I have to admit, I’m not overly fond of caricatures. Never have been. I guess sometimes they manage, just like a good metaphor does, to capture something important about its object that was not as obvious before. The thing that a caricature brings out about the object is usually intended to render it ridiculous. Most things are partly ridiculous, of course, it’s almost never a useless way of viewing a thing. But it becomes particularly useful if the thing, or person, or group, is in power, is pompous, is revered to an unreasonable extent. It becomes less so, even harmful, if the thing or person, or group, is already despised, disenfranchised, already treated as ridiculous.
The reason why I’m not overly fond of caricatures, or metaphors for that matter, is that they rely on putting emphasis on certain things at the expense of other things, and the result, the ”translation”, as it were, depends on whether that serves to correct the received view in order to reflect the actual importance of those things. Caricatures have a history of ridiculing power, and that history is well-rehearsed these days. But they also have a history of serving power. Of dehumanizing people it deems of less importance, which makes those people even easier to disregard, or even to kill.
There is an argument that says that we have freedom of speech in order to protect precisely the sort of statements that we do not like. This is spurious. It may be true that the extent of freedom of speech can be measured by exactly how offensive, vitriolic, hateful, debasing, threatening expressions that it allows, but it hardly seems to be the point of having freedom of speech. Some people will say that freedom is a value in itself. Others, like the more often quoted than read J.S. Mill, say that freedom of speech is an instrumental value, which serves a function. And it can be limited when it fails to serve that value. On this account, we can say that freedom of speech is a matter of costs and benefits. The offensive can occasionally be a benefit, the hateful very rarely is, but we may want to preserve the right to make hateful assertions because the total value of relatively unregulated speech is positive. The benefits may outweigh the costs. (It should be noted that this analysis could, and, I believe, should, adjust for fairness. If the costs and benefits are unfairly distributed so that the worst off bears the greatest burden, the cost may be unacceptable even if it is outweighed in absolute terms). Hate speech laws tend to draw a line between the offensive (which is allowed) and the hateful (which is not), but some legal scholars and a lot of libertarians believe this distinction fail to track anything of moral importance.
Now. In moral philosophy, the notion of an asshole is quickly turning into a technical notion of considerable use. An asshole is a person that does not infringe on other peoples rights, but does everything he/she can to reap the benefits for him/herself, and nothing to help others. It is the kind of person that uses freedom of speech to say all the worst things he/she is allowed to, while contributing nothing to a worthwhile discussion. The behavior of such people tend to be on the cost side in the cost/benefit analysis of a right. Assholes are on the cost side, and when they become too many, the instrumental value of certain freedoms decreases. At the same time, the fact that we tolerate them (even encourage them in certain contexts) may be a testament to the strength of our society, our resilience. Assholes also serve the considerable function of demonstrating the gaps in our systems and institutions.
I’m going somewhere with this. I have not made myself familiar with the works of Charlie Hebdo. I don’t know french, and I’m not sufficiently familiar with the cultural and political context. If I understand things correctly, their tendency has been to make fun (if that is the right word) of power and pompousness in all it’s guises. It certainly is no straightforward instrument of power. But equal treatment does not amount to equal effects, especially when the people and groups treated have different social standings to begin with. Some of their work may render things ridiculous that we all benefit by viewing in that light. Some of it may serve to dehumanize and ridicule people that are already being discriminated against, whose social standing in the context is low. The latter is an unmitigated cost, and it is the work of assholes, in the technical sense described above. Caricaturists will often tend towards asshole-hood. And it is possible that they should, that it is for the good that there are people, and publications, like that. But it would probably be unbearable if we were all like that. And while the extent of free speech may be measured by the worst things it allows, the value of it must be measured by the best things it allows that would otherwise have been banned.
Everyone’s a little bit racist. Basic cognitive functioning relies on generalizations, after all. Unwarranted initially, in order to get off the ground, and then more or less supported, or rejected, or revised by experience, by evidence. Slightly less basic cognitive functioning requires that we adjust our generalizations in the face of evidence. We adjust our explanatory categories, we fine-tune and narrow in on something that starts to look like likelihood. Or, rather, we do this when there’s sufficient reasons to do so. And those reasons are not just epistemological, they are to a large extent pragmatic. Most of us are lazy thinkers, and all of us have limited time to spend on adjusting categories. We only do when it’s useful for us to do so, or when we have the time and interest to do so at our leisure.
