More on cephalopod minds

When I first posted on cephalopod intelligence a year or so ago, I assumed it would be a one-off diversion into the deep blue sea (link). But now I’ve read the fascinating recent book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, and it is interesting enough to justify a second deep dive. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, but he is also a scuba diver, and his interest in cephalopods derives from his experiences under water. This original stimulus has led to two very different lines of inquiry. What is the nature of the mental capacities of an octopus? And how did “intelligence” happen to evolve twice on earth through such different pathways? Why is a complex nervous system an evolutionary advantage for a descendent of a clam?

Both questions are of philosophical interest. The nature of consciousness, intelligence, and reasoning has been of great concern to philosophers in the study of the philosophy of mind. The questions that arise bring forth a mixture of difficult conceptual, empirical, and theoretical issues: how does consciousness relate to behavioral capacity? Are intelligence and consciousness interchangeable? What evidence would permit us to conclude that a given species of animal has consciousness and reasoning ability?

The evolutionary question is also of interest to philosophers. The discipline of the philosophy of biology focuses much of its attention on the issues raised by evolutionary theory. Elliott Sober’s work illustrates this form of philosophical thinking — for example, The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus, Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science. Godfrey-Smith tells an expert’s story of the long evolution of mollusks, in and out of their shells, with emerging functions and organs well suited to the opportunities available in their oceanic environments. One of the evolutionary puzzles to be considered is the short lifespan of octopuses and squid — just a few years (160). Why would the organism invest so heavily in a cognitive system that supported its life for such a short time?

A major part of the explanation that G-S favors involves the fact that octopuses are hunters, and a complex nervous system is more of an advantage for predator than prey. (Wolves are more intelligent than elk, after all!) Having a nervous system that supports anticipation, planning, and problem solving turns out to be an excellent preparation for being a predator. Here is a good example of how that cognitive advantage plays out for the octopus:

David Scheel, who works mostly with the giant Pacific octopus, feeds his animals whole clams, but as his local animals in Prince William Sound do not routinely eat clams, he has to teach them about the new food source. So he partly smashes a clam and gives it to the octopus. Later, when he gives the octopus an intact clam, the octopus knows that it’s food, but does not know how to get at the meat. The octopus will try all sorts of methods, drilling the shell and chipping the edges with its beak, manipulating it in every way possible … and then eventually it learns that its sheer strength is sufficient: if it tries hard enough, it can simply pull the shell apart. (70)

Exploration, curiosity, experimentation, and play are crucial components of the kind of flexibility that organisms with big nervous systems bring to earning their living.

G-S brings up a genuinely novel aspect of the organismic value of a complex nervous system: not just problem-solving applied to the external environment, but coordination of the body itself. Intelligence evolves to handle the problem of coordinating the motions of the parts of the body.

The cephalopod body, and especially the octopus body, is a unique object with respect to these demands. When part of the molluscan “foot” differentiated into a mass of tentacles, with no joints or shell, the result was a very unwieldy organ to control. The result was also an enormously useful thing, if it could be controlled. The octopus’s loss of almost all hard parts compounded both the challenge and the opportunities. A vast range of movements became possible, but they had to be organized, had to be made coherent. Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body. (71)

In this picture, neurons first multiply because of the demands of the body, and then sometime later, an octopus wakes up with a brain that can do more. (72)

This is a genuinely novel and intriguing idea about the creation of a new organism over geological time. It is as if a plastic self-replicating and self-modifying artifact bootstrapped itself from primitive capabilities into a directed and cunning predator. Or perhaps it is a preview of the transition that artificial intelligence systems embodying adaptable learning processes and expanding linkages to the control systems of the physical world may take in the next fifty years.  

What about the evolutionary part of the story? Here is a short passage where Godfrey-Smith considers the long evolutionary period that created both vertebrates and mollusks:

The history of large brains has, very roughly, the shape of a letter Y. At the branching center of the Y is the last common ancestor of vertebrates and mollusks. From here, many paths run forward, but I single out two of them, one leading to us and one to cephalopods. What features were present at that early stage, available to be carried forward down both paths? The ancestor at the center of the Y certainly had neurons. It was probably a worm-like creature with a simple nervous system, though. It may have had simple eyes. Its neurons may have been partly bunched together at its front, but there wouldn’t have been much of a brain there. From that stage the evolution of nervous systems proceeds independently in many lines, including two that led to large brains of different design. (65)

The primary difference that G-S highlights here is the nature of the neural architecture that each line eventually favors: a central cord connecting periphery to a central brain; and a decentralized network of neurons distributed over the whole body.

Further, much of a cephalopod’s nervous system is not found within the brain at all, but spread throughout the body. In an octopus, the majority of neurons are in the arms themselves— nearly twice as many as in the central brain. The arms have their own sensors and controllers. They have not only the sense of touch, but also the capacity to sense chemicals— to smell, or taste. Each sucker on an octopus’s arm may have 10,000 neurons to handle taste and touch. Even an arm that has been surgically removed can perform various basic motions, like reaching and grasping. (67)

So what about the “alien intelligence” party of G-S’s story? G-S emphasizes the fact that octopus mentality is about as alien to human experience and evolution as it could be.

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. (9)

This too is intriguing. G-S is right: the evolutionary story he works through here gives great encouragement for the idea that an organism in a complex environment and a few bits of neuronal material can evolve in wildly different pathways, leading to cognitive capabilities and features of awareness that are dramatically different from human intelligence. Life is plastic and evolutionary time is long. The ideas of the unity of consciousness and the unified self don’t have any particular primacy or uniqueness. For example: 

The octopus may be in a sort of hybrid situation. For an octopus, its arms are partly self—they can be directed and used to manipulate things. But from the central brain’s perspective, they are partly non-self too, partly agents of their own. (103)

So there is nothing inherently unique about human intelligence, and no good reason to assume that all intelligent creatures would find a basis for mutual understanding and communication. Sorry, Captain Kirk, the universe is stranger than you ever imagined!

Wendt’s strong claims about quantum consciousness

Alex Wendt takes a provocative step in Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology by proposing that quantum mechanics plays a role in all levels of the human and social world (as well as all life). And he doesn’t mean in the trivial sense that all of nature is constituted by quantum-mechanical micro-realities (or unrealities). Instead, he means that we need to treat human beings and social structures as quantum-mechanical wave functions. He wants to see whether some of the peculiarities of social (and individual) phenomena might be explained on the hypothesis that mental phenomena are deeply and actively quantum phenomena. This is a very large pill to swallow, since much considered judgment across the sciences concurs that the macroscopic world — billiard balls, viruses, neurons — are on a physical and temporal scale where quantum effects have undergone “decoherence” and behave as strictly classical entities.

Wendt’s work rests upon a small but serious body of scholarship in physics, the neurosciences, and philosophy on the topics of “quantum consciousness” and “quantum biology”. An earlier post described some tangible but non-controversial progress that has been made on the biology side, where physicists and chemists have explored a possible pathway accounting for birds’ ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field directly through a chemical process that depends upon entangled electrons.

Here I’d like to probe Alex’s argument a bit more deeply by taking an inventory of the strong claims that he considers in the book. (He doesn’t endorse all these claims, but regards them as potentially true and worth investigating.)

