Science and the Humanities

At odd moments, often when I’m distracted, it occurs to me that a song or a piece of music has been repeatedly running through my head. It’s an experience nearly everyone has. Sometimes it’s invigorating to realize that you have been striding through the day to the chords of Beethoven, but it’s often quite irritating because you realize you’ve been moping about for hours to some saccharine drivel that you just can’t seem to get out of your head. But how did it get there? How did it escape from the neural cage where it is stored and begin to run loose through consciousness?

This experience is characteristic of lots of our mental activities. If we glance at ourselves out of the corner of our mind’s eye, we often catch sight of many things that are going on just at the edge of awareness: a distant voice repeating over and over to remember to pick up the kids, a snippet of a conversation that we had with someone earlier in the day, a worried thought about a distant loved one, a moment of lingering anger that suddenly burns bright for no good reason, and on and on. Our conscious and near conscious minds are crowded and often very confusing places, and it sometimes seems as if we are holding a small candle trying to make out what is going on in the vast darkness that surrounds us.

These experiences point toward the difficulties we have understanding the world in which we find ourselves. While we seem to live on what Lucretius called “the coasts of light,” in a world that is full of things, qualities and relationships, at least since the seventeenth century, we have come to doubt that this sensorium is reality, and instead have come to conceive of it as a merely mental construction that depends in part on sensation but also on memory, imagination, and language to give us a comprehensive view of the world. Moreover, we have strong evidence that there is a great deal more going on in those dark stretches beyond our immediate consciousness, in part because some of it occasionally wanders into our light: a word we were searching for yesterday is suddenly remembered; the source of some psychic agony that has troubled us since childhood now is surprisingly clear. It is apparent to us in moments like these that something has been going on for a long time that we were unaware of. And then, of course, the very fact that our heart continues to beat, our lungs to draw air, and our other bodily processes to function more or less successfully is an indication of activities of the brain that never come into the light.

Modern biological science is convinced that all of this is not the activity of a trans-substantial soul but the result of electrochemical processes playing out across the structure of our brains. To paraphrase Hobbes’ objection to Descartes’ assertion that humans are thinking things, “No body, no thinking.” Modern science or at least modern scientism (to use the term Alex Rosenberg urges on us in his essay, “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality“) goes a bit further: consciousness is not merely dependent on the motions of body, but these motions are completely independent of consciousness, which invariably misleads us when we try to understand ourselves. We may believe that we make choices or have goals and purposes, but everything we do is really only the result of dominos falling one after another according to an evolutionary logic that is independent of individual will or initiative. From this perspective we are left like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow watching Toto pull aside the curtain beside the great and powerful Oz, but with the minor difference that what we discover is not a snake oil salesman from Kansas but, as Archibald MacLeish put it, “Nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.”

This view of things has rather dire consequences for humanists (as well as for theists) and all of the works they have produced over the last several thousand years in art, religion, philosophy, history, etc.  Some of their activities from this “scientistic” perspective are relatively innocuous forms of pleasure, akin to masturbation, fun but slightly disreputable, and not truly productive or reproductive. Many of the products of human imagination, purpose, or intention, however, are characterized as misleading and, in the case of religion, as downright dangerous, akin to the instinctual call of lemmings to their final swimathon. Amid these illusions of consciousness, only one is excepted from this general critique, and that is science. Science alone is true. Why among all of our mental activities is science accorded this special status? Science is after all a construction within consciousness and like most other constructions is crucially dependent upon shared consciousness, i.e., language in all of its forms including mathematics (which itself exists only in imaginary time and space). Why does science have any different status than literature, to take just one example? Obviously, it seeks empirical verification and has a method that allows it to measure the likelihood that its constructions reflect reality, but isn’t that true for literature as well? Don’t we sometimes remark when reflecting on a book or a film, “That’s absurd, no one would act in that way.” Moreover, can any scientist give an even plausible (let alone demonstrable) account of what he or she does that does not include intentions or goals that motivate and guide his or her behavior? If science denies the reality of such intentionality, then it is difficult to see how science itself is anything other than a (highly unlikely) random walk through language and how civilization is anything more than the result of millions of monkeys pounding away on millions of typewriters (and lots of other things) producing all the works of art, literature, science, etc. not merely in the British Museum but everywhere else as well.

I don’t mean to suggest that science is false or to diminish its importance for our lives. Indeed, as a collective enterprise it is one of, if not the greatest of, all human achievements. What I want to suggest is that science is only possible within consciousness and that any scientific attempt to explain the universe must accept the reality of the conscious activity that makes science itself possible. This does not mean, of course, that science must accept all forms of conscious experience as true, but it does mean that science cannot reject them all out of hand as illusory or misleading.

In trying to make sense of the human, we need to understand the ways in which we are part of the natural world but also the ways in which we are different from other natural beings. Modern biological science since the middle of the nineteenth century has called into question all notions of human superiority. In earlier times humans were imagined to stand somewhere between beasts and gods. With Darwin the distinction between humans and the beasts was effaced. Molecular biology and biochemistry erased the basic distinction between living and not-living things, leaving us like all other beings merely collections of fermions and bosons. While this may well be true, all “things” that make any difference are the result of different organizations of these particles. Life may be the continued development of self-replicating molecules within an environment, but the differences between these self-replicating structures are of considerable importance.

So what then distinguishes the human? Humans are distinct because we are not merely a part of an environment but exist in a world that is much greater than us and yet that is as it is only in and though our understanding of it. My two cats eat, sleep, and play, and are blithely unaware of global warming, the possibility of a catastrophic earth-asteroid collision, and the fact that millions of people (though still very few fellow felines) can hardly wait to know who will be the next American Idol. We humans are concerned (to differing degrees) with all of these things. We have a concept of ourselves existing in a world that is not just a collection of things but a whole (of some sort). It is only because of this that we have and are able to employ science as one of our possible ways of being. The world opens up to us in consciousness not just as the here and now that we sense but as a past that we remember and a future that we anticipate. Because we live in anticipation of a future, we formulate purposes. This process is aided immensely by language that allows us to represent and develop our projects in very complicated ways and to coordinate our efforts not just with proximate individuals but on a global scale. Science is one form of intentional activity within this world that aims at achieving purposes that we have constructed. It seeks to understand how things work in order to more effectively produce what we want and to protect us from what we fear.

"A Pair of Shoes." 1885 oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh.

Science, however, is not the only form of conscious activity through which we engage with the world.  Art, literature, and history, to take just three examples, serve a similar function in giving us an image of the ways in which we exist in the world. The picture science gives us of the world may be extraordinarily powerful and useful to human life, but so is the Henry Fieldings’ portrayal of Tom Jones’ development as a human being or Van Gogh’s depiction of a pair of boots. And they are all products of the imagination and are represented in consciousness, although in quite different ways. Indeed, art and the imagination provide the ground on which science becomes possible, for without the first (poetic/imaginative) act of naming a thing or the relationship between things whether in images, words, or mathematical symbols, no science would be possible.

Science is also only useful to us because we have a conception of ends and purposes that is not derived from science. Bacon was undoubtedly correct in his claim that knowledge is power. While science tells us how things work and thus opens up the possibilities for manipulating our world in countless ways, it does not tell us what to do with this power. The question of purposes is not one that most other beings face. They respond to their circumstances instinctually and achieve lasting change (as a species) only through random variation or chance migration. We change the world intentionally (and also obviously unintentionally). Humans like beavers build dams but if the river dries up we build a different kind of power plant while the beavers can only migrate or die out. We have a notion of the good or goods (whether naturally given, imposed by the powerful, socially-constructed, the result of the belief in divine revelation, or in consequence of a utilitarian aggregation of preferences, etc.) and without such a notion we would have no idea at all of what to do with the power that science gives us.

Art, religion, philosophy, history, literature and the humanities in general are crucial to the determination of the nature of the good(s). This is sometimes a rhetorical process in which individuals attempt to convince others that their vision of the good(s) should be the good(s) for all. At other times individual artists or writers present a vision of the good in order to open up the possibility of conversation and a deliberative process to arrive at an understanding of our goals. The motivation behind these practices is not always conscious, but it is only when they are put in a conscious and communicable form that they become relevant to us.

This notion that we are distinctive because of consciousness does not mean that we are somehow above or free from the evolutionary process. Indeed, our form of consciousness and our concern with the good(s) may be the result of random variation, but it undoubtedly is very useful and helps explain our ability to dominate so many environmental niches. This debate about the good(s), however, is vitally important to what we are and what we will be. Each artist, writer, sculptor, historian, and scientist takes part in this debate in an attempt to shed some light into the darkness beyond the limits of our individual and shared consciousness. That we disagree about what is out there is not surprising. That our anxieties populate the unseen stretches of darkness with bogey men, ghouls, demons, (increasingly sexy) vampires and other such creatures is not surprising. We should not for that reason conclude that all of the products of the imagination are misleading or illusive. Indeed, it is only by means of the representations of the imagination that we have come to have any idea of what it means to be human and to engage in such practices as science.

