Monday, June 29, 2015

Quantum mental processes?

One of the pleasant aspects of a long career in philosophy is the occasional experience of a genuinely novel approach to familiar problems. Sometimes one's reaction is skeptical at first -- "that's a crazy idea!". And sometimes the approach turns out to have genuine promise. I've had that experience of moving from profound doubt to appreciation several times over the years, and it is an uplifting learning experience. (Most recently, I've made that progression with respect to some of the ideas of assemblage and actor-network theory advanced by thinkers such as Bruno Latour; link, link.)

I'm having that experience of unexpected dissonance as I begin to read Alexander Wendt's Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Wendt's book addresses many of the issues with which philosophers of social science have grappled for decades. But Wendt suggests a fundamental switch in the way that we think of the relation between the human sciences and the natural world. He suggests that an emerging paradigm of research on consciousness, advanced by Giuseppi Vitiello, John Eccles, Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, and others, may have important implications for our understanding of the social world as well. This is the field of "quantum neuropsychology" -- the body of theory that maintains that puzzles surrounding the mind-body problem may be resolved by examining the workings of quantum behavior in the central nervous system. I'm not sure which category to put the idea of quantum consciousness yet, but it's interesting enough to pursue further.

The familiar problem in this case is the relation between the mental and the physical. Like all physicalists, I work on the assumption that mental phenomena are embodied in the physical infrastructure of the central nervous system, and that the central nervous system works according to familiar principles of electrochemistry. Thought and consciousness are somehow the "emergent" result of the workings of the complex physical structure of the brain (in a safe and bounded sense of emergence). The novel approach is the idea that somehow quantum physics may play a strikingly different role in this topic than ever had been imagined. Theorists in the field of quantum consciousness speculate that perhaps the peculiar characteristics of quantum events at the sub-atomic level (e.g. quantum randomness, complementary, entanglement) are close enough to the action of neural networks that they serve to give a neural structure radically different properties from those expected by a classical-physics view of the brain. (This idea isn't precisely new; when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s it was sometimes speculated that freedom of the will was possible because of the indeterminacy created by quantum physics. But this wasn't a very compelling idea.)

Wendt's further contribution is to immerse himself in some of this work, and then to formulate the question of how these perspectives on intentionality and mentality might affect key topics in the philosophy of society. For example, how do the longstanding concepts of structure and agency look when we begin with a quantum perspective on mental activity?

A good place to start in preparing to read Wendt's book is Harald Atmanspacher's excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Atmanspacher organizes his treatment into three large areas of application of quantum physics to the problem of consciousness: metaphorical applications of the concepts of quantum physics; applications of the current state of knowledge in quantum physics; and applications of possible future advances in knowledge in quantum physics.
Among these [status quo] approaches, the one with the longest history was initiated by von Neumann in the 1930s.... It can be roughly characterized as the proposal to consider intentional conscious acts as intrinsically correlated with physical state reductions. (13)
A physical state reduction is the event that occurs when a quantum probability field resolves into a discrete particle or event upon having been measured. Some theorists (e.g. Henry Stapp) speculate that conscious human intention may influence the physical state reduction -- thus a "mental" event causes a "physical" event. And some process along these lines is applied to the "activation" of a neuronal assembly:
The activation of a neuronal assembly is necessary to make the encoded content consciously accessible. This activation is considered to be initiated by external stimuli. Unless the assembly is activated, its content remains unconscious, unaccessed memory. (20)
Also of interest in Atmanspacher's account is the idea of emergence: are mental phenomena emergent from physical phenomena, and in what sense? Atmanspacher specifies a clear but strong definition of emergence, and considers whether mental phenomena are emergent in this sense:
Mental states and/or properties can be considered as emergent if the material brain is not necessary or not sufficient to explore and understand them. (6)
This is a strong conception in a very specific way; it specifies that material facts are not sufficient to explain "emergent" mental properties. This implies that we need to know some additional facts beyond facts about the material brain in order to explain mental states; and it is natural to ask what the nature of those additional facts might be.

