Is the mind/body problem relevant to social science?

Is solving the mind-body problem crucial to providing a satisfactory sociological theory?


No, it isn’t, in my opinion. But Alex Wendt thinks otherwise in Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. In fact, he thinks a solution to the mind-body problem is crucial to a coherent social science. Which is to say, in Wendt’s words:

Some of the deepest philosophical controversies in the social sciences are just local manifestations of the mind–body problem. So if the theory of quantum consciousness can solve that problem then it may solve fundamental problems of social science as well. (5)

Why so? There are two core problems in the philosophy of mind that Wendt thinks are unavoidable and must be confronted by the social sciences. The first is the problem of consciousness and intentionality; the second is the problem of freedom of the will. How is it possible for a physical, material system (a computer, a brain, a vacuum cleaner) to possess any of these mental properties?

Experts refer to the “hard problem” in the philosophy of mind. We might also call this the discontinuity problem: the unavoidable necessity of a radical break between a non conscious substrate and a conscious super-strate. How is it possible for an amalgamation of inherently non-conscious things (neurons, transistors, routines in an AI software package) to create an ensemble that possesses consciousness? Isn’t this as mysterious as imagining a world in which matter is composed of photons, where the constituents lack mass and the ensemble possesses mass? In such a case we would get mass out of non-mass; in the case of consciousness we get consciousness out of non-consciousness. “Pan-massism” would be a solution: all things, from stars to boulders to tables and chairs to subatomic components, possess mass.

But physicalist philosophers of mind are not persuaded by the discontinuity argument. As we have noted many times in this place, there are abundant examples of properties that are emergent in a non-spooky way. It simply is not the case that the sciences need to proceed in a Cartesian, foundationalist fashion. We do not need to reduce each level of the world to the workings of a lower level of things and processes.

Consider a parallel problem: is solving the question of the fundamental mechanisms of quantum mechanics crucial for understanding chemistry and the material properties of medium-scale objects? Here it seems evident that we can’t require this level of ontological continuity from micro to macro — in fact, there may reasons for believing the task cannot be carried out in principle. (See the earlier post on the question of whether chemistry supervenes upon quantum theory; link.)
Here is the solution to the mind-body problem that Wendt favors: panpsychism. Panpsychism is the notion that consciousness is a characteristic of the world all the way down — from human beings to sub-atomic particles.

Panpsychism takes a known effect at the macroscopic level–that we are conscious–and scales it downward to the sub-atomic level, meaning that matter is intrinsically minded. (30) 

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)

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)

Panpsychism strikes me as an extravagant and unhelpful theoretical approach, however. Why should we attempt to analyze “Robert is planning to embarrass the prime minister” into a vast ensemble of psychic bits associated with the sub-atomic particles of his body? How does it even make sense to imagine a “sub-atomic bit of consciousness”? And how does the postulation of sub-atomic characteristics of consciousness give us any advantage in understanding ordinary human consciousness, deliberation, and intentionality?

Another supposedly important issue in the domain of the mind-body problem is the problem of freedom of the will. As ordinary human beings in the world we work on the assumption that individuals make intentional choices among feasible alternatives; their behavior is not causally determined by any set of background conditions. But if individuals are composed of physically deterministic parts (classical physics) then how is it possible for the organism to be “free”? And equally, if individuals are composed of physically indeterministic parts (probabilistic sub-particles) then how is it possible for the organism to be intentional (since chance doesn’t produce intentionality)? So neither classical physics nor quantum physics seems to leave room for intentional free choice among alternatives.

Consider the route of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner through the cluttered living room (link): its course may appear either random or strategic, but in fact it is neither. Instead, the Roomba’s algorithms dictate the turns and trajectories that the device takes in either an unobstructed run or an obstructed run. The behavior of the Roomba is determined by its algorithms and the inputs of its sensors; there is no room for freedom of choice in the Roomba. How can it be different for a dog or a human being, given that we too are composed of algorithmic computing systems?

Social theory presupposes intentional actors; but our current theories of neuroscience don’t permit us to reproduce how intentionality, consciousness, and freedom are possible. So don’t we need to solve the problem of freedom of the will before we can construct valid sociological theories that depend upon conscious, intentional and free actors?

