The Problem of Counterfactual Conditionals

‘The analysis of counterfactual conditionals is no fussy little grammatical exercise.  indeed, if we lack the means for interpreting counterfactual conditionals, we can hardly claim to have any adequate philosophy of science…What then is the problem…?’

Goodman starts with a conditional whose antecedent and consequent are both ‘inalterably false’ like this one ‘If that piece of butter that I ate yesterday had been heated to 150 degrees F, it would have melted.’  We can’t get far considering them as ‘truth functional compounds’ with the standard logical rules as they would all qualify as ‘true’ because they have a false antecedent.  So ‘the problem is to define the circumstances under which a given counterfactual holds while the opposing conditional with the contradictory consequent fails to hold…in the face of the fact that a counterfactual by its nature can never be subjected to any direct empirical test by realizing its antecedent.’  Additionally, to make matters worse, ‘The problem of counterfactuals is equally a problem of factual conditionals, for any counterfactual can be transposed into a conditional with a true antecedent and conseqent; e.g. Since that butter did not melt, it wasn’t heated to 150.’  This rephrase that includes a notion of ‘since’ is key for Goodman, it ‘shows that what is in questino is a certain kind of connection between the two component sentences; and the truth of statements of this kind…depends on whether the intended connection obtains.’

‘As I see it, there are two major problems…A counterfactual is true if a certain connection obtains between the antecedent and the consequent.  But as is obvious from the examples already given, the consequent seldom follows from the antecedent by logic alone.  (1) In the first place, the assertion that a connection holds is made on the presumption that certain circumstances not stated in the antecedent obtain…Thus the connection we affirm may be regarded as joining the consequent with the conjunction of the antecedent and other statements that truly describe relevant conditions…in asserting the counterfactual we commit ourselves to the actual truth of the statements describing the relevant conditions.  The first major problem is to define relevant conditions…(2) But even after the particular relevant conditions are specified the connection obtaining will not ordinarily be a logical one…but what we call a natural or physical or causal law.  The second major problem concerns the definition of such laws.’

G- then walks us down a garden path, considering various potential methods of constructing this set of relevant conditions which he refers to as ‘S’.  The upshot of this discussion seems to be that we ought to avoid admitting anything into S which would, in conjunction with the antecedent ‘A’ of a counterfactual in question, lead logically to anything whatsoever.  We have to avoid contradiction.  But, G- says, examine the method you try to use to determine which sentences are allowed to be members of S.  One of these will be what he calls ‘cotenability’, A and S must be ‘cotenable’ which means ‘it is not the case that S would not be true if A were.’  His example here; ‘If match m had been scratched, it would have lighted.’  as the counterfactual, and as a possible member of S, ‘Match m did not light’.  So to walk through cotenability, if A were true [Match m is scratched] then it is not the case that S would not be true [it is not the case that match m lit].  But notice that the move we just made is itself a counterfactual!  So I think what is going on here is that G- argues: If you don’t have cotenability between A and S, then you have a contradiction and anything follows.  But in order to determine cases of cotenability, you must construct a(nother) counterfactual ['If A were true, then S would not be true'] statement and consider that, which is an infinite regress.

In Goodman’s words, ‘the really serious difficulty that now confronts us.  In order to determine the truth of a given counterfactual it seems that we have to determine, among other things, whether there is a suitable S that is cotenable with A…But in order to determine whether or not a given S is cotenable with A we have to determine whether or not the counterfactual”If A were true, then S would not be true” is itself true.  But this means determining whether or not there is a suitable S1 cotenable with A that leads to -S and so on.  Thus we find ourselves involves in an infinite regressus or a circle; for cotenability is defined in terms of counterfactuals yet the meaning of counterfactuals is defined in terms of cotenability.  In other words to establish any counterfactual it seems that we first have to determine the truth of another.’

But, look out now because, ‘Even more serious is the second of the problems mentioned earlier: the nature of general statements that enable us to infer the consequent upon the basis of the antecedent and the statement of relevant conditions.’  We do this by generalization; if we’re considering match m, to get the ‘law’ we generalize to something like ‘Every match that is scratched, well made, dry, in enough oxygen, etc., lights’.  Something like that is supposed to be the statement of the law that legitimizes our counterfactual inference.  But, says G-, it’s not that simple.  How are we going to determine which generalizations are laws of this type that permit inference from ‘accidental’ generalizations.  Another example runs this way: Supposed that all the coins in Goodman’s pocket on VE day were silver.  Examine this counterfactual: If the penny P had been in my pocket on VE day, P would have been silver.  If we assume the antecedent to be true [Ok let's say that P was in your pocket on that day...] and we accept the generalization [Every coin in that pocket on that day was silver] we still refuse to buy it.  We won’t infer that the penny ‘would have been’ silver.  Instead we ‘would assert that if P had been in my pocket then this general statement would not be true.  The general statement will not permit us to infer the given consequent from the counterfactual assumption…Though the supposed connecting principle is indeed general, true, and perhaps even fully confirmed by observation of all cases, it is incapable of sustaining a counterfactual because it remains a description of accidental fact, not a law…our problem is to distinguish accurately between causal laws and causal facts.’  Or in other words, to distinguish laws which legitimize counterfactual inference from statements of accident.

