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.

21 October 2016

Power: Social Reality (IV)

This is part IV of a V part essay. Click here for Part I

"The structure of institutional facts is the structure of power relations" (Searle 1995: 94)

I've been working through John Searle's philosophy of social reality. Searle is concerned with the question of how we get from physics to society, and his book The Construction of Social Reality focusses on the last step, from conscious organisms to society. I have been reviewing Searle and commenting on his ideas, comparing Searle with Lakoff and with ideas from primatology and anthropology. In the last essay got to the point where Searle points out that power pervades social realities. Power in this context is conventional, i.e. it arises from collective intentionality of social animals; and it is deontological, i.e. it is expressed as rights, duties, obligations etc, and in the way a social group monitors and enforces them. 
"Everything we value in civilisation requires the creation and maintenance of institutional power relations through collectively imposed status functions." (Searle 1995: 94)
Effectively, society is a set of deontological power relations expressed in status-functions, where a status-function is defined as an ontologically subjective function imposed on a person or object by collective intentionality, which grants them/it a status within the social hierarchy, and empowers or prohibits actions related to that function. Such functions require constant monitoring and adjustment to ensure that they do express our values. Equally, what we value will largely depend on the rights, duties, and obligations impressed on us from birth. Hence social groups are inherently socially conservative.

Whether there are universal human values or not is a vexed question that divides philosophers. See, for example, articles on Moral Relativism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and/or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Whether or not the values expressed in the deontic features of any social hierarchy are universal, we can say that there are common mechanisms for enacting values, by which I mean the imposition of status-functions and the fact that these are associated with rights, duties and obligations. I plan to return to the theme of universal values in a future essay on the evolution of morality (in development).

There are important differences in how societies handle conventional power related to the scale and technological sophistication. Amongst hunter gatherers, such as those studied by Jared Diamond in the highlands of New Guinea (2012), who live in societies with populations around Dunbar number of 150, there are no specialised roles with relation to moral governance. Everyone is in everyone else's business, hierarchy is fairly flat, and status is largely informal. By contrast in a large society like the UK, population 65 million, we have legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government, divided into many areas of responsibility, as well as a civil service providing policy advice and administrative support; we have multiple security agencies, police forces as well as tax collectors, customs and excise agents, and immigration officers; and we have highly trained specialists in law and advocacy. The UK is not just a federation of four different countries, but contains a number of sub-societies with their own values (e.g. there are regional divisions within each of the federal states).

In each case, the underlying structure of the constitutive rules is the same, i.e. X counts as Y in C. A person counts as royal, an official, an officer of the law, or a citizen because collectively we agree that they do. We may require the display of status-indicators, such as special hats, uniforms, titles, or forms of address, but just as often the status is simply widely acknowledged. My status of "foreigner" is evident every time I open my mouth in England, though the fact is that all of my ancestors going back several centuries were English. I often find my ancestry is more English than locals because they have admixtures from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or even France and I do not. But when I was born, the land on which I was born, formerly claimed by the British Crown, was a separate nation state. So I am arbitrarily a foreigner. And treated as such. 

In the New Guinea highlands everyone one knows what everyone else is doing. Despite the dense rain forest, activities are mostly group oriented and privacy is rare. Under these circumstances, selfishness is extremely obvious, so most people are constrained by group norms to be prosocial most of the time. As mentioned previously norms are reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations. In the UK privacy is valued and widely experienced, but we also have almost ubiquitous CCTV surveillance of our public places, as well as routine government surveillance of all electronic communications (thanks to Edward Snowden for making this illegal practice public). Selfishness or clique-orientation is evident most of the time and in many modern ways of thinking about human beings, selfishness dominates (e.g. game theory, economics, behaviourist psychology).

In a small scale society people do not have identity crises because they are told who they are, and it is enacted in everyday life by their whole village. By contrast, there is considerable confusion and public debate as to what, if any, values are at the core of being British, especially when and identity is often rooted in smaller, regional, class, or ethnic units. For a large number of Brits the football team they support plays an important part of their identity. Being a "supporter" comes with its own rights, duties, and obligations. 

Societies don't just impose status-functions on members, they police and enforce them. Members of the group are raised from infancy to be good members of society, i.e. to follow behavioural norms and respect hierarchies, though this observation is complicated in large, divided societies, especially if one is a member of a minority community that is discriminated against. The important point here is that the individual is trained to hold themselves to account for the rights, duties, and obligations that society places on them. But the society, the state, also has duties and obligations in addition to rights. The role of the state and the acceptable methods it may use in pursuit of that role is a complex and hotly disputed topic, but broadly speaking we expect the state to work for the benefit and prosperity of its constituent citizens. And this is what all states say they are doing, whether they are in fact doing it or not.

Discussion of power, surveillance, and the state leads us to Michel Foucault and his investigations into the subject, into what it means to be a subject, and the processes of subjection.


~ The Subject ~

Of the three main philosophers I've referenced in this series of essays, i.e. John Searle, George Lakoff, and Michel Foucault, I know Foucault least well. This is partly because he is the least accessible by a considerable margin. Though he apparently spoke clearly in conversation, he wrote in the French obscurantist style, which was not improved by being translated into obscurantist English. So I hope any Foucault experts who happen to read my rather impressionistic take on the philosopher will indulge me. Perhaps I'm vague or even inaccurate about the details of Foucault's thought, but I hope that the intuition of a relation between Searlean and Foucauldian philosophy is at least valid. Foucault seems to me to have said important things, and to be perhaps the only 20th Century French philosopher who did. Searle grounds Foucault in a more realistic, pragmatic, and above all clear exposition of how society functions. Foucault never made so much sense to me as when I was reading The Construction of Social Reality.

