, I investigated how knowledge of the material world was possible. I suggested that it was possible because things and events in the world fall into patterns and groupings which can be traced, and that these groupings have an underlying causality which also can mainly be discovered, a causality which follows the laws of physics. So much is true of the external world. But our knowledge also involved a conceptual structure which we bring to the world and which enables us to understand these groupings, their causality and underlying physical laws. In other words, we are hard-wired to see the world in certain ways, ways which give us understanding.
The topic I wish to examine today is the extent to which a similar approach can suggest how we are able to understand human behaviour. My view is that the approach can provide an understanding of certain types of human behaviour but that insisting on the same template for all behaviour can lead to a distortion. On the other hand, other approaches to understanding behaviour, not applicable to the external world, are available for understanding human behaviour.
The first question then is whether human behaviour forms patterns or groupings. To some extent it does, for example when the patterns reflect disturbances in human behaviour, such as with those displayed by sufferers from bipolar and many similar disorders. But more generally, the success has been limited. People and their circumstances vary so much that any patterns discerned have only vague outlines. Indeed, the attempt to suggest that a pattern must be followed can result in distortions. The suggestion, for example, that someone bereaved will always follow a certain behaviour pattern can produce distorted bereavement counselling.
I suggested that our knowledge of the external world depends partly on the causality underlying the groupings displayed in the world. Are there causal explanations of human behaviour? Certainly all our actions and thoughts require events in our brains and bodies as necessary conditions of their occurrence. These, since they are physical, are at least in principle open to causal explanation. But brain events are not in the same category as thoughts. Thoughts require consciousness and despite many ingenious attempts consciousness is not reducible to physical events.
Moreover, lurking under the surface there is the age-old question of the freedom of the will. Thoughts and actions certainly require brain events and similar as causally necessary conditions for their occurrence. But full causality is usually seen in terms of both necessary and sufficient conditions. If our thoughts and actions were explicable by necessary and sufficient causal conditions, then it would follow that in principle our knowledge of human behaviour could be comparable to our knowledge of things in the world.
That view has consequences which are unappealing, for example, that all our actions are predictable and their occurrence does not depend on our will. On the other hand, our beliefs that we can deliberate rationally and that it is up to us whether we do X or Y is as deeply rooted as our belief in causality. I shall leave that issue for another day.
I suggested that underlying the causality of the external world we find the laws of physics and mathematics. Attempts have been made to use mathematics to understand or at least to predict human behaviour. We have become familiar with this under the heading of 'mathematical modelling'. Although it came to public attention over the Covid outbreak, it has in fact been around for longer in the area of economics.
Economists love it because using maths makes them feel really scientific. But alas, mathematical modelling in economics depends on assumptions, such as that we always act rationally and in terms of individual self-interest. But these assumptions do not seem plausible, and indeed mathematical models in economics have frequently been wildly inaccurate.
Our understanding of human behaviour is therefore limited if we stick to the methods used in understanding the external world. But we have other possibilities. It is much to be regretted that social scientists often dismiss other methods as 'folk psychology' because they are different from those used in the physical sciences.
One possibility for explaining human behaviour, not available for the material world, is called 'teleological'. For example, if we ask: 'Why did he press the button?' we might get the answer: 'In order to summon the elevator'. This works as an explanation because we are familiar with the framework of comprehensible human purposes, which include using an elevator. We understand the purpose because we might have had the same sort of desire ourselves.
There can be more complex versions of this. For example, we might ask why Mr A, who lives along the road, has spent all weekend working in his garden. This is a puzzle because he is known to dislike gardening. But we come to understand when a neighbour tells us that he is putting his house on the market and thinks it will sell better with a tidy garden.
This works as an explanation because we can now see the action in the sequence of events and actions which constitute Mr A's life. Moreover, there are explicit and implicit references to social purposes and values, such as selling houses, purposes which are aided by keeping gardens tidy. These are familiar to us and for that reason the relating of Mr A's actions to them helps our understanding. Further, because such purposes and values are ones which those who are in a certain social context can share, and with which they can have a sympathetic identification, understanding is thereby deepened.
Finally, the story of Mr A implies a variety of standpoints. There are hints of curious neighbours, perhaps disapproving of the untidy garden, of speculation about Mr A's motivation and so on. Our understanding involves a complex mixture of individual purposes, social norms and contrasted viewpoints. In other words, the explanation invokes a complex system of meaning which we have implicitly at the back of our minds. 'Meaning' is required for the explanation of human behaviour, but obviously not for the explanation of events in the material world.
If we accept that explaining human behaviour requires knowledge of typical human purposes and norms, we can better understand the problem with which anthropologists or archaeologists are faced when they attempt to understand a society very different from their own. A simple description of the customs and behaviour does not provide interesting science. The scientists must also suggest the meaning of this behaviour in a way of life, or at least tell a likely story about it.
In a similar way, a psychotherapist must understand the meaning of the behaviour of a client. This is the context in which the idea of narrative has an important explanatory role. An understanding of meaning requires close attention to the client/patient's unfolding story.
Indeed, in some branches of medicine such as general practice or psychotherapy, narrative understanding may even, sometimes, bring about an improvement. This might happen if the GP or therapist is able to suggest that the patient's unfolding story is open to another and less destructive meaning. To achieve this kind of understanding, the doctor must search for meaning in the patient's story rather than make a vain attempt to share their feelings. Even just listening to their story without moralising can help. This is true of all of us in our relationships with friends.
I suggested last week that scientists explain the world by discovering patterns and their underlying causality. Patterns and their causality explain because, as it were, they structure space. An example is the double-helix which is the spatial pattern of the DNA molecule. But this is quite unlike the way a given individual might explain what went wrong in his/her life. They would do this by telling a story. A story, a narrative, does not constitute a pattern but rather a sequence, and a sequence structures time. Explaining by reference to the sequence or story of a life is another way of creating understanding.
In my book Quality of Life
, I tried to show how literature, among its many functions, can explore the sequences which constitute our lives. It can develop insights into individual purposes, social norms and the complexity of situations. In presenting us with narrative explanations of the colliding sequences which constitute the lives of their characters, novelists can leave us with several points of view, each of which is plausible.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow