Monday, August 29, 2011

On the meaning of interpretation for science

A discussion is going on in the philosophy of science on the question whether understanding phenomena is relevant for science and, if so, how it takes place. This is to such an extent remarkable that the main stream of science has always propagated the view that it is the aim of science to explain phenomena and that there is no room for understanding because it is considered subjective and in science there should be no place for subjectivity. Since Carl G. Hempel developed his famous deductive-nomological model of explanation the main stream view maintained that for explaining in science only the relation between the phenomena, other phenomena and an explaining theory was relevant. This theory was supposed to be valid at any place and at any time. In this view there was no room for an investigating subject that did the research and for whom the relation investigated had to be true, not to speak of a wider research community and a wider public. This idea of science was supposed to be valid for all kinds of investigation that bore the label “scientific” in some way, from sociology and psychology to physics and biology. Of course, opposition to this view did exist, but from the side of the main stream it was often disparagingly called “metaphysical”.
But times are changing and so here, too. Influenced by proposals by the Dutch philosopher Henk de Regt and others more and more it is accepted that the investigator (and with him or her the whole scientific community) is important in the explanation process. More exactly, they say that science is not only about the relation “x explains y” (whereby x is a theory, while y is what is to be explained”, but it is about the relation “x explains y for (the knowing subject) z” (Karl-Otto Apel, Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendental pragmatischer Sicht, 1979; p. 267; there is also an English translation of this book). In this view there is not only room for understanding, but it is an essential part of it. What I find annoying in the present discussion about the place of the knowing subject and the interpretative part in the scientific process is that there is hardly any reference to the “old” opponents against the two-dimensional view of the scientific process, so to Apel in the first place.
What does the “new” interpretative part of science involve? How must we imagine it? In a blog like this I can give only a few hints. In my dissertation about understanding human actions, I have defended the view that interpretation is placing a phenomenon in a kind of mental scheme of the type as developed by Schank and Abelson, which I have mentioned already several times in my blogs. Maybe this can be related to the idea of the significance of model construction for understanding in the way as it has been proposed by de Regt. In my dissertation I have also developed the view that in order to understand human actions we have to answer three questions, namely the questions 1) what an action is; 2) what an action is for; and 3) why an action is performed. The first question asks for a description of an action, the second one for its intention and purpose and the third one for the reasons behind the action: what made the agent to perform this act. By extension (and of course adapted to the object of investigation) these questions apply for understanding in the social sciences in general. Do these questions also apply for science in general? If we forget for a moment that they are about understanding actions in a narrow sense and not for the scientific process in general, maybe they apply not exactly as they stand here. However, I think that they are a good starting point for thinking about what understanding involves when we say that an investigator not only explains a phenomenon but also that the resulting explanation is understood.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What makes us happy?

I am not so happy now, for I am using my computer. At least, that is what I have to conclude from a study by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Actually it is not using my home computer as such that makes me unhappy but that it makes my mind wandering. As the title of their study indicates, A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind”, so a mind that does not concentrate on the task that it is supposed to do is not happy.
I’ll skip the methodological details, but the researchers asked 2250 people what they were doing, what they were feeling then and whether they were thinking about something else. The surprising result was that most of the time we do not think about what we do: our mind “wanders” and is full of other thoughts. No less than 30% and up to nearly half of the time we spend on an activity we are thinking about something else: about what we did yesterday, about the meal we have to prepare this evening, about our next holiday, and so on. And what turned out, too: this mind wandering makes us unhappy. What we need for being happy is concentration. Do what you do, and nothing else. But as everybody knows, the mind tends to be easily distracted. And so we are unhappiest when we are using our home computer, when we are working and when we are resting. The two latter activities are a bit contradictory, for if both working and resting makes us unhappy, what else can we do in order to feel well? Apparently there are activities that are seen as neither the first nor the second, and it is these that make us happy. Therefore, make love! There is no other activity that requires more concentration. But there are also good alternatives: exercise, or engaging in conservation. They make us happy, too.
Mind wandering has also a positive side: the more you day dream, the more creative you are. It is also important in evaluating how you behaved towards other people and how you’ll behave in future. So, it brings you benefits, but not without emotional costs.
The upshot is that for being happy, you have to concentrate on what you do, on the here and now, something that some religions tell you, too. But should I stop writing my blogs, because using my computer makes me unhappy? I have my doubts, for when I let my mind now wander over the blog that I have just written, I realize that writing it required much concentration. Maybe it is true on the average that using your home computer makes you unhappy; according to me it cannot be taken as a general rule. Anyway, I feel well by writing these sentences. However, after an hour or so, my blog is finished and I am longing for a rest. Then the study by Killingsworth and Gilbert explains to me that it is no good idea. Happily, there is something else I can do so that my state of happiness will continue: to take my bike and make a ride.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The meaning of what we make