In the section of my essay Spiritual III: Demenses of Power (20 Jun 2014) in which I explored some of Foucault's ideas, I wrote:
"The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces... Virtually everything I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being."
This is consistent with the social philosophy outlined by Searle. In this view, "self" can be considered either as an aggregate of the status-functions imposed on the individual by society, or as emerging out of them. As Foucault observes, this happens with the willing participation of the individual. In Searle's terms "I" is the X term in the relation X counts as Y in C, and Y is the various roles we play in our lives; or in other words "I count as a son", "I count as a Buddhist", and so on, in all the innumerable relations I have to society, where society is the context in which I have these status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. In Foucault's (1983) words,
"This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects."
Again, from commentary in Demenses of Power
Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. 
We can see that even before reading Searle I was seeing social life through a deontological lens under the influence of Foucault (perhaps Searle was also influenced by Foucault?). Social norms take the form of authorisations and prohibitions, but they are ultimately a product of collective intentionality. What Searle does is show why this is so and how it works in more detail. I stand in a relation to society where my (hierarchical) status and function within society is defined by the collective intentionality of society. By collective agreement, I count as various categories of member of various groups. There are kin status-functions: sibling, parent, extended family, etc.; age related status-functions: infant, child, teenager, adult, elder; occupational status-functions: student, manufacturer, CEO, manager, etc; class status-functions: proletarian and bourgeoisie, or  worker, capitalist, and land-owner; marital status-functions: single, married, divorced. And so on. There are racial, national, ethnic, religious, governmental, and ecclesiastical status-functions. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all governed by status functions.

*As already pointed out, these ontologically subjective status-functions are structured in the same way in which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) have showed that metaphors are structured. A suitable source domain is mapped onto a target domain so that the target can be discussed as if it is the source. This is to say that target counts as source for the purposes of abstraction (this is to the best of my knowledge an observation not made before). Such metaphors are what enable and structure abstract thought. Arguably social relations are abstractions from social interactions, and this means we only understand them using metaphors. Thus the imposed status-function seems to be metaphorical in structure. Again, status-functions are ontologically subjective and thus we cannot reference objective reality to ground them as truth. Social status is true, to the extent that truth is relevant here, only because it is agreed to be true. Society is an ontologically subjective phenomenon.
* A reader has pointed out a conceptual problem with this paragraph that I have yet to resolve and need to think about. Take it with a grain of salt in the meantime.  J. 25.11.2016

Some of statuses are accompanied by formal status indicators like special hats, wedding rings, passports, or uniforms; some more informally by clothing or hair cut (compare how we identify a hippy, a football supporter, a punk-rocker, or a Buddhist monk). Some statuses are indicated by our accent, pronunciation, or word choices. In the absence of status indicators, we take our social cues from behaviour, mannerisms, etc. If people think of me as a writer, then for the purposes of society I am a writer and can be discussed with respect to that category. But if I am a writer then society expects me to behave in the manner which they consider a writer should behave. Even new acquaintances subtly coerce me into adopting a stance appropriate to the status they are granting me. I am a writer, then where is my writing published (in academic journals and in self-published books). Why is my spelling so bad (which is easy I have mild dyslexia). Searle has a lot more to say about status-indicators, but I'm going to gloss over them for the sake of brevity.

Each of us is deeply embedded in a network of status-functions, all of which require collective-intentionality, that collective includes the individual qua subject. We expect people to be subjects to the collective will and we take either evasive or hostile action against non-formists - freeze, flight, or fight are our basic stances with respect to any threat, and non-conformity is often a threat. Collective intentionality, then, imposes status functions on us; it shapes us as a subject. By the time we reach an age at which we might think of defining ourselves, we are already completely defined. The idea that we can define ourselves is also something inculcated into us by our society. A typical result is the group of rebellious teenagers who signal their rebellion by wearing identical, branded, clothing. Rebellion is really only conforming to some other norm. Often the only way to really redefine ourselves is to severe links with our community of origin and move away. Even so we take our self-beliefs with us and when we arrive we meet a wall of expectations from any new community we might join. And without community we die slowly or go mad, or both.

As a member of a group, I cannot simply take on any role. I must get people to agree to accept me in that role, often by undergoing a defined process of education, preparation, and testing. On the other hand one can become the class clown or the village idiot, merely through persistent repeated behaviour that is consistent with that role. A wily South African project manager once told me that if a team he was managing was under performing he would call a meeting and deliberately start an argument with one of them and then escalate it until things got quite heated. In the aftermath the team would typically start working together much better: nowadays I would say that this is because conflict engages our emotions. In the aftermath of the conflict, hierarchies and social roles like leader, peace-maker, etc are established. In other words the after the shake up the groups becomes a normal human social group with defined roles. We know were we stand and can work well together. The slogan at the time for the phases of group formation was "forming, storming, norming, and performing". I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in coming essays. But most of this social jockeying takes place below the waterline of consciousness. We cannot help ourselves because at heart we are social primates.

