Saturday, May 16, 2009

Means and Ends

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see --
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Emily Dickinson

Psychology Today had an interesting post by Norman N. Holland, Ph. D., who specializes in psychology and the arts, suggesting that psychology belongs more to the humanities than to the sciences. I find the suggestion at least somewhat persuasive, but not necessarily for the reasons he advances.

Holland points out that knowledge cumulates in the sciences, but not in the humanities. Postmodern quibbles aside, we can say that contemporary physics involves an objectively more true understanding of reality than, say, 17th century physics. But contemporary literature or philosophy represents no objective advance over the work of Milton or Spinoza (indeed, some might say quite the opposite). Science progresses, while the humanities are a neverending conversation about meaning and value.

So far so good, but Holland then claims that scientific research in psychology is not in fact amassing real knowledge, because empirical studies now necessarily involve such minute areas of focus, with such tightly controlled variables, that they do not contribute to a meaningful overall theory of mind (he doesn't use this example, but he might have alluded to the fact that despite thousands of studies carried out over decades, we seem no closer to a scientific understanding of consciousness than we ever were). That is, we have oceans of data, but they do not cohere into real understanding, and psychologists can carry out thousands more experiments, focused on increasingly miniscule areas of brain function, without changing this fact.

I don't find this argument convincing for a couple of reasons. In all the sciences, whether particle physics or marine biology, researchers must focus on narrow areas of interest with rigid variables; the second-order task of science is to combine these over time into a broader understanding. It just takes a long time. And when it comes to the brain, which arguably is the single most complex phenomenon in the known universe, it could be expected to take a much longer time. The fact that many trivial tenure-supporting studies are done, and no grand unified theory of the mind has yet emerged, does not mean that progress is not being made.

I would maintain that, beyond the cumulation of knowledge or the lack thereof, there is a more crucial distinction between the sciences and the humanities, and that is the difference between means and ends. Science is the domain of how things are, and the humanities is the domain of how things ought to be, that is, what and how we ought to value. Via technology, science also concerns itself with how things may be materially modified, but neither science nor technology can ultimately contribute much to the question of how things should best be appreciated, and whether in fact they ought to be modified.

The humanities obviously don't "decide" such questions conclusively or universally; they entail a fluid, continually changing dialogue in the form of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic inquiries. Every science and technology has its corresponding humanistic dimensions involving the proper places of fact and engineering within human experience. The difference with biology, and particularly psychology, is that the focus of study is human identity itself, not an object out in the world.

So the point is not that real factual understanding of the brain is not occurring, or that we will not eventually have massive potential to modify the brain even in subtle ways. The point is that consciousness is inherently a dynamic entity, and one engaged in essential value discrimination, on its own and in relation to other minds. The latter is the humanistic endeavor, and when it comes to the mind regarding itself, the stakes are highest of all. One can imagine a future neuroscientist describing and cataloguing an individual mind in all of its exhaustive attributes and propensities; but the subject may always respond, "Okay, that's what I am today, but I want to be...something else tomorrow, yet I'm not sure what." That is where the humanities, as opposed to science, come into play.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think he's entirely right either. Doesn't an understanding of the neural substrates/genetic underpinnings/environmental influences/biochemical fluctuations that produce psychological phenomena constitute an addition to the 'cumulation of knowledge' -how can it not? how can that not impact the treatment/prevention of psychological dysfunction, for instance??

What starts as 'endless speculation' about the possibilities of human betterment, leads to the very real and concrete application of scientific enlightenment to bring those ideals to fruition - that would be an advance; a chipping away at the edifice of imperfection.

Existing knowledge can also be innovatively reconfigured to produce new perspectives of understanding.

However, consciousness will only ever be understood as a subjective experience. Neuroscientists will continue to prod brains and theorise about god-spots and self-will spots (parietal cortex is the new black) and whatnot spots....yes, scientists are human too.

Psychology is actually in a privileged position: it has access to both sides of the fence, and beyond if it feels like it.

Science will help us to play with being human - how fun is that?! ANd who'll be the judge? (usual suspects, I know..) It would be a terrible waste to see all that cumulated knowledge go to waste...

Lab rats are not very different to human rats. I think humans should 'choose' to be their own rats - it's more ethical.

A little known company once philosophically asked 'Where do you want to go today?' What about tomorrow? We don't even know what that 'where' will look like...scary for some, exciting for others...and others still won't give a f@#k because theyre too busy worrying about today's shitty existence..

Are we there yet? Hope not..

'Sacredness' is an anachronism. Humans as we know them will be too.

I may have strayed from your post.

Who are you Holland? And what does it mean to be you in all your cumulativeness? Where do YOU want to go? I don't think youre going anywhere...