We assign significance to superficial differences like skin color, mode of dress, language, gait, because superficial differences are what signifies internal and explanatory differences when no other information is readily available. (To be fair: superficial difference often DOES correlate with less unimportant things.)
Prejudices are explanatory shortcuts, and quite often they serve us well. Sometimes by being dead-on, otherwise by knitting us closer together with others with similar needs, who jumped to the same unfounded conclusions about the explanatory order of things. The prosocial function of shared false beliefs should not be underestimated. Organized religion springs to mind.
People are, by most accounts, naturally geared towards bigotry, at least under the circumstance of groups competing for resources that seems to have prevailed through a significant part of our formative evolutionary past. The thing to explain is not that we are bigoted, but that we occasionally stop. (Even so, what categories matter, and how to assign value, is, of course, learnt. The tendency is present in the cognitive default state, but needs triggers and particulars to get underway and be filled by content. A person born into a truly egalitarian world would arguably have the tendency to assign significance to the superficial, but lack most of the triggers to do so, and the guidance to do so in any particular manner. Bigots, if they were still to develop, would be of a much more idiosyncratic ilk).
We may be partially excused for being racist, then, as it is in our nature to make a big deal out of differences, and we can often find at least some evidence to back a prejudice up. We are likely to do this, as our prejudices are often at least partly emotional in nature, and we are likely to go looking for confirmation, rather than rejection, of the rationality of those emotions. Emotions too have an evolutionary function, as indications we do well to trust when information as the the value of things is scarce. Awkwardness in the face of the unfamiliar calls for post hoc rationalization (ironically, the pressure towards a racist explanation of that awkwardness increases when there is a reluctance to self-attribute prejudice).
Yet we do blame people for being racists and are presumably right to do so. Why? Because we have every opportunity to revise our first impressions. The evidence as to the irrelevance of these superficial differences is so overwhelming, and the case for the basic equal value of persons is so much stronger than any alternative account, that there is really no excuse if you’re an adult, intelligent person living under non-warlike conditions (people at war, or under extraordinary stress, may sometimes be excused).
The point is that people should be blamed, not merely for harboring racist (and other, avoidable) prejudices, but for failing to revise them in the face of evidence, and for the failure to look carefully enough for evidence that falsifies that prejudice. In many cases, the reason for such failures is nothing more sinister than basic cognitive laziness and self-interest.
There exist, of course, a skeptic safe haven for the bigoted, and it consists of distrust in the sources of evidence. If you believe that, say, the liberal elite has an agenda to mislead concerning the nature and character of the groups you disfavour, you may well protect your prejudices against such challenges. The strategy is fundamentally flawed, as it depends on not adopting skepticism in equal measures to other sources of information, like the sources you use to entrench and confirm your pre-existent prejudice. But the model provides some light when it comes to explaining why some people remain bigoted. It also shows the depth of the problems caused by societal distrust.
The face of racism is often characterized by a swastika crudely painted on a wall, or a group of young white men screaming out their hate and anger towards a member of a hated group. The consequences of racism is often portrayed as a beaten up, dead body. This, most of us think, must stop. Presumably, open, convinced, ideologically driven racists thinks so to. Presumably, as with any kind of war, they regret that it had to come to this.
These expressions of hate and prejudice are highly problematic, and the long term effects, especially if they are not swiftly and forcefully dealt with, should not be underestimated. But what would happen if they disappeared? Would the problem av everyday racism – expressed in mild aversions, the unlikelihood of succesful encounters, covert discrimination – diminish as well, or would it, in fact, become worse? The question is this: what is the relationship between overt and covert instances of racism?
If we want to point out why racism is a bad idea, we are well served to point to these worst cases – the lynching of James Bird, the murder of Matthew Sheppard, and we do that rather than point to a job applicant narrowly losing out to another due to the foreign sounding nature of his or her name.
Yet the latter kind of situations are in all likelihood much more common and their effects much more widespread in modern racism. Most people overtly believe in the value of equality, but still suffer from unconscious prejudices. We can deal with the easy cases, but when it becomes complicated, and we can make up a reason that justify our aversion, prejudices have a chance to win out.
