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Understanding human behavior
Stephen Braude’s critique of inner-cause theories and a Vedantic response
Can human behavior be explained scientifically? In the third chapter of Crimes of Reason,1 Stephen Braude argues that
if psychology is to explain behavior in both a useful and scientifically respectable way, it must satisfy two crucial goals: (a) to explain why an agent acted one way rather than another and (b) to predict how the agent will act in the future or how the agent would act in various hypothetical circumstances. 
Over the centuries, philosophers and psychologists have explained behavior in terms of a variety of causes, all the while taking for granted that “the proper way to explain behavior (or render it intelligible) is to trace it back to an initiating cause (a state or set of states) inside the agent.”  Braude refers to explanations of this kind as “inner-cause theories” (ICTs), and he contends that they are wrong on two counts. First, a person’s behavior cannot be explained entirely in terms of internal events and causal chains leading from internal events to the final emitting of the behavior. Second, “genuinely informative psychological explanations needn’t be (and are probably never) lawlike.” 
Incidentally, I once argued2 that if irreducibly mental causes exist and have physical effects, the latter cannot be linked to the former via mathematical laws; for if the link were amenable to mathematical description, it would obtain between localized events. But an event that is both irreducibly mental and physically localized is either a contradiction in terms or something that neither a dualist nor a physicalist would countenance; it would be mechanistic in a sense that is too physicalistic for the dualist and too dualistic for the physicalist.
The relevant defect with ICTs is not that they’re physicalistic; it’s that they’re mechanistic. That is, they try to explain a system or structure’s function (in this case, a person’s behavior) entirely in terms of the operations, interactions, and organization of its component parts.... But in that case … the triggering or initiating states could just as well be mental as physical. 
Several arguments Braude made in his paper/chapter on memory traces, which I discussed in a previous post, apply in the present context as well — arguments concerning the construal of memory traces as structurally similar to both the external events by which they are created and the external events by which they are activated, as well as arguments concerning the construal of memory traces as representations of such events. It is as preposterous to suggest that (a) behaviors and (b) the internal events by which they are caused “are similar (or that one represents, mirrors, matches, or stands in a computational relationship to the other) in virtue of a set of intrinsic or inherent features of those two things,” as it is to suggest that (a) memory traces and (b) the external events by which they are created or activated are similar in virtue of intrinsic or inherent features of these two things.
The similarity between two items or the representation of one by the other can never be a matter solely of their intrinsic features or internal configurations. As we have seen in the aforementioned post, context is essential. If things count or are taken as similar or dissimilar, it is always relative to some context of inquiry or criteria of relevance. Anything can represent (or mean) anything. Representation and meaning are always situation-specific, dependent on time, circumstance, needs, or interests.
One of the most revealing failures of ICTs is their inability to handle dispositions, traits, abilities, or more fundamentally still, a person’s character or personality.... We often explain a person’s behavior by noting such facts as that the person is shy, funny, tactless, insightful, compassionate, considerate, practical, bitter, vain, etc. Indeed, these character traits and regularities have great explanatory and predictive utility in everyday life. Our understanding of them in general, as well as our grasp of their idiosyncratic manifestations in different people, guides most of our actions in life, from the mundane to the critical.... And I’d say that a putative psychological theory is simply a failure if it omits these familiar character traits and other dispositions from its arsenal of explanatory weapons—or alternatively, if it’s unable to explain at least as much as everyday psychology can explain by means of the appeal to these regularities.
But how would an ICT accommodate such regularities? Astonishingly, hardly any IC theorists even try. Jerry Fodor, one of the most sophisticated and influential figures in cognitive science, at least concedes that it would be desirable (if possible) to explain personality traits and other dispositions. But he admits that he’s unable to explain such traits as wit, judiciousness, and cupidity.3 And that failing isn’t idiosyncratic to Fodor. No ICT can explain these abilities. [53–54]
Let’s consider how an ICT might accommodate the behavioral regularity friendliness. An IC theorist would appeal to something in a person that produces friendly intentions or efficient causes for behavior we consider friendly. Note the dependence on an adjudicator. Something that counts as friendly in one context may count as unfriendly in another, or it may be considered friendly by me but not by you.
