Friday, 23 April 2010

Are the Brain Sciences trashing the Human Wardrobe?

The brain sciences necessarily, and not merely here and there, impose limits on our knowledge of human experience. This is a cause for public concern. The explanatory power of modern brain imaging in the exploration of human behaviour and experience is prescriptive, not instructive. Claims for advancement in these brain "sciences" are as vacuous as their knowledge base. Here I explore some simple technical and logical principles that ground these facts (for I do not make any claims).

Empirical argument
This argument makes a weaker claim than the philosophical argument, below.
The experiential map of the human brain shows or presents a physical structure, the brain, upon which is drawn or mapped human emotions or experiences; and from that map, it is claimed by the brain sciences, we can find things out about our emotions and experiences. This experiential map of the physical brain (ultimately, even the brain itself) is identified, constructed and fixed in the laboratory from direct reports given by a test-subject of his emotions or experience. First, technicians constuct the physically definable structures through brain imaging or dissection; then, emotions and experience taken from the verbal or non-verbal reports of test-subjects are mapped onto these physically-defined structures. Later, sub-strtures are physically identified if reports of experience suggest structures that were not immediately physically apparant. Finally, the structure of the brain is announced as a mirror of human emotion and experience and presented to the public.

However, what a test-subject would report as a particular emotion or experience is subject to cultural values and historical change, and the construction of the brain-map is built on those reports.

An experiential map of the physical brain is, then, a map of contemporary cultural values. The experiential brain map is necessarily prescriptive and not instructive. The brain-map of experience can only ever reflect what we read into it from our culturally-dependent reports of experience. We can make no culturally-neutered allowance for this as any allowance will itself be subject to a culturally-driven agenda. This is not to say that, on the whole, reports of experience cannot be averaged out to help build an approximate experiential map of the brain. I rule this possibility out in the philosophical argument, below.

Two further points arise in respect of the empirical (physical) aspects of experiential brain-map construction. The first is that the brain sciences can be instructive, but only in a non-reductionist system, that is, where physically-based brain imagery is used to inform strictly physical judgements such as those made in surgery to alleviate physical trauma.  Second, no matter how advanced our measuring technique or how colourful our brain-scan, no physical read-out will tell us whether a brain is conscious or even if it is a brain. This leads to a further understanding: no mooted brain algorithm will demonstrate the value of an experience, whether we are witnessing an illness or not, for example. Brain tissues (and genes for that matter) simply do not flag up sounds, colours, values, experiences or illnesses - we read these into, and not from, the physical structure that we come to call the brain. That much understanding of the inherent practical limits suffered by the brain sciences can be had, we hope, by everyone, were it not for the influence of the most strident declarations of the brain imagers to the contrary.

Philosophical argument
Summarising the above, I argued that experiential sources and reports are epistemologically primary in the brain sciences as it is these that outline the physical extent of brain structures, even the physical brain itself. In this sense, the brain can yield no experiential knowledge, but only knowledge of how to physically interfere with those experiences or emotions that we have already read into it: we cannot get out of this experiential map any more than we put in. Thus, no examination of a brain that is built on reports of experience can yield novel data about experience. The brain, so constructed, isn't a source of experiential knowledge. But there is a philosophical/logical reason for the fact that physical matter can't flag up non-physical, experiential events to a physical observer.

The relationship between a technically described brain and mind or experience isn't physically, causally reciprocal; where there is no reciprocal relationship epistemological exchange isn't possible. Any knowledge that is sourced between systems in a reduction is static, consisting of a conjunction or mapping of propositions taken from each independent system. While the syntax or ontology of the elements of each system are related and derivable within their own system, between systems there is no syntax or ontology, and no epistemologically significant elements or propositions arise.

Taking a single system first, for example, if A affects B physically, then B also affects A. We can determine A by inspecting B, and vice-versa. There is an exchange of information, a relationship, between A and B. No such relationship exists if A affects B but B does not affect A. The brain/mind reductionism is one such mixed system. Here, there is no reciprocal relationship and no informational exchange. Items in a supervenience or reduction are mapped, not related; and no new information can be obtained from a mapping.

Thus the error of reasoning that promotes the idea that brain studies can show us the extent of the experiential appareil of the human wardrobe is this: the elements of a mapping are erroneously, even willfully, taken as a reciprocal relationship, and hence mutually informative. Another way of putting is to say that a reduction has no ontology between the elements of its systems, but that one has erronously been created for it.  A mapped to B becomes A related to B. We can analyze this yet further. When A is mapped to B, B is identified by A. Likewise, logically, and as it is realized in practice, the brain is an organ that is identified by reports of experience. That which is employed to make an identification is not itself informed by what is identified. Only if there is a relationship between the identifier and the identified is there informational exchange between them. And for a relationship to obtain between a pair (mind and brain in this case), there must be a model that identifies the pair. No such model exists for mind and brain. Any claim that they are in a mutually informative relationship takes the model as given.

