Who is Afraid of Commitment? On the Relation of Scientific Evidence and Conceptual Theory

Abstract

Can scientific evidence prompt us to revise philosophical theories or folk theoretical accounts of phenomena of the mind? We will argue that it can—but only under the condition that they make a so-called ‘ontological commitment’ to something that is actually subject to empirical inquiry. In other words, scientific evidence pertaining to neuroanatomical structure or causal processes only has a refuting effect if philosophical theories and folk notions subscribe to either account. We will illustrate the importance of ‘ontological commitment’ with the ‘neuroanatomical approach’ to amusement as proposed in a recent paper by Palencik (Dialogue 46(3):419–434, 2007). We will show that the scientific evidence presented in said neuroanatomical approach has no bearing on the conceptual issues, in that the philosophical theories and folk distinction that are criticized do not subscribe to any account of the underlying neuroanatomical structure or causal processes. Our suggestions in this paper are not limited to philosophical accounts of humor but apply to the relationship of philosophy, common sense and science in general.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It might be objected that it is unfair to mention common notions, folk concepts and folk psychology in one breath with philosophy, given that there are important differences between them. Although we believe that philosophy is at least partially informed by common sense views and folk concepts, we also think that there are important differences, for example in terms of intellectual depths and conceptual clarity. There is much more to be said about this then we will be able to or need to here. However, we take the philosophical views we are presently dealing with to have a sufficiently similar relation to empirical evidence as common sense and folk notions. And that is all that matters for the argument that we put forward.

  2. 2.

    We could have chosen a different term but we think ‘ontological commitment’ conveys the stronger connotations to things that we subscribe to or are committed to in the real world, such as friends, partners and worldviews. We hold the belief that grounding abstract concepts in the lifeworld of the reader should be a staple of academic writing, because it makes the text more accessible. See f.e. Sword (2012). Another term that we were thinking about using instead of ‘ontological commitment’ was “descriptive assumptions”, defined by Browne and Keeley as “beliefs about the way the world is” (Browne and Keeley 2007, p. 71).

  3. 3.

    According to Peacock, the notion of implicit commitment enables us to explain ontological commitment in terms of (modal) entailment: “theory (T) is ontologically committed to Fs iff (T) entails that Fs exist” (Peacock 2011, p. 104). Robert Brandom also distinguishes between two commitments (Brandom 2000, p. 174). The first is to explicitly assert something, but there is also a consequential commitment to the entailments of a claim that you endorse. We think that Brandom’s distinction of the two ways of commitment aligns neatly with the difference between implicit and explicit commitment introduced in this section.

  4. 4.

    For the view that folk psychology is a theory see Sellars (1997, pp. 90–117), Davidson (2001, p. 222), Fodor (1989, p. 7) and Churchland (1981).

  5. 5.

    This is due to the over- or underproduction of melatonin, for which the pineal gland is responsible (Macchi and Bruce 2004).

  6. 6.

    Henderson et al. (2007) report about a girl whose pineal gland did not develop due to a genetic defect. Despite being behind in her mental development, she showed neither language nor motor problems nor behavioral difficulties.

  7. 7.

    Please note that this theory builds on his earlier work from 1905, which is a surprisingly entertaining treatment of various jokes and the psychological mechanisms that Freud deemed responsible for them (Freud 1990).

  8. 8.

    Freud’s account is more nuanced than we can do justice to here. For a good description of the different laughter situations that Freud distinguishes see Morreall (2009, p. 17).

  9. 9.

    For more on psychoanalytic theories see Ferguson and Ford (2008).

  10. 10.

    Ryan and Kanjorski (1998) for example found that sexist humor is positively correlated with sexual aggression. Maio et al. (1997) could show that reciting disparaging jokes about a group increases the negative stereotype about this group. Further, for people that are already highly prejudiced toward a group, disparaging humor increases the tolerance regarding discrimination of members of that group (Ferguson and Ford 2008).

  11. 11.

    The criticism of James account based on empirical studies has a long tradition. As early as 1927, Walter Cannon (1927) used facts grounded in empirical research to argue against William James. Here are some of his points of critique: visceral changes are too slow to be the source of emotions, the total separation of viscera from central nervous system does not alter emotional response, same visceral changes occur in very different emotional states and non-emotional states. Further, the artificial induction of visceral changes typical of strong emotions does not produce them. There are also Schachter’s and Singer’s (1962) elaborate experiments, which are one of the most well known examples of empirical critique. Please not that there is scientific evidence against the strong version of both James’s theory and Schachter and Singer’s counter proposal (Barrett et al. 2004). However, the jury is still out on whether emotions are distinct pattern of bodily changes. Adherents of the affect program account of emotion believe that at least some emotions can be characterized by distinct patterns of physiological changes. Griffiths (1997) for example suggests that there is a distinct affect program for each of these emotions: surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and joy (1997, p. 97). Further, Prinz (2006, p. 72) also points out that scientific evidence is suggestive of the fact that emotions are physiologically distinct.

  12. 12.

    All debates on what constitutes the formal object of amusement aside. See e.g. Scruton (1982), Jones (1982) and Carroll (2014, pp. 55–76).

  13. 13.