One would think that this point no longer needed to be made in the philosophical literature. It’s an obvious error to suppose that a particular behavior is the kind of behavior it is in virtue of some inherent underlying structure. But every ICT requires it. ICTs need the notion of an inner representation to secure explanatory power for the theory, because only then can they explain why a person behaved one way rather than another. But explanations in terms of inner representations require that inner causes and outer effects bear the appropriate structural (mirroring, computational) relation to each other. So ICTs are committed to the untenable view that particular behaviors have inherent structures in virtue of which they’re the kinds of behavior they are. 
Again, just as the memory of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (B5) can be triggered in a myriad ways (see the discussion here), so friendliness can manifest itself in a myriad ways. And just as trace theories must eventually invoke a B5 type to establish a connection between B5 tokens, so ICTs are bound to end up invoking friendliness as a type in order to account for the friendliness of all possible tokens of friendliness. “And that’s not a scientific view at all. It’s a philosophical view, and a bad one at that.” Furthermore,
we often explain a person’s behavior as resulting not from a disposition, belief, or ability (i.e., something ostensibly belonging to or contained within the agent), but from a lack or deficiency of some sort. For example, we often—and effectively—explain a particular behavior in terms of the agent’s ingratitude, immaturity, lack of concern, self-esteem, or tact, or the person’s inability to cope with stress. [63–64]
In such cases, the Platonic/essentialist presuppositions at the root of ICTs lose traction: “no bit of tactless or ungrateful behavior has an underlying structure in virtue of which it’s of that behavioral type rather than another.” Braude therefore recommends “a pluralistic approach to scientific explanation, an approach which recognizes that psychology is most useful, illuminating, and systematically rich when it stops trying to emulate the methods of the physical sciences.” To this end, Braude considers a case where we explain an agent’s behavior by observing that he’s ungrateful:
that deficiency can only be understood against the background of a vast reservoir of knowledge concerning things both the agent and others might have done instead, and also about the ways people generally behave and interact, and the sorts of values they cultivate. You can think of this as a kind of action space or space of possibilities.
That last point is the key to the alternative approach I’m recommending. A particular behavior is ungrateful only against a background of a space of possibilities; it’s not inherently ungrateful. Even the remark “Thank you” can be ungrateful—say, in a situation where much more would be appropriate. For example, suppose someone risks his life to save you from a burning building and all you do is say “Thank you” and walk away. Or suppose a man acknowledges an expensive gift from his wife with only a curt “Thank you,” and (say) neither a hug nor a kiss. Of course, what’s appropriate in these cases, and therefore what’s ungrateful, can only be determined relative to a broad fund of knowledge about the ways humans generally behave and what they expect and value. Equally important, we must also know how that particular individual behaves. For instance, a simple “Thank you” may be a sign of ingratitude for most people in a certain kind of situation. But for a generally unexpressive person, it might be a sign of a great effort to combat inhibitions for the sake of expressing appreciation. So the reason it’s explanatory to classify a person’s behavior as ungrateful (or grateful, for that matter) is that it enables us to see how to connect it to a large class of actual and possible behaviors. It licenses or supports true counterfactuals about what that person, and people generally, would do in various circumstances. [64–65]
The reason it’s explanatory (and thus scientific) to classify a person’s behavior in a certain way is that it licenses or supports true (or at least statistically relevant) counterfactuals about what that person, and people generally, would do in various circumstances. And this, I believe, is as far as science (in the accepted sense of the term) can go in this matter.
Braude submits “that it’s futile to ask what, in general, makes courage, friendliness, exaggeration, cruelty, and so on possible. Nothing makes these things possible. They simply are possible.”
Like it or not, at some point we must accept that some facts of nature are ultimate and have no underlying analytical explanation or cause, and there’s no compelling reason at all to suppose that such ultimate facts can’t be at the observable level. 
It may not be amiss to complement the question of what makes possible such things as friendliness with an observation I made fairly recently about what makes possible the nonlocal phenomena that quantum mechanics predicts.4 (This post as well as this non-technical paper may be useful for context.)
The atemporal process by which Being enters into reflexive relations and matter and space come into being as a result, is the nonlocal event par excellence. Depending on one’s point of view, it is either coextensive with spacetime (i.e., completely delocalized) or “outside” of spacetime (i.e., not localized at all). Occurring in an anterior relation to space and time, it is the common cause of all correlations, not only of the seemingly inexplicable ones between simultaneous events in different locations but also of the seemingly explicable ones between successive events in the same location.
