Thursday, January 19, 2012

Knowledge naturalized and socialized

There has been a field of philosophy for quite a long time called "epistemology naturalized." (Here are good articles on naturalized epistemology and evolutionary epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Putting the point simply, the goal of this field is to reconcile two obvious points:
  • Human beings are natural organisms, with cognitive faculties that have resulted from a process of natural selection.  All our beliefs about the world have been created and evaluated using these natural and biologically contingent faculties, generally in social interaction with other knowers.
  • We want to assert that our beliefs about the world are rationally and empirically supportable, and they have a certain probability of being approximately true.
The first point is a truism about the knowledge-producing organism.  The second is an expectation of what we want our beliefs to accomplish in terms of their relationships to the external world.

One of the earliest exponents of naturalized epistemology was W.V.O. Quine in "Epistemology Naturalized", included in Ontological Relativity (1969). Here is a definitive statement of his approach:
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input -- certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance -- and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence...But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology. (82-3)
What are those cognitive faculties that the human organism possesses thanks to our evolutionary history?  Here are several that are important for belief formation.  We have perceptual abilities; we can observe objects and their sensible properties.  We can form concepts that serve to organize our thoughts about the world. We can identify patterns among cognized events.  We can reason deductively and inductively, allowing us to explore the logical relationships among various of our beliefs. We can formulate causal hypotheses about what factors influence what outcomes.  And we can create hypotheses about unobservable structures and properties that are thought to explain and generate the patterns we identify in the sensible world. These capacities presumably have natural histories and, presumably, cognitive gaps. So how can what we know about the human organism's cognitive capacities illuminate the rational warrant of the belief systems that we create?

Experimentation is a key part of belief formation, at least when our beliefs have to do with causation.  We may think that a certain mushroom causes insomnia.  We can design a simple experiment to attempt to test or validate this hypothesis: Identify two representative groups of persons; design a typical diet for everyone; administer the mushroom supplement to the diet of one group and withhold it from the second "control" group; record sleep patterns for both groups.  If there is an average difference in the incidence of insomnia between the two groups, we have prima facie reason to accept the hypothesis. If there is no difference, then we have reason to reject the hypothesis.

So what is the "social" part of knowledge creation?  In what sense does our understanding of knowledge need to be socialized? This is the key question giving rise to the various versions of the sociology of knowledge and science considered in recent posts. It is plain that social influences and social interactions come into virtually every aspect of the "naturalistic" inventory of belief formation offered above. Perception, concept formation, hypothesis formation, theory formation, reasoning, and belief assessment all have social components.The cognitive frameworks that we use, both in everyday perception and learning as well as in specialized scientific research, are socially and culturally informed. This seems to be particularly true in the case of social knowledge, both ordinary and scientific.

So we can add an additional bullet to the two provided at the start about the conditions of knowledge:
  • Belief systems have substantial social underpinnings in the form of division of labor in belief acquisition, socially shared institutions of inquiry, and socially shared (and contested) standards of belief assessment.
Here are a handful of ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and created:

(1) We form beliefs or interpretations about the motives and reasons for other persons' behavior. These interpretations are formulated in terms of concepts and expectations that are themselves socially specific -- honor, shame, pride, revenge, spite, altruism, love.  And this is an important point: the actor him/herself has internalized some such set of ideas, which in turn influences the behavior.  This means that action is doubly constructed: by the actor and by the interpreter.

(2) We form beliefs about institutions -- the family, the mayor's office, the police department, the presidency. These beliefs are deeply invested in a set of presuppositions and implicatures, which are themselves socially specific.

(3) Knowledge gathering and assessing is inherently social in that it depends on the cooperative and competitive activities of groups of knowledge workers. These may be communities of scientists, theologians, or engineers. Disagreements are inherent in these social groups, and the embodied norms and power relationships that determine which belief systems emerge as "correct" are crucial parts of the knowledge formation process.

(4) We give weight to certain standards of reasoning and we discount other standards of reasoning.  Some of us give credence to magical claims, and we attach some evidentiary weight to statements about magical connections; others disregard magical claims and arguments. These disagreements are culture-specific. (Martin Hollis, ed., Rationality and Relativism, considers a lot of these sorts of questions.)

(5) Standards and definitions of "evidence" and "reason for belief" are socially variable and plastic. Moreover, there is likely to be more variance in these areas in some zones of belief than others. We may find more unanimity about procedures for assessing causal statements about common observable circumstances than about theoretical hypotheses, and even less for assessing beliefs about the likely effects of social policies.

"Naturalizing" and "socializing" knowledge is important because it allows us to investigate the concrete processes and practices through which human beings arrive at beliefs about the world.  The continuing challenge that the philosophy of science raises is the epistemic one: how can we evaluate the rational force of the beliefs and modes of reasoning that are documented through these empirical investigations of the knowledge enterprise?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Camic, Gross and Lamont

The sociology of knowledge has received a new burst of energy in the past few years, with quite a bit of encouragement and innovation coming from Science, Technology and Society studies (STS).  (STS overlaps substantially with the SSK research tradition described briefly in an earlier post.)  Charles Camic and Neil Gross have made very substantial contributions in the past few years, with special focus on the knowledge activities associated with the humanities and social sciences.  (Gross's intellectual sociology of Richard Rorty is discussed here.)

So what is going on in this field today?  Camic, Gross, and Lamont, Social Knowledge in the Making, offers a genuinely pathbreaking collection of articles on different aspects of "social knowledge practices".  The editors' introduction to the volume does an excellent job of laying out the issues that current sociology of knowledge needs to confront.  They illustrate very clearly the differences in perspective associated with traditional intellectual history (which they describe as "traditional approach to social knowledge"; TASK), reductionist sociology of knowledge (attempting to link social conditions to specific set of ideas), and the science studies approach, which focuses a great deal of attention on the specific knowledge practices through which a community constructs and furthers a body of knowledge.