The reason this collection of ideas is initially shocking to me is the difference in scale between the sub-atomic level and macro-scale entities and events. There is something spooky about postulating causal links across that range of scales. It would be wholly crazy to speculate that we need to invoke the mathematics and theories of quantum physics to explain billiards. It is pretty well agreed by physicists that quantum mechanics reduces to Newtonian physics at this scale. Even though the component pieces of a billiard ball are quantum entities with peculiar properties, as an ensemble of 10^25 of these particles the behavior of the ball is safely classical. The peculiarities of the quantum level wash out for systems with multiple Avogadro's numbers of particles through the reliable workings of statistical mechanics. And the intuitions of most people comfortable with physics would lead them to assume that neurons are subject to the same independence; the scale of activity of a neuron (both spatial and temporal) is orders of magnitude too large to reflect quantum effects. (Sorry, Schrodinger's cat!)

Charles Seife reports a set of fundamental physical computations conducted by Max Tegmark intended to demonstrate this in a recent article in Science Magazine, "Cold Numbers Unmake the Quantum Mind" (link). Tegmark's analysis focuses on the speculations offered by Penrose and others on the possible quantum behavior of "microtubules." Tegmark purports to demonstrate that the time and space scales of quantum effects are too short by orders of magnitude to account for the neural mechanisms that can be observed (link). Here is Tegmark's abstract:
Based on a calculation of neural decoherence rates, we argue that the degrees of freedom of the human brain that relate to cognitive processes should be thought of as a classical rather than quantum system, i.e., that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current classical approach to neural network simulations. We find that the decoherence time scales (∼10^−13–10^−20s) are typically much shorter than the relevant dynamical time scales (∼10^−3–10^−1s), both for regular neuron firing and for kinklike polarization excitations in microtubules. This conclusion disagrees with suggestions by Penrose and others that the brain acts as a quantum computer, and that quantum coherence is related to consciousness in a fundamental way. (link)
I am grateful to Atmanspacher for providing such a clear and logical presentation of some of the main ideas of quantum consciousness; but I continue to find myself sceptical. There is a risk in this field to succumb to the temptation towards unbounded speculation: "Maybe if X's could influence Y's, then we could explain Z" without any knowledge of how X, Y, and Z are related through causal pathways. And the field seems sometimes to be prey to this impulse: "If quantum events were partially mental, then perhaps mental events could influence quantum states (and from there influence macro-scale effects)."

In an upcoming post I'll look closely at what Alex Wendt makes of this body of theory in application to the level of social behavior and structure.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices "rationally."

These are all "one-off" choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for "greatest expected utility" or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don't fit into the "preferences and beliefs" framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one's life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one's purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is "rationality in action", but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes -- not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I'm thinking of larger subjects for deliberation -- for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I'm focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:
  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?
What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person's journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath's raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called "goal deliberation". These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey -- "keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon". The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances-- "attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession". This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions -- plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage -- formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I've invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of "rational action"; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, "what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?".

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe's recent festschrift on Bratman's work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Science and decision

Science is uncertain; and yet we have no better basis for making important decisions about the future than the best scientific knowledge currently available. Moreover, there are powerful economic interests that exert themselves to undermine the confidence of the public and our policy makers in the findings of science that appear to harm those interests. How should we think about these two factors, one epistemic and the other political? The first lays out the reasons for thinking that some of our most confident theories may in fact be erroneous; the second makes us worry that even strongly credible science will be undermined by corporate and financial interests.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explore the latter dynamics in substantial detail in Merchants of Doubt. And Henry Pollack, a noted and respected climate scientist, explores the implications of the first point in Uncertain Science ... Uncertain World.