25 comments to Science and the Humanities

  • Timothy Fuller

    I agree with Michael Gillespie’s argument. It seems to me that there must be a conversation, or an argument, among inquirers into human self-understanding since we do not enjoy simple agreement on how best to explain the human situation. Such conversation or argument inevitably arises, and it does so because we know that we have decided to look at ourselves in one way rather than another. The attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves entirely from the point of view of modern science, or some other perspective, excites a dialectical response such as that Gillespie offers. Why are we bound to understand ourselves in only one way? To appeal to a particular mode of explanation, such as science, always leaves something unaccounted for which many consider important — along lines that Gillespie’s examples suggest — and tempts those attached to a particular explanatory mode to discount the unaccounted for as irrelevant or illusory. Yet that many experience the world in terms of the “irrelevant” or “illusory” remains to be faced. We are familiar with the irritation this produces in those who think they have found the one necessary form of explanation. Assertions that we “ought to adopt” the offered explanation come forth, that we should decide to adopt the offered explanation. It is difficult to get around the presence of these decisions we make either to accept or to dissent from such recommendations or exhortations. An unavoidable expression of agency intrudes which, in some cases, is denied reality in the very explanation to be adopted. The decision-making agent (a human being) can decide to accept a way of thinking which denies agency: As an agent of my self-understanding I express the non-existence of such agency. Who or what is doing this? One might consider distinguishing between exploring what may be learned by adopting the offered explanation as a methodological adventure, and elevating the methodlogical commitment to the level of metaphysical certainty, so that it is not only useful to us but sovereign, perhaps beyond argument. But do we not have to argue for what is beyond argument? How do we get around this? I don’t think we do.

  • Thomas W. Merrill

    I’m much in agreement with Gillespie’s argument about science and the humanities. Let me add a couple of ancillary reflections. Gillespie is surely correct that the central problem for the view that science explains everything is one of self-accounting. Can science explain the scientist? Can it explain the lived experience of being human, or must it dismiss all “first person” accounts as epiphenomenal? At least on some accounts (Hume’s comes to mind) the desire to know the truth is at odds with the beliefs we need to live a healthy life: how then do we account for the lived reality of the desire to know the truth, which surely motivates the scientist qua scientist? Whatever the answer to that question, the serious dispute between neuroscience and its critics, as I understand it, is not primarily over whether this or that result of the scientific study of the human is true; no doubt many of those results are. Nor is it over whether science will make great progress in understanding the mechanics of our brains; it would obviously be silly to be closed to the possibility. Rather, the question turns on whether science isn’t operating with a blinkered view of the human reality right in front of us.

    Let me give an example, the neuroscientific accounts of morality (of the sort given by Patricia Churchland here: Those accounts basically claim that human beings have evolved to be good citizens: because groups can’t survive without defending themselves against outsiders, and because defending the groups sometimes means that individuals will die, human beings have evolved in such a way that they are hardwired to sacrifice themselves. All this may be true as a historical matter. But it does not even begin to explain what it means for me to sacrifice myself for something or somebody else. After all, this is the only life I’ve got; and even if it is true that I’m hardwired to sacrifice for the team, it seems pretty clear on the basis of the neuroscientific point of the view that’s an illusory good for me. Why should we think that the necessities of the group are anything more than collective selfishness? The fact, if it is that, of the evolution of morality can’t possibly answer the question of why I should sacrifice myself here and now. For my genes? But my genes aren’t me. It all sounds like a particularly ham-handed noble lie. It may well be the case that as a matter of fact we are hard-wired for altruism: but surely that will sooner or later fall before our growing technological powers. I don’t of course recommend that outcome, but I do say that it illustrates the basic failure of imagination in the neuroscientific accounts. I don’t believe that when people do heroic actions, they do so automatically and simply on the basis of their hard-wiring. Their hard-wiring surely prepares them for those actions, but we do them a disservice if we think they are somehow blind to the fact that they could well die and that there is not, so far as anyone knows, some afterlife in which their sacrifice will be made good. In at least some cases those acts of self-sacrifice are intentional acts, i.e., carried out in full knowledge of the consequences. To be sure, it is a problem as to whether those actions are in the end finally coherent, or if so, coherent in the light of what end. One could perhaps say that such actions are praiseworthy because they require an awareness and positive acceptance of the fact of our mortality that most of us try like crazy to avoid: self-sacrifice reveals something of a superior ability to face up the existential facts of our lives. But the key point here is that the scientistic account fails to even see a problem, and therefore fails to see clearly the whole human phenomenon, life as it is lived from the inside and well as life as seen from the outside.

    The upshot is not, I think, a matter of rejecting neuroscience out of hand, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a matter of looking for that favorite whipping boy of the neuroscientists, a soul separable from our bodies. Whatever it is that makes us distinctively human certainly seems firmly entangled in the mechanics of our bodies. We might do better to ask, not whether human beings are “ultimately” material or something else, but whether we’ve really understood the human reality right in front of us. As Gillespie suggests, we can learn more, a lot more, about these matters from poets, historians, theologians, and so forth than we can from science proper.

  • Martin Roth

    The essay by Gillespie and the subsequent comments by Fuller and Merrill raise the point that there is an apparent tension in a position that says science offers a complete account of humans and the world we inhabit. Roughly, the tension appears to be this: science is a purposeful activity made possible by consciousness, but the emerging picture of the world offered by scientists is that purpose and consciousness are, quite likely, illusions. The problem is that, if we take the science seriously, then science cannot tell the whole story (since it fails to account for the very purposes and consciousness that make science possible). On the other hand, if we try to affirm that science provides the whole story, then we undermine the presuppositions which make science as a human activity intelligible (alternatively, science itself would emerge as just one more illusion; but then why accept the science…).

    Now, I am not terribly confident that this is (one of) the points being made. Sometimes it looks like the point is rather along the lines of the one Thomas Nagel tried to make in “What is it like to be a bat?”, i.e., that science aspires to a kind of objectivity that–given the nature of the objective and subjective–would preclude science from accounting for consciousness. Perhaps both points are being suggested, of course. It may turn out, too, that I haven’t done justice to any of the points, in which case I am simply missing the point.

    Suppose, however, that my characterizations are (at the very least) on the right track. Is there anything that the science-tells-us-everything crowd could say by way of a plausible response? I think so. In fact, I think lots could be said. For now, though, I will try to focus on just one line of response. Here it is:

    The way the tension is set up presupposes an outcome to the very issues that are in dispute. For example, Daniel Dennett has spent decades arguing that most people think about consciousness in a way that comes apart under close inspection (he calls it “The Cartesian Theater”). So, on the one hand, Dennett does deny the existence of consciousness; or rather, he denies a particular but pervasive take on what consciousness is. On the other hand, Dennett would no doubt agree that consciousness is required for doing science. When we assert the latter kind of claim, however, we must be careful not to prejudice matters by acting as if the phenomenon of consciousness was already completely transparent to us. Or, to put the point another way, there is a reading of the claim that consciousness is required for doing science that is uncontroversial, but not terribly informative. But this reading does not rely on the understanding of consciousness that scientists are allegedly debunking (or, minimally, there are debunking arguments which do not reduce to sheer non-sense the claim that consciousness is required for doing science). If it did so rely, then the argument against the science-explains-everthing crowd would simply be begging the question (since that crowd demands that an argument be given for thinking that, when it comes to consciousness, people have a certain authority over consciousness, an authority that requires no training or education, an authority which cannot be corrected or overturned by science, an authority which they do not have regarding other topics, e.g., quantum mechanics).

    Finally, and speaking in more general terms, it’s not clear that the strategy of reconciling a traditional picture of the humanities with the sciences will work. The problem is not that we have no way of ruling out the humanities as a legitimate knowledge-gaining enterprise; rather, the problem is that the view of the world that the humanities have often provided is inconsistent with the view of the world that the sciences provide. As I understood him, this was one of the points Alex Rosenberg was suggesting (in the piece that Gillespie mentions). If you are prepared to take the sciences seriously, then you just might have to give up a conception of humans that, historically, the humanities has delivered. But if you do that, then the authority of the humanities begins to look suspect. Wilfrid Sellars once said that the job of philosophy is to reconcile the “manifest image” of man with the “scientific image” of man. However, there are no guarantees that this reconciliation is possible (a point which Sellars himself acknowledged).