Goodman’s discussion suggests that this problem ‘reduces to…the question how to define the circumstances under which a statement is acceptable independently of the determination of any given instance.’  And neither he or I have a clue how this could be done.

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Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification – Chapter 1-2

Fogelin begins by describing what Pyrrhonian skepticism means to him.  ‘Philosophical skepticism’, he says, can mean something like ‘skeptical conclusions arrived at via the methods of philosophical reasoning’ or it could mean ‘a skeptical attitude toward philosophy itself’.  Pyrrhonian skepticism is using the former to arrive at the latter, it ‘uses self-refuting philosophical arguments, taking philosophy as its target.’  Fogelin further describes the Pyrrhonist as someone who, ‘sought suspension of belief to further a practical goal.  When one attains suspension of belief, one is supposed to find oneself in a state of ataraxia (quietude), which, for the Pyrrhonist, is a form of blessedness.  Thus, the Pyrrhonist philosophizes only as a temporary expedient, and once the anxieties produced by dogmatic philosophizing have been surmounted, the Pyrrhonist’s own skeptical arguments may be discarded as a ladder no longer of use.’

I think this quote is from Sextus Empiricus, ‘in regard to all skeptical expressions…we make no positive assertion respecting their absolute truth…are included in the things to which their doubt applies, just as aperient drugs do not merely eliminate the humors from the body, but also expel themselves…’  F- takes this acceptance of the self-refutation (the ‘peritrope’ as they call it in the phil. literature) as a defining characteristic of Pyrrhonism.

Next, Fogelin discusses whether the Pyrrhonian skeptic [PS] extends their skepticism beyond the contents of ‘dogmatic philosophy’ to ‘ordinary beliefs/judgments’ of everyday life.  F- thinks that the PS does not extend their skepticism to ‘ordinary’ judgment.  He points out that the skeptic is only arguing against dogmatic philosophers, it is they who ‘raise the stakes’ and thereby raise the level of scrutiny.  If there were no dogmatic philosophers who claimed to pursue (and have!) ‘certain objective knowledge’, PSism would be totally irrelevant.  F-’s PS is happy to use epistemological terminology in a ‘common sense’ way, to make judgments, to ‘have beliefs’ etc., as long as they are aware that these beliefs are non-dogmatic.  To quote Sextus again, ‘We must remember that we do not employ them universally about all things, but about those which are non-evident and are objects of dogmatic inquiry…Adhering, then, too appearances we live in accordance with the normal rules of life, undogmatically…’  If this is what PSism is, they lose me on this point.

Taking this point as established, F- considers an ‘updated’ PS who had lived through ‘the linguistic turn’ in philosophy and attributes to them a ‘late-Wittgensteinian’ attitude toward language; they would have ‘no complaints against common modes of expressing these beliefs…[only those who] attempt to transcend for philosophical purposes common modes of expression.’

Finally, he briefly mentions Agrippa, a later figure of the ‘Pyrrhonian revival’ (100bc-100ad) who formulated Pyrrhonian arguments into the ’5 modes’ [discussed later] which F- takes to be directly relevant to the current epistemological literature under the description ‘theory of justification’.  F- will argue in this book that epistemology to this day has not even come close to refuting these arguments, even 2000 years later.  He then turns to the 20th century to see where the state of play lies, beginning with the Gettier problems.

So what are those?  My version of F-’s version of Gettier’s argument is, ‘Smith believes (1) Jones will get a promotion, and Jones has 10 coins in his pocket.  Smith believes this because the boss told him Jones would get the promotion and Smith himself counted the coins ten minutes ago.  Due to Smith’s grasp of simple logic, he explicitly reasons from (1) to (2) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.  As it turns out, though, Smith himself gets the promotion, and Smith also has 10 coins in his pocket!  So it turns out that (2) is true while (1) is false and (2) was true “by accident”.  So supposedly even though (2) is a justified true belief for Smith, we still don’t want to say that Smith “knew” (2) because his acceptance of this proposition was not related in the right way to its “truth”.  Therefore, justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge.’

F-’s diagnosis is that ‘there was nothing wrong with [Smiths's] epistemic performance, that is, there was nothing wrong with the way Smith arrived at his belief.  F- thinks that Gettier is successful if we interpret things ‘adverbially’, if we read the claim as something like ‘S justifiably came to believe that P’.  F- thinks that it is easy to see that subjects can be ‘epistemically responsible’ (have good inductive evidence for Q and make a solid deduction to a weaker P which happens, through luck, to be false).  So he doesn’t want us to read things that way.  He prefers to rephrase things from thinking of ‘performance’ to evaluating in terms of the ‘grounds’ of a belief.   ‘In saying that S is justified in believing that P is true we are saying that the grounds on which S accepts P establish the truth of P…we are speaking of a relationship between a proposition that S accepts and the grounds on which he accepts it.’  F- wants to add to the third criterion of knowledge as ‘S’s grounds establish the truth of P.’   F- later emphasizes that he does not want to replace this third criterion with the ‘grounds’ criterion, but rather add it.  F- thinks that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’ + ‘adequate grounds’.