  1. Walking wave functions: “I argue that human beings and therefore social life exhibit quantum coherence – in effect, that we are walking wave functions. I intend the argument not as an analogy or metaphor, but as a realist claim about what people really are. (3) … “My claim is that life is a macroscopic instantiation of quantum coherence. (137) … “Quantum consciousness theory suggests that human beings are literally walking wave functions. (154)
  2. “The central claim of this book is that all intentional phenomena are quantum mechanical. (149)  … “The basic directive of a quantum social science, its positive heuristic if you will, is to re-think human behavior through the lens of quantum theory. (32)
  3. “I argued that a very different picture emerges if we imagine ourselves under a quantum constraint with a panpsychist ontology. Quantum Man is physical but not wholly material, conscious, in superposed rather than well-defined states, subject to and also a source of non-local causation, free, purposeful, and very much alive. (207)
  4. “Quantum consciousness theory builds on these intuitions by combining two propositions: (1) the physical claim of quantum brain theory that the brain is capable of sustaining coherent quantum states (Chapter 5), and (2) the metaphysical claim of panpsychism that consciousness inheres in the very structure of matter (Chapter 6). (92)
  5. Quantum decision theory: “[There is] growing experimental evidence that long-standing anomalies of human behavior can be predicted by “quantum decision theory.” (4)
  6. Panpsychism: “Quantum theory actually implies a panpsychist ontology: that consciousness goes “all the way down” to the sub-atomic level. Exploiting this possibility, quantum consciousness theorists have identified mechanisms in the brain that might allow this sub-atomic proto-consciousness to be amplified to the macroscopic level. (5)
  7. Consciousness: “The hard problem, in contrast, is explaining consciousness. (15) … “As long as the brain is assumed to be a classical system, there is no reason to think even future neuroscience will give us “the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.” (17) … “Hence the central question(s) of this book: (a) how might a quantum theoretic approach explain consciousness and by extension intentional phenomena, and thereby unify physical and social ontology, and (b) what are some implications of the result for contemporary debates in social theory? (29)
  8. The quantum brain: “Quantum brain theory hypothesizes that the brain is able to sustain quantum coherence – a wave function – at the macro, whole-organism level. (30) … “Quantum brain theory challenges this assumption by proposing that the mind is actually a quantum computer. Classical computers are based on binary digits or “bits” with well-defined values (0 or 1), which are transformed in serial operations by a program into an output. Quantum computers in contrast are based on “qubits” that can be in superpositions of 0 and 1 at the same time and also interact non-locally, enabling every qubit to be operated on simultaneously. (95)
  9. Weak and strong quantum minds: “In parsing quantum brain theory an initial distinction should be made between two different arguments that are often discussed under this heading. What might be called the “weak” argument hypothesizes that the firing of individual neurons is affected by quantum processes, but it does not posit quantum effects at the level of the whole brain. (97)
  10. Vitalism: “Principally, because my argument is vitalist, though the issue is complicated by the variety of forms vitalism has taken historically, some of which overlap with other doctrines. (144)
  11. Will and decision: “In Chapter 6, I equated this power with an aspect of wave function collapse, viewed as a process of temporal symmetry-breaking, in which advanced action moves through Will and retarded action through Experience. (174) … “Will controls the direction of the body’s movement over time by harnessing temporal non-locality, potentially over long “distances.” As advanced action, Will projects itself into what will become the future and creates a destiny state there that, through the enforcement of correlations with what will become the past, steers us purposefully toward that end. (182)
  12. Entangled people: “It is the burden of my argument to show that despite its strong intuitive appeal, the separability assumption does not hold in social life. The burden only extends so far, since I am not going to defend the opposite assumption, that human beings are completely inseparable. This is not true even at the sub-atomic level, where entangled particles retain some individuality. Rather, what characterizes people entangled in social structures is that they are not fully separable. (208-209)
  13. Quantum semantics: “This suggests that the “ground state” of a concept may be represented as a superposition of potential meanings, with each of the latter a distinct “vector” within its wave function. (216)
  14. Social structure: “If the physical basis of the mind and language is quantum mechanical, then, given this definition, that is true of social structures as well. Which is to say, what social structures actually are, physically, are superpositions of shared mental states – social wave functions. (258) …  “A quantum social ontology suggests – as structuration theorists and critical realists alike have long argued – that agents and social structures are “mutually constitutive.” I should emphasize that this does not mean “reciprocal causation” or “co-determination,” with which “mutual constitution” is often conflated in social theory. As quantum entanglement, the relationship of agents and social structures is not a process of causal interaction over time, but a non-local, synchronic state from which both are emergent. (260) … “First, a social wave function constitutes a different probability distribution for agents’ actions than would exist in its absence. Being entangled in a social structure makes certain practices more likely than others, which I take to involve formal causation. (264-265)
  15. The state and other structures: “The answer is that the state is a kind of hologram. This hologram is different from those created artificially by scientists in the lab, and also from the holographic projection that I argued in Chapter 11 enables us to see ordinary material objects, since in these cases there is something there visible to the naked eye. (271) … Collective consciousness: “A quantum interpretation of extended consciousness takes us part way toward collective consciousness, but only part, because even extended consciousness is still centered in individual brains and thus solipsistic. A plausible second step therefore would be to invoke the concept of ‘We-feeling,’ which seems to get at something like ‘collective consciousness,’ and is not only widely used by philosophers of collective intentionality, but has been studied empirically by social psychologists as well. (277)

In my view the key premise here is the quantum interpretation of the brain and consciousness that Alex advocates. He wants us to consider that the operations of the brain — the input-output relations and the intervening mechanisms — are not “classical” but rather quantum-mechanical. And this is a very, very strong claim. It is vastly stronger than the idea that neurons may be affected by quantum-level events (considered in an earlier post and subject to active research by people interested in how microtubules work within neurons). But Alex would not be satisfied with the idea that “neurons are quantum machines” (point 9 above); he wants to make the vastly stronger argument that “brains are quantum computers”. And even stronger than that — he wants to claim that the brain itself is a wave function, which implies that we cannot understand its working by understanding the workings of its (quantum) components. (I don’t think that computer engineers who are designing real quantum computers believe that the device itself is a wave function; only that the components (qubits) behave according to quantum mathematics.) Here is his brain-holism:

Quantum brain theory hypothesizes that quantum processes at the elementary level are amplified and kept in superposition at the level of the organism, and then, through downward causation constrain what is going on deep within the brain. (95)

So the brain as a whole is in superposition, and only resolves with perception or will as a whole in an event of the collapse of its wave function. (He sometimes refers to “a decoherence-free sub-space of the brain within which quantum computational processes are performed” (95), which implies that the brain as a whole is perhaps a classical thing encompassing “quantum sub-regions”.) But whether it is the whole brain (implied by “walking wave function”) or a relatively voluminous sub-region, the conjurer’s move occurs here: extending known though kinky properties of very special isolated systems of micro-entities (a handful of electrons, photons, or atoms) to a description of macro-sized entities maintaining those same kinky properties.

So the “brain as wave function” theory is very implausible given current knowledge. But if this view of the brain and thought cannot be made more credible than it currently is — both empirically and theoretically — then Wendt’s whole system falls apart: entangled individuals involved in structures and meanings, life as a quantum-vital state, and panpsychism all have no inherent credibility by themselves.

There are many eye-widening claims here — and yet Alex is clear enough and well-versed enough in relevant areas of research in neuroscience and philosophy of mind to give his case some credibility. He lays out his case with calm good humor and rational care. Alex relies heavily on the fact that there are difficult unresolved problems in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of physics (the nature of consciousness, freedom of the will, the interpretation of the quantum wave function). This gives impetus to his call for a fresh way of approaching the whole field — as suggested by historians of science like Kuhn and Lakatos. However, failing to reach an answer to the question, “How is freedom of the will possible?”, does not warrant us to jump to highly questionable assumptions about neurophysiology.