Most roles that we serve in are ones that are chosen for us, before we ever think about what role we might want to play. The choices we do make are made within a context that is internalised very early on and reinforced every waking minute of our lives. And the point is not to say this is good or bad. This is simply the way primate groups work. There is some influence on temperament from genetic inheritance, the quality of parenting we receive, and our early education. Experience does contribute. But who we are is as much to do with how other people see us, as with how we see ourselves. This is why it can be hard to get society to changes its views about people. Type casting is not only a problem for actors. But it also means that most psychotherapeutic models are completely wrong. 


~ Conclusion ~

What follows is a conclusion and summary, but is not the last word on the subject. There's an obvious flaw in the theory as presented that Searle tackles towards the end of his book and which I will outline in the next essay. Still, now is the time to pull everything together and see what conclusions we can draw so far. Searle concludes his 2012 lecture on social reality with a hierarchical list. What follows is my adaptation of that list. What we have here is a powerful explanation of how social groups exist based on just three concepts: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers:
  • Consciousness is a high level, neurobiological state, wholly caused by neurons, but none-the-less irreducibly subjective. 
  • Conscious states enable human beings to imagine functions for objects or people that are not intrinsic to them, and to impose those functions on them.
  • All such functions are observer relative, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective and can become institutional facts.
  • All institutional facts are, via collective intentionality, status-functions.
  • All status-functions are created and maintained by applications of status-function declarations (i.e. by language or something which approximates it).
  • Some status function declarations require status-indicators.
  • All status-function declarations create deontic powers.
  • All deontic powers give people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations.
  • Deontic powers hold societies together.
Human societies only exist because of status-functions. We reach the level of complexity we do because our status-functions are represented linguistically. Non-human animals also have societies, but they are very much simpler in structure and functions. They are more like proto-societies because the roles and hierarchies have to be communicated through physical interactions, though arguably these still have a propositional, language-like, structure.

In science the vocabulary is created by observing reality. Social reality, by contrast, is created by the vocabulary. As Searle says, language is constitutive of human society. And here we see why a constructivist approach to development and ethics, a la Kegan and Chapman. All social norms, including moral rules, are constructed, collectively by the society in which they function. Rules find their value in being declared by someone higher up the hierarchy and agreed to by everyone. being a member of any group means subjecting oneself to the norms of the group. If those norms are not established, then the group will fail. All social institutions like moral rules are constructed within the context of social reality, which means that they are observer relative, ontologically subjective,  and epistemically objective. There is no recourse to reality to justify moral rules, which is why some people say that science cannot tell us how to live. Social reality is itself a construct, it also  observer relative, ontologically subjective, and epistemically objective. On the other hand I will argue in a forthcoming essay that evolution highlights the basic capacities that animals have evolved to enable social living and that these form the basis for the ethical principles that inform moral rules. Science can tell us how we do live, help us to make that conscious, and help us to see what is consistent or inconsistent with our being a social primate; where consistency approximates well-being and inconsistency approximates ill-being. 

Searle's outline of how social reality comes about relates to Foucault's study of the subject. Our sense of self and all our social relations are status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. The sequence here is important. We tend to think the sequence, beginning with the brain, goes like this

brain - conscious states - subjectivity - social reality

But in fact it goes more like this:

brain - conscious states - social reality - subjectivity

In other words social reality precedes and shapes subjectivity. Under the influence of Romanticism, Victorian philosophy, and psycho-analysis we've had this the wrong way around for almost 200 years. The emphasis on individuals over society is counter-productive at best and catastrophic at worst. Individuals only exist in a social reality. Outsiders tend not to prosper. On the other hand a degree of eccentricity can be beneficial in societies. Nowadays I would balance this with the need for a science of Amistics - the study of the impact of technology on society. 

So presuming that we can get from physics to consciousness states, we can get from consciousness states to social reality and out of social reality comes subjectivity. As a philosophical framework this seems clear enough. However, in terms of the science, we still don't have a clear route from physics to conscious states. We can get from fundamental physics to brains, but while it's beyond reasonable doubt that the brain is responsible for conscious states, we don't know exactly how this works. And many of the best researchers are chasing down dead-end leads. I've become very wary of the abstraction "consciousness". Abstractions are governed by metaphor, so in discussing consciousness we can only ever do so as if it were something more fundamental. Conscious states, though subjective, are less problematic.

In the last essay in this series I will look at the proposition, implied so far, that human behaviour is a matter of rule following. The short answer is that it is not, though rules are clearly discernible and we are quite capable of following rules when we need to. This requires the introduction of the fourth major concept in Searle's philosophy of social reality after functions, collective intentionality, and deontic power, which is the background.


~~oOo~~

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

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

Fox, Kate. (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton.

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.

14 October 2016

Deontology: Social Reality (III)

Part III of a V part essay. Begin with Part I, continue with Part II, before reading this part. 

The word deontology refers to rights, responsibilities, obligations, duties, privileges, entitlements, authorizations, empowerments, permissions, prohibitions, taboos, penalties, and other such phenomena. The combination of Greek dei 'it is necessary' with ont 'being' gives us deont 'being required, being necessary'.

As noted in Part II, the imposition of a status-function on an individual, through collection intentionality, implies that they have rights, duties and obligations in relation to their new status. This means that the collective intentionality behind the imposition of the status-function has a deontic power. All status-functions, including those applied to objects, are created by this deontic power; people are expected to fulfil their functions to the best of their ability.

