Monday, 10 March 2014

Intuition, Imagination and Philosophical Methodology by Tamar Szabo Gendler

(I’m commenting on this book because it took two weeks out of my reading time and was painful. It turned out to be one of those books with which I disagreed on so many levels that I had to set out how and why.)

Perhaps the single most interesting thing Professor Gendler says is about his inability to process the following sentence from an imaginary novel: “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing: after all, it was a girl”. The poor guy blows a fuse at this. Exhibiting a phenomenon he calls “imaginative resistance”, he refuses to imagine a world where killing a girl baby would be the right thing to do. Which is kinda odd, because that would be this one. Killing baby girls because they are girls is standard operating procedure in many cultures, some of which have colonies in the UK and the USA. And a sentence like that is to be found in many feminist dystopias. Most of J G Ballard’s mid-period novels open with a shocker like that. Its function is exactly to push you out of your imaginative rut and accept the imaginative world they going to set up. (He has a similar problem with Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden” he can imagine that there are or were white men who felt like that, but not that that’s the way they should have felt. He’s very PC is our good Professor.)

In one approach to explaining what knowledge is, we take knowledge to be what people know, and knowing to be the primary epistemological act and state. Knowing is believing things for which we have evidence and which are true. It is definitive and certain - because it is true. Knowledge is something people have (though that may be species-ist, of course), and dies with them.

In another approach, knowledge is something that people can have, but exists in some sense independently of knowers. Knowledge can be forgotten, and re-discovered. It is held in books, photographs, academic papers and other media, and also in people’s memories. It can be learned and understood. It does not have to be true, but it does have to be our current best attempt at the truth.

In the first approach, the key mental act is believing. Knowing is an honorific term for those believings that are of true things. Believing is so fundamental that all propositional attitudes are taken to be shades of believing. Which of course gives us a problem when dealing with counterfactuals such as thought-experiments and imaginative fiction. Do we “believe” a thought-experiment, and if not, what are we doing? These are the questions Gendler sets out to examine some answers to.

There are two little problems with the project. The first is that those answers are irrelevant to an epistemologist. Epistemology is a normative discipline, as is Logic. It’s only a philosopher’s job to tell us how we do think, so they can tell us to stop thinking like that as it will only get us into trouble.

The second is that mental states have no relevance to understanding how we think. That may seem odd, but consider that mental states are exactly like the states of a computer while it does something. Two computers may be in very different states and be doing the same thing (because they have different operating systems, hardware architectures and so on). It’s what the computers are doing that matters, not the exact disposition of 0’s and 1’s inside them while they are doing it.

The emphasis on ‘belief’ is a hangover from religious and tribal law and society. The priests and witch-doctors didn’t give a hoot what went on in your grandfather’ head, but they did care that he acted in such-a-way and said specific things on specific occasions. If they said that he did not ‘believe’ they were talking about his behaviour, not his mental state. At some point, probably when someone invented souls, belief-as-behaviour was associated to belief-as-state-of-soul and thence to the “mind". The point of ‘believing’ was and is commitment. You were going to fight for the tribe and the church, you were going to trust the tribal elders and your relatives, and of course, you’re going to wave the flag of whatever political causes have insinuated themselves into your chosen academic pursuit. (cough *Climate science* cough)

(The real reason so many Anglo academics have a problem with Popper? Popperians don’t commit, as the core of his approach is the demand that you specify in advance the conditions under which you would abandon your theory / belief. But if you’re going to get an academic gravy train running, everyone must commit.)

If you are a believer in belief, then thought-experiments and fiction, make-believe generally, is difficult to describe and incorporate into your theory of knowledge. If you believe that belief about the world must be at heart rational, then instincts are even harder to incorporate. Or you banish instinct and make-believe to a nether world of irrationality, and accept that, at times the irrational can guide us despite itself.

One example Gendler takes is Galileo’s famous thought experiment whereby a light and a heavy weight are tied together by a strap and dropped. According to Aristotle, heavier weights fall faster. How fast does our assembly fall? Try working out some of the alternatives: as fast as the maximum, the average, the sum. None quite hold together.

The argument is a rhetorical trick. His audience were a handful of literate Florentines and the scholars of the Catholic Church. These were ingenious, practical, commercially-minded and for all intents and purposes, atheist, men. Faced with Galileo’s argument, they knew very well Aristotle’s ideas could be saved. But at the cost of ever-mounting complexity. The only assumption that sounds neat is that, in fact, all objects fall at the same speed, mod air resistance. It’s not a physical argument at all, but a methodological one.

Gendler thinks the argument is about physics, and wonders how can an argument about an imaginary situation affect our beliefs about the real world. How can that even be legitimate? This drags him into horrible problems, which can all be avoided the moment we accept that we don’t believe a darn thing, but use the assumptions that work best for us. Until they don’t. Then we try some different stuff until we find something that works. (That attitude, of course, suits people with a knack for problem-solving, extemporisation and generally winging-it. That’s a minority and getting smaller.)

If this was phenomenology, I wouldn’t mind. I’m partial to a bit of phenomenology. But it isn’t. It’s an attempt to systematise stuff that really isn’t. In the final chapters he discusses a mental state he calls “alief”. These are propensities to behave in such a way that is automatic, arational, action-generating, affect-laden and prior to anything else we learned. He says that he hasn’t run across this idea anywhere before, which is odd, because regular people call these, “instincts”. Aliefs are, however, a translation of instincts into the language of belief, a kind of “propositionalisation” of instinct, if you will. The trick can be turned, and Gendler turns it, but should we coo and applaud?

Some things make sense. Usually because they have been designed by men to make sense. The rest may not be random, but it sure was a mess cobbled together in a hurry. Thus the human mind. It does the job, but how it does, is, like the making of laws and sausages, something we would sleep better for not knowing.

Trying to habilitate instinct as a belief-related process, and hence a quasi-cognative one, is right up there with ego-psycho explanations of promiscuity. Not because it’s post-hoc, but because it is trying to find pattern and sense where there isn’t any. Galileo’s argument was a trick, and a good one, not an attempt to exploit some subtle state of mind which validly allows reasoning about imaginary situations to influence our beliefs about real situations. Heck, most people don’t allow reasoning about real situations to influence their beliefs about real situations. The process Gendler wants to describe would happen, if it happens at all, in a very small number of minds, mostly, one suspects, minds with tenure.

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