Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New descriptions of our inner lives - part two

I came across a reaction to my original posting on this topic which is worth some discussion, because I think it oversimplifies the views of 'reductionists.' The original posting (which has received more views than any other posting on this blog) began with this brief introduction to some quotes from an article on the Neuro-philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland:
I rarely mention my internal experience and sensations on this blog - first, because I have viewed readers as "wanting the beef," objective stuff on how minds work. Second and more important, because my experience of noting the flow of my brain products as emotion laced chunks of sensing/cognition/action - knowing the names of the neurotransmitters and hormones acting during desire, arousal, calming, or affiliation - strikes me as a process which would feel quite alien to most people. Still, if we are materialists who believe that someday we will understand how the brain-body generates our consciousness and sense of a self, we will be able to think in terms like the following (a quote taken from Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Paul and Patricia Churchland in the Feb. 12 New Yorker Magazine):
to which one comment was:
Alien, yes. But it is also largely devoid of meaningful self-exploration as well. Science at it's worst takes itself too seriously. New discoveries are considered automatically as an advance in understanding. A dialogue about the known facts of internal experience contains about as much meaning in moment to moment experience as reciting the letters in a bowl of alphabet soup!
This is surprising to hear from a professional psychologist. It is not meaningful to simply be able to note whether one is angry, sad, loving, or is the grip of an obsession (or image brain correlates of those processes)? - which is what I am saying with "noting the flow of my brain products as emotion laced chunks of sensing/cognition/action." Consider an obsessive compulsive disorder such as constantly washing one's hands. Cognitive therapy training to 'notice a part of me that is not working' and not follow its direction has been useful for some in treatments of this syndrome. The technique of mindfulness meditation which simply notes thoughts and emotions as they arise can have the practical consequence of permitting more choice in whether they are expressed in actions.

A further comment was:
The so-called "objective" human sciences reduces people to parts and pieces so small that we can't recognize commonality or identify our own experiences within the narrow concepts in the models espoused. Science has somehow become primarily inductive. The deep understanding of theoretical deduction seems to have fallen into disfavor. Could it be because it is so easy to pick apart the substance of theoretical systems? I suspect so. The more reductionistic the model, the less likely it can be criticized.
I don't think that 'reductionists' like myself or the Churchlands think that focusing on different specific parts and mechanisms gets a complete description of the 'whole.' We don't deny the relevance of phenomenology of the whole system, of emergent properties, holism, etc. We simply think that it helps to know something about the parts!

The relevant arguments are quite venerable. In the ancient Buddhist text "The Question of King Milinda" the Greek King Menander (Milinda), an heir to Alexander the Great and military commander of what is now Afghanistan, questioned the local Buddhist sage. The sage asked the king to "explain to me what a chariot is.... Is the axle the chariot? Are the wheels, or the frame, or the yoke, or the reins the chariot? If not, then is the chariot all these parts?, is the chariot anything else than these?" (I take this rendering from Mark Epstein's book "Going on Being.")

The point is that 'chariot' (like 'awareness' or 'consciousness') is obviously more than a mere word, but it exists only in relationship to its parts. It doesn't help a lot to get snarled up in debates about induction versus deduction.


  1. There may be a kernel of wisdom in advocating for deductive or top-down analysis. Unlike conventional computers, humans are great at gist and gestalt, and sluggishly pedestrian at consciously assembling an explanation. I suppose a scientific mystery is opaque and ungraspable by gist, and it's only in chipping off (and publishing) bits that there's stuff from which somebody might discern or deduce a germane pattern. "Reductionist" is tendentious, according to this metaphor. To chip off bits is not to _reduce_ a thing to bits. "Reduction" suggests an immediate possibility of reconstitution, as if the relation of the parts to the whole weren't in question--weren't precisely the question, in fact, to investigators charged with "reductionism."

  2. Your initial post touched the nerve that was at best indirectly related to your point. I apologize if I seemed to be trashing your post. I clarified my point in this new post. I continue to read your blog with interest. Thanks for stimulating my thoughts!