Toward the First Revolution in Mind Sciences P3

Daniel Vinograd

 

 

Again, when I was studying this at Stanford, when I was studying philosophy of mind, we learned that actually that whole school of behaviorism that dominated American academic psychology for 50 or 60 years can be refuted with a joke. It’s tough when a whole system can be refuted with a joke, but it can be: a man and a woman make love. The man rolls over, lights up a cigarette, and he says, “It was great for you; how was it for me?” (laughter) That should pretty well do it for behaviorism.

 

But we can ask, how is it that brilliant minds, psychologists at Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, Stanford, Chicago, how could they settle for 50 or 60 years on something so bizarre and so radically anti-empirical?

 

I asked my professor of philosophy of mind at Stanford this: “The refutation of this was a piece of cake. It was a one-page refutation. Any sophomore, even with a hangover, could’ve written it. How come they didn’t get it? These were smart people. Why didn’t they get it?” The professor smiled at me with a whimsical grin and said, “After all, it was a matter of fashion.” Well, that’s a nice way of saying groupthink. That’s a nice way of saying “lemmings.” Introspection fell by the wayside. It was thrown out the back window, and they didn’t look back. So this challenge of William James and Wilhelm Wundt – bring introspection and make it scientific – has been ignored and has been ignored to this day.

 

I’m finding a parallel here, if we go back to Galileo, his telescope, the kind of trouble he got himself into. There was a medieval theological resistance to Galileo’s empiricism, to his using the telescope and discovering things that violated the principles of a literal reading of the Bible and the metaphysical assertions of Aristotle. Because until Galileo, for the most part, people interested in the stars were astrologers. They would do folk astronomy; they’d look up at the stars, but what they were really interested in is the terrestrial correlates of celestial phenomena. That is, should I get married tomorrow or next month? When shall I sow my crops? When was my birthday? So working out your horoscope. That’s what they were really interested in. That’s where the professionals were, in drawing up the horoscopes. They left astronomy at pretty much a folk level.

 

When Galileo said “Look, I’ve got a telescope. I’m making some fantastic discoveries here,” the most conservative of the clerics, the churchmen of his time, refused to look through his telescope, saying “We don’t need to. If you discover things through your telescope that contradict what we already know to be true from the Bible and Aristotle, what you’re saying is false. It must be an aberration, an artifact of your lenses. And after all, it’s merely an illusion. Why should we bother? We don’t need to because we already have the Bible and Aristotle. Who are you, Galileo? You think you’re an Aristotle? You think you’re God? Why should we listen to you? We’ve got the Bible and Aristotle. What do we need you for, and your empirical observations?” So they refused to use it and they refused to accept the discoveries. They grounded him. They put him under house arrest. They said, “Go to your room and stay there for the rest of your life.” Like mom and dad getting really irritated at their teenage kid.

 

But now we have the Galileo of the modern times, we have William James saying, “We have a whole new kettle of fish here. We have a domain of the natural world.” In other words, this is not a supernatural infusion from God; these are natural phenomena, these mental phenomena. Let’s follow Galileo’s cue and observe them carefully. What do we have in response, from the behaviorists, from the cognitive psychologists, and the cognitive neurophysiologists, which are very prominent these days? What do we have here? We have a focus on the behavioral and neural correlates of mental phenomena.

 

But introspection as a sophisticated, refined means of observation? By and large, a refusal. By and large in psych departments, neuroscience departments, if you introduce “Hey, how about some refined introspection?”, they’ll say, “Sorry, we’re busy. We’re busy, we’re studying the brain. We’re studying hippocampus. We’re studying aspects of psychology. We don’t need it. If you claim to have some discoveries from introspection, whatever. But we’re busy. And after all, introspection gives rise to only the appearances of the mind. They’re illusory, after all, so why should we bother? Let’s get back and study the hardware, and let’s start a new neuroscience lab.”

 

But there’s a certain limitation to this orientation of insisting that everything that is real must be physical, everything boils down to physics. That is, just do a waltz through history here: think about Copernicus. Think about the Ptolemaic mathematicians who are crunching the numbers, coming up with one epicycle, one eccentric after another. Great mathematicians; really not that great for observing celestial phenomena.

