The brain’s I: science and the lived world

by Katalin Balog

This is the second of a series of four essays on understanding the mind. You can read part 1 here.

Archangel-gabrielThe mind's relation to the physical world is a hard thing to understand. The difficulty comes in no small part from the fact that there are two, radically different ways of going about it: one is to look within, to understand oneself (and by extension, others) as a subject, a self; the other, to look “out”, at the world so to speak. The first method is subjective, humanistic, and is essentially tied to a particular point of view. I can sense my frustration trying to come up with the right phrase. I know what that kind of thing feels like. I think I understand what it feels like for you as well, but only because of the familiarity with my own case. The second method is objective, it is based on observation of body, behavior and brain, and it is accessible to anyone, irrespective of their personal idiosyncrasies or their point of view. Its best embodiment is the scientific method. How the subjective fits in with the objective is one of the most vexing questions both in philosophy and life.

HeadwBrain_editedIn the first part of this series of essays, I have looked at how a subjective, humanistic understanding of the mind comes under pressure from science. In the present essay and the next I look at the flip side of these hostilities: the pushback in some quarters of the humanist camp against science and objectivity. In the last, I will look at the prospects of a peaceful coexistence between the two sides.

I. Two worlds

The first major clash between the subjective and the objective approach didn't revolve around the mind directly; it concerned the world. In the 17th and 18th century, Galileo and Newton brought about a monumental change in the way we understand the physical world. According to the new physics, all physical change can be explained completely in terms of certain quantified properties of matter in motion – properties such as size, shape and velocity. The fact that these features were quantifiable allowed for a mathematical formulation of the laws of nature. The view of the physical world that emerged is mechanistic; in an only slightly misleading metaphor, it implies that the physical world is a vast machine, its movements and changes described by precise law. This is a shocking view, come to think of it.

Add to it the ideal of a “unified system of all the sciences”, first proposed during the Enlightenment and getting a precise formulation by the logical positivists and their successors in the 20th century. The idea is that the right explanations of planetary motion, or chemical bonds or biological processes must not be logically incompatible with physics, or even just independent of it. If this is right, we can reasonably conclude that the world is altogether just that: the vast “machine” of matter and fields in motion fundamental physics says it is. Whatever exists: planets and stars, galaxies and black holes, volcanoes and trees, animals, humans, everything – it is all ultimately grounded in the entities, properties and laws of basic physics. As it turns out, these basic constituents, as posited by both general relativity and quantum mechanics – the two most important current physical theories –are often quite strange and incomprehensible from the point of view of ordinary experience. Even physicists and philosophers struggle to say what exactly the world's fundamental structure is supposed to be, according to these theories.

Perhaps the most widely known affronts to our prescientific understanding of the world and our place in it came in the 19th century with Darwinism and the 20th century, with modern cosmology, with Darwinism erasing much of our special status in the hierarchy of things by showing that we are continuous with an unbroken chain of life that started at least 3.5 billion years ago, and cosmology by relegating us, from our lofty position at the center of the universe, to a place of almost unimaginable insignificance in the cosmic scale of things. In The First Three Minutes, physicist Steven Weinberg offers this observation:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning…. It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat.The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

The scientific revolution caused immense upheaval in our world view in a relatively short period of time. As late as in, say, Shakespeare's time, people in Europe knew nothing of the laws of mechanics; galaxies and black holes, space-time and relativity were undreamt of. Electricity was not understood; disease was attributed to the wrong causes; and no one even knew the extent of the Earth. People believed in God, and many also believed in witchcraft, fairies, spirits, astrology, magic, alchemy and the rest. Mystery and uncertainty was our condition. But these same people had a highly sophisticated literary culture and art. And they had a view of the world that was alive, poignant and teaming with all sorts of significance.

Until recently almost everyone, even educated people believed in an “invisible” world; a spiritual backdrop to the visible one that enlivens it and is in mutual interaction with it. Such an outlook is as much part of Plato's philosophy as of theistic religions, of myth, folklore, superstition. Experience of nature, art, ritual or ordinary existence brought intimations of the invisible world; people sought to get in touch with it through intuition, imagination, contemplation and attention to subtle feeling. Some hoped to hone the forces of the invisible world for the purpose of self-transformation. Many believed they can prevail over presumed laws of science. It is this enchanted universe alive with God, spirits, fairies, Chi, strange forces and unlimited possibilities that got shattered by Newton's great achievement. Not that Newton was fully cognizant of his own message; he himself was an avid alchemist. It is people that came after him who in time brought his discoveries to their proper conclusion.

The image of the world as alive with secret meaning is a projection of our experience of it. But experience is not the best guide to the truth about nature, science is. We had to be weaned of our pre-scientific view; but it didn't happen without a fight. William Blake, in his alternative creation myth Book of Urizen portrays a creator who makes a book of laws – simple, universal directives to guide both nature and the human will – only to bring ruin on himself and the world. Blake found the physics of Newton abhorrent. As W.H. Auden put it in a letter, Blake broke “off relations in a curse, with the Newtonian Universe”. He felt that the world as a single all-encompassing system was too stifling, too oppressive, an obstacle to the imagination, to creativity, and feeling. His romantic rebellion rejected the world of science for intuition, passion, and communion with nature, all of which, he felt, had no place in the world science describes.

