Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Theory-Theory, Cognitive Maps, Absolute Mind, Historical Knowledge, and Social Self-Creation

I am talking about the same problem with many different labels.

My latest writing has made me return to theory of mind a little bit. I've been trying to think again about 'theory-theory', in which philosophers believe that people understand one another by using unconscious/tacit mental theories to make inferences about other people's mental states. Or to put it another way, that we understand other people by using a mental process that (when made explicit) resembles the deductive logic characteristic of scientific method.

I don't know how much I understand theory-theory. In the past, I think I have made careless references to it without really understanding it. But I'm trying to think about it again.

I think that there are a lot of other ideas that remind me of theory-theory. One is the idea that of 'mental mapping', which I have learned about from Chris Frith, Guy Claxton, and Nicholas Humphrey. They maintain that the brain does not function as a passive perceiver of reality, but that the brain actively constructs our perception. Perception does not work from the outside in (with the brain objectively and passively observing reality), but from the inside out (with the brain actively constructing our perception in order to try and predict reality). Humphrey claims that this was an understandable step in our evolution, as we began to process greater amounts of sensory input the brain needed to come up with new ways of understanding reality. At some point, the amount of sensory information becomes to great to handle at once. So, Humphrey claims, the brain began to build models of reality, augmenting it with sensory data as necessary. This means that what we perceive is not necessarily reality, but our brains model of reality.

While other animals, like monkeys, also possess this type of cognitive mapping, I think that this has unique implications for humans. Namely, because of our unique capacity for complex language. This is when the work of people like John Searle, Roger Smith, and Ian Hacking become useful. All of them claim that knowledge of humans is reflexive, and therefore language has the unique power to change what people are simply by telling them what they are.

Searle argues that all of human institutional reality, which is defined by the existence of deontic power, is maintained by language's ability to create something simply by declaring it to be. He calls this a 'status function declaration'. It is a statement (a declaration) that creates something that functions only because its status has been collectively accepted (a status function). A good example is a cocktail party: it only happened because someone said it would happen. But that status function rests on other ones, like the notion of property. Someone can only have a party because they 'know' that they 'own' a certain space defined as an apartment or house. But that notion of property rests on another layer of status functions, namely, the existence of money and economic institutions. Money doesn't function for any other reason than that we collectively regard it as working. But even further, that money can't exist without political and military institutions, which are also the result of status functions. Nations only exist because of language, and so much of military organization (if not all) occurs along national lines nowadays. As you can see, our social existence is maintained by many layers of status functions that buttress one another.

Now, what does this mean for the issue of mental modeling? Well, what it means is that our mental models, unlike that of say monkeys, is open to a wider range of possibilities. On pure speculation, i will say that apes and other animals are probably dealing with smaller amounts of data, a smaller world of possibilities, and their mental maps would therefore be more static, more consistent, more stable.

Humans, however, have a more (linguistically) diverse environment, and their mental maps would therefore be more flexible, more plastic. I sometimes wonder whether it has something to do with neuroplasticity. As I understand, humans brains are far more plastic than most animals, and change throughout our lives. Could this somehow be connected to the fact that language makes our mental models less stable and more variable? Just a side thought though. Back to the main issue.

So if language is unique in giving humans a more complex and constructed social reality, and this means that humans mental maps are more diverse, then how can we gain knowledge of what it means to be human. Smith claims that evolutionary and physical science will never provide an adequate understand of what i means to be human. That knowledge of being human is unique in that it is reflexive, to tell someone what they are is to change what they are. As a result, scientific knowledge will never pin down a precise and unchanging 'human nature', because our very nature will be changing with the conversation. I remember a quote, 'humans are by nature indeterminate'. Something like that. It is in our nature to be diverse creatures whose practices and thoughts change with our language.

Smith, therefore, claims that the conversation about being human must turn to historical knowledge. People are, he argues, what they say they are. Historical knowledge of what people say it means to be human is therefore knowledge of being human. This is what Hacking refers to as historical ontology. Hacking follows Foucault in his claim that we can only understand the nature of our being if we can understand the historical conditions that have created our being.