The editors make the point that the STS framework (and the SSK approach) is largely focused on the social practices connected with the natural and biological sciences -- laboratories, graduate schools, journals, conferences. And they argue that the fields of knowledge production involved in social knowledge are both important and distinctive.  (They are distinctive for at least three reasons: social knowledge is reflexive, the data must be gathered from subjective participants, and there are powerful interests in play that are pertinent to various formulations of social knowledge.)  So it is timely to pay equally close attention to the practices and institutions through which economics, philosophy, sociology, or Asian Studies frame and construct knowledge.  This volume attempts to give a number of rigorous examples in different areas of the social knowledge domains of that kind of empirical-sociological research.

Here are a few premises of the editors' approach to the problem:
By "social knowledge" we mean, in the first instance, descriptive informaton and analytical statements about the actions, behaviors, subjective states, and capacities of human beings and/or about the properties and processes of the aggregate or collective units -- the groups, networks, markets, organizations, and so on -- where these human agents are situated. (kl 78)
They also include in their definition of social knowledge the ways of knowledge making:
... the technologies and tools of knowledge making -- that is, the epistemic principles, cognitive schemata, theoretical models, conceptual artifacts, technical instruments, methodological procedures, tacit understandings, and material devices by which descriptive and normative statements about the social world are produced, assessed, represented, communicated, and preserved. (kl 78)
Key to their approach is to engage in detailed studies of the social practices associated with knowledge production.  Here is how they define a social practice:
We define "practices" as the ensembles of patterned activities -- the "modes of working and doing," in Amsterdamska's words -- by which human beings confront and structure the situated tasks with which they are engaged.  These activities may be intentional or unintentional, interpersonally cooperative or antagonistic, but they are inherently multifaceted, woven of cognitive, emotional, semiotic, appreciative, normative, and material components, which carry different valences in different contexts. (kl 122)
The goal of this research effort is to do for the social sciences and humanities what the STS/SSK researchers have done for the natural sciences.  This tradition has ...
shifted scholarly attention away from science as a finished product in the temple of human knowledge and toward the study of the multiple multilayered and multisited practices involved during the long hours when future kernels of scientific knowledge are still in the making. (kl 152)
Here is one of the core observations that the editors draw from the research contributions to the volume:
One of these themes is that social knowledge practices are multiplex, composed of many different aspects, elements, and features, which may or may not work in concert. Surveying the broad terrain mapped across the different chapters, we see, for example, the transitory practices of a short-lived research consortium as well as knowledge practices that endure for generations across many disciplines and institutions... (kl 338)
At site after site, heterogeneous social knowledge practices occur in tandem, layered upon one another, looping around and through each another, interweaving and branching, sometimes pulling in the same directions, sometimes in contrary directions. (kl 353)
So how can this research goal be carried out in practice?  Here is how Andrew Abbott pursues some of these questions in his contribution to the volume in an essay that investigates in detail how historians have used libraries in their research:
I have two major aims in this chapter. The first is empirical. I want to recover the practices, communities, and institutions of library researchers and their libraries in the twentieth century. There is at present almost no synthetic writing about this topic, and I aim to fill that gap. This empirical investigation points to a second more theoretical one.  There turns out to be a longstanding debate between librarians and disciplinary scholars over the proper means to create, store, and access the many forms of knowledge found in libraries. By tracing the evolution of this debate, I create a theoretical context for current debates about library research. (kl 581)
One thing I find interesting in reading this work is the absence of the philosophy of science as one of the reflective areas of research through which the knowledge process is examined.  Thomas Kuhn is mentioned as an intellectual founder of the historical-sociological approach to the problem of scientific knowledge; but the vibrant discipline of the philosophy of science is not mentioned by any of the contributors.  This seems to be a lost opportunity, since philosophers too are trying to make sense of the processes, procedures, and norms of the sciences along the way towards an interpretation of philosophical ideas such as truth and objectivity in knowledge.  It would be highly interesting to see a careful study of the development of post-positivist philosophy of science (from Peter Achinstein, Hilary Putnam, and Bas van Fraassen to the present day, let's say), by a sociologist who is willing to take the trouble to carefully examine the doctrines, schools, graduate programs, journals, associations, and dominant ideas that have evolved in the past half century within philosophy.

Tandem with this absence of the philosophy of science is an avoidance of epistemic concepts like "validity," "approximate truth," or "widening understanding of how the social world works."  The impression given by this volume, anyway, is that the task of the sociology of knowledge is solely restricted to examination of the practices and material conditions through which systems of belief about the social world are formed, without a concomitant interest in evaluating the success of the enterprise at establishing some of the facts of how the world works.  This impression is born out in the closing paragraphs of Camic's entry on "Knowledge, Sociology of" in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Referring essentially to the approach taken by contributors to Social Knowledge in the Making, Camic writes:
This second approach focuses the sociology of knowledge mainly on men and women who specialize in the production of ideas and on the particular social processes by which their ideas emerge and develop—a move that, in effect, transforms the field into a sociology of ideas. This perspective has tended to reject the core assumptions of the older sociology of knowledge, building instead on schol- arship that argues that sociocultural processes are as much internal to the content of ideas as they are external (Bloor 1976, Shapin 1992), that the meanings of ideas are only understandable to an investigator after careful contextual reconstruction (Skinner 1969), and that local, micro-level settings are often the main sites for the development of ideas (Geertz 1983, Whitley 1984). Like the broad-constructionist ap- proach, this narrow-constructionist perspective pre- sently provides a foundation for several lines of empirical research (see Camic and Gross 2000). No forecast can yet be made, however, as to which approach, if either, will rescue the sociology of knowledge from its traditionally marginal position in the discipline of sociology. (8146)
This excerpt too emphasizes the internal practices of the various knowledge communities, rather than the likelihood that the product of knowledge production is valid, veridical, or rationally supportable.

