Monday, August 27, 2012

Philosophizing about ordinary concepts

At the end of my last blog I quoted Giere with consent where he said that human science must not develop ideas that are too far away from pou common sense notions. In this case that we must not defend an idea of memory that is too different from what the man or woman in the street thinks it is. But can we maintain this in general? If it were true, philosophizing would not be more than asserting what everybody already knows, albeit with some nuancing and in a clearer wording. But take this example, which is not from philosophy but from the natural sciences (although in those days, the natural sciences were seen as a kind of philosophy). Galileo defended the idea that the earth moves around the sun instead of the other way round. This view was contrary to what most people (and not only the Roman Catholic church) thought. As we know now, Galileo was right and the public idea was false. Why might such a turn in thinking not be brought about by philosophy? Why might philosophy not be able to undermine false ideas? In a certain sense philosophy can. One task of philosophy is correcting errors in reasoning, not only errors made by scientists but also those made in public reasoning. As such, these corrections can have radical consequences, in case it comes out that just the opposite of what always was held to be true is the case. However, there is a fundamental difference between what facts in the natural sciences are and what facts in the social sciences are. In the natural sciences facts exists independent of what we, the observers of these facts, think of it. It is our task as observers to find out what these facts “really” are (I put the word really between inverted commas since also in the natural sciences what we see as facts must pass through the filter of manmade concepts and theories). In human society, however, facts that are independent of us do not exist. Social facts are literally “made” by us. When we play chess, we don’t simply move wooden objects, but we play a game and we move pawns, rooks and queens etc. When humanity dies out, the wooden objects may still exist and they may be found by a roaming animal, but the idea of game and the idea that these pieces of woods “actually” are pawns, rooks or queens has been lost. Such meanings belong to, using Giere’s words, “our shared conceptual scheme and culture”. Social facts are ways we think about what is around us in the social and in the material world and ways we react to them, but when we think differently about these ways, they change with our thoughts and get another meaning. And just that is, I guess, the reason why Giere says that our philosophical ways of speaking and our philosophical interpretations must not be too distinct from our common sense ways of speaking and interpreting. If they would be, they’ll lose touch with the social reality as it exists for us, and they’ll not affect what the ordinary man or woman thinks but only exist as separate interpretations at most; interesting for philosophers, scholars and scientists, but of only marginal value for what people actually do and think. Then for most people our memory will remain to be only something that in the head, although some philosophers think that’s on the front doormat, too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What is in my mind and what isn’t?

Once in a blog I discussed Andy Clark’s thesis that the mind is not only in the head, a thesis that I also endorse (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). It involves that thinking and the storing of knowledge does not only take place within the head, but also outside the body. We write memos or tie knots in handkerchiefs in order not to forget things that are important for us. Or nowadays we often use digital gadgets for it. These are simple examples of a phenomenon that is common practice. The digital revolution seems to have made our storage capacity unlimited and through this our minds, too.
In a recent article, Ronald N. Giere rejects this thesis (like some others do as well in this special issue on “Extended cognition and epistemology” of Philosophical Explorations (15/2, June 2012)). He summarizes his viewpoint by relating the following personal incident:
“Some years ago, my wife and I were in Europe for an extended period. Given communication technology at the time, the best solution for mobile communication was to acquire new ‘chips’ for our phones … One day someone asked me for my wife’s number. I replied … that I didn’t know it. I had seen it, but I did not now remember it. However, I continued, ‘Not to worry. I have the number in my phone’. Whereupon I reached for my ever present phone and produced the number. It would have been very odd for me to say, ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone. Even less would it have made sense to say ‘We remember the number’, where the ‘we’ referred to myself and my phone. It was not odd to say, ‘I have the number in my phone’ ”. (id. p. 205)
It seems that Giere has a point here, especially since his example is much like one used by Clark somewhere. Here it is not the place to discuss Giere’s case and article extensively, but I want to make a few comments that may cast some doubt on his conclusion. Indeed, it is odd to say ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone, but take this case. I always forget my wife’s phone number but by chance it is her birthday in reverse order plus the compulsory 06. So, I know the trick how to produce it, like Giere knows the trick that he can find his wife’s number in his mobile. What’s the difference then between my case and his? I think that also in my example it is odd to say that I remember the number, even though I can produce it without an external aid.
One thing that Giere in his example does is confusing person and brain. As I see it, what Clark contends is that the physical aspect of the mind is more than what is only in the head; that it’s more than what is only in the brain. Take his example in which I put a beer can on my front doormat in order to remember that I have to buy beer (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). In this case I cannot say that I remember now that I must buy beer, for I don’t. But I have made tags inside and outside my mind in order to remember at the right moment that I have to buy beer, and it is just the fact that some of the tags are outside my mind that makes that I can say that the mind is not only in my head. Physically (bodily), I have only tags and representations of tags in my brain, but seen from the viewpoint of me as a person, we can say that the buy-beer-tags are both in my brain and on my front doormat. Just the latter adds something essential to my having to buy beer. It is a bit like this: I am a bundle of muscles, bones, neurons and a few things more. But what makes me am a Dutchman or a philosopher is the society I live in and my relation to that society.
It is difficult to say where in the brain the memory is located, for there is no exact place for it, but let’s for simplicity reasons say that it is in our temporal lobe. I think that it is as odd to say then “Yes, I remember my wife’s phone number. It’s in my temporal lobe. Just a moment, I’ll bring it up”, and after some deep thinking I say the number, as it is odd to say “Yes, I remember it. I have it in my phone” and take my mobile, whereas the first action is what we often do, usually automatically. What isn’t odd, however, is to say “Yes, I know, it is 06---” or to say “Yes, I know the number. Just a moment”, and without saying something else I take my mobile and show the number to the questioner. It is often a matter of perspective, wording and context whether we can say that we “remember” or “know” something.
As I see it, these objections show that it is not odd to say that the mind is not only in the head. I think that there is more that supports the idea than there is that rejects it. Nevertheless I agree with Giere that “ordinary ways of speaking [in this case that the mind is only in the head - HbdW] are indicative of models deeply engrained in our shared conceptual scheme and culture. To be successful, a human science should not stray too far from that shared experience”. (ibid.) And we need to keep that in our minds.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Travelling without a destination

