Saturday, 21 November 2009

why psychology is a bit rubbish really

Er... a shamelessly hyperbolic and attention-seeking title I know. Anyway, I thought I (a psychologist) would spend a few moments clearly specifying why it seems to me that psychology is a rather limited discipline when it comes to understanding psychopathology. Of course I'm playing rather fast and loose with what is to count as the extension of 'psychology' but I hope my caricature will at least be recognisable.

Psychology today tells us about - to use a shorthand - what happens 'in minds'. That's just what psychology is. It tells us about what people think and feel and intend and will and 'represent'. And as well as telling us about what representations are in the mind, it tells us about how people think and feel and... We have 'mental states' and then we have the 'mental processes' that link these states together.

The natural deployment of this framework in psychopathological contexts suggests that in psychopathology people's representations of others or themselves or their worlds are faulty in content (a faulty 'what'), or there are faulty links between these representations (a faulty 'how'). Perhaps someone's feelings are out of proportion to a situation; perhaps their beliefs are inaccurate; perhaps they are jumping to conclusions, etc. It is either mental states that are disturbed, or mental processes that are breaking down. And that is the sum of it, of what it means to 'do the psychology' of psychopathological conditions or states, on the story I'm telling.

The problem is, however, that most of what we recognise as proper psychopathology is not at all aptly characterised as due to a faulty contents or broken processes. What most frank psychopathology involves is not a failure in the mind's mirroring capacities, a failure of what is in the mind (states or processes), but rather in the structuration of the mind itself.

By structuration I do not mean 'stage of development' or 'degree of complexity'. That, it seems to me, is (in this context alone) another psychologist's red herring. I have in mind rather the way in which the faculties dialectically unfold into their mutually constituting yet opposing domains. To understand this we need the conceptual resources not of psychology, which can only tell us about what's happening within minds, but rather of existential phenomenology, which tells us about the essential character of mindedness itself.

Here's a rather daft pictorial way of demonstrating what I'm getting at. First we have a picture of a normal mind doing its normal job. (It's not supposed to instantiate a valid faculty psychology, just to help me make a theoretical point!)

Here we've got someone looking at a dog, recognising what to call it, laying down a memory, shutting their eyes and drawing on their memory to call up an imaginary dog, etc. We have a mental process of perception leading to a mental representation etc. etc.

Now we imagine someone suffering from some deficits in their mental states and mental processes. Here's one possible result:

What we have here are a whole host of different difficulties: a faulty perceptual processes leading to the internal representation of the dog being somewhat truncated; dodgy memory processes such that we have a lack of laying down of new memories, and a knackered verbal recognition ability such that the term 'hog' comes to mind instead of 'dog'.

Such a way of depicting matters comes fairly naturally when we are thinking of specific brain injuries or fairly localised dementing processes. What I want to claim is that, despite the ambitions of cognitive clinical psychology or cognitive neuropsychiatry, it just won't do at all when we try to grasp the essential character of psychopathological conditions such as OCD or psychosis.

The essential character of such conditions, I want to suggest, lies in the fact that, under certain pressures and in certain contexts, we have a failure in the structuration of the faculties and of the very mind itself. This is difficult to represent pictorially because another claim on the table has is that to the extent that we have deviation from that structuration which separates what is inside the mind from what is outside, or which separates the imagination from memory or from perception, we have a loss of mindedness itself. I've tried to represent this in the following picture by showing how, when we have a movement of the boundary of the faculty, we simultaneously and necessarily also get a loss of that very boundary:

Our ability to really talk about distinct faculties, to place a representation within one rather than the other, starts to blur. It may become hard to say where the self ends and the world begins (witness the intruding dog). Yet this is simultaneously to say that it starts to become hard to talk about distinct selfhood at all, since self and world-as-experienced-and-understood just are mutually yet opositionally defined. Whether we have to deal with a memory or an imagination or a perception becomes unclear. Verbal recognition starts to intrude into perception. Again, it's not just that, say, something within the mind gets mislocated, or mental processes mediating representations between faculties become impaired. (That's the standard cognitive psychological model of mental disturbance.) Rather, the very possibilities of making coherent distinctions between imagining and seeing starts, especially in particular affectively significant contexts, to fall apart.

Cognitive models of obsessive compulsive disorder tell us that 'everyone gets intrusive thoughts. It's just that the person with OCD wrongly perceives the significance of these, taking themselves to be responsible etc.' To my mind this radically misunderstands the nature of both intrusive thoughts and of obsessional responsibility-taking. The obsessive person 'takes responsibility for' things that it doesn't even make sense to take responsibility for. I mean that quite literally: pushed to an extreme we start to lose track of what it even means to say that they are 'taking responsibility' in these situations. We can have some kind of a psychodynamic understanding of this: faced by an intolerable self-shattering anxiety they enact self-constructions which distort the relation between self and world so that a damaged self can take itself to have more agency and therefore control over the unpredictable beyond than it makes sense to have.

