Human Errors and My Errata

My Errata

 My errata are really more like expansions, explanations, etc. They are three:

    1. I have focused at points on the sense of the word ‘representation’ in cognitive neuroscience (CNS). It’s usually a difficult job to get people to accept that it is even possible to have a different notion of representation.

Perhaps wrongly thinking it obvious, I did not add that the different in sense carries with it something like a large metaphysical difference in the picture of the mind’s cognitive relation to its environment, of which it is a part. The primary relation is not having states that are about the world. Rather, the mind is permeable to the world.  In a very wide sense of ‘structure,’ the structure of items in our environment is realized in our minds.

At the same time, the rise of modern physics offers a very simple solution to the problem of how the mind can sample the world when instances of colors and objects are not to be found in the brain or the mind. The simple solution is to hold that there is a commonality between the mind, the brain and the material environment. Thus Hobbes tells us:

All which qualities, called ‘sensible’ are in the object that causeth them but so many several motions of the mater [sic], by which it presseth our organs diversely. Neither in us that are pressed are they anything else but divers motions; for motion produceth nothing but motion. (Hobbes & Gaskin, 1998)

Hobbes certainly did not see himself as updating Aquinas and Aristotle in such a direct fashion, but he might have. This is because we can find a sense to saying that the patterns in the two domains – world and brain – are the same. And the sameness here is mathematico-empirical inter-derivability (Dayan & Abbott, 2001). That is, there is a description of the environmental cause from which, given the appropriate empirical algorithms, a description of the effect can be derived, and vice versa. At the core of sampling theories is a notion of instantiating the same thing, forms or qualities or patterns of activity

This makes quite a difference to a number of issues. Most importantly, it places us in a continuum with creatures who do not seem to be sophisticated enough to have minds with semantic or semantic-like features, such as aboutness. Secondly, it reflects the fact that truth is not the primary goal of evolutionary development. Truth is very expensive; much cheaper are our somewhat haphazardly built brains which serve us well in the survival needs presented in our niches. And as we will see in this section, we are not in general super truth-acquirers when we act alone.

One of the observations that has guided the construction of my views is by Montague and Quartz, 1999:

… Early investigators thought that the really important problem was to find the functions or computations being implemented by the brain independent of the specifics of their implementation using biological components. This view is now seen as impoverished because as structures constructed by evolution, most creatures are tightly woven into particular environmental and social niches, and are the ‘answers’ to manifold questions posed by their environs. Montague and Quartz (1999)

      1. The core of my argument is closer to a recent point made by Keaton (2012). Keaton importantly shows that a functionalist account of what constitutes pain is not an account of the background causal conditions that enable a pain to cause, for example, wincing. A functionalist account may give an adequate account of the truth conditions of ‘This is pain,’ but in doing so, it brings in facts not relevant to a particular causal interaction. In our terms, we need to distinguish between the conditions under which content is said to be possessed by, or realized by, the events and the why or how some neural event has its effects. What constitutes content is not necessarily causally relevant to the neural theory. (I assume, but haven’t checked, that this argument is in one or both of these:  (A) Keaton, D., Polger, T.. “Exclusion, Still not Tracted.” Philosophical Studies.  (B)Keaton, . “Kim’s Supervenience Argument and the Nature of Total Realizers,”
    European Journal of Philosophy 20 (2): 243-259
      1. In the third post I raised but left open the question of what it is to possess a concept. I express a preference for a social account, and the material of this section comes closer to filling out that account.

Human Errors

My intention in planning these four posts was to close on a kind of contribution very developed in feminist thought.  The contribution has concerned how we account for human cognitive successes when we are actually rather error-prone creatures.  The very general approach is to give up a kind of Cartesian picture of the mind.  What is instead emphasized is the extent to which our knowledge depends on our social interactions.

But since then we have had the Rolling Stone article on a report of a supposed gang rape at UVA.  The surrounding discussion has brought up time and again very painful issues, some of them painful perhaps particularly for feminist philosophers.  That is so because the themes we see at play in the press coverage are the many links between epistemic injustices, social power and the need to look nearly infallible.