But really — in the end this just is not a plausible theory in my mind. I’m not ready to accept the ideas of quantum brains, quantum meanings, or quantum societies. The idea of entanglement has a specific meaning when it comes to electrons and photons; but metaphorical extension of the idea to pairs or groups of individuals seems like a stretch. I’m not persuaded that we are “walking wave functions” or that entanglement accounts for the workings of social institutions. The ideas of structures and meanings as entangled wave functions (individuals) strike me as entirely speculative, depending on granting the possibility that the brain itself is a single extended wave function. And this is a lot to grant.

(Here is a brief description of the engineering goals of developing a quantum computer (link):

Quantum computing differs fundamentally from classical computing, in that it is based on the generation and processing of qubits. Unlike classical bits, which can have a state of either 1 or 0, qubits allow a superposition of the 1 and 0 states (both simultaneously). Strikingly, multiple qubits can be linked in so-called ‘entangled’ states, in which the manipulation of a single qubit changes the entire system, even if individual qubits are physically distant. This property is the basis for quantum information processing, with the goal of building superfast quantum computers and transferring information in a completely secure way.

See the referenced research article in Science for a current advance in optical quantum computing; link.)

(The image above is from a research report from a team which has succeeded in creating entanglement of a record number of atoms — 3,000. Compare that to the hundreds of billions of neurons in the brain, and once again the implausibility of the “walking wave function” idea becomes overwhelming. And note the extreme conditions of low temperature that are required to create this entangled group; the atoms were cooled to 10-millionths of a degree Kelvin, trapped between two mirrors, and subjected to exposure by a single photon (link) And yet presumably decoherence occurs if the temperature raises substantially.)

Here is an interesting lecture on quantum computing by Microsoft scientist Krysta Svore, presented at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

Quantum biology?


I have discussed several times an emerging literature on “quantum consciousness”, focusing on Alex Wendt’s provocative book Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Is it possible in theory for cognitive processes, or neuroanatomical functioning, to be affected by events at the quantum level? Are there known quantum effects within biological systems? Here is one interesting case that is currently being explored by biologists: an explanation of the ability of birds to navigate by the earth’s magnetic field in terms of the chemistry of entangled electrons.

Quantum entanglement is defined as a relation between two or more micro-particles (photons, electrons, …) in which the quantum state of one is entangled with the quantum state of the other. When observation of the first part of the pair brings about alteration of the quantum state in that particle, quantum theory entails that the state of the second particle will change as well.

It has been hypothesized that the ability of birds to navigate by reference to the earth’s magnetic field may be explained by quantum effects of electrons in molecules (cryptochromes) in the bird’s retina. Thorsten Ritz is a leader in this area of research. In “Magnetic Compass of Birds Is Based on a Molecule with Optimal Directional Sensitivity” he and his co-authors describes the hypothesis in these terms (link):

The radical-pair model (7,8) assumes that these properties of the avian magnetic compass—light-dependence and insensitivity to polarity—directly reflect characteristics of the primary processes of magnetoreception. It postulates a crucial role for specialized photopigments in the retina. A light-induced electron-transfer reaction creates a spin- correlated radical pair with singlet and triplet states. (3451)

Here is the chemistry from the same article (3452):

Markus Tiersch and Hans Briegel address these findings in “Decoherence in the chemical compass: the role of decoherence for avian magnetoreception”. They describe the hypothetical mechanism of paired-electron chemistry as a mechanism in birds for detecting magnetic fields (link):

Certain birds, including the European robin, have the remarkable ability to orient themselves, during migration, with the help of the Earth’s magnetic field [3-6]. Responsible for this ‘magnetic sense’ of the robin, according to one of the main hypotheses, seems to be a molecular process called the radical pair mechanism [7,8] (also, see [9,10] for reviews that include the historical development and the detailed facts leading to the hypothesis). It involves a photo-induced spatial separation of two electrons, whose spins interact with the Earth’s magnetic field until they recombine and give rise to chemical products depending on their spin state upon recombination, and thereby to a different neural signal. The spin, as a genuine quantum mechanical degree of freedom, thereby controls in a non-trivial way a chemical reaction that gives rise to a macroscopic signal on the retina of the robin, which in turn influences the behaviour of the bird. When inspected from the viewpoint of decoherence, it is an intriguing interplay of the coherence (and entanglement) of the initial electron state and the environmentally induced decoherence in the radical pair mechanism that plays an essential role for the working of the magnetic compass. (4518)

So the hypothesis is that birds (and possibly other organisms) have evolved ways of exploiting “spin chemistry” to gain a signal from the presence of a magnetic field. What is spin chemistry? Here is a definition from the spin chemistry website (yes, spin chemistry has its own website!) (link):

Broadly defined, Spin Chemistry deals with the effects of electron and nuclear spins in particular, and magnetic interactions in general, on the rates and yields of chemical reactions. It is manifested as spin polarization in EPR and NMR spectra and the magnetic field dependence of chemical processes. Applications include studies of the mechanisms and kinetics of free radical and biradical reactions in solution, the energetics of photosynthetic electron transfer reactions, and various magnetokinetic effects, including possible biological effects of extremely low frequency and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, the mechanisms by which animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field for orientation and navigation, and the possibility of manipulating radical lifetimes so as to control the outcome of their reactions. (link)

Tiersch and Briegel go through the quantum-mathematical details on how this process might work in the case of molecules that might be found in birds’ retinas. Here is the conclusion drawn by Tiersch and Briegel:

It seems that the radical pair mechanism provides an instructive example of how the behaviour of macroscopic entities, like the European robin, may indeed remain connected, in an intriguing way, to quantum processes on the molecular level. (4538)

This line of thought is still unconfirmed, as both Ritz and Tiersch and Briegel are careful to emphasize. If confirmed, it would provide an affirmative answer to the question posed above — are there biological effects of quantum-mechanical events? But even if confirmed, it doesn’t seem like an enormously surprising result. It traces out a chemical reaction which proceeds differently depending on whether entangled electrons in molecules stimulated by a photon have been influenced by a magnetic field; this gives the biological system a signal about the presence of a magnetic field that does in fact depend on the quantum states of a pair of electrons. Entanglement is now well confirmed, so this line of thought isn’t particularly radical. But this is entirely less weird than the idea that quantum particles are “conscious”, or that consciousness extends all the way down to the quantum level (quantum interactive dualism, as Henry Stapp calls it; link). And it is nowhere nearly as perplexing as the claim that “making up one’s mind” is a form of a collapsing quantum state represented by a part of the brain.

(Of interest on this set of topics is a recent collection, Quantum physics meets the philosophy of mind, edited by Antonella Corradini and Uwe Meixne. Here is a video in which Hans Briegel discusses research on modeling quantum effects on agents:

Quantum cognition?

