28 October 2016

Norms without Conscious Rule Following. Social reality (V)

This is Part V of five. Part I is here.
“It is the duty of every citizen/resident of any country, nationals as well as expatriates to know the basics of the governing laws of the country one resides. Ignorance of the law or unawareness cannot be pleaded to escape liability.” ― Henrietta Newton Martin

The drift of Searle's philosophy of society to this point may well seem overly rational, mechanistic even. Institutional facts are constituted by rules, which invoke rights, duties, and obligations, and these define who we are and how we behave. Even if we allow that the rules of society evolved organically or that we follow rules unconsciously, there remains some doubt about how accurate a picture this can be. 

Perhaps it is only observing that people seem to break rules all the time, whether by accident or design, but rule-following humans seems a doubtful ideal at best. Or perhaps it is the fact that few people know, or can know, more than the basic outlines of the laws that govern their daily lives. Or that an anthropologist can write a book about social customs that are transparent to the people who live by them quite religiously, but opaque and obscure to outsiders (see for example, Kate Fox's Watching the English). The fact is that we intuitively know the informal, unspoken, rules of our society, but we'd all struggle to list them. It takes a skilled anthropologist many hours of situation-specific, close observation to figure some of them out. We seem to just know how to behave and what we can usually get away with. Even our objections to bad behaviour don't reference explicit rules. We don't cite chapter and verse, we just say "uh-uh, no." or "that's rude!" or whatever.

Searle believes our behaviour is often consistent with, and even shaped by, social rules, without having direct recourse to them. However, before we can address this issue directly, we need to establish another plank in Searle's philosophy. So far he has identified three essential aspects to society: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers. All that we have done so far, all the conclusions we have reached, emerge on the basis of understanding these three concepts and how they interact. Now we need to introduce a fourth concept: background capabilities or simply the background .

~ The Background ~

For intentional states to make sense, humans must make use of contextualising information. This involves metaphysical concepts like space, time, and causation (à la Kant); but also familiarity with social and physical environments. Take the example of the verb "cut". If I ask you to cut the cake and you fire up the lawn mower, then you've made a mistake. Similarly if I ask you to cut the grass and you whip out a carving knife. The verb cut is ambiguous and we have to be sensitive to the conditions: cutting grass and cutting cakes are similar actions, but require different tools and different methods. There are several other object/tool specific meanings of cut: cutting trees (chainsaw/axe); cutting hair (scissors), cutting a hedge (clippers); but also metaphorical uses, e.g. cutting school, cutting code, cutting the cheese, and so on. But if you are a native English speaker, you've probably never tried to cut a cake with a lawnmower.

English is especially rich in such variety and thus ambiguity, but all languages have it to some extent. The lack of a one-to-one relationship between language and the world vexed many a philosopher of the past and many attempts have been made to eliminate synonyms and ambiguity from natural language or to construct artificial languages which lack it from the outset (See Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language). However, the first generation of children who speak a language immediately start introducing ambiguity again.  

What this shows is that we do not interpret sentences only at the level of bare semantic content, it's not enough to know what cut means in general sense, one has to understand from the context which act of cutting is being referred to and adjust one's understanding accordingly. This is to say that we understand language pragmatically also. For a native English speaker the distinctions in the use of cut are understood effortless and the kinds of mistakes I noted about for cut seldom if ever occur. We don't hear the word cut and then consult an inner table of the possible meanings and sometimes chose the wrong sense. In fact, we hear the sentence and we just know which sense is intended. The meaning of most spoken sentences is simply apparent to us effortlessly and in the moment (or perhaps even slightly before the moment).

In George Lakoff's theory of categorisation, words invoke frames that consist of relevant image schemas and metaphors. The frame "cake" involves a prototypical cake and the relation of any specific cake to that prototype. The frame of "cake" also consists of all of the actions that we associate with tree: baking, decorating, eating, and, of course, cutting. "Cut" also invokes a frame. Cutting the cake is the overlap of the categories and frames. Again our ability to invoke appropriate frames seems effortless. We just known how objects fit into our world.