Oreskes' work on the politics and methods of science denial is substantial and convincing. She is an historian of science, and she has carefully traced the pathways through which business interests have exerted themselves to affect the outcome of a range of scientific debates: for example, the harmful effects of tobacco, acid rain, the reality of an ozone hole, and the reality of global warming. She traces the influence that conservative think tanks and corporations have had on the scientific debates over these issues. But more, she demonstrates that a small number of conservative nuclear scientists have played a key and recurring role in drumming up spurious attacks on the scientific credentials of researchers in a number of these fields.
Call it the “Tobacco Strategy.” Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists— with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts— willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger. Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book— a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. (kl 170)
Here is what the tobacco strategy looked like in 1979 in the hands of tobacco corporation R. J. Reynolds, in the words of Colin Stokes, former chairman of R. J. Reynolds:
“Science really knows little about the causes or development mechanisms of chronic degenerative diseases imputed to cigarettes,” Stokes went on, “including lung cancer, emphysema, and cardiovascular disorders.” Many of the attacks against smoking were based on studies that were either “incomplete or … relied on dubious methods or hypotheses and faulty interpretations.” The new program would supply new data, new hypotheses, and new interpretations to develop “a strong body of scientific data or opinion in defense of the product.” ^14 Above all, it would supply witnesses. (kl 316)
The purpose of this strategy was clear to its creators:
The industry’s position was that there was “no proof” that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a “debate,” convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present “both sides” of it. Representatives of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee met with staff at Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, BusinessWeek, Life, and Reader’s Digest, including men and women at the very top of the American media industry. (kl 403)
Oreskes and her colleagues make a very worrisome case for the likelihood that good scientific research on controversial issues will be drowned out by money and astute public relations strategies by self-interested corporations. And ultimately this possibility has potentially devastating results for public health and our global future, if the public and our policy makers succumb to this attack on science.

The attack on the scientific legitimacy and credentials of climate science is of equal concern to Henry Pollack. Pollack honestly acknowledges the limits of uncertainty that are characteristic of all areas of science. But he strongly defends the rational confidence we have in the results of empirical and scientific inquiry into the major natural and social processes which surround us. Here are his four key ideas:
  • Uncertainty is always with us and can never be fully eliminated from our lives, either individually or collectively as a society. Our understanding of the past and our anticipation of the future will always be obscured by uncertainty.
  • Because uncertainty never disappears, decisions about the future, big and small, must always be made in the absence of certainty. Waiting until uncertainty is eliminated before making decisions is an implicit endorsement of the status quo, and often an excuse for maintaining it.
  • Predicting the long-term future is a perilous business, and seldom do the predictions fall very close to reality. As the future unfolds, 'mid-course corrections' can be made that take into account new information and new developments.
  • Uncertainty, far from being a barrier to progress, is actually a strong stimulus for, and an important ingredient of, creativity. (2-3)
Like Oreskes, Pollack finds that scientific controversies often have substantial implications for major economic interests and that it is unsurprising to find that individuals and companies exert themselves to influence the outcomes of debates in ways that serve their interests.

Pollack urges the public and our legislators to take the time to understand the nature of the scientific enterprise more fully and to inoculate themselves against self-interested efforts to undermine the enterprise and its core findings on controversial subjects.

Now consider a third perspective on this topic of the reliability and vulnerability of science, the point of view associated with Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link). A good exemplar of this approach is Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem at Large. What they mean by the "golem" is that science, like almost any other human activity, is two-sided when it comes to its effects on human wellbeing. So they are as interested in the failures of technology and science as in the successes. They focus on investigations of technology success and failure in this volume, including the effectiveness of Patriot missile defense systems in the Gulf War, the causes of the Challenger explosion, assessing the effects of the Chernobyl radiation plume on Cumbrian sheep, tests of nuclear fuel flasks in the 1980s, and several other interesting cases. In their own way their message is similar to that of Pollack: science and technology involve investigations, inferences, and manipulations that are inherently fallible. And yet there is no better alternative on the basis of which to assess risky alternatives and solutions.

One of the signature themes of STS and SSK is attention to the non-rational and political factors that influence the conduct of science. Philosophers of science often focus on the positive ability of science to gain truths about the world. STS scholars, in contrast, are often inclined to bracket the objectivity and veridicality of science, and to focus instead on the multiple social processes that influence the development of a body of scientific thought. This leads to an interpretation of science along the lines of a "social construction" model.

Pragmatism seems to point towards the most plausible position on scientific knowledge that incorporates both positions. Nothing in the methods or practices of science guarantees success. But we have a capacity to observe, theorize, measure, and test; and these abilities are crucial to our human ability to navigate an uncertain world. So we should look at the institutions and findings of science much as pragmatists like Israel Scheffler and WVO Quine did: as imperfect but valuable tools on the basis of which to learn some of the more important properties and dynamics of the world around us.