As I found in the earlier post on research communities, it seems that there needs to be more communication and mutual learning between the sociology of science and the philosophy of science. Admittedly the two disciplines have different goals; but in the end, we would like to understand both aspects of the process of knowledge formation in a way that makes coherent sense: the concrete social practices and the cognitive merits of the results.  Otherwise we have no basis for diagnosing what went wrong with Soviet biology and Lysenkoism (depicted in the photo at top).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Paradigms, research communities, and the rationality of science

An earlier post on scientific explanation provoked some interesting comments from readers who wanted to know why Thomas Kuhn was not mentioned.  My brief answer is that Kuhn's contribution doesn't really offer a theory of scientific explanation at all, but instead an account of the cognitive and practical processes involved in formulating scientific knowledge.  Here I'll dig into this question a bit deeper.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Kuhn asks us to recenter our thinking about scientific knowledge in several important ways.  He de-emphasizes questions about the logic of theory and explanation.  He argues that we should not think of science as an accumulation of formal, logical and mathematical expressions that permit codification of observable phenomena.  He doubts the availability of a general, abstract "scientific method" that serves to guide the formation of scientific knowledge.

Against the abstract ideas about the logic of science associated with positivism, Kuhn advocated for a more practical and historical study of science as a concrete human activity.  He arrives at several ideas that have turned out to have a great deal of influence -- the idea of a scientific paradigm, the idea of incommensurability across paradigms, and the idea that science doesn't just consist in the formal theories that a research tradition advances.  But the most fundamental insight that he developed throughout his career, in my judgment, is the idea that we can learn a great deal about method and scientific rationality by considering the history of science in close detail.

This approach has important implications for the philosophy of science at numerous levels.  First, it casts doubt on the hope that we might reconstruct an ideal "scientific method" that should govern all scientific research.  This was a goal of the logical positivists, and it doesn't survive close scrutiny of the ways in which the sciences have developed.  Second, it leaves room for the idea of scientific rationality, but here again, it suggests that the standards of scientific reasoning need to be specified in each research tradition and epoch, and there is no single "logic" of scientific reasoning that could be specified once and for all.  The injunction, "Subject your theories to empirical tests!", sounds like a universal prescription for scientific rationality; but in fact, the methods and processes through which theories are related to observations are widely different throughout the history of science.  (And, of course, the post-positivist philosophers of science demonstrated that we can't draw a sharp distinction between observation and theory.) Methods of experimentation and instrumentation have varied widely across time and across disciplines.  So empirical evaluation takes many different forms in different areas of the sciences.

There is an implicit tension between a sociological and historical understanding of the sciences, on the one hand, and a realist understanding of the sciences, on the other.  When we look at the formation of scientific beliefs and theories as the output of a specific research tradition and set of research institutions, we will be struck by the scope of contingency that seems to exist in the development of science.   When we look at science as a set of theories about the world, we would like to imagine that they are sometimes true and that they represent reality in approximately the way that it really works.  And we would like to suppose that the cognitive and social values that surround scientific research -- attentiveness to data, openness to criticism, willingness to revise one's beliefs -- will gradually lead to systems of scientific belief that are more and more faithful to the ways the world is.  From this perspective, the contingency and social dependency of the research process seems at odds with the hope that the results will be univocal.

Following Kuhn's historical turn, efforts to place scientific knowledge within a social context gained support within sociology rather than philosophy.  A field of thought emerged, called the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which took very seriously the idea that social conditions and institutions very deeply influenced or created systems of scientific belief.  Here we can think of David Bloor (Knowledge and Social Imagery), Barry Barnes et al (Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis), and Bruno Latour (Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts), who took the discipline in the direction of a more relativist understanding of the nature of systems of scientific belief.  According to the relativist position on scientific knowledge, belief systems are internally consistent but incomparable from one to another, and there is no absolute standard that allows us to conclude that X is more rationally justified than Y as an explanation of the world.

Here is David Bloor towards the beginning of Knowledge and Social Imagery:
The sociologist is concerned with knowledge, including scientific knowledge, purely as a natural phenomenon. The appropriate definition of knowledge will therefore be rather different from that of either the layman or the philosopher.  Instead of defining it as true belief -- or perhaps, justified true belief -- knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge.  It consists of those beliefs which people confidently hold to and live by. In particular the sociologist will be concerned with beliefs which are taken for granted or institutionalised, or invested with authority by groups of people. (5)
He goes on to assert that the sociology of science needs to be -- causal, impartial with respect to truth and falsity, symmetrical in explanation, and reflexive (its principles should apply to sociology itself) (7).