To bring out how F- thinks this is important, he makes an interesting move that I appreciate.  He says, ‘it will help to imagine ourselves actually investigating Gettier’s claims.  That is, Gettier actually appears before us and tells us there was [this situation]…’  One reason this helps, F- instructs, is that it removes the privilege from any given premise, the special status that certain ‘facts’ have ex hypothesi in philosophical argumentation.  ‘Perhaps he has left out important details.  Perhaps he is telling the story wrong.  Perhaps he made it up.’

Why add this ‘grounds’ criterion?  F- admits that almost all the time ‘justifiable’ covers the grounds, except in cases of third person knowledge attribution where the attributor has more information than the subject, as in the Gettier cases.  F- thinks that Gettier examples are not an argument against JTB+ theories, they all simply rely on the ‘informational mismatch’ between the subject in the story and we as an audience.  We are given more information, by which we can see (but S cannot) that S’s grounds are not adequate, even though we agree with S that his belief was arrived at in a ‘responsible’ ‘justified’ way.  Immediately here we pause and wonder: Is there, then, no fact of the matter when there is an instance of ‘knowledge’ in the world?  If, from S’s perspective, he has knowledge, but from our (informationally superior) perspective he does not, what does this mean about whether S really has knowledge or not?  I think this is addressed in a later chapter.

 

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Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist? III-VIII

‘So far, all seems plain sailing’ huh?  I wonder if this is intentionally ironic, J- does like to crack a joke.  ‘I pass from percepts to concepts…from the case of things presented to that of things remote…here also the same law holds good… This world [of concepts] comes to us at first as a chaos of experiences, but lines of order soon get traced.’  I don’t know the extent to which J- might here be an ‘identity theorist’, does he mean that there is some segment of PE which is, at the same time, both a ‘brain state’ and an ‘idea’ if interpreted in those two respective contexts; as when he writes, ‘any single non-perceptual experiences tends to get counted twice over…figuring in one context as an object…in another as a state of mind…’?

Slightly later we find another metaphor for PE, ‘The room thus again gets counted twice over.  It plays two different roles… the thought-of-an-object, and the object-thought-of, both in one; and tall this without paradox or mystery, just as the same material thing may be both low and high, or small and great, or bad and good, because of its relations to opposite parts of the environing world.’  For me, this way of thinking is helpful; if we don’t have a problem admitting that we may be ‘tall’ in comparison to a mouse we may be ‘short’ in comparison to a giraffe then why have a problem admitting that a PE may be ‘mental’ in the context of our ‘other thoughts’ and ‘physical’ in the context of ‘surrounding objects’?

And here as straightforward a ‘definition’ as we are likely to find: ‘The instant field of the present is at all times what I all the ‘pure’ experience…plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that… it is of course valid, it is there, we act upon it.’  And then this neat little poem, ‘If the world were then and there to go out like a candle, it would remain truth absolute and objective, for it would be “the last word” would have no critic, and no one would ever opposes the thought in it to the reality intended.’  J- often leans on a distinction between a ‘that’ and a ‘what’; I am not entirely clear on the purpose of this distinction, I mostly read it as  a difference between the ‘immediate’ and the ‘represented’, between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of contextualization, the ‘that’ as ‘reality’, the pure experience and the ‘what’ as interpreted/contextualized object, and somehow ‘impure’ by contrast.

J- thinks that he has now ‘made my thesis clear.  Consciousness connotes a kind of external relation, and does not denote a special stuff or way of being… our experiences…[are] better explained by their relations–these relations themselves being experiences–to one another.’  I’m glad to possess his ‘thesis’ but I fear that it strikes me as far from clear.  The picture that is coming out in my reading is that PE is some sort of metaphysical plenum which has some kind of simple pure true immediacy and that ‘consciousness’ ought to be thought of more like ‘length’ than like ‘cup’ (and very much so more than like ‘soul’) in our conceptual schematics of this plenum.  I think I get the ‘consciousness as relation’ part, as opposed to substance, but what I’m less sure of is how to individuate any’thing’ or ‘object’ out of the total of PE, part of the time it seems radically holistic to the point that any objectification is necessarily a falsification of at least some level– a perspective that I would have some affinity for, though I have not found textual evidence yet one way or another.  I’m not yet sure how J- deals with ‘vagueness’ in this metaphysics, I assume the answer would be ‘pragmatic’, but it would be fun to find out how he works it.

He next considers some objections.  First, What is PE “made of”? It has to consist of something, but we ‘know not at all’ what it is.  J- says ‘To this challenge the reply is easy…there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made.’  Alright, I can accept the answer that PE isn’t ‘made of’ anything, but where he goes next he loses me.  ‘There are as many stuff as there are “natures” in the things experienced. If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: “It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, or heaviness, or what not.”.’  This rings as far too ‘common-sensical’ for my taste.  I am not willing to accept that these terms, ‘heaviness’, ‘flatness’, etc. are anywhere but in our language or our conceptual schemes or whatever, in this passage J- seems to want to say that our normal phenomenology leads to a discovery of the true nature of reality.  But I must be misunderstanding here, I think there is at least a way to be a radical empiricist without this, and maybe J- doesn’t do it either.