Explanations are afforded by generalizations, but motivations and emotions often draw their power from individual cases.
We are on the watch for populisitic right wing parties, because we still got the more obvious racists to keep before our eyes. We remember. We often recognise and react towards our own racist tendencies by the self loathing that comes with sharing beliefs with violent and obviously misinformed perpetrators. But what if they disappeared? Would we lack these markers of racism and thus loose our bearings?
Or, alternatively: do these instances now serve the function of carrying the weight of all racism, and the problems with it? So that if they DID disappear, we would have to face the fact that it’s actually as much the implicit racism of convinced egalitarians and liberals, that cause the unfair outcomes? Or would such a scenario rather be used in support of the racist idea that any inequality remaining in the absence of overt racism must be due to inherent inequality between the ”races”?
In my earlier forays into the theory and science of emotion, there was one thing that struck me as extremely potent as an explanation: misattribution. Misattribution (frequent appeal to which is made by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues) often goes like this: You have an emotional reaction, positive or negative, and you look for a reason for why you might have this reaction by scanning the environment for salient differences that might account for it. Haidt calls this ”post-hoc rationalisation”. Post-hoc rationalisation results in misattribution when the reason you take to account for your emotional reaction does not correspond to what in fact caused it.
This is a quick, often unreflected, process and it seems to be quite widespread. But people differ enormously in what type of rationalisations and attributions they tend to make. Some will often blame their own flaws for any negative reaction to a situation, others will blame the food, their company, the climate, or just the nearest person. The process is also often very useful: we need to explain our negative and positive reactions, and we need generalised explanations if we are to make plans for how to live our lives if we are to avoid these unpleasant experiences and make the pleasant ones more frequent.
Now, our emotional reactions are caused by a vast combination of factors. Some we are aware of, or can become aware of, some are welcomed, and some we are reluctant to accept. I like avant garde jazz, but I also very much like the fact that I like it. It’s part of my self-image. This being true, any unpleasant encounter with avant garde jazz tends to be blamed on the circumstances. In fact, even if my last five, or ten encounters would have been unpleasant, I would be unlikely to attribute this to my tastes having changed.
If you are prejudiced against certain people (this based on group or individual characteristics), you are likely to attribute the valence of any negative emotional reaction you have encountering these people to them. If you are unaware of your prejudice, or unaware of that it is a prejudice (perhaps because you are reluctant to accept it), you are likely to try to find some rationalisation of your reaction that correspond to your considered view of what constitutes a proper reason for an emotional reaction.
Discrimination very rarely proceed by someone being ruled out on basis of group membership. All stops pulled apartheid is very rare. Rather, everyday discrimination proceed by people having an averse reaction to a person or situation, and then looking for something that could be treated as an acceptable reason to disfavour that person.
Let’s say I am interviewing people for a position as a research assistant, and one of the applicants is female. Let’s say I’m prejudiced against women, but I don’t think I am. So I have an averse reaction (this is my prejudice being manifested) and I start looking at the applications for a reason why I might have this reaction. And it turns out the female applicant’s typing skills are somewhat worse than the male applicants. ”Ah – typing! Typing is very important for a research assistant”. This is a proper reason, even if it’s not my reason and it’s not a good enough reason to determine who get’s the job.
Prejudices, in other words, often work by making the prejudiced person more likely to find some acceptable reason on the basis of which he/she may discriminate against the target group. This sort of discrimination is probably quite common, but exceedingly hard to prove, especially for the person who exhibit this strategy (very often not knowing it).
The phenomena on which this is built – post hoc rationalisation/explanation, is, as mentioned, a very useful cognitive feature and we wouldn’t want to get rid of it. In fact, generalizations are often very useful, and generalizations and prejudiced are quite clearly related. What we need, of course, is better generalizations, and making sure that this process properly correspond to the reasons we accept. I’m guessing (because the jury is still very much out on what works for prejudice-reduction) that what’s required is that we, contrary to inclination, approach that to which we have averse reactions, to find out more about the proper cause of that reaction, hoping to calibrating our reactions to what actually matters. (This may, for all I know, be what Gordon Allport meant by the ”contact-hypothesis”, btw).