    • Charles Wolverton

      Prof Roth:

      I think the “apparent tension” in the position that says science offers a “complete account of humans and the world we inhabit” is only apparent, as it is unclear to me who, if anyone, holds that position. There seems to be an implicit assumption in many comments on these two essays that Prof Rosenberg does, but I did not read him as suggesting that. And another of his papers (cited below) seems to suggest that he in fact does not.

      There may be some confusion about the significance of the statement “the physical facts fix all the facts”, perhaps being interpreted as “science offers a complete account of everything”. In the cited paper, he indicates that only physicalism is to be understood by the slogan and notes that a physicalist can also be anti-reductionist which, in the form Prof Rosenberg calls metaphysical anti-reductionism (easy for him to say!), I take to be denial that such a “complete account” can be developed. Since Prof Rosenberg clearly believes that there can be anti-reductionist physicalists, it follows that he doesn’t believe there is currently such an account.

      I see this posture as somewhat analogous to a mathematical existence proof. It doesn’t follow from the proven existence of some mathematical entity that one can necessarily find instances of it. Similarly, believing that “physics fixes all the facts” doesn’t imply that one understands the mechanism by which it does so.

      Although I am quite familiar with the hazards of self-referential statements, I don’t see that they apply with respect to consciousness. I think that again, some may have read into Prof Rosenberg’s essay more than was actually there. I see his claim as being that the incorrigibility of introspection is the illusion, not consciousness itself. As you indicate in your comment, Dennett thinks the Cartesian theater view of consciousness is an illusion, but that’s an entirely different position. One day (I suspect relatively soon), science will get a good grip on consciousness, and all but one (possibly all) of the current theories about it will be shown to be illusory. And science will march on.

      In any event, I agree that “we must be careful not to prejudice matters by acting as if the phenomenon of consciousness was already completely transparent to us”. The wide variety of incompatible opinions about consciousness should give us pause in being too specific about what consciousness is or isn’t, can or can’t do, etc. and in attributing any position re consciousness to “science”, ie, to scientists collectively.

      That “the view of the world that the humanities have often provided is inconsistent with the view of the world that the sciences provide” doesn’t seem to me to be the big problem that you and Prof Gillespie see. It is also true that the view of the world that much pre-modern science provided is inconsistent with the view of the world that current science provides, but science has adapted. It appears that the humanities are doing so as well (eg, the emergence of evolutionary and neurological psychology). Some disciplines may suffer, but that’s the nature of “creative destruction”.
      How to Reconcile Physicalism and Antireductionism about Biology, Rosenberg and Kaplan:

  • Charles Wolverton

    Admiring “The Pair of Shoes” in the Van Gogh museum, I might say in reverent tones to the gentleman standing next to me, “How awe inspiring that an illusion created by the skillful application of oil paint to canvas speaks so eloquently of struggle, pain, perseverance, and hope”. I might even describe my reaction as being “enchanted”. Learning that he was a professor of philosophy, I would eagerly grasp the opportunity to engage him in conversation about my current lay passion, philosophy of mind, perhaps noting that I am, in Prof Rosenberg’s sense, “disenchanted”.

    A fantasy intended to emphasize the importance of context in our use of language. Metaphorical talk of images that “speak” of emotions and result in “enchantment” is entirely appropriate – perhaps even necessary – in discussing painted boots as metaphor. The same talk by a forensics expert concerning real boots submitted as evidence would be entirely inappropriate and unprofessional.

    In his recent essay, Prof Rosenberg argued that there is no “purpose” in the context of particle physics, and I understood him to mean the word in the “cosmic” sense of expressions like “for what teleological purpose was this entity put on earth”. And a nihilist with respect to cosmic purpose in that context who is also a nomological monist (my take on “physics fixes all the facts”) must be a nihilist with respect to cosmic purpose “all the way down”, or in this case, all the way up to the “different organization of these particles” (per Prof Gillespie’s important observation about things that “make any difference”) that results in the human context. On the other hand, in this essay (and many comments on Prof Rosenberg’s essay), “purpose” is apparently being used in the sense of “purposiveness” or ‘intentionality” (an even more problematic word) exclusively in the human context. So, it seems that the disputants are to some extent talking past one another. But I see no reason detente can’t be achieved since presumably everyone could agree that it is possible to be a nihilist with respect to cosmic purpose in general without necessarily being one with respect to human quotidian purposiveness.

    I see a related problem with “consciousness”, a word useful in casual conversation but warranting considerable care in any discussion intended to be at all technical. In particular, assertions like “science is only possible within consciousness” and “we are distinctive because of consciousness” seem debatable even if one is able to attach meaning to them – which, as one leaning towards eliminativism with respect to consciousness, I find difficult. In any event, as apparently understood by Prof Gillespie, consciousness seems a bit of a Swiss army knife of capabilities – providing incorrigible access to the inner world as well as to outer worlds both present and future, constructing concepts in cooperation with others, establishing foundations for science, et al. This raises suspicions that the concept is being asked to do work for which it is not necessarily the best tool. (Not to mention the poetic picture of consciousness as a field through which escaped memories gaily romp.)

    Notwithstanding being a “techie”, I’m all for Rorty’s suggested “dedivinization” of everything, including science. So, if that is Prof Gillespie’s (either quotidian or cosmic) purpose in the essay, I champion it. However, an assertion such as “Humans are distinct because we … exist in a world that is much greater than us”, a world “that is not just a collection of things but a whole (of some sort)” can cause some discomfort in those who are disenchanted (Rosenberg sense) and may infer from such assertions some residual divinization. But if – as seems to be the case in the essay – such assertions are merely metaphorical and intended only to enchant (Van Gogh boots sense) the reader with respect to our species’ many impressive achievements, count me in.

  • There aren’t many scientifically minded people who claim the consciousness and purpose are illusory. However, there are many (and I count myself as one) who hold that purpose and consciousness can and ought to be explained within natural scientific framework.

    Saying that a phenomenon is physical and biological, or that it can be exhaustively accounted for in terms of deterministic forces acting upon physical structures, is not the same as saying that they are illusions. In fact, it’s saying the exact opposite. To say (for example) that consciousness is a neurophysiological phenomenon entails a commitment to, not a denial of, its reality. Explaining something is not the same as explaining it away.

    The interesting dispute is not about whether humans and other organisms can be conscious or have purposes. It’s about how consciousness and purposiveness are best explained. The really significant and difficult questions concern how we can account for such phenomena within the metaphysical framework of natural science, and how we can bring scientific and “humanistic” explanations into relation with one another. And if we can’t do this, why it is that we can’t.

  • Tracy Strong

    Michael Gillespie finds the distinctiveness of the human in its (our) ability to grasp that we live in a whole (consciousness) and in the representations of its (our) imagination. In this we are different – he pretty much says “superior” — from other sentient beings (animals). We are, however, in danger of losing the sense of the human through the privilege accorded on an increasingly universal basis to science.

    Against this Gillespie proposes that we reverse the hierarchy: the abilities that make us human should be understood to underlie other human activities, including that of science – particularly in its eliminative materialist (neuro-chemically focused) aspects that are increasingly prominent).

    I am in agreement with much of what Gillespie says. Nevertheless let me add a few points and raise a few questions. The eliminative materialist program that Gillespie opposes rests on two additional premises that need to be spelled out. First it is itself consciously reductionist but not necessarily atomistically reductionist. That is, “macro properties” can be explained in terms of “micro properties” but not necessarily on a one to one basis. Especially in the case of question like human consciousness (as oppose to say some aspects of optics), the micro properties often form a system or a set of possible systems that have themselves to be understood. Thus a given gene (a micro property) may under different conditions participate in several macro properties (hair color, etc…). This understanding entails a second premise: the complexity of what we are trying to understand will therefore be solved only through technological progress – new and more complex forms of observation.

    The faith in science that Gillespie alludes to thus requires a faith in technology. If one speaks to philosophers who hold to this vision of the human being, one typically finds that at a certain point they tell you “that “we are making good progress on that problem.” As Patricia Churchland writes: “Certainly at this stage we have no non-invasive technology at the neuronal level of resolution to achieve [moment by moment prediction]… though for all one can be sure now, advances in technology may improve predictions.”

    I am in agreement with Gillespie in rejecting the claim that human activity is “but the result of electrochemical processes playing out across the structure of our brains.” But I do not see any particular reason to reject the notion that for every human activity (to take his example, Van Gogh painting the shoes) an electro-chemical process takes place – but the painting is not its result (nor, obviously is it the same. Brain-states are not causal in the usual senseof the word. Hence it seems to me possible to retain the reality of brain-states without being reductionist. At which point, of course, one has made a lot of progress in understanding brain-states but none in understanding the painting.