Having passed one's driving test, one is an authorized driver. But as a driver, one is obligated to follow the formal and informal rules of the road. There is both formal and informal surveillance on drivers; and both police and other drivers have sanctions they can impose. Similarly membership of a group always has at least informal rights, duties, and obligations, sometimes these are simply inherited. If I join some friends at the pub, there are some pub-specific rules (see for example Fox 2005), but mostly the local norms for social interactions apply.

Generally speaking we have little choice about which status-functions we are assigned and almost no choice about the rights, duties and obligations that come with status-functions. For the most part we don't get to design our social role. We are like actors who say the lines in the script and follow directions, but who strive to make the part our own. We may shine as an actor, but we don't get to change the play. As in real life, play-writes are rare. Or we might be compared to orchestral musicians who follow a score. Occasionally a soloist will stand out from the the crowd, but they too have a score that must be followed. This is the reality for a social animal.

Apart from foraging/eating and sleeping, much of our time is spent on activities related to social cohesion: chatting, story telling, laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, getting drunk, collective work, religious activities, and so on. These are sometimes considered under the head "Leisure Activities" but leisure is a misnomer. For most humans foraging has been replaced by work, though in some small-scale societies foraging (hunting and gathering) is still the main source of food. Both social cohesion activities and work are governed by rights, duties, and obligations. It's only in sleep that we are truly autonomous, but ironically we are not conscious to appreciate it.

Society not only sets up rights, duties and obligations, but it also prescribes regimes of surveillance to ensure compliance as well as roles and procedures for repairing potential breaches of the rules. There are normative rules for what counts as being a good/bad group member. Other group members may be more or less assiduous in policing rules and enforcing compliance. For example, one of the main aims of any group is to manage internal conflict, by defusing tension, de-escalating conflicts, reconciliation after confrontations, consolation of weaker members hurt during conflicts and so on. In modern society breaking some minor rule together may be a social bonding exercise.

Speaking very generally, the paradigmatic deontic power is the authorization for an agent to act or the prohibition from acting, where the potential for acting is defined by one's functions. The deontologies of status-functions are a matter of conventional power, i.e. power that is a matter of convention, as distinguished from brute physical power. We can think of conventional power as emerging out of collective intentionality. Convention authorises and prohibits by co-opting our desire to participate in the group. The desire to belong is very strong in all social mammals. Conventional power can be what authorises the use of physical power, as in the case of the military or police. When we confer a new deontic power we are enabling an agent to act, or compelling them not to act. The group norms define potential actions for any member through modal verbs: i.e. may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, can, could

We can relate this new insight to the general form of the status function X counts as Y in C. Schematically the propositional content of power is:

(S does A)

In other words, someone does an action. Or as a prohibition, not (S does A). So when we say that X counts as Y, we mean that metaphorically there is an identity between X and the function Y; that X takes on a new status associated with carrying out the function Y; and that X is authorized by collective intentionality (agreement) to carry out function Y. Searle puts this in the form:

We accept (S has the power (S does A)). 

This is the basic logic of the deontic power associated with status-functions, which means that it is the basic logic of social relations. And importantly, this means that power is at the heart of social relations. I'll return to the subject of power, however, the most important fact about deontic powers is that they give us reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations.


~ Reasons for Acting ~

This is vitally important. As a member of a social group there can be a tension between what is good for us and what is good for the group. We have to decide how much time or energy to spend on self, family, troop, tribe, and outsiders (Cf Robin Dunbar 2014). And typically this budget goes from most to least along that axis. 

As a social primate we have to be able to unconsciously or intuitively understand our relations to group members and their relations to each other. That is we have to keep track of all the relationships, the rights and duties each individual has with respect to the group as a whole, as well as the obligations that each has to the others. Robin Dunbar observed that our ability to do this is limited by the ratio of our neocortex to the rest of our brain, and that in humans the limit is around 150 individuals. It turns out that hunter gatherer communities and villages in the Domesday Book average out at about 150. Many other examples give this credibility, and 150 is widely known as "Dunbar's number". The Dunbar number for chimpanzees is 50.

As social primates, two basic imperatives vie for our energy: firstly to meet our own needs; and secondly the need to maintain social cohesion through reciprocity with other individuals in our society (what I'm tempted to call the autism-altruism spectrum from Greek auto 'self' and Latin alter 'the other'). Thus, seeing human behaviour simply in terms of the isolated psychological motivations of individuals is a mistake. Everything we do has to be seen in a social context, and the reasons we act sought for in the roles we play in society, i.e. the authorisations, commands, or prohibitions that come from the community. These dominate our lives and typically overwhelm our immediate inclinations.

Most people do what is expected of them, whether they like it or not, because group membership itself provides us with reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations. Most of our training to be good citizens is education in these reasons and the consequences of ignoring them. Thus the local rules of society evolve through mutual reinforcement and are strongly normative (and thus conservative). Everyone is both agreeing to these constitutive rules and ensuring that others are committed to them. This provides positive feedback and reinforces the system. Society is a kind of cybernetic system.

In small-scale social groups that are relatively homogeneous, such training might be largely tacit and informal. Similarly, children in the playground informally and unconsciously establish norms of behaviour and status hierarchies amongst themselves. As a foreign living in England ,I frequently, though usually inadvertently, trespass against unspoken rules of English behaviour that many English people would struggle to articulate. Even English people can benefit from reading Kate Fox's anthropological account of English mores (2005). Such training will often culminate in an explicit transition from childhood to adult in a rite of passage involving a shared ordeal and the imparting of special knowledge.