In the current context this means we should pay a lot of attention indeed to the convergence of evidence about climate change that environmental and climate scientists have painstakingly arrived at. And we should be vigilant in uncovering the secretive efforts in play to undermine those findings.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Ian Hacking on natural kinds

Ian Hacking has written quite a bit on the topic of "kinds" (link), beginning with "A Tradition of Natural Kinds" in Philosophical Studies in 1991 (link) and most recently with his lecture to the Royal Institute of Philosophy in 2006 (link). He is also one of the most interesting theorists of "constructivism" -- a sort of mirror opposite to the position that the world consists of things arranged in natural kinds (The Social Construction of What?). So it is worthwhile examining his view of the status of the idea of "natural kinds".

Before we get to natural kinds, Hacking thinks it is a good idea to consider an idea that emanates from Nelson Goodman in Ways of Worldmaking, the idea of "relevant kinds". Hacking discusses this concept at length in Social Construction (128 ff.). Fundamentally the idea of a relevant kind is an ontologically non-committal interpretation of concepts; it is a contingent and interest-driven way of classifying things in one way rather than another.

So what does the idea of a natural kind add to the notion of a relevant kind? A preliminary definition might go along these lines: a natural kind is a group of things sharing a set of properties or capacities. A natural kind is a set of things sharing a common structure or a common set of causal properties. Metal is a natural kind; green things is not. In the 1991 article Hacking lists a number of characteristics that are often thought to attach to natural kinds: independence, definability, utility, and uniqueness (110-111). The final principle is the most comprehensive, and also the least plausible:
Uniqueness. There is a unique best taxonomy in terms of natural kinds, that represents nature as it is, and reflects the network of causal laws. We do not have nor could we have a final taxonomy of anything, but any objective classification is right or wrong according as it captures part of the structure of the one true taxonomy of the universe. (111)
(Hacking explicitly rejects the uniqueness thesis.)

Hacking traces the language of kinds and natural kinds to J. S. Mill and John Venn in the middle of the nineteenth century. He quotes Peirce's effort to improve upon Mill's definition of natural kinds, based on the idea that the objects encompassed within a kind have important properties that are naturally related to each other:
The following definition might be proposed [for 'real kind']: Any class which, in addition to its defining character has another that is of permanent interest, and is common and peculiar to its members, is destined to be conserved in that ultimate conception of the universe at which we aim, and is accordingly to be called 'real'. (119)
Here is how Hacking distinguishes between Mill and Peirce:
A Mill-Kind is a class of objects with a large or even apparently inexhaustible number of properties in common, and such that these properties are not implied by any known systematized body of law about things of this Kind. A Peirce-kind is such a class, but such that there is a systematized body of law about things of this kind, and is such that we may reasonably think that it provides explanation sketches of why things of this kind have many of their properties.
In the 2006 article Hacking offers a clear definition based on William Whewell's reasoning:
A kind is a class denoted by a common name about which there is the possibility of general, intelligible and consistent, and probably true assertions. (13)
And here is his reading in 2006 of John Venn's view of natural kinds:
‘There are classes of objects, each class containing a multitude of individuals more or less resembling one another [...]. The uniformity that we may trace in the [statistical] results is owing, much more than is often suspected, to this arrangement of things into natural kinds, each kind containing a large number of individuals.’ (17)
Now let's turn to Hacking's views fifteen years later in "Natural Kinds: Rosy Dawn, Scholastic Twilight" (link). This piece extends his historical analysis of the evolution of the concept, but here Hacking also lets us know more clearly what his own view is on natural kinds. He argues for two fundamental theses:
  1. Some classifications are more natural than others, but there is no such thing as a natural kind.
  2. Many philosophical research programmes have evolved around an idea about natural kinds, but the seeds of their failure (or degeneration) were built in from the start.
The first is a declaration about the world: the world does not divide into distinct categories of things, as postulated in the uniqueness principle above. The second is a declaration about a philosophical tradition: the line of thought he scrutinizes leading from Mill through Peirce and Russell to Kripke and Quine has led to irresolvable inconsistencies. The topic has become a degenerating research programme.