From a philosopher's point of view, it would be desirable to find a position that reconciles the social groundedness of scientific belief formation -- and the self-evident ways in which the research process is sometimes pushed by non-cognitive, non-rational forces -- with the ideas of scientific truth and reference.  Essentially, I think that most philosophers would like to acknowledge that human rationality is socially constituted, but is still a form of rationality, and is capable of discovering approximate truths about the world.  It would be desirable to arrive at a philosophy of science that is both sociologically informed and realist.  Imre Lakatos took something like this perspective in the 1970s in his writings about scientific research programmes (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge). But in general, it is my impression that the discipline of the philosophy of science hasn't taken much heed of the challenges presented by SSK and the more sociological-historical approach. That is unfortunate, because the premises of the sociological-historical approach, and of the SSK approach in particular, are pretty compelling.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Mannheim

The sociology of knowledge is an interesting but somewhat specialized field of research in sociology. Basically the idea is that knowledge -- by which I mean roughly "evidence-based representations of the natural, social, and behavioral world" -- is socially conditioned, and it is feasible and important to uncover some of the major social and institutional processes through which these representations are created. There is a cognitive side of the field as well -- the idea that our cognitive frameworks and conceptual schemes are influenced by social conditions and our own social locations. So presuppositions, concepts, and explanatory scripts have social antecedents that become psychologically real. And, often enough, these presuppositions work to obscure the world even as they provide frameworks for representing the world. So one of the by-products of the sociology is to uncover some of these misleading aspects of our thoughts about the world. Marx's concept of the fetishism of commodities expresses this function of theory very clearly.

Karl Mannheim (Ideology And Utopia: An Introduction To The Sociology Of Knowledge), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge), and Neil Gross and Charles Camic (Social Knowledge in the Making; link) have made important and quite different contributions. Mannheim focuses largely on the role that ideology plays in our representations of the workings of the social world within which we live. Berger and Luckmann focus on "ordinary knowledge" and the specific ways in which people acquire and incorporate commonsensical understandings of the world. Gross and Camic, the most recent contributors to this field, look at the institutional settings and processes through which organized academic "knowledge" is created. Here I will discuss Mannheim, and later posts will turn to these other contributions.

It is worth observing that this field asks some of the same questions that the sociology of science poses as well. Robert Merton, for example, wanted to understand more fully how the institutional settings of scientific research conditioned the creation of scientific knowledge (link). And historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Peter Galison give substantial attention to the particular features of the social and practical conditions within which scientific concepts and theories emerge.

A complication arises when we turn these analytical questions towards the content of social beliefs and presuppositions. Because here there is a connection between knowledge and interests: beliefs like "fixed rent land tenure is an efficient system for producing agricultural innovation" have definite and different consequences for various actors in society -- landlords, sovereigns, peasant proprietors, and tenant farmers. So what appears to be a factual statement about incentives and farming turns out to have different effects on various actors' interests. This is where Marx's ideas of ideology and false consciousness come in: various classes have an interest in favoring or disfavoring certain ways of looking at the world. Marx might put the point along these lines: one's position within the system of property and technology introduces a bias into one's beliefs about how the world works.

So let's look at Mannheim's theory. Mannheim opens his book with these words in the expanded English edition of 1936:
This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it actually functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action. (1)
The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscure. (2)
The sociology of knowledge seeks to comprehend thought in the concrete setting of an historical-social situation out of which individually differentiated thought only very gradually emerges. (3)
Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. He finds himself in an inherited situation of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. (3)
Many of these statements can be understood in terms of the general problem of beliefs about reality that human beings face in the world: we have perceptions and needs, and we are forced to arrive at concepts and explanatory ideas through which we can organize our perceptions and pursue our needs. Knowledge frameworks do not come to human beings full-blown; instead it is a major historical and cultural task to create such frameworks. And this is just as true for the problem of knowing how social relationships work as it is for understanding the workings of the natural world. The conceptual frameworks and explanatory hypotheses that we form are contingent and historical products, and they have a social history.

Mannheim argues in this 1936 introduction that it takes a certain level of complexity of society to permit us to even begin to notice the specific and controvertible presuppositions of our knowledge frameworks. Essentially, this is the period in which people with different interests and life situations come into communicative interaction with each other. Disagreement raises the possibility of cognitive criticism. Two ideas are particularly core for his sociology of knowledge, ideology and utopia.
The concept "ideology" reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely, that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. (40)
The concept of utopian thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. (40)
The intellectual activity of "unmasking" is an antidote for both of these frames of thought: a revealing of the distortions associated with a certain framework and a revealing of the interests that make these distortions understandable (41). And one needs to subject his/her own position to this same critical method: "As long as one does not call his own position into question but regards it as absolute, while interpreting his opponent's ideas as a mere function of the social positions they occupy, the decisive step forward has not yet been taken" (77).

Here is an interesting passage on the historical relativity of conceptual systems:
Our definition of concepts depends upon our position and point of view which, in turn, is influenced by a good many unconscious steps in our thinking. The first reaction of a thinker on being confronted with the limited nature and ambiguity of his notions is to block the way for as long as possible to a systematic and total formulation of the problem. [e.g. Positivism.] (103)
Mannheim's formulation of the issue, and his use of the concept of ideology, makes his theory appear to be an extension of Marx's theory of historical materialism and his theory of ideology . He was in fact extensively influenced by Georg Lukacs (link). But I don't think that Ideology and Utopia is intended to be a faithful development of Marxian concepts. His reasoning seems to have many similarities to that of Weber, and the question he is ultimately interested in is the ways in which human knowledge and belief are themselves contingent, conditioned creative activities. His theory ultimately has much less to do with the burden of class interests on knowledge than would a more orthodox Marxist theory have had.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Recent thinking about scientific explanation

What do we want from a scientific explanation?  Is there a single answer to this question, or is the field of explanation fundamentally heterogeneous, perhaps by discipline or by research community? Do biologists explain outcomes differently from physicists or sociologists? Is a good explanation within the Anglo-American traditions of science also a good explanation in the German or Chinese research communities? Is the idea of a scientific explanation paradigm-dependent?