Expectation is a considerable part of perception (see also comments under the heading "Cognition and Time", in my essay The Citta Bottleneck1 Jul 2016). Expectation helps us to parse sentences in real time, and provides an easy avenue for humour, where the punch-line of a story disrupts our expectations we tend to find it funny. Here's a couple of my favourite one-liners from the inimitable Milton Jones:
Italians, eh? With their slanty little eyes... no wait, that's italics.
So I phoned up the spiritual leader of Tibet, he sent me a large goat with a long neck... turns out I phoned dial a llama.
We can anticipate where a sentence is going, using clues from our knowledge of the social context and the present conversation. It's much harder when we don't know someone well. Someone who has only recently learned a language and does have to resort to referencing memorised rules, cannot cope with the speed of natural conservations between native speakers. "Speak more slowly" is one of the most useful phrases for a beginner learning a new language. 

Something similar happens for perceptions (see Rolf Degen's blog). As Searle puts it, when we perceive something "the perceiver assimilates the perceived object to some more or less familiar category" (133). Though he is not referencing Lakoff directly, the crossover is obvious. If I see a parade including a great dane, a german shepherd, a beagle, a dachshund, and a chihuahua I have no problem identifying all these as types of dog (nor do they have a difficulty, because they all smell like dogs) and relating them to my prototypical dog. Searle's point is that this aspect of familiarity is effortless and transparent. Most of the time, we are not following any classification rules either consciously or unconsciously. We just know, because assimilating new experience to our existing set of categories and frames, gives it an aspect of familiarity. We can analyse how categories work as Lakoff does, but in daily life our use of categories is mostly effortless and transparent. I see an unfamiliar breed of dog, and I just know it's a dog of some kind. I'm not going through a check-list comparing the dog with features of a conscious prototype or anything like that.

Anyone who has travelled will know the simultaneous feeling of familiarity and unfamiliarity. For example, when you get off a plane in India having come from Britain, the differences can be striking: the heat, the different languages, the smells, etc; but then you still line up at customs and immigration, show your passport to a functionary, walk out and collect your baggage; catch a taxi to a hotel, drive in a car, along streets; see houses, people, trees, animals. In a city like New Delhi one can get by with only English, find a wifi hotspot, visit an excellent museum,buy an espresso, and eat a meal, just as you might do in London or Birmingham; but then be unsettled by a cow wandering down the street, a beggar suffering from some horrible skin disease, or a passer-by spitting a vast quantity red paan juice onto the footpath.  Everything is different and familiar at the same time.

Of course things can get a bit vague at the edges. There are cases when we are not sure what something is. Our first response to a a completely novel experience is to try slot it into what we already know, or at least relate it to the categories we have available. The more novel experiences we have, the more we can expand the range of categories we have available to categorise experience. This is why we talk about mind-expanding experiences, and count travel as one of the more significant of them.

In both cases—language and perception—there is a lot of background processing going on that helps make sense of our intentional mental states. But these processes are not themselves intentional or conscious. Often these are not processes that we could bring to consciousness. We've noted three background capabilities already: interpreting spoken language; interpreting perceptions; and the aspect of familiarity. Why aren't the background capacities just the same as following rules unconsciously? 

~ The Rules ~

There is a real problem with the idea that people follow rules that determine their behaviour. Searle puts it like this:
"Here is our paradox: We want a causal explanation that will explain the intricacy, the complexity, and the sensitivity of our behavior as well as explaining its spontaneity, creativity, and originality. But we only have two paradigms of causal explanation, and neither seems adequate to explain the relations of individuals to social structures. One is the paradigm of rational decision making according to rules, principles, and the like, and the other is brute physical causation and therefore non-intentionalistic and not rationalistic." (141)
I've focussed on Searle's example of money, so let's continue with that one. What do we know about money so far? It is an ontologically objective fact that a £5 note exists in the form of paper/plastic and ink. However, money per se is ontologically subjective. The £5 note is money because we agree that the note represents wealth, where wealth means control of things agreed to be of value. But it is also an epistemically objective fact that a £5 note is money. There is no need to justify using a £5 note in exchange for goods and services, because it is universally acknowledged that a £5 note does represent wealth. Such facts cannot be grounded in physical reality, only in social reality. How we feel about having a £5 in our wallet is epistemically subjective.