Staphorst, the Netherlands: typical farm house

When interpreters analyse a text, they tend to see more in it than the author originally had put into it: they often think to find a meaning behind the text that the writer was unaware of. This textual interpretation, which originally goes back to the exegesis of the Bible, led later – under the influence of Dilthey – to the thought that other forms of human life could be considered as texts as well. So, the idea developed that also actions can be interpreted as texts. A recent form of this, which I have discussed in other blogs, is the view that an action can have different descriptions, which actually is the same as the idea that it can have different interpretations. For instance, opening the door of your house can be interpreted as it is, but sometimes it can also be described as warning the thief who is upstairs, because he hears the noise. Interpreting human life need not be limited to human activities as such, like actions, but can also be extended to the material products of what men do: the tools they make, the houses they build, their art, and much more. These human products get often a symbolic meaning that exceeds by far what the makers of these products had laid in it when they made it.
A recent critic of the symbolic interpretation of material culture is Nicole Boivin, especially in her Material cultures, material minds. Boivin does not deny that material cultural expressions can have symbolic meanings, but what is problematic in this approach in cultural anthropology and archaeology is according to her that the symbolic meanings are often so much seen as the only correct interpretation of these material expressions that plain interpretations are rejected, even when both types of interpretations could be equally true or the plain interpretation may be better. Boivin uses an example of her own, but take this. In the Dutch villages Staphorst and Rouveen, traditionally the window frames and doors have the colours green, white and blue; green symbolizing young life in nature, white symbolizing purity and blue being used because it averts calamities. But need it really be so that a modern farmer painting his farm, or a city-dweller who has bought a farm there as a second house give these meanings to the colours? Of course not. When we ask the city-dweller, for instance, why she paints her farmhouse with these colours, there is a good chance that she knows nothing about their original meanings. Probably she’ll answer that she wants to maintain the traditional view of the village; that she wants to have the appearance of her house in agreement with the neighbouring farms; or simply that she likes the colours. Or maybe it is so that the local acts prescribe these colours. In other words, it is quite well possible that there is no symbolic meaning behind the present material expression of the painting; that the original meaning of the colours has been lost; and that nowadays the colours are used for quite banal reasons.
This makes me think of the explanation of the Japanese tea ceremony which I once received during the “Japanese week” in the town where I live. The woman performing the tea ceremony told about its religious meaning and the special feelings it arouses in the participants. I did not doubt it, but I had a good pen friend in Japan that performed the tea ceremony now and then, so I asked her what she thought of it. Well, she said, I’ll not deny this explanation and it is true that some tea ceremony performers get a special feeling by doing it, but for many Japanese it is simply a thing they sometimes do and for me it is just a hobby…

Monday, August 08, 2011

Does a young life count more than an old life?

Most people outside Japan do not realize that the Fukushima calamity is still a part of the daily reality for many Japanese. One thing that actually hasn’t been solved so far is the threatening “meltdown” of the power plant, which can be stopped only, as a website explains, by “suppress[ing] the nuclear chain reaction by inserting control rods into the reactor core and … gradually cool[ing] the fuel rods with constantly circulating water.” However, the cooling system of the Fukushima nuclear plant has been destroyed, too. A temporary solution has been found by hosing the nuclear reaction system with water, but it is only a short-term solution. Moreover it can lead to nuclear pollution of the environment. So a more permanent solution has to be found, like repairing the damaged cooling system or replacing it by a new one. But as the same website says: “Repair or installation of the cooling system will unavoidably be conducted in an environment highly contaminated with radioactive elements with serious risk of future health complications.” Since apparently this cannot be done by robots, the question arises then: who should do the job? According to Yastel Yamada, a business consultant who manages the website just mentioned, it is not expedient to take younger people for it: “Young people with a long future should not have to be placed in a position of having to undertake such a task. Radiation exposure of a generation which may reproduce the next generation should be avoided, regardless of the amount.” Besides, it is not they who are responsible for the construction of nuclear power plants but it is the older generation that is and this generation has also benefitted most of them. Therefore a “Skilled Veterans Corps” should be formed consisting of “volunteers of veteran technicians and engineers who are much more qualified to carry out the work with much better on-site judgment.”
At first sight this argument sounds reasonable but is it really so? There may be nothing against using volunteers for doing the job, but what I am annoyed about in the argument are the implicit (and partly explicit) suppositions that the older generation is guilty, anyhow, of the construction of the Fukushima power plant and that a younger life has more value than an older life. I think that there are good reasons to question both suppositions. Here I do not have the space for an extensive discussion of the arguments, so I want to limit myself to a few remarks. First, a dichotomy between a younger and older generation does not exist. A generation is a sociological category but in fact age differences are on a continuum. Should we then introduce degrees of responsibility and degrees of eligibility for the Volunteer Corps? Second, the “younger generation” may not be responsible for the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but did it protest against it? And didn’t it profit by the plant as well? Third, “generation” is a sociological category and generations do not exist as such, as I just explained; only individuals exist. How can we make then the “older generation” as a whole responsible for the Fukushima power plant, despite the attitude of its individual members to the plant and despite the degree they have profited by it? Fourth, how to weigh a younger person of say 40 years old who becomes ill after 30 years because of exposure to radiation by repairing the Fukushima power plant against a person of 69 years old who becomes ill after one year, as may happen? Fifth, that the still to be born must not be exposed to radiation is a strong point, but many young people have already children and do not want to have more or they can choose not to have children. Sixth, how to value a life? Hasn’t life a value as such? How to weigh a 70 years old person (who might become 100 years old) against a younger person (who might die young?). Since the length of life can be statistically indicated (but only for a “generation”, not for individuals), is statistics then, for example, a good foundation to value the worth of a life? Or the kind of education a person has received? Or what else? What matters in what the value of a person is and who values?
These are only a few comments that occurred to me when I read the proposal for a Skilled Veterans Corps for repairing the cooling system of the Fukushima power plant, and certainly more can be added, against it and in support of it.