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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
March 9, 2001

Science &Morality
At The Millennium
By Howard Gardner


BOSTON -- Our age is marked by the triumph of science. Greek philosophers may have been the first to raise questions about the nature of matter, living entities, knowledge, will, truth, beauty, and goodness.

In recent centuries, however, philosophy has steadily been yielding ground, enthusiastically or reluctantly, to empirical science.

Why speculate endlessly about the physical or biological or psychological world, for example, when you can carry out laboratory experiments, make precise measurements, test predictions, and revise proposed explanatory theories in light of findings?

If there are material or psychic costs to this unflinchingly empirical approach, most of us have little desire to confront them. For many of us, the heartland of philosophical and scientific inquiry is the human mind.

Nowadays, interdisciplinary discussion about the disputed nature of this territory takes place chiefly in scholarly journals or on Internet sites. It is rare to encounter a full-length book in which scholars representing competing approaches have the leisure to lay out their positions, undertake substantial interchanges with one another, and provide examples.

There was the 1977 discussion of Self and Its Brain, a dialogue between the philosopher Karl R. Popper and the neuroscientist John C. Eccles. That work stood out because both authors took a dualistic approach to the mind and the body:

Such a frank separation of mind and matter is increasingly rare in philosophy and virtually unique in recent neuroscience. More recently, in 1995, the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and the mathematician Alain Connes conducted an interchange that was translated into English as Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics (Princeton University Press, 1995).

That book indicates how difficult the genre can be: The two debaters proceeded from such different premises and were sufficiently dismissive of each other that they resembled two French tankers passing each other at midnight.

In any debate conducted in the new millennium, it is likely that philosophy -- and particularly humanistic, as opposed to more scientifically oriented analytic, philosophy -- will appear on the defensive. Science has glamour, muscle, powerful theories and methods, dramatic findings, and the promise of additional ones next week.

Philosophy may tout its venerability, but it often appears preoccupied with the decidedly less sexy weapons of definitions, clarifications, doubts, and "thought [as opposed to 'real'] experiments." Still, philosophers past and present have refused to give up the struggle without a fight.

With respect to issues of the mind, Immanuel Kant once argued that a science of psychology was impossible; later, Ludwig Wittgenstein ridiculed both psychologists and philosophers for routinely speaking past one another.

In our own day, Thomas Nagel has written persuasively about the impossibility of capturing experience ("What is it like to be a bat?" he has asked); Hubert Dreyfus has denigrated computer-based efforts to simulate human thought; and John Searle has issued similar indictments against artificial intelligence, insisting that human consciousness has a unique biological status that sets people apart from all known machines. Indeed, when it comes to questions of the human mind, consciousness, and experience, philosophers retain one powerful weapon.

Put bluntly, a good many people -- especially those who consider themselves humanists -- still prefer to believe that there is something special about human beings, some properties that do not lend themselves to explanations in the same way that one can explain the structure of the universe or the anatomy of the cell or the food preferences of other animals.

Copernicus marginalized our planet; Darwin marginalized our species; Freud marginalized our conscious and rational life. Many, if not most, of us still believe that, as people, we retain a privileged relationship to religious beliefs, works of art, loves and hates, dreams and fantasies, and moral sentiments -- in short, for want of a less clichéd term, the realm of the spirit.

In some sense, when philosophers and scientists put on the gloves, we hope that philosophers will strike at least a few powerful blows on behalf of the human part of human nature. A recent attempt to join the discussion between science and humanistic philosophy illustrates where the argument is at present. In the mid-1990's, Changeux, again representing the scientific viewpoint, debated the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, producing a work that was first published in France in 1998.

Recently, Princeton University Press translated the book into English, as What Makes Us Think?: A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. It is a much more thoughtful and more productive effort than the Changeux-Connes book, but it also has limitations. And it is in the blind spots of both participants that we find hints of a more fruitful division of labor between science and philosophy.

The two thinkers lock horns about the grandest of issues: the nature of mind, brain, religion, art, morality, and consciousness. Neither can claim to speak for his entire discipline. Ricoeur's philosophical perspective features an emphasis on phenomenology (the close analysis of the world as perceived by the knowing subject), hermeneutics (principles for studying and interpreting texts, notably biblical ones), and reflectivity (introspection about the activities of the mind).

As a spokesman for the humanistic branch of contemporary philosophy, he is remote from the considerations of Anglo-American philosophers like John Searle, Jerry Fodor, or Daniel Dennett. Those "philosophers of mind," as they are sometimes called, often accept the findings of cognitive and neural science and direct philosophical tools toward their explication.

