Brain vs. Philosophy? Howard Gardner Gets Us Across!

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur, both French scholars, wrote a book together entitled What Makes Us Think?: A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. It consists of a series of discussions and debates the two held, an oral approach to knowledge given to us as written and translated word.

Together these two ably illustrate the biology/culture and science/humanities divide we have discussed recently. Changeux sees brains as more than just the material substance of knowledge and self; neurons serve as author as well. In contrast, Ricoeur brings phenomenology, interpretation, and reflexivity to the table, as well as a keen appreciation of the limits of human knowledge (and thus materialist claims, like those made by Changeux). Yet the first chapter of their book is entitled A Necessary Encounter, and then covers topics such as Body and Mind, The Neuronal Model and The Test of Experience, and Desire and Norms.

It was a true pleasure to encounter a lengthy and excellent review of this book by Howard Gardner, the psychologist and educator whose best known work is Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner even gives us a 25th year retrospective on the work). Entitled Mind and Brain: Only the Right Connections, Gardner sets up the theoretical debate at stake, provides us background on both scholars, and then perceptively takes us through their entire debate.

Here’s one excerpt to give you a sense of how Gardner sees Changeux, riding triumphant science, and Ricoeur, on the defensive, debating the brain:

When Changeux explains that the nervous system is active as well as reactive, Ricouer cautions that one should first speak of mental activities and not of the brain: “The discourse of the mental includes the neuronal and not the other way around.” Changeux responds: “What we wish to do is to link up the two discourses (material and mental) with each other” (p. 44). Here as elsewhere, Changeux seeks to effect connections, while Ricoeur insists on the ontological separation of the two realms.

Changeux presents his case for why brain science is ready to make these connections as follows:

At an early point in the discussion, [Changeux] lays out five significant advances: 1) the demonstration that the central nervous system is capable not merely of reaction but also of anticipatory and intentional behavior; 2) the correlation between injuries to specific sites in the brain and the corresponding loss of specific cognitive or behavioral functions; 3) the emergence of imaging techniques, which allow us to observe what is actually occurring in regions of the brain in vivo; 4) the advent of electrophysiological techniques, which allow one to isolate with precision the activities of particular nerve cells; 5) the discovery of pyschotropic drugs–chemical agents that can change our moods–along with increased understanding of how these drugs operate. The resulting interchanges around these topic offer a succinct introduction to the positions of the principals.

Ricoeur responds with qualifications, with a sense of where these connections must reach if they are ever to be effective:

To Changeux’s “lumping perspective,” Ricoeur counterposes a “splitter’s mentality.” He continually underscores the importance of separate discourses, the limits of each science and of science in general, the privileged status of agency, intention, and meaning. He, too, believes in connection but of an entirely different sort: for Ricoeur, the important bonds reflect the holistic aspect of experience, a holism which is differentiated or dissected at its peril.

Gardner ably summarizes a fascinating debate the two have over brain imaging, where Changeux falls victim to a map being material enough to understand human experience, while Ricoeur responds in defending experience but not in attacking the alleged richness of neuronal discourse by Changeux.

As the discussion turns to brain imaging, Ricoeur introduces another objection. He asserts that the physical notion of the image differs from an image in the sense of imagining “that is something different–it implies absence, the unreal” (p. 53). Like a chess master invading Ricoeur’s territory, Changeux speculates that one could have done a PET scan of Theresa of Avila’s brain during her mystical ecstacies. Such scans might have revealed whether she had hallucinations and whether she was the victim of epileptic fits. When Changeux notes that Pascal also had hallucinations, Ricoeur rejoins: “When he [Pascal] said ‘Joy, joy, tears of joy!’ that was something entirely different. To use the notion of hallucination in a categorical way amounts to having a rich neuronal discourse and an impoverished psychological discourse” (p. 57).