The system of money is very complex. In the UK the government delegates monetary policy to the quasi-independent Bank of England, founded in 1694 to fund the then King's overseas wars. The Bank of England manipulates the value of a pound by setting base interest rates, by printing money, and by buying up debts from other banks (aka quantitative easing). The Bank of England is managed by a Governor and a monetary policy committee who regulate and supervise the money supply. They also supervise the minting and printing of currency. Our currency is traded on international markets and it is currently plunging in value against the Euro! Then there is a whole body of law dedicated the process of exchanging money for goods and services, including consumer protection, advertising practices, and so on. 

Most of us who use money are at best only vaguely aware of how the system of money works. We may from time to time check to see if a particular note is legitimate and not a counterfeit, but mostly we use money without any reference to the underlying reality or otherwise of money, wealth, or value. We do not reference the rules for the creation of money or wealth or value; nor the more detailed rules of exchanging money for goods and services. When we hand over a £5 in exchange for a purchase in a shop, no negotiation necessary: customer and clerk simply exchange one for the other despite the volumes of laws that govern the transaction. 

The system of money is almost entirely transparent to most people, most of the time. Indeed people can be completely mistaken about the nature of money and still participate in the system. For example people may believe that they can still exchange money for gold if they turn up at the treasury; or that money is only created by the government (just 3% of money is cash and 97% takes the form of debts issued by banks). A lot of people still think that banks lend from deposits, which hasn't been true since the founding of the Bank of England. When we take it out of our wallet to pay for a pint of almond milk, we may be completely unaware of all the many factors that impact the value of our £5 note, from inflation/deflation, to international trade and exchange rates. This doesn't stop us using money. As long as we can identify the face value of the tokens and count, then we can use money. 

The point is that when we use money we are not referencing the rules of money. We may not even know the rules that govern the creation, supply, and value of money and we could even have erroneous beliefs on these subjects that would not hamper us. When we learn about money as a child, we mainly learn how to count tokens and to reckon what change we're owed. If we are lucky we learn the value of money and the virtue of saving money. More likely these days we end up in debt and paying a substantial fraction of our income to a bank as interest payments for the rest of our lives. In fact most transactions these days involve waving a bit of plastic with a microchip at a sensor and don't involve physical currency at all. The physical representation of money is as bits on a disk in a server farm that could literally be anywhere in the world.

So the idea that the use of money is an example of rule-following behaviour is really nonsensical. With some effort we can discover what the rules are. We can describe the rules. And the rules do in some sense dictate how money works, but the rules do not prescribe our behaviour, even though to use money effectively our behaviour must be consistent with the rules! And we haven't even touched on the fact that people deliberately break all the rules pertaining to money.

There is a strong parallel here with grammar. Language is highly susceptible to analysis into semantic units, syntax, and grammar. Rules for language use can be discovered and described in great detail. The first example of this is a text called, Aṣṭādhyāyī. This a grammar of Sanskrit written ca. 300 BCE by the Gandhāran scholar, Pāṇini. However, when we are speaking, we are not following rules. In an animated conversation, sentences fly back an forth at speed with no time for rule based analysis. Every adult who learns a new language starts off learning the rules of spelling, syntax and grammar. They consciously parse sentences. They may attain a certain level of fluency. When they meet native speakers they find that the conversation goes too fast for them to consciously parse what is being said. Conscious rule-following is too slow for real life. Doesn't this just mean that we follow rules unconsciously?

In order for us to unconsciously follow the rules, we would have to know what the rules are. As I have already pointed out, most people have only a very basic idea of how money works and a substantial portion of those have a false idea of how money works. But this does not stop them from using money. I have used money in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, USA, India and the UK. I don't have any specific knowledge of how money works in any of these except the UK, because I only started to pay attention to such things after I emigrated. 

