Philosophy of the Social Sciences essay
Tue, 24 Apr 2018This is an essay submitted for Philosophy of the Social Sciences, as part of my MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.
According to some philosophers, mental states are holistic. When we rationalize action, inferring back from people’s actions to their beliefs and desires requires knowing more about further beliefs and desires. Donald Davidson captures the point in the following words: “When we attribute a belief, a desire, a goal, an intention or a meaning to an agent, we necessarily operate within a system of concepts in part determined by the structure of beliefs and desires of the agent himself. Short of changing the subject, we cannot escape this feature of the psychological; but this feature has not counterpart in the world of physics” (2001: 3). Why does Davidson think that the holism of the mental makes the prospect of understanding people scientifically – the prospect of a science of the social - so difficult? Discuss and critique.
Davidson has not written specifically or extensively on holism of the mental, mentioning it within his essays Mental Events (1970) and Psychology as Philosophy (1974) as part of arguments on the impossibility of psychophysical laws; that is, laws in which mental states cause or entail physical states (Davidson, 2001). Holism of the mental should also not be confused with the parallel idea of semantic holism: that the intended meaning of any term depends on the meanings of all other terms (Jackman, 2017). As a result, I have focussed on what I understand to be the likely implications of holism of the mental, drawing in part from discussion of mental explanations in Rosenberg (2015). While I will accept that holism of the mental poses difficulties, I will offer some ways in which they may, to some extent, be overcome.
The essay will be structured as follows: In section 2, I describe Davidson’s view of the role of mental explanations of behaviour, and indicate how the differ from physical explanations. In section 3, I acknowledge the difficulties posed by holism of the mental. In section 4, I suggest some ways in which progress might nonetheless possible.
- Mental and physical explanations of behaviour
Our usual way of explaining human behaviour is with mental or psychological explanations. These are used intuitively by most people, hence are sometimes referred to as “folk psychology”. Mental explanations are sets of beliefs and desires (or more generally any such propositional attitudes), that, combined with other beliefs and desires, rationally justify the observed behaviour. For example, we say that a man carried an umbrella because he believed it might rain and desired not to get wet. Not all behaviour can be rationalised this way, for example mere (unintentional) behaviour, but we designate as action that behaviour we can explain by beliefs and desires. Mental explanations are subjective (dependent on how we interpret the action) and implied rather than objectively observed.
Physical explanations are of the type more typical in natural sciences, and involve identifying objectively observed initial conditions, and laws (perhaps but not necessarily physical mechanisms) that determine the resulting outcome. In the case of human behaviour, we may expect it to result from an initial physiological state (including the state of the brain), via physiological mechanisms. Unfortunately, explanations of this type have been of limited use within social science, as behaviour depends greatly on variation in the state of the brain, and this cannot currently be known precisely enough to form accurate predictions.
Davidson believes that mental explanations are the appropriate ones for human action (2001, p239); that psychology should take philosophy as its template instead of the natural sciences like neuroscience or even physics. However, as Davidson recognised, mental explanations have limitations, which I will consider in the next section.
- Difficulties posed by mental explanations
According to Davidson’s understanding, mental explanations consist of beliefs and desires logically implied from an individual’s behaviour. This logical process of implication requires us to assume many of their other beliefs and desires. For example, if we see someone choosing chicken from a menu, we would likely imply that they desire chicken, but this logic relies on them being able to read the menu and believing that the item was in fact chicken. We may practically consider one belief or desire to be the primary reason for an action, but this is only because we have taken for granted other beliefs or desires, and the lack of further beliefs and desires. Holism of the mental means that no belief or desire can be deduced with certainty, each requires the assumption of others. Furthermore, we can never rule out a belief or desire: we can always explain additional actions by supposing additional beliefs and desires.
Because actions are more correctly explained by an individual’s full set of beliefs and desires, we can often explain action in multiple ways, and our choice cannot be objective. For example, on seeing a man picking up someone else’s umbrella, one viewer might explain it as him mistakenly thinking it is his own, while another might explain it as him intentionally stealing. One could interpret this indeterminism as suggesting that no set of beliefs and desires can ever be considered the correct one. I dispute this point; there exist some beliefs and desires that we would maintain even if we had all possible evidence of the individual. However, we must accept that more evidence may change our view of which alternative is most plausible, and the difficulty that this uncertainty adds to our being sure of our beliefs and desires.
Finally, other factors, beyond beliefs and desires, can have an influence on our behaviour, blurring the scope of mental explanation. Davidson refers to this problem as that of the mental not being a closed system, as it is affected by non-mental factors (2001, p224). For example, I may believe that there is an apple on the table, and I may desire the apple, but if my belief is mistaken I will not take the apple. Similarly, if someone else takes the apple before I can, then I will not take it. Sometimes the effect of these factors are captured by ceteris paribus conditions which recognise that people may act differently when circumstances change, however these are generally vague and in practice circumstances will never remain constant. We cannot expect to have law-like generalisations if we accept that they are susceptible to these other factors.
This section highlighted a number of reasons why our efforts to develop mental explanations have largely failed to provide law-like generalisations necessary for a rigorous science of the social. However, I do not believe the endeavour is totally hopeless, and in the next section I will suggest some ways in which these difficulties may be overcome, at least to some extent.
- Hope for improving the power of mental explanations
Holism of the mental means that every belief or desire depends for its significance on the person’s total structure of beliefs and desires. I argue against such a complete interdependence. I accept that some beliefs and desires are fundamental, and influence many other beliefs; for example, our belief that we should generally communicate honestly, or our desire to have the things we think will please us. However, I argue that there are clusters of desires and beliefs that do not depend on those in other clusters, and some desires and beliefs on which no others rely. In addition, I argue that some beliefs are sufficiently specific that they will seldom, if ever affect the operation of other beliefs and desires. As a result, if we incorrectly determine some of an individual’s beliefs and desires, it will not necessarily contaminate all other beliefs and desires, or all predictions.
While the beliefs and desires within mental explanations are usually derived logically, I believe that as neuroscience develops, we will have opportunities to objectively identify some. Already, FMRI analysis is able to determine neural correlates of aspects of our decision-making: that is, measurable physical activity in the brain that differs in a consistent way with our mental states (Rosenberg, 2015, p68, 117). As we better understand these correlates, we will be able to make physical observations to determine what certain mental beliefs and desires are likely to be. To give an analogy from the natural sciences, the recognition that mercury expands in a consistent function of experienced heat significantly increased chemistry’s ability to accurately measure temperature and therefore experiment (Rosenberg, 2015, p67). I acknowledge that what we currently know about the way the brain works is vastly outweighed by what we don’t know, and we most likely will not ever have full knowledge. However, it would be surprising if neuroscience’s ability to understand the basis of mental states, remained constant over the next 50 years.
Finally, rather than settling for vague ceteris paribus conditions that make mental explanations untestable in practice, I believe that considering the factors that undermine intentional action will allow social science to develop. If we can understand specifically when lack of willpower prevents us from acting rationally, or when environmental factors will outweigh or alter our behaviour, we will be able to make falsifiable predictions and develop them into useful law-like generalisations. For example, rather than seeing wealth maximising behaviour as something that people do just sometimes, we will be able to define a restricted set of contexts when we can genuinely expect people to act that way.
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