Now normalising is often very laudable, and clinically this seems to be a useful strategy, but phenomenologically speaking it's mighty suspect, and I can't help entertain the thought that, like several cognitive interventions, what is helpful in aiding the patient to return to some kind of relative stability may get in the way of deeper restructurations of the self. One could even say that normalising is the precondition of (im/possibility of) the whole psychological project, since psychology, restricted to talking about what is happening within minds and faculties, simply lacks the resources of existential phenomenology for theorising the character of deep disturbances of mindedness and faculty divisions themselves.

Friday, 20 November 2009

when the puzzle falls apart and can't be recovered

There's a curious state, phenomenologically speaking, to be had when philosophising. I believe it to be best characterised by Wittgenstein's idea of being 'held captive by a picture' and then being set free from this captivity. And the curious thing is that one can then hardly understand what it was one didn't understand before. Hard to understand what the problem was, how one was confused; even to remember the whole problem. It has just dissolved.

I don't believe this state is unique to the resolution of philosophical puzzlement. It also seems to be shared by the resolution of psychotic delusion, the bursting of the bubble of transference, being relinquished from the grips of an unconscious phantasy, and moving from dream to waking consciousness. We know we've just been dreaming, but often struggle to say what about; perhaps sometimes, through the day, we have a vague sense of still living in its penumbra.

Right now I'm caught in a puzzle about the nature of historical explanation. I've not been reading up on it, so this isn't a scholarly post. I thought I'd rather try to note my puzzlement now, since I have an inkling that it may be on the verge of dissolution and I want to use this as an exercise in trying to 'hold onto the madness'.

I'm thinking about the nature of historical explanation (I know nothing about history itself). I want to know, or so it seems to me, what the causes of an event are - e.g. the causes of the first world war.

And then I wonder to what extent I will be satisfied instead by a purely hermeneutic answer. One which specifies the intentions of the agents. One which sheds light on the meaning of the actions. Which recharacterises the actions so as to make them humanly intelligible. Which deploys 'interpretation' as its methodology.

And so I'm tempted to contrast interpretative or meaningful explication with 'efficient' causal explanation. But I wonder now what about the actual causes of the war. The thought goes: ok, so we have what inspired the military leaders, what understandings were reached by whom and when. But is this all? Can't we ask about the causes as well as the meanings? What it was that 'brought it all about'?

Well, it occurs to me now that here I may be in the heart of the kind of puzzlement that wants for dissolution rather than solution. (But can I avoid losing a sense of my puzzlement? That is my goal.) And when I first wrote this post I went on quickly, at this point, to just urge a distinction between reasons and causes, and to suggest that the felt need to articulate a causal as well as a rational story was otiose, since what was really requested by the question as to the causes of the first world war would be best and completely aptly met by a justificatory explication. (I've also had another strange experience: I thought I should go and read up on the issue, and pulled von Wright's book on Explanation and Understanding off the shelf - and found he uses the same example of the beginning of the first world war. Perhaps it is a common philosophical example that I'd forgotten I'd previously encountered?) And I think I then just lost a sense of my own puzzlement.

Donald Davidson and Bill Child both insist, regarding psychological explanation, for example, that it's fine to be told what sense we can make of someone's actions, but we also want to know specifically what made the actions happen when they did. And let me admit (now following von Wright) that we can of course talk of the circumstances, geological and political and economic circumstances which obtained at a particular time and only given which would certain motivations for action gain traction. But to go and tidy it all up in this way now seems to me to risk losing a sense of my original puzzlement. (Like providing a sensible answer (which would in fact be an answer to a sensible but banal question) to a silly (but nevertheless deep) question - I risk just being shut up, rather than being understood, by myself.)

Somewhere around here is where we must 'condense a cloud of philosophy into a drop of grammar'. And here's the thought: It sounds strange if we say 'nothing brought about an action' but this is because it looks too much like a spooky empirical, rather than a grammatical or conceptual, proposition. It looks spooky because it looks now like we're admitting uncaused events into our ontology. But conceiving of actions as events is part of what is at stake here too. We (well, we secularists) don't find it weird to talk about unintended events happening. Let's try not to get similarly freaked out by talk of uncaused actions.

Understanding just what it means to say that ''actions are uncaused' is a grammatical rather than an empirical statement' helps resolve some of the tension here. If I'm right, it's like saying 'colours are weightless', 'emotions are without length or breadth', 'integers are priceless', etc. It doesn't mean that there are these mysterious goings on (they aren't 'goings on'!); it means that no meaning has been given within the English language to talk of 'causing actions'. Perhaps we could provide such a use, and extend our language game in new and interesting and useful (but not 'truer'!) ways. That's another issue though. For now the trick is to know when we've just been un/reflectively assuming that it works in ways which are as yet simply foreign to it.