I also contend that the diachronic quantum correlations between events in timelike relation are in reality as mysterious and inexplicable (in terms of across-space-and-time causality) as the synchronic quantum correlations between events in spacelike relation. The notion that the former can be explained causally, through a dynamical evolution that connects outcomes of measurements made on the same system at different times, is an illusion…. We know as little of a physical process by which an event here and now contributes to determine the probability of a later event here as we know of a physical process by which an event here and now contributes to determine the probability of a distant event now.
The nonlocality implied by Bell’s theorem and similar no-go theorems thus is but the most salient symptom of a much deeper and more general nonlocality. It is the nonlocality of that intrinsically undifferentiated Being, one with every fundamental particle, which manifests the world by entering into (or entertaining) reflexive spatial relations. It is the nonlocality of the process of manifestation, which yields an apparent locality (i.e., amenability to local explanation) only in its final outcome, the manifested world.
Quantum physics does not explain “how nature does it.” As Feynman put it,5 “[t]here are no ‘wheels and gears’ beneath this analysis of Nature.” The theory only explains—via conservation laws—why certain things won’t happen. This is exactly what one would expect if the force that has set the stage for the drama of an evolutionary unfolding of life and mind were an infinite (unlimited) force operating under self-imposed constraints. In that case we would have no reason to be surprised or dismayed by the impossibility of explaining the quantum-mechanical correlation laws in terms of physical mechanisms. For it would be self-contradictory to invoke a physical mechanism to explain the working of an infinite force. What would need explaining is why this force works under the particular constraints that it does.
I agree with Braude that some facts of nature are ultimate in the restricted sense that they cannot be analyzed into facts belonging to the same range of experiences — those sensory experiences of which our scientific theories are systematized parsings. But I also believe that there are ultimate facts about nature, or about the manifestation of the world as we know it (in terms of systematized parsings of the range of ordinary human experience). These ultimate facts are parsings of a much vaster range of experiences. There are, as we have seen in my previous post, supraphysical realities that include supraphysical worlds or planes of existence which, in Sri Aurobindo words, “are only frames for our experience”:
Consciousness is the great underlying fact, the universal witness for whom the world is a field, the senses instruments. To that witness the worlds and their objects appeal for their reality and for the one world or the many, for the physical equally with the supraphysical we have no other evidence that they exist. [LD 22]
And it ought to be self-evident that
All truth supraphysical or physical must be founded not on mental belief alone, but on experience,—but in each case experience must be of the kind, physical, subliminal or spiritual, which is appropriate to the order of the truths into which we are empowered to enter; their validity and significance must be scrutinised, but according to their own law and by a consciousness which can enter into them and not according to the law of another domain or by a consciousness which is capable only of truths of another order. [LD 804]
Now, what has all this to do with understanding or explaining character traits? I’ll come to that. But first a prefatory note on how Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy came into being. Having pointing out that the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita were the basis of his first practice of Yoga (the Veda came at a later stage), he goes on to say:
I tried to realise what I read in my spiritual experience and succeeded; in fact I was never satisfied till experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy, not on ideas by themselves. I owed nothing in my philosophy to intellectual abstractions, ratiocination or dialectics; when I have used these means it was simply to explain my philosophy and justify it to the intellect of others. The other source of my philosophy was the knowledge that flowed from above when I sat in meditation, especially from the plane of the Higher Mind when I reached that level; they [i.e., the ideas from the Higher Mind] came down in a mighty flood which swelled into a sea of direct Knowledge always translating itself into experience, or they were intuitions starting from experience and leading to other intuitions and a corresponding experience. This source was exceedingly catholic and many-sided and all sorts of ideas came in which might have belonged to conflicting philosophies but they were here reconciled in a large synthetic whole.6
Sri Aurobindo adopts the conceptual framework of “the original Vedanta of the Upanishads” because “there we have the widest and profoundest extant synthetic vision of spirit and man and cosmos”.7 Its fundamental affirmation is that what ultimate exists is Sat-Chit-Ananda: Being (sat), which transcends the worlds but also relates to them as their ultimate constituent; Consciousness (chit), which transcends the worlds but also contains them; and (subjectively speaking) infinite Bliss (ānanda) and (objectively speaking) an infinite source of quality and value.
While the atemporal process of manifestation I mentioned in the passage quoted above can be described without reference to supraphysical worlds, these worlds actually play important roles both in the creation of the physical world (through a series of involutions) and in the evolutionary emergence of the Consciousness that is one with Being, as may also be gleaned from my last post.
