Monday, June 27, 2011

My mirror neurons trigger my feelings

One of the recent discoveries in neuroscience is the existence of mirror neurones. Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that fire when you act. But they fire also when you see someone else performing an action and by doing so these neurons reflect or “mirror” the other person’s action in your own mind. Therefore it is as if you place yourself in the other person’s position and as if you are doing his or her action yourself. The importance of mirror neurons is still a matter of much speculation for actually the research is yet in its early stages, but some neuroscientists consider it one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience and I think they are right.
Anyway, if it is really true that by means of mirror neurons it is possible to place yourself mentally in the position of the other, mirror neurons may be important for explaining some significant human phenomena, especially those that require imitative behaviour or imitative imagination. We can think of understanding someone’s intentions (s/he does what I would do in the same situation), empathy (feeling what s/he feels), language learning, gender differences, understanding why people imitate other people or follow them, and much more. Autism may be explained or partially explained by a defect in the mirror neurons.
I had heard several times about mirror neurons and I found them intriguing. So I read a book about it (Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni) and much of the functioning of human behaviour and feelings became clearer to me: how and why we react to other people (in some circumstances) and the like. Two weeks ago I went to a performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, an opera that I saw live for the first time. The production and the singers were very good and the death scene at the end was very well brought and it was very emotional, so that I became emotional, too. Suddenly I thought: my mirror neurons are firing! In case I have such a thought that transcends my feeling or thinking, usually it is so that the feeling or thinking stops immediately and that emotionally I distance myself more or less from what I see or are participating in (which does not need to imply, however, that the event or scene I see or participate in becomes less meaningful or that it gets less value for me). But nothing like that happened now. Apparently my mirror neurons continued firing full out. I couldn’t stop the feeling in any way as if I was nothing but a robot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The feeling of willing

In his interesting The Illusion of the Conscious Will Daniel M. Wegner defends the thesis that the conscious will is a kind of emotion, namely the emotion that we are the owner of our actions. “Conscious will is the somatic marker of personal authorship, an emotion that authenticates the action’s owner as the self” (p. 327). In short, the conscious will is an authenticy emotion. According to Wegner this makes it the basis of our idea of responsibility. “Moral judgements are based not just on what people do but on what they consciously will” (p. 335). And we feel being responsible for what we consciously do, even though in fact it may be so that the feeling may have nothing to do with the reasons and causes why we actually act, namely that there is a robot in us, as Wegner calls it, or a zombie, as I have called it in other blogs, that takes the decisions and that determines what the right actions are in the circumstances given. Then the feeling of authorship that the conscious will is has nothing to do with the steering of our actions, although the will thinks that it controls them. However, “illusionary or not, conscious will is the person’s guide to his or her own responsibility for action. If you think you willed an act, your ownership of the act is established in your mind. ... We come to think that we are good or bad on the basis of our authorship emotion” (p. 341).
Although Wegner's theory sounds plausible, I want to make two critical remarks. The first one is that Wegner’s theory of the conscious will (but many other theories of the will as well) treats the will as a short term phenomenon: the will to do an act now. However, the conscious will is more than that. It involves also planning: willing something later, in the future. I want to have good places for an opera next February and therefore I have to buy my tickets next week when the advance sale starts. This is another kind of conscious will than the feeling that it is me who wanted to write a note for it in my diary just a few seconds ago.
The other remark is this. According to Wegner, moral judgements are based on what we consciously do (see above). As Wegner had said just before: “a person is morally responsible only for actions that are consciously willed” (p. 334, italics mine). This is the foundation of Wegner’s theory of morality and responsibility. Happily for Wegner it does not have consequences for his theory that the conscious will is an authencity emotion, for what he says here is simply not true. If we were responsible only for our conscious actions, many trials and lawsuits could be skipped. However, we are often also responsible for what we did not consciously do and did not want to happen. Negligence, undesired consequences of our actions, not doing what we supposed to do ... All these things are often considered as happenings that we are held responsible for (and that we are responsible for) but that we did not consciously do. I have talked about it already before. One instance: You cause an accident with your car because you failed to give way to a car coming from the right. Did you consciously drive on without wanting to give way to the right? Of course not. Are you responsible for the accident? Of course you are. And I guess that you feel so, too.
The upshot is that the feeling of authorship of what I do is not limited to what I consciously do. This makes that I can be responsible for I what I did not consciously wanted to do. But the feeling of authorship is also not limited to what I do now or what I did just a moment before. It ranges also over what I did after deliberate planning and preparation. We simply need a wider perspective on what consciously willing is, certainly if we want to relate it to responsibility.