When I paid 10 Baht to catch the monorail in Bangkok, I just picked out a 10 Baht note and handed it over in exchange for a ticket. My ticket allowed me onto the train. The train took me to a stop by the river and later back to my hotel. I have no idea how the Thai government manages its money supply. In fact I didn't know a single word in a Thai language. Money is simply money. Tickets are tickets. Trains are trains. I have the requisite background capabilities to use a train pretty much anywhere, though India was a stretch, not because of how their money works, but because of the sheer number of people and trains.

Similarly I learned to speak English as a child and was never presented with detailed grammatical lessons at school. At best I could identify a verb and a noun, but I had no reason to do so most of the time. The first time I even thought of this as a disadvantage was long after I had completely 5 years of university education and I met some students who were learning English as a second language. They asked me a grammatical question about a part of speech. I had no idea how to explain which form to use, though I knew with certainty which form was correct in the example they gave me. I had no rules to refer to, but I just knew the right form to use. It was not until I taught myself Pāḷi from Warder's book An Introduction to Pali, that I got any substantial education in grammar. Later I studied Sanskrit at Cambridge University my teacher taught me how to systematically parse a sentence. I learned rules of grammar and how to consciously apply those rules to analyse an unfamiliar sentence. As a result I became competent in unravelling Pāḷi sentences. I can now do a basic analysis of an English sentence. But I didn't need this ability in order to use the language. 

Searle uses the example of baseball. When you first learn to play baseball, you have to memorise the rules: bases, innings, sides, pitcher, batter, catcher, fielder, strikes, fouls, catches, in, out, runs, turns etc. One has to coordinate the physical actions required to play the game. But people who get good at baseball, or any skill-set, forget about the rules and just play. The rules guide the development of dispositions that result in behaviour that generally follows the rules without being rule-based. This is why sports need an umpire or referee, someone whose job is to consciously keep track of the rules and make sure play is legal. Athletes play to the best of their ability, but they often inadvertently break the rules. If sports were a matter of following rules, they would proceed a lot more slowly, and there would be fewer fouls. Of course sometimes players deliberately commit fouls—so-called professional fouls or cheating as it is more commonly known—but most examples of rule breaking are inadvertent. Good players are relying on background capabilities to guide their actions and keep their efforts within the rules of the game, while they think more strategically. In team sports the players are not only playing their own game, but also have to keep track of what the others are doing, not to mention the opposition. 

When learning any new skill, we start off learning rules, and our performance is halting and often inaccurate. But if we get good at anything, if we attain fluency, the skill must be transferred to the background, it becomes a background capability.

What kind of mechanism would support this? The idea of rule following would require the law to be encoded in our brains, and decisions on behaviour to be constantly assessing which rules, and sets of rules, are applicable and then referencing the content of those rules in order to formulate an action. This is the model of the brain as computer. But it turns out that the brain is not a computer, at least not in how it approaches the rules of society or sport. It is, not surprisingly, rather more like a neural network (See de Bono 1990).

We know that the micro-structures of the brain are constantly changing in response to experience (Kolb et al 2003). Learning and memory, are not simply a matter of storing and retrieving information in a static brain. The brain is not simply a container, but is changed by experience. When we learn, neurons grow new dendrites and new synapses are formed. It's also possible that entire new neurons grow, though the macro-structure of the brain does not change after we reach physical maturity. As we continue to perform an action like counting money, learning a language, driving a car, or playing baseball, there is a corresponding change in the brain at the cellular level. Connections between neurons increase in density. Skills that are neglected correlate with a corresponding reduction in connection density. The neurophysiology of learning and memory thus support Searle's contention that we are not usually referencing remembered rules, but rather relying on dispositions (or strengthened neural pathways) that develop once we learn the rules and reinforce them through repeated performance of related actions. With these dispositions in place we begin to behave in ways that are consistent with the rules, without actually referencing the rules. There is usually a point of mastery of a skill were we cease thinking consciously how to do it, and just do it. And this is why we just know how to behave without reference to rules, even though rules exist and out behaviour is consistent with those rules.

