Continued Conversations

Brainstorms or Physics Envy?
A philosopher's response to behavioral neuroscience

Kent Linville, Professor of Philosophy
and Associate Dean, Oxford College

Academic Exchange
September 2000
Contents Page


Brainstorms: Emory and the Changing Climate of Neuroscience

Art and Science: Closer
Than You Think

--Sidney Perkowitz and
Juliette S. Apkarian

Academic psychology has developed on the widespread assumption that the methods successful in the natural sciences (paradigmatically, physics) are applicable in psychology. The announcement of a $20-million National Science Foundation grant to fund a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) at Emory ("Brainstorms," Academic Exchange, February/March 2000) will no doubt be celebrated by many as a major step in this development.

But alongside considerable scientific sophistication, I suspect that conceptual confusion resides in the culture and goals of the CBN. In this essay, I examine how René Descartes' seventeenth-century conception of the mind continues to entrap psychology since it left philosophy's armchair to become an experimental science. For although psychology roundly rejects Descartes' ontological solipsism, it continues to inquire after the nature of emotion and cognition as though these phenomena can be accounted for without the cultural context of thought, feeling, and behavior. The conceptual parameters of CBN's research program fit within this methodological tradition, and because of this, I submit, its mission falls victim to what Ludwig Wittgenstein identified as "experimental methods and conceptual confusion" in psychology. "The existence of experimental methods," Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations, "makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which concern us; though problem and method pass one another by."

According to the Exchange article, "In recent decades . . . , scientific insight into the physiological roots of behavior have altered . . . [the] intellectual climate drastically. . . . Even love, fear, and memory--the accustomed stuff of humanistic inquiry--are now being tracked in laboratories." Tom Insel, the CBN's director, states in the article that the center's mission will be "discovery based on experiments linking brain and behavior." Insel also remarks, "We really are not going to understand pain without taking a view from molecular changes at a single-cell level up to the subjective experience of people."

Clearly, I believe, the strain of psychology these comments represent bears the structure of Cartesian thought. For example, just as Insel proposes to look at pain both as a physical phenomenon and as a "subjective experience," Descartes postulated a proximate connection between the pineal gland and subjective experience. Now, while the post-behaviorist acknowledgment of experience is welcome, what should be rejected is the accompanying identification of experience with subjective, or inner, realitiesitems typically postulated as either caused by or identical with brain states and processes.

In Consilience, E.O. Wilson clearly outlines the global conception
of the mind that arises from such thinking: "Virtually all contemporary scientists and philosophers expert on the subject agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and rational process, is the brain at work." At this point in research on this conception, writes Wilson, "the fundamental properties of the elements responsible for mindneurons, neuron transmitters, and hormonesare reasonably well known. What is lacking is a sufficient grasp of the emergent, holistic properties of the neuron circuits, and of cognition, the way the circuits process information to create perception and knowledge." I would argue, however, that Wilson's "lacks" are due not to the relative immaturity of the research program, as he suggests, but to what Wittgenstein would diagnose as "problem and method [passing] one another by."

The troubling methodological assumption implicit in both Wilson's remarks and the Academic Exchange article (and explicit in the illustration accompanying it) is that psychology is the study of an individual's capacities and behaviors from the point of view of what goes on within the individual from the skin in. Research based on this assumption theorizes as though fear, love, belief, indeed, cognitive and intentional states generally, are names identifying phenomena like water or lightning. That is, they are items whose natures will one day yield to scientific accounts, versus things like status, which are dependent upon the nature of the world one inhabits.

But it is wrongheaded to think about such matters as love, fear, and belief only in terms of the brain and body, as distinct from relationships to the external world. Wilson's notion that knowledge is one of the "emergent properties of the brain" illustrates this well. For it is universally agreed that one cannot know what is false. So the truth of, "Dr. Insel is the director of the CBN" is required for the truth of, "I know that Dr. Insel is the director of CBN." But the truth of the former statement (which is required for this knowledge) is in no way dependent upon (let alone guaranteed by) me or my states. So there can be no such thing as a state of me (or my brain) which constitutes knowing such a thing. This is not to say there can be no such knowledge; rather, it is to say that knowledge, like status and unlike water, "is not a something and not a nothing, either" (to adapt a remark of Wittgenstein's in Philosophical Investigations).

If research "linking brain and behavior" is to improve our understanding of human action and emotion, then "behavior" must include in its meaning external circumstances and their significance to the subjects being studied. For if behavior only means the play of facial expressions, gestures, and such, these data will not yield a real account of action or emotion. In different surroundings, the same gesture or movement will manifest very different actions or feelings. As Charles Taylor notes in Human Agency and Language, "acts and feelings are partly characterized in terms of the thoughts, intentions, and ways of seeing of the people concerned. . . . [We] have to understand the agent's vision of things in order to know what he is doing: is he trying to save face or is he really expressing indignation?"

Moreover, the significance of things for human beings is shot through with culture and language. For example, contemporary Americans cannot experience the pride of a Samurai warrior. Why? We lack the words, of course, but more fundamentally, we lack their "world": the web of customs and the institutions in which their use was embedded and attendant conceptions and feelings expressed. (I owe this example to Stephen Mulhall.)

I bring out these complexities in human emotion and action to suggest that, contrary to Insel's implications in the Academic Exchange, the "interpretive sciences" will have a role in deepening our understanding of such matters. Indeed, most of what interests us about the psychology of people has diverse manifestations in life. Correspondingly, the words we use for them--"arrogance," "anger," "love," "pride," "joy," "jealousy," "intelligence"--cover widely scattered manifestations of life. There is nothing to be abstracted from this multiplicity that is the essential nature of these phenomena. Constructing such "essences," however, will of course provide psychology with the kind of irrecusable (and so replicable) data characteristic of natural science. But the result will be precisely the converse of Insel's expressed concern that the center's research not be "a mile wide and an inch deep." If such wizened constructs gain currency because they are backed by the prestige of science, there is real danger that our understanding will be impoverished rather than enriched as has arguably happened to the concept of intelligence.