To see how, it helps to conceive of the complete creative process as encompassing two intermediate stages. The complete process is that by which the infinite quality at the heart of reality manifests itself in finite forms. But this includes a stage in which quality is cast into expressive ideas, as well as a subsequent stage in which expressive ideas are cast into finite forms. When life arose in the terrestrial evolution, what arose was essentially the formative force which serves to cast ideas into material forms, and when mind appeared, what appeared was essentially the power to form expressive ideas. (What is yet to emerge is the power to develop infinite quality into expressive ideas commanding a spontaneously effective formative force, to which Sri Aurobindo gave the name “supermind.”)
Accordingly, there can be worlds in which Sat or Chit or Ananda or supermind is the dominant determining principle, as well as worlds in which mind or life is this principle:
[G]iven the fact that the infinite Reality is free in the play of its consciousness, it is not bound to involve itself in the nescience of Matter before it can at all manifest. It is possible for it to create just the contrary order of things, a world in which the unity of spiritual being is the matrix and first condition of any formation or action, the Energy at work is a self-aware spiritual existence in movement, and all its names and forms are a self-conscious play of the spiritual unity. Or it might be an order in which the Spirit’s innate power of conscious Force or Will would realise freely and directly its own possibilities in itself and not, as here, through the restricting medium of the Life-Force in matter; that realisation would be at once the first principle of the manifestation and the object of all its free and blissful action. It might be an order, again, in which the free play of an infinite mutual self-delight in a multiplicity of beings conscious not only of their concealed or underlying eternal unity but of their present joy of oneness would be the object; in such a system the action of the principle of self-existent Bliss would be the first principle and the universal condition. Again, it might be a world-order in which the Supermind would be the dominant principle from the beginning; the nature of the manifestation would then be a multiplicity of beings finding through the free and luminous play of their divine individuality all the manifold joy of their difference in oneness.
Nor need the series stop here: for we observe that with us Mind is hampered by Life in Matter and finds all the difficulty possible in dominating the resistance of these two different powers and that Life itself is similarly restricted by the mortality, the inertia and the instability of Matter; but evidently there can be a world-order in which neither of these two disabilities forms part of the first conditions of existence. There is the possibility of a world in which Mind would be from the first dominant, free to work upon its own substance or matter as a quite plastic material, or where Matter would be quite evidently the result of the universal Mind-Force working itself out in life. It is that even here in reality; but here the Mind-Force is involved from the beginning, for a long time subconscient, and, even when it has emerged, never in free possession of itself, but subject to its encasing material, while there it would be in possession of itself and master of its material, which would be much more subtle and elastic than in a predominantly physical universe. So too Life might have its own world-order where it would be sovereign, able to deploy its own more elastic and freely variable desires and tendencies, not menaced at every moment by disintegrating forces and therefore occupied chiefly with the care of self-preservation and restricted in its play by this state of precarious tension which limits its instincts of free formation, free self-gratification and free adventure. The separate dominance of each principle of being is an eternal possibility in the manifestation of being,—given always that they are principles distinct in their dynamic power and mode of working, even though one in original substance. [LD 817–18]
Now I can at last explain what all of this has to do with the difficulties we face in understanding character traits and behavior. Braude has skillfully and successfully disposed of ICTs. Our only way to judge a character is on the basis of behavioral episodes — the more the better — and “against the background of a vast reservoir of knowledge concerning things both the agent and others might have done instead, and also about the ways people generally behave and interact, and the sorts of values they cultivate.”  However, oftentimes these judgments turn out to be wrong. (Our friendly neighbor may actually be a serial killer.) It’s not only ICTs that are wrong. The problem is us — people who “dwell in the ignorance” in the sense of the Katha Upanishad:
They who dwell in the ignorance, within it, wise in their own wit and deeming themselves very learned, men bewildered are they who wander about round and round circling like blind men led by the blind.8
More philosophically speaking, ignorance — avidya, a quintessential Vedantic concept — comes into being when, in the involutionary descent by way of a series of supraphysical worlds, supermind gets involved in mind and mind becomes the dominant determining principle. When this happens, the individual conscious beings lose sight of their mutual identity and, concomitantly, of the infinite quality/delight at the heart of Reality.
Every world serves to experience and express some form of this quality/delight, except initially the physical world, whose creation set the stage for Being’s adventure of evolution. But since mental consciousness, and in particular human consciousness at its present stage of evolution, has no direct experience of this quality/delight but only recognizes it (or receives it for expression) by intuition or inspiration from a subliminal source, mental consciousness is incapable of understanding the origins of its countless manifestations. And since character traits are manifestations of some of the innumerable expressions of quality/delight that pre-exist in the supraphysical worlds, it is also incapable of understanding them when they manifest themselves in the physical world.
