Monday, 2 January 2012

Thomas Reid, the unaccountable and the pramana.

The expression of unaccountability in relation to the intellectual powers of man as distinguished by Thomas Reid has a certain creative ambiguity about it. Like the famous fudging of the Anglo-Irish Agreement it allows for everyone to take whatever they want out of it and to nudge it in the direction of their predilections by 'clorification'. 'Unaccountability' might for the proponents of mysterianism be only the implicit admission that we cannot by virtue of our conceptual schema grasp what that schema is in itself. 'It outruns the mind' as it says in an Upanishad. Take it up with 'the Author of our being'; 'not my desk' in civil service jargon.

In conjunction with that you can take unaccountability as an expression of the concept of the pramana. A pramana is a valid means of knowledge which cannot be reduced to any other. Naturally different schools vary on what is fundamental and irreducible. The Advaitins recognise six pramanas. Memory is not one. Inference (anumana) cannot be reduced to perception (prataksha) or sabda (reliable witness) etc. There comes a point where the most cunning of philosophic alchemists cannot further fractionalize in the alembic of his mind the crude propositions of the laity.

Memory and belief can hold hands but are they conceptually welded.

When I believe that I washed my hands and face this morning there appears to be no necessity in the truth of this proposition. It might be, or it might not. A man may distinctly conceive it without believing it at all. How then do I come to believe it? I remember it distinctly. This is all I can say. This remembrance is an act of my mind. Is it possible that this act should be, if the act had not have happened? I confess I do not see any necessary connection between the one and the other. If any man can shew such a necessary connection, then I think that belief which we have of what we remember will be fairly accounted for, but if this cannot be done, that belief is unaccountable, and we can say no more but that it is the result of our constitution.
from EIP Essay III. i. pg.321 Sony ereader/search- distinctly. This -((the full stop is followed by a single space))

What does this have to say to the contemporary article of philosophic faith, the Justified True Belief as the touchstone of knowledge? Memory is not a valid means of knowledge on its own but it may share with the concept of the pramana a degree of irreducibility. The notion of belief that accompanies clear memory is definitive and not explanatory. Ultimately there is just memory as an element of our constitution.


For some light relief: I bet Flannery O'Connor loved this poem by Thomas Hood:

I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.

I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily cups--
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,--
The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then
That is so heavy now,
The summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow.

I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.

6 comments:

ktismatics said...

"When I believe that I washed my hands and face this morning there appears to be no necessity in the truth of this proposition. It might be, or it might not. A man may distinctly conceive it without believing it at all. How then do I come to believe it? I remember it distinctly. This is all I can say. This remembrance is an act of my mind. Is it possible that this act should be, if the act had not have happened? I confess I do not see any necessary connection between the one and the other."

An impartial observer -- my wife, say, or, even better, a videocamera -- could watch me all morning, recording whether or not I was seen to wash my hands and face. Don't remember washing my face? Let's watch the replay. It seems that the same skepticism could be turned toward my believing that I'm typing these words as in the early morning I sit in a chair with my feet crossed in front of me listening to the wind whoosh down the chimney. Will I leave some evidence of the typing outside of my own belief that I'm doing it or, soon, my memory of having done it? I'll hit the "Publish" button and see what happens.

ombhurbhuva said...

Memory is fallible. We can easily imagine this or that particular memory to be erroneous but were all memory to be so then we might well ask how the concept of memory arose. Public checkability can give us assurance or not of the accuracy of our memory because there is no certainty in the individual case. When we remember our dreams we are extending this charity to the uncheckable. Norman Malcolm following Wittgenstein (an inner state stands in need of outer criteria) in his monograph Dreaming held that the dream was the dream report. Intuitively one reacts from this assessment and may even point to the EEG 'evidence'.

Does this deal with the sceptical erosion? Can such a power as memory be hollowed out in this way? I don't this so. Similarly the Cartesian fear that we might under the sway of a demon only holds good for an epistemology which reduces our direct experience to a mental impression of some sort. This is also true of Hume. Reid makes many powerful points against this theory in pellucid prose. It so happens that we know we are awake and not dreaming. Is this also unaccountable? It may be that the very way that we are directing out memory is a sure mark of wakefulness. I wouldn't be surprised if Bergson had something to say about this.

ktismatics said...

Sometimes it's worth remembering that even nonhuman creatures have memory of prior events and objects. Their subjective experience of memory likely differs from the human, but we'll never get much glimpse of it until they learn how to tell us about it. Nonetheless, human memory likely serves similar functions as it does for our evolutionary forebears, using similar biological mechanisms, prone to similar lapses for similar reasons.