In a large modern city the rites of passage are almost non-existent and citizenship is something that is taught explicitly. The problem of non-conformity is a real issue. A large society can tolerate a certain level of non-conformity in different strata or classes: a largish number of harmless eccentrics can be very interesting, but a large number of outlaws who threaten the well-being of members makes society precarious. Not only this, but migration may transplant people from different cultures together. This can be invigorating, but primates and primate groups are also stressed by strangers and strangeness. We humans rely on our ability to override emotion to make living in large heterogeneous groups possible. Some of us are better at it than others.

Also consider that even groups that approach the ideal size are still prone to cliquishness and some people define their in-group as only immediately family, or only members of a clique. This means that a person may feel little or no obligation to wider society. Intense in-group acceptance can foster rejection of the out-group. This is true of all criminal gangs, the Masons, religions cults, and many large businesses. Allegiance to a city, nation state is an interesting phenomenon, but this part of the essay is already too long and I need to move on.

If we have the function of "group member" then that comes with benefits in terms of protection and food sharing; but it also requires members to follow the rules and contribute to the well being of unrelated group members (though generally speaking we have no obligations to outsiders). Group membership has costs and benefits. This is not particular to human beings. 

As described by Goodall (1971) and de Waal (2013), chimps have collective intentionality and a few basic status-functions, e.g. troop member, alpha-male, and alpha-female. Chimps experience empathy and practice reciprocity. They have expectations of each other based on gender, age, family ties, group membership, and social hierarchy. Each relation implies different obligations of different strengths.  A female infant could behave differently from an adolescent male for example and still be accepted. Adult males are often indulgent towards infants (though infanticide is not unknown), but once a young male reaches adolescence, he is expected to be aware of the power games of the adults and to behave more deferentially to larger males. If he fails to do so, he may be physically punished for mistakes. An alpha-male takes the role through winning the almost ritualised charging displays. But he must previously have built a coalition of peers who support his bid. Once acknowledged as alpha that support must be reciprocated and rewarded to retain the position. Bonobo societies are structured very differently, with alpha females and males dependent on their mothers, but they too have collective intentionality and some basic status functions. 

There are clear parallels with human society. We are tolerant of infants, but expect more of older children. By adolescence we expect youngsters to have absorbed a sense of what is required of them. The exact age at which someone is an adult is something Western societies fudge, often having different ages for being tried as an adult for crimes, for consensual sex, drinking alcohol, driving a car, joining the army, or getting married. Sometimes an interim period in which the action is permitted with parental consent applies, e.g. in the UK one can marry at 16 with parental consent and at 18 without. Some jurisdictions can try as adults children as young as 10, others treat anyone under 20 as a child. Historically, in the society I grew up in there was a single age at which one became an adult, or reached one's majority.

Recent research (Schmidt 2012, 2016) suggests that human children not only absorb social rules, but very early on attempt to generalise from observations to create norms that they desire in-group members to follow.
"Preschool children very quickly understand individual behaviors and spontaneous actions of others as generalizable, governed by rules, and binding... these findings suggest that, even without direct instruction, young children draw far-reaching conclusions about the social world they live in." (Medical Xpress 2016)
The researchers call this phenomena by the catchy title of "promiscuous normativity". I remember when my half-brother, who is 14 years younger than me, started attending school. Very shortly afterwards "you're not allowed" became a refrain for him. Having been forced to adapt to a new highly rule-focussed milieu in which behaviour was strictly regulates, he quickly adapted but struggled with the fact that the rules did not apply everywhere. His primary-school rules certainly did not apply to my teen-aged self! For chimps and bonobos this situation-specific awareness is less of a problem, but humans frequently compartmentalise into distinctions such as private/public. formal/informal, sacred/profane, and single sex/mixed sex situations, where each has it's own norms.

Power is not simply what the strong use to control the weak, but is enacted in all status-functions and agreed to by all members of a society. As social animals we trade off the costs and benefits of group membership, so that the safety of belonging balances out the loss of autonomy. As well as group members enforcing norms, each member of the group shapes themselves to conform to norms for the sake of belonging. We need to look more closely at what is meant by power which is the subject of Part IV.

~~oOo~~


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

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

Fox, Kate. (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton.

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.

07 October 2016

Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II)

Part II of a V part essay. Begin with Part I.

"The central span on the bridge from physics
to society is collective intentionality."
- John Searle

Stipulating the nature of functions, we now need only add one more ingredient to begin to see how social reality is constructed. This is collective intentionality.

As with my essay on Searle's philosophy of mind, we need to be clear about what this word intentionality means. The word comes from a Latin verb tendere 'to be tense' (probably cognate with Sanskrit √tan, whence tantra). With the prefix in- it comes to mean 'directed at'. "In medieval logic and philosophy, the Latin word intentio was used for what contemporary philosophers and logicians nowadays call a ‘concept’" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). A conscious state is intentional if it is directed at or to objects and states of affairs in the world. Sensations like pain are not usually thought of as intentional, but thoughts about being in pain could be. The phenomena of intending is only incidental to this usage; it is only one kind of intentionality and not definitive.