    Secondly, the eliminative materialist approach must have trouble with learning. Say we both look at Van Gogh’s painting: shall we say that we see the same thing neuro-chemically speaking. On a reductionist view this would imply that our brain-states are identical, which seems improbable. Say then that we read’s Heidegger’s account of it in his ”The Origin of the Work of Art” – I am convinced and you are not (you have read Meyer Shapiro’s attack on Heidegger) – what has changed in each of us in how we see the painting? Say then that we read a critique of Shapiro in, e.g. Babich , Words in Blood Like Flowers – what goes on that you change your mind if you do? The point here is that it is not just that humans produce “representations of the imagination” but that we learn (or refuse to learn) from them that makes the reductionist model difficult. As Wittgenstein said: “People nowadays think, scientists are there to instruct them, poets, musicians etc. to entertain them. That the latter have something to teach them; that never occurs to them.” (Culture and Value, p. 42)

    Two additional points: Gillespie seems overly well informed on the internal life of his cats. I do not know how he knows that they are “blithely unaware” of all sorts of terrible things. Perhaps they are aware and don’t give a damn. A few weeks ago the cats in our house were acting a bit strange—one might call it anxious. I said to my wife: “There is going to be an earthquake.”—“ How do you know?” – “The cats are acting strange.” I was not convincing, either to her or possibly to myself. Half an hour later a 6.1 quake occurred about 200miles away producing just a very small shake in San Diego. The point is that the more we know about animals the harder the distinction he wants to draw becomes. We observe that higher primates appear to have a sense of justice, a sense of fairness, that they are self-policing in groups, and so forth.

    Finally I am not sure how to take Gillespie’s consignment of the beavers to their fate (“we build a different kind of power plant while the beavers can only migrate or die out.”). As he is a student of Heidegger, he cannot but be calling our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of power plants in “The Question Concerning Technology.” Yet that discussion requires of us a radically changed understanding of technology and science, where as Gillespie seems to be saying that science should be content with being useful (not that it is not – I am as in favor of flush toilets as he, even if Ivan Illich has shown how destructive they are to our world (H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness) whereas the question should be can science/technology, as it presently exists and is understood, be kept in the place of remain simply useful?

    Nietzsche said that science was the new religion. He meant by that that science stands for much of the modern world in the way that religion had stood for much of an earlier one. If that is the case, our enterprise should not simply be to reclaim the primacy of human consciousness and of our capacity for representation. It should be to engage in a critique (in the Kantian sense) of science. To paraphrase Marx, “The criticism of science is the premise of all higher criticism.”

    Tracy B. Strong
    University of California, San Diego

  • Finding myself overwhelmingly in agreement with M. Gillespie’s thesis, let me extend and sharpen the perspective he develops for us. I take him to respond principally to claims that consciousness is merely a vicarious and likely self-deceiving effect of somatic, chemical processes. Indeed, such a view not only misses the point of humanist inquiry altogether but (like the categorical claim “I am always lying”) proves self-dismantling and incoherent. Indeed, merely to have advanced such a claim is already to have disproven it, for it shows one to have entered—as all of us must every waking day—the realm of propositional thinking, discursive exchange, and interpretive practice. Whatever its somatic origins, the claim of Rosenberg’s disenchanted naturalist is inevitably made for another consciousness and thus is generative of a hermeneutic reality, rather than being the default of its material, neural underpinnings. The discursive realm to whose vagaries even the most hardened cognitive scientist must submit is inherently concerned with value and, thus, refutes assertions to the effect that consciousness is just one of so many “dominos falling one after another according to an evolutionary logic … independent of individual will or initiative.” I take Gillespie’s phenomenological observation “that science is only possible within consciousness” not only to oppose Rosenberg’s so-called “scientism” but, at least implicitly, to expose the latter view as non-falsifiable, cult-like, and (worst of all) to be fundamentally uninteresting.
    For if “to the modern understanding of nature, the least intelligent has become the most intelligible” (H. Jonas), Nietzsche—always sensitive to how questions of value are masked as (or mistaken for) questions of fact—would have seen cognitive science’s attempt to disarticulate the human being’s unique ontology as another variant of décadence—humans grown fatigued with and eager to shuffle off the hermeneutic burden that defnes their very existence. Since Rousseau’s and Kant’s rejection of mechanist and materialist versions of Enlightenment thought, and continuing through Humboldt, Hegel, Nietzsche, Cassirer, Scheler, Heidegger, A. Gehlen, and Gadamer (to name only a few), the Cartesian and Hobbesian outlook of minds somatically conditioned and relentlessly driven by the mindlessly appetitive and compulsive (of which I take Rosenberg’s argument to be a remote descendant) had already come under deserved and sustained scrutiny. For all of them, what makes consciousness real—and humanistic inquiry so inescapable—is not the factual, “objective” reality of its representations but, rather, the open-ended interpretive struggle to make those representations meaningful (i.e., valuable) for others.
    In the spirit of what Terry Pinkard’s reading of Hegel has analyzed as the sociality of our “conceptions” (Begriffe), I follow Gillespie in arguing that our consciousness is neither something “given” a priori or otherwise fixed; nor is it an inescapable illusion or hysteron proteron carelessly substituted for its alleged somatic foundations. Rather, it is an emergent property or “project.” The reductionist project of scientism cannot teach us anything, because its central premise is to disavow the very property of self-awareness on which the uptake of its own assertions depends. Rosenberg’s dogmatic assertion that “the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else)” directs itself against a reified model of mind, self, and consciousness that hasn’t been seriously held by anyone since the mid-eighteenth century. Yet who, or what, if not some evolving consciousness or mind is it that Rosenberg envisions heeding the card-carrying scientist’s exhortation that “we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind” (italics mine).
    In fact, human consciousness is crucially defined by the absence of instinctual guidance and thus does not admit of mono-causal explanations of the neo-primitivist kind advanced by scientism. Instead, as minded beings we are ontologically constrained to develop an interpretive and reflexive perspective on our very existence, which (unlike animals) we always encounter as a problem vis-à-vis we must develop a perspective. That why Arnold Gehlen calls man ein Stellung-nehmendes Wesen. Humanistic inquiry is all about such “perspectivism,” a second-order reflection on precisely this, our uniquely human and most precarious situatedness. It is not concerned with solving problems in a factual, objective, and methodologically bounded manner; Gillespie’s cats—so scandalously unaware of the many perils and imponderables of the world—may indeed be untroubled by global warming or who will be the next American idol. By contrast, notwithstanding the vigorous attempts of neuro-science and popular culture alike to reduce the mind to the wholly vegetative—a lazy molecular tropism occasionally interrupted by a cascade of neurons firing—we cannot but stand in a relationship of uncertainty, curiosity, anxiety, and constantly evolving speculation vis-à-vis all these questions, however overwhelming or trivial.

  • Matthias Riedl

    Michael Gillespie’s humanist essay defends the multidimensionality of human existence. He wonders about mental activities that point to the less luminous dimensions of consciousness, about experiences that resist the integration into one-dimensional conceptions of reality, about motivations, expectations, and intentions that seem to persist in humankind without revealing their selection advantage. Gillespie concludes that human consciousness ought to be subject to various forms of illumination and exploration of which science is but one. Moreover, the scientific world-view, its goals and principles are themselves events within consciousness. However, Gillespie’s impressive phenomenological meditation could receive argumentative support from a historical perspective on the subject.

    Some 170 years ago, Auguste Comte wrote his “Cours de Philosophie Positive” which predicted that soon all known phenomena would fall into one of the five categories astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and social physics; and all would be explained by natural laws. Comte’s optimism was partly motivated by the exciting research results in “phrenology” (an early form of brain science). This new sub-discipline of physiology aimed to explore the neuronal structures and processes underlying human behaviour and thereby providing a firm basis for a new science that Comte named “social physics” and later “sociology”. Sociology would eventually conquer the last domain of metaphysics and theology, the social world. In the same moment, a positive philosophy, comprehending and overlooking all sciences, would be in the position to “constitute the mind of future generations.”

    It seems that so many years later, after great new discoveries and the emergence of new disciplines like evolutionary biology, genetics, and quantum physics, we are standing pretty much at same point. The total explanation of man by exclusively positive sciences is still a great promise to some and a great threat to others. Yet, there is overwhelming empirical evidence that this vision will never come true. One may look at the positivism and scientism as constructions within consciousness; but this perspective does not explain why they emerge, not coincidentally, in certain times and places. Karl Löwith and others have quite convincingly shown that positivism and scientism have their place in intellectual historicity, where their traditional symbolisms reveal them as modern manifestations of eschatological hopes for cognitive and social perfection.

