Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Social science

OK, I have to give a talk on Wittgenstein and social science, so I'd better get started. What is there to say that can be fitted in a 50-minute lecture? One issue is free will. Hume writes:
Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them. Nor are the earth, water, and other elements, examined by Aristotle, and Hippocrates, more like to those which at present lie under our observation than the men described by Polybius and Tacitus are to those who now govern the world.
Hume notes that history is a guide to human behavior only for the most part, but puts this down to "the diversity of characters, prejudices, and opinions". He goes on:
The vulgar, who take things according to their first appearance, attribute the uncertainty of events to such an uncertainty in the causes as makes the latter often fail of their usual influence; though they meet with no impediment in their operation. But philosophers, observing that, almost in every part of nature, there is contained a vast variety of springs and principles, which are hid, by reason of their minuteness or remoteness, find, that it is at least possible the contrariety of events may not proceed from any contingency in the cause, but from the secret operation of contrary causes. This possibility is converted into certainty by farther observation, when they remark that, upon an exact scrutiny, a contrariety of effects always betrays a contrariety of causes, and proceeds from their mutual opposition.
If we agree with Hume then we might wonder whether any social science beyond history could possibly be needed. Psychology, economics, and history would all seem to blend into one science of human behavior, based, of course, on observation of past behavior. There is some evidence of this happening, in fact, with economists offering to explain more and more kinds of behavior and the emergence of "behavioral economics," which looks a lot like psychology but pays better. (Of course it can also be argued that economists don't always pay as much attention to history as they should.)

On the other hand, we might dispute Hume's implication that human behavior can be explained by discovering hidden springs and principles. Are we really as machine-like as this image suggests?

Hume does not say that we are machines:
Thus it appears, not only that the conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature; but also that this regular conjunction has been universally acknowledged among mankind, and has never been the subject of dispute, either in philosophy or common life. Now, as it is from past experience that we draw all inferences concerning the future, and as we conclude that objects will always be conjoined together which we find to have always been conjoined; it may seem superfluous to prove that this experienced uniformity in human actions is a source whence we draw inferences concerning them. But in order to throw the argument into a greater variety of lights we shall also insist, though briefly, on this latter topic.
The connection between motives and actions is said here to be merely like the connection between cause and effect. But Hume does go on to say that human actions are just as governed by necessity as any other event. This is partly because we are more predictable than we might like to admit, and partly because causation in other parts of nature has less to it than we might imagine. There is, he says, no idea of causation and necessity other than "the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of the mind from one to another." Since we find the same constant conjunction and inference from one to the other with motives and actions (other things being equal) there can be no justification for denying that human behavior is just as predictable as the behavior of inanimate objects. 

It is hard to disagree with Hume here. But not impossible. Wittgenstein questions the idea of causation as constant conjunction on the grounds that it might be quite clear from just one case that one thing was causing another. For instance, if I see a string moving across the floor I might investigate and find that someone is pulling it. Is there, must there be, experience of pulling events being constantly conjoined with being-pulled events? As I recall Bill Brenner has used the example of cutting a cake. The cutting is not conjoined with the being cut as one event might be conjoined with another, distinct event. 

There seem to be two points here. One is that cause and effect are not always as distinct as they are in the cases that Hume apparently has in mind. The other is that we seem to be able to identify something as a cause from just one experience. This is most obviously true in cases where the effect is not distinct from the cause.       

On p. 373 of Philosophical Occasions Wittgenstein says:
We react to the cause.
Calling something 'the cause' is like pointing and saying: 'He's to blame!'

On p. 387 we find the case I had in mind above:
There is a reaction which can be called reacting to the cause.-- We also speak of 'tracing' the cause; a simple case would be, say, following a string to see who is pulling at it. If I then find him--how do I know that he, his pulling, is the cause of the string’'s moving? Do I establish this by a series of experiments? 

If I were to try to use this as the basis of an argument against Hume he might say that I see this as a case of causation because I am familiar with a general pattern of which this case is an instance. But, Wittgenstein might counter, how did I ever become aware of this general pattern?
The origin and the primitive form of the language is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop.
Language--I want to say--is a refinement. "In the beginning was the deed." (p. 395)

The difference between Hume and Wittgenstein here is quite subtle. Both see a reaction as essential to the development of the concept of causation. Hume emphasizes the reaction to a pattern, Wittgenstein just the reaction itself, which need not (although he does not insist on this) be to a pattern or series.

