This blog originally appeared on March 28, 2013
“The romantic spontaneity and courage are gone,
the vision is materialistic and depressing.
Ideals appear as inert by-products of physiology;
what is higher is explained by what is lower
and treated forever as a case of ‘nothing but’
-nothing but something else of quite an inferior sort.
You get, in short, a materialistic universe,
in which only the tough-minded find
themselves congenially at home.”
(The Present Dilemma in Philosophy)
|Matthew Giobbi, 2012.|
A sea change has occurred in how we understand the structure of knowing in cognitive neuroscience. Today, researchers, writers, and professors of psychology are holding discussions in a way that is much more in-line with the attitude of William James’s radical empiricism.
James instructed the emerging science of psychology to embrace a cross-paradigmatic (in today’s terms, an interdisciplinary) attitude of investigation. It has been a long time coming for psychology. James, greatly in spirit with his friend C.S. Peirce, was attempting to point the science of psychology in the direction that the other sciences of the 20th & 21st Centuries would take; a trajectory towards semiotics. Much of what Peirce outlined in his works on semiotics, a system of thought that has been the central influence on contemporary science, was unpacked for psychology in James’s radical empiricism and pragmatism. Today, it seems that we are closer than ever to the third culture that C.P. Snow had called for in 1959; a truly radical empiricism.
Despite this shift in how we approach knowing, there are two philosophical attitudes that seem to prevail amongst students entering into the university study of the social sciences. It is for these students that I present this essay. It is not a suggestion to reject, but rather, an invitation to expand how we think about knowing through the social sciences. These two attitudes are strikingly present in conversation with most of my first-year students. Both share a common origin in early, classical, concepts of the philosophy of science, as well as an almost taken for granted (captivation-in-an-acceptedness) place in the Enlightenment rules for thinking. In addition these philosophies are closely related to two fallacies of thought, a consideration that is the topic of this undertaking. The two concepts that I speak of are Reductionism and Mechanism.
In his extraordinarily insightful text on the philosophy of science, Worldviews, Richard DeWitt explores the evolution of the scientific knowledge systems since the early Greek thinkers. Just as Professor Hilary Putnam describes, in an interview with Bryan Magee, DeWitt outlines some central attitudes that have been dismissed within some sciences, and privileged within others. Whether this be the result of an internalist attitude within a specific field of study (only learning the history and philosophy of the science from within that science), or due to the absence of the study of the philosophy of science in most university science departments, the question of what science is has a different answer depending on the discipline in which it is asked. This is especially true for the social sciences. The main distinction between physics and the social sciences has been the adoption of Peirce’s philosophy in the former, and a forgetting of it (through James’s pragmatism) in psychology. This is the context of the problem, but let’s turn to the two specific concepts of interest in this discussion; reductionism and mechanism.
The idea of reductionism is woven into the fabric of our sense of reality. Although it seems obvious that bigger is made-up of smaller (subatomic, atomic, cells, organs, etc…), an accompanying sensibility is not necessarily true; that smaller is the cause of bigger. Reductionism, then, is the idea that larger features are caused by smaller features. Examples include the idea that an area of the brain causes a certain behavior or temperament, or that a particular emotion is merely a result of certain neurotransmitters. This attitude of reductionism commits what is referred to as a causal fallacy, specifically, the idea that smaller causes bigger. It is an attractive, almost commonsense, point of view. However, critical analysis shows us that smaller might be correlated with bigger, but, smaller is not necessarily the cause of bigger. As we all learn in the first year of research methods, “correlation is not causation”.
Let’s consider an example. In a popular Introduction to Psychology text by David Myers, the author correctly points out that brain scans of virtuoso violinists reveal a specific development in the motor strip of the right, frontal cortex. This area of the brain is associated with the left hand and fingers, which are predominant in violin playing. The right hand is mostly used for grasping the bow, rather than fingering notes, which accounts for the difference in neural concentration and activity between the left and right motor cortex. Keep in mind that this is true due to the lateralization of brain function; the left side of the body is associated with the right side of the body. Note the choice of the word associated rather than caused. Even in the use of the most basic words one can infer causation rather than correlation. The point Myers makes is that the violinist’s brain has concentrated neural tissue and activity through years of practice of the instrument, and in turn, correlates with greater finger dexterity while playing the instrument. We do not have a clear causal relationship here, but rather, a correlationship. In this example, we cannot say that the brain in causing the violin playing, no more than we can say that brain chemicals are causing an emotion. The idea that the smaller causes the larger is a fallacy that has a history rooted in the 16th and 17th Century Scientific Revolution, a tradition from within The Enlightenment.
At the time, physics was largely developed through Newtonian, or what is now called Classical Mechanics. The idea was that all the structures of the natural universe (from planets to the brain) were merely a mechanized, clockwork structure that are governed by universal laws, just waiting to be “discovered”. The way to discovery of this mechanized, lawful natural order was through reduction; dissection, magnification, and peeling away to the ultimate substance. This ultimate stuff, it was thought, would be arrived at through careful observation and measurement. Newtonian notions of science were abandoned in the early 20th Century, in particular with the Einsteinian Revolution which established that stuff at the subatomic level does not follow the same laws as the substances at the atomic level. In other words, Newtonian science does not work at the subatomic level. Today, physicists speak less in terms of classical mechanics, and more in the ideas of theoretical physics; Chaos Theory, String Theory, and subatomic physics.
New models of science, which physics embraced in the early Twentieth Century, were largely based on the influential thinking of C.S. Peirce. Without Peirce’s work on semiotics there would be no theoretical physics. Whereas most of the sciences moved away from the “old view” of science, much of the social sciences did not. Despite the fact that the founder of American psychology, William James, called for a scientific psychology greatly influenced by Peirce, the more simplistic system of behaviorism completely overshadowed James in the early Twentieth Century. Radical Empiricism and pragmatism were not alone in this, the Gestalt tradition was also drowned by the behaviorist paradigm, not to return until cognitive psychology emerged in the 1960s. The way in which scientific psychology has been done, since the Nineteenth Century, has largely been based on antiquated notions of a Newtonian Science. Today, as predicted by thinkers including Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, scientific psychology has rethought what “science” is and how it is done.
A rethinking the fallacious assumption, that reductionism infers cause and effect, can be illustrated by using a familiar model from Google Maps. With google maps we have a function that is similar to that of the microscope when looking at a tissue sample; magnification. Through “zooming out” (the – function) we can take a distant of view of the object from afar. As we increase our magnification (“zoom in” with the + function), we are able to approach the street level of a specific neighborhood. We are tempted, when magnifying a piece of tissue, to understand the cells as building the tissue. We are also tempted to understand neurotransmitters (or brain areas) as the “cause” of a simultaneous emotion, behavior, or thought process. However, we would never claim that somehow a street in Newark causes the universe. We do not view the magnification of maps in the same way that we view the magnification of neural tissue or the brain. The question is, why do we assume causation through reductionism, and can we expand our approach and understanding of science, in a radically empirical way, through the Google Map metaphor?