    Finally, if the history of the sciences would not be the esoteric field that it is right now but hold a more prominent place in higher education, the humanities could develop a more relaxed relation toward the sciences; and the sciences would have reason for more modesty.
    It is worth remembering that some of the most important insights into the not biologically determined, cultural and social dimensions of human development, thought, and behaviour we owe to the Swiss zoologist Adolf Portmann and the British biochemist Joseph Needham. In both cases the historical knowledge made them aware of the limits of the sciences. Yet, they also understood that a true collaboration and mutual respect between the sciences and the humanities is needed for a promising exploration of the human condition.

    Matthias Riedl
    Central European University, Budapest

  • Yaron Ezrahi

    Science and the Humanities
    Yaron Ezrahi

    As humans we live not only by our genes but also by our metaphors. Michael Gillespie is right in focusing on the role of the imagination in generating both science and the humanities and in his skepticism that products of the humanities can be fully accounted for in terms of materialistic scientific conceptions of causality. Since as a part of our consciousness the faculty of the imagination has the powers to respond to a variety of human needs and aspirations any attempt to make them cohere in a holistic account of diverse human enterprises amounts in my opinion to committing what I call “the fallacy of misplaced rationality”.
    Following an exchange between Bergson and Einstein in which the French philosopher asked Einstein to respect common sense conception of time Merleau-Ponty interpreted Einstein’s position as suggesting that “it is science alone that we must go to for the truth…” This interpretation is consistent with Einstein’s belief that naïve realism is but “a plebeian illusion”. But just as the imaginaries and metaphors of science are tested by their efficacy in organizing sense experience, theorizing and predicting the behavior of matter so the imaginaries of common sense are tested by their ability to enable horizontal human communications and cooperation and artistic imaginaries are tested by their ability to inspire and impart aesthetic experience.
    There is no reason, in my opinion, to believe that the study of the human brain and the distinctly human by the cultural products of Plato, Shakespeare, Mondrian, Einstein or Schoenberg contribute less to our understanding of the distinctly human than the study of material-physiological infrastructure of our perceptions and ideas.
    Vico, who insisted on the origins of religion, philosophy and politics in the imaginaries carved out by the first poets, did not hesitate to write in the early 18th century on “the poetics of science”. Since as Geertz insightfully observed “the real is just as imagined as the imaginary” the effort to privilege the real and the truth of only one domain of the imagination like neuronpsychology, genetics or religion inevitably impoverish human experience and in the social context invites coercion.

  • I too seem to be in agreement with Gillespie. The current boom in so-called brain philosophy is an attempt to cash in on the extraordinary explosion in legitimate biological science. Suppose we knew the correlation between every modification of consciousness and an equation or formula. How would this knowledge obliterate the difference between a scientific formula and a discursive explanation and evaluation of the function of the purpose? Does the cognitive scientist experience a sentence of some sort that alerts the reader by announcing: here comes a poem? Aren’t the formulae illiterate or rather mute concerning the meaning and value of their own occurrences? Finally, didn’t Hume show us long ago that two distinct items are not necessarily causally connected? If a caveman hits his wife over the head with his club, is her subsequent modification of her behavior a proof that her physical response is the same as her perceptual or cognitive response? How can it be a scientific comprehension of the brain to begin by dissolving the phenomena to be explained?

  • I’m a practitioner of science and both the creative and analytic aspects of the humanities. What I see is complementarity, not conflict at any basic level. They all tend to increase our understanding. But understanding of what?

    In discussions like the one we’re having it’s important to distinguish consciousness from free will. They are both introspectively obvious. However, there’s a plausible hypothesis (not adequately established, contra much popular press) that free will is itself an unconscious phenomenon, operating very slightly before our conscious awareness of it. If this happens to be the case, consciousness is indeed an epiphenomenon with respect to our immediate actions. It’s still there, though; we needn’t revert to behaviorism. What we take to be free will would then be real but a reflection of a nonconscious process with a consciousness-like structure. Furthermore, consciousness would (so far as the evidence goes) still be available for synthesis and analysis despite the known subconscious activity in these realms. More needs to be said and discovered; thought remains important.

    Why has consciousness evolved? I don’t know. We must recognize, though, that it comes in degrees, both in our own everynight experience and in the larger world around us. (Are monkeys as conscious as we are? I have no idea.) And I hope that none of us retain the panpsychic notion that it can’t originate within the animal kingdom but must pervade all of reality. Here I’d like to correct a common misperception of evolution that Gillespie seems to hold. The course of phenotypic evolution isn’t determined to any appreciable extent by what mutations happen to arise, randomly or not. Rather it’s natural selection that, in a real sense, creates novelty and modifies it as circumstances change.

    Discreteness is usually a human superposition on reality. It makes perception and thought easier at the expense of accuracy. Concepts as well as objects usually have fuzzy boundaries. Just how fuzzy the boundary between the conscious and the subconscious is, and how the boundary varies with respect to whatever may affect it, are challenging questions.

    Science and the analytical humanities, with mathematics overlapping both, give us knowledge about aspects of the real world and their interrelations. The creative humanities, on the contrary, give us knowledge about the affective or emotional part of ourselves, most of which is unavailable to conscious introspection. They bring bits of the subconscious into conscious awareness, although often not into understanding. They can be thought of as reaching into the soul.

    I profoundly regret the submergence of beauty and real meaning in all the creative arts during the past century. There are of course viable remnants, sometimes even prominent ones. What we have lost, though, is pervasive exploration of the soul in ways that give insight beyond what we had before.

    Is there an artistic sense in any nonhuman animals? Just how do humans vary, from time to time and individual to individual and culture to culture, in their artistic apperception and creativity? What causes the differences? “Treasure your exceptions,” a homily from genetics, applies here also. Marginal cases test hypotheses, and too little attention and support is given to exploratory efforts in science. In the artistic world, though, there seems to be no sense as to when a direction of exploration fails to be productive. Fads are no substitute for examination. (Nota bene: “Exceptions prove the rule.” People blithely use this nonsensical motto without realizing that ‘prove’ has changed its meaning; we should now say that exceptions probe the rule.)

    Well, I’ve tried to be brief.

  • Charles Wolverton

    Tracy Strong:

    While I champion your macro/micro perspective(or as I prefer, multiple levels of organizational complexity), I have problems with some subsequent statements:

    “I am in agreement with Gillespie in rejecting the claim that human activity is “but the result of electrochemical processes playing out across the structure of our brains.”

    Words like “but”, “mere”, “only” as in the (rejected) claim in this quote are problematic because from them can be inferred that those who make the claim are ignoring, denying, or otherwise discounting the emergent properties that are consequences of moving attention from micro to macro (lower to higher complexity levels) that you highlight – ie, those properties that emerge at the highest complexity levels and make us “distinctly human”. So, if I edit the claim to eliminate the “but” – thereby intending to preclude such inferences – do you still reject it? And if so, to what might one attribute those emergent properties instead?

    “Brain-states are not causal in the usual sense of the word.”

    What is the “usual sense” of causal, and in what alternative sense are brain states causal?

    “the eliminative materialist approach must have trouble with learning”

    I suspect any approach will have trouble, but why EM more than others? Advances have already been made in understanding – at the neural level – both near and long term learning in simpler organisms that apparently are relevantly similar to us. If learning turns out (as seems possible, even likely) to be essentially brain reconfiguration at the neural level, doesn’t that suggest that EM may be correct with respect to learning?

    “Say we both look at Van Gogh’s painting: shall we say that we see the same thing neuro-chemically speaking. On a reductionist view this would imply that our brain-states are identical”

    The part right after the colon seems garbled, so I’m not clear whether it’s a hypothesis or an assertion. In either case, based even on my limited understanding of the sensory and neurological processes, it seems clearly false. First (and most trivial), we would receive different sensory inputs from the painting owing to our different perspectives (in the geometric sense)Also, the initial sensory response would be different due to the different configurations of our retinas, optic nerves, etc, and our resulting optic neuronal responses, being analog, would be quantitatively different. But most important, the overall response (including changes in brain state) to visual stimuli presumably involves a complex interaction among responses from many neural subsystems, including those involved in “recording” our life histories (eg, knowing or not knowing about the artist’s life, techniques, etc). So, it seems that a “reductionist view” would actually lead to the conclusion that our brain states would be dramatically different.

    • Tracy Strong

      Dear Charles Wolverton:

      many thanks for your thoughtful comments, which point out to me where I should have been clearer.

      In sequence:
      “I am in agreement with Gillespie in rejecting the claim that human activity is “but the result of electrochemical processes playing out across the structure of our brains.”

