Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mental models for the social world

What is involved in being prepared to understand what is going on around you?

In a sense this is Kant's fundamental question in the Critique of Pure Reason: what intellectual resources (concepts, categories, frameworks) does a cognitive agent need in order to make sense of the contents of consciousness, the fleeting experiences and sensations that life brings us? And his answer is pretty well known: we need concepts of fixed objects in space and time, subject to causal laws.  The stream of experiences we have is organized around a set of persistent objects located in time and space with specific causal properties. Space, time, cause, and object are the fundamental categories of cognition when it comes to understanding the natural world. This line of thought leads to an esoteric philosophical idea, the notion of transcendental metaphysics. (P. F. Strawson's work on Kant is particularly helpful; The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.)

But we can ask essentially the same kind of question about the ordinary person's ability to make sense of the social world around him or her. Each person is exposed to a dense stream of experiences of the social world, at various levels. We have ordinary interactions -- with friends, bus drivers, postal carriers, students -- and we want to interpret the behavior that we observe. We read news reports and tweets about happenings in the wider world -- riots in Athens, suicide attacks in Pakistan, business statements about future sales, ... -- and we want to know what these moments mean, how they hang together, and what might have caused them.  In short, we need to have a set of mental resources that permit us to organize these experiences into a representation of a coherent social reality.

So is it possible to provide a transcendental metaphysics for ordinary social experience? Can we begin to list the kinds of concepts we need to have in order to cognize the social world?

We might say that a very basic building block of social cognition is a set of scripts or schemas into which we are prepared to fit our observations and experiences. Suppose we observe two people approach each other on the street, exchange words, bow heads slightly, and part. This interaction between two strangers might be categorized as "courtesy" during a chance meeting. But it might be construed in other ways as well: ironic insults, sexual innuendo, or condescension from superior to inferior. Each of these is an alternative interpretive frame, a way of conceptualizing and "seeing" a complex series of behaviors.  So the scripts or frames that we bring to the observations impose a form of organization on the observations.

Or take the current rioting in Greece: we might construct these masses of collective behavior as rationally directed economic protest, righteous resistance, or opportunistic anarchism. Each alternative has different implications, and each corresponds to a somewhat different set of background assumptions about how social interactions unfold. Each corresponds to a different social metaphysic.  Different observers bring a different set of assumptions about how the social world works to their observations. And these frameworks lead to different constructions of the events.

Or consider the question of the social "things" around which we organize our social perceptions: nations, financial markets, cities, parties, and ideologies, for example. How much arbitrariness is there in the ontological schemes into which we organize the world? Could we have done just as well at making sense of our experience with a substantially different ontology? Is there a most basic ontology that underlies each of these and is a scheme that cannot be dispensed with?

We might try a "fundamental" ontology along these lines: we must identify individuals as purposive, intentional agents; we must recognize relations among individuals -- giving us social networks, knowledge transmission, and groups; and we must recognize social processes with causal powers, constituted by individuals within specific social relations. And we must recognize the situation of consciousness -- beliefs, desires, values, and ideologies. And, we might hypothesize, we can build up all other more specific social entities out of aggregations of these simple things.

This is one possible way of formalizing a social ontology.  But there are others.  For example, we might give priority to relations rather than individuals; or we might give priority to processes rather than structures.  So it is hard to justify the notion that there is a single uniquely best way of conceptualizing the realm of the social.

An interesting collateral question has to do with the possibility of systemic error: is it possible that our metaphysical presuppositions about the social world sometimes lead us to construe our social observations in ways that systematically misrepresent reality? For example, would a "metaphysics of suspicion" (the idea that people generally conceal their true motives) lead us to a worldview along the lines of Jerry Fletcher, the central character in Conspiracy Theory?

Several things seem likely. First, there is no single and unique set of ontological "simples" for the social world. Rather, there are likely to be multiple starting points, all of which can result in a satisfactory account of the social world. So there is no transcendental metaphysics for the social world -- including the candidate sketched above.

Second, it seems that the unavoidable necessity of having a set of causal, semantic, and process schemata does not guarantee correctness. Our schemata may systematically mislead us.  So the schemata themselves amount to a large empirical hypothesis; they may be superseded by other schemata that serve better to organize our experiences.  The schemata are not determined by either apriori or empirical considerations.  And therefore our social cognitions are always a work in progress, and our conceptual frameworks are more like a paradigm than an ineluctable conceptual foundation.

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