Alexander Wendt proposes a radical idea in his Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology: that we should reconsider fundamentals of the social sciences to reflect emerging research on “quantum consciousness” and cognition. He describes his aim in these terms:

In this book I explore the possibility that this [classical physics] foundational assumption of social science is a mistake, by re-reading social science “through the quantum.” More specifically, I argue that human beings and therefore social life exhibit quantum coherence — in effect, that we are walking wave functions. (3)

A keystone to Wendt’s argument is what he regards as the credibility and predictive niceness of “quantum decision theory”. The foundational text in this field is Busemeyer and Bruza, Quantum Models of Cognition and Decision. Busemeyer and Bruza argue here, and elsewhere, that the mathematics and concepts of quantum mechanics in physics have seemingly relevant application to the field of cognition and judgment as well. For example, the idea of “wave function collapse” appears to have analogy with the resolution of uncertainty onto decision by a human cognitive agent. Busemeyer and Bruza offer six fundamental analogies between quantum mechanics and cognition:

  • judgments are based on indefinite states
  • judgments create rather than record
  • judgments disturb each other, introducing uncertainty
  • judgments do not always obey classic logic
  • judgments do not obey the principles of unicity
  • cognitive phenomena may not be decomposable

For these and related reasons Busemeyer and Bruza argue that the mathematics, logic, and concepts of quantum mechanics may allow us to reach better traction with respect to the processes of belief acquisition and judgment that constitute human cognition. So far so good — there may be a mathematical homology between quantum states in the micro-physical world and states of knowledge acquisition at the level of acquisition.

However, Busemeyer and Bruza are entirely explicit in saying that they regard this solely as a formal analogy — not a hypothesis about the real underlying structure of human thought. They explicitly deny that they find evidence to support the idea that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon at the sub-molecular level. They are “agnostic toward the so-called ‘quantum mind’ hypothesis” (kl 156). Their use of the mathematics of quantum mechanics is formal rather than substantive — more akin to using the mathematics of fluid dynamics to represent flow through a social network than arriving at a theory of the real constitution of a domain as a basis for explaining its characteristics.

This book is not about quantum physics per se, but instead it explores the application of the probabilistic dynamic system created by quantum theory to a new domain – the field of cognition and decision making. (kl 245)

So the application is heuristic rather than realistic:

We motivate the use of quantum models as innovative abstractions of existing problems. That is all. These abstractions have the character of idealizations in the sense there is no claim as to the validity of the idealization “on the ground.” (kl 171)

Instead [our theory] turns to quantum theory as a fresh conceptual framework for explaining empirical puzzles, as well as a rich new source of alternative formal tools. To convey the idea that researchers in this area are not doing quantum mechanics, various modifiers have been proposed to describe this work, such as quantum-like models of cognition, cognitive models based on quantum structure, or generalized quantum models. (kl 156)

Given the key role this body of research plays in Wendt’s arguments about the social sciences, it is worth considering how it has been received in the relevant academic communities. H. Van Dyke Parunak reviews the work in Computing Reviews (link). Parunak emphasizes the point made here, that the book is explicit in declaring that it does not provide support for the idea of “quantum cognition” as a manifestation of underlying quantum physical processes. He observes that “a more accurate title, but much less exciting, would be Hilbert space models of cognition and decision,” emphasizing the purely formal and mathematical nature of their arguments. Quantum mechanics provides a computational model for cognition based on quantum probability theory in their work, not an ontology of the cognitive process. Here is a short piece by Trueblood, Pothos, and Busemeyer in Frontiers in Psychology that spells out the mathematical assumptions that are invoked here (link).

What is perhaps less known is that the ingenious physicists who developed quantum mechanics also invented a new theory of probability, since classical probability (CP) theory was inconsistent with their bold new theory of the physical world. QP theory refers to the rules for assigning probabilities to events from quantum mechanics, without the physics. QP theory is potentially applicable to any area where there is a need to compute probabilities. (“Quantum probability theory as a common framework for reasoning and similarity”)

Here is a review article that proposes a series of tests of “quantum-like” models of judgment (link). Here is how the authors describe the field of quantum-like models of cognition:

Recently, a research field that rely on so-called “quantum” or “quantum-like” models has developed to account for such behaviors. The qualifier “quantum” is used to indicate that the models exploit the mathematics of a contemporary physical theory, quantum mechanics. Note that only some mathematical tools of quantum mechanics are employed, and that the claim is not that these models are justified by an application of quantum physics to the brain. For that reason, we shall prefer to call them “quantum-like” models. Such models put into question two classical characteristics recalled above: they abandon Bayesian probabilities for others which are similar to probabilities in quantum mechanics, and they allow for preferences or attitudes to be undetermined. Quantum-like models have received much interest from psychologists, physicists, economists, cognitive scientists and philosophers. For example, new theoretical frameworks have been proposed in decision theory and bounded rationality (Danilov and Lambert-Mogiliansky 2008 and 2010, Yukalov and Sornette 2011). (2)

This description too emphasizes the purely formal nature of this theory; it is an attempt to apply some of the mathematical models and constructs of quantum theory to the empirical problems of cognition and judgment. They go beyond this observation, however, by attempting to assess the ability of the mathematics to fit the data. Their overall judgment is dubious about the applicability of these mathematical tools to the available data on specific aspects of belief formation (22). “After performing the test against available data, the result is quite clear: non-degenerate models are not an option, being not empirically adequate or not needed.”

This is all relevant to a discussion of Wendt’s work, because Wendt’s premise is solidly realist: he wants to seriously consider the possibility or likelihood of “quantum consciousness”. This is the idea that thought and mental activity are the manifestations of subatomic quantum effects.

Quantum brain theory takes known effects at the sub-atomic level and scales them upward to the macroscopic level of the brain. (31) 

Hence the central question(s) of this book: (a) how might a quantum theoretic approach explain consciousness and by extension intentional phenomena, and thereby unify physical and social ontology, and (b) what are some implications of the result for contemporary debates in social theory? (29)

For the price of the two claims of quantum consciousness theory –that the brain is a quantum computer and that consciousness inheres in matter at the fundamental level –we get solutions to a host of intractable problems that have dogged the social sciences from the beginning. These claims are admittedly speculative, but neither is precluded by what we currently know about the brain or quantum physics, and given the classical materialist failure to make progress on the mind–body problem, at this point they look no more speculative than the orthodoxy –and the potential pay-off is huge. (35)

These are tantalizing ideas. It is clear that they are intended as substantive, not merely formal or mathematical. We are asked to take seriously, as an empirical hypothesis, the idea that the brain is a quantum machine and its gross behavior (memory, belief, judgment) is substantively influenced by that quantum substrate. But it is fundamentally unclear whether the findings of Busemeyer and Bruza or other practitioners of quantum probability in the field of cognition provide any support at all for the substantive quantum-consciousness hypothesis.

Von Neumann on the brain

image: representation of a mammalian brain neural network 

After World War II John von Neumann became interested in the central nervous system as a computing organ. Ironically, more was probably known about neuroanatomy than about advanced digital computing in the 1940s; that situation has reversed, of course. Now we know a great deal about calculating, recognizing, searching, and estimating in silicon; but relatively less about how these kinds of processes work in the setting of the central nervous system. At the time of his final illness von Neumann was preparing a series of Silliman Lectures at Yale University that focused on the parallels that exist between the digital computer and the brain; these were published posthumously as The Computer and the Brain (CB) in 1958. This topic also comes in for substantial discussion in Theory Of Self Reproducing Automata (TSRA) (edited and published posthumously by Arthur Burks in 1966). It is very interesting to see how vB sought to analyze this problem on the basis of the kinds of information available to him in the 1950s.

Much of CB takes the form of a rapid summary of the state of knowledge about digital computing machines that existed in the 1950s, from Turing to ENIAC. Almost all computers today possess the “von Neumann” architecture along these lines.