To us mental beings, the only way of feeling as if we understood a thing is to bring it under a rule that governs a regularity in our experience, be it the lawfulness we subsume under a concept or a more general regularity of a spatiotemporal or statistical nature. In physics we have laws describing deterministic or statistical correlations, and in those sciences which are afflicted by what Sherry Turkle has called “physics envy,” we are offered correlations between physical and mental structures (a.k.a. “structural isomorphisms”). And because we are unaware of the mutual identity of all beings and of the numerical identity of the so-called ultimate constituents of matter, our explanations proceed from the bottom up, in terms of aggregation and interactions between separate parts. As Edward Wilson9 put it:
The descent to minutissima, the search for ultimate smallness in entities such as electrons, is a driving impulse of Western natural science. It is a kind of instinct. Human beings are obsessed with building blocks, forever pulling them apart and putting them back together again.
Braude refers to this tendency as “the small-is-beautiful assumption.” Its origin is to be found in the relation between supermind and mind. The supramental creative action is primarily qualitative and infinite and only secondarily quantitative and finite. Mind is essentially the agent of the secondary, quantifying, and delimiting action. Though subordinate to supermind, it is a cosmic principle and not just something that our brains produce:
Mind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists only as obvious parts and fractions, Mind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as aspects of a whole. For, even when it knows that they are not things in themselves, it is obliged to deal with them as if they were things in themselves; otherwise it could not subject them to its own characteristic activity. It is this essential characteristic of Mind which conditions the workings of all its operative powers, whether conception, perception, sensation or the dealings of creative thought. It conceives, perceives, senses things as if rigidly cut out from a background or a mass and employs them as fixed units of the material given to it for creation or possession....
This essential faculty and the essential limitation that accompanies it are the truth of Mind and fix its real nature and action, svabhāva and svadharma; here is the mark of the divine fiat assigning it its office in the complete instrumentation of the supreme Maya,—the office determined by that which it is in its very birth from the eternal self-conception of the Self-existent. That office is to translate always infinity into the terms of the finite, to measure off, limit, depiece. Actually it does this in our consciousness to the exclusion of all true sense of the Infinite; therefore Mind is the nodus of the great Ignorance, because it is that which originally divides and distributes.... [LD 173–75]
“All comes from dust and to dust it returns,” the Bible tells us (Ecclesiastes 3:20). “From Delight all these beings are born, by Delight they exist and grow, to Delight they return,” the Taittiriya Upanishad retorts. [LD 98] In the inaugural issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies, Willis Harman10 wrote: “The question of what worldview is fit to guide personal and societal decisions may well be the most critical question of our generation.” Which is more likely to ensure our survival? The belief that what is ultimately real is worthless “dust” — a multitude of fundamental particles or a multitude of property-instantiating space-time points? Or the belief that what is ultimately real is — at once — a single all-constituting substance, a single all-containing consciousness, and the quintessence of quality, value, and delight? I am convinced that the latter inspires the saner attitudes.
S.E. Braude, In Defense of Folk Psychology: Inner Causes versus Action Spaces, in S.E. Braude, Crimes of Reason: on mind, nature, and the paranormal, pp. 49–79 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
U. Mohrhoff, The Physics of Interactionism, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (8–9), 165–84 (1999); reprinted in A. Freeman, B. Libet, and K. Sutherland, The volitional brain: towards a neuroscience of free will (Imprint Academic, 1999).
J.A. Fodor, Representations, p. 72 (MIT Press, 1981).
U.J. Mohrhoff, Quantum Mechanics in a New Light, Foundations of Science 22, 517–537 (2017); arXiv:1411.1146 [quant-ph].
R.P. Feynman, QED: The strange theory of light and matter, p. 78 (Princeton University Press, 1985).
Sri Aurobindo, biographical note written in 1940 or 1941, in Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, p. 113 (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2006).
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, p. 340 (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 1997).
Sri Aurobindo, Kena and Other Upanishads, p. 109 (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2001).
E.O. Wilson, Consilience, p. 54 (Vintage Books, 1999).
W. Harman, The scientific exploration of consciousness: towards an adequate epistemology, Journal of Consciousness Studies 1 (1), 140–148 (1994).