Monday, June 13, 2011

View on the world

In one of my first blogs, more than four years, ago I wrote: “Just the idea: A photo of me in front of the Eiffel Tower with Bourdieu’s Un art moyen in my hand. So sorry that you cannot read the title of the book then...”, and that was it.
I had to think of this blog when I visited the biennial Photo Festival in Naarden last week. I had yet to find a style for my blogs and often I wrote short remarks without any further explanations. This was one of them, and I think not many readers will have understood it. It is already rather long ago that I read Bourdieu’s contribution to this book, so I must recall from memory what it was about. However, what I was referring to was what I call since then a “Bourdieu photo”.  When Tom, Dick and Harry or their female counterparts are going to make a picture of someone they know (and they often make pictures of that kind), the persons are often so far away that you can hardly see who they are, not to speak of what they hold in their hands. And in case the persons photographed haven been taken from nearby it is still often so that much remains on the picture that distracts from what is supposed to be its central theme: the person or persons on it. It is as if the photographer does not want to say: “Look John and Jenny” but “Look John and Jenny have been there” (in Paris, London, or wherever it may be). Or the picture says “Look Jenny in the garden”, while there is actually no relation between Jenny and the garden (she isn’t working in the garden; she isn’t looking at the garden or at a single plant; no, she stands there and there is also a garden). A professional photographer or an advanced amateur photographer would make such a photo in a different way. S/he would concentrate on a theme and would fill the photo with it; and everything else has a place in the picture, too: Jenny looking at the garden or a flower. John looking at or climbing the Eiffel Tower. And so on. That’s why we tend to call the first type of pictures just a shot and the second type portraits. But in the end, what the worth of a picture is depends on what you want to say with it, and from that point of view “just a shot” can do as well as a “real” portrait. It is not without reason that the book by Bourdieu and others has the subtitle “Essay on the social uses of photography”. Photos of the first type simply have another social function than second type photos: They give different views on the world.
I have not a picture at hand like the one described in the old blog, but I wonder whether the reader of this blog would judge the picture above as a “Bourdieu photo” or as something else, when s/he knows that I am one of the persons on it and that I called it “Self-portrait at distance”.

P.S. This year’s Naarden Photo Festival is dedicated to portraits:

Monday, June 06, 2011

Why do we act?

Taking the train

In our daily life we do a lot of actions and when we act we do it for a reason. For instance, I need a book for a project I am working on and I know that they have it in a bookshop in Utrecht. Therefore I take the train to Utrecht, walk to the bookshop and buy the book. For this – rather complicated – action I had first a desire (having the book) and a reason (the project) and some relevant knowledge (how to get the book) and then I performed the action (taking the train etc.). This is how I think that many actions, so intentional doings, take place and many other people think like me. It’s common sense. There is also a special branch of philosophy that analyses actions: action theory. Even more, I got my PhD by writing a dissertation on how to investigate actions. However, does it really work that way?
The answer of neuroscience and neurophilosophy is no. According to these fields of study it has become clear that the way we really act is different. We have two systems in our head. One regulates our actions; let me call it our action controller. The other system is informed about what the action controller does and about the actions we perform, and it tells the world stories that fit the actions: the brain interpreter. I talked already about it in older blogs. How does it work in practice? This can happen in several ways and much more can be said about it, but – and here I follow Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of the Conscious Will, ch. 5 – the two main methods that we use for rationalizing what we do are cognitive dissonance reduction and postbehavioural intention construction. Cognitive dissonance reduction has become well-known by the research by Leon Festinger and his team. In essence it is this: We have good reasons for thinking that doing A is the right way to act, but when it comes to act we actually do B. After the action we construct reasons why doing B was better than A, and we do not only construct such reasons, but we really believe them and maybe even deny that we ever thought differently. However, in many cases we do not have strict attitudes about what we prefer to do and why; maybe we have no advance attitudes at all for acting the way we do. We simply act. Then we construct our reasons and intentions afterwards, and we seriously believe them, too.
Now the nice thing is that one of the points I stressed in my dissertation is that the method I developed there for investigating actions can apply only when an action has already taken place. It can only afterwards reconstruct the reasons, intentions and so on why the agent acted as s/he did and in view of what I just said it is then a reconstruction of the agent’s rationalizations. But the reader of this blog will certainly see this defence of my dissertation as a case of cognitive dissonance reduction, and s/he may be right. Be that as it is, all these insights explaining how we rationalize what we do are very interesting, and they are intriguing, too. For if it isn’t so that we think that we consciously decide what we do on account of relevant reasons and if our explanations afterwards are nothing more than “postaction confabulation[s] of intention” (Wegner), then one question remains for me: why is it then that we act as we do when it is not for reasons? Why then is it that we do just this and not that and what determines what we do?