Searle notes that we humans and many animals do things together. For humans to cooperate requires that we have conscious states which are intentional in the same way, i.e. states refer to the same objects, and to the same goals, at the same time. Suppose that a group of builders are going to build a house. They all have to look at the plans and understand how they map onto the site. They all have to look at the project and know what stage it is at. They must coordinate their activities so that everything that is required (drainage, utilities, foundations, walls, roof, etc) is included in the project and at the right time. They have to cooperate on some tasks to make them happen. This requires that they have common reference points, common understanding, common knowledge, and common motivations. Thus we can say that there is collective intentionality.

A lot of philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, focusses on individuals. But humans are social and any philosophy of mind in which this commonality is not an obvious and significant feature is just not interesting.

Collective intentionality allows us to agree to refer to some object or person as performing some function. And by function here I mean specifically function as defined in the preceding part of this essay. The screwdriver is a rather trivial example, that helps to establish the idea. As I said, the function of screw driver is an observer relative feature of the object. A naive observer could not the intrinsic features of the object and not think of it as serving the function of turning screws. The function requires intentionality. Social reality requires collective intentionality.

Money is a more compelling example. Money can only function as money if we all agree that it is money and act as though this agreement holds. Nowadays the function of being money is almost unrelated to any intrinsic feature of the objects that serve as tokens of money. We require our monetary token be durable, distinctive, and difficult to copy, but it is not intrinsically valuable. Paper money is almost worthless as an object. However, money as such is an abstraction that need not have any physical representation. Money is a symbol: it performs the function of symbolising wealth.

Another apposite example is government. Being a ruler, despite what rulers themselves have said down the ages, is not an intrinsic quality of a person. It's a function that requires collective intentionality. We all have to agree to the leader being the leader. A leader may not even be very good at leading. No one ever said of a water molecule that it wasn't very good at being wet. Leaders cannot lead if followers do not consent to follow. The British political landscape is replete with examples of leaders who the people, party, or government would not follow. 

Searle has created a shorthand for functions:

X counts as Y in C

C here stands for context; the conditions which much hold for us to agree to the imposition of the function. The relation is that there is agreement under certain circumstances to impose the function Y on object/person X. X carries out the function of Y, in a particular context. For example a £5 note counts as money in the United Kingdom if it is issued by the UK government (or certain Scottish banks) consistent with the relevant laws. Barrack Obama counts as "Mr President" for a limited period in the context of having won election to the office and having taken the oath of office. I count as Dharmacārin Jayarava in the context of the having been ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order by Nāgabodhi on my ordination retreat in 2005. I also have the function of son, i.e. I count as a son of Peter and Durelle, in the context of my family; and because they had other sons, I count as brother to them.

Society can be described in terms of rules taking this form. However, keep in mind that rules and collective agreements by themselves don't make a society. Later (Part IV) we will see that Searle does not believe that we follow rules per se, but that rules shape dispositions so that we behave in ways that are consistent with rules, without necessarily referring to them consciously or unconsciously.

As an aside, compare this with Lakoff and Johnson: "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (2003: 5). Metaphors allows us to think about a target domain, as if it were the source domain. In other words, in the context of a metaphor, the target domain counts as the source domain. Once I map the idea of an object onto thoughts, I can verbally apply to thoughts, any action that is relevant to objects. This looks like the same relation as being described by Searle. Can we then say that the nature of Searle's relation is essentially metaphorical? A £5 note is money. Theresa May is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. No statement of this form is true because of some external reality, but only because we ascent to X counts as Y. This probably requires more thought, but I think there is potential for some synthesis here. I may be the first person to notice the similarity, because I don't see any other discussion of it.

Coming back to the main point, money only works because we collectively agree on it. When we stop agreeing, as sometimes happens in countries with hyper-inflation for example, then money stops working. Even officially issued tokens cannot function as money if people lose confidence in them. When a central bank starts issuing 100 trillion dollar notes, as happened in Zimbabwe, you stop taking them seriously and start using something more stable as money or you go back to bartering. Money is a fact, in the same way as the screwdriver was a fact. Money is defined socially by collective intentionality rather than by any appeal to ontology or reality. Searle calls this an institutional fact.

Modern money has no basis in physical reality whatever. It is entirely based on ideas and symbols of wealth; where wealth is itself an abstraction from concepts of value; and value is a concept combined with an emotional response. Money per se is therefore ontologically subjective. However, if I pull out a fiver, i.e. a £5 note, the note itself, the paper/plastic and ink, does physically exist. A £5 note is ontologically objective (the only people who doubt this are philosophers) even though the function and the value of the note are ontologically subjective. As above, the brute physical facts of the note are more or less unrelated to its function as money. Whether made of paper or plastic, for example, a fiver is a fiver. There is no doubt that a £5 note is money and we know it is money, and we know that the value of a £5 note is £5. These facts are epistemically objective.

This differentiation of facts is really very important. We can and do have facts that are not ontologically objective and not in any way related to brute physical facts, not based on reality, but which are still unequivocally facts. Despite not being real in the widely understood sense, such facts are never-the-less true. It is straight-forwardly true that a £5 note is money in the UK and yet this statement has no basis in reality. A £5 note is only money because of the collective agreement that it counts as money. And this relation is true of government, schools, hospitals, roads, clubs, associations, families, parties, playgrounds, traffic lights, etc.

