Friday, 16 February 2018

how matters mereological constrain reason-giving

Last week I got angry because once again you borrowed my paints without asking. We've talked about this before. It annoys me. Please remember to ask. When this happens my amygdala activation contributes, qua part to whole, to my angry reaction. We could say: it is part of the mechanism of, but not a reason for, my anger.

(Just en passant: we cannot describe this anger for what it is unless we mention its intentional object, since what the anger is is anger at you for borrowing my paints. This gives meaning to the idea that we cannot ‘reduce’ anger to amygdala activation or any other physiological goings on.)

Today you are playing with my toys without asking. We've talked about this before too and, when we talked about it, I said I was just fine with it - there's really never any need to ask. But today I'm angry, and when asked I say that I'm angry because you didn’t ask if you could play with my toys. As you can see, the reason I give doesn’t really make much sense. Caprice vitiates reason.

We overcome enough of my awkward moodiness to dust down the brain scanner and have a look inside my cranium. It turns out that my amygdala has had a spasm! The amygdala spasm caused my anger at you! Now we might want to say that the amygdala activation is part of the why of my anger.

This is interesting! If someone thought that ‘why?’ questions were after answers citing meanings, and that ‘how?’ questions asked for information about causal relations, they'd have to think again. They're wrong!

It is because the reason I gave for my angry reaction was, given what I'd said before, unintelligible, that it now makes sense to look for a different explanation - in fact a different kind of explanation - as to why I got angry at you. We think of my reference to your not asking before playing with my toys as a mere rationalisation. So, barring my being forthcoming with something we would want to call my actual reason for being cross with you, we start instead to look for answers which don't make reference to my reasons.

Such answers might be psychological (I'm still mad at you for using my paints last week, and it kind of spilled out of me again and then I spuriously rationalised it by saying that you should have asked to play with my toys) or neurological (that amygdala spasm, for example) or any number of other things (I accidentally drank some 'angry juice' with my breakfast).

My suggestion now is that unless we have no apt 'personal' reasons (unless I don't have reasons to give which are what we call my reasons for acting or reacting as I did) then we cannot have 'psychological' reasons (we cannot have reasons that make reference to my psychology - i.e. to my character and defences etc.), and unless we have no apt psychological reasons then we can't give 'neurological' reasons (amygdala spasms) for the action.

This is interesting too! What I'm saying, in effect, is that reference to the kinds of neurological goings on as might always constitute parts of the mechanism of my anger can only meaningfully be offered as reasons answering the 'why?' question if they are 'released' into play by the failure of personal level reasons to explain the reaction.

Consider: what is the sense in which my amygdala had a spasm? I mean, perhaps it often gets very activated - there was that time, for example, when you not only borrowed but also jumped up and down on my toys smashing them to bits. Boy was I angry, but once again our scientific dedication enabled us to get over the emotional agitation enough to set up the brain scanner together. And what we saw then was an amygdala activation that was just as much through the roof as it was when earlier today I got mad and said - in what turned out to be a mere rationalisation - that you made me angry by not asking to borrow the toys.

So: whether or not it makes sense to offer a subpersonal level phenomenon by way of reason for a personal level reaction does not depend on what is going on at the subpersonal level. This is because whether or not we are to count that degree of amygdala activation as a spasm itself depends on whether the whole personal level phenomenon of which it is a part is understandable in personal level terms (e.g. in terms of such reasons as I give as my own). If it is thus intelligible then talk of spasms will be out of place.

In the present case, whilst you understand the words I am saying (‘I am angry because you didn’t ask to borrow the toys’), it isn’t intelligible how those words can really be the expression of a reason (since, in the past, I’d already told you that it’s always fine to borrow my toys). So we now appear to have an anger which is not intelligible in terms of my giving my reasons. It’s not really clear how it - the anger - can be about what I say it's about (the toy borrowing). My say-so does not suffice; clearly I've gone nuts. Yet now, when we look at my brain, we find an extreme level of amygdala activation. Yep, it's a spasm. And now we can answer the why? question - the ‘why did I get so angry with you?’ question - by saying ‘yeah, Richard had an amygdala spasm’. (I think we should rule out the psychological (i.e. dynamic-motivational) level first, but leave this aside for now.)