One of the most interesting recent views on kinds that Hacking discusses is that of Brian Ellis in Scientific Essentialism. Hacking summarizes Ellis's essentialism in these terms:
It emphasizes three types of natural kinds. Substantival natural kinds include elements, fundamental particles, inert gases, sodium salts, sodium chloride molecules, and electrons. Dynamic natural kinds include causal interactions, energy transfer processes, ionizations, diffractions, H2 +Cl2 ⇒ 2HCl, and photon emission at λ = 5461Å from an atom of mercury. Natural property kinds include dispositional properties, categorical properties, and spatial and temporal relations; mass, charge; unit mass, charge of 2e, unit field strength, and spherical shape. (27)
Also interesting is Richard Boyd's "homoeostatic property cluster kinds", a concept that seems to apply best in evolutionary biology. Boyd's view appears in "Realism, Anti-Foundationalism and the Enthusiasm for Natural Kinds" (link), a response to Hacking's 1991 article.  Hacking summarizes Boyd's view in these terms: "In his analysis, kinds, and in particular species, are groups that persist in a fairly long haul. The properties that characterize a species form a cluster. No distinctive property may be common to all members of the species, but the cluster is good for survival" (30).

So what is Hacking's view, all things considered? He is fairly consistent from 1991 to 2006. Hacking's view in 1991 seems to have a pragmatist and anti-realist orientation: things are organized into kinds so as to permit human beings to use and manipulate them. Kinds, uses, and crafts are intimately related.
It is important that some kinds are essential to some crafts. Those are the kinds that we can do things with. It is important that some kinds are important for knowing what to expect from the fauna and flora of the region in which we live. 
And in 2006 he ends the discussion with this conclusion:
Although one may judge that some classifications are more natural than others, there is neither a precise nor a vague class of classifications that may usefully be called the class of natural kinds. A stipulative definition, that picks out some precise or fuzzy class and defines it as the class of natural kinds, serves no purpose, given that there are so many competing visions of what the natural kinds are. In short, despite the honourable tradition of kinds and natural kinds that reaches back to 1840, there is no such thing as a natural kind. (35)
So Hacking's view is a kind of conceptual constructivism. We construct schemes of classification for various pragmatic purposes -- artisanship, agriculture, forest and wildlife management. Schemes have advantages and disadvantages. And there is no definable sense in which one scheme is uniquely best, given everything that nature, biology, and society presents us with.

I've argued for a long time that there are no "social kinds" (link). My fundamental reason for this conclusion is somewhat different from Hacking's line of thought: I emphasize the fundamental heterogeneity and plasticity of social objects, leading to the result that there is substantial variation across the members or instances of a social concept (state, revolution, riot, financial crisis). Social things do not have essential natures, and they do not maintain their properties rigidly over time. So we are best advised to regard sociological concepts in a contingent and pragmatic way -- as nominal schemes for identifying social events and structures of interest, without presuming that they have fundamental and essential properties in common.

The Cultural Revolution through photography

image: Li Zhensheng, self portrait

Several earlier posts have highlighted how challenging it is to come to firm conclusions about some of the most basic facts about the history of the Cultural Revolution in China (link, link, link, link). The history of this important recent period of Chinese history is still a work in progress.  

A genuinely remarkable book of documentary photography on this history appeared in 2003, with the title Red-Color News Soldier. Chinese historian Jonathan Spence provides an illuminating introduction to the volume and the period. The core of the book, edited and presented by Robert Pledge, is a body of photography by Li Zhensheng. Li was a rank-and-file news photographer in Heilongjiang in the northeast of China who had received film training in the 1960s. Li provides a short but fascinating autobiographical statement of his early years during the Great Leap Forward, and he adds to this narrative in each of the main sections of the book. Li took thousands of photographs during the early years of the Cultural revolution, some of which he knew to be politically dangerous. He therefore succeeded in hiding thousands of these negatives for thirty-five years, before making them available for publication in 2003.