Dennett, for example, has been deeply involved in efforts to explain consciousness on the basis of experimental studies, while Fodor has explored the "language of thought" and the nature of different cognitive faculties on the basis of psychological and linguistic studies.

Changeux's research has focused on the structure and function of proteins, the nature of neurotransmitters, the early development of the nervous system, the rivalry among -- and eventual stabilization of -- neural connections, and, most recently, computer simulations of those connections.

He has done little work at the "cognitive end" of mental processing that has occupied scholars like Dennett and Fodor. Nor, as a researcher, has he concerned himself directly with distinctly human capacities like language or self-consciousness.

Nonetheless, the broad terms of the debate and the erudition of the debaters provide considerable insight into how certain neuroscientists and philosophers attack enigmas that first occupied the ancient Greeks.

Yet the blinders that both scholars wear obscure two promising rapprochements: one based on the fact that different scholarly disciplines have distinctive contributions to make to our study of the mind, the other on the need to understand the differences between universal (specieswide) experiences and the experiences of individual actors in specific times and places.

Changeux, unfortunately, reaches out to effect connections between brain and mind, but only on his terms, while Ricoeur fails to discern bridges across an epistemological chasm. As a practicing scientist, Changeux stresses two themes throughout: the steady progress of science and the connecting links across the sciences.

He cites a number of significant advances in his own area of expertise, among them: the demonstration that specific sites in the brain correlate with specific cognitive or behavioral functions; the recognition that the central nervous system is capable not merely of reaction, but also of anticipatory and intentional behavior; the emergence of imaging techniques that allow us to observe what is actually occurring in regions of the brain in vivo; and the discovery and increased understanding of psychotropic drugs that can change our moods.

Seeking connections between that understanding of the brain and an understanding of the mind and consciousness, Changeux makes it clear that mastery of brain science and appreciation of the principles of evolution are key. He traces, for example, the mystical ecstasies of Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Roman Catholic saint, to epileptic fits.

Turning to issues of morality, Changeux finds the basis of human moral behavior in the principle of group selection, which favors cooperation among members of the group; and in the striking fact that animals resist injuring vulnerable members of their own species.

He even discerns the evolutionary basis of the arts in those perceptual capacities that focus on certain salient forms and patterns and on the emotional reactions that reliably accompany such perceptions. Drawing on a familiar analogy, we might see Changeux as an intellectual "lumper." In a manner reminiscent of E.O. Wilson's "consilience," he ties diverse facets of disciplines together through evolutionary theory and bases his analyses on the foundation of brain science and genetics.

By contrast, Ricoeur is a "splitter." He continually underscores the importance of separate discourses, the limitations of each science and of science in general, and the privileged status of agency, intention, and meaning when discussing human beings.

For Ricoeur, connection means the important bonds that make up holistic experience, a holism that is differentiated, dissected, or decontextualized at its peril. The difference between lumpers and splitters can be seen in the discussion of the nature of artistic perception. At one point, Ricoeur states, "I see with my eyes."

Changeux retorts, "I would say that I need my eyes in order to see. One speaks, for example, of the 'eye' of a connoisseur of art. But one really ought to speak of his brain, which is to say of his memory of the painting he has seen and of his ability to judge how a work that he contemplated compares with others that he has committed to memory."

Donning the perspective of the phenomenologist, with a touch of the quibbling lawyer, Ricoeur counters, "One is right to speak of the connoisseur's eye rather than his brain. ... I see with my eyes, because my eyes belong to my bodily experience, whereas my brain does not belong to my bodily experience. It is an object of science.

That is to say that the 'with' does not function in the same way when I see with my eyes and when I think with my cortex." In a fascinating passage, Changeux describes how particular cells respond when a subject sees color.

Contrary to what most researchers would have predicted, the cells respond not to the absolute wavelengths of the color, but rather to "perceived color," which remains the same perceptually despite changes in the composition of the light.

Says Changeux: "In all conditions in which the subject sees red, for example, the neurons that correspond to this color are activated. ..." Ricoeur predictably interrupts to add that he must mean: "What we are going to call 'color' in mental language."

Conceding the point, Changeux stresses that we are now able to make an exact connection between actual mental experience and recorded physiological activity. Not satisfied, Ricoeur asks whether it is proper to "identify" mental experience with observed neuronal activity; and he goes on to question the correspondence between the experimental field, on the one hand, and the view that the subject holds about himself and his brain, on the other.

Undeterred, Changeux declares, "This function is precisely established by the subject's own view of his perception of colors." In other words, phenomenological testimony confirms the operation of color-constant cells.

