Another plethora of presentations

Posted on September 20, 2010


Well, that was fun but exhausting. The Kazimierz workshop is over for another year and I have also just finished attending the language meeting in Warsaw. In between the two of them, it was a non-stop eight days of talks.

It seems that Marcin and I have got the workshop organisation thing to the point where it does not overly tax our efforts. Apart from a rare unexpected disaster (none of which occured this year), the workshops are fairly free of stress even for us organisers. Still, we like to fiddle with scheduling and other details to try to improve things from year to year. This year’s topic was economics, which is not an area I am too familiar with, even if I did actually start a bachelor of commerce at university. My interest in the area is due to the fact that economics is a social science that overtly tries to deal with the benefits and costs of various actions, making it highly relevant – one would think – to evolutionary approaches to the social sciences. Of course, the fascinating thing is that until recently economics has been the introvert in the social science group, keeping to itself and doing complex mathematical analyses in its little notebook, while the other social sciences travelled around the world and partied it up with the locals. The meeting was smaller than usual, the main reason probably being that fewer philosophers are concerned with economics than, for example, mind – the previous year’s focus. Still, I was very happy with it and, especially, with the keyspeakers who were all very good at helping to lead the discussion and to bring out various interesting aspects of the work being discussed. Most certainly, I learned a lot that will help me in my own research, not so much into religion and magic, but into the nature of rationality, which is my overarching interest.

My own talk concerned the way in which expected utility theory is used. I argued that, due to the simplifying assumptions which must be used to apply the EU formalism to real situations, EU actually comes to be used as a heuristic in the sense that Bill Wimsatt talks about them. I am making available my slides, as per usual.

By the time the Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Prespective conference began I was already coming down with a serious cold. Together with family responsibilities, this meant that I unfortunately missed out on much of the meeting. The idea of the meeting was very much in line with my own views:

The conference emphasizes the biological nature of language, underscoring its coordinative function. The aim of the conference is to 1) show continuity of natural language with other informational systems in biology; 2) show that language arises from and is crucial for human co-action.

The range of talks at this meeting was very great, with some being very far from my own area of interest. Yet, this did not mean that they were either irrelevant or useless to me. Serendipity is a lovely thing when it comes to research. There were also some talks that were of immediate relevance to what I do, including a couple of the plenary talks. One plenary I  was very sorry to miss out on was Don Ross’s talk on the second day.

My own talk was on the third day and by this stage my wellbeing was on a sinusoidal path whose oscillations had striking amplitude and a period measured in hours. I rather suspect that knowing that I had to give a talk helped to motivate my body to gather its resources for that particular hour. The main point of the talk was that when it comes to coordinating long-term goals there is no need for the discourse to reflect reality in the way that discourses coordinating actions need to. It is sufficient that the discourse manages to help avoid the free loader problem. Religious discourse works particularly well in this role as, thanks to being superempirical, it is free to be shaped by functional considerations to a much greater degree than other kinds of ideologies. The slides are here. In addition, Sean Roberts has written up a report on the talk.

I could not relax after giving my talk, however, as John Collier, whom I have worked with for many years and who was asked to give a plenary talk  scheduled soon after my presentation, asked me to be a copresenter. The work he presented was based on a couple of papers that we’ve written together, including in “Pragmatist Pragmatics”. The basic idea could be said to be that we should not talk about context disambiguating utterances but, instead, about utterances disambiguating contexts. This leads to a fundamentally different view of natural language, not as imperfect approximation to a formal language, but as a powerful means for supplementing natural contexts to achieve  social coordination. This inversion of the relationship between the formal idealisation and the natural phenomenon is, of course, exactly the same thing that I find myself arguing for in relation to economics and rationality – linking that work with the basic direction of the whole of my research. In the plenary it was John who did the talking while I sat by the side slowly turning into a puddle of primordial goo as the cold I had managed to hold back for a few hours reinstated its hold on me. I was very glad when I did not have to answer any of the questions thrown at John after the talk – particularly since many of them concerned the information transfer theory that he is much stronger on than I am. I had done my bit by talking through the slides with John before the presentation and was ready to devolve. The slides for this plenary are also available.