      I was trying to question the notion that they were the RESULT, which seems to me to imply a standard sense of causality. I am aware of the studies that show that changes in brain states precede the experience of intentionality but i do not conclude from that that there is a causal relation in the usual way we think of cause. (Inevitably this is going to involve us in a rethinking of what we mean by causality.)

      “I suspect any approach will have trouble, but why EM more than others”

      Here the question depends on how one understands “brain reconfiguration.” I do think that this takes place (and there is some evidence that it does) but then it must be at some level constantly going on — and while we are still materialist, what exactly have we eliminated?

      “Say we both look at Van Gogh’s painting: shall we say that we see the same thing neuro-chemically speaking. On a reductionist view this would imply that our brain-states are identical”

      After the colon was intended to be a question. We are clearly looking at the SAME painting (I do not think that one can legitimately add “different for me” here or anywhere — but there is an argument to be had here — so I resist that ‘different perspectives argument’ as a useful thing to say). Even accepting the differences you go on to enumerate (how do we know these differences? what differences are they?) we still need to account for a) that it is the same painting and b) we understand it differently and c) we can change our minds about it (what then is the “it”?). If I change my mind, my brain has apparently reconfigured itself — pretty motile the brain must be (and i think that it is) Here the most interesting way to approach this would be to see if PET scans showed anything different when a subject was engaged in (Kantian terms) determinative judgment as opposed to reflective judgment (See Third Critique).

      Thanks again for the comments and clarification — I do not think that we are that far away (see the section on eternal return in my first book on Nietzsche for a sense of why this is like Nietzsche (whom Dennett after all uses as an epigraph…)(my text was written well before I knew anything about these particular matters).

      • Charles Wolverton

        Prof Strong:

        I too think we are largely in agreement. So, just some clarifications. First, from your first comment:

        “it seems to me possible to retain the reality of brain-states without being reductionist. At which point, of course, one has made a lot of progress in understanding brain-states but none in understanding the painting.”

        Rereading this, I think I better understand it and see it as related to my last comment in response to Prof Roth. I tend to look at this from the “different vocabulary” perspective noted therein. If one is doing neurophysiology, reductionism to the “micro” seems inevitable, which necessitates a certain vocabulary; if doing psychology, perhaps the vocabulary of brain-states is applicable; if doing art appreciation, a quite different vocabulary is appropriate. Which was the point of the “fantasy” in my response to Prof Gillespie’s essay: I’m about as “disenchanted” in Prof Rosenberg’s sense as one can get and additionally am interested in some “technical” aspects of art, but in hundreds of visits to art museums and galleries, I’m pretty confident that I never once thought “Oh, this is nothing ‘but’ bosons and fermions”.

        Re causality, here we perhaps have to agree to disagree. Although I consider the free-will vs determinism distinction (I’m assuming this is the essence of your causality concerns) has minimal practical import at the human level (eg, perhaps some rethinking of legal responsibility) and warrants much less attention than it gets, I’m pretty much a strict determinist at all levels. As such, I can dispassionately imagine us as organisms that respond to stimuli by autonomously changing biological state and possibly producing an observable response. A possible consequence of this view is that rather than being an a priori state of the organism that combines with inputs to produce a “decision” as to how to respond to an input, consciousness may instead be an a posteriori report of some aspects of an autonomous response. This would of course be consistent with Libet’s (and apparently others’) observations (assuming, as usual not necessarily correctly, that I understand them).

        By “brain reconfiguration” I mean things like changes in action potentials in neurons and the growth of new terminals on axons. A sentence which, I should note, I can write only because of having recently read Eric Kandel’s book “In Search of Memory”, a very accessible introduction which I recommend to anyone who – like me – is interested in that subject but knows almost nothing about biochemistry, brain physiology, etc.

        “while we are still materialist, what exactly have we eliminated”

        The Ramberg essay to which I alluded earlier addresses this issue (at least obliquely), specifically the ontological status of “the mental” (which presumably subsumes brain states). I’m still fuzzy about the full scope of the conclusion reached in the essay, but I think at the least it includes the contention that brain states are OK to “talk about” in an appropriate vocabulary and that “facts” stated in that vocabulary should not be rank ordered as in some sense (ontological or other) “inferior” to the underlying “facts” stated in the vocabulary of physics. My guess is that Prof Rorty’s final opinion would have been that the ontological status of mental events, and consequently eliminative materialism, are irrelevant.

        The parenthetical “in the geometric sense” was intended to indicate that I wasn’t using “perspective” in the philosophical (relativist) sense but in the physical sense: our eyes can’t be at the same point in space and in any event have different retinal structural details, so the light from the painting will excite the rods and cones differently and result in different sensory neuronal behavior (recall that I labeled this difference the “most trivial”). But unquestionably nontrivial is our long term memory that includes much of our unique personal histories and is neurologically distinct because of the physical changes involved in memory. Hence, in my view, for each viewer the sensory inputs due to a painting, the processing of those inputs, and the deterministic response will be unique for each person. And if one understands those viewers to be in every way physically unique and to have unique reactions to stimuli, I see no inconsistency being “disenchanted” and a humanist.

        Sorry for the length but I have no other outlet for my musings, so the temptation is irresistible.


  • Jürgen Gebhardt

    Jürgen Gebhardt

    The Scientistic Temptation and the Dignity of the Human Person

    The ascendancy of the sciences in the West after 1700 fundamentally reshaped the socio-political and mental make-up of the human world insofar as the ‚new science’ became the decisive factor in changing the conditions of human existence. Science’s success in increasing power and prosperity generated a pathos of science that permeated the self-understanding of the society. But, although the utilitarian functional rationality of science is indeed the key to understanding and consequently dominating the realm of phenomena, once science had proven its mastery over nature the temptation arose to expand its principle of causal means-ends rationality into all spheres of human existence. The temptation to overstep the cognitive limits of scientific discourse and treat human beings as if they were mere natural phenomena is the basis of the Weltanschauung of scientism that has accompanied the growth of modern science. It was Immanuel Kant who first theoretically addressed the threat of scientism in order to protect the human sphere of spirituality–the domain of the humaniora. Kant recognized that human beings are indeed subject to the imperatives of nature but, beyond that, their world transcending spiritual nature makes them inhabitants of a moral world. As moral beings they are gifted with an intrinsic freedom and the capacity to commit themselves to moral-practical reason. According to Kant it is this spiritual capacity that bestows personal dignity and absolute value on human beings and demands that they be treated as an end in themselves and never as mere means to an end.
    The scientist vision of an all inclusive functional rationality proceeded from the mathematical-physical sciences to the life sciences to culminate in a neuroscience that denies the substantiality of the spirit and asserts that the self is merely a functional epiphenomenon of the human brain, thus reducing all ,mental activity , consciousness, thinking and feeling to the interaction of neurons .As heir to the pathos of naturalistic absolutism neuroscience proclaims an image of man that is beyond freedom and personal responsibility .Paradoxically, it was an eminent brain scientist, J. C. Eccles, who exposed the illusionary nature of any naturalistic anthropology and reformulated the case for the human being as a ‚consciously experiencing self’’:“In our ultimate efforts to understand the world and ourselves by which I mean …the primary reality of our experiencing selves we as conscious beings must be central to the explanation, all other experiences being more peripheral and derivative.“ – This insight expresses the essential uniqueness of man. From the world of self-awareness springs the world of culture. It is the human capacity for self-interpretation that defines man’s nature as a symbolic being in the sense of Ernst Cassirer: “Without symbolism , the life of men would be like that of the prisoners in the cave of Plato’s famous simile. Man’s life would be confined within the limits of the biological needs and its practical interests; it could find no access to the ideal world which is opened to him from different sides by religion, art, philosophy, science.“
    The humanities are called upon to defend the dignity of the human being on their own terms, but they can also count on the support of the genuine and honest scientist.

  • In “Science and the Humanities” Michael Gillespie presents an elegant and much needed defense of the critical importance of the humanities. After a period of tolerance, if not doubt, scientists, especially social scientists have again been asserting that modern natural science is the only form of human knowledge that deserves to be called knowledge. As Gillespie points out, science qua science cannot account for its own origin in human beings. A study of the distinctive characteristics of human beings is required to do that—as well as to provide guidance concerning the uses of the power science generates.