The book provides genuinely new emotional insight into this period of chaos in China's recent history. The photographs capture the passions of committed Red Guards as well as the pathos of the often innocent scapegoats who were the victim of Red Guard violence. Mass emotion and individual pathos are captured in almost all the images in the book. 

Several things shout out from the photos in this volume that perhaps shed light on the experience for Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution. One is the intensity, size, and rage of the crowds that are depicted. It is perhaps extreme to say this, but many of these photos evoke mass madness -- people caught up in the emotions and hatreds of the period in ways that obliterated their ordinary human impulses of pity and kindness. What we see instead is a sea of human faces, taking in the humiliation and abuse of their neighbors, while shouting support or laughing at shaming self-confessions, dunce caps, and raw physical abuse.

Related to this is the cruelty that the photos depict. There is no pity shown for the victims forced to humiliate themselves, who are physically tormented, and who were sometimes killed. What is portrayed is a merciless public scapegoating of people, often for the most trivial or spurious of reasons. People were accused of belonging to one of the "four elements" -- landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, or "bad characters" (55), and they were dealt with summarily. Physical violence was common; but so too was a deep and sustained imposition of shaming on the hapless school teacher, local party official, or slightly better-off peasant. Li describes the scene of the execution of seven men and one woman, two of whom were "counter-revolutionaries" because of a flyer they had published titled "Looking North". The scene of the execution troubled Li for many years. "All eight were put on the backs of trucks in pairs, driven through town, then out to the countryside northwest of Harbin. There, on the barren grounds of the Huang Shan Cemetery, they were lined up, hands tied behind their backs, and forced to kneel. They were all shot in the back of the head" (139). The sequence of photos Li took of this execution are harrowing. The final photos of the volume depict the execution of Wang Shouxin, a former Party branch secretary, on charges of embezzlement, in 1980 (after the end of the Cultural Revolution). Li Zhensheng was present for this killing as well. (The woman kneeling in the photo above is Wang.)

Another striking feature is the cult of Mao that many of the photos demonstrate. "By the fall of 1966 Mao had become, to most Chinese, a living god" (144). Portraits of the Chairman and peasants shaking their Little Red Books abound at these mass meetings. A headline in the Heilongjiang Daily in 1966 shouts its praise: "Long life to Chairman Mao, Great Leader, Great Commander in Chief, Great Helmsman" (71). This is the very same great helmsman who led China into the Great Leap Forward and a devastating famine resulting in more than 20 million deaths, only eight years earlier. Mao publicly greeted over 11 million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square in appearances over the first several years of the Cultural Revolution, according to Li (131). The many images of Mao in these news photos were not accidental; news editors made sure that there were ample posters in the published photo, even if they were not visible in the original scene:
Another time I made a picture of a crowded rally at a sports field from behind, so you couldn't see all the portraits held up, only their wooden frames -- and for the final image, my editor instructed me to add pictures of Mao to the back of the frames, even though this skewed the perspective and it made no sense that they were facing the wrong way. (133)
So the book provides a rich canvas through which we can begin to grasp some of the human meaning of the experience of the Cultural Revolution. It is important to be clear about the limits of the book, however. It is geographically limited to the extreme northeast of China, the province of Heilongjiang. So it is suggestive of the nature of the experience in other places -- but only suggestive. It would be striking to have other images from Souzhou, Wuhan, or Xian; how similar or different were the currents of rage and violence in those other parts of China?

Second, the book does not shed light on the causes or dynamics of the Cultural Revolution. Li refers to the politics of rival factions on several occasions, but we don't get much of an idea of what the shouting was about in those struggles. And there is no basis for drawing inferences about the leadership's intentions and strategies on the basis of this collection. Li's perspective is from the street: these are the demonstrations that occurred, this is how the crowds looked, here are some of the acts of humiliation and violence that occurred in my presence. It is for others to set the stage by uncovering the political dynamics of the Cultural Revolution from beginning to end.