Alan Turing provided some of the mathematical and logical foundations of modern digital computing (link). He hypothesized a very simple computing device that consisted of a tape of indefinite length, a  tape drive mechanism that permitted moving the tape forwards or backwards one space, and a read-write mechanism that could read the mark in a tape location or erase and re-write the mark in that location. Here is a diagram of a Turing machine:

(Fascinatingly, here is a photo of a working model of a Turing machine (link):)


Turing’s fundamental theorem is that any function that is computable at all is computable on a Turing machine; so a Turing machine is a universal computing machine. The von Neumann architecture and the computing machines that it spawned — ENIAC and its heirs — are implementations of a universal computing machine. 
From the time of Frege it has been understood that mathematical operations can be built up as compounds of several primitive operations — addition, subtraction, etc.; so, for example, multiplication can be defined in terms of a sequence of additions. Programming languages and libraries of subroutines take advantage of this basic logic: new functions are defined as series of more elementary operations embodied in machine states. As von Neumann puts the point in CB:

More specifically: any computing machine that is to solve a complex mathematical problem must be “programmed” for this task. This means that the complex operation of solving that problem must be replaced by a combination of the basic operations of the machine. Frequently it means something even more subtle: approximation of that operation—to any desired (prescribed) degree—by such combinations. (5)

Key questions about the capacities of a computing machine, either electro-mechanical or biological, have to do with estimating its dimensionality: how much space does it occupy, how much energy does it consume, and how much time does it take to complete a given calculation? And this is where vB’s analysis took its origin. Von Neumann sought to arrive at realistic estimates of the size and functionality of the components of these two kinds of computation machines. The differences in scale are enormous, whether we consider speed, volume, or energy consumption. Fundamentally, neurons are more numerous by orders of magnitude (10^10 versus 10^4); slower by orders of magnitude (5 msec vs. 10^-3 msec); less energy-intensive by orders of magnitude (10^-3 ergs vs.10^2 ergs); and computationally less precise by orders of magnitude. (Essentially he estimates that a neural circuit, either analog or digital, is capable of precision of only about 1%.) And yet von Neumann concludes that brains accomplish  computational problems faster than digital computers because of their massively parallel structure — in spite of the comparative slowness of the individual elements of computation (neurons). This implies that the brain embodies a structurally different architecture than sequential digital computing embodied in the von Neumann model.
Von Neumann takes the fundamental operator of the brain to be the neuron, and he represents the neuron as a digital device (in spite of its evident analog electrochemical properties). A neuron transmits a pulse. “The nervous pulses can clearly be viewed as (two-valued) markers…. The absence of a pulse then represents one value (say, the binary digit 0), and the presence of one represents the other (say, the binary digit 1)” (42). “The nervous system has a prima facie digital character” (44).
In their introduction to the second edition of CB the Churchlands summarize von Neumann’s conclusion somewhat differently by emphasizing the importance of the analog features of the brain: “If the brain is a digital computer with a von Neumann architecture, it is doomed to be a computational tortoise by comparison… [But] the brain is neither a tortoise nor a dunce after all, for it was never a serial, digital machine to begin with: it is a massively parallel analog machine” (kl 397). However, it appears to me that they overstate the importance of analog neural features in von Neumann’s account. Certainly vN acknowledges the analog electro-chemical features of neural activity; but I don’t find him making a strong statement in this book to the effect that analog features contribute to the better-than-expected computational performance of the brain. This seems to correspond more to a view of the Churchlands than to von Neumann’s analysis in the 1950s. Here is their view as expressed in “Could a Machine Think?” in Scientific American in 1990:

First, nervous systems are parallel machines, in the sense that signals are processed in millions of different pathways simultaneously. The retina, for example, presents its complex input to the brain not in chunks of eight, 16 or 32 elements, as in a desktop computer, but rather in the form of almost a million distinct signal elements arriving simultaneously at the target of the optic nerve (the lateral geniculate nucleus), there to be processed collectively, simultaneously and in one fell swoop. Second, the brain’s basic processing unit, the neuron, is comparatively simple. Furthermore, its response to incoming signals is analog, not digital, inasmuch as its output spiking frequency varies continuously with its input signals. Third, in the brain axons projecting from one neuronal population to another are often matched by axons returning from their target population. These descending or recurrent projections allow the brain to modulate the character of its sensory processing. (


, 35)

In considering the brain von Neumann reached several fundamental observations. First, the enormous neural network of the central nervous system is itself a universal computing machine. Von Neumann worked on the assumption that the CNS could be “programmed” to represent the fundamental operations of arithmetic and logic; and therefore it has all the power of a universal computational machine. But second, von Neumann believes his analysis demonstrates that its architecture is fundamentally different from the standard von Neumann architecture. This observation is the more fundamental. It derives from von Neumann’s estimates of the base speed rate of calculation available to neurons in comparison to vacuum tubes; a von Neumann machine with components of this time scale would take eons to complete the calculations that the brain performs routinely. And so this underlines the importance of the massively parallel computing that is accomplished by the biological neural network. Ironically, however, it has proven challenging to emulate massively parallel neural nets in digital computing environments; here is an interesting technical report by Paul Fox that identifies communication bandwidth as being the primary limiting factor for such emulations (link). 
(Tsutomu Miki explores some of these issues in Brainware : Bio-Inspired Architecture and Its Hardware Implementation.)

Social relations across class lines

People relate to each other on the basis of a set of moral and cognitive frameworks — ideas about the social world and how others are expected to behave — and on the basis of fairly specific scripts that prescribe their own behavior in given stylized circumstances. It is evident that there are important and deep differences across cultures, regions, and classes when it comes to the specifics of these frameworks and scripts. Part of what makes My Man Godfrey humorous is the mismatch of expectations that are brought forward by the different signals of social class presented by Godfrey. Is he a homeless man, a victim of the Depression, or an upper class gentleman in disguise? His accent suggests the latter; whereas his dress and living conditions suggest one or another of the first two possibilities.

It is relatively rare for people in the United States to have sustained contact with individuals from substantially different socioeconomic circumstances; and when they do, the interactions are generally stylized and perfunctory. Consider churches — there is remarkably little socioeconomic diversity within churches in the United States. This is even more true of elite private and public universities (link). Take the percentage of Pell eligibility as an indicator of socioeconomic diversity. The University of Wisconsin-Madison serves only 10% Pell-eligible students, and Yale University only 12% Pell-eligible. According to the New York Times article providing this data, the upper margin of Pell eligibility is a family income of about $70,000; so roughly 90% of the undergraduate students in these elite universities come from families with greater than $70,000 annual income. What is the likelihood of a Yale or UW student having a serious, prolonged conversation with a person from a family below the poverty line (roughly $25,000)? It is virtually nil.

Non-elite public universities are more diverse by this measure; in 2011 49% of 19.7 million students in AASCU universities are Pell recipients (link). So the likelihood of cross-class conversations occurring in non-elite public universities is substantially higher than at flagships and elite private universities. But, as Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton show in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, even more socioeconomically diverse public universities fall victim to institutional arrangements that serve to track students by their socioeconomic status into different life outcomes (link).

This lack of socioeconomic diversity in most fundamental institutions in the United States has many consequences. Among these is a high level of perspective-blindness when it comes to the ability of upper-income people to understand the worldview and circumstances of lower-income people. In a very blunt way, we do not understand each other. And these forms of blindness are even more opaque when they are compounded by unfamiliar racial or religious backgrounds for the two parties.

