June 21, 2013

Natural Science, Certainty, And Widget Factories

by Gary Marcus

My posts against scientism are cautionary comments motivated by my love of and respect for science and Humankind. It is disheartening that so many of my fellow humans, such as Donald Brooks mentioned in the essay linked above, take criticism of neuroscientism as a justification for condemning and ignoring the important work and findings of the brain sciences.

It is becoming more and more apparent that we in the West, and most acutely those of us in the US, have sunken into an age of reactionary extremes where certainty, bombast, and outrage are our favored and most often only modes of expressing our views and reacting to the views of others. Umbrage, indignation, and knee-jerk conclusion jumping, such as that of Mr Brooks and others such as politicians, are in vogue and too often taken as signs of the correctness of the position taken by such persons regardless of whether they have any expertise in the matter they speak of or not. Fortunately, discerning minds easily recognize cautionary comments for what they are and can look beyond the bluster and fury of self-appointed experts and windbags.

All will eventually be well and this age of certainty, determinism, and absolutism - among the believers AND secular-scientific thinkers, and among the left AND right - will pass into another age. Hopefully, it will be an age of tolerant pluralism where we must work harder at finding common ground and ways forward for Humankind and forsake the easier work of expressing certainty, outrage, and intolerance. We will need many more discerning minds to express themselves than are currently doing so to take us toward a new age with a viable and sustainable global morality and civilization at its core. The current age of zero-sum certainty and bombast is divisive, inclined toward conflict, and intellectually sterile. Humankind can and will do better, if we don't self-destruct along the way.

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Materialism, reductionism, and determinism are essential to the scientific method. But also essential to scientific methodology is the recognition that complex structures and functions, beyond atoms, molecules, tissues, and organs and what they do, represent and require different and more complex levels of analysis.

Specifically, it is now widely recognized that these emergent levels of complexity - minds, individuals, societies, for example - require analytical methods different from those of materio-reductive determinism that have proven so useful in chemistry and physics. Regrettably, since E.O. Wilson's 1972 book, many in the scientific community and beyond have ever since been relentless in arguing that one method, that of chemistry and physics, is suitable for everything. I wish this was true, but I am fairly well convinced it is not.

This is not to say that in eschewing such esteemed natural science methods we have turned to those of woo, magic, religion, or ghosts in boxes. Hardly. To think that understanding the mind, for example, one must apply either the methods of chemistry and physics OR invoke woo is to ignore crucial aspects of a prominent part of the scientific enterprise that is focused on complex systems.

The best accounts of the differences between these approaches - natural science and complexity analysis - I have read may be found in the works of Raymond Tallis, Peter Zachar,* Stuart Kauffman, and Stephen Wolfram. All are renowned and proven scientists.

What a mind is and does exceeds the description of a brain's chemistry and physiology. And, most likely, this is so regardless of how detailed and complete such a description might be.

Similarly, a complete description of the atoms of its bricks and mortar, the architecture and machinations of its infrastructure, and the chemistry and physiology of its workers, the professors, though these things are extremely essential to its existence and functioning, tells us only a part of what a university is and does.

Without a description of what a university does, a limited description such as that provided solely by the materio-reductive determinism of the natural sciences would leave us wondering if we were talking about a university, or not. A hospital, a private sector science lab, or a widget factory could also fit the bill.

* - See, for example:

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