Hume's hypothesis that we identify events of type x as causes of events of type y after some habituation is plausible, but I don't know how this would be proved. How long must the series of conjunctions be? Could it consist of just one instance? That does seem possible. Something hurts your hand and you turn and look in that direction. Doesn't that happen, even with babies and animals? Isn't this a kind of association of cause (something over there) and effect (this pain)? If we want to investigate the psychological foundation of the concept of causation, as I think Hume does, then this kind of thing is surely relevant. It might not be rational to think that x causes y after just one episode of y's following x, but we are not that rational, as Hume showed. And of course we might be wrong. But we do sometimes behave and think as if x causes y after just one case of the two being conjoined. And in some cases it is hard even to divide cause and effect into two in the first place.

The point about reacting in a blaming-like way is important too. there is a kind of judgement, or something like judgement, involved in identifying one thing as the cause of another. David Cockburn is good on this in his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. As I recall one of the points he makes there is that to judge that a particular event or set of events is the cause of some other event is, in part, to judge that event or those events to be the relevant factor in understanding why the event in question occurred. This kind of judgement of relevance is not a simple reading of the facts presented by the world.

What are the implications for social science? Hume suggests that we can find patterns in human behavior, and that doing so might/would constitute a science. Wittgenstein seemingly thinks that we might not even find patterns and that what we find will depend on some judgments on our part.

I have not shown at all conclusively that Wittgenstein is right. But whether it matters depends on what we want from a social science, and I think that is the question to try to answer before worrying about whether we can have it.


  1. "As I recall Bill Brenner has used the example of cutting a cake."

    I am almost certain Anscombe is using a similar example. If I remember, her example is of cutting butter. (Probably in 'Causality and Determination,' but I need to check.)

    1. Thanks, I'll look that up. I'm remembering a conversation with Bill, so I don't mean to give anyone the impression that he has tried to pass off Anscombe's ideas as his own.

    2. I think this is the passage I had in mind. No butter.

      He [Hume] confidently challenges us to 'produce some instance, wherein the efficacy is plainly discoverable to the mind, and its operations obvious to our consciousness or sensation. Nothing easier: is cutting, is drinking, is purring not efficacy"?

    3. Thanks! I suspect this is important for thinking about causation and human behavior because the connection between intending to do something and actually doing it is perhaps closer to the case of cutting than the billiard-ball kind of case.

    4. Not sure I am completely following you. But this might be just because it feels as if too much gets entangled in my mind with this issue. What you raise now--i.e. the connection b/w intention and action--brings to mind the question of the relations b/w causing and giving a reason.

      Are you proposing that we deal with the relation b/w intending and doing on some causation model?

    5. No, I'm not, but I wonder whether Hume might be mixing up reasons with causes. I'm not sure what he means exactly by 'motives', but if he means reasons for action and if he thinks of these as causes then that's a problem. Sorry I'm not being more clear--there is a lot to be said in this area, and I have to go and teach.

  2. Hume's billiard-ball example, Wittgenstein's string example. In the second case we only have one event. In the first case we have two. (Or do we?) Might we have two notions of causality here--two members of a family?

    1. If we divide what happens up into events then in the billiard-ball case it seems that we can identify two events (ball A hits ball B, and ball B moves). But in the string case this is harder to do. Perhaps the person's walking is one event and the string's moving is another, just as the knife's hitting the butter and the butter's dividing are (can be thought of as) two events. It seems somewhat arbitrary how we divide up what happens, and therefore how many events we think of ourselves as dealing with.

      I don't know exactly what that says about the notion or notions of causality. But some cases of "cause and effect" are more easily or naturally separable into two events than are others.

  3. "But we do sometimes behave and think as if x causes y after just one case of the two being conjoined."

    Is it really just one case though? Don't we have a lifetime of experiences behind us to call on at every point (except, perhaps, when we are very, very young and then we don't know very much anyway)?

    Suppose our history of experiences had been different. Suppose sometimes, feeling a pain, we saw an apparent feature just by looking down but other times not, and suppose, further, that sometimes we found that we felt a pain when someone in another room scrunched up his or her nose (Bewitched?) and sometimes it was whenever a friend at another location dialed out for pizza (reporting it afterwards so that we could match it with the pain instance)?

    Or suppose we had a history of observing no discernible features as causative for pains at all -- they just happen. Or different events happen each time without any kind of pattern. Or the same feature (a pinprick, say) sometimes causing us pain but also sometimes only tickling sensations and sometimes no sensations at all?

