Monday, November 16, 2009

Coogan's Bluff

Joshua Prager has written a sublime, prosaic book about the "shot heard round the world": Bobby Thomson's home run to win the National League pennant on the final playoff pitch of 1951. It has been compared to The Boys of Summer, but it is less parochial, more truthful, and more serious.

Prager's research is both exhilarating and exhaustive. In 2001, he became notorious for an article about the Giants' telescopic stealing of signs. Here it is catalogued in merciless detail.

As are the lives of Branca and Thomson. In a chapter that is a tour de force, Prager interrupts the 1951 season at the playoff to narrate in synchrony their paths to this defining moment: Branca's huge and happy family, Thomson's taciturn father and supportive brother. The intermission takes up a fifth of the book.

It is emblematic of Prager's digressions that the final game itself is paused, as Thomson steps into the batter's box, before the pitch – the swing – Russ Hodges' call – for a paragraph that begins thus:
Pitcher and hitter had both awakened that morning at 7:30 in the home of parents. Both had eaten eggs prepared by his mother, Thomson with a side of bacon, Branca a side of ham.
"We are not so different, you and I." How could we understand this miracle before we knew the breakfasts of which it was made?

If the events of Prager's narrative are deliberately inverted and pulled apart, so too his words. In the first ten pages:
Thus did a bloody digit and enflamed appendix now convene Durocher and Horace Stoneham in New York's center-field clubhouse.
Durocher was obnoxious, would from short instruct his pitcher to throw at opposing batters.
All about the city were starting nines, and the consequence most embraced of its newfound proficiency was the overtaking of New York.
There are dozens of these throughout the book: prepositions, verbs, scattered through sentences to surprise the reader. Meaning waits, as a string of signifiers, names and dates is given sense at last by the missing term, on which everything pivots. Call no man happy till he throws the final pitch.

What is a life, asks Prager? Facts and facts and facts: eggs eaten, girlfriends left, wives kissed and parents grieved. But there is only one fact about Branca: he threw the fastball Thomson hit.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Sole Text of Rational Psychology

Two passages to begin with. First, from Martin Amis, The Information:
"What did they say? Did anyone say anything?"
Yes. The man said, "I'm a child."
"The man said you're a child?" And Richard went back four or five years, to the natural confusions of early speech. "How are you?" he would ask him; and Marco would say, logically enough, "You're fine." And Marco would reach out to him with his arms and say, "Carry you." And Richard would pick him up and carry him…
No. He said I'm a child.
Then the following echo, from Life As We Know It, a memoir by Michael Bérubé:
Well into his second year, in fact, Nick persisting in saying "take him" to his parents whenever he wanted to be picked up. "No, no, take me," we said to him, to which he answered, logically enough, "take you."
Adorable, huh? But such inversions can also be symptomatic: many autistic children call themselves 'you' not 'I'; they struggle to master the conventional use of pronouns. Thus the natural confusions of childhood, logical enough in themselves, are marked as pathology: red flags.

Nor is this just any conceptual muddle, like a failure to grasp that numbers are for counting, or the eccentricity of Wittgenstein's wood sellers, who measure quantity by the area covered by a pile of wood, regardless of its volume. That there is an intimate connection between cognition and the first person concept is a thesis of the Critique of Pure Reason:
It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.
What kind of mind could lack this capacity? What form of thought is available to those who cannot distinguish themselves from others?

These questions evoke a persisting trope in the literature of autism: that of autist as alien. Temple Grandin writes that, for her mother, dealing with her was "like dealing with somebody from another planet." This is the obverse of the notorious defects of social cognition characteristic of autism. Grandin memorably called herself, in relation to others, "an anthropologist on Mars."

In the opening chapter of Thinking in Pictures, Grandin tries to depict the contents of her kind of mind. "Depict" is right, since she is an intensely visual thinker.
Unlike those of most people, my thoughts move from video-like specific images to generalizations and concepts. For example, my concept of dogs is inextricably linked to every dog I've ever known. It's as if I have a card catalogue of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school […] the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane.
This is Berkeley's attack on abstract ideas – and something like Hume's solution. If ideas represent pictorially, and there is no such thing as a generic picture, we have to construct our concepts from images as associative files.

Reviewing Grandin's book in Hume Studies, Elijah Millgram went so far as to call it
a window into a mind of which Hume's psychology is for the most part true. […] he was, it now appears, inadvertently describing not his own experience, and not human mentation in general, but a certain type of autism.
It is a tempting move, to map the alien to the familiar – though which is which will depend on what you know. But it can't be right. Millgram is too mild when he remarks that "twentieth-century philosophers no longer find the psychology [of the British empiricists] convincing" because it "did not make good on its explanatory obligations […] a thought's being a mental picture is not a satisfactory account of why it has the content it does." Even if we drop the question of content, how to make sense of such mundane phenomena as belief, which Hume was led to equate with an indefinable "force" or "vivacity" of ideas? Quite apart from its obscurity, Hume's conception only works for ideas of particular things: it is an account of belief in x, not belief that p. Propositional belief would have to relate distinct ideas, some of them abstract – but not by association. Hume leaves no room for this.

