison, obviously. Because he is so dedicated, he uses every minute of the allotted lecture time. Gone are the days when we were given the last hour off. Which is hard on all of us, because this set of lectures runs late: from 15:30 to 19:15. Everybody is so tired at the end. Except for the Dean it seems 🙂 He even wants to know about me, where I work, why I am there, what I want to do. He keeps pushing me toward this new Security centre which the university now has. So I told him I had already written to the professor there but that he not replied to my email yet. (Which is understandable because in that letter I challenged a bit of not-so-sensible advice, on Open Source, which that professor he had given the Dutch Minister of Security). We will see what happens.
Anyway, the Skills class, like last time, is a mix of things I already know, things I don’t know and things I did not know existed. In the latter category: there is a Dutch protocol for the integrity of academic research. You can find it here. This protocol directly results from academic scandal, some professors inventing research data to fit their theories. Three prominent cases happened at the Social Sciences department at Tilburg University, and the whole academic world went pale and speechless. Because there was a general lack of assurance on this issue, this nation-wide protocol was set up. Attached to this protocol is a data management protocol, which I will have to look into if I want do empirical research – which I well might.
We have already been set a small paper in the Skills class. This time, I tried to use all the big and small insights I gleaned from the feedback from my own professor back in July. I felt happy with it and it got a “very nice essay” (no grades as yet). There was just one time where I did not speak my mind because I could not “prove” it – this was about two philosophers who would probably hate each other but I did not say so. I got a remark on this, why I had not said so. So next time I will write out my intuitions too, stating that they are intuitions, I suppose.
So, back on track. I have taken the whole of December off, so hopefully this will give me enough time to finish all the papers I have to write this semester. Already I am back in the flow. Lovin’ it! Husband is still driving me back and forth, which is a great time-saver. Plus, it is nice to have a partner-in- crime to talk to about all the things I learn and that happen. Sometimes I think his ears must ring with all my ravings. But he is unperturbed, as always. Also, he found himself a cosy little setup in the Hortus tea garden which apparently is full of female volunteers who love to give him tea. Dozens of them, he tells me with twinkling eyes. Adventurous times ahead!
Yesterday I had my long awaited meeting with my supervising professor. You know, the grumpy one that I regard as mine. There were several things that needed discussing. Obviously my paper, which got a good but not an excellent grade; the past and the future. And some human stuff.
We had arranged to meet at a café at Utrecht Central Station rather than at the university. Husband travelled up there with me, the idea being that we would meet up later. At the station I ran into several colleagues. They were on their way to a team meeting which I should have attended too had I not been on study leave for the afternoon. I was glad I had not booked a meeting room at the Utrecht office: in my head, academic and work worlds don’t mix well. I had half an hour to spare though so enough time to get back into the academic spirit.
There was a bit of an awkward issue that I needed to discuss with him. I told you about it in previous posts: he and I are fine in a one-to-one meeting, but in a class setting where I have to take the floor, his feedback becomes rather too vicious for my taste. Particularly compared to the very careful way he handles the other students. I did not quite know how to bring this up. Fortunately, a chance opened up to address this issue right at the beginning, and it went fine. He apologised, saying that he had heard this about himself before. He had just been matching my directness which he found pleasant (as it livened up an otherwise rather unresponsive class). So I pointed out that I was just as vulnerable as the other students in academic matters; and we agreed; and that was that. Good. Relief.
My paper was next. I had reread it, and his review of it the night before, and I was glad I had left it for a while. I could now see that he had judged my paper on a different basis than I had intended the paper to be read. Which a priori means that I had not been clear. You see, it was a difficult topic, on collective speech acts, on which there is almost no research. The papers that I did review, I found to be of meagre quality. The problem was, that I had not said so explicitly. This because I felt I was not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject to do a “deconstruction” of the work that these philosophers had done. So I had been a bit vague in my approach to compensate for not saying what I really thought. Which put the reader (the professor or anyone else) on the wrong foot. It was not so much that I should have a highly critical or argumentative stance, but rather, that there was no good story-line to my paper. That was mistake number 1.
The 2nd point was about my not being sufficiently critical. Now this is not something I hear very often! It took me a while to understand, but what I need to do, is to question every concept, approach, idea that I review and explain why I put it in the paper OR explain why I don’t question it. So my simple idea of reviewing papers and going along with the argument to see where we might end up, would have been fine, IF I had explained that was what I was doing. Which I had not. Because again I had been too shy.
The 3rd problem was that the paper was too big in scope. In retrospect, the professor said, scope-wise it would have been fit for a Master Thesis. This is because I left so many concepts and ideas to investigate. For practical reasons, I had simply accepted concepts without question, i.e. as given in literature. Had I done otherwise, my paper would have exploded, and it was only supposed to be 6000 words. So yes, I could see he was right, the scope I had chosen was much too ambitious to do well. It is either quantity or quality. There is also a style difference, I think. He works inside-out, and I work outside-in. Which means I have to read much more but that is not the worst of it. Here the difference between audiences comes alive. If I write something as a civil servant, I must avoid being too detailed for fear of losing my audience. The general consensus is that details can always be given later, in a separate paper, in a presentation, during a talk, whatever; but later. The same is not true for a philosophy paper. That paper has to be complete in itself; there is no “later”.