    Would we still be motivated to ascribe to the immediate pinprick (or other observable feature) causal status on first seeing it at the moment we feel the pain?

    1. Don't we have a lifetime of experiences behind us to call on at every point

      I don't think I can deny this. But do we call on that experience? And if so, in what sense? If I feel something strike me on the back of the head, or feel a sensation as of something's striking the back of my head, I will turn around or put my hand to my head. Is this instinctive or a result of conditioning or a result of inductive reasoning? I don't think it's induction. And we don't have to know much to treat things as causes. Once bitten twice shy, regardless of what you know about animal psychology.

      If pains had no obvious causes but there was some evidence that they were caused then I suppose we would investigate, as we do with causes of cancer. If they happened randomly enough then we might not even think that they were caused, but there is so much that we do take to be caused that this is hard to imagine. I mean it's hard to imagine that we wouldn't assume or insist that pain must be caused on the grounds that everything that happens has a cause. But I agree that if the world were very different then we might have different concepts.

  4. I think you've got a point about our immediate reactions. I guess my view is that a lot of our reactions, our behaviors, result from patterning activity performed by the brain, mostly at a non-conscious level and that it is only a relatively small sub-class that are accessible to our consciousness.

    That is, I don't think we reason from effect to cause in cases like getting hit from behind. We react, just as you note, but that's not Hume's case. He (at least it seems to me) is talking about cases where we consciously consider events and assume they are caused when, perhaps, there are other possibilities (correlation, say, or no real relation at all).

    On this level of judgment, surely, there is no basis for assuming causation in any logically justifiable way. The assumption is built into us. Hume argues in the case of explicit judgment formation, though, and assigns it such judgments to habit formation, to our assumption of patterns based on past observations but without any underlying deductively valid reason(s) for making the assumption.

    Of course that isn't how we behave on an animal level (as you rightly point out). Animals don't need valid reasons to act. Nor do we at that level. But suppose our experiences might differed radically from what they are in this world, i.e., where the laws of physics, say, worked differently. Would our brains (if they could even function in that sort of universe) still perform in the same way, still pick up and register patterns as they do now or would they adjust?

    Would brains still set up the picture of causal relation in the same way in that kind of world, i.e., one without regularity in occurrences. Would causal relation patterns even be generated at all? I'm inclined to think that some causal patterning that we register is a function of how our brains pick up inputs from the world and not merely how brains are constructed (though this obviously becomes complicated for how brains actually are is as much a function of the world in which they evolved as it is a function of the one in which they are now operating).

    1. Thanks.

      The assumption is built into us.

      This is the kind of idea that I think might be common to Hume and Wittgenstein. We naturally react in a certain kind of way to certain kinds of experiences, and this is important in understanding our concepts. They aren't "absolutely the right ones."

  5. "If I feel something strike me on the back of the head, or feel a sensation as of something's striking the back of my head, I will turn around or put my hand to my head. Is this instinctive or a result of conditioning or a result of inductive reasoning? I don't think it's induction. And we don't have to know much to treat things as causes. Once bitten twice shy, regardless of what you know about animal psychology."

    [I am tempted to print the last sentence and put it on my office door.]

    We can separate here two issue, or questions:

    1. What caused THIS pain in the back of my head?
    2. Do objects that hit me on the back of my head cause pain?

    Th first question is about a particular event, the second one is about a general, abstract, principle.

    What is the connection between the questions? Is there one? Must there be one? Do we use the word "cause" sometimes without alluding to a general principle? Or is an allusion to a general principle (even if it is an unknown principle) part of the grammar of "cause"?

  6. Yes, and I'm tempted to add a third question: "What the ...?!" This is close to your question 1, but not quite the same. Maybe it's close enough that we don't need it though. And perhaps it's not really a question.

    It seems, at least at first, as though x could cause y on one occasion but not others, even where everything else is the same. You add a chemical to a liquid and the liquid explodes or turns green or whatever, clearly (or apparently clearly) because of the chemical's being added, but then this never happens again. So something that hit me on the head might seem to be the cause of a pain without it being true that objects that hit me on the head generally (or ever except on this one occasion) cause pain.

    But in that case I think we would be inclined to doubt the initial judgment, however obvious it seemed at the time, that it was being hit by that thing that caused the pain in the original case. I don't think we would have to give it up, but one conception of cause might require us to do so. (I feel as though I'm just repeating some of your questions.)

