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. (www.thepsychologist.org.uk)

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
philosophyalive.co.uk

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

Advertisements

Horizons

Whatever else we can know about the beginnings and becomings of the universe, we know it hosts, in us, a reality quite unlike the nature we can find by looking to a universe without – that reality being the fact of our awareness. It is as if the universe has evolved to incorporate something extra, through us, which we know to be real enough simply because we are aware of the fact of awareness in existence – a fact that now seems to exist in addition to everything else. And if that fact only seems to be the case, then the fact of that seeming is still enough to make the case.

Mike Laidler

Leadership and Democracy

We use the vote to tell our governments what we think, but how do we know what to think?  Does making a decision on the basis of the available evidence mean that our reasoning is balanced for us by that evidence?  And can we mean what we say or do if the brain makes us do it under the influence of its inputs?  In fact, are we just being carried along on a tide of influences that appear to us as our opinions?  Is this why our choices get skewed by the facts that happen to grab our attention or the past experiences that bias our views?  Then what does this say about voting in democracies that are meant to operate on the balance of public opinion?  Are we any better when it comes to collective decision-making?

Can a consensus of opinions draw us nearer to the truth?  When confronted with an irresolvable dilemma it might seem reasonable for an individual to commit the choice to the toss of a coin.  However, we don’t want to commit to chance important choices on matters of national policy, so we might listen to the debates and take note of the opinion polls giving us a statistical insight into the balance of public opinion?  But can we really claim to know the collective mind?  Can we rely upon the statistics to give us the facts?  Can democratic opinion resolve a dilemma in any event?  Is the opinion of the masses any less fickle than the singular decision of a dominating leader?

Does democracy enshrine the sovereignty of the majority over ‘the right thing to do’?  Ironically, our dilemmas appear to be most acute when we give ourselves an either/ or predicament.  So what can the statistics reveal about issues that split a population down the middle?  Suppose there are millions of coins in a bag of national treasures and they happen to tumble out at random.  They would tend towards a balance of 50/50, heads and tails, with the trend towards this balance increasing as the number of coins increases – the reason being that the coins don’t know what they are doing.  So when our mass choices at elections and referenda tend towards such a balance of opinions, might this not mean that the statistics are indeed telling us something about ourselves – that the balance of collective opinion is no better than chance?

Mike Laidler

Examining our Sensibilities

The insensible life is not worth living. Indeed the insensible life is but a semblance of living. We experience life as lived through its sensibilities. Those sensibilities grow into the fact of our awareness; however, the sensible life is determined by the reach of awareness rather than its grasp – for supposing to hold on to what we have been made aware of amounts to an artificial form of its true reality, a restricted and burdensome facsimile of its liberating enlightenment. And what hell waits upon the fabrication of awareness as something conscripted to our possession?

Mike Laidler

Believing in Belief

What is truth?  How do we know that we know?  Is it all a collection of beliefs?  Even science may say one thing today and another tomorrow, so an individual who follows yesterday’s precepts might now seem ridiculous – as if today’s explanations are closer to the truth.   Then does that make the truth, even factual truths, belong indefinitely to tomorrow’s understandings?

Then how do we truly know that we know?  Should we stick to our senses, or is there more to know?  We live and learn, and form opinions based upon experiences that lead to differences of opinion, even among experts.  Facts can be inconclusive, but they can’t make our decisions for us in any event.  Experiences are far from simple and those we take to be conclusive are usually filtered through tacit decisions about what counts, the primary filter being belief.  Our confidence in the facts is really a confidence placed in our tacit beliefs about the facts, certainty playing second fiddle to these beliefs.  Hence belief enables us to make decisions when we don’t know any better, the belief supplying the feeling of knowing better.

Knowing anything strikes a balance between the knowing and the knowing otherwise. The balance point is determined by belief.  Beliefs fabricate our certainties based upon images of reality.  Beliefs are the active mental screen on which those images are projected, together with the elaborated images of our senses.   Sometimes we recognise our beliefs, seeing belief as a form of thinking for tidying-up our thinking.  But if belief is a power we exert over our own minds, it is also a power exerted over us by the collective mind of our culture.   Often we can’t tell the difference or don’t bother to try.

We see as we believe, believing we see as we see.  Believing in belief flourishes amidst the urgency to know.   In a paradoxical world, belief is the possibility inviting us to entertain impossibilities that just might be true.  Not knowing is the only restraint we can exercise, but the exigencies of decision making may not allow us the scope for this luxury.  And the various forms of disbelief, non-believing and unbelieving all function as forms of belief serving as alternative social co-ordinates bearing an aura of superior neutrality.  Meanwhile the question about what is truth converts into an issue over what may stand as proof – as if proof is the unequivocal imparter of knowledge that remains independent of what we believe.

If it is ‘true’ to say that belief is the last refuge of the individual, then knowing that we believe is the last refuge of our integrity as individuals.  Then what of truth?  Perhaps belief affords a more pragmatic approach to truth – in accepting that truth is greater than our knowledge, and that the truths we make do with reveal more about our tacit systems of belief than we can ever discover by looking to the facts as absolutes, as decisive matters of fact.  But the same applies to the truth about our beliefs, for we cannot find an absolute in their content simply by believing in our beliefs.

Thus it may be true to say that knowledge is power, especially within our various spheres of influence and cultures of belief, including the religious, the political, the economic and the ‘factual’, but who can say that knowledge is truth?  Alternatively it might be more prudent to consider a more basic truth about knowledge:  knowing that we believe is the safest form of knowledge, believing that we know the most dangerous.

© Mike Laidler 2015

Diets of persuasion

Rhetoric is a concoction of processed persuasions and artificial additives – a dubious philosophical sandwich – stuffed with beguiling logical-isms sitting between a premise (assumption) and conclusion, then served up to the gullible who are meant to swallow it whole.

But the worst of it is that, at its best, the reasoning ingested with the ‘conclusion’ is meant to be digested as if it gives nourishment to the premise.

Mike Laidler

The problem of happiness

The problem of happiness is that we have made it into a problem. Children are born with happiness in their being, which they systematically unlearn in learning to be happy.

There is no thing in the world that encapsulates happiness, apart from the things in the world said to make us happy. Thus ‘being happy’ is a construct that is conditional upon finding out how to be happy, which usually depends upon finding the things that make us happy – as if happiness is a thing to be found in the world.

Ironically, the quest to be happy can undermine our well-being on the premise there is something to be found that we do not have, as if it might flood into our lives to fill a vacuum – as if happiness is the experience of that it.

Unfortunately there is much sadness to behold in this quest for happiness – for those who need happiness to be defined for them will never find it on those terms.

Mike Laidler.