This socioeconomic separation may go some ways towards explaining what otherwise appears very puzzling in our politics today — the evident hostility to the poor that is embodied in conservative rhetoric about social policies like food assistance or access to Medicaid-subsidized health insurance. A legislator or commentator who has never had a serious conversation with a non-union construction worker supporting a family earning $18.50/hour ($38,500 annually) will have a hard time understanding the meaning of a change in policy that result in additional monthly expenses. But also, he or she may not be in a position to understand how prejudicial his way of expressing himself is to the low-income person. (I’ve treated this issue in an earlier post as well.)

E.P. Thompson considered some of these forms of separation and mutual incomprehension across class boundaries in eighteenth-century Britain in his excellent essay, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture” (link). His central theme is the passing of a paternalistic culture to a more purely economic and exploitative relationship. Patrons came to have less and less of a sense of obligation when it came to the conditions of the poor within their domain. Simultaneously, men and women on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum came to have a more confident sense of their independence from earlier forms of subordination, sometimes in ways that alarmed the old elites. But this growing sense of independence did not after all threaten the relations of subordination that governed:

And yet one feels that “crisis” is too strong a term. If the complaint continues throughout the century that the poor were indisciplined, criminal, prone to tumult and riot, one never feels, before the French Revolution, that the rulers of England conceived that their whole social order might be endangered. The insubordination of the poor was an inconvenience; it was not a menace. The styles of politics and of architecture, the rhetoric of the gentry and their decorative arts, all seem to proclaim stability, self- confidence, a habit of managing all threats to their hegemony. (387)

The efforts that universities make to enhance the diversity and inclusiveness of their classrooms often focus on this point of social separation: how can we encourage students from different races, religions, or classes to interact with each other deeply enough to learn from each other? The need is real; the segregation of American society by race, religion, and socioeconomic status is a huge obstacle to mutual understanding and trust across groups. But all too often these efforts at teaching multicultural competence have less effect than they are designed to have. Organizations like AmeriCorps and CityYear probably have greater effect, simply because they succeed in recruiting highly diverse cohorts of young men and women who learn from each other while working on common projects (link).

Social knowledge at the micro level

People engage in their social worlds on the basis of a dense set of abilities and cognitive frameworks that permit them to make sense of the interactions they encounter, and to shape their behavior in ways that work for their purposes in the setting. People are creative, adaptive social actors, and this means that they engage with their social worlds on the basis of active, cognitive sense-making processes. These frameworks are rich and textured, and they plainly result from a long process of social learning on the part of the actor-in-formation.

The kinds of things that are encompassed here include —

  • Manners and stylized patterns of interaction
  • Frameworks for recognizing and interpreting the cues presented by others
  • Background knowledge about local social hierarchy 
  • Rules of thumb for dealing with new action scenarios
  • Strategies for communicating and signifying socially important meanings to others
Some people are better at each of these modes of social interaction than others. Some are better at recognizing the cues of behavior or comportment of others — this stranger is safe, that one is menacing. Some are more adept at piecing together an action plan appropriate to the present circumstances. Some are more sensitive to the social expectations of a situation than others — the social dolt who neglects to offer a polite greeting before asking for assistance from a shop clerk in Wissembourg. And these differences have consequences; the person who is chronically insensitive or brusque in rural France is likely to find he or she receives minimal assistance from strangers when needed.
This fact about social interaction raises several kinds of questions for sociologists. First, mapping out the “grammar” of these micro norms of interaction and social knowledge is itself an interesting task. Much of the work of Erving Goffman takes this form of investigation — for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). One might describe this as discovery of a social grammar in a particular setting — a set of rules of interaction that can be discerned in ordinary social behavior.
Second, it is certainly an interesting question to ask what cognitive and emotional capacities are required for an individual to become adept in a familiar environment (one’s home village) or an unfamiliar context (a visit to Hong Kong by the middle-aged French farmer, let’s say). This is analogous to Chomsky’s ur-question: what mental capacities are required in order to acquire a human-language syntax?
And the processes of learning through which these kinds of skills and knowledge frameworks are acquired are certainly of great interest for sociologists. How does one learn how to behave in one’s home setting; in one’s work setting; or in an unfamiliar social context? What is the process of observation and adaptation through which one becomes an expert denizen of a particular social context? How much is endogenous to a given community, and how much is constructed from broader cultural avenues (e.g. film and television)? Did real Valley girls make Beverly Hills 90210, or did Beverly Hills 90210 make the Valley girls?
Several recent books provide very interesting analyses of these kinds of questions. One is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. Gambetta’s central issue is communications and signaling. Given the illegality of their activities, how do organized crime groups communicate their “sales” approach to their clients, victims, and the public? How does the Sicilian mafia communicate its effectiveness and menace as a source of protection for shopkeepers? How does it keep lesser groups of criminals out of this racket or that? How does it avoid adulteration of the brand?
At a more micro level, how do “made” men learn how to act as gangsters? How do they learn how to dress, how to talk, how to swagger? Gambetta suggests seriously that they do so in important measure through movies and television depiction of gangsters — The Godfather and the Sopranos were highly influential on gangster dress and behavior, Gambetta maintains. (Tony Soprano made one serious sartorial error in the Sopranos, wearing shorts to a barbecue. The producers were informed by mafia insiders this would never happen.) And Gambetta believes there is a fairly clear explanation of this fact, the workings of convention as a way of stabilizing behavior and communicating one’s identity. If one wants to say, “I’m a gangster” without confessing to a crime, what better way than wearing the sunglasses and open collars of the Corleone family in the Godfather? And the influence goes in both directions; according to Gambetta, Michael Caan (Sonny Corleone) spent an inordinate amount of time with gangster Carmine Persico during the filming of The Godfather.
Gambetta goes into a fair level of detail in describing and explaining the use of nicknames within the Mafia. He rejects group-level functional explanations; rather, he wants to know what situations and interests lead individual criminals to continue to make use of nicknames for some of their associates. Based on the records of the maxi trial in Palermo in 1986-87 he argues that nicknames are more common among foot soldiers and killers in the mafia than in other occupational groups, and that they are also more common in urban settings than rural settings. He argues that nicknames persist among gangsters for several reasons. They permit insiders to accurately identify individuals with otherwise indistinguishable birth certificate names. They confuse the police and prosecutors, allowing individual gangsters to slip from one identity to another in evading arrest or conviction. And sometimes they serve a within-group purpose as well — allowing a little bit of cautious fun at the expense of one another with the use of ridiculous nicknames. 
The second recent book I’ve found interesting on the topic of micro sociology is Peter Bearman’s Doormen. Bearman is interested in making sense of the ways that doormen have professionalized their actions by mediating between the private worlds of their tenants and the public world of the street. Here is how he describes his research at the fifty thousand foot level:

Here, through the window of observed behavior, we observe that the real springs for social action rest in a nest of workable social theories, bags of tricks, and larger network processes. These theories, tricks, and processes appear to be social facts, that is, things that are not changeable by the will of a single individual — either the researcher or the research subject. (257)

