[FRIAM] are we how we behave?

Nick Thompson nickthompson at earthlink.net
Thu Feb 28 23:57:56 EST 2019



Goaded by Lee, I feel some sort of response is now necessary.  But only because I was goaded by Lee. (};-)].  Glen, please forgive me.  You have been driven wild in the past by the presumptuousness with which I use the word “you”.  Honest.  I don’t mean YOU you.  Well, except in the first sentence below.  


The point you raise is at the very core of what I have been thinking about for the last two months -- not very productively, I might add.  Perhaps your intervention will unstick me.  I am grateful for the provocation. 


First off, let me just say that I agree with the subject line.  We ARE what we do.  


Ok, what about Cohen.  Cohen's problem relates to the problem of induction.  If certainty is what you crave, induction does not provide it.  "I have been a liar all my life but now I am telling the truth" is a possibility.  “Everybody lies,” Dr. House used to say; and everybody tells the truth, depending on the immediate pressures of the situation.  And there are many (fallible) rules that we apply when trying to decide whether a particular person we are dealing with is under heavy pressure to lie or to tell the truth.  Similarly, the more history we have with a particular individual in all these contexts, the better is our intuition about whether that individual is telling the truth at any one time.  So I would argue that the behavioral rule that dictates  Cohen's lying is of a higher order than "is he a liar or is he not".  So our inference as to whether he is lying now is a subtle judgement about whether a man who has lied repeatedly in the past when it profits him is now carrying on with that pattern or is now NOT lying because it no longer profits him.  And THAT would relate to what kind of incentives the SDNY is offering him.  My guess is that his first stance with SDNY was "I will tell you anything."  and that didn't fly with the SDNY.   In fact, the first time he tried in on for them, they threatened to add another charge to the complaint on the spot.  So with that dope slap, he suddenly realizes that he's in a situation in which even a habitual liar will tell the truth, because the prosecutor  he might lie to really cares about the truth and knows the truth of most matters that the liar might lie about.  So he goes for redemption.    You do get the feeling from watching him that truth-telling under duress is a new kind of lie for him and that he finds it quite exhilarating. So much for Cohen.   


Now we get to the really thorny issue, which you raise, the ghoul of essentialism.  Once you have described the behavior, is there anything else to be said?  Well, actually, it would be nice to say less!  Repeating all of the above every time you want to say what Cohen is would be at least cumbersome.  Wouldn't be much easier to say, "Cohens a liar!", meaning that, more than most people, what he says has more to do with what saying will get him than with any deep habit of scrupulously lining up what he is about to say with what he, on sober reflection, thinks the state of affairs to be? 


But can you say this much less without saying a lot more.  To apply the word LIAR to that complex pattern above is to imply that liar has a MEANING, that [a person whose utterances have more to do with what saying will get him than with any deep habit of scrupulously lining up what he is about to say with what he, on sober reflection, thinks the state of affairs to be] is what a liar IS.   Why else say it?  When you put a dollar across the counter at the candy’s store it is because you believe a dollar is worth a dollar’s worth of candy.  If you thought the person across the counter didn’t share that belief, you would not let go of your dollar.  What if he only took credit cards because he thought dollars were scraps of paper to be thrown in the trash.  The same is with words.  When you speak a word, it is with the expectation that the other person, will to some degree, at least, understand it as you understand it.  This, in turn, implies that there is something behind the word, beyond the word, beneath the word, that exists whether or not you, or I, speak it.  We should remain mute otherwise. 


I am guessing that this is the notion that you regard as dangerously close to “essentialism.”  Now I am no philosopher.  Philosophy is just as much a geekery as ethology, or software engineering, or mathematics, or physics, or chemistry, or … or….. or.  If you have not slogged through all those texts for years, and bickered with those fellow students about their meaning, all under the watchful eye of pros, you are not a philosopher.  I am a philosophical tourist.  I like to visit but I sure wouldn’t like to live there.  And my suspicion is that no FRIAM member is actually a proper philosopher, either. (Please contradict me if I am wrong; we REALLY need you.)  So, I assume that none of us actually knows what essentialism IS.  But I will take it to mean, a belief that behind every word use and every particular to which a word points, despite all the variety in usages and pointings, is a real something that infuses all the objects to which a term correctly points. 


Now here is where Peirce comes in.  Peirce has great faith in cognitive systems, systems that are trying to discern the truth of any matter.  He believes that experience is mostly random, but if there are any patterns in experience, cognitive systems will seek them out.  Why, because knowing patterns helps a cognitive system (such as an organism) avoid ugly surprises.  [You can feel Darwin lurking in the background, but Peirce does not explicitly trot him out in the way I just did.]  Peirce’s favorite “cognitive system” is the community of scientific inquiry.   Sciences collect evidence of “generals”—of laws, of entities, of processes, categories, of beings, etc. that have existence beyond the individual case.  How do we know that?  Because each bit of evidence is taken to be evidence relating to the same thing.  If they were not, we would have to suppose them as a miscellaneous accidental pile of experiences.  But we don’t do that; even in their individuality we suppose them to stand for something other than what they are.  So, scientific research necessarily postulates the reality of some things, those postulations are true if they are the postulations upon which we will agree in the very long run. 


I have talked before here about Peirce’s strange notion of truth – that upon which the community of inquiry will agree on the very long run – and the Real – that which is taken for granted by the truth.  At first blush, those notions seem hardly more tangible than asserting that the truth is what God thinks and the Real is what he thinks about.   But Peirce was, among many other things, a statistician, and he had, in the end, a statistical model of the truth.  If there is some pattern in the world, if , say, a coin is biased toward heads, we will of course never know for sure because any random process can conceivably a string of heads for as long as you care to flip.  But the longer a string of heads we obtain, the less likely it is that it is drawn from a population of flips of a fair coin.  Similarly, while the local and temporal convergences of living communities of inquiry can never give absolute assurance that something is true, the make it increasingly likely that a Real Pattern exists.  


That’s the best I can do with essence.  


Don’t blame me.  This was all Lee’s fault. All thousand words of it. 








Nicholas S. Thompson

Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Biology

Clark University



-----Original Message-----
From: Friam [mailto:friam-bounces at redfish.com] On Behalf Of glen
Sent: Thursday, February 28, 2019 9:24 AM
To: friam at redfish.com
Subject: [FRIAM] are we how we behave?


I found this article interesting.


Michael Cohen’s verbal somersault, ‘I lied, but I’m not a liar,’ translated by a rhetoric expert

 <https://theconversation.com/michael-cohens-verbal-somersault-i-lied-but-im-not-a-liar-translated-by-a-rhetoric-expert-112670> https://theconversation.com/michael-cohens-verbal-somersault-i-lied-but-im-not-a-liar-translated-by-a-rhetoric-expert-112670


On the one hand, it's common sense (if it quacks like a duck...).  But having spent a fair amount of time simulating complex things (like cells), the patterns one might induce from past behaviors don't often (completely) capture the mechanisms generating those behaviors.  If this is true of, say, hepatocytes, then it's likely also true of whole animals.  But this seems like a slippery slope into essentialism.  At the end of the day, we have to fish or cut bait despite large swaths of uncertainty.



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