Again, my answer is negative. It is an interesting question, to be sure, how freedom, consciousness, and intentionality can emerge from the wetware of the brain. But it is not necessary to solve this problem before we proceed with social science. Instead, we can begin with phenomenological truisms: we are conscious, we are intentional, and we are (in a variety of conditioned senses) free. How the organism achieves these higher-level capabilities is intriguing to study; but we don’t have to premise our sociological theories on any particular answer to this question.

So the position I want to take here is that we don’t have to solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics in order to understand social processes and social causation. We can bracket the metaphysics of the quantum world — much as the Copenhagen interpretation sought to do — without abandoning the goal of providing a good explanation of aspects of the social world and social actors. Wendt doesn’t like this approach:

Notwithstanding its attractions to some, this refusal to deal with ontological issues also underlies the main objection to the Copenhagen approach: that it is essentially incomplete. (75)

But why is incompleteness a problem for the higher-level science (psychology or sociology, for example)? Why are we not better served by a kind of middle-level theory of human action and the social world, a special science, that refrains altogether from the impulse of reductionism? This middle-level approach would certainly leave open the research question of how various capabilities of the conscious, intentional organism are embodied in neurophysiology. But it would not require providing such an account in order to validate the human-level or social-level theory.


Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don’t really have good answers to any of these questions:

  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?

These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups — how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well — once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions — basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description — for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn’t have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn’t seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics — people from a certain region (“midwesterners”), people with a certain occupation (“insurance adjustors”), people with a certain national origin (“Irish-Americans”), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme (“Protestants,” “Populists”).  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common — the “nominal” characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics — lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, …  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:

  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or “The Greatest Generation”?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  

Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.
Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:

“There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile.” This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  

Or: “A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups.”

It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: “Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;” “teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;” “white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.”)  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A’s are so different from the B’s: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?
The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity — a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions — that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.

Sociology in time: cohorts

What difference does it make to a person’s personality, values, agency, or interpretive schemes that she was born in 1950 rather than 1930 or 1970?  How does a person’s place in time and in a stream of historical events influence the formation of his or her consciousness?  (I’ve raised some of these questions in prior posts, here and here.)

If we thought of people as being pretty much uniform in their motivations and understandings of the world, then we wouldn’t be particularly interested in the micro-circumstances that defined the developmental environment of a cohort; these circumstances would have been expected to lead to pretty much the same kinds of actors.  We don’t think it is useful to analyze ants or cattle into age cohorts.

If, on the other hand, we think that a person’s political and social identity, the ways in which she values a range of social and personal outcomes, the ways in which she organizes her thinking about the world — if we think that these basic features of cognition, valuation, and motivation are significantly influenced by the environment in which development and maturation take place, then we are forced to consider the importance of cohorts.

The ideas of the “Great Generation” the “Children of the Depression,” or the “Sixties Generation” have a certain amount of resonance for us. We think of the typical members of these cohorts as having fairly important features of personality, memory, and motivation that are different from members of other cohorts.  Americans born in the 1920s were thrown into social environments that were very different from those of people born twenty years earlier or later.  And their political consciousness and behavior seem to reflect these differences.

But here is the difficult question raised by these considerations: how should sociologists attempt to incorporate the possibility of cohort differences in behavior and outlook?  Here is one possible way of conceptualizing cohort differences with respect to a personality characteristic — let’s say “propensity to trust leaders.”  Suppose we have conducted a survey that operationalizes this characteristic so that the trust propensity of each individual can be measured.  We might postulate that every individual has some degree of trust, but that different cohort groups have different mean values and different distributions around the mean.

The graph below represents four hypothetical cohorts: purple, blue, green, red.  Blue, green, and red cohorts have the same mean value for trust (normalized to 0).  But they differ in terms of the degree of variation there is within the cohort with respect to this feature.  The red cohort is tightly scattered around the mean, whereas the blue cohort is very widely distributed.  The “average” red individual has the same degree of trust as the average blue individual; but there is a much wider range of the blues than the reds.  Members of the purple cohort show a fundamentally different behavior.  They have a significantly lower level of trust, with a mean of -2.  And the degree of distribution around the mean is moderate for the purple cohort — not as tight as the reds, not as broad as the blues.  Finally, it should be noted that there are reds, greens, and blues who are as untrusting as some purples, and there are some purples who are more trusting than some reds, greens, and blues.  In other words, the distributions overlap.

