Sharing concepts with the culture

by Neil Rickert

In my previous post, I discussed carving up the world.  The idea is that we carve the world and give names to some of the parts into which we carve.  Those named parts become the concepts that are part of the true statements we make about the world.

In an earlier post, I indicated that how we carve up the world needs to be a social convention.  And the naming that we use also needs to be a social convention.  That these are social conventions is what allows us to communicate with one another.

In this post, I will be discussing how these social conventions can be established.

The culture

By the culture we mean, roughly speaking, the society and the social practices of people within that society.

We cannot share  things with the culture until there is a culture.  Picture the problem for young child.  She needs to learn how to carve up the world in order to fill her world with details.  So the need to carve up the world starts before the child has much of a world.  In particular, the child needs to start carving up the world before she can become aware that she is part of a society.  In other words, the carving up must begin without access to any carving conventions from the culture.  The child must initiate carving by herself, and not wait until she learns what are the social conventions.

So how do these ways of carving become conventions?

We are a social species.  There is something innate about our biology that makes us want to cooperate with others around us.  We sometimes use the expression “peer pressure” to describe some aspects of this social nature of ours.

As the child begins to recognize others around her, she begins to notice in their behavior, that they seem to be carving up the world in ways that are a little different from how she does it.  Because of this social urge — or, if you prefer, because of peer pressure — she begins to adjust the way that she carves up the world to be closer to that of others around her.  This process, of adjusting how we carve up the world to be more consistent with our community, continues into adulthood.  It is part of the process of socialization and education that we all experience.

To describe it differently, learning is not merely a matter of acquiring facts.  It importantly also involves adjusting the concepts that we already have and acquiring new concepts.

I have some personal experience here.  I grew up in Australia, and moved to the USA as a graduate student.  As an Aussie in America, I quickly found that my concept acquired in Australia were often a little different from those of Americans.  For a while, I resisted change.  However, to best communicate and engage in American society, I did find that I had to make those adjustments from time to time.  No doubt this is why, when I last visited Australia, my relatives there thought that I had been pretty thoroughly Americanized.

Can concepts be unlearnable?

For ways of carving up the world to become conventional, people need to be able to recognize those ways in our behavior.  So what happens if I try carving up the world in a way that is so complicated that other people cannot tell?

Quite simple, an excessively complicated way would not be copied by other people.  Perhaps I could maintain it.  But it would die when I die.  What survives will be what people can copy and can learn.  We might think of this as something akin to Darwin’s natural selection.

Following rules

Observing a social convention is similar to following a rule.  Wittgenstein has an argument on the impossibility of following a rule.  So I might as well discuss that here.

I take “following a rule” to mean behaving in accordance to a rule.  Wittgenstein was particularly concerned with rule following in language use.  His argument was that you cannot know what the rule is, and thus you cannot follow it.  You have seen only finitely many instances of people following that rule.  And those instances vastly underdetermine what the rule could be.

Suppose a child sees other people apparently following a rule.  What’s the child to do?  If he wants to be like the other people, then he needs to follow the rule.  But he doesn’t know what it is.  So he find a way that seems to work more-or-less.  That is to say, he or his brain makes up a rule that seems to fit.  And then he uses that.  If he find that what he is doing doesn’t quite fit what others are doing, then he adjusts his rule (or his brain adjusts its rule) to more nearly fit.  So he gets better at following the apparent rule.

We see this with children acquiring a language.  At first they over-regularize their grammar, apparently following rules that are too simple.  And then, over time, as they further adjust their rule following they more closely fit the usage within the language community.

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12 Comments to “Sharing concepts with the culture”

  1. “His argument was that you cannot know what the rule is, and thus you cannot follow it.”

    Yeah, I understand where Wittgenstein is coming from here, but it ends up being a paradox that he overcomes by considering meaning as use, when it comes to language. As long as people are able to accomplish goals with language, then they are following some kind of rule, even if it doesn’t agree with another person’s rule, had you asked that person exactly what the rule is. And I concur with Wittgenstein’s reasoning here, as I discussed briefly in a previous post.

    https://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/2018/03/13/its-time-for-some-philosophical-investigations/

    His Philosophical Investigations is a good piece of work that I think more people ought to read, even though it can be rather dry at times. His interlocutor narration style is interesting.