Here, I think is a great question for any dualist, given the huge amount of evidence that we are, in fact, very bad at determining this, ‘How, if “subject” and “object”…had no attributes in common, could it be so hard to tell…what part comes in through the sense-organs and what parts comes “out of one’s own head”?’.

But then J- again loses me, when he tries further to answer what I think I’m wondering about with the vagueness/individuation questions, ‘Mental fire is what won’t burn real sticks… With “real” objects…consequences always accrue; and thus the real experiences get sifted from the mental ones…the stable part of the wold experience-chaos [is what we call] the physical world.’   Ok, but how is that not begging the question?  Why does he get to appeal to the object ‘real sticks’ when the question is ‘What is real?’  And does this not assume at least the dualism that there are two (and only two in this respect) contexts, ‘real’ and ‘mental’ into which everything must neatly fall?  Another place I am unwilling to follow.  I keep getting the impression that, though J- wants to resist ‘substance’ dualism, he appears comfortable with conceptual dualism, and even granting privilege!   I’d rather he not do this.  Hopefully I misunderstand still.

Because when he gets down to the brass tacks, ‘[Consciousness] is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real.  but thoughts int he concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.’  I think I can mostly agree with him.  So I don’t know if this is a case of coming to similar conclusions through different reasoning, or if it is J- being ‘correct’ (from my perspective) without proper justification, or simply (and probably most likely) me not accurately interpreting or representing J-’s views.

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Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist I & II

‘”Thoughts” and “things” are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other… For twenty years past I have mistrusted “consciousness” as an entity… It seems to me that the hour is ripe for it to be openly and universally discarded.’  Even granting a hyperbolic interpretation to this temporality; I’m afraid James’ fruit was picked prematurely.  The open discard of ‘consciousness’ is even now, I am confident to claim, somewhat less than universal.  But James does employ a very contemporary turn in the philosophy of mind when he stresses, ‘I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function.  There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff…out of which our thoughts…are made.’  This is a familiar move to those of us steeped in A.P. (Anno Putnam) literature.  ‘…there is a function in experience which thoughts perform…That function is knowing.’  So, for James, we are going to keep ‘thoughts(functional)’ and we are going to keep ‘knowing’ and we are going to keep (and privilege!) ‘experience’ while we are going to throw out ‘consciousness’.  Let us keep this in mind as part of J-’s task.

‘My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff “pure experience”, then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation toward one another into which portions of pure experience may enter.’  So we see J- as a monist, his metaphysics is made of one ‘primal stuff’, and we’re going to call that stuff ‘pure experience’.   We learn of ‘knowledge’ that it is a type of relation that some segments of ‘pure experience’ [PE] bear to other segments.

‘Experience, I believe, has no…inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction but by way of addition.’   Thus appears J- the casual phenomenologist (is that redundant?) who we will meet repeatedly throughout the essay(s).  His belief is that ‘experience’ does not feel like ‘consciousness with a content’ as would have most, but rather… we don’t know what yet, but an illustration of some paint: ‘In a pot in a paint-shop along with other paints, it serves in its entirety as so much saleable matter.  Spread on a canvas, with other paints around it, it represents, on the contrary, a feature in a picture and performs a spiritual function.’   I think he means by this example to show how ‘the same thing’ (the same paint) can be considered in two completely different ways based on the context of our interests; it can be ‘stuff for sale’ or it can be ‘the all-luminous eye of god/sun overlooking decimated Guernica’.  He wants us to think of the mental also in this way, depending on how we choose to describe some segment of PE it can be, ‘in one group…a thought, in another group a thing.’

I think this is how J- seeks’ to explain the prevalence of dualistic thinking, ‘And since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at once.’  J-’s dualism is one of ‘an affair of relations’ which he says ‘can always be particularized and defined.’  In this I do not find J- clear.  His own paint example had the paint not only interpreted in two different ways at the same time but rather causally placed into different contexts, his example does not convey the simultaneity that he asserts in the very next sentence… However, I happen to already agree with J- that ‘the same thing’ can be interpreted in different ways even to the point of being considered ‘different things’ but that this fact of human practice is no ontological justification so, onward.

J- asks us to consider the naive realist picture of, say, the room you’re now in, and diagnoses ‘the whole philosophy of perception’ as ‘just one long wrangle over the paradox that what is evidently one reality should be in two places at once, both in outer space and in a person’s mind.’  J- resolves the paradox of the two rooms by an analogy with ‘how one identical point can be on two lines.  It can, if it be situated at their intersection…’   And since, by metaphysical hypothesis, the room and the viewer are both ‘made of PE’, ‘it could be counted twice over, as belonging to either group…remain[ing] all the time a numerically single thing… In one of these contexts it is your “field of consciousness”‘ in another it is “the room in which you sit”.’  What two contexts?  ‘One of them is the reader’s personal biography, the other is the history of the house of which the room is part.’