One might think that Changeux would concede the point, but he does not. Instead he goes on to suggest that Pascal’s own unpublished Mémorial, which contains the phrase to which Ricoeur referred, suggests that he had a condition called “temporal lobe epilepsy.” Pascal’s powerful memories probably were located in the temporal lobe and were recalled during a crisis. The content of the memories move us “because it attests to human experience that the organization of the human brain allows us to organize in memory” (p. 57). Ricoeur’s final words–those of the hermeneuticist and the phenomenologist combined–emphasize that we must turn to the statements of the patient–“in other words, an account, a fragment of discourse” (p. 57).

Gardner brings us into the heart of why Ricoeur’s discussion manners through two main points: (1) artificiality, and (2) intentions and meaning. For artificiality, “The scientist is condemned to draw inferences from situations that are inherently contrived and unrepresentative of experience ‘in the whole.’ As Ricoeur puts it: ‘Owing to ethical obstacles, human experimentation is limited; experimentation is therefore principally done on animals, the results of which are then extrapolated on the basis of carefully tested criteria. Under these circumstances, critical reflection ought to be brought to bear upon the discrepancy between the artificial conditions of laboratory research and the physical and social environments in which human beings ordinarily find themselves (p. 66)’.”

And with intentions and meaning, Gardner writes, “Once one enters the world of human experience, one is wrapped up in a discourse of beliefs, desires and meanings. This tapestry of integrated notions has undoubted significant to a person embedded in a historical and cultural context, but it remains beyond the access of the distanced, tool-dependent external observer of cells firing in various regions of the nervous system.”

He then quotes Ricoeur:

The cognitive sciences…construct formulations and consider symbolic systems–chiefly linguistic systems–as their primary frame of reference. My position here will consist in moving away from formal approaches of this type in the direction of actual experience, which itself rests on an exchange of intentions and meaning (p. 96).

Gardner describes the neuroscientist’s rebuttal: “Changeux responds that it is possible to obtain physical facts about subjective psychological states and that a physics of introspection might even be possible. He chronicles the advances that have been made in understanding linguistic and other symbol systems. Yet, to my way of thinking, he skirts around the territory of intentions and meaning, rather than entering the heartland which Ricoeur so cherishes.”

In the end, over the course of the book, each scholar is wedded to his particular side of the culture/biology division.

In each case–consciousness, religion, morality, ethics, arts–Changeux looks for biological clues: from the behavior of animals, the impaired functions of individuals who suffer from brain disease, correlations between blood flow or electrophysiological patterns and behavioral states, findings about genetic or psychological functioning, linguistic and artistic products.

In each case, Ricoeur raises kindred objections to these attempts to “naturalize” the human condition. While recognizing that there may be intimations of human behaviors in the activities of animals, he will not accept “commonality of origins” as evidence that these activities can be described, let alone justified, in terms of such commonality; they must always be explicated in terms of their place within a meaningful human community.

Here is Gardner describing his take on the main aspects of this divide:

At the end, we confront two gaps that these thinkers are unable to bridge. There is the disciplinary gap: the gap between the practicing scientist, who believes that the tools of his trade will allow him to progress, if not completely illuminate, the deepest questions of human existence; and the practicing philosopher, who remains convinced of the parochiality of science and who prefers to employ his own tools: 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. Complementarily, there is the discourse gap: one discourse that describes human behavior and thought from an external vantage point, and a second discourse that describes human activity from within, as the realized experience of the mind, the spirit, the soul. Changeux believes in continuity–one can proceed from one to the other; Ricoeur believes in a fundamental discontinuity–one will never be able to span this gap, for it reflects inherently alien universes.

What does Gardner himself add? He describes his own ambivalence as a social scientist, confident in the work of science and impressed by the advances already made, yet seeing art as still very distant from any work being done in science and confident also in the “indispensability of cultural and historical studies.” Gardner proposes that to bridge the gap, we must see that there is none, for there are interlocking pieces between, each relevant in its own right.

I wish, therefore, that the debate had treated two loosely related dimensions which, I believe, constitute a fairer test of the perennial struggle between science and philosophy. These dimensions–“forms of explanation” and “insight into individual entities”–should both be viewed as continua… [T]here 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.

