30 September 2016

Components of Social Reality: Social Reality (I)

This is part one of a five part essay on the philosophy of society, mainly based on John Searle's book The Construction of Social Reality, but drawing on sources that will be familiar to my readers:, including works by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Robin Dunbar, and Michel Foucault.

~ Introduction ~

One of the major problems for modern philosophers is how to get from the world of quantum fields, particles, waves, energy to the world of governments, money, pubs, etc. These domains, so far apart in scale and properties, seem irreconcilable. So much so that some sociologists openly deny that physicists know anything about the world and vice versa. Proponents often take up extreme versions of idealism ("the world" is only our minds) or realism (minds are only matter). The kinds of knowledge that are produced, the methods used to obtain it, and the language used to describe it all seem to be worlds apart. Attitudes become trenchant. What can be done to bridge these two domains? This is task that John Searle set himself in The Construction of Social Reality. He starts at quite a high level. Having already written about mind and it's relation to reality in The Rediscovery of the Mind, he mostly takes he conclusions there as read.

This essay is the first of a series that both outline and modify Searle's theory of social reality. After a recapitulation of the main points of my series of essays on layered reality, I'll begin with the cornerstone of Searle theory, i.e. functions.

~ Core Philosophy ~

Many prominent physicists are committed to a worldview in which reductionism is the only principle on which we can understand anything, i.e. metaphysical reductionism. I've explored how this approach to ontology fails to account for the observed world. The fact is that sociology does not reduce down to physics. At least some elements of sociology are irreducible because the object of study is groups of human beings interacting. One cannot make sociological observations of individuals, though in fact lacking company many of us find imaginary friends of animals to talk to. Rather than take up such an extreme position, we have to hedge our bets. To the best of our knowledge, the world is made of matter and energy. But this substantial stuff is made into complex objects. This combination of made of (analysis) and made into (synthesis) are central to my approach to ontology (and I owe the insight to Richard H Jones 2013). In many cases complex objects are not simply aggregates of their constituents, but have properties that only emerge when constituents are bound into structures.

Chemists distinguish between mixtures and compounds. A mixture is an amorphous aggregate in which the constituents retain their identity and physical character. The physical character of a mixture is a simple aggregate of the properties of the constituent. In a compound the individual character and existence of the constituents are lost and made into a new entity that must be seen as an entirely new phenomenon. In a compound, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has unique properties that are not properties of the constituents without structure. Structure makes a positive contribution to the world.

Thus we have to treat structure as a real component of the world. The world is not simply matter and energy. The world is matter, energy, and structure.

In previous essays I've tried to outline the dynamic that pertains to hierarchies of structures. Structure adds something real to the universe; complex structures (i.e. structures made from structured constituents) require us to adopt a hierarchical, structured approach to describing and understanding the world (which we can infer maps onto a world with levels of complexity). As we observe more complex objects on greater scales, we are less likely to be able to explain the properties of higher levels of structure in terms of physics; less likely to be able use mathematics in our descriptions and more likely to resort to narratives. The behaviour of higher level phenomena are constrained, but not determined by lower level properties. In general the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because as we add structure to matter, new properties emerge and interact with each other at that level and above. By the time we get to biology, fundamental physics only makes the broadest of generalisations and explains very little about what is actually happening. Psychologists and sociologists have very little recourse to physics as an explanatory paradigm, because it doesn't explain things at these levels.

These facts require that we adopt an ontology that is substance reductionist ("made of") and structure antireductionist ("made into"). No other approach to ontology can cope with a hierarchically structured world.

Prominent humanities scholars have argued that all knowledge is social and that there is no underlying reality on which facts can be based (cf Lyotard 1984). I haven't written much on the background of post-modernism, because it has never really seemed credible or interesting to me. I attempted to read Derrida, Baudrillard, and Lacan in my adventurous youth and found nothing to help make sense of my world. Post-modernists were/are more interested in undermining attempts to make sense of the world, i.e. in non-sense. Barthes' Mythologies did seem to me to be entertaining, though not very useful. Of the French philosophers, only Foucault seemed to be saying anything of value, though even he seems to deliberately obscure his contribution in execrable writing. I get onto my understanding of Foucault's contribution to this issue later in the series. Notably, Searle and Foucault were friends.