Here follows a fascinating passage that I will quote at more length, I just find it quite intriguing.

As a room, the experience has occupied that spot and had that environment for thirty years.  As your field of consciousness it may never have existed until now.  As a room, attention will go on to discover endless new details in it.  As your mental state merely, few new ones will emerge under attention’s eye.  As a room, it will take an earthquake, or a gang of men, and in any case a certain amount of time, to destroy it.  As your subjective state, the closing of your eyes, or any instantaneous play of your fancy will suffice.  In the real world, fire will consume it.  In your mind, you can let fire play over it without effect.  As an outer object, you must pay so much a month to inhabit it.  As an inner content, you may occupy it for any length of time rent-free.  If, in short, you follow it in the mental direction, taking it along with events of personal biography solely, all sorts of things are true of it which are false, and false of it which are true if you treat it a as real thing experience, follow it in the physical direction and relate it to associated in the outer world.

I feel as though if I fully understood what J- was saying in this passage that I would have a pretty good grasp on radical empiricism, but at the moment I do not yet grasp it.  So we are talking about a ‘segment of pure experience’ which is the room that I’m in, including me and my perception of it.  And we are talking about(?), referring to(?), interpreting as(?), contextualizing in respect of(?), this segment as a member of one class or another: ‘mental’ or ‘physical’; these are the two intersecting ‘lines’ upon which the here-now (Carnapian <x,y,z,t>) situation is a point.  As ‘mental’ it has: (1) a history: my biography (2) a set of properties: ‘rent-free’, impervious to fire, etc. (3?) A duration: as long as I think of it? as long as I am capable of remembering it?  And as ‘physical’ it has: (1′) a different history: the room’s architect-ology (2′) a different set of properties: flammable  expensive, etc. etc.   But all this time it has to be (1”) monistic: it’s all PE, and it has to be (2”) ‘numerically singular’: there is only one totally holistic PE which is everything.

Much of my difficulty hinges at this time upon the ‘As a such-and-such it has thus-and-so…’ clause.  I think we are committed to reading the ‘It’ (here ‘the room’) as ‘Segment R of Pure Experience’, but even that raises questions of vagueness, how are we to delineate this subject?  If everything that we can say about it is ‘as’ something or other, how do we determine what it is that is taking these various ‘as-an-x’ contextual interpretations?

I think this difficulty may be due to a difference of paradigm; I have a tendency to think of ‘the (physical) room’ as primary because I have been programmed with physicalism more thoroughly than with radical empiricism.  If I try to force myself to remember that the ‘it’ is pure experience then perhaps the vagueness of segmentation question becomes moot, perhaps the conceptual scheme of ‘cutting out a (spatial!) segment’ to consider as ‘the room in question’ is an artifact of the physicalistic paradigm and is an irrelevant question in radical empiricism.

The next difficulty has to do with the ‘activity’ of ‘taking something as‘.  Without ‘consciousness’, what is it about some segments of PE which allows them to have a subjectivity, which imbues them with the capacity to ‘take other segments as’?  Maybe for J- everything, including ‘the room’, is (equally!) a subject in this way.  As soon as I reach this point I can’t help but be reminded of Whitehead’s organismal metaphysics; which to my ears has many resonances with J-’s metaphysics of these essays, though J- is far less clear.  It seems to me that J- is going to have to take this line, hopefully he does, if everything is PE and we are consistent, it seems we want to say that I am a datum for the room just as it is a datum of me… But maybe this can be dealt with via ‘perceptual mechanisms’, which I can easily see a plausible case for a difference here between me and the room…

Anyway, this essay really gets my mind chewing, it is seriously entertaining.  More to come…

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Inside Jokes: Chapters 6-7

This chapter begins with a list of some “conclusions” reached so far, after the examination of the “phenomenology” of humor, and the review of other theories.  It lets us see more about what our authors want from their own theory.

1. It is very hard to see what all the categories of things considered “humorous” in common language have in common.

2. Humor is dependent on both content and presentation dynamics.

3. No “topic” is “intrinsically” humorous.

4. Due to these things, they think there “must be conditions of humor that depend on the actual physical “mechanical” parameters of cognitive processing.”  In other words, the judgment “humorous” comes from human brains, and it must come from some particular mechanical operation that these brains (and as far as we know only these brains) perform.

5. This “innate funny bone” must be “for something”, in other words, must have had some reason to be selected for.

So here the authors begin to sketch their theory of brains, minds, consciousness, whatever you want to call it, which seems to be the most current version of Dennett’s which he has been working on for 50 years, or whatever it is by now.  They start by claiming that everything that happens in human brains is driven by “emotion”, including what we call “logic and reason”, they refer to this as “epistemic emotions”, eg the apparently “intuitive” or “self-evident” character of the basic “laws of classical logic”.