For several decades in the twentieth century there was a dominant answer to this question, that was an outgrowth of the tradition of logical positivism and examples from the natural sciences. This theory of explanation focused on the idea of subsumption of an event or regularity under a higher-level set of laws. The deductive-nomological theory of explanation specified that an outcome is explained when we have produced a deductively valid argument with premises that include at least one general law and that lead to a description of the event as conclusion. Carl Hempel was the most prominent advocate for this theory (Aspects of Scientific Explanation), but it was widely accepted throughout the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s.  The "covering law" model was a core dogma for the philosophy of science for several decades.

The D-N theory was subject to many kinds of criticisms, including the obvious point that much explanation involves phenomena that are probabilistic rather than deterministic.  Hempel introduced the inductive version of the D-N model to cover probabilistic-statistical explanation, along these lines. An argument provides a scientific explanation of E if it provides at least one probabilistic law and a set of background conditions such that, given the law and conditions, E is highly probable.  This model was described as the "Inductive-Statistical" model (I-S model).  Wesley Salmon's Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World falls within this tradition but offers important refinements, including his formal definition of causal relevance.

In each case the motivation for the theory of explanation is a plausible one: we explain an event when we show how it was necessary [or highly probable] in the circumstances, given existing conditions and relevant laws of nature. On the logical positivist approach, an explanation is an answer to a "why necessary" question: why did this event occur? In this conception of explanation the idea of necessity or probability is replaced with the idea of deductive or inductive derivability -- a syntactic relationship among sets of sentences.

A different approach to explanation turns to the idea of causation.  We provide an explanation of an event or pattern when we succeed in identifying the causal conditions and events that brought it about.  This approach can be tied to the D-N approach, if we believe that all causal relations are the manifestation of strict or probabilistic causal regularities.  But not all D-N explanations are causal, and not all causal explanations invoke regularities.  Derivability is no longer the criterion of explanatory success, and explanation is no longer primarily a syntactic relation between sets of sentences.  Instead, substantive theories of causal powers and properties are the foundation of scientific explanation.  A leading exponent of this view is Rom HarrĂ© in HarrĂ© and Madden, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. Nancy Cartwright's Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements is also an important contribution to this view.  And J. L. Mackie's The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation is an important contribution as well.  The causal approach retains the idea that explanation involves showing why an event is necessary or probable, but it turns from derivability from statements of laws of nature, to theories of causal powers and properties.

The causal mechanisms approach to explanation continues the insight that explanations involve demonstrating why an event occurred; but this approach moves even farther away from the idea of a causal law, replacing it with the idea of a discrete causal mechanism.  On this approach, we explain an event when we identify a series of causal interactions that lead from some antecedent condition to the outcome of interest.  Hedstrom and Swedborg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory presents aspects of this theory of explanation in application to the social sciences.  One benefit of the social mechanisms approach is that it also provides a basis for answering "how possible" questions: if our puzzlement is that an outcome has occurred that seems inherently unlikely, we can provide an account of a set of causal mechanisms that transpired to bring it about.

The chief line of dispute in the traditions mentioned so far is between the "general laws" camp and the "causal powers" camp.  Both are committed to the idea that explanation involves showing how an outcome fits into the ways the world works; but the general laws approach presumes that law-like regularities are fundamental, whereas the causal approach presumes that causal powers and mechanisms are fundamental.

So what has developed in the theory of explanation in the past twenty years? Quite a bit. A recent collection of essays coming largely from the Scandinavian tradition of the philosophy of science is quite helpful in orienting readers to recent developments. This is Johannes Persson and Petri Ylikoski's 2007  Rethinking Explanation. Quite a number of the contributions are worth reading carefully.  But Jan Faye's "Pragmatic-Rhetorical Theory of Explanation" is a good place to start.  Faye distinguishes among three basic approaches to the theory of explanation: formal-logical, ontological, and pragmatic.  The formal-logical approach is essentially the H-D and I-S approaches described above.  The ontological approach is the causal-powers approach described above.  The pragmatic approach is in a sense the most important recent contribution to the theory of explanation, and represents a significant re-focusing of the debates in post-empiricist philosophy of science. Here is how Faye describes the pragmatic approach to explanation-theory:
The pragmatic view sees scientific explanations to be basically similar to explanations in everyday life. It regards every explanation as an appropriate answer to an explanation-seeking question, emphasising that the context of the discourse, including the explainer’s interest and background knowledge, determines the appropriate answer. (44)
And why should we consider a pragmatic approach?  Faye offers eight reasons:
First, we have to recognise that even within the natural sciences there exist many different types of accounts, which scientists regard as explanatory. (46)

Second, if one is looking for a prescriptive treatment of explanation, I see no reason why the social sciences and the humanities should be excluded from such a prescription. If they are included, the prescriptive account must include intentional and interpretive explanations, i.e., accounts providing information about either motives or meanings. (47)

Third, the meaning of a why-question alone does not determine whether the answer is relevant or not. (47)

Fourth, John Searle has correctly argued that the meaning of every indicative sentence is context-dependent. He does not deny that many sentences have literal meaning, which is traditionally seen as the semantic content a sentence has independently of any context. (49)

Fifth, many explanations take the form of stories. Arthur Danto has argued that what we want to explain is always a change of some sort. When a change occurs, we have one situation before and another situation after, and the explanation is what connects these two situations. This is the story. (50)
Sixth, a change always takes place in a complex causal field of circumstances each of which is necessary for its occurrence. Writers like P.W. Bridgman, Norwood Russell Hanson, John Mackie, and Bas van Fraassen have all correctly argued that events are enmeshed in a causal network and that it is the salient factors mentioned in an explanation that constitute the causes of that events. (50)

Seventh, the level of explanation depends also on our interest of communication. In science an appropriate nomic or causal account can be given on the basis of different explanatory levels, and which of these levels one selects as informative depends very much on the rhetorical purposes. (51)

Eight, scientific theories are empirically underdetermined by data. It is always possible to develop competing theories that explain things differently and, therefore, it is impossible to set up a crucial experiment that shows which of these theories that yields the correct account of the data available. (52)
Faye then goes on to analyze scientific explanation as a speech act. We need to understand the presuppositions and purposes that the explainer and the listener have, before we can say much about how the explanation works.