    “Because of this social urge — or, if you prefer, because of peer pressure — she begins to adjust the way that she carves up the world to be closer to that of others around her.”

    I think this also has to do with our inherent brain’s inherent desire for making correct predictions and overall prediction error minimization. If we don’t succumb to peer pressure per se (like avoiding social ostracization or the like) and use that as the motivation for changing/adopting our conceptual rules, then we still have a motivation to reduce prediction error in order to accomplish goals. If I am a social species, then my ability to predict the behavior of others is going to be contingent on my level of shared understanding with that person and this ends up being contingent on language to a large degree. I wrote a post about Predictive Processing and it’s tie in to language and ontology which is relevant:

    https://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/predictive-processing-unlocking-the-mysteries-of-mind-body-part-ii/

    I had to mention some of Wittgenstein’s concepts in this latter post as well, because I found it very relevant. In short, I see the brain as wanting to make successful predictions and in order to maximize that, it makes use of language, and also tries to carve up the world into manageable concepts (which are tied to, though not equivalent with the linguistic tokens we give those concepts), and these concepts are ultimately inferred through probabilistic relations between sensory information and the higher level cognitive models that best explain/predict those relations.

    Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Our natures are just not made up of the cultural influences but we inherit a large evolutionary baggage from our early hominid ancestors. Some of these run very deep in our natures and culture has not smothered them as we often presume. Steven Pinker threw a spanner in the works when he published the ‘ Blank Slate ‘ which definitely showed we are not blank slates by any means. We started as tribal beings and hour tribal nature is still very visible as attendance at any football match will confirm. To the majority of us the most important tribe is the family one and it comes first in most people’s lives. Many attach great significance to the national tribe and resent the influx of strangers.
    Children are very different from adults and Nicholas Humphrey believes they have no unified sense of self until they are about three years old.
    I know there are many neuroscientists and atheists who believe the self is an illusion and that sooner or later computers will develop consciousness. Humphrey in his book Soul Dust makes a case for the fact that the self does exist in the human mind and was brought into being by the action of natural selection .

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    • I have not read that particular Pinker book. I have read others of his books, and I find myself mostly disagreeing with Pinker.

      I have seen that kind of argument elsewhere. Margaret Boden, in “Computer Models of Mind”, writes:

      Presumably the child brain is something like a notebook as one buys it from the stationer’s. Rather little mechanism and lots of blank sheets.

      But that does not make sense to me. I have been taking Locke’s view to be about knowledge of the external world, rather than about internal mechanisms. One could not possibly acquire such knowledge of the external world unless one started with suitable internal mechanisms.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi kertsen,

      I think it is clear that a combination of nature/nurture (genes & culture/environment) determine the outcome of our perception. For example, there are genes related to how the brain wires itself in light of incoming information and spontaneous neural activity, and this wiring “program” helps constitute and shape how our perception will manifest itself — but it is also heavily dependent on incoming sensory information; not only raw data but higher level information pertaining to the context of our perceptual experience, which is going to include cultural influences of how to carve up the world and so on. I don’t think Neil denies the role that genes (i.e. “nature”) play in terms of our perceptual development.

      “Steven Pinker threw a spanner in the works when he published the ‘ Blank Slate ‘ which definitely showed we are not blank slates by any means.”

      And we’re not blank slates in the sense that there’s only a finite range of predispositions that our brain, given its genetic constraints, can adopt given any specific environmental input; and this means that among all possible influences on our perception, our brain will filter out many of them (especially early on in life) in order to produce what appear to be instinctual predispositions that were there all along (even if they weren’t). These instincts, however, still require environmental input to form, but they transcend those environmental inputs such that the organism is left with what appear to be explicitly learned behaviors (even though they are not), but which are actually molded from environmental stimuli being filtered through an innate neurological schema in the brain. This is my view which is consistent with Pinker’s findings but which doesn’t negate the requirement of the environment for any and all steps along the way to forming those “instinctual” predispositions. In a nutshell, nature and nurture are inextricably linked so nobody can plausibly deny the role of the environment, even when it comes to what are thought of as instinctual behaviors or tendencies; nor can anybody plausibly deny the role of genes in limiting/shaping what can possibly be a culturally inherited behavior.

