Friday, July 29, 2011

Trip to Wittgenstein

When my wife and I arrived in Skjolden, I did not recognize the little town. Many years ago I had been there with friends, on a tour through Norway. Then I knew about Wittgenstein, of course, although I was not yet very interested in philosophy in those days. However, I did not know that he had built a log cabin there, on the other side of the lake and that he had lived and worked there now and then between 1913 and 1951.
We put up our tent on a camping site a few kilometres from Skjolden, almost under a waterfall. An information board described a path to the place where Wittgenstein’s cabin had been. It was a walk of about 45 minutes, but the last part was steep and dangerous over the rocks.
The next day I felt a bit sick. But okay, I was there for “visiting” Wittgenstein. I took the bag with my cameras, a bit to drink, too, and there we went, my wife and I. First along a tractor path, then through a meadow. We entered a little wood and the path became rocky. It became steeper and steeper, too, and heavy going. I stopped for a moment. My wife, who was some 20 metres ahead of me, said: “I’ll take a look whether it is still far to go”, and gone was she.
When she came back ten minutes later, she had already been “there”. The path had become even steeper, and also a bit slippery. “Not much to see”, my wife said. “Some stone foundations of the log cabin and an Austrian flag”. I am a bad climber and did not feel well, so I decided not to go on.
Back in our tent, my wife showed me the photos she had taken. Next we drove again to Skjolden. Now we knew exactly the place where the log cabin had been. It was on a slope some 30 metres above the surface of the lake. Through my binoculars the foundation and the flag were clearly visible. I wondered how Wittgenstein did the dangerous climb a few times a week for collecting his mail, in summer and in winter. And how he had got the building material there. Elsewhere in Skjolden we saw the house where Wittgenstein had lived during his first stay.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mirror neurons and the other mind problem

In my last blog I suggested that the existence of mirror neurons may be the solution of the sociological problem of the tuning of individual behaviour to group behaviour; so why people behave as a group animal. Psychologically mirror neurons make that we can feel empathy, easily can learn behaviour and actions and much more. I think that mirror neurons may also offer a solution to an old problem in philosophy: the other mind problem. Or at least they may put the problem in a different light.
The essence of the other minds problem is the question: How can we know that others have minds? So, how can we know that they are not zombies (zombies in the philosophical sense, so mere automata)? Formulated this way the other minds problem is an epistemological problem, a problem about knowing. Thomas Nagel replaces it by the conceptual problem of “how I can understand the attribution of mental states to others” (The view from nowhere, p. 19; italics Nagel), which brings us a step nearer to the mirror neurons. However, if we see the solution of the other minds problem in these neurons, the solution is in the way man is constructed, so then it is ontological.
Of course, one can always remain skeptical and say that the problem cannot be solved, but I think that the essential flaw so far is the intrinsically individualistic approach of the problem. Nagel says: “… to understand that there are other people in the world as well, one must be able to conceive of experiences of which one is not the subject: experiences that are not present to oneself. To do this it is necessary to have a general conception of subjects of experience and to place oneself under it as an instance. It cannot be done by extending to the idea of what is immediately felt into other people’s bodies …’ And a few sentences further: “The problem is that other people seem to be part of the external world…” (p. 20; italics mine). What’s wrong with this is that the conception of man in this quotation implicates that we have an individual and another one (and another one and another and another one….) and that these individuals are external to each other and that it is actually not possible to bridge the gap.
There is no space here to follow Nagel’s approach (which he sees in taking different perspectives or views), but that the portrayal of man presented here is wrong becomes clear once one knows about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons do just what cannot be done according to Nagel: extending the idea of what is immediately felt into other people’s bodies. For it is this what mirror neurons do: reflecting the inner world of others in yourself. It is true, this cannot happen in a 100% reliable way, but it is what they fundamentally do and it is also this what fundamentally makes man the group animal s/he is. Individual man grows up by imitating and simulating what other people do and by internalizing and creatively adapting their forms of behaviour. In a certain sense man mirrors other men. This is only possible if the other men have the same kind of mind as the mirroring man has. For if this weren’t so, the latter couldn’t become the mind possessing group being that s/he is, for what is mirrored in his or her inner self would then not be the other men’s minds, but the zombies who they are, and the mirroring man would become a zombie, too. So if you have a mind, other people have minds, too.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Mirror neurons and the social sciences

At first sight mirror neurons look relevant only for sciences that study the individual, like psychology where they can help explain and understand many phenomena. But how about the social sciences, for example sociology? Social sciences have collective phenomena as their objects, explaining why many people together behave or act in a certain way. This can be group behaviour, for example when a sociologist studies organisations; it can be aggregated individual behaviour, for example when a sociologist studies voting patterns related to the sociological background characteristics of the voters; or it can be a mixture of both, for example when a sociologist studies social movements. And there are many other themes, too, in which collective behaviour plays a part in some way play (peace research, for instance). But how could such an individual phenomenon as mirror neurons be useful here? Isn’t it a well-known fallacy to see collective phenomena, social phenomena, just as individual phenomena packed together?
If I would plead for a reduction of collective phenomena to a mere piling up of individual actions and pieces of behavior without interactions, I would walk into that fallacy, indeed. Moreover, I do not want to say that mirror neurons are relevant for every theme in the social sciences. Despite that, there is a place for them, I think. There are several sociological approaches, but wasn’t it Max Weber who in a famous definition of sociology founded social action on individual actions? For he defined sociology as: “the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces. By ‘action’ in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it as subjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract.” (Economy and Society, § 1; italics mine; translation Wikipedia). Seen this way, for instance, I think there is room for mirror neurons in order to understand and explain social phenomena. Mirror neurons can help us make clear for what reasons and from what causes people react to other people, to people around them, anyhow, and why they react in a certain way. They help us understand and explain why people don’t ignore other people but why they pay attention to them and why they react to them. As I see it, mirror neurons are the “missing link” between individual and group, between individual and society. It is a bit as if mirror neurons glue individuals watching each other together.