My understanding of epistemology is that as individuals our perception of the world is limited by the fact that what is presented to consciousness as the world is in fact processed and filtered by our minds. It's as though every sight we see has been craftily photoshopped to highlight some features of reality, and to distort or even hide others. These representations are accurate enough to help us navigate the world, but always contain irreducibly subjective elements. Kant called this idea, transcendental idealism.

I have complained that the approach to knowledge that ends with transcendental idealism, that devolves into thinking of philosophy as mere language games, is fundamentally solipsistic. I've called this the solipsistic fallacy (See The Problem of relativism. 20 May 2016). It's a fallacy because when we join forces and compare notes, we can identify and eliminate the purely subjective elements from our window on the world. Comparing notes on experience allows us to infer that there is a world that we sense and interact with and that is independent of our observing it. We can accurately infer knowledge about this world and we find that on our own scale (the mass, length, and energy scales we can sense unaided by technology) that the world is much as we expect it to be from experience. On the other hand technology has, since the early 1600s, shown us aspects of the world at different scales that are quite unexpected and counter-intuitive, not to say virtually impossible to fully understand.

If our ontology is both reductive and antireductive, then in order to seek knowledge we have to apply methods of both analysis and synthesis. Analytical methods reveal the constituents of phenomena. It can be very valuable to know this as it enables us to understand how changing the constituents changes the phenomena. Analysis can lead to systematic accounts of domains of phenomena - like the periodic table of elements. Synthesis involves looking at systems as wholes. A physicist may seek to break phenomena down into matter and energy, for example. And create general laws of how matter behaves. This allows us do do things like send a probe to a passing comet using minimal energy and send back information on what the comet is composed of. And this enables us to infer something about how our solar system was created. By contrast a biologist studying an organism may well be interested in what the organism is composed of. These days a lot of effort is going into analysing DNA and corresponding proteins, or into identifying neural correlates of behaviour for example. But a biologist must also study the behaviour of the whole, living organism. And in order to make sensible deductions, they must ideally see their organism in its natural environment, interacting with it's own kind (kin, mates, offspring, peers, etc) and with other organisms (parasites, symbionts, competitors, predators, prey, etc).

Our world is both made of stuff and made into stuff. In order to know our world we have to attack the problem at both ends. To be one sides is to be half-blind to the world.

The world I am talking about is immanent, real, and entirely natural. If there were a supernatural or transcendental world, then we have no way of gaining knowledge of it. The existence of a supernatural world would have, could have, no impact on human beings. Furthermore, this process of collective empirical realism has only come into focus since the so-called Copernican revolution that began in the early to mid 1500s*. Though in principle it was always available to us, the necessary insights and the motivations to use it seem to have been lacking or were overwhelmed by myth and religion.
Like many historians I date the start of science from the publication of Copernicus' theory of a heliocentric universe in Dē Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543), though he was known to be thinking in heliocentric terms by at least 1514 and may have been influenced Arabic theologians.
In summary, my nascent philosophy employs an ontology which is both substance reductive and structure antireductive; and an epistemology which acknowledges the limit of transcendental idealism for individuals, but argues that the limit can be breached through collective empirical realism. The world so described is monistic, real, immanent, and natural. Methodologically this requires both analytical and synthetic approaches to seeking knowledge. At present I'm not aware of any other person who takes precisely this stance, though there is significant cross-over with the various people who have inspired it. There are certainly other approaches to ontology and epistemology. Some of them endorsed by genius-level experts. But this is the only way I can see to encompass both physics and sociology; and to bridge the apparent gap between them without claiming that one or other does not exist. This is the only philosophy, so far as I can seem, that does not end in that intellectual or practical cul de sac of dividing the world into real and unreal.

