Friday, June 13, 2008

A Review of Derek Melser's The Act of Thinking

As indicated by the quotations provided above and in the book's endorsement section, Derek Melser's _The Act of Thinking_ (AT) cannot be written off as easily as the reviewer, R. Jones, suggests with his mini-review. To call AT an update of the behaviorist paradigm is rather like calling Thomistic anthropology an update of Aristotelian anthropology. "Well, yes, I guess you could look at it that way, but, well...." Just as Thomistic anthropology "sublimates" various aspects on Aristotelian hylomorphism both out of its pantheistic, impersonal cosmology and into a Christian triune imagining of God in man-as-icon, so Melser's AT sublimates old school behaviorism out of its narrow operationism and into a holistic humanism of human action. To call Thomism or "Melserism" (if I may) updates of their general predecessors is to lose a whole lot in critical appraisal. My drawing a link between Thomism and Melserism is not completely irrelevant to further points I shall make in my review of AT.

The key difference between Melserism and behaviorism is that Melser insists action is a total-person reality, whereas behaviorism treats discrete actions as a series of impersonal stimulus-response data. (This hearkens back to Wittgenstein's objections to behaviorism as trying to force a 'physiological occasionalism', as it were, upon the seemingly autonomous order and timing of psychological operations.) Skinner need not have analyzed the personal role of action (as when he put his daughter in a glass cage for observation), since he is only interested in monitoring the discrete acts, or motions, that result from various stimuli. Behaviorists of yore were insistent that no matter how "lifelike" an action, or a series of responses, was, it gave no scientific justification for seeing in them anything really personal "behind" or "beneath" them. A "person" was just shorthand for what motions were under observation in a given time frame. Melser insists, in stark contrast, that we cannot work up to the personal level, but must begin, empathetically, with the person as the only proper locus of actions as such. This thesis leads him to some startling claims, for example, that humans are not even properly said to be biologically determined and that cognitive talk of modules, representation, neural powers, etc., are just as erroneous as Cartesian talk of a homunculus. There are only inner agents, or an inner agent, Melser says, because we allow our ingrained metaphorical speech patterns mislead us into reifying actions as such agents. Thinking is for Melser neither a "supernatural" power nor a natural ability (of the brain), but is simply something we, we persons, do. If we had not learned to perceive things as we perceive them, and if we had not learned to react to those percepts in the ways we do, and if we had not learned to signal responses as we signal them (usu. with words and gestures), we would not be conscious thinkers. Nor is thought a proper target of scientific scrutiny or explanation, since, Melser argues, recognizing, let alone understanding and explaining, action requires empathy, requires the action of being willing and able to "enter in to" the action being perceived. As soon as we zoom into the neural-synaptic-hormonal level of analysis we become not only overwhelmed in a welter of data, the sheer volume and minuteness of which do not lend themselves to synthetic comprehension, but also cease to study an action. We would only zoom in on various brain regions as we do because we already understand the larger actions which the neural analysis is supposed to explain. If we had to wait for brain scans to understand action, we would have never been cognizant of anything being there to explore neuroscientifically. Synapses are not actions, and thus a synaptic analysis gives us only that: an objective picture of synapses firing quietly to themselves. Melser's claim is that unless we add empathy, as person-agents, to the whole-action level of observation, presumably before the micro-level analysis, we can't say we have any scientific knowledge of the action. Indeed, Melser argues, it is impossible by definition to have scientific knowledge of actions. Science requires repeatable objectivity not influenced by human subjectivity, whereas as action-theory requires empathy and personal subjectivity. Is this really an update of behaviorism, or in fact its dialectical sublimation?

I admit that, given my middling familiarity with quantum mechanics and the old lure of positivism, I find Melser's discussion of empathy and objectivity a bit cursory (which is very much the tone of AT), but I still do strongly agree with his emphasis on the personal level as the proper mode of personal knowledge. Another author of the same mind is Mary Midgley; cf. esp. her _The Myths We Live By_. I also wrote a lengthy review of Midgley's book in "inFORM: A Catholic Review", which should be online in the near future at . Just an FYI for those interested in this line of thought.