If we were confronted with data like these, our next question would be causal and historical: what were the circumstances of development in which the generation of people in the purple cohort took shape that caused them to be less trusting than other cohorts?  And what circumstances led the blue cohort to have such a wide distribution of variation in comparison to the green and red cohorts?

Now let’s put some dates on the curves.  Suppose that the purple cohort is the baby-boom generation — people born between 1945 and 1954.  Red is the “Greatest Generation”, born between 1915 and 1924.  And blue is the “me-generation”, born between 1955 and 1964.  We might speculate that growing up in the sixties, with a highly divisive war in Vietnam underway, a government that suffered a serious credibility gap, and a youth culture that preached the slogan, “trust no one over 30!”, would have led to a political psychology that was less inclined to trust government than generations born earlier or later.  So the Purple cohort has a low level of trust as a group.  The social necessity of sticking together as a country, fighting a major world war, and working our way out of the Great Depression, might explain the high degree of unanimity of trust found in the Red cohort.  And the Blue generation is all over the map, ranging from a significant number of people with extremely low trust to an equal group of extremely high trust.  We might imagine that the circumstances of maturation and development following the wild and crazy sixties imposed little structure on this feature of political identity, resulting in a very wide distribution of levels of trust.

It is also important to consider some of the factors that vary across time that might have important influences on the development of different cohorts.  Circumstances like war, famine, or economic crisis represent one family of influences that are often markedly different across age cohorts.  Ideologies and value systems also change from decade to decade.  The turn to a more conservative kind of Christianity in the United States in the 1990s certainly influenced a significant number of young people coming of age during those decades, and the value system of nationalism and patriotism of the 1940s and 1950s influenced the young people of those decades.  Third, institutions change significantly over time as well. Schools change, the operations and culture of the military change, and the internal workings of religious institutions change.  So the institutions in which children and young adults gain their perspectives, motives, and allegiances are often significantly different from one decade to another.  And presumably, all these factors are involved in the formation of the consciousness and identity of the young people who experience them.  Difference in settings (events, ideologies, institutions) lead to differences in psychology across cohorts.

Andrew Abbott raised some of these questions in his presidential address to the Social Science History Association in 2004 (link).  The title he chose is illuminating — “The Historicality of Individuals”.  And the central point here could be put in the same terms: it is important for us to attempt to understand processes of social and historical change, through the shifting characteristics of the age-specific populations that make these processes up. The historicality of individuals adds up to the sociological importance of cohorts.

Darnton’s history

Twenty-five years ago, Robert Darnton offered a highly original perspective on historical understanding in his The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), and the book still warrants close attention. He proposes to bring an ethnographic perspective to bear on historical research, attempting to arrive at nuanced interpretation of the mentalities and worldviews of ordinary folk in early modern France. (Significantly, Darnton collaborated with Clifford Geertz at Princeton, and the influences seem to have run in both directions.)

Darnton attempts to tease out some of the distinguishing elements of French rural and urban culture—through folklore, through documented collective behavior, or through obscure documents authored by police inspectors and bourgeois observers. He is “realist” about mentalités; and he recognizes as well the plasticity and variability of mentalités over time, space, and group. (“I do not believe there is such a thing as a typical peasant or a representative bourgeois” (Darnton 1984 : 6).) And he is more interested in the singular revealing incident than in the large structural narrative of change; he demonstrates that careful historical interpretation of a single puzzling event can result in greater illumination about a historical period than from more sweeping descriptions and narratives.

Darnton does not accept the notion that “good” social history must be quantitative or highly “objective”—that is, neutral with respect to perspective. Rather, he sees the task of a cultural social historian as one of uncovering the threads of voice and action that permit us to reconstruct some dimensions of “French peasant worldview” and to see how startlingly different that worldview is from the modern view. Our distance from the French peasant is great—conceptually as well as materially. So the challenges of uncovering these features of agency and mentality based on very limited historical data are great.