However there is important discontinuity to deal with and that is the fact of conscious states in animals, and self-conscious states in particular. Here I take my lead from John Searle's book, The Rediscovery of the Mind (1994). My essay Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism (2 Sep 2016) attempts to provide a brief introduction to his philosophy of mind. In this view consciousness is a neurobiological process. Conscious states are qualitative, subjective, and unified. There is no valid ontic distinction between mental and physical phenomena, we live in one world, at most. But there can be valid epistemic differences. The details of how this works in practice are slowly emerging from the collective empirical realists practices of science (observation, comparing notes; conjecture and refutation). The legacies of metaphysical reductionism and scientific materialism, and the current obsession with computation are hampering our efforts to study consciousness qua consciousness. Instead a lot of effort goes into studying mind as an illusion, mind as the activity of atoms, or mind as a computer. Bottom up, analytical approaches which look at neurons or brain sub-structures are making progress, but little synthetic work is being done on the brain as system that does not already assume that we know what kind of system the brain is. For example a lot of effort goes into trying to prove that the brain is a kind of computer; or that rule-based Game Theory accurately predicts human behaviour. But quite obviously the brain isn't a computer, and Game Theory makes outrageous assumptions about people and doesn't predict their behaviour (so at this point those pursuing these avenues are not doing science, because their null hypothesis is already refuted). No rule-based theory of behaviour is ever going to be accurate, the reasons for which I will attempt to set out in the fourth essays in this series.  

Hunting Hephalumps
I'm increasingly seeing conscious-ness as a problematic concept. As David Chalmers defined the problem of conscious-ness, conscious states—memories, perceptions, cognitions, etc.—are part of the easy problem. It is the abstraction—conscious-ness—that constitutes the Hard Problem. It occurs to me that it's a hard problem precisely because it is an abstraction. Abstractions do not exist outside of our minds. More precisely, abstractions are produced by and in human minds. And when thinking in terms of abstractions we do so almost exclusively in metaphorical terms. Treating conscious-ness as a distinct phenomenon rather than an abstraction is like treating what I see when I look in a mirror as a being rather than a reflection. So the search for objective knowledge of this abstraction is doomed to fail. The Hard Problem guys are hunting a hephalump. What we have is a series of conscious states, not the nebulous abstraction conscious-ness. The aspects of subjectivity, qualitativity, and unity amongst conscious states is a feature of conscious states, not proof that an abstraction is warranted. 

In any case these are the parameters of my current thinking about life, the universe, & everything: substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; describing a mind-independent, immanent natural world; which we understand through transcendental idealism as individuals, and collective empirical realism when we join forces and compare notes. Knowledge seeking requires both analytical and synthetic methods. Conscious states are a higher level property brain states. Consciousness is a dubious concept.

My sense is that philosophers have a problem with solutions that work, and continually and artificially generate problems because problems are more interesting and better for an academic career than solutions. Searle seems to be a exception to this general trend. I'm interested in making sense of the world, so far as that is possible; and with solutions where they are available. I also embrace the more literal version of Occam's Razor and am disinclined to invent entities to explain what is as yet unexplained: a mystery is always better than mysticism. I'm not interested in undermining sense, or endless invented problems without solutions. The more I turn my mind to actually thinking about things, the less interest I find I have in what low-mid level academics have to say about anything, or in Buddhist studies in general. 

Having cleared and prepared the ground, the question now is, "How do we get from the basic facts about the world and conscious minds, to a philosophy of society?" Not only is this a fascinating study in its own right, but as I will try to show, it demonstrates why a constructive approach to ethics is best. We begin with functions.

~ Functions ~

The first point that Searle makes is that we can distinguish intrinsic features of phenomena from observer relative features. Phenomena may have both. Intrinsic features are those features which an phenomena has regardless of the observer, or whether there is an observer at all. Searle uses the example of an object: a screwdriver.

It is an object made from wood and metal. The materials an object is made of don't vary from observer to observer. We don't find one person saying it's made of porcelain and asphalt and another saying it's made of beetroot and beetle wings. That the object is made from wood and metal is a stable fact about the object. But the fact that it is a screwdriver is dependent on the observer understanding what a screw is and what a screwdriver does to a screw in the hands of a competent user. There are people alive on the planet who've never seen a screw and would not see the screwdriver as tool for turning screws.