Petri Ylikoski's contribution to the volume, "The Idea of Contrastive Explanandum," picks up on one particular but pervasively important feature of the rhetorical situation of explanation, the idea of contrast.  When we ask for an explanation of an outcome, often we are not asking simply why it occurred, but rather why it occurred instead of something else.  And the contrastive condition is crucial.  If we ask "why did the Prussian army win the Franco-Prussian War?", the answer we give will be very different depending on whether we understand the question as:
"Why did the Prussian army [rather than the French army] win the Franco-Prussian War?"
"Why did the Prussian army win [rather than fighting to stalemate] the Franco-Prussian War?"
So scientific explanation is context-dependent in at least this important respect: we need to understand what the question-asker has in mind before we can provide an adequate explanation from his/her point of view. As Henrik Hallsten puts it in his contribution, "What to Ask of an Explanation-Theory",
To summarize: Any explanation-theory must [do] justice to the distinction between objective explanatory relevance and context dependent explanatory relevance or provide good arguments as to why this distinction should not be upheld. (16)
So perhaps the most important recent developments in the theory of scientific explanation fall in a few categories.  First, there has been substantial work on refining the idea of causal explanation (link).  Second, philosophers have reinforced the idea that explanation has pragmatic and rhetorical aspects that cannot be put aside in favor of syntactic and substantive features of explanation. And third, there is more recognition and acceptance of the idea that explanatory models and standards may reasonably differ across disciplines and research areas.  In particular, the social and historical sciences are entitled to offer explanatory frameworks that are well adapted to the particular kinds of why and how questions that are posed in these fields.   In each case the philosophy of science has made a very great deal of progress since the state of the debates about explanation that transpired in the 1960s.

Friday, January 6, 2012


photos: Niklas Luhman (top), Mario Bunge (bottom)

One view that has been taken about the causal properties of social structures is that they are emergent: they are properties that appear only at a certain level of complexity, and do not pertain to the items of which the social structure is composed. This view has a couple of important problems, not least of which is one of definition. What specifically is the idea of emergence supposed to mean? And do we have any good reasons to believe that it applies to the social world?

An important recent exponent of the view in question is David Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Elder-Vass is in fact specific about what he means by the concept. He defines a property of a compound entity or structure as emergent when the property applies only to the structure itself and not to any of its components.
A thing ... can have properties or capabilities that are not possessed by its parts. Such properties are called emergent properties. (4)
An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. (17)
But, as I argued in an earlier post, this is such a tame version of emergence that it doesn't seem to add much. By E-V's criterion, most properties are emergent -- the sweetness of sugar, the flammability of woven cotton, the hardness of bronze.

What gives the idea of emergence real bite -- but also makes it fundamentally mysterious -- is the additional idea that the property cannot be derived from facts about the components and their arrangements within the structure in question. By this criterion, none of the properties just mentioned are emergent, because their characteristics can in principle be derived from what we know about their components in interaction with each other.

This is the concept of emergence that is associated with holism and anti-reductionism. Essentially it requires us to do our scientific work entirely at the level of the structure itself -- discover system-level properties and powers, and turn our backs on the impulse to explain through analysis.

A kind of compromise view is offered by Herbert Simon in his conception of a complex system in a 1962 article, "The Architecture of Complexity" (link). Here is how he defines the relevant notion of complexity:
Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist. (468)
Here Simon favors a view that does not assert ontological independence of system characteristics from individual characteristics, but does assert pragmatic and explanatory independence. In fact, his position seems equivalent to the supervenience thesis: social facts supervene upon facts about individuals. But the implication for research is plain: it is useless to pursue a reductionist strategy for understanding system-level properties of complex systems.

A recent issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences contains three interesting contributions to different aspects of this topic. Mariam Thalos ("Two Conceptions of Fundamentality") and Shiping Tang ("Foundational Paradigms of Social Sciences") are both worth reading. But Poe Yu-ze Wan's "Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?") is directly relevant to the question of emergence, so here I'll focus on his analysis.

Wan distinguishes between two schools of thought about emergence, associated with Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge.  Luhmann's conception is extravagantly holistic, whereas Bunge's conception is entirely consistent with the idea that emergent characteristics are nonetheless fixed by properties of the constituents. Wan argues that Luhmann has an "epistemological" understanding of emergence -- the status of a property as emergent is a feature of its derivability or explicability on the basis of lower-level facts.  Bunge's approach, on the other hand, is ontological: even if we can fully explain the higher-level phenomenon in terms of the properties of the lower level, the property itself is still emergent.  So for Bunge, "emergence" is a fact about being, not about knowledge.  Wan also notes that Luhmann wants to replace the "part-whole" distinction with the "environment-system" distinction -- which Wan believes is insupportable (180).  Here is a statement from Luhmann quoted by Wan:
Whenever there is an emergent order, we find the the elements of a presupposed materiality- or energy-continuum … are excluded.  Total exclusion (Totalausschluss) is the condition of emergence. (Luhmann, Niklas. 1992. Wer kennt Wil Martens? Eine Anmerkung zum Problem der Emergenz sozialer System.  Kolner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 44(1): 139-42, 141)
And here is Bunge's definition of emergence, quoted by Wan:
To say that P is an emergent property of systems of kind K is short for "P is a global (or collective or non-distributive) property of a system of kind K, none of whose components or precursors possesses P. (Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge, 15)
Bunge's position here is exactly the same as the conception offered by Elder-Vass above.  It defines emergence as novelty at the higher level -- whether or not that novelty can be explained by facts about the constituents.  Bunge's conception is consistent with the supervenient principle, in my reading, whereas Lumann's is not.

