Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mere Activity of the Brain or "Nothing but" Psychology

This blog originally appeared on March 9, 2012.

Neuroscientific explanations of human experience are the rage. Science writers, who all too often know just enough science to be dangerous -and not enough to be discerning, enthusiastically swarm around celebrity experts, repeating and indulging their narrative with oftentimes myopic and unexamined assumptions. Quite possibly the most dangerous of our time are those who write and speak with the tone, the rhetoric, of authority, but without the authority itself. By contrast, one characteristic that we often find in those who are the most thorough and penetrating in their thoughts is their refusal to refer to themselves in outdated and chauvinistic terms such as expert or authority. Such titles are remnants of an Enlightenment attitude that is quickly passing into history.

Today it is nearly impossible to read about the human experiences of love, anger, lust, empathy, or creativity without being told that these are merely chemicals or neural connections of the brain. The explanation is convincing, and to many, it seems, satisfying. Like the interesting work in evolutionary psychology and psychoanalysis, the explanations are typically the repetition of a single narrative. In other words, the same punch-line for every joke.

We are not dismissing the necessity for, or possible importance of, such empirical insights. But we are stating, and stating emphatically, that the schwärmerei over biological explanations is not only headlong, but also limits ones understanding of themselves and others.

These explanations, given by great authorities of science, and often expounded in the presentist, narcissistic-wonderment of journalism, leaves the reader with an illusion of knowing -the false sense of security that the great ecclesiastics of modernity have it all under control.

Because examples of the mere activity of the brain explanations are so frequent, I will not present specific instances here. One can find examples in nearly any magazine or newspaper article written on a fad topic. On Valentine's Day we are told that love is due to the increased levels of the hormone oxytocin, and when we feel depressed we are told that we have an imbalance of serotonin. These explanations, given by great authorities of science, and often expounded in the presentist, narcissistic-wonderment of journalism, leave the reader with an illusion of knowing -the false sense of security that the great ecclesiastics of modernity have it all under control.

William James
The founder of American psychology, William James, called this attitude nothing-but psychology. Referring to the popular position of the German experimentalists, James described it as an "unwarrantable impertinence in the present state of psychology". Today, however, technology lends the imprimatur for pertinence. The august spectacle of computer imaging (fMRI, MRI, CT and PET scanning) conflate technology and knowing. The equipment lends a certain authority to the orientation. After all, the technology is a tool, and not the theoretical framework, of the explanation.

To better understand the mere activity of the brain attitude, we must consider the two pillars of biological psychology and neuroscience. The two central ideas are reductionism and mechanism.

Reductionism is the belief that the further some material thing is reduced (dissected) the closer we get to the foundation, base, or "truth" of that thing. It seems logical and is easy to accept that a potato is made up of microscopic cells -something we all learn in early school days. The idea that reducing something to its smallest parts will bring us to the fundamental stuff that it is, is not only incorrect, it is antiquated. The Quantum Revolution in physics dismissed the myth of reductionism. To understand this, think of an hour glass. At some point the funneling inverts and becomes large. In theoretical terms this means that reduction to the microscopic reveals an infinitely large, quantum dimension. Ideas of big, small, and necessarily reductionism, become meaningless.

What then does reductionism in biological psychology tell us? The forgotten lesson was taught by not only by William James but the Gestalt psychologists. Contemporary neuropsychology would benefit from a Gestalt or Jamesian renaissance. The lesson is: genes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and cells, taken collectively, are expressions of what we call, on the social or personal level, emotions, motivation, and action. These are not causes, but rather, qualities.

The lesson is: genes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and cells, taken collectively, are expressions of what we call, on the social or personal level, emotions, motivation, and action. These are not causes, but rather, qualities.

The second assumption of the mere activity of the brain attitude is the philosophical position of mechanism. An antiquated notion of the Enlightenment, mechanism (also known as materialism) holds that the analysis of the behavior of reduced stuff (like neurotransmitter or genes) will reveal a systematic, lawful, predictable clockwork mechanism. This position holds that the more one observes the behavior of the parts, the more one will come to understand its regular patterns. Although this belief is held by many experimentalists in behavioral science, it has been retired in other sciences for over one hundred years.

With the Einsteinian Revolution (1905) and Werner Heissenberg's Uncertainty Principle (1927) the way science is done was changed. Both of these scientific reorientations resulted from Peirce's pragmatic semiotics and entered physics into the Post-Enlightenment projects of quantum mechanics, string theory, and chaos theory. Today experimental psychology and neuroscience remain firmly rooted in an Enlightenment tradition that clings to simplistic causal relationships that can only be established through reduction and careful documentation of the mechanized patterns of behavior. The necessary step, is a reconsideration of James' 1890 Principles of Psychology.

Direct Questions, comments, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.