When I think about this, I also see that worked metal might be unfamiliar to a naive observer. It is lower level features like mass, shape, texture, resistance, etc that are observer independent. Colour, which might be expected to be in the same category turns out not to be observer independent (cf. Seeing Blue. 6 Mar 2015). For the sake of argument, however, let us stipulate that the materials that make up the screwdriver are intrinsic features of it.

For anyone who knows what a screwdriver is, the object in question is a screwdriver. No one familiar with such tools will mistake it for, e.g. a hammer or a egg whisk. One might, in pinch, use a screwdriver as a hammer, but screwdrivers, don't make very good hammers. Even if we misuse the tool deliberately we still know that it is a screwdriver. So "it is a screwdriver" is a fact. Observer relative features of an object are created by the mental states of the observer. So "screwdriver" is an observer relative feature of the object, so it is not an ontological fact. If the observation "the object is a screwdriver" is not ontologically objective, but it is a still a fact, then what kind of fact is this? Such facts are epistemically objective. The observer knows that it is a screwdriver, but the observer has to exist in a certain context in order for them to know this. What is the ontological status of such epistemically objective facts? They are ontologically subjective. A screwdriver is only a screwdriver because someone thinks it is a screwdriver. It certainly has intrinsic features that make it amenable to the function of turning screws, but that function depends on the observer conceiving of it as such.

So in thinking about the intrinsic versus observer relative features of objects we have identified three kinds of facts.
  1. Ontologically objective facts: e.g. it is made of metal and wood;
  2. Epistemically objective facts: e.g. it is a screwdriver;
  3. Ontologically subjective facts: e.g. the function of a screwdriver is to turn screws.
We have said that a screwdriver can be used to turn screws and that this fact is an ontologically subjective. It turns out that all functions that are not identical to intrinsic features are ontologically subjective. That is to say, that as human beings we can impose functions on objects that are not implied by their intrinsic features and when we do this, it is how we conceive of the object that creates a new fact about it. A screwdriver is not intrinsically a screwdriver, but becomes a screwdriver when we conceive of it as a tool for turning screws.

A feature of how human beings conceive of the world is that when we see objects we think of how we could use them. We even have a special neurons, called canonical neurons, for modelling how we can or might interact with three-dimensional objects. This feature of perception is a central feature of the philosophy of embodied consciousness associated with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (amongst others). Our understanding of objects is shaped by how we interact with them, either practically or potentially. And this in turn shapes how we construct abstractions and use metaphors to manipulate ideas. The phrase "to manipulate ideas" is an example of the metaphor IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. Once we make the connection between ideas and objects, once we map the source domain onto the target domain, then any manoeuvre that applies to objects, can be applied to ideas: we can grasp them, turn them over, throw them around, kick them into the long grass, juggle them and so on. Metaphors such as this are constitutive of conceptual thought. This parallel between Searle and Lakoff is important because it gets to the same conclusion through very different means, though, so far as I can tell, the parallel is not explicit in the work of either man. In fact they both teach at the University of California, Berkeley, and I suspect some back-story to the fact that there is unacknowledged overlap between their approaches to philosophy.

So functions, as perceived by humans, are always observer relative and imposed on objects by human beings rather than being intrinsic or related to intrinsic features. Functions always involve ontologically subjective facts, i.e. facts that are only true relative to observers, but which are nonetheless true. The existence of ontologically subjective facts is important for Searle more generally because in his view consciousness is ontologically subjective. And as the screwdriver example shows, we can have epistemically objective facts about an ontologically subjective domain. Searle has many more examples of this relationship: money, government, cocktail parties, etc. He shows that just because consciousness is ontologically subjective, it does not mean that we cannot have epistemically objective knowledge of consciousness. This observation by Searle may be his single greatest, and at the same time his most under-rated, contribution to philosophy.

This observation about functions being imposed by human beings is of central importance to understanding social reality because so much of what constitutes social reality consists of objects and people performing specific functions. Once we see that functions are observer relative, subjective, and imposed, then we are well on our way to understanding social reality. What we need next is to show the role of collective intentionality in creating social and institutional facts and this is the subject matter of the next essay in this series. 

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

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.

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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