To those who follow scientific breakthroughs, Changeux's mode of argument will strike a familiar chord. Hardly a week goes by without a press report that scientists have discovered the gene for X or put forth an evolutionary explanation for phenomenon Y.

For his part, Ricoeur offers two intriguing lines of argument that are, perhaps, more familiar to readers of Continental philosophy than to readers of Anglo-American philosophy of the mind. The first has to do with artificiality.

The scientist is condemned to draw inferences from situations that are inherently contrived and unrepresentative of the whole of experience. Ricoeur adds that careful analysis of ordinary experiences in their fullness eventually bring us to "one's heart of hearts -- a forum in which one speaks to oneself.

The heart of hearts has its own particular status that it would appear you will never succeed in explaining in your science." ("Why do you say 'never'?" Changeux wonders aloud.) Ricoeur's second line of argument draws attention to intentions and meanings.

Once one enters the world of human experience, one is necessarily wrapped up in a discourse of beliefs, desires, and meanings. That tapestry of integrated notions has undoubted significance to a person; but it remains beyond the access of the external observer. Throughout the debate, Ricoeur objects to attempts to "naturalize" the human condition.

While recognizing intimations of human behaviors in the activities of animals, he will not accept that such activities can be described, let alone justified, in terms of having common origins. They must always be explicated in terms of their place within a meaningful human community, with its specific history and culture.

Ricoeur also refuses to conflate actions based on instincts with actions based on a sense of responsibility; that latter sense can only emanate from conscious human agents, operating in a voluntary manner within a network of rights and responsibilities.

At the end, we confront two gaps that these thinkers are unable to bridge. There is the disciplinary gap. On one hand stands a practicing scientist, who believes that the
tools of his trade will allow him to make progress in understanding, if not completely
illuminating, the deepest questions of human existence.

On the other stands a practicing philosopher from a Continental European background, who remains convinced of the parochialism of science and who prefers the close study and analysis of experience, the careful interpretation of sacred and secular texts, and the capacity for reflection and for reflection upon reflection.

Then there is the discourse gap. One, scientific, frame of reference describes human behavior and thought from an external vantage point; the other, philosophical or humanistic, describes human activity from within, as the realized experience of the mind, the spirit, the soul.

Changeux believes in continuity, that one can move from the external to the internal; Ricoeur believes in a fundamental discontinuity, that we will never be able to span that gap in inherently alien universes. I approached this book -- and, indeed, the entire topic -- with ambivalence.

As a social scientist with ties to cognitive science and neuroscience, I have a professional faith that major philosophical conundrums have been, and will continue to be, illumined by scientific work. No terrain should be declared "off limits" to scientists. And I am impressed by the scientific advances described by Changeux.

At the same time, I have equally strong links to the world of humanistic scholarship and practice. Much of my work has focused on the nature of artistic expression and experience, and I have little doubt that the core of the arts lies remote from current scientific understanding -- and even from scientific promissory notes. I also believe in the indispensability of cultural and historical studies and do not see them ever replaced by, or reduced to, a natural or social-scientific stance.

Indeed, I am suspicious of reductionist efforts, whether in the hands of a physical materialist, a molecular biologist, or an evolutionary psychologist. I wish, therefore, that these debaters had treated two loosely related issues that, I believe, could help dissolve the perennial tension between science and philosophy.

The first has to do with what I would call "forms of explanation." Dating back to the 17th century, scholars have agreed that it makes sense to think of human psychology as consisting of a set of ordered components. Closest to neuronal analysis, and most powerfully shared with other animals, are our capacities to sense and to perceive.

I fully expect that biological science can provide reasonably complete explanations of such capacities, which lie at one end of a continuum. One can proceed to order other capacities spanning the continuum, from concept formation and categorization, to linguistic and other forms of communication, and all the way to religious, moral, and artistic systems.

The sciences of experimental psychology, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology can provide insight into these broader-gauged capacities -- and the Anglo-American brand of philosophy also makes its contributions here.

Yet, as one proceeds from left to right along the continuum, the explanatory power of the basic sciences is steadily attenuated, and one needs increasingly to bring to bear other disciplinary tools, including those of semiotics (symbol analysis), ethics, aesthetics, and humanistic philosophy. Indeed, at the "right" end of the continuum, cogent accounts can only be put forth if they draw heavily on historical and cultural studies like anthropology and literary analysis.

It is not that religious beliefs or aesthetic standards and experiences stand apart from atoms and neurons; rather, it is that the most powerful and persuasive accounts will succeed only if they bring to bear the insights of humanistic forms of explanation.