In the title essay of the volume Darnton goes into a single incident in detail: the autobiographical account of Nicolas Contat, a printer’s apprentice (later journeyman), in which Contat describes an episode of cat killing by the apprentices and journeymen in the shop. Darnton relates the incident to its cultural and social context—the symbolic role that cats had in festivals in the countryside, contemporary attitudes towards violence to animals, the sexual innuendo represented by killing the mistress’s cat, the changing material relations between master and worker in the 18th century trades. Darnton offers a “thick description” of this incident, allowing the reader to come to a relatively full interpretation of the significance of the various elements of the story. At the same time, he sheds light on the background mentalité and social practices of workers and masters. So the essay is a paradigm of interpretative cultural history. Darnton describes his work in these terms:

It might simply be called cultural history; for it treats our own civilization in the same way that anthropologists study alien cultures. It is history in the ethnographic grain. … This book investigates ways of thinking in eighteenth-century France. It attempts to show not merely what people thought but how they thought—how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion. (Darnton 1984 : 3)

Darnton implicitly considers whether this incident should be considered an instance of class resistance—that is, whether we can see the germs of class struggle in this complex moment. And his general perspective is that such a reading would be reductionist and anachronistic. There is resistance in this incident; there is sharp hostility between shop workers and the master and his family; but the resistance and the resentment are thematized around more specific grievances and patterns than the class struggle story would suggest. (It may be that we could better relate Darnton’s reading of the incident to Scott’s “everyday forms of peasant resistance,” emphasizing as it does the role of humor and undetectable violence; see an earlier post on this subject.) The workers’ conduct in this incident is not aimed at overthrowing the master, but at imposing an episode of pain and celebrating a moment of riot.

The notion of reading runs through all the chapters, for Darnton suggests that one can read a ritual or a city just as one can read a folktale or a philosophic text. “The modes of exegisis may vary, but in each case one reads for meaning—the meaning inscribed by contemporaries in whatever survives of their vision of the world” (Darnton 1984 : 5).

The analysis of folk tales is just as rewarding. Darnton offers a content analysis of the folk tales collected by several generations of folklorists. He disputes the psychological interpretations offered by Fromm, Bettelheim, and others—most convincingly on the grounds that they fail to pay close enough attention to the narrative content and known historical context of the stories. Instead, Darnton offers an interpretation of the world and worldview of the peasant storytellers who invented and repeated these tales: the omnipresence of hunger, the hazards of life on the road, the burden of children in poor households, … He shows that there is great consistency in the narratives of these stories over many generations—and also there are national differences across German, French, and English versions of the stories.

Darnton’s work in this book is valuable for the philosophy of history in several ways.

  • First, it exemplifies a different model of historical knowledge: not a series of events, not a cliometric analysis of society and class, but an interpretation of moments and mentalités in a fashion designed to shed light on the larger historical moment. It is an effort to make historical understanding “ethnographic.”
  • Second, it possesses its own form of rigor and objectivity. The facts matter to the interpretations that Darnton offers—the facts of the multiple versions of folk stories, the facts of what we know about the changing circumstances in the printing trades, the facts of peasant hunger at several periods in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Third, it has the potential for shedding deeper light on French popular action than we are likely to gain from a traditional “rational actor” or class-conflict approaches. The motives that Darnton discerns among the printers are sometimes goal-directed; but sometimes emotional, and sometimes related to the simple recklessness of young men in constraining circumstances.

Finally, Darnton’s work here provides some specific insights into questions about the historical study of “mentalités” (post). Darnton shows that it is possible to make significant headway in the project of figuring out how distant and illiterate people thought about the world around them, the social relations in which they found themselves, the natural world, and much else. The documents available to us in the archives have a richness that speaks to these ways of thinking the world; it is therefore a valuable task for the historian to engage in piecing together the details of daily life and experience that the documents reveal and conceal.

(See an earlier post for a different aspect of Darnton’s historiography — an analysis of the reviews he has written over twenty-five years in the New York Review of Books.)

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