Reductionism is necessary

Alva Noe has recently published, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness. “The central idea of (this book) is that consciousness is not something that happens inside us — not in our brains, or anywhere else; it is something we do.” It is not his central idea I want to discuss but what he is asking science to do.

In an interview with Gordy Slack (here), Noe said:

A:….Francis Crick did us a major service by taking seriously and publicizing the problem of consciousness. But in the journal Nature he wrote, “Scientists need no longer stand by listening to the tedious arguments of philosophers perpetually disagreeing with each other. The problem of consciousness is now a scientific problem.”

I say, “Bravo!” Consciousness is a scientific problem! But Crick framed the problem in terms of an unquestioned set of philosophical dogmas; namely that the key to consciousness will be found in the brain, that that’s literally where experience and thought take place. My book is not anti-science; it’s a challenge to science to get serious. It’s deluded to think we’re free of philosophy.

Q: Is your battle a turf war between philosophy and neuroscience?

A: Not at all. I think these are scientific questions. I want to help science take them over. But I think science is in philosophically troubled waters here and it’s just not ready yet to go it alone.

Q: You’re arguing that all we’ll learn about by studying the brain is the brain. We’ll never learn from the brain what love is? Or what religion is? Or consciousness?

A: Right. And that the radically reductionist view is not only unfounded, but it’s also ugly. And dangerous.

Q: Dangerous, how?

There are practical dangers, like raising expectations too high for specific scientific programs. The motivation for proceeding along some line, or justification for funding it, may be based on the assumption that it will find the place where consciousness is happening.

Second, the question of consciousness is a problem for all of us — not just for science. We all want to know how to understand humans and think about ourselves. And claiming that neuroscience is going to explain us to ourselves is false advertising. It’s important that we not believe it.

But the view that the self and consciousness can be explained in terms of the brain, that the real us is found inside our skulls, isn’t just misleading and wrong, it’s ugly. In that view, each of us is trapped in the caverns of his own skull and the world is just a sort of shared figment. Everything is made interior, private, rational and computational. That may not pose a practical danger, but it presents a kind of spiritual danger.

In that view, each of us is an island of intellect, alone. When you think of us as just interior neurological mechanisms, you see us as alienated from the world around us. The world shows up for us as bits of information that we decipher, like linguistic relics of an ancient culture that we have to interpret. Like when Mr. Spock says, “What is this strange kissing custom?” The danger is alienation, plain and simple. We’re strangers in a strange land.

I find this a very sad and ugly picture of our circumstance. Now contrast that view with a sense of ourselves as engaged in the flow, responsive to the things going on around us, part of the world. It’s a very different picture.”

I must admit that I find it very difficult, even impossible, to understand what he is proposing for the meaning of brain, consciousness, or self. It looks like, but may not be, just an engaging word game. But I do think I understand what he is saying about science and I disagree.

1) Science does not choose what it studies. It studies what scientists have the tools to study, and find interesting/important questions and have support/funds to study. All three must exist in most cases. As the public and most scientists find the question of consciousness interesting and important, what is done in this field comes down to tools. Neuroscientist look at what they have the tools to look at. The tools to date are very rough and limited. The study of the brain and consciousness is just at its beginning.

2) Science is always as reductionist as it has to be and as holistic as it can be. Scientists are not afraid of reduction or of holism. By and large, a complex system has to be understood by understanding the parts and then the sub-assemblies and then the whole. Of course there are levels of hierarchy. The heart can be studied on the level of an organ without a great deal of knowledge about muscle proteins or the quarks they are composed of. Still at every level there is usually a reductionist to holistic progression.

3) Ugliness has nothing to do with understanding. The point of science is understanding not beauty. By the time a theory becomes an accepted consensus, it takes on beauty. Personally, the satisfaction of understanding makes the theory beautiful not the other way around.

4) Philosophy has a great deal to offer in areas where science does not yet have the tools to delve. And it has a great deal to offer an established theory in clarifying what it means in a large context. But in the stage of investigation that has not come near strong theories yet (let alone accepted ones), philosophy is not particularly helpful and can hinder clarity.

5) The idea that understanding our consciousness as a function of our brains is going to alienate us from the world seems completely unfounded.

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