Wan provides an excellent review of the history of thinking about this concept, and his assessment of the issues is one that I for one agree with.  In particular, his endorsement of Bunge's position of "rational emergentism" seems to me to get the balance exactly right: social properties are in some sense fixed by the properties of the constituents; they are nonetheless distinct from those underlying properties; and good scientific theories are justified in referring to these emergent properties without the need of reducing them or replacing them with properties at the lower level.  This is what Simon seems to be getting at in his definition of complex systems, quoted above; and it seems to be equivalent to the idea of explanatory autonomy argued in an earlier post.

My own strategy on this issue is to avoid use of the concept of emergence and to favor instead the idea of explanatory autonomy. This is the idea that mid-level system properties are often sufficiently stable that we can pursue causal explanations at that level, without providing derivations of those explanations from some more fundamental level (link).

The explanatory challenge is very clear: if we want to explain meso-level outcomes on the basis of reference to emergent system characteristics, we can do so.  But we need to have good replicable knowledge of the causal properties of the emergent features in order to develop explanations of other kinds of outcomes based on the workings of the system characteristics.  I would also add that we need to have confidence that the hypothesized system-level characteristics do in fact possess microfoundations at the level of the individual and social actions that underly them; or, in other words, we need to have reason for confidence that the emergent properties our explanations hypothesize do in fact conform to the supervenient relation.

A couple of Wan's sources are particularly valuable for investigators who are interested in pursuing the idea of emergence further:

David Blitz, Emergent Evolution: Qualitative Novelty and the Levels of Reality (Episteme)
Richard Jones, Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality
Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Information technology and new human capabilities

For a billion or so of us on planet earth, we are immersed in a sea of ever-changing technology. How does technology shape us? And how do we shape technology? How do current technologies change our capacities as human beings? In what ways are we better able to fulfill our plans of life using the technologies available to us?

It goes without saying that a wealth of existing technology systems are the foundation of our current life circumstances. Electricity, commercial agriculture, large-scale logistics systems, water purification, long-distance transportation, and advanced manufacturing are critical for the lives of two-thirds of planet earth's population. And if we try to imagine what life would be like without these systems we have to go back to the lived environment of roughly 1400 in the West and perhaps 1000 in East Asia. Small population, short longevity, high maternal and infant mortality, frequent epidemic disease, grueling daily labor, and limited literacy are the baseline created by traditional agriculture and handicraft manufacture. If this is the point of comparison, then it's hard to deny that technology has improved human wellbeing.

But let's look more closely at the most recent tech revolution that we are currently experiencing, the digital information revolution. Here I'm thinking of the World Wide Web, ubiquitous web access, cheap computing power, email, jumbo databases, social media tools, and cheap global voice and video communication.

How did this new suite of technologies suddenly sweep over us? The technical side of the history is pretty well understood. The PC revolution was basically a straightforward commercialization and incremental development of computer technologies of the 1950s and 1960s. The big challenges were miniaturization and improvement of the human interface -- in other words, innovations that would permit creation of a mass market for the new devices. The personal software industry deserves its own separate mention. Of course software needed personalization -- CPM, ElectricPencil, WordPerfect, MSDOS, Windows, Macintosh operating system. There were early innovators, and often enough those companies failed quickly. And there were a few large companies that eventually dominated. Second, the development of the first point-to-point networks permitting communication between sites was a substantial and genuine innovation. This technology would unfold into a full gauge "world-wide web" in only 15 years or so. Third, search technologies were crucial for accessing and using the millions of pages of information accessible on the web. Search tools, including especially Google, suddenly made organizing and finding information quickly a very easy, non-technical process. And a few companies jumped into the lead. The most recent wave of innovation has taken advantage of the web itself -- social networking, search, gaming, and e-commerce -- to attract users who will interact digitally through photos, video, and messaging.

It would be foolish to imagine that this technology is fundamentally different from any earlier stage of technology in its path-dependence on specific interests in society. So what were the interests that drove these developments?

Some of these shaping interests were directly related to the needs of the military. Command and control of bomber and ICBM detection systems required real time communications networks on a national scale. DARPANET was one of the early developments of these interests. Another obvious set of interests were commercial. The emerging PC technology created opportunities for large commercial success, for the entrepreneur who captured the moment. Companies like Exidy, Commodore, and Radio Shack made their efforts. But for a couple of fairly contingent reasons IBM and Apple were the big winners. And, of course, the emergence of a mass market of consumers who would be interested in buying and using these devices was critical. It is hard to imagine personal computing developing as a major industry in the former German Democratic Republic.

So it is plain that the suite of technologies that brought us the information revolution were strongly affected by governmental and commercial interests. It is also indisputable that no one could have predicted the ways these technologies would develop and interact from the starting point of 1980.

How we got here is one large question. But even more important is how this ensemble of technologies has changed us.

The positives are enormous. There is basically no limit on the range of knowledge and learning that is possible through the web. So the information revolution has offered a huge amplifier for knowledge acquisition for all of us. The fact of easily accessible information and analysis is an enhancement of our ability to understand the world.

Global communication technology is a second huge enhancement for our ability to interact with people all over the world. Scholars can collaborate in real time thanks to Skype video conferencing. Activists can interact through the same technology. Religious communities can communicate, share ideas, and disagree with each other, from Nigeria to Sao Paolo to Los Angeles.