But Newtonian physics not only purged spirits, and occult forces; the physical world it describes also, in a certain sense, lacks sensory qualities. Our ordinary sense of the world is teeming with sensory detail, most of which appears to be a feature of the world. The green of trembling leaves on sun dappled trees, the dispiriting artificiality of the plastic environment in a hospital, the sound of waves lapping on the shore, the garbage truck tearing up the night, it all seems to be out there in the world. Pace Berkeley, it would still be there even if none of us were around. But this ordinary sense of the world is hard to reconcile with a Newtonian universe, since the only quantities figuring in its laws are mass, extension, velocity; nowhere do the laws mention colors or sounds (matters in this regard are not improved in modern physics). Locke, a contemporary and friend of Newton, famously distinguished between primary qualities, those that really exist in the objects, and secondary qualities, which are merely the ability of primary qualities to cause sensations in us. As he puts it in Book II of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689):

The particular Bulk, Number, Figure, and Motion of the parts of Fire, or Snow, are really in them whether any ones Senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real Qualities, because they really exist in those Bodies. But Light, Heat, Whiteness, or Coldness, are no more really in them, than Sickness or Pain is in Manna. Take away the Sensation of them; let not the Eyes see Light, or Colours, nor the Ears hear Sounds; let the Palate not Taste, nor the Nose Smell, and all Colours, Tastes, Odors, and Sounds, as they are such particular Ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their Causes, i.e., Bulk, Figure, and Motion of Parts.

Nor can the scientific world view appear to account for our sense that the present is special, that time is flowing. There is no room in fundamental physics for privileged moments or the “movement” of time. There are only moments of time, one after another.

So the universe that once appeared teaming with purpose and feeling, where nymphs and fauns roamed, where the stars and the planets were distant forces intimately involved with us, has been gradually emptied out, not only of its spirits, but also of its colors and sounds, the special glow of the present moment, and of almost every solid feature we imagined physical things to have. At the same time, all that has been purged from the world around us has been, as C.S. Lewis observes, “transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object.”

This is the world view the scientific revolution has ushered in. We have lost the sense that we live in a familiar world where our place as the pinnacle of creation goes uncontested; where the vast spaces that exist sing and shine with the presence of something still greater and more awesome than ourselves, where meaning abounds, where we find ourselves home. Instead, the world turned out to be unimaginably vast, perhaps infinite, and most of it is cold, empty and black. Our view of the world is not a reflection of Reality: it is in large part a matter of a projection from our own minds, contingent on our particular cognitive make-up, on the particular creatures we are. Actually, the world is nothing like we thought it was. To some, it definitely seems like a worse place.

What does this all mean? One reaction is to rebel against science, like Blake did. Whether or not Blake actually thought Newton was wrong, he used poetic imagination as his bludgeon to beat back what he thought was the stifling advance of scientific thought. Many others, especially in the literary tradition, followed in his footsteps. Postmodernism has even gone a step further: it has asserted that there is no truth, only interpretations, and one interpretation is no better than another, science included. But one needs to be careful. It is possible to see the point of the humanistic rebellion; without going against science, going against reason altogether.

II. Moods and the ways of experiencing the world

This much the anti-science rebels have to concede: there is no way to roll back time and unlearn what we know about the universe. “It is what it is” as people like to say; and we have to learn to live with it. The heart of the problem with the scientific outlook is its “engorgement” of the subject. All meaning and value that was previously located in the world now finds its ground in individual subjectivity. Nothing in the scientific world view can ground value; valuing is something we do. But this has always been the case. There is a sense in which science has not really “emptied out” the world of meaning, it just brought home to us our real situation. Nevertheless, there are real trade-offs. It is not implausible to think that living by the scientific world view does in fact makes life in some respects less meaningful, less fulfilling, fills one with less wonder, gratitude, or joy. This can be explored without being forced to deny the beauty and magnificence of science and the amazing rewards of technology.

Heidegger, for example, points at the role moods play in life. Moods are part of our basic, subjective take on the world. They color and influence our understanding of what the world is like – as Wittgenstein points out in the Tractatus: “the world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy.” Moods play a big part in attaching meaning and value to our life. But here is the issue. Moods appear to be not about the subject, but about the world. But the scientific view encourages us to discount them and downplay their importance. It leaves no room for moods to contribute to our understanding the world; but the subjective way of understanding is grounded in moods. This presents a difficulty. It is hard to be committed to finding meaning in the world if one views it as the imposition of one's own individual subjectivity on an otherwise meaningless universe. As Rick says in Casablanca, “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Human beings find it easier to pledge allegiance to something bigger than their own consciousness, such as Reality or God; something that really exists out there and is not of one's own invention.

This is why Heidegger thinks a that meaningful life is only possible if we respond to a disclosure of meaning in our experience. This is not to imply the existence of objective meaning in the world; rather, it is to point to the difficulty and pointlessness of trying to impose our own meanings on the world. Responding to disclosure involves receptivity, openness, subjectivity. By this openness we can still live meaningful lives in the disenchanted world of science.

But the point remains, as Max Weber puts it in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that

our times are characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.' Precisely the ultimateand most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct andpersonal human relations.

Breaking through to the other side has become an individual quest through drugs, contemplation, love, art or poetry. There are still attempts at collective disclosure – rock music, religious ritual; on the dark side, mass hysteria. But all of this is a bit of an uphill battle. Our individual enchantments perhaps lack the firm conviction of earlier times. It is like trying to be religious or spiritual without a belief in God or a higher reality. Not impossible, but something may be missing.

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