On Getting It Right

People working in the history of philosophy tend to expect the historical philosophers to reach quite large and consistent conclusions to the issues they address.  Hume is a challenge to this picture.  For example, on the question of body, he maintains that we cannot question the existence of body.  But shortly after saying this, he announces he has shown the opinion of body is monstrous, and all he can do is to distract himself from that conclusion.  [See the end of this post for a note about ‘monstrous’.]  How do philosophers find the great conclusions of historical philosophers of themselves and how should they think of themselves? Let us start with Nietzsche:

[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic. . . ; while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed, a kind of ‘intuition’. . . that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudice which they baptize ‘truths’–and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself. . . . (Nietzsche, Horstmann, & Norman, 2002)

The idea is that philosophers arrive at their principles – their one consistent answer to the grand questions they ask – and present these conclusions as though they were arrived at by a pure, disinterested process of reasoning. But, Nietzsche maintains, their views are mere prejudices, though they utterly lack the courage to admit this.

In contrast, Hume as I read him is an entirely courageous author who quite thoroughly lacks the self-deception needed, if Nietzsche is right, to claim a kind of pure access to eternal truths. But though it is Nietzsche’s view that self-deception is involved, why should we agree? Can we not, as Don Garrett suggested on Hume’s behalf, review the whole mind by the mind and come to an assessment of the epistemic merits of its operations  (Garrett, 2004)?

Unfortunately, we can’t. That is the overwhelming deliverance of the last forty years of the study of the mind called cognitive neuroscience. Here is one of the latest statements about “how the mind works:”

We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that mask critically important limitations on our cognitive abilities. . . . As we go through life, we often act as though we know how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. It is surprising how often we really have no clue. (Chabris & Simons)

I think the view espoused above by Chabris and Simons is well recognized in the world of cognitive researchers, and it is, one hopes, infiltrating the thought of other researchers. Vision and memory are good at getting the gist of things, but much less good at the details.   Our reasoning is susceptible to numerous biases, and, in addition, many important factors in our lives, such as self-control, draw on material and limited resources. How, with such fallible resources, do we managed to get very far?

One answer lies with paying more attention to the society in which almost all of us are a deeply embedded part.  One approach is to give up the idea that we are solitary researchers into the world.  Rather, our knowledge is socially embedded, both the specialized knowledge of science (Longino, 1990) and the more ordinary views of lay people.

Sue Campbell (2003) makes the point for memory:

I argue that the cognitive abilities  necessary to being a person and hence to being a moral agent develop only in relations with other persons and only with the support of shared communal practices that foster these abilities.  Memory is one of the key cognitive abilities through which we develop personhood, and the kinds of activities important to the developing and maintaining of this core cognitive abilities are activities involving self-narratives.  Our success at remembering is not merely a matter of private experience; more important, it involves public action.  I argue that the constituting of memory abilities is ongoing and that our abilities to be successful social rememberers may be undermined by depriving us of self-narrative opportunities.

Somewhat relatedly, I argued in (Bluhm, Jacobson, Maibom, 2012) that our visual reports vastly outstrip our visual experiences in part because we are learning from quite early infancy about describing our environment and the implications of such descriptions. Thus even describing what we see – a task that can seem as individualistic as one can imagine – in fact involves the community.

Societies also have practices that are concerned with what counts as acceptable discourse. Among other things we typically receive corroborating or corrective responses. These responses also often enable us to expand the narrow reach of our own faculities.   Very early on our reports about what we see extend beyond what was literally taken in through our eyes, and these fuller reports become memory reports. Teaching people to become cognitive agents who properly employ the tools for cognitive expansion available in any society typically involves our teaching a distinction between correct and incorrect use of these resources.

The Costs of Error

While our grasp is greatly expanded by the society in which we live, none of this makes us infallible or even remarkably reliable. As Sue Campbell points out, though we are coming to understand that we do not have internal recording devices getting the facts all down, memory reports are still critiqued on the assumption that we should have recorded all the details. For example, it is surely quite ordinary to add in a third person’s identification into our memory report. One admires a Porsche, remembers its shape, and is told later by a reliable friend that it was Carol’s car. So later one recounts admiring the shape of Carol’s car. This addition seems quite in line with commonly accepted practices. But if one’s reliable friend got the ownership wrong this time, one’s own memory may be impugned.