Of emotion they write, “The first important property is temporal: emotions are extended over time as the physiological effects… run their course… Second, emotions always have valence, they are positive or negative [from our point of view]…In sum an emotion is… a valenced perception– caused by a variety of processes of transduction of information in the world… their effect on behavior can be much the same as external rewards and punishments… to increase or decrease the likelihood of recurrence of the associated behavior… Each emotion is, in this way, tied to particular behaviors for the simple reason that those are precisely the behaviors that have been learned to have a causal effect on inducing the pleasure or relieving the pain that is that emotion… the emotions, broadly construed are rational motivators that encourage us to do the right things at the right times in order to balance all the survival and reproductive needs we face…”

Combining this picture of brains/minds as emotive potentially “irrational” systems, whose job it is to get us through a dangerous world in real time under constant “uncertainty” necessitates that we evolve a “heuristic choice process” to tell us “how to behave under uncertainty…a heuristic driver of behavior that operates on incomplete information.”  They ask us to conceive of “thought” as “behavior”, “albeit largely internal mental behavior, and as fully motivated by a subset of the passions in the same way that overt behaviors are, we can classify higher cognition… as simply a resultant component of the emotional mind.”

More on their view of brains, “All brains, from teh simplest nervous systems of invertebrates to our own magnificent oragns, are anticipation generators.  Their primary function is to extract information on the fly from the world around them and genearte expectations that will serve the organism well in its odyssey through an uncertain and often hostile world.  The brain confronts an unrelenting risk of combinatorial explosion…” Every piece of information it gets can have an indefinite number of potential meanings and dangers and benefits, it would be computationally impossible, intractable, for a brain to attempt to “reason everything out”, which is why it must be heuristic, speculative, make educated (or evolutionarily influenced) guesses all the time, to take “calculated shortcuts”.

The way they think that our brain actually does this is, “endowing the mind with a skill for the on-demand creation of mental spaces via a process of spreading activation… A mental space is a region of working memory where activated concepts and percepts are semantically connected into a holistic situational comprehension model…functional places…built incrementally and revised constantly…these mental spaces act as containers that delineate regions of thought…”

Having this model of heuristic cognition conjoined with the overall picture of brains as anticipation generators ruled by emotions, the authors move on to the next fundamental concept to their humor theory: beliefs.  “A belief is a commitment to a fact about the world.” they write, “Such commitments allow us to act in the world, with some assurance that our actions will have their intended consequences.”  However, they will be leaning on a specific type or sub-category of beliefs, “Working-memory beliefs are, for our purposes, the most important beliefs– these are the contents of mental spaces…once information becomes a workding-memory beliefs, it participates in a thought.  Let’s call the participating contents of working memory beliefs active beliefs.”  These are opposed to “long-term memory beliefs” which they call “acquired dispositions to have particular active working-memory beliefs”.  So, as far as this relates to humor, long term beliefs are only distally related in that they might predispose one to have a given WM belief, but the WM beliefs are the causally relevant category for “finding something funny”.  Their account has us “each having billions of long-term memory beliefs” but “at any particular moment we have only a few active beliefs.”

Finally they add one more component to delineate the type of belief which is relevant for the consideration of humor, that of “commitment”.  If you drive to a restaurant which you hope is still open but think that it might not be, the belief that it is open is “active” but not “committed”, you realize that it might not be, and so when you find it closed you are not “surprised”.  “Committed active beliefs… are beliefs that we act boldly on…”  They refer to the joke about the goldfish: Two goldfish were in their tank.  One turns to the other and says “You man the guns, I’ll drive”.  When you hear the first sentence you get a committed active belief that “tank” refers to a fish tank, not a military tank, hence the humor.  If we had thought immediately about the vagueness of the word “tank”, we would not find this joke funny at all.  This is not about how “conscious” you are of your commitments, remember that “thought” is just brain-behavior, it is not expected or required that you are “conscious of” (whatever that means) these committed active beliefs, this is about what your computational brain is doing, not what you experience in your consciousness.

Now, they claim, a committed active belief in working memory is (at least somewhat) likely to be “written down” as a long term belief, which in turn would have dispositional effects on our future active beliefs: this is an account of learning.  Because of this tendency, it is extremely important to notice “when the system goes wrong…Allowing this ballooning process to continue unchecked when one of our committed beliefs just ain’t so can generate a cascade of false beliefs resulting in a substantially faulty world representation… The solution is to nip it in the but– to tr to catch false beliefs as often as possible before they become encoded, while we still have the context to work on them, and before we end up with a disposition to reactivate that false belief.”  This is the why they have been looking for, this is the reason for evolution to select for this emotion, this “sense of humor”, this constant re-checking of our active commitments; if we didn’t do it, we might get alot of false beliefs and if we have alot of false beliefs we are more likely to die and the mechanism that brains have for making us “do it” is to furnish us with a positively valenced emotion!

And so, we find them state, “In short, basic mirth is the pleasure in unearthing a particular variety of mistake in active belief structures.  And basic humor is any semantic circumstance in which we make such a mistake and succeed in discovering it.”

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Inside Jokes: Chapter 4

Next comes their brief historical tour of alternative humor/mirth theories.  The authors stress that there is “something right” about each of them, but that their project is unifying the best aspects of the other theories under their more thorough project of tying mirth into a computational-evolutionary-”theory of mind” account.