Meuse Source number 1

When you say that you are going to make a travel, the first question always is: where are you going to? The question seems obvious, but is it really so? I mean, of course, we have to go somewhere when travelling, but is it a matter of fact that the destination is its most important aspect? Is it so that a travel is intrinsically unsuccessful when we don’t reach our destination, i.e. the geographical purpose or purposes of our trip? That we must say that we don’t have made a travel, if we hadn’t at least planned to reach a certain location, even if we don’t reach it for one reason or another?
Although I must go somewhere when making a travel (not counting a travel in my mind), I think that it is quite well possible to go on a trip in which the geographical destination is a redundant aspect. In the Netherlands, the summer this year is rainy and cool. It’s not the type of weather that you would like to go to the beach and take a sunbath. So, sun-worshippers want to go away, to the south, where it is warm and sunny and where you can sunbathe when you like. At present, the Dutch newspapers are full of advertisements with travels to the beaches of Spain, Greece, Turkey or Gambia or wherever they have warm sunny beaches. But is it really important for our sun-worshippers to which of these countries they’ll go? I think it isn’t. What counts is whether there is a good beach, whether the weather is good, the price of the trip and maybe a few things more, but the geographical destination is secondary for most people. They simply want to sunbathe and that’s the actual purpose of the trip.
Or to take another instance, my wife and I just returned from Northeastern France, where we followed the River Meuse from Sedan till its sources. Once we had seen the sources, we directly drove home. Does this mean that the Meuse sources were the destination and primary purpose of our trip? That the first question to ask about our travel is “Where have you been?” with a “to the Meuse sources” as its obvious reply? No, for what we really have done there is making photos of towns and villages on the Meuse with a pinhole camera. We had allotted two weeks for the project, and when we wouldn’t have reached the sources of the river, we still would have made a lot of pinhole pictures and we might go there later again for doing the last part of the river. Moreover, my actual project is not so much taking pinhole photos of towns and villages on the Meuse, but making such photos along any river. Since such a purpose is too abstract, this time I had chosen the Meuse in France as the river and then its sources as the logical final destination of the present trip. So we can say that travelling along the Meuse was the secondary destination of our trip and seeing its sources the tertiary destination. The purpose of the trip or, if you like, its primary destination, was taking pinhole photos of towns and villages on a river, in this case on the Meuse.
The upshot is: There are many ways to travel. Travelling to a geographical destination is only one way, and often this aim is secondary at most.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Happy holiday?

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels” (Alain de Botton, The art of Travel). Maybe the real reason for the post holiday syndrome (the blues when back from vacation) is that we don’t know how to translate the holiday happiness into a hapiness of our daily life? Or is it that we actually didn’t find such a happiness when travelling, but only a seeming happiness?