Mind Body Problem

December 04, 2013
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Scientific Knowledge vs Belief

I started my graduate study of the mind body problem using science. That is, as an experimental psychologist I used EEGs to monitor children’s dreams to get at their dream mentation. It was a wacky cobbling together of state of the art technology, physiology, linguistics, medicine, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. All by way of trying to understand to understand what dreams meant (to humans and to the individual). As all humans develop dreams they have to have some import to the species; and as dreams come from individuals and their experiences they have to have some personal import. Yet understanding dream content from an EEG was likened to listening to a conversation through a wall. We just had no idea what was said.


Two fascinating publications: Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuropsychology by Sally Satel and Scott Lillenfeld; and 7 Reasons Why It's Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution by Chris Mooney get to the heart of understanding human thought using the scientific studies to explore what we do and don't know about complex human behavior and how we commonly reject scientific facts in the face of compelling and overwhelming support for those facts.


Brainwashed illuminates what contemporary neuroscience (and related brain imagining and nanotechnologies) can and cannot inform us about human behavior. While these methodologies have provided seminal insights into how the brain works, they are not so valuable in understanding complex integrated brain functions. Nor are they of much help in understanding cultural or social factors and their influences on human behavior. Lillenfeld noted his concern that the fields of psychology and psychiatry were becoming too focused on just one level of analysis - namely the brain. The authors were critical of neurocentrism, the assumption that the brain is necessarily the most important level of analysis for understanding human nature. The groundbreaking and compelling advances in brain science are but one way of understanding human behavior. These two neuroscience insiders refocus expectations about the application of brain science findings to predicting or influencing human behavior. While the media often portrays a magical master of the universe expectation of immediate utility from any scientific paper, the reality is that these often imaginative predictions are not supported by the data.


In an examination of scientific research into cultural and social norms that are used as a filter for denying broadly accepted scientific knowledge, Mooney attempts to uses this understanding to illuminate why such knowledge is denied. Mooney’s article examines scientific reality in conflict with cultural and social norms in a discussion of evolution. Popular distain for the Theory of Evolution is sometimes focused on the premise that it is a theory (a repeatedly substantiated part of the observed natural world, which is not a mathematical certainty). Yet much of our scientific knowledge is based on theory. The theory of gravity predicts that objects fall down (not up), a reality apparent to anyone who has ever dropped something or fallen down. So what is it that causes us to do all sorts of mental gymnastics and linguistic contortions to undermine scientifically known realities?


Noted science journalist Chris Mooney suggests a list of 7 “cognitive traits, thinking styles, and psychological factors identified in recent research that seem to thwart evolution acceptance”. Much of the scientific evidence he utilizes is based on developmental studies of children who use various methods of faulty logic at certain stages. As the child matures the default thinking progresses to sounder logic. For example a 5-year-old may ascribe a cloud’s purpose as “for raining” but the answer changes with age and experience. Mooney suggests that scientific facts that are perceived to undermine easier to grasp foundational values of the group will be rejected. The belief that morality cannot be established and maintained outside a religious context of one’s tribe is prevalent throughout the world. If one must banish those who do not believe as the dominant culture does, then we have the basis of thousands of wars. A scientific theory (no matter how true) has little chance of acceptance if it can be construed as a threat to the dominant culture. Mooney concludes “the evidence is clear that both our cognitive architecture, and also our emotional dispositions, make it difficult or unnatural for many people to accept evolution. ‘Natural selection is like quantum physics...we might intellectually grasp it, with considerable effort, but it will never feel right to us,’ writes the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. Often, people express surprise that in an age so suffused with science, science causes so much angst and resistance."


The allure of scientific answers to the human condition remains present, yet its reality is no closer. The methods and technology are far sharper and more sophisticated than 1970s tools yet the necessity to think scientifically, reasonably, hard and deeply about the data (using large amounts of it) is identical. While we are much closer to understanding human brain function, as a society we appear to be no closer to a functional understanding of science. Cultural and political noise machines are flooding all forms of media to shout belief over scientific understanding, education and utility. It is an odd reality.



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