Evidently nonhumans cannot generate reports of their memories, yet by observing their behavior humans can infer that nonlinguistic creatures do learn from experience and do recognize familiar objects -- capabilities that are dependent on memory but that are not dependent on the memory report. The advantage of observational evidence is that it doesn't rely solely on mental impressions. More, it provides a method for comparing internal mental representations of certain features of the world with external and intersubjective representations of those same world features.

Is it your experience that you've not had a dream until you've reported it? It's not mine. As you mention, EEG evidence suggests that even my nonlinguistic cat has dreams. Surely my memory of last night's dream is enhanced by rehearsing it in memory and describing it in words, either to myself or to someone else. Still, I'm almost always aware that even my best efforts at describing a dream are missing details or even crucial developments from the dream that have already faded from memory. This rapid erosion of dream memory isn't that different from wakeful forgetfulness: unattended features of the environment might be recorded unconsciously in passing but they are not usually held onto in memory. As you say, the abiity consciously to attend and to remember distinguishes wakefulness.

ombhurbhuva said...

Is the use of 'memory' in relation to non-human entities an analogical one, or true only in a strictly focused narrow way. I see that Bryant in http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/a-brief-remark-on-memory/
seems to use the concept of memory with the widest possible extension. In this view the pitting of limestone paving in a burren is the memory of previous rainfalls.

It might be interesting to combine the concept of memory and the different levels of learning as delineated by Gregory Bateson in a number of essays in that wonderful collection Steps to an Ecology of Mind. His first level is rote learning or the inculcation of the routines which become second nature. This is also the source of the learning by heart which is virtually motor memory. ((Bergson makes a lot of this in Matter and Memory)) We need only recall the first phrase of that poem for the whole lot to unwind. This level of learning is shared with primates etc i.e. anything that can be trained. Can a bacterium be trained? Is its reaction to various solutions a result of memory or its substantial nature? It is what it is.

The second level of learning is (Learning II) is learning how to learn. Learning III is context learning I think or the transformitive level or total reorientation as a result of conversion, analysis etc.

Tentatively I suggest that memory may be a hindrance in the movement from level to level and may even as Bateson postulates lead to double bind. Austerity applied to households may be a good thing but applied to countries as disaster. Here any rote response is wrong.

Potlatch makes us all bankers magically multiplying our social capital. Germans should give and lend till it hurts. It worked for Marshall.

About the dream report: I do believe that dreams are a form of consciousness which is not concomitantly reflexively self-aware. In that sense dreams are reports but they are not merely reports. What do you make of the apparent conformity of the dream to the dominant interpretive schema? Jungian patients have Jungian dreams and Freudian Freudian!! There is no dream-in-itself.

john doyle said...

No, I don't believe that nonhuman memory is a metaphor. The "ability to store, retain, and recall information and experiences" is Wikipedia's definition of memory, which is a pretty good approximation. The ability to do so via conscious attention and self-awareness, framing the content of memory in language, is I think a subcategory of memory. Human infants remember all sorts of things before they can speak or understand language, or before they consciously attempt to remember them. Young children even learn language this way, through repeated exposure to language-users, without conscious awareness of what they're learning. Even human adults remember many things to which they were not intentionally attending, though as we've discussed intentionality does put more of a point on the remembering, enhancing accuracy and duration of the remembered event.

I'm not an enthusiast for so-called extended memory, in which I can regard the contents of books and computers as part of my own memory because I can use them to store and retain information, recalling that information when I want it. By similar reasoning I don't regard the pan as part of my body when I want to fry an egg, nor do I regard the buildings and cars and trees and mountains surrounding my dwelling as part of my visual system when I happen to take a look outside.

What Levi describes in that post as genetic memory does strike me as metaphorical. If an entity is hard-wired to react in specific ways to specific environmental conditions, then that entity's repertoire of reactions is not altered or enhanced by experience. Why not, through extension of the same reasoning, speak of the rock's geological memory in its having been disconnected from the earth's crust at some point in its earlier history? Or perhaps its gravitational memory, which causes it to roll down the mountainside and to stay on the flat ground rather than climbing back up again?

I presume that there are causes and effects operating in the material world, but to regard any cause-effect linkage as a form of memory strikes me as panpsychism. That's fine I suppose, but eventually the concept of memory is drained of meaningful distinction.

ombhurbhuva said...

What I mean by analogical in this case is like the way we say that milk is healthy or brisk walking is healthy. Strictly only persons are healthy but by extension we use healthy equivocally of those things. So memory is primarily what persons have and we first learn the concept in relation to them and from there go on to apply the concept in other ways. Some of these ways seem near to the original and others further away. Your dog will recognize you but will the dog in vacant or in pensive wonder ‘What’s old J.D. up to?’. Animals are in a sort of perpetual present, I think. They don’t form intentions or make wish lists.

The extended mind thesis is one of those glittering objects that we like to take into our nests but don’t know what to do with. My white cane is ‘minded’ in an analogical sense.