Legal punishment is normally justified by appeal to Wrongdoing (the criminal act) and Culpability (”the guilty mind”). These are features focusing on the perpetrator, which makes sense as it is he (nearly always a ”he”) who will carry the burden of the punishment. We want to make sure that the punishment is deserved.
But it is also typically justified by appeal to societial well-being. To protect citizens from harm, to promote the sense of safety, to reinforce certain values, to prevent crime by threatening to punish, to rehabilitate or at least contain the dangerous. According to so-called ”Hybrid” theories, punishment is justified when these functions are served, but only when it befalls the guilty, and in proportion to their guilt (this being a function of wrongdoing and culpability). Responsibility/culpability constrain the utilitarian function. Desert-based justification is backward-looking, while the utilitarian, pro-social justification is forward-looking. (Arguably, the pro-social function is dependent on the perceived adherence to the responsibility-constraint.)
Neuroscientist and total media-presence David Eagleman had a very interesting article in The Atlantic a while ago, pointing out that revealing the neural mechanisms behind certain crimes tends to weaken our confidence in assigning culpability. Rather than removing the justification for punishment, Eagleman suggests that we move on from that question:
Hate Crimes are wrong. While the ”Crime” bit already suggests as much, the ”Hate” bit pushes it definitely over the edge. We can think of acts that may be illegal, and being of a type that ought to be illegal, but which, under the circumstances, might still be the right thing to do. Or that, under certain circumstances, would be complicated enough to raise important moral questions concerning the status of the individual act. Theft is an example, the moral status of which depends on ones’ conditions and ones’ options. Killing someone perceived to pose an indirect threat is another.
But if you commit a crime against someone because you hate a group to which he/she belongs, justification seems out of the question. There is no more important interest that would be served by your acting on this hatred. And if there were (if you hate people that try to kill you, say), the ”reason” for the hatred – not the hatred itself – would provide the moral justification for the act. It then becomes important which your reason is – the hatred or the reason for the hatred. When Dirty Harry says ”Go ahead, make my day”, he is looking for a proper justification for an act that he would have liked to do anyway. Such justification lacking, DH would have been guilty of a hate crime against Punks, say.
Hatred, in the relevant sense, is rarely if ever justified. Indeed, it has been suggested that the term ”Hate Crime” be replaced with ”Bias Crime” or ”Prejudice Crime” because unlike ”Hate”, those terms imply a fault – either that the belief is false, or that it is based on insufficient evidence. ”Hate” is an unfortunate word in the context, especially if we believe that hate can occasionally be an apt feeling/attitude.
There are additional reasons for preferring such terms: being at the receiving end of hatred is very nasty indeed, nevermind how irrational that hatred is. Being the victim of a prejudice, on the other hand, puts the responsibility squarly with the perpetrator.
Hate Crimes seem to be unproblematically wrong, then: they are unjustifiable. A much more subtle question is: Can they be excused? Committing a Hate Crime may never be the right thing to do (Even if I commit it to ”blow of steam”, thus stopping me from committing an even worse crime later on, this would not be a hate crime:the motivation is not hate, even if hate is part of the explanation of the crime), but can I be blameless for committing it? Can the hate I feel, or the prejudice/bias I manifest – be overwhelming, or can it have grown within me without my knowledge, and without my being able to stop it?
A further reason to step away from the word ”Hate” is that it suggests a temporary emotional state, and comes too close to facilitating a ”temporary insanity” type excuse. When a hate crime is committed because of the criminal being provoked into a state of rage by the appearance of people of the despised group, it is not this state of rage that we wish to punish, but the disposition that made that rage a likely thing to have happened.
Even if I can not be held responsible for my emotional states (and that is a debatable point), and my emotional states may be so uncontrolled that I may not be responsible for my actions when I’m in one, I AM responsible for being the kind of person who would be provoked by certain things. If you can’t stand the heat, you should move slowly into the kitchen area in order to adjust – perhaps open a window? – and not trust yourself with any sharp utensils just yet.
Committing a crime out of hatred is not like ”temporary insanity”, but more like killing someone with your car when driving drunk.