Again: for a brain event to even count as a spasm depends on its not forming part of a rationally intelligible reaction of the person whose brain it is.

So, whether or not a subpersonal event can feature as a reason in an explanation of why a personal level reaction occurs depends, as I said, on whether the personal level reaction is intelligible in personal-level terms. And to answer such a question of intelligibility we look not only to what is going on in the person right now, but also to their context. This context is not merely social and spatial but also historical. For it is only in relation to our past that certain words I now offer ('I’m angry because you took my toys') do or don’t count as good reasons. If I previously said 'you can always borrow my toys' then what I now proffer as a reason for my action must be rejected. Because the reason fails, the powerful amygdala activation now counts as a spasm and is also now 'released' to play its own part as reason for my anger.

Behold the marvellously expansive holism of the personal level, and the radically constraining effect it has on what at the here-and-now subpersonal level may contribute by way of answers to 'why?' questions!

Let's now consider the psychological rather than the personal level. So, my patient is depressed. Is the depression a function of his repressed anger, or is it because he doesn’t have enough serotonin (or whatever)? It might seem like a strange question because we might find a lack of serotonin as part of the mechanism in both cases. So it might seem like there is no room for the ‘or’. But, surely, it's a perfectly decent question! We mustn't let our possibly dubious philosophical intuitions get in the way of our appreciation of the intelligibility and character of our ordinary questions and explanations. Furthermore, following what I wrote above, I think we already have the resources to make reflective sense of the ‘or’.

In both (repressed anger, neurotransmitter) cases the low serotonin forms a mereological part of the depression. If you ask ‘how does the depression come about?’ then you might (depending on what exactly you were after) be happy with an answer which cited low serotonin in both cases. What makes it not just part of the constituting mechanism, but a good answer to a ‘why?’ question, though, is nothing to do with what goes on at the subpersonal level. Instead, reference to serotonin levels becomes available as an answer to the ‘why?’ question (why did he get depressed?) only when there isn't a psychological understanding available. With an effective psychological understanding (the patient's repressed anger) in place, there's just no way that mention of the low serotonin can provide an answer to the ‘why did he get depressed?’ question.

I reiterate: none of this is to say that low serotonin may not be a component of being in a low mood for whatever psychological reason. We may even find a decent use for the word 'cause' when thinking about the contribution of low serotonin to such low mood as is due to repressed anger.

If someone doesn’t understand this then it probably won’t help to tell her more about the phenomena. What she needs to do instead is think more about when and how we ask and answer ‘why?’ questions.

This all goes to show that what we need to do to understand the causal and mereological relations at play between mind and brain is to look at the logic of our explanations of the phenomena, which inter alia involves looking at the contexts (both the circumstances and the character and standing beliefs of the person - which itself involves looking back in time to their past utterances and actions too) of the phenomena, and not simply try to 'peer into' the phenomena themselves.

Someone might ask: But why should it be that subpersonal events can only feature as answers to 'why?' questions about behaviour if personal-level psychodynamic or rational answers fail?

The question is either misconceived or is answerable with reference to such interests as underlie people having evolved such language games in the first place. It is misconceived if it fails to appreciate that moves within language games are not justifiable with reference to facts. 'This just is how the reason-giving game is played!' might be a way to address the questioner who is in that kind of a muddle. (Q: Why does 2+2=4? A: There's no reason at play here, it's rather that '4' just is what we call 'the product of 2+2'.) On the other hand the questioner might be asking about how the language game evolved in relation to our interests - why it is that we ask people for their reasons, why we take an interest in failures of reason, and so on. And now we do well to explore phenomena such as our social commitments, responsibilities, the law, ethics, the management of personal relationships, and a myriad other matters.