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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
[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