Problem nr. 4 took me a while. I have developed, in my working life, a habit of writing authoritatively. Because I am an authority on certain matters. Husband taught me how to do this. I cannot remember how many times I got my texts back with remarks like: you use too many words, explain too much, go into too much detail etc. Which is all very well when you are writing government or company policy, but is not a good idea when you are writing a philosophical article. A philosopher needs to explain and explain well. My professor spends a lot of time on doing just this, and it has also been a issue in the other seminars I attended, so I might have known. But I think there is more to it than that. Because Philosophia is not very well charted, a philosopher constantly needs to ring a bell, so that others may understand where he is. Think of a cow in an Alpine meadow 🙂 That means that as a philosopher, you must allow other philosophers to understand exactly what concepts you are using in what context and why. Otherwise they get lost. Or you do. Depending on your point of view.
So: a good philosopher knows the precise context in which she is putting forward her ideas (by the way, this is an example of “correct” writing, sometime during my absence from academia, they all started writing in terms of “she” rather than “he”). The problem of course is that I don’t. I am still an amateur. Which brings me to the research paper which I will be writing next term. Apparently this paper is not for a grade (it is pass or fall), but intended to allow to you prepare for the Master Thesis which has to written in the second half next year. This gives me a chance to consolidate my knowledge on a couple of topics which at the moment is only wafer-thin. The topic(s) will be: speech acts, collective acts and common ground. Right. I will enjoy getting my teeth into that. I promise you, my next paper will be like an embroidery: pretty, intricate, beautiful and state-of-the-art.
The professor and I, we parted on most amicable terms after nearly 3 hours. I was really pleased that I had been able to pick up some new insights. Also, the luxury of someone spending hours on you to improve your thinking! When does that ever happen in Real Life, I ask you?
Now came the task of finding Husband. In spite of our shared-location app, I failed. Seriously, I walked around Utrecht CS with Google Maps displayed on my phone, and kept going in circles, from one entrance to the other, up and down the escalators. After quarter of an hour, I had to call Husband and admit total failure. He had to come and get me. Yes, you may laugh. Of course, he should have foreseen this (I get disoriented very very easily), so we agreed it was really his fault. Off we went, back to the Utrecht canals to have a drink and something to eat at the waterside. Very pleasant. It was a bit like a celebration. We had a nice meal and 3 Belgium beers each. Alas, it turned out that we can no longer handle this the way we once did. Walking back from Apeldoorn station was slow; and somehow we could not keep our eyes open after 10:30. Very amusing. Nice memory though.
I often have to find ways to express ideas without words. Many people simply not like reading. This may be because they are already overloaded with information. Or because they simply prefer other ways of communication. Have fallen out of the habit of reading or were never much good at it (a surprising number of managers are dyslectic, in my experience). Or don’t want to be inundated with information about a topic that they do not understand/have no knowledge about/are not interested in.
One group is exempt from this very general statement: philosophers. They live, breathe, and dream text. Also, they have nothing other than text. No diagrams, no visuals, perhaps the odd cartoon, but that is about it. Books, papers, articles: text, text and text. But that won’t stop me trying to find ways to visualise philosophical issues as well. Meanwhile, I browse visuals just for the fun of it. Below are a couple. I don’t understand them all, but wow, are they pretty.
Before I do, I promised to post my presentation for the Skills&Methods seminar, you know, the pièce de résistance that was one the main outputs of that seminar. I already posted the draft version of the article in another post. The presentation is quite different though. Don’t feel obliged to look at it, but if you do, make sure to look at in in presentation mode, so you don’t miss any of the animations and the little cyber-criminal quiz (where you have to point at little circles to make up the match; you will see. Use page-down to go from slide to slide, and click to see the animations within the slide. Anyway, here is the link. The file is 24 MB, so the best thing is to right-click the link and save it. If you are on a PC. Faster that way.
Intermezzo (the real reason for this post)
You probably thought that I am spending my “holidays” (only the day-time job) catching up on those wonderful philosophy books that I have been collecting. Well, so did I. But we were quite wrong. I just like collecting books. So what did I do? Except for sweltering in the heatwave like the rest of Europe? Well, I have been playing with my Wiki. You know, the one called concepts, which you can go to via the menu at the top of this blog). It is filling up quite nicely, but what I was playing with was not so much the content, but the construction. I have spent a great many hours getting this bit of machinery to work. So I thought, if I have to do that again, I will have forgotten it all, so I’d better write it down. And then I thought, that would be true of all the “tools” I use. From my citation system to my note taking routines to my internet sources or my WordPress tips, it adds up to quite a bit. Perhaps that is is true for many people. But Husband and I have just spent very pleasant evenings watching new episodes of Lewis that has just become available on our provider. We thought. Towards the end we confessed to each other that we had probably seen them before. Years ago. So better not to rely too much on the good old memory. I have created a another sub-site, next to concepts, called tools. Here I have started to share my notes about my bag of tricks. If you subscribe to this blog, you will not be notified because it is separate from this blog, which is probably just as well :-). Have a look, it is pretty (and very different from this one).
Back to the visuals. Below I included a few I liked. In the next weeks I will post a collection of good sources on the tool-blog, on this page.