Last gasp. I find my internal interlocutor now proclaiming: Yes, but Richard, we do need some way of understanding how the world of intentions and actions relates to the world of events and causes. I acknowledge the temptation to ask this, but I suspect that the question once again comes from a mind in thrall to the very conflations which generated the sense of puzzlement which has now left me when I was finding myself wanting to ask about not just the motives but also the causes of actions. Unpicking this is however the task for another day.

Monday, 16 November 2009

making a difference

It is sometimes suggested that there is a perfectly innocuous sense in which an agent's reasons for action can be understood as the causes of her action. A sense which it ought to embarass the anti-causalist about action to not acknowledge and which - if this is all that may be meant by 'cause' in causal accounts - might also give them pause for thought about just what they had been so busy making a fuss about all this time...

That sense is the sense in which a cause is something which 'makes a difference' to what happens or what is done. To whether the action is or is not done.

In what follows I want to risk embarassment by trying to turn the tables on the causalist. What I'll suggest is that, apart from in senses of 'makes a difference to whether something is done' which are not at all intuitively understood as cases of causation, the explanatory function of the proferring of reasons for Jane's actions is not discharged through their citation aiding us in grasping that, were it not for the reason being proffered, Jane would not have done what she did.

Let me acknowledge from the start that people do not tend to act for no reasons. That however is surely part of the conceptual analysis of 'person' and 'agent' and 'action'. So in this most general sense having reasons 'makes a difference to' what we do since, if we are a being who has reasons, then we are also in the runnings for being a being who acts.

Now I don't think that this kind of quite general 'making a difference' is what the causalist who appeals to difference-making can have in mind. In fact it would be better to phrase the actual difference made here in terms of a difference to that we do (that we are agents) rather than to what we do. Here the general having of reasons plays a purely constitutive rather than causal role in the being of actions. It doesn't touch on the issue of the likelihood of any action being undertaken, but rather on the question of whether anything that was undertaken would deserve the epithet of 'action'.

The question remains though: should we understand the role of specific reasons as making a difference to the performing of specific actions? I want to deny that this is the case.

Let's start by pitching the causal account against a hermeneutic account of action explanation. The hermeneut says that reason-explanations work by situating an action in a broader context. The explanatory work is done simply by this situating, which situating allows us to re-describe what was previously not immediately intelligible for what it is in itself as something which is intelligible for what it is in itself.

The situating, as the hermeneut has it, is not a matter of the rendering intelligible of the occurrence of an event in terms of its typical causes. It is not a matter of its origination or servo guidance but of its identity. (Er, and yes of course you can describe something - it's identity - in terms of its causes or effects, but that's not the point here!) The kind of elucidation that a reason-explanation provides is a kind which is to come simply from this identification of the action as what it is.

One of the main ways in which this identity elucidation seems to occur is through the provision of teloi for the actions. John is going across the room to the fridge. "He's getting a can of coke". Ah - that let's me know what this going across the room is: it's a case of going-to-get-a-coke. I can now place John's actions within the 'space of reasons', in Sellars' helpful phrase. The hermeneut's claim is that this placing is all there is to reason-explanation.

(Of course, you have to place it correctly in the space of reasons! One of Davidson's arguments was that you supposedly couldn't distinguish between correct and incorrect such placements in the absence of appeals to causation. Ironic, then, that Davidson himself was unable to provide a straightforward criterion to help us distinguish between cases of supposed wayward causal chains in which reasons which allegedly cause actions do and do not also explain the said actions.)

The causalist however wants to say that there is something more in action explanation by reasons, and that this is a matter of actions not being performed were it not for the reasons in play. John would not have gone to the fridge were it not for the fact that he wanted to get a can of coke. This, it is suggested, is implicit in the very idea of his action being explained by the reason in question.

But is this true? What if, were there not any coke in the fridge, he would instead have gone and got a lemonade from the fridge? It is hard to see why the burden of ruling out this possibility should be placed on the elucidation which cited the coke-getting. (As I write I seem to remember that Bede Rundle has a similar argument in his book Mind in Action.) And this surely generalises to many situations.

Again, it is surely inconceivable that John would have acted thus in the absence of some such reason. But this, I want to say, is not a function of a fact of reasons being causes, but of the fact that John is an agent: a being who acts for reasons. Without reasons we would not here have a case of action or of agency or of a person called John.