But the questions raised by this volume are enormously important. Li's camera depicts a population gone mad; and yet these were ordinary people just like the citizens of Albany or Albuquerque or Peoria. So we are forced to ask, what are the conditions that make a populace ready for this kind of raging cruelty; and what are the sparks that unleash the outbreak of a period like the Cultural Revolution?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Large causes and component causal mechanisms

Image: Yellow River, Qing Dynasty

Image: Free and Slave States, United States 1850

One approach to causal explanation involves seeking out the mechanisms and processes that lead to particular outcomes. McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly illustrate this approach in their treatment of contentious politics in Dynamics of Contention, and the field of contentious politics is in fact highly suitable to the mechanisms approach. There are numerous clear examples of social processes instantiated in groups and organizations that play into a wide range of episodes of contention and resistance -- the mechanics of mobilization, the processes that lead to escalation, the communications mechanisms through which information and calls for action are broadcast, the workings of organizations. So when we are interested in discovering explanations of the emergence and course of various episodes of contention and resistance, it is both plausible and helpful to seek out the specific mechanisms of mobilization and resistance that can be discerned in the historical record.

This is a fairly "micro" approach to explanation and analysis. It seeks to understand how a given process works by looking for the causal mechanisms that underlie it. But not all explanatory questions in the social sciences fall at this level of aggregation. Some researchers are less interested in the micro-pathways of particular episodes and more interested in the abiding social forces and arrangements that influence the direction of change in social systems. For example, Marx declared an explanatory hypothesis along these lines in the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." And Michael Mann provides more detailed analysis of world history that encompasses Marx's hypothesis along with several other large structural factors in The Sources of Social Power (link).

Large social factors at this level include things like the inequalities of power and opportunity created by various property systems; the logic of a competitive corporate capitalist economy; the large social consequences of climate change -- whether in the Little Ice Age or the current day; the strategic and military interests of various nations; and the social and economic consequences of ubiquitous mobile computation and communication abilities. Researchers as diverse as Karl Marx, Manuel Castells, Carl von Clausewitz, and William McNeill have sought out causal hypotheses that attempt to explain largescale historical change as the consequence, in part, of the particular configurations and variations of macro factors like these. Outcomes like success in war, the ascendancy of one nation or region over others, the configuration of power and advantage across social groups within modern democracies, and the economic rise of one region over another are all largescale outcomes that researchers have sought to explain as the consequence of other largescale social, economic, and political factors.

These approaches are not logically incompatible. If we follow along with William McNeill (Plagues and Peoples - Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History) and consider the idea that the modern distribution of national power across the globe is a consequence of the vulnerability of various regions to disease, we are fully engaged in the idea that macro factors have macro consequences. But it is also open to us to ask the question, how do these macro factors work at the more granular level? What are the local mechanisms that underlay the dynamics of disease in Southeast Asia, West Africa, or South America? So we can always shift focus upwards and downwards, and we can always look for more granular explanations for any form of social causal influence. And in fact, some historical sociologists succeed in combining both approaches; for example, Michael Mann in his study of fascism (Fascists), who gives attention both to largescale regional factors (the effects of demobilization following World War I) and local, individual-level factors (the class and occupational identities of fascist recruits) (link).

That said, the pragmatics of the two approaches are quite different. And the logic of causal research appears to differ as well. The causal mechanisms theory of explanation suggests close comparative study of individual cases -- particular rebellions, particular episodes of population change, particular moments of change of government. The "large social factor" approach to explanation suggests a different level of research, a research method that permits comparison of large outcomes and the co-variance of putative causal factors. Mill's methods of causal reasoning appear to be more relevant to this type of causal hypothesis. Theda Skocpol's study of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions is a case in point (link).

The harder question is this: are the large social factors mentioned here legitimate "causes", or are they simply placeholders for more granular study of particular mechanisms and pathways? Should reference to "capitalism," "world trading system," or "modern European reproductive regime" be expected to disappear in the ideal historical sociology of the future? Or is this "large structure" vocabulary an altogether justified and stable level of social analysis on the basis of which to construct historical and social explanations? I am inclined to believe that the latter position is correct, and that it is legitimate to conceive of social research at a range of levels of aggregation (link, link). The impulse towards disaggregation is a scientifically respectable one, but it should not be understood as replacing analysis at a higher level.

(The illustrations above were chosen to provide examples of historical processes (the silting of waterways and patterns of slaveholding) that admit of explanation in terms of largescale historical factors (climate, geography, and political systems).)