    I think we do use the word 'cause' sometimes without alluding to a general principle. "The killer snapped because..." does not imply that everyone in the same circumstances would have snapped. Maybe no one else would have. But it must make sense that someone might do so. So it isn't: in these circumstances, y will happen. Rather: in these circumstances y should not be a surprise. That seems to apply to human behavior but also things like windows breaking when hit by small pebbles. The cause opened up a range of possibilities.

    Is that right?

  7. Anscombe seems to agree with you, or to be saying something like what you are saying. In ‘Causation and Determination’ she argues against what she calls ‘the assumption of relevant difference,’ namely that “If an effect occurs in one case and a similar effect does not occur in an apparently similar case, there must be a relevant further difference.” I am not at all sure I understand her argument, though. And I don’t know what I think.

    I am tempted by the opposite. I am tempted to say there is a general principle. And when you give the example: ("The killer snapped because...") it convinces me for a second, but then I want to say: “But perhaps you are looking for the generality in the wrong place. Perhaps the reason why you cannot find a general principle here is because this is the sort of case where the circumstances can never really be reproduced. But if they could…” – And then I realize that this ‘if they could’ expresses a sort of fantasy: that in this sort of case it is not simply too hard to reproduce the circumstances; it is rather out of the question logically.

    Perhaps this means that killers snapping (and perhaps humans acting or reacting more generally) is a subject matter that’s very different than chemicals exploding or dissolving: In the second kind of case, but not in the first, there is (logical) room for certain kinds of reproduction of circumstances. – This would be relevant to the questions about the social sciences.

    I’m not sure about that. And even if it is right, I’m not sure if it solves our questions. Later in her paper, Anscombe (as I recall) gives examples that imply that she thinks the assumption of relevant difference does not hold, even when it comes to questions about the physical behavior of inanimate objects. I don’t think she even considers the application of any of that to questions in the social sciences. And, on my part, I admit that even after realizing I had that fantasy about reproducing circumstances, I still want to keep looking for some generality—even in the case of the snapping killer. (I need to think more about what you say towards the end (“it isn't: in these circumstances, y will happen. Rather: in these circumstances y should not be a surprise”). Perhaps that’s all the generality I need.) So, I am not at all sure the separation between chemicals and humans gets to the source of the matter.

    I remain confused. I have a sense that my failure here involves failure to separate issues, or even identify them.

  8. There are (at least) two issues with humans: one is that they are very complicated, so predicting their behavior is like predicting the weather or the movement of a piece of grass on a turbulent stream (i.e very hard, if not impossible) ; another is that the whole language of cause and effect doesn't fit the way we talk and think about human behavior very well. The grammar of reasons, intentions, etc. is not the same as that of causes. And if we want to understand human behavior we might have to do so in terms of reasons, etc.

    As for whether there must be a relevant difference in two cases with different effects that does seem like a reasonable assumption. But it need not be true (quantum physics, Hume on induction, etc.). There's Wittgenstein's example of the two seeds, too, of course (they look the same but produce different plants--must they be different internally after all?). It doesn't seem hard to imagine, to picture, different effects with no relevant difference. But I don't know that thinking that way is really a live option. There's some combination of instinct and custom that stands in the way.

  9. About the first thing you say, I just want to note that although I do not disagree with what you say, the way you put things can be misleading. That is, someone may take themselves to believe they are in agreement with your first, but not your second point. Someone might think, for example, that they partially agree with you if they believe that humans are very complicated machines. In fact, given your second point, your talk of “complexity” means something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

    Regarding the second point. I agree that it is possible to IMAGINE different effects. Hume makes this point, I think. We can imagine putting a pot of water above a fire, and instead of boiling, imagine that it turns green. We can imagine many things. But there is still a distance between that and denying that similar conditions necessitate similar effects. So I agree with you (I think) that there is still an open question here about the source, and the kind, of this necessity.

    In opposition (I think) to the last thing you say: the strength of the intuition that there is still a necessity here regardless of what we can imagine does not come from instinct or custom. Kant is right. Hume’s psychologism here is phenomenologically off: it doesn’t capture the source, or the kind, or the quality, of the necessity here.

    1. What I meant by "complexity" is that even if we think of human being as complicated machines then they are so complicated that predicting their behavior will be just about impossible. (That isn't how I think about human beings though.)

      On the last point, I just don't know. By "instinct and custom" I meant "nature and/or nurture," and I don't have a strong sense of whether this is a way of thinking that it's possible to get over or not, of whether it's nature or not. Which might be a way of saying that my intuition that there is a necessity here is not as strong as yours.