What Is Science?

The reason why our sentient, percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture, can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as part of it.

~ Physicist Erwin Schrodinger

In an interview in the October issue of Reason, psychologist Steven Pinker defends materialism and “debunks” the idea of the human soul as follows: “The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can’t be reduced to a function of the brain…. [But n]euroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life – every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory – can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain.”

Pinker’s statement deserves analysis, because, while philosophical rubbish, it is a type of philosophical rubbish that we encounter frequently today. Furthermore, it is not mere confusion, but an assertive sort of confusion with a particular aim in mind: to discredit religion. Pinker is pushing his religious belief, materialism, by putting forward a pseudo-philosophical argument under the guise of scientific objectivity. For those readers who are religious, or, indeed, any reader who is simply interested in making philosophical sense when discussing science, it is useful to see the error in such arguments.

To understand the emptiness of Pinker’s claim, it will be helpful to step back and consider for a moment what science is.

The word ‘science’ has various uses: we can have the ‘science of cooking,’ ‘the science of literary criticism,’ and even ‘the sweet science of boxing.’ But here I will consider science as the ideal character of what are often called the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biochemistry, astronomy, and so on. As I have come to comprehend it, that character is the attempt to abstract from experience a universal mechanical relationship among measurable quantities.

Given that quest, there is no a priori reason to set certain limits on the sort of experiences from which science might attempt to abstract a mechanical aspect. Religious people have sometimes erred here, in declaring certain experiences – the mind, the gene, the movements of the earth and the sun, or the existence of life on earth – as being off limits for scientific investigation. (That mistake has nothing to do with the issue of whether certain methods, such as cloning, are moral for the scientist to use in his pursuit of scientific knowledge.) The fears of such people are based on a misapprehension: Because a mechanical relationship might be abstracted from any experience in no way reduces that experience to that abstraction. The abstraction derives from the experience, and certainly does not generate it!

If science is the search for such abstractions, it is wrong to chide the scientist for “turning everything into a mechanical relationship” or some such complaint. When acting as a scientist, that is exactly what he should be doing. But the flip side of that is that the scientist has left behind that defense and, in fact, wandered far into error himself, when he mistakes his process of abstraction for “fundamental truth” or “the way things really are.” Science is a particular way of looking at experience, true as far as it goes, but it has no claim to finality vis–vis other ways of understanding the world, such as history, religion, and art. The fact that it achieves mechanical abstractions of experience and those other modes do not is hardly surprising, since science searches for such abstractions, and history, religion, and art do not.

Having achieved such an abstraction, it is a serious mistake to view it as causing the experience in question. Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation is not the cause of the attraction between physical objects; it is a description of a mechanical aspect of that attraction.

With our definition in mind, we can pinpoint the confusion at the root of Pinker’s claim. It is quite possible that, from any mental activity, neuroscientists can abstract a mechanical aspect and associate it with certain thoughts, emotions, and so on. But that in no way “reduces” the mental activity to a “function of the brain.” All that it demonstrates is that thinking, too, has a mechanical aspect to it. To move from that fact to the notion that those mechanical processes “cause” our thoughts is akin to deciding that, because we can abstract out certain aspects of any city and call that abstraction a “street map,” that therefore street maps are the cause of cities!

The idea that the experience "sitting with one’s true love, watching the sunset over Galway Bay," somehow can be reduced to certain physiological responses to a particular wavelength of light and the proximity of a member of the opposite sex is absurd. One could potentially abstract such a description from the experience, but the experience is what it means to the person who had it. The mechanical and quantitative are only aspects of our experience, and since no concrete experience is ever merely mechanical and quantitative, such a description can never be a complete one of any experience whatsoever.

But you are right, Dr. Pinker, that there is no ghost in the machine. Rather, the machine itself is an aspect of the ghost.

September 7, 2002