One of the common criticisms against AT is that it is behind the times with respect to logical behaviorism and cognitive science. Didn't Austin, Wittgenstein, Ryle, et al., already say about thought--as a linguistic illusion--what Melser is trying to say? Doesn't neuroscience clearly prove thought is just a brain function? Knowing something about Melser's biography throws an interesting light on these complaints. He took an MA in the 1960s under G. E. Hughes, a former student of Wittgenstein, and then worked in the non-academic world until taking his PhD in 2001. This means that he got his MA in the heyday of logical behaviorism and then got his PhD in the thick of neuroscientific physicalism, which indicates he was not some entrenched curmudgeon, a barnacle on the ivory tower, who only gradually came to grips with this new-fangled brain science all the kids are talkin' about. Melser stands, was academically formed, in two worlds, having seen his foundational master's level thinking continuously and automatically challenged by the cognitive revolution of the 1990s--and yet he still sees greater merit in his personal action theory than in just-so brain science. Melser is hardly unaware of cognitive science; he simply thinks it misses the point, in a big way. As he states in his online journal (2007):

"...all the modern attempts at sciences of mind, language, and action will have to be abandoned. Psychology, cognitive science, linguistics qua science, evolutionary psychology, etc., and perhaps all the putative social sciences should go by the board. The problem is that, to the extent one adopts a truly objective, scientific attitude, to that extent the necessary empathic component is excluded."

The reason such "hard" sciences can and should go by the board, in Melser's opinion, is that because while they are designed to explore natural processes, thinking is not a natural process. It is not something our body does, and it is not even something we "use" our various organs to "do". It is simply how we imbibe, imitate, transmit, and alter culture as the entire ground of our consciousness. There is, for Melser, nothing natural about conscious, thinking, rational hominids. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, if rational consciousness is not natural, then it is supernatural, which leads me to my next, closing points.

Above I drew a connection between Melserism and Thomism, and in my title I mentioned not setting the clock far enough back. While it is true AT harks back to the mid-twentieth century in its logical behaviorist tendencies, I would say that what Melser is reaching for with his theory is in fact something more venerable--something quite like classical Thomistic hylomorphism (THM). This claim would almost certainly shock, and perhaps bemuse, Melser, but I want to make clear why I am right, if I read him correctly.[1] Melser is right to bring things like logical analysis and Reid's commonsense views to bear critically on neuroscience, but he should have kept regressing into the Middle Ages for an equally holistic view of human nature. To be clear: THM *does not* claim there is something immaterial "inside" the human body; Cartesianism claims that. Given its more fundamental commitment to a matter-form (or 'hardware-software') ontology, THM simply says that the way we account for humans' ability to rationally, freely, and uniquely act in the world, is by virtue of a rational principle called the 'soul'. Only because certain of humans' ends are immaterial (i.e., spiritual) can we say there is an integral immaterial principle of action which constitutes the human person. This principle cannot really be extracted from the concrete, embodied person, since it is just the formal and rational coherence of that very person. As Melser argues, we are not who we are from birth, but are born humans-becoming-persons. This aspect of human nature is not simply due to culture, since culture is itself informed by transcendent goods that need accounting outside 'mere' culture. We can transcend our natal biology because are by nature creatures that transcend biology. This is so by virtue of the soul. The soul is no more a ghost than the body is mere clump of atoms; both body and soul are simply the basic modes of human existence as demonstrated in substantial persons.

If he were transported back in time as I believe his theory urges upon him, the way Melser would have differentiated between natural (scientifically amenable) processes and personal, human actions, is to refer to the former as an actus hominis and the latter as an actus hominus (or 'human act' and 'act of a man'). The very fact, which Melser stresses in many places in AT, that humans have evolved cooperatively in accord with rational and supra-biological ends (i.e., culture) indicates that there is something ineradicably supra-biological about humans. Were there not already a power for acting rationally in light of transcendent cultural goods, or at least initially not some "field" of such ends dynamically ensconcing the evolution of humans, it is hard to explain how we became the sort of creatures we are. By analogy, unless there were a suitable atmosphere for winged flight, there would have been no way for flying animals to evolve the way they did/are. (Compliments to Fr. Edward Oakes for this point.) Indeed, as Melser argues in his introduction, since physical processes are not morally appraisable, nor subject to imperatives, they are clearly something different from human actions, which are morally qualified and subject to imperative commands (cf. Catholic Catechism §1749). As Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle (as well as Popper/Eccles) argue, strict determinism, which rules out free will and fully person-motivated choices, is inconsistent precisely by urging opponents to accept determinism, an injunction which only makes sense if there is "elbow room" for a free response. Physical determinism as a human theory of human action is self-refuting, since the very act of arguing for it assumes it can or 'ought' be accepted as true. (Is truth a "natural" category? Can natural states of affairs be false? Can they--whether as propositions riding air waves or ink on paper--be true?)