 

If you can imagine confining your understanding just to mathematics – you’re sitting in a room and you’re a great mathematician – there’s nothing in pure mathematics that defines mass or energy. It’s not there. Not in pure mathematics. There’s noting that defines the emergence of physical phenomena in the universe. There’s nothing in pure mathematics that predicts that there ever would be a universe. In pure mathematics, there’s nothing that explains the emergence of matter and energy; when would it happen, when was the Big Bang, when did you start getting particles and so forth and so on? You have to step outside of mathematics, as Galileo did, and combine the mathematics with empirical observation.
But now we shift over into the realm of physics, and imagine for the time being that you only know physics, but you don’t know anything about biology or psychology. Confine your understanding just to physics: classic mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, the whole range of physics. I would suggest – you’re going to see the parallel here – there’s nothing in physics per se that defines life. If you don’t know anything about biology, there’s nothing in physics that defines life or alive and dead, healthy and sick.

 

These words don’t mean anything in physics. That’s where my scientific training was. Those words don’t crop up. Life and death, healthy and sick, flourishing and so forth, they don’t crop up. There’s nothing in physics that defines life. There’s nothing in the laws of physics – classic mechanics and all the way through – that predicts that at some point in the universe, life would emerge. There’s nothing there. It happened, but physics didn’t tell you it would happen, and once it has happened, physics on its own does not explain life.

 

Let’s shift to biology. Now we’ve got mathematics, physics, and biology. But if you confine your understanding to biology alone, with its physics and mathematics behind it, there’s nothing in biology that defines consciousness. Consciousness is not defined in biological terms. There’s nothing in biology that predicts the emergence of consciousness. At one point in evolution of life in the universe – or on our planet, where we know it takes place – at what point did consciousness happen and why? There’s nothing in biology that predicts it; nothing in biology that defines it; and once it’s there, biology does not explain consciousness in living organisms.

 

Now let’s finally move to psychology. Finally we’re in the mind sciences, and we’re studying attention and volition and perception and memory and so forth. But in psychology alone, there are people throughout the planet, in the United States and everywhere else, for millennia, who have been having religious experiences. Call it spiritual, call it religious, but a sense of the transcendent, something larger and so forth, this is happening. It’s been happening a long time. It’s happening to this day.

 

But there’s nothing in psychology per se that predicts that this would ever happen, that defines religious experience in its own terms rather than reducing it to something very prosaic like “hysteria,” “form of neurosis,” “form of psychosis” and so forth. In drawing it down to psychology, you miss what was there that was distinctively spiritual or religious. Psychology by itself does not define, predict, or explain the emergence of religious expedience. And yet there it is. It happens.

 

So this would be an argument, not against math, physics, biology, or psychology, but it’s arguing for epistemic pluralism. That is, let’s get out of this rut of thinking that everything can be explained in terms of the more primitive and recognize we need different modalities of inquiry. That everything does not boil down to physics or to biology.

 

In this physic-less worldview, which in many ways has so much going for it – we know about what happened during the nanoseconds after the Big Bang. That is spectacular. We know about the nucleus of an atom. Quarks, with charm and color and so forth. That’s spectacular. We know about the constitution of galactic clusters 10 billion light years away. That is amazing.

 

But what about consciousness, that which makes all of science possible? It’s the blind spot. I would call it metaphorically the retinal blind spot in the scientific vision, where the optic nerve touches the back of the retina. You know what happens there: what we should have is be walking around with two dark spots in our visual field, right? We should have that, because there’s no information coming in from those spots. But what does our cunning brain do? It covers over the area about which you know nothing at all. It covers it over with the environment. So if you’re looking at a brown wall, it covers it with brown. If you’re looking at a purple wall, it covers it over with purple. It covers over that which you don’t know at all with that which is familiar, and gives you an illusion of knowledge. Interesting.

 

What is there in the retinal blind spot of the scientific vision of reality? I would suggest it’s consciousness. We have no scientific definition of consciousness. That’s a bad start. If consciousness is a natural phenomena, for heaven’s sake, let’s have a definition. How can you study it if you don’t even define what you’re studying? That’s a problem.
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