Brain scientists may, perhaps, grudgingly admit that they must work on both sides of this unbridgeable epistemological vacuum (between the technical/experiential camps) but there is a disturbing lack of critical intuition among the public who are only too ready to defer to the idea that brain science contributes to knowledge of our experiential selves. The vague ontological status of "the brain" as it is presented in technical manuals promotes this public view. The brain is offered as being not quite either physical or mental but as a metaphysical oxymoron, a hybrid object created from a supposed causal relationship between mind and matter. So created, this brain-object would magically seem capable of supporting mind over matter in an informational exchange between them.

Restricting the Human Wardrobe
As I argued above, the evolution of brain-based psychologies and sciences are necessarily split. While the technical arm may advance beyond our imagination, the experiential arm evolves independently. But what is important here is that it is the experiential arm that informs the very existence or physical limit of the objects that are the business of the physical, technical arm. It is the experiential arm that is, itself, knowledge of ourselves and the source of how we value and assess experience and emotion. It guides the whole construction of the technical map of the brain. The experiential arm is itself limited by cultural values, expectation and taboos, whether these are medically sourced or social. It is the experiential arm which limits our vision of the range of human experience.

It follows, then, that technically advanced brain studies can only mirror contemporary images of the mental, of what counts as an experience, a valid experience, and emotions, etc. Brain sciences must either freeze or shrink the data-base of the human psyche. Such studies can be grounded on and hence promote culturally idiosyncratic, taboo-driven or limited analyses of emotions and the values we place on them. Areas of the brain that are associated with, or mapped to (and not "related to") experience can only be obtained through culturally filtered reports of our experience. Culturally-contingent associations may disappear altogether with changes in the cultural milieu. And we cannot appeal to physical, brain data to ground our cultural experiential knowledge, as this physical data itself is assembled only from culturally biased reports of our experience. There is no physical data that will show us whether "anger" ought to be examined as "assertion", "losing control", pathology, etc.

I also pointed out, above, that the brain sciences can 1) freeze or inhibit and 2) neglect, the expression of the human natural wardrobe. Here are the ways in which that must occur:

1) The strength of the brain sciences lies only in the fact that they can provide tools that can forcibly change our experience; but even then such changes are also cast in the manifesting framework of local cultural values. Thus, any experiential analysis of the physical changes in the brain that are deemed to arise as a consequence of particular emotions or experiences are also subject to the same problem of circuitous logic. However, it also follows that such tools can force long-term changes either in the individual or in the species through physical brain-intervention based on fixed, skewed, culturally-blinded views of what counts as authentic experience and emotion. For example, it may be the case, though brain sciences would not reveal it, that PTSD is a healing mechanism (notably expounded in the works of Stanislav Grof); again, "autism" casts personality and self arbitrarily by social decree, in terms of a physical structure, while depression is a unique western invention that falls foul of epistemologically circuitous brain-based evidence. The latter two are examples of privileged binaries, where an attempt is made to assess relative values of two mutually exclusive elements (autistic/normal, depression/normal) by placing them on one arbitrary scale. No analysis of brain matter will yield these social pictures that build, and guide the significance of, the structural map of the brain.
2) The medical model of the brain sciences models transitional or painful experience on the model of physical pain in that experience can be taken away without harmful consequence. This neglects the ramifications and interrelationships of experience that we find in our everyday knowledge of ourselves, and so by example inhibits open inquiry into the dimensions of human experience.  Brain sciences neglect the database of human experience by regarding the individual as experientially fragmented, and as operating without the guidance of any deep, integrative conscious principles or drivers. Such drivers could include archetypal themes, death/rebirth experiential templates, etc. Where some of these drivers intrude into the public light of day they are often, arbitrarily, regarded as pathology; which again models (and limits) experience on the model of pain.

To summarise, the model of mind that arises from a failure to acknowledge the cultural values that directly limit our vision of what it is to be human likewise informs any physical brain-based or chemical studies employed in respect of that vision, no matter how advanced such studies may be. The brain sciences engineer and map out the brain according to local cultural values placed on experience and not through any innate, independent brain-based source of information. Such engineering creates a culture of experiential epistemological neglect, promotes cultural and medical bias, and threatens to undermine the integrity of the species by encouraging direct physical intervention in the brain or its associated genetics. The idea that the brain sciences can do more than just mirror our culturally driven perspective on what it is to be human is dangerous, and ought to be a source of great concern to us all.

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