    Unfortunately, I fear, in arguing for the importance of the humanities to humanists, Gillespie’s blog has something of the character of praising the Athenians to the Athenians. He also makes things a bit too easy for us. In arguing simply that “science” needs to be supplemented with the “humanities” but treating the various kinds of humanistic study or endeavor—artistic, literary, philosophical, or historical—as indifferently useful, he seems to suggest that they all provide different perspectives on the world. He doesn’t address the reasons for the differences among the humanities, much less between the humanities and science. Nor does he acknowledge the difficulties involved in communicating between art and philosophy, for example, much less between poetry and physics. How or why is it the case that we can describe, if not understand some things only in numbers (e.g., string theory), but that we can describe and understand others only in words? Gillespie is absolutely correct in pointing out the need for scientists to recognize the origin of science in the human. But we students of the human also need to try to explain the sources of our difficulties not only in understanding the world around us but also ourselves.

  • Charles Wolverton

    Mr. Gebhardt perpetuates the theme of conflict between the humanities and scientism and loads the dice by characterizing the former as “defenders” of the “dignity of the human”, the latter as comprising people who “treat human beings as if they were mere natural phenomena”. Any position can, of course, be made to look bad by misrepresenting it. I addressed the pesky “mere” in a previous comment, but much worse is this use of “treat”.

    When addressing the relationship between science and a human being, it is important to make clear what level of organizational complexity (cf Tracy Strong’s macro/micro distinction) is being addressed. At lower levels of organizational complexity, the human organism obviously is viewed by science as exhibiting “merely” natural phenomena. But describing that as “treat[ing] human beings” – a phrase appropriate to higher levels of organization – seems a serious abuse of language. This could be written off as the careless editing typical of blog comments were it not for introduction of the Kantian means-ends distinction and explicit reference to how human beings should be “treated”. This suggests a moral axis, and it is clear who is assumed to sit where on it. (This is not an effective way of enlisting “honest scientists” to a cause.)

    An error I see running through the consistently anti-scientism essay and comments is the implicit assumption that a Rosenberg-style science-induced nihilism inevitably has some dangerously deleterious effect on one’s attitude towards other human beings – an assumption belied by numerous public humanists, who I feel confident are nihilists of that stripe, and by humanist friends who I know are. Consistent with that assumption is the assertion “neuroscience proclaims an image of man that is beyond freedom and personal responsibility”, a sweeping indictment. Since “freedom” and “personal responsibility” are not elaborated and neither argument nor evidence is offered, a direct response is precluded. However, one can make the general observation that attributing to “neuroscience” a consensus view on any issue appropriate to higher levels of organization – eg, an “image of man” – seems rather premature. As I recall, a guest on Charlie Roses’s “brain series” speculated that some critical neurological issue might be resolved “in a hundred years” – hardly grounds for proclaiming an imminent threat from a foe with a unified view of “man”.

    Note: Brain scientist Eccles was – according to wikipedia – a “devout theist” and – according to his colleague Eric Kandel – a lifelong dualist. Some might find that more of a paradox than that he expressed insight into the “essential uniqueness of man”.

  • Martin Roth

    I see two ironies in the way that this discussion is unfolding.

    The first is that, as Charles Wolverton points out, it’s not the actual scientists who are declaring the death of purpose, consciousness, value, and meaning. In fact, some of the most prominent scientists studying consciousness (Christof Koch and Francis Crick, to name two) take quite seriously that there are features of conscious experience that will not easily give way to explanatory reduction (which is not necessarily the same thing as elimination, by the way, or type-type identity theory). Those who are most famously associated with deflationary and/or eliminativist accounts of consciousness are philosophers, e.g. Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland (Rosenberg is a philosopher, too, remember!).

    Furthermore, the “scientism” being attacked here appears to be a conception of science that basically died in the 1950s, and both Dennett and Churchland were deeply influenced by some of the most ardent critics of positivism, e.g., Sellars and Kuhn.

    What Dennett and Churchland share is an antipathy towards Cartesianism, by which I mean the assumption that the reality of our mental lives is introspectively transparent. In this respect, Dennett and Churchland side with, e.g., Rorty (and Hegel!), in denying immediacy. But now, as far as I can tell, most of the commentators here are deeply sympathetic to all of this. So what’s going on?

    That’s the second irony. No one here is defending consciousness in the way that, say, Thomas Nagel would. No one wants to embrace Cartesian epistemology about self-knowledge. And yet–and yet–there is something strangely Cartesian about the attacks on science here. Descartes could see the implications of the new sciences for what humans beings are, and he made it his job to insulate the self, the mind, the free and rational person, from the emerging mechanical philosophy. So we get substance dualism. Since substance dualism is no longer deemed respectable among the sophisticated, it gets replaced with other dualisms, among them the dualism of nature vs. culture (read: science vs. humanities). An inevitable by-product of this, of course, is that we look for the “proper limits” on this or that, or we try to subordinate one to the other (science is “exposed.” By…whom? Philosophers? Literary critics?).

    I would have thought that the “lesson” of thinkers like Nietzsche was that these Archimedean points are not there, and thus the very arguments which generate this conclusion cannot claim this privilege. To be sure, this does expose the claims that some philosophers and scientists have made in the name of science, but who really believes in this kind of foundationalism any more? Or, more to the point, what reason is there for thinking that those who look to be challenging purpose, meaning, value, consciousness, etc., assume such a foundationalism?

    Which brings me to a final point. Both the sciences and the humanities have to explain themselves from within, but not in the sense of ‘within the humanities’ and ‘within the sciences,’ but rather within what Quine called ‘the entire web of belief.’ Alterations within the web are possible, but they cannot be made by isolating some portion of those beliefs and declaring them immune from revision, for this would presuppose the very foundationalism that can no longer be sustained. But for those who are sympathetic to this Quinean perspective, the consequence is that there can be no “critique” of this or that activity that can claim a privileged status. It is no longer a viable option to challenge the claims of science at some sort of “meta” level–the challenges have to be first-order, as it were.

  • Charles Wolverton

    Prof Roth:

    You presumably can imagine how pleased I was to read your comment.

    Your allusion to “privileged status” motivated me to resurrect a comment composed earlier but unposted. Based on your comment, I would guess that the cited material will not be new to you, but others might find it useful:
    Part of Bjorn Ramberg’s essay in “Rorty and His Critics” appears to be directly on point for the present discussion. An attempt to summarize the relevant parts in a comment for this forum revealed my continuing confusion on some of its subtle points. But FWIW, my take on the bottom line is that from the perspective of some who have taken “the linguistic turn” (eg, Davidson, Rorty, and Ramberg), rather than worrying about differences in perspective among the relevant disciplines on “the human condition” – differences framed in terms of ontological status, underdetermination/indeterminacy, nomological relationships, reducibility, etc. – we could more profitably view the disciplines pragmatically as employing different vocabularies as tools useful in pursuing different human objectives. And by thereby avoiding attempts to “rank-order’ the “truths” (ie, facts) discovered by the disciplines, Rorty’s goal of “putting physics and poetry on equal footing” would be advanced, perhaps resulting in peace between the humanities and the sciences, a peace I infer from the comments is not currently at hand.
    “who really believes in this kind of foundationalism any more?”

    Having little or no exposure to living, breathing philosophers (other than via a couple of blogs), I have no idea what goes on in the profession, but I found this (rhetorical) question surprising. Is the implied answer really true?

  • Susan Shell

    I am struck by the seriousness of the conversation provoked by Michael Gillespie’s searching essay, and by the contrast it brings out between the undeniable power of modern science (e.g., to build nuclear weapons) and the problematic status of its claims upon the truth. Perhaps this is another subject on which one might turn one’s attention. Is science that does not claim to know the truth about the world science at all? Might we wish to reserve that title for knowledge of a certain kind — knowledge that in knowing what it knows also knows that matters couldn’t be otherwise? Modern science, it would seem, abandoned the attempt to know “nature” in this way in order to secure a way to “conquer” it. Modern thought, one might almost be tempted say, abandoned “science” for “technology.” Alternatively, it rejected natural kinds or “natures” and a related natural teleology for a purposeless, deterministic “nature” onto which human purposes were (freely) overlaid. The multiple theoretical and practical difficulties this posed are a well-known story. Suffice it to say, that subsequent efforts to reground science in a manner consistent with human freedom (say, with Kant, in the transcendental conditions of consciousness, or, with Hegel, in a totalizing system that leaves no question unanswered) have not proved universally convincing or otherwise acceptable. It is perhaps necessary to raise again the question of science — of whether modern science might not have taken a wrong turn, or, at the very least, whether its insights might need supplementation. Above all, it may be necessary to rethink the way that modern science has, from the beginning, dealt with the problem of foundations, lest Nietzschean skepticism become as much a dogma for us as scholasticism once was for those whom modern scientists wished to challenge.