Sometimes, of course, people do also act for no reason. These are surely the exceptions rather than the rules of action undertaking. Their existence is not a prima facie challenge for either the causalist or the hermeneut, since their accounts are of how we are to understand the ways in which actions are explained by reasons when they are so explained. However it is part of the causalist's account of action that a particular action would not have occurred were it not for the actual reason for it's being performed being unavailable. What they must therefore explain is how it is possible for people to act, on occasion, for no reason.

The hermeneut claims that when people do act for reasons, as they normally do, and as is constitutive of the basic idea of action itself, their action is not guided or caused by their reasons. These reasons rather provide us with extra information about the intrinsic character of the action. It is an action aimed at a certain end, or expressive of a certain desire, for example. James is playing the piano. Why? He's practicing for his forthcoming concert. Neither the practicing nor the forthcoming concert cause the playing. Nor, according to the hermeneut, do we need to think of James' intentions or desires as causing the playing. They, too, simply further characterise it.

James may very well not have been playing the piano if he had not had to practice for the forthcoming conference. (Let's imagine he just is a lazy fellow. Then on the other hand, perhaps he is not, and would have been playing it anyway.) Again, this is because James is an intentional agent. It is part of his nature to be an agent, which is to say, act for reasons. To gloss this in terms of 'something which makes a difference to what he does is' to mistake a constituting for a propitiating contribution.

I hope these considerations will make clear why it is not ok for the causalist to simply say 'But are you seriously saying that having such and such a reason made no difference to whether or not such and such an action was undertaken?' Once again, the argument is that people are beings the essential nature of which is to 'act for reasons'; that action itself is generally, as a rule, undertaken for reasons. So of course it is unlikely that, in the absence of the reason, we would have the action in question. It is possible, of course, as an exception to the rule, but unlikely. But the point is here that we do have to do with a rule, and not to do with a cause.

I hope they also show that it wouldn't be ok for the causalist at this stage to appeal to analogies of redescriptions which reference causes. Of course such redescriptions occur (think of explanations of the character of car parts in terms of their functional roles).
But that is part of an appeal to explicate what it might be for a reason to be a cause, rather than part of an argument which shows why we should think of them as causes. The hermeneut is not claiming that we have no causal analogies which, if the causal claim was required in the first place, could not then be appealed to. They were arguing instead that the context-placing, intelligibility-enhancing-through-character-revelation, nature of reasons is all there is to their explanatory power, and that this does not need to be augmented by considerations of causation.

To return to James, at the general level his having reasons makes a difference to that, and not what, he does (ie that he is a do-er). At the specific level of an individual action it makes a difference to what and not that he does (acts).

Consider what I want to suggest is a comparable non-reason-providing explanation which also works by context situation (Julia Tanney has comparable examples in her nice piece Reasons as non-causal context-placing explanations.) I see a fragment of text on a piece of paper on the pavement; 'toes' and 'cumber' it says. How can I understand it? Well, it's a fragment of a shopping list. The shopper was reminding himself to buy tomatoes and a cucumber.

The full words do not cause in the sense of makes a difference to the occurrence of the part words, or in any other sense of cause. To be sure, it is unlikely that someone would have written the part words if they had not been writing these full words, but not impossible. (Perhaps they were writing a holiday memo about being encumbered by mosquitoes.) But this is not because the full words 'bring about' the part words. Neither does mention of teloi, reasons, desires, intentions, or beliefs discharge its explanatory duty through the identification of something which brings about something else. In recharacterising the action, the talk of intentions etc. does not serve to reference anything at all other than the action itself in all its glory.


postscript on the logical connection argument

The Wittgensteinian claims that one way to distinguish reasons from causes is through the fact that the relata in a reason explanation of an action are not 'distinct existences' whereas the relata of a causal explanation of a happening are necessarily 'distinct existences'.

It is sometimes objected to this that a) we can explain what something is in terms of its causes or effects, and b) we can say that 'the cause of A caused A', that this is a causal explanation, and therefore non-distinct existences can be invoked in causal explanations.

Against these: a) yes we can. But we cannot then merely invoke this concept in a causal explanation. If a carburettor is (I have no idea what it is but let's say:) just that which mixes the air and fuel in a car, and you say to me: what causes the air and fuel to mix? and I say 'the carburettor', I think it pretty clear that I have not just provided a causal explanation. This is even clearer in b): to say that the cause of A caused A is not to explain how A came about. It is just to reiterate that it did come about without magic!

Further, we may (perhaps) be able to think of descriptions under which non-distinct existences can be considered distinct, or in which distinct existences can be considered non-distinct (as above with A). But the relevant concern is the 'descriptions' which must feature in the explanations of the action or event. If explanation of action is causal explanation, then it must be that the action and the explanans are distinct existences. This is what the hermeneut denies. An intention is related to doing X through its being an intention to do X; the connection is constititutive and ergo not causal.