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Out of mind – out of insight: science, philosophy, mind, empirical, conceptual

I am am I

I am am I

Out of mind – out of insight

If you are infected with the disease of philosophy and find this stuff interesting, the book that best explores these ideas in depth is The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy – Peter Winch ISBN 0-415-05431-1. Old – but still in print.

Discussions of mind/body issues are frequent in the media. Three recent examples: Melvyn Bragg’s excellent In Our Time on radio, the 2004 Reith Lectures by V S Ramachandran and Robert Winston’s TV series The Human Mind. Most scientists including these, talk as if the whole of 20th century philosophy never took place. This is an effort to redress the balance.

The business of science is description: exploring the limits of physical reality, based rigorously on empirical enquiry.

The business of philosophy is conceptual enquiry, exploring the limits of sense based upon rigorous analysis of language and how it is used by human beings sharing experience and forms of life.

The scientist’s privileged position with regard to scientific language and its use to describe the physical world, derives from high standards of precision based upon rigorous empirical investigation and measurement of this world. This rigour and therefore epistemological privilege, is maintained by the sustained testing and challenge, exercised by the community of scientists.

The philosopher’s privileged position with regard to the limits of sense, derives from similarly high standards of conceptual, logical proof and meaning, exercised in the analysis of language and it use, within shared forms of life. This privilege is maintained by the community of philosophers in much the same way as with science.

Using these distinctions we can say the following in relation to mind/body issues:

The business of science is the empirical investigation of the human brain, arriving at ever more comprehensive descriptions of its function and its relationship with observable human behaviour. Strictly, science is confined to description of the relationship of the brain to bodily movement and function. This marks the limit of its privileged position.

Such scientific enquiry may reveal facts with profound implications for intentional human action. As a human being, the scientist will be interested and wish to discuss and explore these implications. However, qua scientist, he is beyond his conceptual remit in the sense that intentionality is outside the context of strictly scientific language and standards. What the scientist has to say about human action has no privileged status at all. His is just one opinion among others.

It is a conceptual confusion to describe any scientific enquiry as investigating the human mind: because it is a matter of logic, that distinctions between the possible senses we can attribute to the activity of the mind, as opposed to the activity of the brain, are conceptual, not empirical, and therefore not susceptible to empirical enquiry and measurement. Science, qua science, has nothing more to say about the human mind than it does about God, spirituality, or the meaning of life.

If this argument holds for the human mind then, logically the rest follows e.g human action, as opposed to bodily movement. And from this: intention, will, responsibility, morality. And from these, the whole panoply of society and human relationships: love, hate, voting and democracy, promising and contracts, the law and legitimacy etc.

The scientist qua scientist, must be a physicalist, even reductionist. This is an observation of grammar not a judgement of value. When scientists who investigate the brain, confuse this with study of the human mind, they ignore the inescapable logical consequences if this were a genuinely correct description of the their object of study. The brain is an object: the mind isn’t. As Wittgenstein once put it: “it is not a thing, and it is not a nothing either.”

Scientists have two characteristic responses to running against the limits of sense within language: they either deny that such conceptual limits exist, or ignore them. The statement, denying such conceptual limits of sense, is not itself, a scientific statement: it is, because conceptual not empirical, a philosophical statement. I welcome scientists engaging in philosophical debate, but they must not pretend that it is a scientific debate. Different rules apply.

An example of scientific conceptual confusion:

From The Big Bang a new book by Simon Singh: a very nice bloke and very bright in a mathematiciany sort of way.

“All matter and energy were condensed to a point, then there was an almighty (sic) Big Bang. The term Big Bang implies some sort of explosion which is not a wholly inappropriate analogy, except that the Big Bang was not an explosion in space but and explosion of space. Similarly, the Big Bang was not an explosion in time but an explosion of time. Both time and space were created at the moment of the Big Bang.”

This is, literally, non-sense. Matter that was nowhere? Condensing that was not a process, over time, occurring in any place? To a point that was nowhere? This is an attempt to say the unsayable, which puts the scientist conceptually much closer to the philosopher than he would wish. Good philosophers are totally committed to the benefits of empirical enquiry and the illumination that such rigorous enquiry generates. However, few scientists, and those tend to be the best ones, are comfortable with the limitations imposed upon their descriptions of their results imposed by the necessities of logic and everyday language.

Does it matter? Profoundly, yes. The possible extinction of life on earth and therefore, the survival of the human species, depends upon at least two, totally science focused issues: global environmental problems, especially greenhouse gas emissions; and the ongoing political stand-off regarding nuclear weapons and their escalating proliferation. It is not fanciful to say that scientific knowledge has the direct power to destroy the planet through weaponry or to permit its destruction indirectly through failing to establish the scientific basis to prevent the wholesale environmental destruction arising from amendable human behaviour.

Scientists are the new priesthood: proffering a populist classical science, cause/effect certainty; when conceptually they are driven by a fundamental uncertainty they know how to use, but can’t explain in ordinary language e.g. Quantum Theory. Gullibility is the defining response of the general public to scientific pronouncements. For every Einstein or Feynman there is a Dawrkins or a Pinker. What the intellectual life of the nation needs is a stroppy, iconoclastic philosopher to cut through the bullshit and convince thinking people of the validity of their independence of thought versus the hubris of science.

(Zettel 2005)

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