Next time you step out of your house imagine what your world would be like if everyone simply withdrew their consent to follow these rules. Almost everything we see in the world around us functions as it does only because we agree that it does. Almost everything could go the way of the Zimbabwean Dollar. Imagine if we had to consciously decide what was what, and negotiate every detail of every interaction with every person we met. It would be chaotic. The fact that our Western Industrialised world works at all is remarkable, let alone that it works well.

This observation about the nature of social facts has far reaching implications. There is an the argument that because consciousness is subjective, that it does not exist or is an illusion; or another argument that because of the ontological subjectivity of consciousness, that we can never have objective knowledge of it. The same arguments are clearly false when applied to money or any other facet of our social worlds. So why do we treat these arguments as true when applied to consciousness? However, I'm going to leave this question hanging and continue on.

Society would not work well if anyone could declare anything to be money. Money must have some relation to wealth. If there is more money than wealth, then money is devalued.  If money is worth less, it buys less, and we get price inflation. Price inflation devalues many forms of wealth (such as savings or fixed assets). Deflation is also problematic. Managing the supply of money is an important role of government, even though banks create by far the great majority of all money through issuing debt. A government can create more money simply by allowing banks to create more debt - the 2008 financial crisis was underpinned by banks issuing too much debt. For a bank, a debt they issue generates income in the form of interest payments. In economics this is a form of rent (a form of wealth accumulation that requires no effort or labour, but relies on appropriating the wealth of others). So-called "quantitative easing" is sometimes called "printing money", but in fact it involves the government buying debts from banks. This frees the banks to issue more debt, thereby increasing the supply of money. A government does this when inflation is too low and there is a risk of deflation. In deflation prices fall and consumers defer purchases in anticipation of getting a bargain. The lack of demand further depresses prices. Both inflation and deflation are susceptible to positive feedback. There are many historical examples of runaway inflation or deflation wrecking an economy. This whole set up is ontologically subjective, but none-the-less we can have epistemically objective knowledge about it.

We collectively impose the function of managing money on government, which largely exercises this function though regulating banks. We elect the government and thus impose the function of member of parliament (or whatever title our country uses) on those we elect. Government imposes the function of central bank on the Bank of England. The Bank of England has a governor who oversees and implements the functions of the bank, one of which is regulating and over-seeing the behaviour of banks. And so on. Such functions are iterative. We can diagram this iterability like this:


Y1 in context C1 becomes X2 in context C1,2. I've tried to show that the context aspect of this model is cumulative. In line two, the context in line 1, C1, is still important. Hence the notation C1,2. In this case we can see that the relation X1 counts as Y1 is part of the context C2. So not only is the structure of these relations iterative, it is also interconnected. Society is based on a network of interconnected, iterated relations of this kind.

Something else happens when we impose a function on an object or person. With the function comes a status. In order for X to act as Y, we have to treat X as if it is Y. X has to have a change of status consistent with the imposed function. Status and function coexist. As Searle puts it:
"Collective intentionality assigns a new status to some phenomena, where that status has an accompanying function that cannot be performed solely in virtue of the intrinsic physical features of the phenomenon in question." (46)
"Collective agreement about the possession of the status is constitutive of having the status, and having the status is essential to the performance of the function assigned to that status." (51)
In assigning a status to X than enables X to count as Y, we can say that X is empowered to count as Y. The imposition of the function is thus both an act of power and an empowerment to act. So the rules governing institutional facts involve: functions, statuses, and powers. Neither function, status, nor power are related to the intrinsic physical properties of the object or person they apply to; they rely only on the collective intention that X counts as Y. Indeed it is quite possible to appoint X as Y, only to discover that X is not a very good Y. But not being a very good Y, does not stop X from counting as Y, until the collective intentionality is withdrawn.

We now need to look more closely at the issue of empowerment and power.


~ Status and Power ~

When we impose social functions, at the same time we impose a social status on the object or person who carries out the function. The example of money can illustrate this process. A £5 note counts as money. This imposes the function of money on the paper/plastic and ink of the note. By general agreement (i.e. collective intentionality) the note is money. The £5 note has the status that comes with being money. It can be used for all transactions where money represents wealth or value. In the American phrase it is "legal tender for all debts public and private". Status in he human world often comes with a label or title: mother, father, mayor, Prime Minister, priest, cab driver, etc. In some cases, having the status requires some kind of indicator. Examples include a wedding ring, a soldier's uniform, a bishop's mitre, and so on. Other status functions merely require general acknowledgement.
"Where the institution demands more of its participants that it can extract by force, where consent is essential, a great deal of pomp, ceremony, and razzamatazz is used in such a way as to suggest that something more is going on than simply acceptance of [the institutional fact]." (Searle 1995: 118)
The social status associated with the function is important in understanding social reality because status exists in a hierarchy. Human societies, like most primate groups, are constituted as loose, nested, hierarchies. Our position in the hierarchy is to some extent defined by the functions we carry out. And the functions we carry out are largely those imposed on us by collective intentionality. In other words our overall status in any social group is also determined by collective intentionality, more than by features which are intrinsic to us.

At least as important as the bestowal of status along with a function is that "in general the creation of status functions is a matter of conferring some new power" (95). Several different kinds of power may be involved in conferring status-functions: symbolic, deontic, honorific, or procedural. I'll deal with symbolic power here and deontic power in the next essay. For the others see Searle (1995).