Here are their headings, with a quick summary of their interpretation of each:

A. Biological Theories: “are motivated by the observation that humor and laughter are innate.”  Though these authors have multiple footnotes cautioning us about “innateness”, I think in the main they accept this observation.  “Laughter appears spontaneously in early infancy…and that the existence of humor is universal throughout human cultures.”  They ask us not to jump from this directly to the conclusion that humor is a “genetic adaptation”, reminding us that “If laughter and humor were selected for, the traits must have had a raison d’etre, an adaptive function…and the blueprint for these ‘instincts’ must have been somehow encoded in our genes.”  The biological theorists, according to Dennett, all treat laughter as a communicative function, and they agree that there is something to that, but note that publicly observable laughter is not coextensive with all “humor” and therefore these theories miss something important.

B.  Play Theories:  “Play theories on the whole tend to focus on the connection between laughter and play.”  The “tickling of the mind” theory proposed by Darwin himself.  They suggest that “humor” has “evolved out of play” and kept the same expression.   Again, for these authors, these accounts are too laugh-centric, they agree that a humor theory ought to account for the similar expression between play and tickling and jokes, and that it ought to explain just how humor developed evolutionarily, but their theory aims to be more general than play theories.

C.  Superiority Theories:  This is considered the 2nd most popular model in history (behind ‘Incongruity Resolution’) Thomas Hobbes, they tell us, defined laughter as “a ‘sudden glory’ or triumph that results from the recognition that we have some level of superiority over someof the joke…Humor’s role is to point out problems and mistakes for the purpose of boosting one’s current view of oneself in comparison…”  Aristotle too may have noticed something to ST, “saying that humor is the recognition of a piece of ugliness, resulting from an implied comparison between a noble state and an ignoble state.”

Our authors argue against this conception by pointing to entire categories of events that we often consider “humorous” without obvious superiority aspects at all: puns/wordplay, and being in the presence of babies/children.   Conversely, they point out that there are many uses of derision and ridicule which are neither intended to be, nor are interpreted as humorous in any way.   Not only that, but from their requirements of what a theory of humor is supposed to provide, ST does not even appear to attempt to posit a mechanism, or to explain why we benefit from expressing our “superiority” with laughter.

Nevertheless, they say, ST has some important aspects: it “reminds us that we do feel pleasure in humor”, “it highlights the fact that humor is used competitively”, “Humor points out failures”, and “most importantly, it draws our attention to the negative value judgments in humor.”  Each of these aspects they will work into their own theory, though often in different ways than the STists might.

D.  Release Theories:  These “construe humor as a form of relief from excessive nervous arousal.”  They say, “tension from thought can build up, and when this tension is released by a positive emotion that results from further thought, the energy is transformed into laughing.”  Versions of this general theory were supported by Herbert Spencer and Freud, who added the concept that “jokes…were one way to overcome our internal mental censors that forbid certain thoughts…allows the repressed energy to flow…”

The authors cite an anachronistic ontology for the current unpopularity of these theories, who wants to posit mysterious “energies” and “tensions” anymore?  Though they add that this sort of thing may come back into favor in conjunction with updated neuroscientific posits like “neuromodulator imbalances”, “opponent processes that work to achieve homeostasis” etc.  They will keep aspects of the “tension” model but attempt to “clarify the constituent notions”.

E.  Incongruity Resolution:  This is, according to our authors, the “most strongly championed” current theory.  The bald statement of this theory is, “humor happens whenever an incongruity occurs that is subsequently resolved.”  The first was offered by Kant, who is quoted here as writing, “In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction).  Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”  This model was refined by Schopenhauer, who argued that Kant’s conception was too wide; there are many resolved incongruities which we do not find funny.  S- wrote, “My theory depends on the contrast between representations of perception and abstract representations.”  D- writes that, for S-, “The incongruity occurs to the extent that the concept was mistaken and the perception veridical.”  A modern recasting of this general idea by Minsky and Schank involves the idea of “scripts” or “frames”, the idea that our brains operate most of the time according to a general categorization of situations into abstract categories (ie “fast food restaurant” script) with a store of concurrent assumptions.  The incongruity on this model would be the violation of an individual event from the “normal” script, and the potential shifting into a new frame of interpretation (at least some of which they call “semantic reanalysis”).

Our authors’ main complaint with this theory is that it is more “descriptive” than “explanatory”, “it may be able to tell us that incongruity play s a role…but…we still need a theory of how and why it plays a role.”  Even if IR allows us to identify stimuli likely to be considered humorous, it does not seem to tell us what humor is or why it exists.

Additionally, they point out some counterexamples from other authors to the extent that not all “incongruities”, even between perception and conception, are funny; motion sickness, tragedy, etc.  This leads our authors to assume again the burden of explaining why the response of mirth is “a good” response, why do we laugh rather than vomit, or twitch, or anything else we might do, “why should anything strike us as funny in the first place?”.