  • Jessica Waters

    I agree with Gillespie’s argument about the relations between consciousness and Science and the Humanities. He brings out a good point that my classmates have previously talked about. What distinguishes a human? I believe our ability to have a conscious mind uniquely separates us from all other things including animals. Humans have choices, purposes, and goals in our lives guided by free will. I believe animals exhibit a different kind of consciousness from humans because they are not guided by free will. Since humans appear to be of the superior kind, animals are not regarded as persons. That statement brings up another point, What distinguishes a person? But back to the article, animals are controlled by humans which rejects the idea that they have a free will. That is not to say that they do not have a conscious mind, they are highly aware of their actions, but cannot make their own choices in some circumstances. They do not have the choice to remain alive because as humans, we are obligated to kill them for survival. The author explains that Art, literature, and poetry give us an image of the ways we exist in the world. Science is highly regarded as the main component that tries to seek and provide answers to why things are the way they are. He says that Science is only possible with consciousness. I believe this statement is true because a human being needs some sort of mentality to believe any theory or explanation is true. I believe he wanted to explain that although Science provides explanations, humanities also plays a role in our existence. I also feel that humans constrain their mind to one belief, for example what constitutes a human? Humans unable to expand the knowledge nor mind limits the amount of imagination.

  • Leigh Van Valen

    It’s foolish as well as arrogant to criticize what one doesn’t understand.

  • The debate about the nature of science and its relation to the humanities as it unfolds in the series of insightful responses seems to circle around several questions: 1) What are the limits of scientific knowledge and do scientists or the interpreters of science overstep these limits? 2) Does either science or the humanities have an adequate view of consciousness? 3) Are the scientific and the humanistic attempts to understand the human necessarily at odds or can they be complementary? 4) Are purposes, values, or notions of the good essential to human activities and thus to science? and 5) Do we need such purposes and values in order to sustain human civilization or is it sufficient that we are programmed by an evolutionary logic to be nice? Let me try to respond to these in order.

    I think that many of the most ardent proponents of science (although less often scientists themselves) imagine that science can provide us with a comprehensive explanation of everything. Descartes, for example, imagined that he had completed four of the five steps necessary to achieve a comprehensive mathesis universalis that would offer a solution to every possible problem. If he lived long enough and received some public support, he was convinced that he could complete the task. Matthais Riedl points to Comte’s similar optimism. As Tim Fuller points out, the methodological adventure of modern science in this way often seems to become a metaphysical certainty. Jürgen Gebhardt suggests that this tendency to overreach has an eschatological component that can be traced back to modern science’s origins in the Reformation period. Whether one agrees with him or not, it is hard to deny the extraordinary hopes we have for science. It is probably also important to keep in mind Susan Shell’s astute observation that modern science (in contrast to ancient science) is more concerned with getting things done than with merely understanding the natures of things and is thus intimately connected to technology both in its goals and in the tools that make possible its investigations. Thus, faith in the future of science is also a kind of faith in the future of scientific technology that will allow us to penetrate to levels of being that are otherwise completely inaccessible to human perception. Here those of us who grew up with the promise that fusion power would solve our energy needs may reasonably remain skeptical that science will be able to solve many of the technical problems that stand in its way. All that said, I do not want to diminish the importance of what science does do. Science and technology have given us a profound and unparalleled understanding of the mechanism of nature and of the workings of the human organism. However, while it can help us determine how something can be more or less easily accomplished, I don’t believe, that it can tell us what should be accomplished.

    Moreover, while I do not deny that in principle science can understand the workings of the human in general and human consciousness in particular, I am not optimistic that such an understanding is anywhere on the horizon. Charles Wolverton (drawing on Patricia Churchland and perhaps Alex Rosenberg) is more optimistic. In his view, neuroscience eventually or perhaps even in the relatively near future will be able to give us a demonstrable account of how consciousness works. He suggests in his later remark a hundred years is a plausible goal. I’m skeptical about this for a number of reasons. As far as we know, the individual human brain is the most complex thing in the universe (with as many interconnecting parts, to take just one example, as there are stars in our galaxy and as many possible connections as there are stars in the universe}. Understanding the brain would be a huge challenge, even if we could see and manipulate all of its parts. However, for very good reasons, we have put very tight restrictions on the kind of research we can do on the human brain. We are thus forced to conduct most of our research on non-human brains, which may or may not work in the same manner as our brains, especially when it comes to consciousness. To be more specific, most brain scientists would agree that consciousness is a phenomenon of the (neo)cortex, but, as a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago recently pointed out, there has been a rather appalling lack of research to characterize the properties of intracortical synapses—in fact a total of one paper has been written on this topic and it appeared in 1948. This is not promising. Moreover, it is not clear what sorts of tools we can use to examine cortical connections. There has been great hope for fMRI studies but their significance has recently been called into question. At best they can only tell us what is happening in regions of 10-100,000 neurons, when we know from animal studies that in order to really understand the wiring of the brain we have to know what is going on with each neuron. While I agree with David Smith, that the mechanisms of consciousness may be best explained by natural science, in view of the difficulties I have pointed to (and many I did not) it seems unlikely to me that science will understand consciousness and thus the meaning of the human any time soon.

    I certainly do not mean, however, to suggest that the humanist disciplines are particularly better at understanding consciousness. As Leigh Van Valen points out, concepts are often quite fuzzy and this is certainly true of the notion of consciousness. I agree entirely in this respect with the criticism leveled by Charles Wolverton that I do not have a clear and crisp notion of consciousness. I am convinced that such clarity at the moment is not warranted by anything that we know. But just because we cannot know something with crystal clarity does not mean that we should not investigate it. I do hope, however, that I did not give the impression that I believe consciousness to be a transparent phenomenon. Here I agree with Martin Roth. In fact, my intent was to suggest that we have a very poor understanding of how it works and how it is connected to the non-conscious. I do think though that humanistic practices, as Leigh Van Valen points out, reveal or at least can reveal certain aspects of our experience that are not revealed by science, and that as a result it would be a mistake to deny their importance to our lives. My argument in this sense is not opposed to science, but opposed to the elimination of all other forms of knowing than science. I would hope in a forum such as this one that we could take the opportunity to explore the complementarities of science and the humanities on many issues rather than merely pointing out the defects of each other’s approaches. Here I heartily endorse Leigh Van Valen’s concluding observation, although I recognize that I am all too often worthy of his censure.

    I believe that a greater openness to disciplinary approaches is particularly important because I am convinced that without some understanding of human purposiveness whether naturally given (such as health) or established purely by human designation (e.g., the Nobel Prize) and thus some notion of the good (e.g., that it is better to be healthy than sick, or that it is better to win a Nobel Prize rather than toil away in obscurity), we could not make choices that extended beyond fulfilling our momentary desires. This is particularly true when we are concerned with public goals and purposes (such as those of science itself) that extend to and involve millions of individuals whose actions have to be ordered and coordinated. Thomas Pfau’s discussion of the inevitable hermeneutic element in these activities seems to me to be right on the mark. I think that this is an area where humanistic investigation is particularly valuable. I admit, as Catherine Zuckert rightly points out, that I do not sufficiently explain how the different forms of knowledge would contribute to such an investigation. This would be an interesting topic for further discussion and one that would have to account for the different domains of the imaginary that Yaron Ezrahi points to, the connection to the objects of ordinary experience that Stanley Rosen rightly calls to our attention, and the coordination of the micro and macro levels that Tracy Strong urges us to consider.

    Finally, several respondents, drawing on Patricia Churchland as well as a great deal of solid anthropological research, suggest that we don’t need to worry about the kind of nihilism that Rosenberg defends because evolution has selected in our case for cooperation and self-sacrifice or simply niceness. This is a point that seems to me to underlie much of the disagreement among the remarks although it is seldom explicit. When we study primates it is fairly clear that they do not for the most part kill other members of their troop, although, as Robert Sapolsky has pointed out, this is not always the case and it is certainly true that they kill members of other primate troops. Moreover, this may be a more salient problem for humans because the awareness of our own mortality renders us particularly vulnerable to threats to our existence. Violence thus may be more common among humans than other primates because it is more effective. But perhaps of greater importance, we do not live in small, relatively isolated troops but in civilizations (and increasingly in a global community) that are vast beyond comparison to our primate beginnings. Our concern with the well being of all other human beings in our current circumstances seems to be much diminished by their physical and emotional distance from us. We thus are perhaps much more willing to kill, torture, and enslave them in ways that would be unthinkable within a family group. The niceness that evolution has built into us is almost certainly unable to deal with large-scale conflicts of the sort we face. Nihilism under these circumstances is certainly a greater concern than it would be in a troop of primates who were all affectively related to one another. Deepening this problem further are obviously the technologies of destruction, which, as Susan Shell points out, are produced by the application of modern scientific methods.

    Much more could be said on the many other interesting topics raised by the responses, but this must suffice for now. My thanks to everyone. I learned a great deal.

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