Education as a sacrament [2/4] (preparatory notes for my talk at ResearchED Malmö)

Please note: these are just notes that I wrote for my own benefit for the talk. They are incomplete, poorly cited, and the grammar is slovenly, but I was asked to put them online and I’ve not had time to tidy them up. I’ve divided them into four parts, of which this is the second. The other three sections can be reached via these links:

II. Is ‘imparting knowledge’ a meaningful purpose to education?

  1. It does seem that many people consider knowing to be some kind of mental or psychological state, and that memories and knowledge are private mental objects. In the current parlance, we might describe this view of education as being ‘information transfer’. Nothing seems more natural than to think that education is about transferring a piece of knowledge or understanding from my brain and putting it into the brain of someone else. People seem to accept that we haven’t quite nailed how to assess whether that piece of knowledge is really there yet, but what they don’t seem to realise is the notion of assessing the accumulation of private mental objects is just a mass of confusions.

i. Why do we think that there are private mental objects?

  1. Firstly, let us think about why we talk about this mysterious mental realm. Philosophically, this realm and its objects pop into their confused existence when we consider the ways in which we are often fooled by our senses, either through illusions, hallucinations or through dreaming. The general argument runs something like this:
    • (the phenomenal principle) If I think I have perceived something, then there is something I have perceived.
    • (the mind/world disjunction) That thing that I have perceived is either real and objective, or in my mind.
    • (The correspondence principle) If there is nothing objective that matches the mental image that I have perceived, then the mental image can clearly not be the same thing as reality.
  2. To begin with, the phenomenal principle is quite clearly nonsense. If I think that I have perceived something, but it turns out I was wrong, I didn’t actually perceive anything at all! I was just mistaken. To say, ‘I have perceived something imaginary’ is merely to say ‘I didn’t really perceive anything’.

ii. Can we investigate private mental objects?

  1. Secondly, it is quite illuminating to think about what kinds of investigations of such objects are possible.
    • If there were such a thing as a 1st person private mental object, how might we observe it? How might we investigate it? Firstly, we would feel inclined to ask where such an object resides. Most people would assume that knowledge resides in the brain. We might feel that we can be more specific about the area of the brain, because a certain area lights up when a person thinks of a fact that they know. -So, the neuroscientists can surely investigate the nerves and connections in that area and find out all there is to know about the workings of that part of the brain, and then we will know what it means to know this fact. –
    • But we can see that this is confused: I could have a perfect understanding of structure of a particular part of the brain and how it interacts with all the other areas around it, yet no amount of understanding of this mechanism will explain to me what it’s like for someone else to know that fact. The very ‘data’ that we wish to investigate appears to be just out of reach.
      • A scientist could be an expert in everything to do with the functioning of the ear, but if they were deaf from birth, a hearing new-born would still no more about what it means to hear.
  1. We think that we can have data of such things because we can have reports/descriptions, so it appears as if some kind of ‘inner observation’ has taken place. But with what instruments was this inner observation made? The brain perhaps? This creates a sense of an observer within our bodies, and this merely shifts the problem to another level of nonsense – does it then make sense to ask: what is it like to observe one’s inner experience of hearing? Or can we observe ourselves observing ourselves experiencing hearing? We have an infinite regress. The fact is, that whilst the report itself might be data, what it is a report of isn’t. (Homunculus fallacy)
  2. The point here is not to argue that we do not have ‘inner’ sensations, but that the logic of those sensations is very different to the logic of perception. If I say that ‘I have sensation X’ (a mental fact) then we cannot talk about error; whatever I believe I have felt, I have felt. In such situations, we can only talk about truthfulness. (The private language argument). If, however, I say ‘I have seen a dinosaur’, we clearly have some criteria according to which we can judge whether I am right or wrong.

iii. There is a distinction between 1st and 3rd person uses of psychological verbs

  1. The issue here is that we are not recognising the very clear difference between the 1st and 3rd person uses of psychological verbs. 3rd person uses are observations, where are 1st person uses are not.
  2. Bellucci (2013) compares the sentences, ‘I am in pain’, with ‘he is in pain’. Obviously both have very similar surface grammar, but when we look at how the sentences are used, we can see a clear difference: ‘The third-person statement that “he is in pain” derives from the indirect observation of his behaviour, whereas the first- person statement that “I am in pain” does not. The latter does not describe; it rather expresses my sensation.’ (p.9)
  3. ‘If we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of “object and designation” the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.’ (Wittgenstein 1968, §293). What appeared to be an observation becomes like a signpost to a city that is impossible to get to, and to which no-one has ever been. It points in a direction, but not the direction of something; that to which it points is irrelevant.
  4. I think there is something illuminating about this analogy. We can imagine living in a town which had such a signpost. We can talk meaningfully about the signpost itself, but not of the place to which it appears to point.