With this last plank in place we have everything that we need for a philosophy of social reality. The last two chapters of Searle's book are an elaborate defence of Realism, which I won't go into. In any case I have proposed my own defence of Realism (see Buddhism & The Limits of Transcendental Idealism). It remains now to make some final comments on this series of five essays which have introduced and critiqued Searle's social realism. 

~ Final Conclusions ~

By combining four concepts—1. functions, 2. collective intentionality, 3. deontic powers, and 4. the background—we have arrived at a quite sophisticated overview of how societies function.

We can analyse societies in terms of rules of the form, X counts as Y in C. Such a rule describes the situation where collective intentionality accepts or indeed imposes, an observer relative function on an object or individual. Such functions change the status of X in the minds of those who participate in the context. That X counts as Y becomes a fact which is ontologically subjective, but epistemically objective. When everyone agrees that the function applies, then it does apply. A £5 note is money, because everyone involved considers that it it money. This is collective intentionality. In view of this, the £5 note does not just function as money, but it has the status of money as well. It has a status as legal tender and as a symbol of wealth and value. It is necessary that the £5 have the status accorded to money in order to function as money. Therefore we refer to status-functions.

Especially when applied to people, status-functions come with rights, duties, and obligations; i.e. with deontic powers. Status functions thus empower individuals and are governed by conventional power. Prime Minister is an observer relative function. X counts as the PM when they are the leader of the party that won the most recent general election. In the UK this means that if the party leadership changes mid-term, as it did in 2016, then we have a new PM without requiring a new election. Being PM comes with status as the leading executive and chief policy maker of the UK. The head of state approves the new PM by convention. The PM is formally addressed as "Prime Minister"; where the title is an indicator of the status of the person functioning as leader. Some status-functions require indicators such as uniforms or other special clothing and accessories (especially hats), titles, implements, residences, and special deference shown to them by others.

Contra Searle and following de Waal, I argue that rudimentary status-functions exist in chimpanzee and bonobo societies, specifically the alpha-male and/or alpha-female. However, I agree with Searle that the possibilities enabled by complex human language overwhelm such rudimentary status-functions and language is constitutive of human societies. Communication in the absence of language is necessarily rudimentary. 

While at times we make rules conscious, most of how society works is through background capabilities. We learn rules as infants and those rules allow us to develop background capabilities and competencies that make our behaviour rule-consistent, without being rule-determined. Our ability to develop these background capacities is what was formerly known as character. Such rules as become apparent to us through analysis of society are not the whole story. For the most part we are not conscious of the rules, nor following rules unconsciously. Instead we rely on dispositions developed after an early stage of life and encoded as dense connections in our neural network. The neuroscience of neuro-plasticity provides the mechanism for Searle's background capacities.

Thus we have social norms without conscious or unconscious rule following. And thus society is not reducible to rules or rule-following individuals. Society is what emerges when a social species lives in social groups and establishes social norms. It is important, to me at least, that in explaining how society might work that we have not explained away or denied the existence of society. The arch Neoconservative, the late Lady Margaret Thatcher, once insisted that there was no such thing as society. Her elaborate state funeral was a most elegant refutation of this misunderstanding. Society is an ontologically subjective, but epistemically objective fact. It emerges when people live and work together, and not just people, but mammals and birds of many kinds also.

Lastly, the foundational principles on which mammal and bird social groups work—empathy and reciprocity—are the basis for the evolution of morality. This will be the subject of my next essay, but for now this concludes my survey of Searle's philosophy of social reality.

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Bono, Edward de (1990). I am Right - You are Wrong: From This to the New Renascence: From Rock Logic to Water Logic. Penguin.

Diamond, Jared. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Penguin.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/foucault-power-en-html

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Kolb, B., Gibb, R. & Robinson, T. (2003) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12(1) 1-5.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-09-children-overeagerly-social.html/ [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-07-toddlers-people.html July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.
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