Bearman makes a point of moving back and forth between fieldwork and social models. He wants to make sense of the social phenomenology he observes — how the job market for doormen works, how informal networks of knowledge sharing facilitate movement of young men into open doormen jobs (rather than waiting for years in queues for those same jobs), how weak ties play a crucial role in this world, and the ways in which these mechanisms prolong the workings of race- and ethnicity-based inequalities. And he makes expert use of the results of various areas of social modeling theory to explicate features of doorman activity — for example, the queuing of tasks and responses to tenants’ requests (chapter 3).
The situation of the doorman is unusual, Bearman finds, compared to many other semi-skilled service occupations. The doorman provides a buffer between the tenant’s world of privacy and privilege and the polluted world of the hustle-bustle street. He argues that the situation of the doorman is an unusual one, in that the doorman gains a high degree of personal knowledge about his tenants, and uses that knowledge to provide personalized service to them. 
Bearman makes a great deal of the fact that there is a wide social separation between doorman and tenant, even as there is a quasi-intimate relation between them based on the personal  knowledge the doorman has of the tenant. The doorman knows an enormous amount about the life of the tenant, while the tenant knows almost nothing of the doorman’s private life in Queens or Staten Island.
One of the striking things about Bearman’s book is the skill with which he diagnoses the semantics of the behaviors and spaces that he considers. What does the lobby of the residential building signify? In what ways do different residence styles signify different attitudes and qualities for their tenants? What does the routine, meaningless small chat between resident and doorman mean? What does the doorman’s uniform signify, for himself, for the tenant, and for the visitor? (According to one of the informants quoted by Bearman, the uniform makes him socially invisible as a human being.) This emphasis on social meanings is crucial and welcome; it is an acknowledgment for sociology of the insight that Geertz brought to ethnography, that the social world is a web of meanings that need to be deciphered if we are to understand the behavior of people within these settings (The Interpretation of Cultures).
Both these books are interesting because of what they bring to an actor-centered view of the social world. Both books are specifically interested in examining the social meanings invested in various modes of speech, dress, or comportment. As I’ve argued in earlier posts (link, link), we urgently need to have more nuanced theories of the actor, beyond stylized accounts of beliefs, desires, and opportunities. And studies like these provide a very welcome contribution to the task of formulating such a sociology.

Getting inside people’s frames

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.

The notion of a frame seems to originate (in sociology anyway) in the writings of Erving Goffman. Here is how he formulates the idea in Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience:

When the individual in our Western society recognizes a particular event, he tends, whatever else he does, to imply in this response (and in effect employ) one or more frameworks or schemata of interpretation of a kind that can be called primary. I say primary because application of such a framework or perspective is seen by those who apply it as not depending on or harking back to some prior or ‘original’ interpretation; indeed a primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful…. Whatever the degree of organization, however, each primary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms. He is likely to be unaware of such organized features as the framework has and unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked, yet these handicaps are no bar to his easily and fully applying it…. Social frameworks … provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being…. Taken all together, the primary frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture, especially insofar as understandings emerge concerning principal classes of schemata, the relations of these classes to one another, and the sum total of forces and agents that these interpretive designs acknowledge to be loose in the world. (21-22, 27)

The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront. At least a part of the disciplinary matrix of cultural sociology might be understood as the field of inquiry that tries to probe those frameworks as they are embodied in specific collectivities — working class people, women, African Americans, American Muslims, or college professors, for example. (Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel might be viewed as progenitors of this aspect of the sociology discipline; linklink.)

Wendy Griswold addresses part of this viewpoint on sociological research in her very good overview of the field in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World.

Most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people’s meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. (kl 195)

So how have sociologists attempted to investigate these kinds of subjective realities? Here is how Al Young describes his research goals in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances:

I wanted to get a sense of whether poor black men looked beyond their immediate surroundings and circumstances when thinking about the future. Hence, the story told here is about how these men think about themselves as members of a larger social world — not just their communities and neighborhoods, but American society. (lc 134)

Part 2, “Lifeworlds,” explores the men’s own accounts of their past and contemporary circumstances. It is here that the experiences and situations that have positioned them as poor, urban-based black men are explored. Chapter 2 provides a vision of the social contexts that circumscribe these men’s lives and shape the comments and opinions that they shared with me. (lc 195)

In order to answer these questions Young conducted several dozen interviews with young black men on the south side of Chicago, and his interpretation and analysis of the results is highly illuminating.

Or take as another example the highly interesting work of sociologist Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Here Lamont studies the mentalities of high-status white men in the United States and France. Her question is a fairly simple one: how do these men formulate their judgments of success and failure in themselves and others? What features do they admire in others and which do they dislike? She conducts interviews with 160 men in four cities in France and the United States, and makes a sustained effort to discern the profiles of culture and value that she finds among these individuals.

I compare competing definitions of what it means to be a ‘worthy person’ by analyzing symbolic boundaries, i.e., by looking at implicit definitions of purity present in the labels interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people with whom they don’t want to associate, people to whom they consider themselves to be superior and inferior, and people who arouse hostility, indifference, and sympathy. Hence, the study analyzes the relative importance attached to religion, honesty, low moral standards, cosmopolitanism, high culture, money, power, and the likes, by Hoosiers, New Yorkers, Parisians, and Clermontois. (kl 179)

This kind of research is inherently interesting because of the light it sheds for readers about the lives and experiences of others. Reading Al Young or Michele Lamont offers the reader a window into the experience and meaning frameworks of people whose lives and experiences have been substantially different from our own; it helps us understand the ways in which these various individuals and members of groups understand themselves and their social worlds. All by itself this is a valuable kind of research. (Why did so many African Americans respond differently to the acquittal of OJ Simpson than their white counterparts and peers?)

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

A key issue with this kind of inquiry is methodological. How should we investigate and observe the subjective characteristics of thought and feeling that this work entails? What are appropriate standards of validity on the basis of which to assess assertions in this area? Sociologists like Alford Young and Michele Lamont have often chosen a methodology that centers on open-ended unstructured interviews — very much the kind of thing that Studs Terkel was so good at. What these sociologists add to the approach of a Studs Terkel or an Ira Glass is an effort to analyze and generalize from the interviews they collect in order to arrive at mid-level statements about the mentality and symbolic frameworks of this group or that. And both Young and Lamont succeed in providing portraits of their subjects that are highly insightful and sociologically plausible — we can understand the mechanisms through which these frameworks take hold and we can see some of the meso-level consequences that follow from them in specific social settings.

In a number of prior posts I’ve argued for an actor-centered sociology (link). And I’ve argued that we need to have better and more fully articulated theories of the actor if an actor-centered sociology is to be valuable.  What I am calling cultural sociology here is one way for the discipline of sociology to get down to business in providing more nuanced theories of the actor.

(I should note that the description provided here of cultural sociology makes the field seem highly actor-centered; but this isn’t entirely accurate. There are macro and meso zones of research in cultural sociology that are distinctly uninterested in the mental frameworks of the individual actors. Wendy Griswold captures this multi-level division of the field by referring to a “cultural diamond”, and the actor-centered aspect that I’ve described here is probably the smallest in terms of the volume of research conducted in the field. Here is Griswold’s description of the diamond:

I use the device of the “cultural diamond” to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects — symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. (kl 218)

In fact, the actor-centered dimension of the field gets relatively little spotlight in Griswold’s Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. If anything, one might argue that there should be more attention to the interface between frame and actor, so that individuals are not viewed as simply the passive bearers of this cultural icon or that.)