To say this is not to question Grandin's testimony: she does not claim to be a Humean mind. But it does imply a certain failure. Her book explains how acute visualization may compensate for cognitive shortfalls. But we want more than that. When we read her words as a field report from another planet, they promise a window to the alien mind: a mode of thinking that is nothing but pictures. However it may seem, this cannot be made intelligible. It is just an illusion of thought.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Philosophical Experiments

[Warning to the reader: the remarks that follow cite no-one and do not attempt to engage with details; but they are in part a response to the first two essays in this book.]

What is called "experimental philosophy" is diverse and does not admit of unified treatment. Some of it enlists the existing work of empirical scientists where it might be relevant to the questions of philosophy. While I may not always agree about the relevance, this seems innocent enough.

But there are more radical threads. One is a variety of "naturalism" that entails the complete rejection of a priori knowledge and non-empirically justified belief. Let the armchair blaze.

It is sometimes claimed by advocates of "naturalism" that the armchair method rests on a hopeless view of philosophy as conceptual analysis: what could one discover from the armchair, if anything, but the shape of one's conceptual space? (Can one discover even that? See below.) But whatever we make of the rest of it, the sociology of Williamson's recent book is sound when he denies that this view is orthodox. Many philosophers reject the conceptual analyst's account of a priori knowledge.

Some do not, of course, but others give other accounts, and there is a silent majority. Moreover, the pressure to countenance the a priori and to do so in a way that outstrips conceptual analysis or "epistemological analyticity" can be seen in the traditional problem of induction. According to a tempting principle,
One can be justified in believing p on the basis of evidence, q, only if one is independently justified in believing [if p then q].
This has the fairly rapid upshot that, if we are justified in believing things inductively, we must be non-empirically justified in believing contingent propositions. The argument may go wrong, but it must be faced by any honest attempt to live without the a priori or to confine it to the analysis of concepts.

This is the briefest sketch; I have not tried to say why the principle above should tempt us. But let the record state that there is an argument for a priori justification that has nothing to do with analyticity and everything to do with the threat of scepticism.

It is ironic, in this context, that the most baffling experimentalist project – the taking of surveys that elicit folk intuitions about such matters as knowledge, intentional action, and moral responsibility – would have a definite point if the content of our concepts was fixed by the corresponding dispositions, as some conceptual analysts believe. Witness the idiom, "folk concept of ____," as if one could make this theory true by stipulation. If the theory is false, we need some other incentive to care what the surveys say.

One of the reasons commonly given is that when we find that our intuitions are parochial, the beliefs that rest on them are undermined. But we should ask: what justifies that response? Perhaps the view that intuitions are evidence, akin to perceptual appearances. For if things look different to others, whose perceptual mechanisms we have no reason to question apart from the present discrepancy, that should give us pause. The problem is that we need not – should not – think of intuitions in that way. We could think of them, instead, as beliefs that are justified non-empirically, if at all, and not by the "evidence" of intuitive appearances.

Alternatively, the threat of parochiality might rest on a controversial view in the epistemology of disagreement, that we should give as much weight to the opinions of others as to our own unless we have antecedent reason to doubt their reliability. On the contrary, if some of my beliefs are justified a priori, quite apart from evidence, won't that give me reason to doubt the reliability of those who disagree, antecedent to – well, everything.

Again, these arguments may be wrong. But let the record state that inferences from surveys to the application of concepts or the justification of beliefs rely on hidden machinery: theories of concept-possession or epistemology disputed from the armchair, which stand in need of further defence. In its absence, the point of the surveys, however entertaining, is seriously opaque.

There is a final heresy, espoused by some, that is irrefutable by design: the surveys do nothing more, and need do nothing more, than map the cognitive powers by which "the folk" identify something as cause or effect, intentional action, exemption or excuse. There is no call to map them on to more familiar philosophical pursuits, as the strategies above purport to do. They stand on their own.

Still, we can ask for guidance. Why survey these particular questions? Why not study what people believe about just anything, or anything that has been a topic for philosophy: say, the meaning of life? It is no good responding that surveys are apt when philosophical problems are posed by "the basic concepts people use" or that an interest in such concepts is obviously philosophical: part of what is in dispute is how the study of folk beliefs relates to the study of concepts and their conditions of application.

Not everything is philosophy. But the boundaries of the field are controversial; and it would be wrong to refuse publication on grounds that reasonable philosophers dispute. There is, therefore, a standing risk that non-philosophy will be taught and studied as philosophy. This much follows from the proper humility of peer review and a wise refusal to police the borders. The borders should not be policed: these things must work themselves out. That doesn't mean it's philosophy, any more a heap of flesh and bones is a human being.