The authors, though, “agree with the widespread opinion that IR theories provide a good foundation” and will “try to provide a more rigorous and informative account of incongruity.”  In an important sense, the current theory offered is a type of IR theory.

F. Surprise Theories:  Descartes called humor a mixture of joy and shock.  Both ST and IR include surprise as an important component.  They define surprise as something like the emotion caused by something, not merely unanticipated, but positively “expected not to happen”.  Most things that happen to us are not anticipated (fully), including the content of the next sentence on this page, however we are not in a constant state of surprise; the key here is the expectation that something not occur which then does.   This does not mean only “conscious” expectations, but also events which are tacitly ruled out by the combination of active expectations and our psycho-logics.

G.  Mechanical Theories: Henri Bergson proposed that perhaps humor is a “social corrective”, that many humorous situations are brought about by some type of rigidity in an actor, a “mechanical” aspect, more than society thinks is wise to maintain, so the laughter is a not-so-subtle suggestion to loosen up a bit.

We will see, in the authors account, aspects of all of this; presumably this is why they have spelled out the alternative theories in the way they chose to.

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Inside Jokes: Intro-Chapter 3

Dennett and Hurley and Adams call their model an “evolutionary/neurocomputational model of humor”.  They stress that “at bottom [humor is a] fantastically complex mechanism” and tell us they will “explain why humor exists, how it works in the brain, and why comedy is an art.”  Still in the introduction they summarize their model this way, “natural selection has hit upon [a] trick to get our brains to… do the tedious debugging they must do if they are live dangerously with the unruly… mistakes that we generate in our incessany heuristic search.”  Dennett reminds us later that our brains are “future generators” whose job is ((to drastically simplify) to pilot our bodies around and keep them alive long enough to pass on our genes and help our children reach adulthood.  Due to the massive amount of information bombarding the brain through all the senses, its limited processing power necessitates employing heuristics, guesses, filling-ins, estimates.  Though, by and large, our brains do well enough enough of the time that we have not been selected out, extinct, they will, and do, often err.  I think the essence of this model is that “mirth” (as they will most often describe this emotive state) is a necessary positive emotional state to mitigate the potential frustration of discovering heuristic mistakes.  “[Natural Selection] has to bribe the brain with pleasure.” to give us a “hunger” to root out these mistakes, and to make us “ok with it” when they are discovered.  “Finding and fixing these time-pressured mis-leaps would be constantly annoying hard work, if evolution hadn’t arranged for it to be fun.”

The existence of “humor” and “comedy” as they are in our society today are a memetically evolved addition to these biological mechanisms and replicate themselves in the environment of our culture by being “supernormal stimuli”, highly refined by memetic engineers (comedians or wits) which has now become “like alcohol, tobacco and caffine” a “modern human addiction”.  They liken this to the “sweet tooth”: sweet foods “taste good” to human beings because the cells of our body heavily rely upon chemicals found in sugars, which were much more rare in our ancestral environment, so natural selection programmed it into us that we should seek out and relish sweet foods.  Now, when sugars are plentiful in our modern societies, this sugar craving can become a harm, if overdone.  Likewise, they say, the mirth emotion, the humor instinct, evolved because “we need to devote serious time and energy to doing something [discovering heuristic mistakes] which, if we didn’t do it, would imperil our very lives… Nature has seen to it that we… reward that action handsomely [with the positively valenced emotion of mirth].”

The authors do not dwell upon this point at length, at least when it is introduced, but this is important; They do not plan to answer the “essence” question, they will not attempt to provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to explain all “funny things”, rather they wish to answer the functional question: “What makes us feel that some things are funny?  This shift is key to understanding the authors’ position, they have shifted the inquiry from being about “funny things” to being about human minds, why we find things funny, not why the things are funny.

They will argue that “humor evolved out of a computational problem that arose when our ancestors were furnished with open-ended thinking”.   “The causes of general humor are not intrinsic features of the triggering stimuli that are somehow detected, but internal responses in agents with a particular computational architecture.”

They spend some time attempting to convince us that they appreciate the difficulty of the problem, they point out that they are aware that there are a large range of cases which all appear to elicit mirth, from puns to slapstick to stand-up to caricatures, etc.; different people find different things funny, people differ on “how funny” the same stimulus is, people find the same thing funny at some times and not others, people from different cultures find different things funny, but everyone seems to have some sense of humor.  This is part of why they feel that an evolutionary explanation is the only one which will work, to find “unity in the diversity”.

At the bottom of page 12 we find the first statement of their theory, “in a nutshell”: “Our brains are engaged full time in real-time (risky) heuristic search, generating presumptions about what will be experienced next in every domain.  This time-pressured, unsupervised generation process has necessarily lenient standards and introduces content– not all of which can be properly checked for truth– into our mental spaces.  If left unexamined, the inevitable errors in these vestibules of consciousness would ultimately continue on to contaminate our world knowledge store.  So there has to be a policy of double-checking these candidate beliefs and surmisings, and the discovery and resolution of these at breakneck speed is maintained by a powerful reward system00 the feeling of humor; mirth–that must support this activity in competition with all the other things you could be thinking about.

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