Living through lives of others

by Charlie Huenemann

M. C. Escher, Eight Heads (1922)

Observations are laden with theories, or so we are told, and theories are laden with cultures. There’s a good reason for thinking this. Theories, after all, spring out from people’s heads. But people’s heads grow within languages and cultures, along with whatever biological constraints lay at the foundations of our being. So anything coming out of our heads is going to bear the imprint of those complex systems. When you speak, a culture is speaking through you, with your own distinctive garnish.

This plausible observation, however, exists in tension with one of the guiding principles our culture speaks through us. That guiding principle is methodological individualism, or the basic strategy of understanding the big stuff by understanding the little stuff. Society is just people, we observe, and languages are just how these people say what they say. So if we understand the people, we will understand the larger cultures and languages they compose en masse. Better yet, understand the individual brains of these individual people; for certainly anything they do will be issuing from what is inside their heads. Better yet still, understand neurons and their local neighborhoods, for certainly the brain is not doing anything more than they are doing. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll just be paying attention only to what the quantum physicists say. And at that point you’re a goner, for sure.

We live in an epoch of nominalism: a general distrust of any explanation that proceeds from the big stuff downward. All causality is a local exchange between concrete individuals; larger patterns result from these, just as in not a wholly unrelated way economies exist through the exchanges of rationally self-interested individuals. Our culture is formed around the crucial notion that all social facts rest on the consent of individuals disposing of their individual liberties as their own reasons see fit. As Nietzsche once recognized, as scientists we generously extend these republican ideals to nature as a whole, interpreting it as a state teeming with wayward individuals governed by stern and inviolable laws. What is done in the large is only as real as what is done in the small.

But we just might be oversimplifying things a tad.

Take consciousness, for instance. The dominant strategy is to look to brains to explain it. But brains are nodes in larger economies of ideas and behaviors. An individual person fits into a life, and each life gains its shape by the other lives it engages. My family forms me, as do the friends and scholars whom I teach and who teach me; I think in a language that was constructed by more laborers than ever showed up at the Babel site, and in a culture shaped not only by other cultures but by climate, geography, and natural cataclysm. Trying to understand my consciousness by examining my brain is, let us analogize, comparable to trying to understand how a Chromebook has access to so much information by examining its innards. My own features are not irrelevant, of course, but my more impressive abilities are due to the fact that my structure plugs into much more expansive networks of concepts and traditions.

We engage in the same oversimplification when we make ever tighter focus on the elements of language. A sentence is composed of words; understand the words, and you will understand the sentence. But this is probably backwards. A sentence gains its meaning by the ways in which a community regards it. As Robert Brandom teaches through his theory of semantic inferentialism, a sentence occupies a particular spot in a larger network of giving reasons and expecting reasons. For example, once you say that I have not put enough raisins in the banana bread, you are committed to claiming it would be better in some way were there more raisins in it. I am permitted to infer you are somewhat disappointed in my achievement, and that you think I should agree. If I disagree, we will either engage in more giving and taking of reasons or raisins or simply conclude that to each their own. (You might have once judged that “to each their own” is not grammatical, but a distant change in cultural facts about gender identities has brought you to allow it. See my point?)

This sort of wide-scope approach helps to explain some of our inferences that look downright unreasonable at the scale of separately reasoning individuals. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for example, offered a now-famous instance of a conjunction fallacy:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

A. Linda is a bank teller.
B. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

People generally select answer B when it is less probable (we are told) than answer A. But consider this: normally when someone tells me so much about a person, I expect that they are trying to offer a general character sketch of that person, and since no one can tell me everything all at once, they expect me to fill in many of the gaps on my own. Assuming that Linda is in the feminist movement is in fact far more likely (at least in our culture) to be one of the things I can use to fill in the gaps than that Linda is a bank teller, which seems wholly unrelated to the situation. So I will naturally assume that the right answer is the one that includes a relevant gap-filler, even if it is conjoined with a totally irrelevant gap-filler. The popular answer should be judged as “unreasonable” only if we abandon all normal contexts and assume some highly artificial context in which we are expected to tease out fallacies in probabilistic reasoning. (My own hypothesis is that far more people would select A if the prompt read, “Which of the following is more probable? Note that we will cut off one of your fingers if you select an irrational answer.” Threats of losing body parts reliably encourage more careful assessments of probability.)

Obviously there are real advantages to methodological individualism. You can work with smaller teams and there are fewer variables to track. And obviously the nominalistic facts about concrete individuals have something to do with what happens on larger scales, so studying the smaller stuff is sure to yield some important results. But we also need to think big. Rather than pretending we can each exist fully-formed within a bell jar, we need to think about the ways in which other people make us who we are and make our sentences mean what they mean. Without others, I am nothing and can say nothing. Or, if we like, we can put the same point in terms our quantum physicists will appreciate: I am not really fully anything until some external system takes its measurement of me.

Given the culture ladenness of theories, one might hope that such a shift in approach would be accompanied by other hopeful changes in our culture, changes laden with the realization that none of us is an island, and that my own entitlements entail certain obligations to the lives of others.