The symbolic function refers mainly to powers that we impose on verbal phenomena. Some noises we make with our mouths are count as words; some collections of words count as sentences. In other words language is a power that we humans collectively impose upon our own utterances. Language is not intrinsic to any utterance and many utterances are not language. Without collective intentionality language could not work. The rest of this essay is about language in this sense and how it contributes to social reality.


~ Language ~

Some people invested with a status-function are empowered to authorise new institutional facts, which they may do by making a declaration. A declaration is a particular kind of speech act, i.e. something that we do with speech, rather than something we mean by it. This is the essential distinction between pragmatic and semantic approaches to language; a distinction that Searle was instrumental in establishing. When the Governor of the Bank of England declares, this £5 note is legal tender (by having "I promise to pay the bearer the amount of five pounds" and the signature of the Chief Cashier "for the governor" printed on the note), it becomes, in fact, legal tender. As above this fact is epistemically objective, but ontologically subjective. One of the paradigmatic examples of this kind of declaration occurs in a marriage ceremony.

A modern marriage ceremony has two parts: verbal and written. Typically the couple each declare their willingness to marry, recite vows outlining the duties and responsibilities that each undertakes. If the marriage celebrant is satisfied they then say - "I now pronounce you to be spouses". In days gone the marriage would be a fact at this point. However, nowadays governments wish to regulate marriage so they have imposed a layer of bureaucracy. So once the traditional ceremony is completely, the celebrant, couple, and witnesses have to sign the marriage licence, which is a legally binding contract whose terms are dictated by state law. The signature is another type of declaration - it symbolises ascent to taking on the legal obligations of marriage as defined by the state. Signing the licence is a declaration that one accepts the legal contract. It is only once the paperwork is filed that the state recognises the change in legal status of the individuals and starts treating them as a couple. The declaration of willingness and vows are often felt by the couple to be significant moments in their life. But if they should decide to separate the legal contract dominates the proceedings. Rich folk try to get around state laws by having pre-nuptial agreements that allow one or both spouses to contract out of their rights under state law.

Declarations can be explicit verbal statements like "I do" or printing "this note is legal tender" on money. Or they can be implicit statements. Sometimes a lack of any specific gesture or statement. The English habit of lining up at bus stops on a first come, first served basis is only ever commented on if someone tries to jump the queue. Silently agreeing to line up, without in any way acknowledging any of the other passengers, is a declaration that one accepts that such a queue counts as fair. It is one of the few areas of English society where there is no deference to status indicators such as pin-striped suits. Many of us simply acquiesce to the rules of the society we are born into; a few want to question every rule. 

Language itself only works because of collective intentionality, i.e. we all agree that certain verbal sounds count as words; that certain words count as representing concepts; that certain combinations of words count as sentences, and so on. So language is itself an institutional fact. But language is also special because, according to Searle, all institutional facts must be declared in some form, whether verbally or symbolically (e.g. a signature on a marriage licence); explicitly or tacitly. Language is thus constitutive of society, because it is constitutive of institutional facts. Without language we could not have society. For Searle, language underpins all other institutional facts because they require that some authority declares that X counts as Y, one way or another.

I want to take a brief digression to raise a quibble about this definition. For example, the institution of alpha-male in chimpanzee groups has the same structure. Drawing on an example from Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man: [The Chimp called] Mike counts as the alpha-male of the Gombe Stream troop in the context of having won the charging display through judicious use of empty kerosene cans which make a loud noise when knocked about (this was captured on film and featured in a National Geography documentary t=14:00). Mike becomes the alpha-male and is acknowledged as such by the others in the troop. Therefore the chimps display collective intentionality with respect to Mike. Furthermore this relationship takes the form of a Searlean institutional fact: X counts as Y in context C, but in a non-linguistic setting.

Chimp and bonobo researcher Frans de Waal recently mentioned in an interview on BBC-Radio4 that although chimps can be aggressive, they also actively reconcile after conflicts (peace making) and also console others who came off worse in conflicts (empathy). He notes that even a small male may become the alpha-male if he can form the necessary coalition. And if he does he is expected to reciprocate with offers of food, and allowing confederates a chance to mate with females, etc. In other words the alpha-male gets privileges, but must also share them. Female chimps also play active roles in supporting candidates for alpha and helping to build coalitions. All of this is rather different from the popular emphasis on testosterone laden males fighting it out for dominance. In fact the group has to reach a consensus on the candidate and the role has a good deal of reciprocity built into it (there is a deontological element to the role of alpha-male, a subject I will return to in Part III). This is even stronger evidence of collective intentionality in chimps. I'll be returning to the work of de Waal on the evolution of morality very soon. He has shot to the top of my non-fiction reading list.

So at the very least for chimpanzees, language per se is not essential to institutional facts. There still has to be a "declaration". The alpha male has to put on a charging display; other chimps, especially large males, have to acknowledge the alpha as alpha, and he in return must carry out the obligations of alpha. However, beyond being member of the troop, some family relationships, and alpha-male, chimp society can sustain no other social institutions. Language is what makes complex human societies possible by allowing us to make a large number of status-functions into facts through declarative speech acts representing our collective intentionality.

I noted that these status-functions confer authority for making declarations on those upon whom they are imposed. This suggests that there is a deontological element to status-functions. This turns out to be a characteristic of status-functions. Status-functions impose rights, duties, and obligations on those who carry out the functions. And deontology is the subject of the next essay in the series.

~~oOo~~


~ 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.