To put this in terms of the debate, there is no gulf between behavior and soul; nor is there a need to insist in two unjoinable discourses. There is rather a continuum: at each point, a somewhat different blend of disciplines and discourses must be drawn upon. Cultural and historical factors are needed to explain the expression of genes in different contexts; gene analysis is needed to reveal historical and cultural potentialities; philosophy is needed (as in the present analysis) to define and identify these different perspectives. That is why we have universities!

For forms of explanation, Gardner echoes much of what we have said before here:

Turning first to “forms of explanation,” scholars dating back to the 17th century philosophers agree 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 science can provide reasonably complete explanations of these capacities. One can proceed to order other capacities, including those of concept formation and categorization, linguistic and other forms of communication, all the way across the continuum to religious, moral, and artistic systems. The sciences of experimental psychology, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology can provide insight into these broader-gauged capacities. Yet as one proceeds along the continuum, the explanatory power of basic sciences is steadily attenuated, and one needs increasingly to bring to bear other disciplinary tools, including those of semiotics (symbol analysis), ethics, and aesthetics. Indeed, at the “right” end of the continuum, cogent accounts can only be put forth if they draw heavily on historical and cultural studies (anthropology, 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 studies.

And for the individual, Gardner brings a refreshingly unique take, neither the individual of science, bounded and rational, or the individual of philosophy and art, lone thinker and creative genius. Nervous system, individual experience, and subjective interpretation move us into a radically different domain—an individuality that lies firmly in the continua Gardner describes. In my mind, this is his better and more radical point, and one we haven’t struggled with sufficiently here.

The other neglected space, mentioned only in passing in the debate, is the nature of individual creations and experiences. We share many properties with our fellow humans; indeed, as often noted, we even share nearly all of our genes with chimpanzees. And yet each of us–even identical twins, as Changeux has pointed out elsewhere (1999)–has a different 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 (if we are lucky) be years hence. More importantly, the works of art that affect us are revealingly different from one another. We do not listen to Beethoven in order to secure the same experiences as we seek from Mozart or Stravinsky. Moreover, what is distinctive about the opening bars of Mozart’s 40th symphony is what makes it 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. I do not believe that science will ever be able to capture either form of individuality (the person or the work); nor, despite phenomenology and hermeneutics, do I think that this individuality can be adequately illuminated by philosophical tools. But I do not deplore this state of affairs–I rejoice in it.

This sense of individuality is a necessary piece of the puzzle, adding onto other summaries I have made, one emphasizing the need to overcome dichotomies, the other to have concrete projects and problems that can work the synthesis, and another focused on some needed conceptual tools.

I’ll add more to what this sense of individuality might look like in the coming days (see here), when I build off of Rosenfield and Ziff’s How the Mind Works. For now I’ll leave you with Gardner’s own ending:

To expect science or history of philosophy ever to explain my or 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 recreate the taste of the soup.”

2 thoughts on “Brain vs. Philosophy? Howard Gardner Gets Us Across!

  1. If you don’t include bicameralism you can’t explain brain/mind. But the right brain is “mute”. How to reach it ?
    The XIXth century pionneers show the way: most of them were “half the pole”.

    The conquest of the “last continent” will need sacrified people. What I did 60 years ago, finding myself in cases of “sure death within 5 seconds”. The “mute brain” reacts. I was interested by the article in NEUROPSYCHOLOGY?
    wondering how much time it would be used as a philosopher. Now Ricoeur is a theosophist, Calvinist? therefore an engrved and limited mind. Changeux has no preparation for fundamental philosophy. Gardner ? I remember reading a big book “Brain” ? with a small note at the bottom “Prosopagnosia is known but so rarer that nobody cares. As a “psy” had diagnotised me as “the most absent-minded fellow ever seen”, I could not approve this note and lost 10 years to know me. I think “brain problems” should be left to people like the 19th century pionneers. But we should help the little einstein Nature creates by thousand with its “scoubidou” trick.
    We have another genius in France, some Verstichel. When he got the french Prize for prosopagnosia, I kicked him!


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