Skilled work

Watch an active construction site for a few minutes and you will see some amazing examples of skilled work and deft problem solving. That was true today in Ann Arbor where I happened to see one complicated step in the construction of a new wing of a five-storey building. The problem was this. A fifty-foot girder was lifted by crane to its intended location within the vertical steel frame. Already I was impressed with the skill of the crane operator, who deftly maneuvered the beam into position where two steel workers were waiting on the existing beam. The crane suspended the beam in place and the steel workers bolted the near end to the frame. So far so good. But the far end was to attach to an isolated vertical beam fifty feet away, and I couldn’t picture how that end would be attached. The steel worker answered that question quickly. He scuttled the length of the beam to the isolated vertical while the beam was suspended by the crane cable and the attached end. But now the resistance of the material world intervened — the beam was a little too long to fit. The worker used two crow bars he’d brought with him to lever it into place — no good. It was just half an inch too long given the position of the vertical. So are we stymied? Need to send it back? No. The worker stood up on the beam and started gently rocking the vertical. After two or three oscillations he was able to lever the beam into place, and quickly bolted it down.

It’s not a completely amazing instance of problem solving on the job, but it is impressive nonetheless. Certainly the users’ manual doesn’t have a section on what to do in this circumstance. But given his prior training, experience, and embodied skills, the worker was able to come up with a solution that worked.

Richard Sennett describes this kind of artisanal intelligence in The Craftsman. He describes craftsmanship as “the skill of making things well” (8). Further,

The Craftsman explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The relation between hand and head appears in domains seemingly as different as bricklaying, cooking, designing a playground, or playing the cello— but all these practices can misfire or fail to ripen. (9)

A part of the interest of Sennett’s work here is the help it provides in redressing the idea that mental work is professional and cognitive, while manual work is repetitive and rote. Sennett gives many contemporary examples of work that is both head and hand, both cognitive and skilled, both creative and manual. Sennett gives many examples of this kind of artisanal intelligence. Here is one from the construction of a large shopping mall in Atlanta.

The lighting in these aboveground car-houses turned out to be uneven in intensity, dangerous shadows suddenly appearing within the building. Painters had added odd-shaped white strip lines to guide drivers in and out of irregular pools of light, showing signs of improvising rather than following the plan. The craftsmen had done further, deeper thinking about light than the designers. (44-45)

Sennett’s point here is that the implementation of a complex space is not simply the translation of a computer-generated architectural drawing into material form. Rather, it is a process that requires real workers to find solutions to the inevitable fact of gaps and inconsistencies in the plan–in this case, the fact that the lighting didn’t fully illuminate the space, leading to risks for pedestrians and drivers.

A dominant tradition of philosophy identifies our human essence with our ability to think and reason. Descartes represents this line of thought (“cogito ergo sum”). But there is another tradition that places labor and our capacity to transform the material world at the center of the human essence. Hegel represented this line of thought, as did Marx. It is the homo faber tradition — man the creator — and all in all, it seems to do a better job of defining us. Labor and skilled intelligence lie at the core of human capacities. And that is a good thing to remember on May 1, the international day celebrating labor.

How things work

Social scientists have a set of abstract goals in approaching their work.  They want to formulate specific research questions about limited aspects of the social world and then arrive at empirical and explanatory insights into those matters. They look for the evidence of social structures and systems, regularities of social behavior in populations and groups, and so on. They are looking to provide abstract, general knowledge about how society works. They would like to arrive at clear “diagrams” of the social structures and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary social world.

But think about the challenge of understanding society from the other end of the stick — the perspective of the ordinary participant. From the participant’s perspective the situation often looks more like an environment of black boxes: how will the world respond if I do X, Y, or Z? And for a significant part of society, how the boxes work is a life-affecting mystery.

There is a significant proportion of almost any society for whom these kinds of questions can be answered with a satisfying routine: if I go to work today I can count on getting a day’s pay; my pay will permit me to satisfy my ordinary needs reasonably well; and tomorrow will be equally routine. The police won’t hassle me, my home won’t be broken into, my health is good, and my children’s school situation is good.  So there isn’t much at stake for this group of people as they consider how the social world around them works.

What about people for whom life is not routine and comfortable, however? Put yourself in the position of an African-American high-school-educated worker who has just lost his job in Taylor, Michigan. Suppose you’ve got an apartment for your family of five that costs $750/month. You’ve got an old car that breaks down frequently. While you’ve been working your family has just barely scraped by. Now that you’ve lost your job things are no longer routine. Unemployment insurance brings in less than 60% of the wages you’d been making. That’s not enough to cover all the bills you’ve got — rent, food, clothes for the children, gas for the clunker, a few medical bills.

So what choices does the environment offer now? The largest part of the family budget is the apartment. So maybe moving out early is a good choice — find something even cheaper, live in a shelter for a few months, live in the clunker. These are desperate choices — being homeless is desperate, and it’s hard to find an apartment for less than $500. Also, the landlord will probably want first and last month rent deposit as well as proof of employment, and you haven’t got that. So maybe it’s the shelter or the car.

Looking for a new job is an obvious choice. But the unemployment rate in Wayne County is much higher than the rest of the state and the nation. So that’s iffy. How about borrowing? Like many of your friends and family, you don’t have a credit card and you don’t have assets that could be the basis for borrowing. There’s nothing in the house that can be sold. And you’ve got about $1000 in cash. So what to do? Your landlord won’t be patient after a few months of missed rent checks.

Maybe looking for work outside of Wayne County will occur to you. Maybe there are jobs in Texas. But how would you find out? Would you use part of the thousand dollars and take a bus to Houston where you have a cousin, or to Dallas where you don’t know anyone? That leaves about $800 for your family to survive on while you’re gone — is that a good risk? And how likely is it that you’ll find work in Texas that will permit you to send enough money back home to make the difference? 

Or maybe another part of Michigan might have more jobs. Not Flint, that’s for sure. But what about Grand Rapids? Now the question of race comes into the picture. How receptive is Grand Rapids to an unemployed black man looking for work? How will the police treat you when you arrive in the bus station? Are there social services that might help out till you found work? How would you know? Have you got any friends in GR who might be able to get you started?

You might be very well aware that a lack of education is holding you back. So maybe you can get some training at a community college to boost your job skills — welding or health tech, perhaps. But that takes time, and you’ve only got a thousand dollars and an unemployment check. That would have been a good idea a while ago, but it’s hard to see how to make it work now. 

And what about the criminal options? Maybe you know some guys who sometimes break into stopped rail cars in Detroit. Once in a while they find stuff that can be sold. Does that make sense? What’s the likelihood of being caught? Is there money in this kind of racket? How would you sort that out?

My point in this thought experiment is to draw out how different the “social epistemics” are for the marginalized 30-40% in our society from the rest of us. The routine relationships they have with the social world around them don’t satisfy their most basic needs. They’ve got to do something different. And none of the options are obvious in their mechanics or outcomes. There are uncertainties everywhere, and every choice is a bet against disaster. This is a very personal kind of social calculation: it requires figuring out which play may push destitution off for a few weeks or months. 

And yet in one sense they’re dealing with the same realities as the social scientist: large institutions (labor market, state social service agencies), informal social practices and networks (networks of people willing to share what they’ve got, networks of people preying on the formal economy), large social realities like racism and police violence.

One of the things I appreciate in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels is the care Mosley takes to work out the ordinary street knowledge that Easy needed — and mastered — as he survived and thrived in the gritty world of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. Easy had a very strong street epistemology, not as a sociologist but as an intelligent observer of a complicate set of social black boxes. Here is one good example, A Little Yellow Dog : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story “Gray-Eyed Death”.

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