The lacuna in Melser's theory is that even when we 'concert' an action (i.e., do it in a visible, social way) or 'token' an action (i.e., in a 'private' incipient, aborted way), we don't KNOW what we are doing, since, for Melser, there is not only no faculty for non-behavioral, abstract knowledge, but also not even a 'field' of reality that corresponds to abstract ideas and truth. If all we have to go by is behavior, without an 'ambient' dimension of abstract truth, how do we 'know' Rodin's Le Penseur is not really thinking, but a person holding the exact same pose, indefinitely, is really thinking? To redress the lacuna in Melser's view, I would say that we know the content of our thought-acts because we function by virtue of a supra-behavioral principle for rational somatic order and action. Catching dualists and cognitive scientist by their metaphors is fine; but pretending (consciously or unwittingly) 'action' and 'person' or anything else is not equally metaphorical, as Melser does, is not at all fine.

The reason we cannot escape metaphors, as Melser argues at some great length, is not a shock to the Thomist, since for the Thomist, all creation is but an analogy. Our being is but a metaphor for God's being. Our somatic, concrete actions are but moving metaphors for the life of of the God whose image we bear. Reading AT, note how many times Melser flouts his own strictures on loose metaphors about thought (e.g., the mind boggles, we perform, we imagine, etc.). For instance, he sees in evolution (viz., the evolution of social cooperation) a 'mechanism', a word which he spends great time critiquing as but a metaphor. This 'mechanism' vis-à-vis humans 'involved' culture, which early humans 'used' to 'develop' social cognition. The reason all this terminology is inevitable and acceptable is because language is irreducibly metaphorical. (Indeed, look up the etymology of "metaphor" itself!) This is so because everything stands in rational relation to everything else, and it is the function of truth to articulate these constellations. Why are we able to orchestrate our bodily bits and motions into high-level metaphors if not because reality is irreducibly analogical? In Peircean terms, AT succeeds in going beyond the monadic reductionism of physicalism, but then fails by staying at the dyadic level of education and demonstration. What Melser should do to complete the impetus of AT is order the monadic physicality of, say, neuroscience and the dyadic relationality of concerted action according to the triadic mode of truth as rational relationality.

I highly recommend AT as a challenging, subtle, eloquent, plainspoken, amicable, contemporary discussion of the philosophy of mind.

Places I [strongly**] recommend a reader going after completing _The Act of Thinking_ are
James F. Ross's essays [**] "Immaterial Aspects of Thought", "Christians Get the Best of Evolution", and "The Fate of the Analysts";
David Braine's _The Human Person_;
Dennis Bonnette's _Origin of the Human Species_;
[**] Karol Wojtyla's _The Acting Person_;
[**] Adrian Reimers's _The Soul of the Person_.

[1] After reading my review, Dr. Melser wrote to me: "You see clearly aspects of the book's argument that no other reviewer sees. Generally, of course, I agree with the nice things you say about the book and disagree with the criticisms.... I must respectfully put off the mantle of Thomism, however."

1 comment:

pluviosilla said...

I'd be enormously grateful if you could point me to a link where I can download James F. Ross' "Christians Get the Best of Evolution". The PDF christiansgetbestofevolution.pdf used to be available on professor Ross' website, but no longer, and since professor Ross passed away a couple of months ago, there's no chance of him ever posting it again. [BEGIN Pathetic Pleading] Yes, I know that the collection Evolution and Creation is for sale on, but I am unemployed and have no $$$. These days when I see a book like this that I badly want, I just have to check my impulse to buy and endure the withdrawal symptoms. Also, shipping to Mexico where I live has become ludicrously expensive in the last year. [END Pathetic Pleading] - JS (