Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Why I’m right

By Emanuel Derman
October 12, 2011

This article about Raymond Tallis, whom I’ve never heard of, strikes a chord with me because it’s related to a post I wrote recently on this blog, as follows:

In an article on nightmares in the WSJ of Oct 4, there was the following paragraph:

Modern psychiatrists, led by Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, believe dreams are electrical pulses from the brain stem randomly bombarding the center of the brain where visual memories are stored, creating kaleidoscopes of images around which the brain concocts stories.

Here is the same paragraph, with one word changed:

Modern psychiatrists, led by Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, believe thoughts are electrical pulses from the brain stem randomly bombarding the center of the brain where visual memories are stored, creating kaleidoscopes of images around which the brain concocts stories.

Does that count as an explanation?

I got a couple of e-mails about what I meant. I mean: why shouldn’t one regard all mental phenomena as meaningful? Why only some? But that leads me to want to explain why I’m uncomfortable with some of the uses that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology seem to be put to.

I’ve always been a scientist, and I never turn my back on science. But my love of science, and my belief in its value and efficacy, rests on something more fundamental, and that is my personal sense of autonomy, however limited it may be. Inside me, I sense, there’s a core I that can not just perceive but also experience, investigate and judge, can sometimes apprehend the reality behind the appearances, can find theories beyond heuristics, based on something internal. I don’t care whether that internal thing is physical or mental or both, or where it resides, but it’s reality for me, and it’s why I’m interested in reality.

If you want to convince me, as Schrödinger believed or along some Buddhist line, that this I is part of some universal I that encompasses everything, I might eventually buy it because it’s part of some more interesting reality that doesn’t preclude my perceived autonomy. But I often feel, (perhaps wrongly?) that some of the neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists who venture into explaining human behavior are trying to show that reality is more limited rather than less limited, arguing implicitly that my autonomy isn’t capable of apprehending the truth. And they do it with a passion that seems to believe in truth and hence autonomy.

Why would you bother to argue with me about anything if you don’t believe that I can come to an autonomous conclusion, and that your conclusion, even if it differs from mine, is autonomous too?

I know, among other things from having studied physics, that the universe and its laws are ungodly strange and that our capacity to grasp them is amazing, and that we cannot find those laws by  observation alone. Data is only data.

I am willing to believe that my autonomy is indeed much less than I imagine, that I am less free than I sometimes feel. Without a doubt. But underneath it all, that core experience of autonomy is why I’m interested in science, religion, literature, philosophy and art.

The belief in the capacity for autonomy comes before all of those things. Everything else seems to me to be a derivative, even if it looks naively like an underlier. And you can’t convince me the real underlier, whatever it is, is not there by using the things that depend on it. At least not yet.

 

 

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