So, if human nature is in constant flux, and historical study, the study of texts, can tell us what it means to be human, what does this mean for the human nature of the future? Well, Smith puts it strangely: "the answer to the question, 'What is human?', lies in the history of the forthcoming answers" (Being Human, 15). What Smith ultimately advocates is the prospect of human self creation, 'the creation of human nature'. This is indeed an idea with considerable historical precedents. Vico, Collingwood, Croce, Foucault, Searle, and others have all discussed the way that humans create themselves through language and history. And with my reading on neuroplasticity, I feel more convinced that humans are capable of creating themselves through language and culture.

So there are two more questions I want to ask myself. If the human mind and human nature are plastic things that are created through language and historical processes, and the task thus becomes the purposeful creation of that nature, how is one to go about it? Well, I have two ideas. The first involves a diagnostic step. The second involves a thought I have about the purpose of political and social policy.

Before we can take steps to purposefully create our society, we need to know to some extent what it is that our society is. We need to assume a modern attitude (in the Foucaultian sense), and we need to examine history to understand what it is that is going on in our society. What are the problems we see in our society? What are the status functions that are governing people's experiences and causing these problems? What are the institutions maintaining the social/linguistic world that is making these things possible? Or, to put it in Foucaultian terms, what is the character of the episteme that is maintaining the current discursive regime? Or, to put it in Collingwoodian terms, what is the character of the current 'absolute mind' of society? Perhaps this could even be called a question if 'ideology' (I think for Zizek it could be). It is so interesting how society is so governed by 'thoughts' or 'ideas' in this very large sense (which I hear Hegel talks about). I wonder if Searle has any affinity for German Idealism (or Collingwood's idealism). But in any case, because society is constructed by language, status functions, ideology, ideas, so on, we need to take time to understand the historical basis for the current state of society. This means studying the history of language, ideas, etc.. Only if we can understand the historical basis for our social experience will we be able to understand why peoples mental maps are the way they are, why their tacit theories exist in the form that they do.

The second part would be one that is more decisive, more progressive. It would be about making a major social change, and trying to enact this change at the level of individual mental maps. We need people to behave differently, we need people's mental maps of reality to change. So how to do this?

Well, to answer this question I would like to make reference to an article I read for a military sociology class. The author claimed that there are two layers of rules on every naval vessel (or military institution). There is the explicit layer of rules which are stated clearly and directly to people. But then there is a second layer of implicit rules that are not stated, but are somehow brought into existence by the explicit rules. On the highway, for example, the speed limit is 60 mph. But clearly everyone drives above the speed limit and not everyone is arrested for going 65 or 70 mph. Explicit rules cannot always be directly enforced, and they give way to this secondary, implicit, cultural rules. This is what Zizek says is the level of habit. He says that to know a society's habits is to know the meta-rules that dictate how explicit rules are applied. I would say that this level of habit can also be thought of as the level of mental mapping.

The task of policy, therefore, is not to create the best explicit rules, or to specify the rules of an ideal society and hope that people obey the laws. Rather, policy should be approached in a meta fashion: we should think about how the explicit rules are going to interact with the secondary world of meta rules, of culture and habits, of minds and their mental maps.

Historical knowledge should therefore help us develop policies that are aimed at reshaping a society's culture, and thereby its habits, its mental maps. This could potentially happen if we were to regard policy not as an end in itself, but as a means to reshaping the world of culture that it rests on. This is a crucial lesson of the reflexive nature of human knowledge: we cannot know ourselves without changing what it is that we are. And in the same way we cannot create policies without those policies changing what it is that we are. What we should really be considering is how those explicit policies are going to create a ripple in the social and cultural world. And thus try to create policies that are going to ripple in the ways that we want them to. We need to know that human nature is essentially about change, and try to create policies that are about actively creating society, and not about maintaining it. Hmm, perhaps the argument about the reflexivity of human nature implicitly endorses liberal/progressive politics. That is kind of what it sounds like.

The last thing I will say is more of a side note. I want to know what would be the most crucial status function, the most important layer of society to address and change. Zizek and Marxists and all that think it should be the economy. And part of me is really starting to understand that and agree with it. That type of thinking will require so much more research. But I wonder.

But no doubt historical knowledge has quite a lot to do with the possibility of human self creation, which I think must have something to do with policy change.

This writing will probably be going in my latest essay 'Relationships and Mediums: Habits, Historical Knowledge, And Self-Creation'. This writing was super on the fly. But I really enjoyed this last hour or so of writing. And I think I worked out some interesting stuff. Hmmmm. Retroactive freedom fits into all of this somehow.

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