    While we do not wish to rule out that an appeal to the neural intertwining of cognitive and emotional processing could be invoked in order to make a proper argument bearing on the distinction between rationality and emotion, we feel that Palencik’s arguments in favor of [Overturn] by themselves offer no account of this bearing or its grounding. Rather, it needs supplementation from an account explaining whether and why higher-level causal-mechanistic accounts should reflect distinctions made on the neurobiological level (and even then, such arguments still need to be judged by the applicability of this account). We also do not wish to claim that there have been no arguments in favor of [Overturn] which did come with such an account. Earlier [Overturn]ers, such as Churchland (1981), Feyerabend (1962) or Bickle (1998) were much more careful in this regard than Palencik. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing us on this matter).

  14. 14.

    For starters, we think it is reasonable to assume that the folk concept of amusement is not a definition that introduces proper necessary and sufficient conditions. Similar to the concept of ‘life’, the strict definition of amusement is not explicitly known; it seems also impossible to capture the folk categorization of amusement by means of a definition. For the folk notion and definition of life see Machery (2012).

  15. 15.

    Of course, a philosopher might want to choose to make such a commitment.

  16. 16.

    See f.e. Suls (1972). The cluster of accounts that is subsumed under the heading ‘Incongruity Theory’ has a long tradition in the philosophy of humor. It can be traced back to Aristotle but really arose in the 18th century with James Beattie, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. For an excellent overview of the various humor theories see Morreall’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Morreall 2013). Despite being the most popular theory in humor research, some have argued that the resolution of incongruity cannot account for a whole range of things that we find funny, while other authors claim that the incongruity-resolution model should be modified. See f.e. Cundall (2007) and Forabosco (2008). Recently, Ritchie (2009).

  17. 17.

    Here, we do not want to exclude the possibility that science does indeed play a role in the evolution and the change of common sensical views over time. Common sense does not stay fixed and science might have a direct or trickle down effect on common sense (Sellars 1997, p. 81, § 40). But how exactly this influence comes about is a different matter and does not concern us here.

  18. 18.

    Since the term naturalism has a wide variety of uses, in the present context it is perhaps helpful to think of it as a particularly strong variant of scientific realism. Our reason for calling it naturalism is that it would require assuming that adopting scientific realism commits us to the basic ontology of our best theory (or theories) from the natural sciences, and that this commitment only allows including explanatory kinds from special sciences into our ontology insofar as these can be explicated in terms of natural kinds. A weaker variant of scientific realism, for example, might straightforwardly hold that if intentional psychology is a valid theory, then its explanatory kinds, such as beliefs and desires, can also be said to exist—no matter whether they are themselves natural kinds or bear any characteristic relations to natural kinds. (For example, Dennett (1991), Hacking (1999, 2007) and Kusch (1999), have proposed and defended variants of such theories.) Adopting the former variant, then, is more costly insofar as it requires assuming that theories such as intentional psychology are either not properly scientific, or that their ontologies must be reducible. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this clarification.).

  19. 19.

    Please note that there is not one definition of naturalism that satisfies all camps. It is common to distinguish between an ontological naturalism and a methodological naturalism. The first shuns all kinds of things that are metaphysical or supernatural and claims that they have no place in any account of reality. The second is concerned with how we should come to terms with reality. Papineau says that naturalists defend “some kind of general authority for the scientific method” (Papineau 2009). Also, naturalistic philosophers differ in how strongly they subscribe to positions that are usually considered to be the pinnacle of a naturalist agenda, like physicalism. Jennifer Hornsby for example calls her position ‘naive naturalism’ and describes it as neither committed to Physicalism nor a Cartesian worldview (Hornsby 1997).

  20. 20.

    Although rooted in earlier attempts, Quine’s approach (Quine 1969, pp. 37–48) to establish a naturalized epistemology can be considered the publication that sparked naturalistic philosophy.

  21. 21.

    In a recent paper, Shapiro (2013) criticizes the proponents of the dynamical systems approach for their unwarranted rejection of the idea of representation in their accounts of cognition. According to him, they are under the false assumption that empirical evidence can settle a conceptual question like this. Berker (2009) has criticized attempts by moral psychologists to derive normative conclusions from descriptive empirical evidence. Berker argues that the neuroscientific results do not do any work in the arguments for the normative implication of neuroscientific results. His central claim is that “either attempts to derive normative implications from these neuroscientific results rely on a shoddy inference, or they appeal to substantive normative intuitions (usually about what sorts of features are or are not morally relevant) that render the neuroscientific results irrelevant to the overall argument”. However, he contends that neuroscience might play an indirect role for our normative conclusions.

  22. 22.

    For a discussion of this view beyond Palencik see Kincaid and Sullivan (2014) and Barrett (2006, 2012).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the audience of the 13th Annual Graduate Student Philosophy Conference at the Newschool for Social Research, New York (April 2014) and the participants of the 2016 colloquium at the Research Center for Neurophilosophy and Ethics of Neuroscience at LMU for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of the paper. We would also like to extend our gratitude to two anonymous referees for their valuable feedback.

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Steinert, S., Lipski, J. Who is Afraid of Commitment? On the Relation of Scientific Evidence and Conceptual Theory. Erkenn 83, 477–500 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-017-9899-x

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