There are more complicated ”excuse” type stories about hate crimes, however. Explanations that take a much broader perspective on criminals and criminal actions in general, and assign partial responsibility to society, to parents, to friends, co-workers, to chance. If the justification of punishment is retribution, and require pure, unadulterated responsibility, then perhaps some hate criminals should not be punished. Perhaps the only true hate crimes are cases where the hate is in some hard to determine sense YOUR OWN. If, on the other hand, we think that the function of law and punishment is deterrence, rehabilitation, public safety, and there are additional reasons to keep the law simple and displaying equal treatment, then we might have to ignore these stories and continue to view hate crimes as, in essence, inexcusable.
I used to care about team sports. Mostly on a national team level (local teams are too much work. I did a season as part of a supporter orchestra, however, but mostly for social reasons). I used to care how things went, and my mood would fluctuate accordingly. Opportunistically, I cared most about table-tennis, hockey and handball: sports where my national team tended to do rather well. But then one day I found myself watching a game of handball, a final I believe, and the team were doing poorly and I was very upset. Clear physical symptoms. And then I took a step back thinking ”Really? This is important enough to be upset about?”. I have never taken sports seriously since. I’ve watched it, enjoyed it, cared about it with the sort of interest intellectuals invented around the 1998 World Cup in France, but never again taken it seriously.
Now to make a ridiculously big deal out of this. It doesn’t matter weather ”your” team wins or loses, in any ”real” sense of ”matters” . It matters only when you care about it. Things matter in the game. Scoring a goal counts, things are instrumentally good or bad. There are local norms. Some of them purely conventional, arbitrary, others invented, almost discovered, to make the game more appealing or make it flow better. But it’s not important that you care about the game. Beginning with a simple case like sports (first, debunk the importance of your team winning – easy, just look at the case for caring about the other team and realize it is usually just as good. Second, debunk the importance of the values inherent to the game altogether) we can generalize to other values. Aesthetic values, etiquette. Maybe even morals. This, of course, is Nietzsche (who I had been reading at the time).
This is how a sceptic argument get started: if we can debunk the importance of this, why not everything? If the emotional impact of caring about something is based on pure conventions with no independent justification – why care about anything? Is it all arbitrary? This, of course, is existentialism (and yes, I had been reading those people at the time, to).
There are two good replies to this challenge.
First: I stopped caring about sports by questioning it’s meaning, but that’s not how the process got started. Rather, it was when caring stopped being useful. Meaning and, I would argue, value, is often generated by caring about things that has no intrinsic, independent value. This is how sentimental value comes to be. It’s very common that positive emotions generated in this way, say by your team winning, becomes tied to negative emotions generated by it’s losing. Some people manage to have the one without the other, but they are often accused of not really caring. You should care about things that doesn’t really matter, because that’s the way to generate things that do matter – positive emotions tied to changing, attention-grabbing activities. In the sports case, it was the realization that it wasn’t working: too much negative emotion, not enough positive. This is when you should kick the habit.
Second: When I noticed that this game did not truly matter, it was a contrast effect. It did not matter as opposed to other things that did. This is a quite general reply to one sceptic argument: when you realize a mistake, you do so because it doesn’t measure up to the truth. You now know the truth (even if it is just that the earlier belief was false). It doesn’t mean that everything you believe is false. Some beliefs, and some values, pass the test. When taking a similar step back from other activities, they still seem to matter.
It’s a good thing to challenge your values now and then, if only to weed some dysfunctional ones out, and reaffirm your commitment to those that truly matters.
Bonus: This, I think, is the best possible metaphor for narrowly clearing a deadline
Developmental issues in general have, for obvious reasons, been much on my mind lately. It strikes me, as it struck Alison Gopnik thus causing the book the philosophical baby to be written, as strange that the importance of the development of certain capabilities, such as morality, belief-acquisition, language, understanding of objects and other persons, has not been seriously attended to in the theories of those things. Surely, a proper understanding of any domain needs to involve an understanding of how we come to know about it. The cognitive operations that the adult mind is capable of didn’t start out that way, and part of solving the mysteries of cognition is to investigate how it got that way. As Gopnik pointed out in her earlier book the scientist in the crib, babies learn in the way science proceed: by testing hypotheses, revising previous concepts and explanations to fit with the facts, and by thinking up new experiments. We start out with very little, but not nothing, and then we build on that. People generally start out the same – babies everywhere can learn whatever language, but at some point, when we’ve found what sorts of sounds typically occur in communication, we start to interpret, and eventually to ignore small vocal nuances in favor of more effective and more charitable interpretation within the language we thus acquire.