      “Children are very different from adults and…”

      Yeah, and I think this is an example of ontogenic evolution (in some sense at least) recapitulating our phylogenetic evolution. On top of this, our brain is still forming many associations and higher level models as children and this takes time for the brain to continuously interact with the environment and infer the structure of the world in a way that is ever more salient and pragmatic.

      “I know there are many neuroscientists and atheists who believe the self is an illusion and that sooner or later computers will develop consciousness.”

      The idea of the self-as-illusion is a bit of a loaded term too, so it can mean a lot of different things to different people. Some see a self with a persistent identity as an illusion, for example, which I agree with as I’ve blogged about before here:

      https://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/the-illusion-of-persistent-identity-the-role-of-information-in-identity/

      But, if one is denying that there is a self at all, then we need to know what they mean by “a self”. Also, I’m not sure why you mention the self as an illusion along with the idea of computers developing (possessing) consciousness. How exactly do these two ideas relate to one another? Or are you just mentioning two separate ideas that happen to be popular among many neuroscientists and atheists…?

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  3. ,Thank you for pointing me in the direction of Margaret Boden I will see what I can make of her outlook . I’m layman with no higher education having taught myself since retiring ffifteen years ago. I struggle to understand some of the latest information and no doubt sometimes get confused.

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  4. Looking at what Professor Penrose seems to be saying regarding computers I gather he does not believe they have understanding but are just excellent number crunchers. He points out that although they appear to play marvellous chess they do not understand the game but just check millions of alternative moves. I noted looking into this that many chess problems have been composed that obey all the rules yet computers cannot solve them!
    Computation itself is no proof of an understanding mind.
    My IQ is about 105 just above average and that limits my understanding of many complex subjects such as deep physics. I must confess I found some of your reply difficult to follow and had to read it over carefully.
    I think Sam Harris is saying that we do not really make decisions but they are predetermined by the state of our brain at the time, and the ‘Self ‘ we believe in is therefore an illusion.
    The curious thing to me is that Mr Harris goes on believing himself to be a free agent with views and opinions just like me!
    Consciousness is a very tricky problem and Juilian Jaynes believed we all had bicameral minds until about 3000 years ago , in other words we were not self – conscious and only became so due to the effects of culture . The mirror test is often used to see if self- consciousness exists , and some higher mammals seem to recognise their own reflection.

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    • Hi kertsen,

      “Looking at what Professor Penrose seems to be saying regarding computers I gather he does not believe they have understanding but are just excellent number crunchers. ”

      And in order to determine if he’s right, Penrose has to have some kind of an idea of what the difference is between computers and brains, that gives one consciousness and not the other. Otherwise, it’s just a bald assertion on his part with no rhyme or reason backing it up. Personally I think our brains are very different from traditional computers, but I believe both involve information processing and that is the kind of attribute that a lot of people believe is involved with the advent of consciousness; either information processing or integrated information or something similar.

      “I think Sam Harris is saying that we do not really make decisions but they are predetermined by the state of our brain at the time, and the ‘Self ‘ we believe in is therefore an illusion. The curious thing to me is that Mr Harris goes on believing himself to be a free agent with views and opinions just like me!”

      Harris is not saying that we don’t make decisions, but that we don’t make them in a free way as posited within a libertarian conception of free will (freedom from causation). And he’s right, because libertarian free will is logically impossible. And so he’s saying that the “Self” that we believe is freely making decisions without being a part of an antecedent causal chain, is an illusion. He doesn’t go on believing himself to be a Libertarian freely-willed agent, even though he does go on believing that he makes decisions using a certain algorithm which may change over time. It’s a common misconception in the free will debate. If people mean something other than libertarian free will, then they’re not talking about the same thing that Sam Harris is talking about.

      Sam Harris accepts a compatibilist conception of free will that, for example, differentiates between the capacities of healthy people and psychopaths, or healthy adults versus cognitively immature children and so on, but he just has a problem with people using the term “free will” interchangeably to refer to the libertarian sense and the non-libertarian sense, without making that distinction. And he is intent on pointing out that because we don’t have libertarian free will, then we shouldn’t seek (among other things) unwarranted retribution and vengeance in punishing criminals and offenders, but should only seek to do what is necessary to compensate the victim, rehabilitate the criminal, and protect society. We still use the punishment reward systems as before but with an added piece of knowledge that colors one’s use of those systems to make the outcome more pragmatic and morally defensible.

