Monday, September 29, 2014

Two levels of reality

In his article “Free will as a social institution”, Wolfgang Prinz defends the thesis of dual representation of reality. On the one hand, the thesis says, we have a direct representation of what is going on and what is present around us in the world (we can say that we have an “image” of it, if we take this notion not too literally). This representation exists on an unconscious level, which I want to call “level 1”. This level-1-representation is the basis of our doings. On a conscious level we can experience this level-1-representation and have a conscious representation of it. I’ll call this conscious representation a representation on level 0. The function of this level-0-representation is, in terms of Prinz, to “decouple the individual from the current actual situation” and to develop thoughts about what is going on and on what one is doing. However, as Prinz says it, “the decoupling cannot be complete, since the normal perception of the current surrounding situation has to continue to function”, and, as I want to add, one is also in a constant need to act. Despite this constant need to act and the ongoing current of experiences a person is confronted with, the “decoupled” conscious level-0-representation has an important function: It allows us to evaluate what is happening around us and what we are doing in reaction to it on level 1. It allows us to interpret the “world” and our actions and, most important, to reflect on what we are doing, to stop what we are doing mechanically, to decide what to do instead, and so on. In short, our conscious part functions as a pilot on a plane that as a rule flies automatically.
Prinz uses this dual representation model (based on theories by Dennett, Metzinger, Edelman and others) for explaining what actually the free will is. I want to link it to two other issues.
For one thing, when I read the article for the first time, I linked the dual representation conception to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, but not in the sense that it substantiates his idea but just that it makes clear what Descartes did wrong. For Descartes distinguished two substances, namely matter – which shapes the machine that the body is in his view – and mind  – which shapes the self –. According to him both are fundamentally independent of each other, although the mind – “self” – can steer the body via the pineal gland. Also Prinz says that the level 0 functions of man can be seen as man’s self. However, his dual representation model shows that this self – “mind” – and body are functional parts of the same physical machine that we call “man”.
Secondly, when I reread Prinz’s article and started to write this blog, I suddenly realized that the dual representation model is nothing but a neuropsychological foundation of my version of the dual aspect theory of knowledge, which now appears to be nothing but an epistemological explanation of the mind-body problem, as developed by me in my PhD thesis twenty years ago (and summarized in an article; see the sources below). I have referred to this theory also in older blogs and now readers of these blogs will understand why I preferred to call this conscious level “level 0” instead of “level 2”. In the present blog I cannot discuss this theory, but the essence is this: Following Habermas, I distinguished two levels in the way we interpret reality: level 1 and level 0. Level 1 is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. Level 0 is typical of those sciences, like the social sciences, that deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. Accordingly we can distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0. The former is the kind of meaning used on level 1. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character, and it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.
And now, twenty years later, we see that my version of the dual aspect theory is not just a methodological idea, but that it can be also sustained with the help of recent developments in neuropsychology.
Sources: Wolfgang Prinz, “Free will as a social institution”, in Susan Pockett et al. Does consciousness cause behavior?, MIT Press, 2006; pp. 257-276 (esp. pp. 272-3).
Henk bij de Weg, “The commonsense conception and its relation to philosophy”, Philosophical Explorations, 2001/1, pp. 17-30.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to write my blogs (2)

Creative walk

When I write these weekly blogs, I am always sitting in the armchair in my study and I write them with my laptop. I told you that several times before, if I remember well. Is it the right method? I always thought so, until I discovered that it would be better to write my blogs by hand, at least the draft. Not so long ago I explained to you why (see my blog dated June 16, 2014). But like most human beings here on earth, I stick to my habits and I still write my blogs with a computer. In view of the positive comments I sometimes receive, they are not that bad, although – you never know – maybe they would be much better, if I would write them by hand. Anyway, I’ll not do that. I see it as something of the past, whatever other people will tell me to do.
Be it as it is, now I wonder also whether the habit of writing my blogs sitting in my armchair is the most effective approach. At least, a study by Andrew P. Knight and Markus Baer of the Olin Business School at Washington University, St. Louis, MO, USA, showed that standing meetings improve creativity for people working together in groups. In this situation people become more open to the ideas of others and it reduces their tendencies to defend their turf, so to speak. Therefore it is better to remove the chairs from the room and conferring with your colleagues or discussion partners in standing meetings. And so Knight and Baer titled their article “Get up, Stand up”. Okay, their research was on group dynamics, but why wouldn’t what works for a group work for an individual thinker as well? At least, as I feel it, when I am sitting here in my armchair and thinking about what to write in the blog or article I am working on I have never the idea that I am philosophizing alone but always that I am in discussion with other philosophers, scholars and scientists, although they are only virtually present. Moreover, it is a known fact that some people think better when they pace up and down the room. I,too, feel sometimes the need to do so, when I am under stress because I cannot find the solution for a problem in my mind or when a reasoning in my head leads to nothing. Then I need physical movement and I start to pace to and fro or I walk to my garden. Whatever the reason is usually it works and the mental blockade has been lifted. In the light of the paper by Knight and Baer, it’s maybe better to use this standing philosophizing not only for such cases that I suffer from a mental block but apply it as a basic approach for “normal” philosophizing as well. At least, I could give it a try, for everything can be improved, even the old habits I stick to. So get up, leave your armchair, and become a stand-up philosopher, at least for a time by way of experiment.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The uneven development of technology and man