Understanding development is important in itself, and for understanding what it is that thus developed, but it is also important for treatment. If we know how certain capabilities develop, we might understand what happens when they don’t.
But here comes the first kink: scientist disagree about a key feature of development: whether we actually learn ”the hard way”, or whether certain developmental stages, such as understanding that others may have different beliefs from us, just ”kick in” at a certain age. Some knowledge may develop, not like conscious, or even non-conscious, belief-revision, but like facial hair or breasts. Presumably, these things start due to some biological signal, too, but it seems to be a different process from the sort of learning involved in science. It is also possible that the ”signal” in question must appear at a certain window of time. The intense developmental period known as childhood doesn’t last forever. For instance, if you cover the eyes of a cat from birth until a certain time, it wont develop eyesight at all.
These things are even more important in the case of treatment. If I fail to develop certain forms of understanding, such as understanding false beliefs, it is very important whether I can learn to understand it, or whether I need the biological signal. And, of course, whether this biological signal can be provided later on, or if it is too late.
Understanding these features when it comes to morality is clearly of immense interest. How does morality develop? We often hear that children can distinguish between moral and conventional rules at the age of 2 1/2 – 3. But how does this happen? How does one learn the difference? Clearly, we are born with a sense of good and bad (as I’ve argued, this is the capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure, and certain objects and situations that cue these feelings), and with the early stages of social neediness. From this, arguably, morality is created. But how? Is it just the persistent association of the needs/desires/interests of others with hedonic reaction in oneself? Or is it a further developmental stage that is needed?
This is a crucial thing, if we want to understand and do something about immorality. Immorality may, of course, arise in many ways. It may not have been nurtured, so that the right association wasn’t made in the crucial developmental window. But it may also be that the mechanism didn’t kick in, due to some cognitive disorder. And finally, there are cases where the moral reaction is just outnumbered by other interests: morality isn’t all of evaluative motivation. Which of these is the origin of a certain immoral act or immoral person is of immense interest when it comes to treatment, and also when it comes to assigning responsibility.
Being caught at something involves more than just surprising someone with the unexpectedness of what occurs. Being caught involves doing something that means something: the act in question is taken as symptomatic of a general tendency, or as part of some larger activity, and this is what somehow rushes into the mind of the observer at the critical moment. In the paradigmatic case, the act one is caught in is the act of sex, and the sex in question represents (and instantiates) an illicit liaison, an act of betrayal of some implied or explicit contract you’ve got with your significant other.
(Side note: It is normally wise to take this contract as read, unless all parties thinks it’s OK, and even if they think its OK, make really sure that it’s actually, properly OK, because ”uncommon arrangements” (the title of Katie Ropers excellent little book on the topic) doesn’t often turn out great. Being conventional means behaving according to what has, for most people, turned out to be workable conditions. Being unconventional has potential benefits but also potential drawbacks such as failed relationships and death. Like most ”intellectuals”, I think, I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of this sort of unconventionality. Nabokov, always the most joyful killer of joys, pointed out that infidelity is the most conventional form of being unconventional. The interest is not so much the benefit of the lifestyle as such(even if a sex-life unlimited by convention may seem appealing), as in working out the kinks and examining the factors that makes it so difficult and so prone to failure. To exaggerate a bit, I think that the ”open relationship problem” might be for psychology and sociology, what ”Why can’t I fly?” is for the study of gravity. The fact that the solution of that problem turned out to be less soaringly exhilarating and more material-dependent than we might have hoped, should be a lesson to us all).
The emotional response to catching someone at it is not brought about merely by the act itself, but by what it represents. It may be hard to see anything intrinsically wrong, but there are clear risks (STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, undermining of the mentioned contract and of future trust, a revealed general tendency to cheat etc.) and predictable reactions (a feeling of being inferior or unsatisfying as a partner, perhaps of betrayal as one has put in a lot of work to keep the relationship in a certain shape, and it turns out it isn’t.) Even if the cheating part is confident that none of these things would occur, being in the sort of optimistic and excited state flirting or seductions usually induces, he or she may underestimate the risks unwittingly, and fail to take certain dispositions of the cheated partner into account. ”What conceivable reason” the cheater may honestly think ”can there be not to have sex with this person?” and completely miss that virtually no act is limited by what happens while it takes place. Consequences and representations and shifts in larger belief sets (yours and the other parties’) are likely to be disregarded.