iv. How we confuse conceptual confusions for a lack of technique or method

  1. So why do we get ourselves into this pickle? We feel quite confident that mental objects exist, but when we go looking for them, we can’t find them! I think the reason is quite straight forward, we’re trying to talk nonsense. If we hear something that doesn’t make any sense, it’s as if we cannot help but hunt around for some way of accommodating the expression. It’s harder to realise that a sentence doesn’t make sense when it looks like one that does.
  2. The similarity between sentences like, ‘I have a pain’, ‘I have a mind’ and ‘I have a bag’ makes it appear as if, in each sentence, there are two objects connected in the similar ways. But you cannot borrow my pain. Similarly, I can look inside a bag, but compare:
    • I can have a game of football
    • I can have a mind
  • We often hear people saying things like ‘imagine if I could see inside your mind’, but not ‘imagine if I could see inside your game of football?’
  • Why can’t we see inside a game of football? We feel an initial sense of bafflement, and immediately start hunting around for what such a sentence could possibly mean. It becomes clear that it could only be used as a metaphor of some kind, poetically, as it were. We can imagine Gary Neville saying something like, ‘he’s a great manager, he can really see inside the game’.
  • Equally, I can have a good left jab. But what would it mean to look inside a left jab? Perhaps I could look at an x-ray of a hand?
  1. Entire language games have built up around the idea of ‘seeing inside’ minds, however, and we can have entire conversations about the notion. It’s a common science-fiction trope, for example – we have images of aliens grabbing humans, and humans with zombie-like expressions, and sound-effects and flashing visions. All this makes us think that our language-games have more consequence than they do. But when we try to think about how we would look inside someone’s mind, we get stuck. Perhaps because the phrase is quite common, we assume that the reason we can’t is because we somehow haven’t yet got the techniques and methods, confusing our desire to make sense of nonsense, for some kind of technological shortcoming, but if we consider what kinds of investigations we might do, (as above) we realise that we can never get at what we want.

v. A purpose of education based on a materialist view of psychology?

  1. So, we must accept that the idea that education is about imparting knowledge is a non-starter. It doesn’t really mean what we thought it meant. This does not, of course, rule out the possibility of investigating correlations between reports of psychological states and physical states.
  2. However, despite the lack of metaphysical barrier to this material outlook, there are some difficulties and warnings:
    • There is no reason to think that all 3rd person psychological concepts will have clear physical correlates. And if there is none, this does not mean that a psychological concept is meaningless! It would be wrong to give the physical correlates primacy over psychological words. How foolish would it be, for example, to announce ‘we have been using the concept ‘love’ wrongly for thousands of years!’ Or to insist ‘no, you don’t love her because your oxytocin levels are too low!’ These physical correlates can never be considered the definition of the psychological concepts. The reason for this will be discussed in the next section.
    • We must be wary of allowing any aetiological or causal theorising that impacts on the dignity with which we hold a subject: Bowers (2003, p. 195) contends that aetiological theorising ‘far from emphasising the humanity of the mentally ill, actually portrays them as passive responders in the face of social pressures’.
  3. However, the largest concern is that viewing education entirely through the lens of the relationship between physical and psychological phenomena leaves the teacher somewhat in the position of a doctor: doing what we can to affect changes in our ‘patients’ via purely physical or behavioural means.

vi. The materialist view gets us nowhere in finding a purpose of education

  1. However, a doctor is there to cure some form of malfunctioning in the body, yet we have not yet established what such a purpose might equate to in education. Such correlates get us nowhere in addressing the central question of this talk: what is education for? In order to answer this question, we need a definition of ‘successful’ education, we need an ‘ends’ of education. However, such questions rely on the 1st person psychological concepts and metaphysical questions that we have seen cannot be answered: i.e. What does it mean to be knowledgeable, or clever?
  2. There, at first glance, appears to be a possible answer in the apparent objectivity of IQ tests, but these, even when different cultures are taken into account, rely on a notion of an objectively right (necessarily right) answer. They rely fundamentally on a notion of the objectivity and necessity of logic.
    • And even if it were the case that IQ tests could ever be objective, would high IQ scores really be what we would consider the ends of education?
  3. Despite our best attempts to avoid metaphysical problems and be all materialist about things, we have walked right into the kind of metaphysical questions we started with from the Meno:
    • What is the nature of necessity and certainty?
    • What is the nature of value?
    • What is it like to be knowledgeable, to understand, to learn?

3 thoughts on “Education as a sacrament [2/4] (preparatory notes for my talk at ResearchED Malmö)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s