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Out walking the dogma...

Posted by bob on February 20, 2000, at 0:57:44

In reply to Re: Freud and his relevance, posted by Eric on February 18, 2000, at 16:45:58

> It is time to cut ties to psychology and Freud and move psychiatry forward into the era of hard science research.

First off -- Eric, please don't take this personally. I don't mean to dis you here. (I just like to bait any and all hard-core empiricists who might be in the audience ;^)

All the same ... as someone trained in the "hard sciences", I always have to laugh at such dogmatic empiricism, particularly when applied to psychology. "Inner space" is truly the "final frontier", as I think we'll know far more about the depths of the oceans and the furthest reaches of space and time before we get any serious kind of fix on what makes the human mind make sense of the world.

"Hard" empiricism is fine for understanding phenomena that do not involve cognitive or affective processes, but the "modern" scientific mindset is simply ill-prepared to deal with mental phenomena. Blindly expecting the same investigatory criteria that help us understand the atom to shed light on thought processes is what Stephen Jay Gould rightly referred to as Physics Envy. The biggest joke of it all is that what physicist understand quite well about their work is that it is getting more and more metaphorical all the time. They theorize about events that cannot be directly measured and splice together statistical models of best-case scenarios, and they still cannot come up with a complete picture. But they KNOW that and they readily ADMIT to it ... just like Terry Gilliam says of Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail --"It's only a model."

The fact that our models of atomic and subatomic structures may have absolutely no resemblance to what is "really" happening, tho, makes no difference. The metaphors still have EXPLANATORY POWER and PREDICTIVE POWER. They help us make sense of the world.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking that what physics says is happening has a perfect correspondence to some reality outside the realm of human mental functioning.

If this is the case for physics, the most fundamental of all the sciences, what hope is there for chemistry or biology of explaining their domains in a perfectly mechanistic, clockwork manner? You want to get even more fundamental than physics? Try mathematics. It is based on ideal entities -- things that only exist in the minds of mathematicians.

Yes, sure, there is SOME correspondence to the experienced world, but this simple fact remains: we have no system of knowing that has direct access to the "underlying" reality of the material world.

Empiricism can lead us to nice approximations and powerful metaphors, but it's philosophical base is intellectually bankrupt when it comes to crossing the divide from world to mind--primarily because it requires us to make a distinction between the two in the first place. As long as science tries to distinguish between the objective and the subjective, it will fail to have a philosophic foundation that allows mental phenomena to be a part of the world instead of something separate from it.

To put it more plainly: if you are going to label some metal activity as objective and other mental activity as subjective, then you must also accept mind-body dualism. To then argue that objective science can come to a complete understanding of mental life is a direct contradiction of your initial assertions, since you have already acknowledged that some mental activity exists beyond the realm of physical measurement.

"Scientific" psychology only adds insult to injury (after all, spliting your mind from your body has gotta hurt) by throwing statistics at us as a mechanism for explanation. Sure, atomic physics uses statistics all over the place as an explanatory mechanism. For example, a physicist might be able to tell you the probability of a hydrogen atom's single electron being in any particular "energy level", orbiting around the nucleus. Even if he could say that there was a 99.9% probability of that electron being in level X, to then ask "is that electron really physically there?" is essentially a nonsensical question. "There", in this case, is a model, a metaphor. It's a mental invention that corresponds well to sensory data taken in from measuring devices, but if you could shrink yourself to the size of an atom and take a picture with, say, a Polaroid i-zone camera (forget how big the pictures look in commercials -- the film is actually well suited for taking snapshots of individual atoms), the result may not resemble the metaphor one bit.

It doesn't change the efficacy of the metaphor as an explanatory device one bit.

So, there may come a day when neurobiochemistry figures out exactly which of the seratonin receptors (isn't there something like 15 different receptors or something like that?), when blocked from taking-up seratonin from the bloodstream, are responsible for alleviating the symptoms of a specific type of mental disorder, AND when some pharmaceutical firms discovers the compound that will block the action of those receptors only and none of the others, then it will be safe to say that people with that specific mental disorder will be able to find relief from the symptoms of their disorder. But...

Will it tell us why they developed this disorder in the first place?
Will it tell us what extent of this disorder is due to genetic fault versus environmental fault?
Will it tell us whether alleviating symptoms is identical to "curing" the disorder?
Will precise reduction of symptoms lead to a spontaneous change in the overt behaviors related to that disorder?

Will it ever be possible to single out any one aspect of a mental disorder in such a precise way in the first place?

Even if you can explain away the problems of mind-body dualism and the object/subject distinction, even if you can explain away the falsification paradigm and the "fact" that nothing scientific is ever proven to be true (we can only falsify or provide support), empiricism is still shackled with single variable, unidirectional causation. We do not have an adequate scientific model that allows for multiple and/or bidirectional/recursive causation that does not resort to statistics. And as soon as we resort to statistics, we lose the ability to describe with precision the behavior of specific individuals, since statistics is based on populations.

If you're still unconvinced of the fallibility of hard science, take a look at its bleeding edge -- Occam's Razor. If two theories explain a phenomenon equally well, then the simpler of the two is the true explanation.

Now, that's what I call the pinnacle of objectivity.

When it gets down to brass tacks, the most powerful ideas of the hard sciences are not clockwork, mechanistic descriptions of directly perceived empirical phenomena -- the most powerful ideas of science are metaphors.

So, I have no problem believing that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Sometimes, that is.




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