Trust me, I don’t know either
Water, sea, waves, skies – I adore them. I stand in great awe of artists who manage to capture their light. Like Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky who painted the translucent waves of the picture at the top of this blog. He did many more (you can use the link to check him out). This particular one he did towards the end of his life, and is special because there are no ships, people, or shoreline. Just water and light. So breathtakingly beautiful.
I am not quite sure why I wanted this particular picture for today’s post. Possibly I am missing the sea. In other years we usually take mini-holidays near the sea so I can walk bare-foot along the the sea line. I can do that for hours on end. If Husband would not suggest we’d better turn back, I believe I would not stop. I love wading between the little islands that form between tides. I sing to the waves and talk to the birds, but mostly I breathe and splash water with my feet. Yes, quite like a child. Adulthood is overrated 🙂
I suppose wild water signifies opposite things to me. Beauty, freedom, light, strength, life. But also force and danger and sudden change. A bit like living, perhaps. And there is my link. I wanted to tell you about trust. Trust is risky business. I have been thinking about it in connection to language and cognition, and I developed my own little theory. Which is probably wrong, but it is my first, so bear with me.
This is also the long-promised fourth and last instalment of my mini-series ‘studying in times of Corona’. The first wave (hmm) as it now transpires we are heading into the third. I think the Netherlands must be the very last densely populated European country to go into lockdown. But we are. From tomorrow. Not before time, either. Husband has gone out, trying to get coffee beans. It appears he is not the only one. Even though coffee is ‘essential’, surely.
My last “big” seminar was on “folk psychology”. You might think that is people pretending to be psychologists, but it is a bit different. The idea is that we read each others’ minds. All the time. We do that, supposedly, to understand and predict each other. We know or we think we know ‘what makes other people tick’. We think in terms of belief-desire: we are rational beings that believe and want things, and that is what makes us act. The idea is from Hume, and draws on Aristotle’s de Anima. So it has been around a long time, long enough for you and I to believe it firmly. Sounds plausible, eh? Flattering too: the Homo Sapiens really got it all sussed. No wonder we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
You probably saw it coming: perhaps not. This is a big debate in current Philosophy of Mind now. I wrote a very, very long paper on it, far exceeding the number of words allowed for a paper, first reviewing the various positions on the issue, and then developing a bit of my own theory. If you want the read the paper, it is here. It got me an very good grade, but I suppose I was lucky the professor wanted to read it at all, as it did not conform to any of the usual requirements. He said it was majestic, but not a paper at all, more like the outline of a book or a dissertation. Well, yes, I suppose it was. I was so excited about the topic. Still, I felt lucky to get detailed feedback. Not used to get this much attention to my work. At the office no one is in the business of improving my mind, I suppose 🙂
I will try to tell you what debate on folk psychology is about, because otherwise I cannot explain my own little theory. Let’s take how we normally talk about each other as a starting point. We talk about our mental states a lot. About what we think, believe, feel, and why and why not. We are also very much aware of other people having thoughts, beliefs, etc. Children learn to do this at an early age, it is thought as early as 15 months. It is a fundamental ability for social interaction because it allows us to cooperate and coordinate. At all levels, in a family, in a shop, at school, at work or in government. You can see this ability at work very easily. We explain ourselves constantly in terms of what we believe and feel. And we call each other out: Why did you do that? What is the point of this? Such behaviour is characteristic of humans. Because there is little (or none, as some would have it) evidence of animals making each other justify their behaviour.
So what is the big debate about? Well, it is not about whether we display this behaviour or whether this is typically human. It is about whether this folk psychology is an innate, genetically inherited ability. The received opinion was and mostly is, that this innate ability is what makes human special, sets us apart. Philosophers who think that, usually also think that this ability lives in the brain, as some kind of specialised module. That we read our own mental states and others, because we have special equipment to do so given to us by Evolution. At great cost, because large brains are expensive in terms of energy. But those with the best mindreading abilities survived, because clearly this provided a competitive advantage. This is called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. It also explains our intelligence and our ability to plan ahead.
There are some big problems with the view. One is that our reactions to other people are much faster than would ever be possible if we consciously evaluated mental states. Another one is that if you look upon other people in the third person, as agents with mental states that you can read, that leaves no room for true interpersonal experience, for experiencing together. Then there is the matter of the horse and the carriage – do our mental states explain our behaviour, do we act in accordance with our intentions? Or is it the other way around ? Cecelia Heyes, a philosopher-psychologist says that folk-psychologising is very clever, but that there is no neural basis for it. At all. It is an ability which we have discovered, fostered, taught to our children and hence transmitted across generations, through cultural learning. We teach our children from birth to respond and to learn, that is what makes us special. There are others, who say that cognition is not individual and not brain-bound; that is just an fairly recent idea which came from our own invention of computers. And so on and so forth.
The main idea, from the non-traditional camp, is that social cognition, including our mind-reading ability, is extended by language. Language is required for cooperation, specialisation and coordination. And as device for the enculturation of social memory. Not, as classic philosophy of language would have it, to express truths about the world – remember my post about Frege? No special genes, no special modules. Simply something we have learned to do well as a species. Much like to our ability to drive or play games.
You may shrug and think this new approach not a big deal, but I can assure you it is, in my little Philosophia bubble. It turns human cognition into something that is shared with other primates, which opens up a whole new vista of research. We do have to redefine the word “cognition” though, so that it does not refer to just to humans, but that should not be too much of a problem. Philosophers of language have done much worse in the past 🙂
And now it is curtains up for my little theory. It struck me that in neither “camp” there was a true discussion or inquiry into “why”. Why do we mindread? Or pretend we do? Obviously the survival-of-the-fittest theory won’t wash, as this ability is not genetically inherited. So why? I learned from cases in psychiatry that what therapists do, is to provide consistent feedback when patients cannot do this for themselves. As if they temporarily take over the social mindreading function until the patient can do it for him or herself again. Obviously that requires trust. If you look at this from the patient’s point of view, then what you see is a form of cognitive offloading – the patient outsources, as it were, mental work to the therapist. If you look at cognition in general, this what we do all the time, outsource, offload task to our environment. To the environment, to other people, to artefacts like books, and recently to smart devices – anything to free up cognitive resources. Even if we accept information from someone, you may regard this as a form of cognitive offloading. And all of it requires trust. If you cannot rely on whatever you outsource your cognitive labour to, you are at risk.
In a nutshut, social cognition requires constant risk management. So there. I will come back to this idea at later point, because it will be a theme in my PhD. Talked it over my professor today, and he agreed. I will tell you about the full proposal once I have written it up, but there will be a relation between felicitous conditions for speech acts, trust and what we do – in language – to compensate when we are not sure what we or who we are dealing with. Maybe I will find out something interesting. And if not, that is also of interest.
Next I will tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. And then it will be thesis time – these days called a “publishable article”. I was told today that I have already done all the preparation I need (which means my research log = state-of-the-art paper =10 EC), so I will be writing the outline in the next few weeks. Exciting. But there is also Xmas, and Husband and Son and Xmas dinner to cook and films to watch.
I hope your Christmas will be pleasant.