8. Talking About and Talking Because
It is convenient sometimes for expository or even professional reasons to ignore linguistic process. But processes are what complicated information determinate systems like the brain are all about. This fact is ignored with respect to human cognition for essentially two reasons. First we again know very little about the network operations that generate human behavior and secondly and more importantly, we understand much of what people do and especially say without knowing anything about why –in a non-motivational sense – they are saying or doing it. Indeed, the very idea of considering what is causing cognitive behavior, again in a non-motivational sense, is virtually alien to all but a few disciplines and even in the exceptions is limited to very special circumstances. (The analysis of psychologists working with disturbed individuals might be an exception here.)
We are concerned here with causative phenomenon. Causation is important because it defines possibilities. For any system, the possible and impossible are both a matter of causation. What cannot be caused is generally impossible (exceptions run to things like mathematical impossibility, e.g., squaring the circle), that which admits to causation is possible. Moreover, a claim to knowledge is generally a claim about causation, though not necessarily about causation in a particular instance or for a particular individual. In the case of propositional knowledge, linguistic performances determined by accident or by a random process can not be taken as examples of knowledge regardless of their ultimate accuracy or validity, the performer might just be lucky. Knowledge requires justification; this is what distinguishes it from just good guessing. Internalized justification manifests itself as information that produces behavior, i.e., it is causal. All knowledge then is subject to information based analysis; the issue then becomes the significance of this analysis.
(Agents may use various external sources of information, e.g. scientific experiments, to control or influence their internal information states. But as free agents their behavior is ultimately controlled by internal information and its representations, e.g., memory. Indeed, this is probably a good definition of personal freedom. Freedom is a characteristic of systems whose behavior is determined by internal information.)
But what sort of information determines knowledgeable behavior? That is, the information that generates system output like linguistic behavior. In human beings this information drives the motor system and consists of streams of action potentials –bio-electrical events in the nervous system. These action potentials could in theory at least originate in any part of the nervous system that was not functionally isolated from the motor system. While we may not know all the sources of information that can produce behavior, we know many of them and know what kind of things these sources are. This we will see is sufficient for epistemological purposes because the foundations for knowledge involve causal considerations. Noise in the system or accidental events that happen to produce linguistic behavior for example cannot manifest knowledge, for this we need something else; this something else has to do with the origination of the neurological activity that produces behavior.
We can talk in significant fashion about sensory experience and also about various internal states involving things like emotions or feelings. The brain might also be able to detect its own operational states and relate them to the motor areas in ways that allow for the production of output. Talk about ‘knowing”, “understanding” or “believing” might then be the result of information generated by the brain’s own operations. This analogous perhaps to the way a computer can report on available memory or the level of activity in a processor while it is running. (Cf.: “The mind taking notice of its own operations”…..Hume?, Locke?) But what else is there that can produce significant information for internal systems, e.g., significant talk?
We note also that we can talk about what we remember of course and that most verbal behavior is probably of mnemonic origin sometimes triggered by the current stimulus situation. But again, what else is there? It is fair comment here to note that since we do not really know how the brain works then we really can’t speculate about what else there might be determining our behavior but this observation is not as significant as it may seem. It may seem to be important if we are concerned about what is being talked about, it is not important if we are concerned with why it is said. The “why “in the sense being developed here has to do with causation, and causation as we have noted is neurological. No matter what we are talking about, the final element of the causal chain is always the same and it is neurological information.
But why be concerned with the “why” of language over and above or at least in addition to the “what (is being said)” of language? It is precisely because we do not understand our own cognitive processes. We have no idea of why we think as we do or how it is that we say we know or understand. Explaining one’s beliefs or justifying one’s claims to knowledge only result in more of the same sort of behavior that we really don’t understand. That is, unless we can show that our epistemic behavior is determined by something outside ourselves, that it is determined by the world external to our cognitive systems through the realization of significant information we do not know how it originates and have no idea of its origins or validity. What we really have to do is to show that the information used to generate our behavior is of significant origin, that it is the result of something more than accidental internal events.
This doctrine can be very hard to apply for many types of knowledge. Thus I believe that somebody named Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere sometime around October of 1492, in fact I claim to know this, but my information basis for this claim would seem to be very dubious according to the ideas outlined here. While I might scour the Caribbean for pieces of hewn timber whose age and European origin I could hope to establish scientifically, or for other relevant artifacts, the fact is that I have not done so. I believe this because of what I have heard or read and for no other reasons except perhaps that I cannot imagine that there is a conspiracy that has caused me to believe it falsely. I am less certain about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, although I believe them to be produced by a historical personage by the name of William Shakespeare, to the exclusion of all other persons. The difference in these two beliefs is to a certain extent due to my own ignorance, and probably to the ignorance of some others to whose opinions I have been exposed, and maybe to the ignorance of everyone else who has an opinion on the issue. Sorting out the epistemic differences and the form and validity of these and similar claims will probably prove to be difficult. But for some types of claims the exercise is relatively easy.