Grey matters

We may feel that we can get to know a thing better by explaining it in terms of something else, indeed science depends upon this philosophy, but there is also a sense in which it doesn’t make sense – and the best example is ourselves.

Consider the perceived difference between our thoughts and the brain.  First we must recognise a difference in order to talk about a cause, otherwise there is nothing to talk about.  Then we suppose that the cause must explain things – especially if there is nothing else to see.  Yet something else remains evident in the change, now perceived as an effect.  However, saying that the cause has changed to create that difference leaves the fact of the change unexplained and renders the effect redundant.  Typically, we diminish the reality of the difference in order to explain it by attributing the emergent properties of the effect to the cause – as if ‘causality shows us’ that change doesn’t really occasion a shift in reality.  Thereby we conclude that new events, such as thought or consciousness, are really superficialities that cannot amount to changes in the nature of nature.  In other words, we concede, for the sake of explanation, that change is not all it seems – as if a talking nature is really not so different in kind from one that never did, now seen as the cause.

Moreover, the mind and the body amount to differences in reality which we can’t explain by supposing that reality must be a singular ‘thing’.  Indeed we are no more able to explain reality in terms of ‘things real’ than we can explain the existence of existence.  In fact, we can’t pin the ‘it’ down.  And perhaps reality is a fact we cannot define because it can also be seen to define us – in more ways than one.  So when people say that mind and body are one and the same thing, they are calling them the same in the name of an incomplete explanation – as if causality is a thing in existence that explains the origin of things in existence and automatically clears-up the problem of change.  Also, we are looking at ‘the reality’ retrospectively by leaving out of the analysis the significance of the looking – as if the change to observation can be seen as a subsidiary effect.  But we have yet to explain the change to perception, together with the evidence, of itself, of the effect that occupies an additional reality to the cause – a difference that cannot be accounted for by saying that there is no real change, as if the fact of change is subsidiary to the cause instead of the other way round.

Mike Laidler



The Mind In Science

Foreword: This article was first published as a letter in the January 2016 edition of The Psychologist: the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society; volume 29, no 1. (

I would like to add some philosophical observations to the recent contributions on the performance of psychological research.

There is a fundamental ‘uncertainty principle’ in psychology because the study of behaviour can change it, intentionally or not, whilst psychological research cannot control for the incalculable influences of its findings. In addition, psychology is open to the accusation of being subjectively invested in its subject matter to the detriment of ‘pure objectivity’ – after all, don’t we start with subjective premises like thoughts, feelings, memories, attitudes etc? And, despite the physical sciences being just as susceptible to ‘confirmation bias’ they seem better placed to get away with the trick of being ‘essentially objective’ – as if ‘objectivity’ is independent of the meaning we give to it. In fact, it may be fair to say that scientists are more like tinkerers than independent observers, and to make this point I take my cue from the works of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Science faces a continuous challenge to determine the facts, which, aside from the most general of interpretations, are rarely conclusive. Indeed, the ideal of science – that the facts will speak for themselves – is a complete myth. Furthermore, every fact is a fact in multiple contexts and its isolation does not necessarily reflect its true nature. Evidence, such as it is, is a construct of the questions we ask, and is limited by all those we fail to ask. In general terms, there is no evidence without a mind to be convinced, and it doesn’t matter how objective we strive to be, we cannot escape the fact that there would be no objectivity without a subjective backdrop; indeed objectivity exists as a selective version of subjectivity. It is no wonder then that as the evidence accumulates, we find ourselves overturning or re-interpreting facts of prior investigations that were hitherto taken to be conclusive.

In reality, science remains a community of tinkerers. We like to think that our discoveries bolster our claims to have mastered the facts and that we know what we are doing because, like Little Jack Horner, we have managed to pull the plum out of the pie. And though we might have good reasons for selecting our pie, our generalisations don’t mean that the facts have told us what to think, or that that the ‘hard evidence’ runs our research – indeed it remains very much the opposite. Meanwhile, we strive to remain in control of our selections, so ensuring that the results remain subject to our foibles – which is why, as Karl Popper pointed out, we can always find confirmations of our pet theories and still be wrong.

A cynic might conclude that reliability and replication thereby serve to promote a line of research at the expense of the wider truth. But what kind of truth is to be found outside research? It would seem that the answer lies in our assessments of validity, so long as we remember that those assessments remain no more than that – since no fact speaks for itself whilst it requires a theory to speak for it. Nevertheless, there is one conclusion we are entitled to draw on the basis of our privileged position as subjective entities in an objective universe – that no matter how research proceeds and performs in the future, it remains relative to the unique ‘contamination’ of the mind in science, and necessarily so, albeit, paradoxically, not necessarily sufficient to convince us.

Mike Laidler MBPsS

Kuhn, Thomas S (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
Popper, Karl R (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Nature Watch

Nature baffles us – it is so ingrained in the imagination that we can’t help but to see ‘it’ as ‘a thing’ ‘out there’, and so we claim to know things as ‘nature shows us’. However, ‘nature’ shows us different things that confound logic with facts that change the character of the truth we are able to discern. For instance, it is evident, on the one hand, that nature has no grand design or purpose for life, and there is no goal to evolution – yet we act with purposes as a part of nature and work towards artificial goals that nature does not have, therefore cannot give us – though, on the other hand, ‘it must’ if we truly ‘belong to nature’. And even when the truth is as definitive as X = Y, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take account of the observable difference. But the logic of explanation avers that one thing can be seen as a form of the other, as if the difference is superficial and amounts to no real difference – as if the change can be accounted for by the underlying sameness.

Seeing one thing in terms of another begins with the observation of a difference that explanation then tries to lose with the claim that everything is really one thing – so ‘we are really nothing more than chemical entities’ – mere versions of the common fabric of the universe. These causal extrapolations also get applied to observable differences within the living world, such as between our sentient thoughts and brain functions – so that ‘thinking is nothing more than something the brain does’. Nevertheless, we continue to wonder what it means for thinking to exist at all, knowing that the abstract truths of explanation don’t amount to the whole truth – knowing that awareness is alien to the ‘nature of nature’ in a universe ‘explicable’ by its physical laws – in a universe that doesn’t aspire to know or explain itself, yet does, through us, since we exist as a part of that universe – a universe in which the possibilities for life, thought, meaning, purpose and perception equate to a larger truth in which ‘blind nature’ and the physical laws add up to a lesser fact.

Mike Laidler