The paradigmatic quick response of the cheater caught is to blurt out ”it is not what you think”, which is precisely an attempt to stop the picture/story forming from the perceived event, and to steer it into more innocent territory. This rarely seem to work. Which is kind of odd, in a way. Somehow, very few scenarios – including cases where an enormous amount of work has been put into a strong and lasting relationship – is sufficient to make this event negligible, or to make the first reaction be ”this must be some sort of mistake”. It’s as if the suspicion has been there all along, just waiting for confirmation. The construction to which one reacts, and which warrant the strength and lasting effects of the emotional reaction, can’t very well be the product of that particular event. Indeed, the reaction is bound to be influenced not only by the alternative storylines one has about ones life, but also by various more or less artistic representations of events like it. In fact, if you ever catch anyone engaged in illicit liaisons, and in particular if she or he says ”it’s not what you think” the best way to vent your anger might be to bring on a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
The normal reaction is made sensible, however, by the fact that the deception implied means precisely that a large amount of previous held beliefs must be questioned at once, and the first thing to be doubted is what comes out of the deceiving party’s mouth.
Other things may, of course, be like this to. Sex is very important, but contingently so. If I really care about our conversations, have a vague feeling that they are not now as good as they used to be, and find you having a very spiritual conversation indeed with someone else, I may react in the same way. I can be caught playing a game of tennis (after claiming inability or reluctance to do so), plotting a revolution or planning a crime or a birthday party, and the reaction and the picture/story emerging in your head depends, of course, on our previous relations and arrangements.
”Being caught in the act” is interesting also because it’s similar to an other celebrated event, namely the phenomena of insight. An insight is typically a short cognitive event, a moment where a whole theory somehow presents itself, or a solution, that may be very complex, appear as if at once. Usually, this is something the mechanisms and outlines of which where in place already, but perhaps the credence, the degree of belief, was not and here we have some form of kink worked out or the crucial bit of evidence that was missing revealed.
As philosophers, I think, we often find ourselves in a position not unlike that of the cheater caught in the act: We claim something that is counter-intuitive and people won’t listen for the justification/reasoning. Because when listening to a philosopher, people often find that they trust their previous beliefs more than they trust their ability not to be fooled by a philosophical argument. It’s like when we meet a magician. We decide not to trust our senses, because we know magicians are adept at deceive those senses. Bertrand Russell, notorious for his uncommon arrangements, used to say that the way to do philosophy is to work ideas the other way round: to start with something so trivial as to not seem worth mentioning, and to reason ones way into something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
How do we know that the Amygdala is important for emotions, like fear? Well, how do I know that Lisa got ticklish feet? When I tickle them, she reacts in a certain manner, characteristic of people being tickled. And when she reacts in that way, it’s a safe bet that someone is tickling her feet. Similarly, when we do stuff to the amygdala, interesting events occur. And when those events occur, the Amygdala is usefully regarded as one of the prime suspects.
Now, there is criticism. Ah. The Amygdala does not act alone. Of course it doesn’t. So how can we say that the amygdala is the ”essence”, the ”center” of negative emotion say, or emotional learning, when it is obviously much more complicated than that? Well, in fact, Lisa’s feet aren’t ticklish acting on their own. If you cut them off, and tickle them, nothing much happens. Ticklishness is a much more distributed affair, but we know what we mean when we say that her feet are ticklish. And often, we are not looking to say anything more specific about neural structures: they are interesting nodes in the network, say. They are particularly prominent points of entry to the whole package of events that make up the thing we’re interested in.
When our purposes are limited, it is enough to know that much. When there are important complications, however, we need to know more. Part of that consists in checking out the pathways between feet and brain and other parts of the body. Part of it consists in checking what question we are actually asking/interested in. How can her ticklishness be exploited? What is the evolutionary advantage of being ticklish?
When someone exhibits emotional dysfunction, we cannot jump directly to any particular conclusion about the cause. Even if we narrow it down to neural causes, the dysfunction might be due to some neurotransmitter deficiency, or to anatomical damage. It’s like when the pizza doesn’t get there. Is it the fault of the baker, the delivery truck, the road, the order, or what?