In Curator Magazine, Sabrina Little reflects on the problem of reductionism in science, in relation to claims that one day neuroscience will be able to read our thoughts:
The mind is not merely the brain. If my mind is merely my brain, then let’s get some fMRIs done and get to know one another. If you track my neural circuitry, I stand fully exposed because you can see my core. This is obviously a lot worse than email-tapping. … Furthermore, it goes without saying, but most of you cannot feasibly be transcribed into email form. Try it. Attempt to write an email about the “what it’s like” phenomenological qualia of your experience of a color. You can’t. Not all of the contents of your mind can be exported because language is limited. There are some thoughts you can never express. We have “tacit knowledge,” philosopher Michael Polanyi’s term for “knowing more than we can say.”
His [New York Times columnist David Brooks’s] article expertly introduces the problem of scientism—the attempt to universally apply empirical principles and methods to areas that extend beyond empirical boundaries. Smaller, more repeatable things have greater explanatory power. The scientific method guides all modes of inquiry. But scientism is not a problem unique to neuroscience. It is, as Brooks writes, an age-old problem of human progress. “[P]eople get caught up in the excitement of [a] breakthrough and try to use it to explain everything.” Yes, and it never works.
One might add that it can’t work.
We don’t live in a universe where everything can be reduced to one principle or one particle. The only thing we can “see through” is a window and the act of seeing through the window means we can’t examine it. If we examine the window, we are not seeing through it to the individual items it brings to our attention.
We live in a universe where discrete entities are held in tension, probably by an intelligence operating beyond the universe (as the later Antony Flew thought). They don’t merely turn out to all be the same stuff. So, reductionism is necessary for finding out what specific entities do, it does not add up to an explanation of a system.
Consciousness, incidentally, has been described as akin to looking into and out of a window at the same time.*
*Greg Peterson, “God on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Faith,” Chris tian Century, January 27,l999; a review of James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright, The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1999), quoted in The Spiritual Brain, p. 101.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.