Love and Thanks,
Guest writer James Le Fanu’s most recent book, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, is published by Vintage. Readers will also want to review David Klinghoffer’s series on Le Fanu:
“Traditionally these are questions for philosophy,” he observes, “but philosophy is dead — scientists have become the torchbearers in our quest for knowledge.” He would obviously have a point were the physical world ‘the only reality,’ then indeed science’s impressive explanatory power in encompassing the two extremes of scale from the internal structure of the atom to the vastness of the cosmos would certainly have sidelined philosophy. But gratefully there is more to life than atoms and the cosmos and the many different modes of interpreting and understanding ‘life’ — common sense knowledge, interpretive knowledge, knowledge of human history and culture, of the music and the arts, the tacit knowledge of the skilled craftsman and so on, all lie far beyond and defy reductionist scientific explanation. Hawking’s ‘triumph of science/death of philosophy’ can thus never be more than a self-regarding (perhaps even ironic) conceit. It would scarcely be worth pursuing further were it not remarkably prevalent even amongst those whom one would reasonably expect to be sceptical of scientists’ more grandiose claims.
Thus, echoing Stephen Hawking, the well known political and cultural commentator David Brooks in a recent article in The New Yorker claims, “Brain science has filled the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” His thesis, put simply, is that such important character traits as the ability to comprehend and inspire others, to build lasting relationships, and to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings remain “poorly understood.” But then in the recent past “geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists have made great strides in understanding the inner workings of the human mind.” This all adds up to a “revolution in consciousness.”
The details of this “revolution” are obviously of great interest, which he illustrates by reference to its transforming insight into the psychological development of college educated Harold, now in his mid-twenties — though “the lessons apply to all members of all classes.” As a newborn, Harold’s mother’s love “wired his brain,” as shown by experiments showing the more a rat is licked and groomed by its mother, the greater the number of synaptic connections in its brain. This has beneficial long term consequences because, as Pascal Vrticka of the University of Geneva has demonstrated, those with “avoidant attachment patterns” show “less activation in the reward areas of the brain.” At school, Harold’s “awareness of social networks” compensated for not being academically brilliant — while also ensuring he avoided becoming overconfident about his abilities, a trait that psychologists Paul Schoemaker and J Edward Russell have shown is almost universal in a study involving sending questionnaires to two thousand executives in the advertising and computer industries.
Harold then meets Erika on a blind date who was “guarded and slower to trust” — in part because “while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced the more vexing problem of … choosing a mate not only for insemination but for continual support.”
They looked furtively at each other because as psychologist Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov at Princeton University have shown “we make judgements about a person’s trustworthiness and likeability within the first tenth of a second.” Still, their first date together was a great success, with Harold spending a lot of time talking about Erika’s problems, which evolutionary psychologist David Buss suggests is important because “kindness is one of the most important qualities desired in a sexual partner.” Simultaneously, however, they were making more practical judgments of each other, “weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances.” Before long, love beckoned, enhanced by their mutual admiration for, as research by John Lydon of McGill University has shown, “ninety five per cent of people in relationships believe their partner to be above average in looks, intelligence, warmth and sense of humour.” There is more, a lot more apparently, as Brooks’ article heralds a forthcoming book, but the gist is clear enough.
It would be good to think that perhaps this is all a jest, an ‘argument ad absurdum’ that would appeal to The New Yorker‘s sophisticated readership. David Brooks cannot seriously suppose this bizarre amalgam of pop psychology and cold evolutionary theorizing can really tell us anything of interest about the human psyche, let alone that it represents a “revolution in consciousness.” But if he does, he would certainly not be the first to suspend their critical judgement in deference to science’s claims to knowledge not possessed — for the most salient feature of the studies he cites is how unconvincing they are even on their own terms. To take just one example already considered, Willis and Todorov’s “First impressions: Making up your Mind after a 100-Ms exposure to a Face” was published in the journal Psychological Science in 2006.
This study was designed to investigate the “minimal conditions” under which people infer character traits — revealing a significant correlation between psychology undergraduates’ assessment, when shown photographs of 70 amateur actors, of their “competence, trustworthiness and aggressiveness,” whether viewed for just a tenth of a second or “without time constraints.” This would indeed confirm the truism that people are capable of making “snap judgments,” but without casting any light on the two really important questions — the nature of the brain’s astonishing feat of processing information that allows such judgements to be made and their validity — i.e. whether those judged to be “competent, trustworthy or aggressive” really were so. So for all the ingenious ingenuity of Willis and Kosorov’s experiment, we are left none the wiser.
There are, needless to say, profounder issues involved here, of which the most salient is whether it is indeed possible to illuminate the workings of the human mind by reducing it to so many distinctive attributes that can then be investigated independently of each other. This notion of the mind as composed of so many “modules” is, of course, central to current brain science, but the moment one reflects on what any one module really entails, this oversimplification becomes only too apparent. Thus, “motivation,” certainly a very important concept in understanding human behaviour, could be said to encompass such various attributes as energy, attitude, compulsion, interest, aspiration, hope, perseverance, craving, disposition, preference, aversion, fear, hate, joy, will, drive, need, volition, urge, curiosity, anger and value.
The same degree of subtlety and qualification applies to all mental states — cognition, emotion, learning, memory, maturation, and so on. And beyond that the defining feature of the human mind is precisely its ability to integrate, millisecond by millisecond, all these diverse states, feelings and attitudes into a single unified state of consciousness. And beyond that there is the astonishing revelation of those sophisticated brain scanning techniques that even the simplest of tasks (such as associating the word “sit” with the word “chair”) appears to involve activating the brain virtually in its entirety. And beyond that there is the insuperable barrier of comprehending how the same monotonous electrochemical activity of the brain translates into those infinitely diverse varieties of subjective experiences of the world around us and the thoughts and feelings they engender. So while, to be sure, science may have a thorough understanding of the workings of the heart and lungs, the unprepossessing three pounds of brain tissue confined within our skulls, like a vast intellectual black hole, absorbs the most searching forms of scientific inquiry. In short, the mind can only be understood on its own terms through the ways of knowing of the humanities — including philosophy and theology. One might expect that someone of the intellectual caliber of Brooks would understand it instinctively. Perhaps one day he will.