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      • Thank you for that tricky explanation one question : does it mean that Sam Harris believes we do not chose to be what we are, be it a healthy human being or a psychopath but rather that our lives are guided by a sort of fate depending on what you call an antecedent causal chain?
        Is this an argument for what is commonly known as determinism? I did read Sam’s book ‘ The Moral Landscape ‘ and he seemed to be saying in that work that we can use well-being as a good moral yard- stick, but how can we have a yard- stick if all we do ,say or think , and indeed our very nature is predetermined? I must admit I often feel that history seems to unroll itself and that the human race does not seem to control bits own destiny. I know some clever scientists are concerned about our future and see all sorts of problems looming . Are they pessimists ? Will all be well in the end ? and how can we act if our actions are already decided ? I know perhaps some of these questions cannot be answered but they are the ones often being asked. Incidentally Robert Hare seems to think that about 1% of Americans are psychopaths but of course they are illusive characters and are not all behind bars , but it does seem a large number.

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    • Looking at what Professor Penrose seems to be saying regarding computers I gather he does not believe they have understanding but are just excellent number crunchers.

      That probably about right as to what Penrose believes.

      Penrose does present an argument about this. It is a very poor argument, and has been much criticized. However, I think his conclusion is about right even though his argument doesn’t work.

      I think Sam Harris is saying that we do not really make decisions but they are predetermined by the state of our brain at the time, and the ‘Self ‘ we believe in is therefore an illusion.

      Jerry Coyne often says something similar on his blog. To paraphrase: “I cannot make any decisions; my brain makes me do what I do.” I find this quite puzzling, because it seems to assume that he (the person) is separate from the brain. From my point of view, my brain is involved in all of my decisions. I don’t see the point of denying that they are my decisions. The normal meaning of “decision” ascribes the decision making to the person as a whole, rather than to some parts of the brain.

      The curious thing to me is that Mr Harris goes on believing himself to be a free agent with views and opinions just like me!

      Yes, this is very common among people who deny free will. I see Jerry Coyne saying similar things. The denial of free will is riddled with inconsistencies.

      The real problem, I think, is the tendency to treat language as a logic calculus. So they see the expression “free will” as saying that there is a thing called “the will” and it is free. By contrast, I just take “free will” as a manner of speaking about our decision making practices, and I avoid that attempt to logically analyze. Language is not logic.

      As for consciousness — yes, it’s a difficult concept because people don’t agree on what it means. I saw the Julian Jaynes idea as something to laugh at. I think he intended to be serious, and he had some serious supporters at the time. But today, very few people would agree with that viewpoint.

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      • “The denial of free will is riddled with inconsistencies.”

        It’s not really, once a person understands what the nature of the claims in the debate are. If you are denying libertarian free will, you are just being logically consistent. The consequences of accepting this logical consistency simply have to be swallowed and taken as they are. Although, I can’t speak for all people who deny free will, as I’m sure many of them have an incoherent argument riddled with inconsistencies. But this doesn’t apply to Harris’ claims, for he is just pointing out that no libertarian free will exists. This doesn’t mean we can’t use the term “free will” to mean something like what a court of law means (I did it “of my own free will”, that is, without coercion). Sam Harris doesn’t deny this distinction but a lot of people get confused about the matter because they are mixing and matching conceptions of free will in the same conversation, needlessly causing confusion.

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      • I like that concept that language is not logic , do you mean in a mathematical sense of logic ?
        How easy it is to tie ourselves in knots especially when the experts who explain the universe to us seem to disagree. Is it not true that even mathematical logic has limitations and this was proved by Godel in his inconsistency theorem . I know the late Steven Hawking seemed worried about it in his article about the end of physics. It’s far from an easy read but worth a try.Certainly language is the basis of human culture and mathematics seems to be the language of physics. I did try to teach myself a bit of algebra when I retired and was quite pleased that I grasped the basic elements but the symbols I see these days look like chinese to me.

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  5. I like that concept that language is not logic , do you mean in a mathematical sense of logic ?

    “Logic” in the sense of strict rule following.

    Like

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