Sunday, 10 February 2013

Cognitive Causes

The way humans work, in general, is that events in their nervous systems cause physical actions in their bodies.  This is the same process as occurs in all animals.  Sparrows' actions are caused by events in their nervous systems.  Humans just have more complex nervous systems than sparrows do.  This seems to me to be an important point: if humans do anything, ever, it is due to things affecting their nervous systems, which in turn cause physical actions.  This is the route of causation in all of human action, and as all of human society and culture reduces to the actions and thoughts of individual humans, it is the way in which social and cultural phenomena are caused as well.  In order for 'the economy', 'culture', 'neo-liberalism', etc, to affect human actions, they have to affect human nervous systems.

Social science rarely connects with this basic point.  Anthropologists like to adhere to different forms of causation, both in terms of the rejection of the nervous system as the cause of human action (an absurdity!) and in terms of explaining human actions in terms of ill-defined, amorphous 'social' forces.  This places much of anthropological work, even the stuff that makes sincere attempts at causal explanations, on a non-naturalistic footing.  Instead of saying that 'social forces' of some kind have a causal role to play, we have to ask beforehand what a social force could possibly be - how it could cause actions in the first place.

The nervous system is regular.  It works in consistent ways.  Its operations have been studied in-depth by generations of astute and sensible observers, and when insights from this process have been applied to ethnographic information, a great deal of useful stuff has resulted.  If we think of everything humans do in cognitive term (in principle) then we can really begin to understand complex phenomena, like all the rules and regulations humans have and live by - we can really start to understand 'social facts', instead of taking them for granted, and we can start taking apart 'culture', human actions that vary by upbringing and society and so many other variables.

All causative explanations in the human sciences have to take it as given that the causes of human action are to be found in human minds/nervous systems.  Or, as Razib Khan put it in another recent post (found here),
Just to be explicit, an understanding of evolution or genetics is not necessary to gain a first order understanding of the nature of the phenomenon of human culture, but cognition is.
In order to really understand how people work and why they do what they do - basic aims of any part of any study of human beings - we have to look at how brains and nervous systems work.

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