Social networks add a third new capacity -- to create new connections with people with similar concerns and interests with whom productive interaction is possible. Twitter, Facebook, and Wordpress create micro-digital neighborhoods in which people can form surprisingly natural connections. A philosopher in Michigan becomes acquainted with a journalist in Bangkok, a mathematician in Athens, a sociology graduate in the Philippines, and a philosopher with very similar interests in Taiwan -- these are intellectual relationships that could not have occurred in a pre-web world.

So the digital revolution certainly extends human capacity and reach. But there is a negative side too. Some observers fear that the digital generation is substituting Facebook for face-to-face relationships. Skeptics argue that the so-called twitter revolutions in the Middle East can't depend on the weak bonds created by a Facebook page, and that real solidarity must proceed from more direct connections. There is real concern that hate groups can amplify their ability to mobilize through the web. Addiction to World of Warcraft and other online gaming communities seems like a real phenomenon for a significant number of people. And maybe short-form thinking (blog entries, Facebook updates, tweets) is insidiously undermining our ability to think long, coherent thoughts. So it is hard to say whether the Internet is on balance a force for extending human capabilities and social wellbeing.

The real impact of the digital revolution on the nature of human social life probably can't yet be assessed. Manuel Castells is trying to begin this process with his multi-volume The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I (Information Age Series) on the Information Age. Yevgeny Morozov offers doubts about the supposedly progressive nature of the Internet in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. And Sherry Turkle is exploring the personal and subjective effects of new technologies on all of us in books like Alone Together:Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. But realistically, we are only at the beginning of understanding the social and personal consequences of the new information and network tools that are now ubiquitous.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Technology change

The past century has witnessed an amazing amount of technology change, and the pace seems to be quickening. How does a technology develop, and how do social conditions and institutions interact with this process?

These aren't new questions, of course. There is a well developed field of the history of technology, with its own research traditions and assumptions (see the journal Technology and Culture, for example). There is a related field of research called "social construction of technology" (SCOT), which looks particularly intently at the second of these questions. (Here is a nice page by Robert Keel describing the central ideas of SCOT, through a consideration of Wiebe Bijker's important work. Bruno Latour's thinking falls into this category as well, including his "Actor-Network Theory"; link.) And there is even a field called the philosophy of technology, with Heidegger at one end and Carl Mitcham at the other. (Here is a nice article on philosophy of technology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) So lots of smart people are thinking about these questions.

But some of the big questions don't really require specialist knowledge to gain real insight through careful reflection. After all, we have our own phenomenological experiences -- especially useful during the thirty years in which information and communication technologies have exploded in impact and reach. And in this area there are also some useful insights from Karl Marx's view of history as well.

We could begin by postulating that technology is ...
the extension of human capacities through the application of scientific knowledge in the design and creation of material artifacts.
Bicycles extended the range and speed of human-powered transportation. Electric lights extended the ability of people to engage in work and leisure after natural light waned. Armored motorized vehicles extended the ability of states to wage war over large territories. Steel plows extended the ability of immigrant farmers to break the sod of the grasslands of the middle west.

But how do these developments in material culture come about?

The most basic thing we can say is that human beings have material needs, and they are compelled to use tools and artifacts to transform materials provided by nature to satisfy needs. The ensemble of tools, artifacts, practices, and technical knowledge available to a population at a time is its technology. Moreover, human beings are innovative problem solvers. So they are capable of inventing and designing new tools and techniques. This capacity is a primary source of technology change. This is the heart of Marx's insight in The German Ideology.

But technologies are also levers for power and wealth. Control over a technology -- or strong influence over the way in which the technology is developed -- can be a great source of power and wealth for specific groups. And so we need to look closely at the ways in which new technologies are being shaped in ways that serve specific social interests. This is much of what Marx was getting at when he focused on the forces and relations of production as being central to the historical development of a society.

Modern technologies generally require complex human systems in order for them to be broadly implemented. Thomas Hughes documents these complex systems in the case of electric power in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Research institutions, engineering firms, municipal governments, and power companies combine to develop and establish the power generation and distribution that basic advances in the understanding of electricity made possible. These institutions aren't guided by a benign optimizing intelligence that produces the optimal implementation for aiding human wellbeing. Rather, they are propelled by private interests, profitability, political competition, and government action. The market plays a role, the demands of the consuming public come in, and the political interests of decision makers and policy mavens are key as well. Technology doesn't direct its own path of development, and neither do the abstract best interests of humanity. (Does the growth of a slime mold colony fit the situation -- locally smart, globally stupid?)

Finally, detailed study of specific technologies -- railroads, steel, chemicals, genetic informatics -- demonstrates a very high degree of contingency in the sequencing of solutions to technical and organizational problems as the technology develops. And these contingencies have significant influence on the outcomes. So technology change is an instance of a path-dependent process.

All of this suggests several important keys for studying the history of various technologies. First, don't make the functionalist assumption that a technology will ultimately develop in a way that is most beneficial to human wellbeing. History is replete with great technical innovations that either quietly disappeared before they could benefit anyone, or were co-opted in ways that primarily benefited elites and power-holders. (The labor-saving water wheel in ancient Rome is a good example.) Second, look for the concrete interests that are at work as the institutional basis and technical solutions for a given technology are chosen. Hughes's discussion of electric power is fundamental. And third, always understand that technology change is a process that demonstrates great contingency and path dependency. So expecting to anticipate the outcome in advance is highly questionable.

These observations have some relevance to the question of trying to understand the technological revolution we are currently experiencing, the information revolution. This will be the topic of an upcoming post.

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