As many readers may be aware, the recent story published by Rolling Stone about a prolonged rape scene apparently contained a comparable error; that error is used to cast doubt on the whole story. This is so even though it is hardly unheard of for a woman to identify a rapist incorrectly. We might think, then, that the reporter of the story should have checked the facts to bring her claims up to something more like the standards of a court of law. However, as Chabris and Simon point out, even in the courts of law decisions may be out of touch with the reality of our abilities; one of their examples concerns a jury that refused to believe testimony about how much may be not seen, contrary to what recent research reveals.

[ Given recent concerns, let me emphasize that false accusations can do terrible harm.  Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, yet their false testimony can send a man to death.  My concern here is to point out that the fault is often most properly located in our expectations about the reliability of memory and our consequent judgments on those who give false testimony.  Making mistakes is more normal than apparently we tend to admit.  Our judicial system has to catch up with such facts, as does our treatment of those reporting traumatic experiences.]

We are witnessing a reconceptualization of what our mental abilities are capable of, and people may suffer a great deal as a consequence. Being a proper member of a society may well require being judged a reliable witness. The narrator of an ordinarily flawed story about rape may by herself feel an outsider in her community.

It has seemed to me odd and disappointing that many philosophers committed to maintaining that our minds are in some sense both embodied and external have worked much less on the role of social interaction in the creation of our minds.  Shaun Gallagher is a noted and early exception; Dan Hutto also is, and Kristin Andrews work on other primates is very informative about the importance of social structures and processes in our explanatory strategies.  Feminist work on the social or relational self is also very well worked out, but often now it is somewhat implicit.  Thus both Sally Haslanger and Miranda Fricker provide us with right pictures of how important personal qualities are shaped by racism and sexism.  To say this is only to start.



It is not uncommon now to regard Hume’s use of “monstrous” as meaning simply “unnatural,” where that term may be applied to things as ordinary as a martini. We should explore further whether in Hume’s time the use of “monstrous” was value neutral, or whether its use was it restricted to ‘bad things’ And the evidence that it was not value neutral is very strong. Accordingly, all the OED cited examples of “monstrous” from 1625 to 1736 concern bad things: monstrous acts enabling the crowds to slaughter, configurations of vice that are like perversions, monstrous metals that contain metal from one’s victims; finally, there are monstrous tales which in the instance mentioned are lies that concern setting fires and killing the king.

Hume’s own uses of monstrous are equally negative. “Monstrous” applies to giants in a passage about them, fiery dragons and winged horses (T, p. 10). “Monstrous” also describes the superabundance of unmanageable principles we would need if we could not explain pride and humility in terms of a few causes.

It really is bad news that Hume comes to regard the best account of our belief in body as monstrous.


Bluhm, R., Jacobson, A. J., & Maibom, H. L. (2012). Neurofeminism : issues at the intersection of feminist theory and cognitive science. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Campbell, S. (2003). Relational remembering : rethinking the memory wars. Lanham, Md. ; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice : power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Garrett, D. (2004). Hume as ‘man of reason’ and ‘women’s philosopher’. In L. Alanen & C. Witt (Eds.), Feminist reflections on the history of philosophy (pp. 171-192). Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

One comment

  1. VicP

    As you mention rape, you then mention Hume’s characterization of the body as monstrous. The social standards which regulate the body can be suspended under conditions so rape and other crimes can occur. Even the very people who uphold the social order can engage in such activities with their weapons and night sticks when they feel threatened.

    The highest ability of memory may not be what we can narratively remember but may be the simple act of walking about the house. Dennett’s ‘Framing Problem’ or how well everything is contextually integrated. Language itself is our human ability to dis-integrate and re-integrate ourselves as we and society see fit.

    The veracity of verbal memory as opposed to camera and cell phone videos and cyberspace with cable media so much of the private legal discovery process is bypassed.

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