Driverless car

In a short interview a Dutch technology professor, Marieke Martens, said that within ten years we’ll have automatic driving cars on our roads, so cars that do not have a driver behind the wheel. This will not happen all at once, she says, but it will happen in five steps. In the interview prof. Martens didn’t say what steps these are, but the last step would be taken within ten years. Will it? Prof. Martens admitted that there are not only technical challenges for completing the project but also juridical ones, like questions of liability in case of accidents and how other road users will react. Well, I do not want to deny that we’ll see an automatic driving car here and there on the roads within ten years, but I seriously doubt that it will be more than that. Even more, I doubt whether the non-technical questions will be solved within ten years in the sense that we can have automatic driving cars on our roads, used by everybody who likes to have one, so in a non-experimental way or in a test project.
I think that the belief that we can have automatic driving cars on the roads within the short time of ten years – for ten years really is short in social life – is a typical instance of technological reasoning that ignores the human factor. Technological thinkers often forget that technological development and human development have their own dynamics and these do not need to go together. I will not go as far as Karl Mannheim does in his Man and society in an age of reconstruction – quoted in my last blog – that the social order must collapse if technological and social development are not in line with one another (p. 43), but I think that there is much truth in the view that human capacities often develop disproportionally and that new technological inventions can be applied only if they fit the human conditions of the application.
For example, Martens talks about five steps to the final introduction of automatic driving cars, so on the average two years for each step. What does this mean in practice? Take step one: A car must be produced according to this phase, the juridical rules must be adapted, drivers must be prepared that experimental cars can be met, and so on. Then, at the end of step one, the process must be evaluated. Only next we can go on to step two. Etc. till step five, in which finally automatic driving cars can move on the roads just as normally accepted means of transport like old-fashioned cars. I think that it is difficult to find social scientists who will say that all this can be done in five consecutive steps of only two years. Society is simply too complicated but also too “viscous” so to speak to function that way. Each person, each group, each sector of society has influence on the social phenomena they happen upon and has the potency to push them a bit in the direction preferred, to try to stop them (or just to let them ago), to give them another interpretation and meaning... And even if all these influences as such are minor, the total effect can be big and can cause often unforeseen effects. The introduction of automatic driving cars will be even more contemplated, if we realize that they’ll ride not only in the Netherlands but worldwide. In short: Human behaviour and even more social behaviour cannot be planned and manipulated like a machine. Just this is what technological thinkers often ignore.
Sources: De Volkskrant, Sept 6, 2014, Sir Edmund Supplement, p. 5. Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why policy fails

Cattle dealers

A few days ago I was browsing through some books in my book cases and my eye was caught by the next quote, which I had underlined, in a already rather old book by Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian-born sociologist (1893-1947):
“Every specialist is acting in good faith when he believes that his own method is the right one, for he unconsciously confuses the section of reality on which he is working with reality itself ...” (Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949; p. 29).
Everyone looks at the world from his or her perspective and everyone thinks that this perspective is right if not the best, for why else would s/he have it? As for this, specialists in who knows what are not different than other people. The problem is, however, that specialists, unlike the men in the street, can have a decisive influence on what other people do, or at least on what those people do that are touched by their specialisms. As long as a specialist is open to the world and particularly to critical remarks from people touched by his doings, his methods tend to become the best he can have. But often this is not the case and often the specialist considers the problem to be solved only from the perspective of his specialism. Then his method has become a one-way approach. This can be fatal in cases that the problem involved is not purely technical in the sense that it concerns mere things, but if men are involved in it, so if the problem concerned actually is a human problem. For people tend to interpret what a specialist does in their own ways, and these ways are often different from what the specialist had thought out. Then it can happen, and it often does happen, that what was thought out by the specialist takes another turn than expected. Look around and you’ll see how often this occurs. You simply need to have an open eye for it. However, many policy makers keep their eyes closed and that’s why their policies so often fail.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Confusing mind and brain

The Meuse near Charny, Meuse, France

A single water molecule doesn’t stream but a river does. Nevertheless a river consists of a countless number of water molecules. Also the countless number of water molecules as such don’t stream. So if we want to study fluvial processes like erosion, the velocity of the flow, the friction between the current and the riverbed and so on, we do not study the movements of the water molecules but we study the river. We don’t say that the molecules erode the landscape but that the river does. Or, a different example, we do not say that the water molecules reflect the sky but that the river does. Confusing river and water molecule is what Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake. In the same way it is a category mistake to confuse mind and brain. Just as a river cannot exist apart from the the water molecules that produce it, so also the mind cannot exist apart from the neurons and what else makes up the brain. In this sense the mind is the brain. Nevertheless it is a category mistake to reduce a typical phenomenon of the mind like thinking to a phenomenon of the brain and its neurons. It is not our brain that thinks but our mind does, i.e. “we” do. Seeing it in a different way is making a category mistake.