I share Changeux's faith in continua, then, but not in the locus where he places his accent mark. In my view, there is nothing privileged about the most basic atomic or neuronal level; the great chain of being, the braid of consilience, if you will, simply reflects different points along a single continuum. Physics or biology have no more important a role to play in our understanding of human consciousness than ethics or religion.
In essence, there is no gulf between behavior and soul; nor is there a need to insist that science and philosophy have nothing to say to each other. At each point on the continuum, a somewhat different blend of disciplines and intellectual tools must be drawn upon.

Cultural and historical factors are needed to explain how genes are expressed in different contexts; genetic analysis is needed to reveal historical and cultural potentialities; philosophy -- both Anglo-American and humanistic varieties -- is needed (as in the present analysis) to define and identify those different perspectives.

That is, after all, why we have, and will continue to have, universities: to provide a place where different disciplines can flourish and -- in the happiest of circumstances -- speak to, rather than past, one another.

The other issue that has been too much neglected has to do with the nature of individual creations and experiences. While Changeux and Ricoeur touch sporadically on this, they don't really explore its possibilities for bridging the science-humanism gap.

We share many properties with our fellow humans. And yet, each of us -- even identical twins, as Changeux has pointed out elsewhere -- has a unique nervous system.

Each of us is interestingly different from every other member of Homo sapiens, and, indeed, from the way in which we ourselves were years ago and will be (if we are lucky) years hence. Individuality extends equally to our experience. To take the most dramatic instance, the works of art that affect a person are revealingly different from one another.

We do not listen to Beethoven for the same experience we seek from Mozart or Stravinsky. Moreover, what is distinctive about the opening bars of Mozart's 40th symphony sets it apart from other Mozart works: It is what makes that symphony intriguing, and why we may choose to listen to it or program it, rather than to the (equally beautiful) openings of the 39th or the 41st symphonies.

Paraphrasing the composer Arnold Schoenberg, "style" is what cuts across the works of a person or era; "idea" is what makes each distinctive and precious. A scientific analysis may explain what stylistic features attract or repel our attention in general. It is likely to fail in attempts to account for the individuality of the person, the individuality of the work of art, and, above all, the individuality of each person's experience of a work.

Nor, despite phenomenology and hermeneutics, do I think that such individuality can be adequately illuminated by philosophical tools -- in fact, the idiosyncrasies of experience are more likely to be authentically captured in a powerful work of literature than explained by philosophical analysis. I do not deplore this state of affairs -- I rejoice in it.

Just as scientific explanations lose cogency as they move across the continuum of our capacities, so they lose their power as we move across the continuum of individuality. We may well be able to generalize across all organisms on some topics, across all human beings or, say, all infants on others. But when it comes to the case of an individual member of a particular culture living in a particular historical moment, it is overwhelmingly likely that we will not be able to predict any but the most mundane beliefs or experiences.

In a similar vein, when it comes to human experiences of works of art, it is likely that we will be able to offer some reasoned speculations about features of works of music or art that might appeal across time and space. But when it comes to explaining why A likes the Mozart 40th symphony better than the 39th, and why C recently changed her preference, we must turn to humanistic scholarship or works of art for the most plausible explanations.

Thinking about what part of the continuum science can illuminate, what part humanism can clarify, and where both are needed, might even help us bridge the chasm between scientific and philosophic analyses of human consciousness.

For centuries, humanists have cherished consciousness as their domain -- the peculiarly human (and perhaps higher-animal) capacity to feel and to think, and to be aware of feelings and thoughts. For most of the last century, behavioral scientists eschewed that territory, sometimes aggressively so.

But in recent years, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have at least begun an assault on the fortress. For the first time, we are beginning to get searching discussions of what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls "the feeling of what happens," which combine scientific and humanistic analysis to describe the levels and varieties of consciousness that characterize subjective, interior life. From my point of view, consciousness is no more or less privileged than the other topics.

Some aspects of consciousness will lend themselves readily to the kinds of scientific experimentation and analysis prescribed by Changeux, while others will call for the sorts of historical and cultural studies that emanate from humanists like Ricoeur. To expect science or philosophy ever to explain your peculiar consciousness as you read and reflect on these words is, however, a fool's errand: As Einstein once quipped,"The purpose of chemistry is not to re-create the taste of the soup."

      [Editor's Note: Dr. Howard Gardner teaches developmental psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent books are The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the K-12 Education That Every Child Deserves (Penguin USA, 2000) and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2000)].

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