Thursday, August 26, 2010

Friends shooting the bull…

Men at a round table in a Taiwanese stir fry restaurant. A full basket of beer bottles and a graveyard of cigarette butts perch under the table. Da Ming says to Bei Ge that the other day he saw a cloud evaporate in an instant as it passed over the sun and then reformed on the other side. Bei Ge and everybody else are totally skeptical. Da Ming must have been seeing things. Clouds don't just evaporate and reform like that. But Da Ming insists that is what he saw.

Fortunately an astute cognitive scientist, Xiao Xie, and a physicist, Zhi Hui, are eating at the adjacent table. They hear the dispute and feel obliged to shed some light. Zhi Hui informs them that, it's true, the laws of physics proscribe what Da Ming claims he saw. Xiao Xie, sensing Da Ming's indignation, modifies the story by saying that, even if Da Ming had perceived the prestidigitating cloud, what he saw was merely a neurological confabulation, a "sleight of brain." Da Ming's muscles, Xiao Xie continues, may have reacted to the stimulus of a "disappearing-reappearing cloud," but that's just because his brain had reconfigured perfectly normal sensory stimuli into something odder and then confabulated a memory to account for the unusual neuromuscular response. Zhi Hui indulges Xiao Xie's explanation, since he knows the laws of physics couldn't have allowed for such an anomaly.

I happened to be sitting at another table when I heard all this––no, actually, it's fictional––and here's my worry, or worries. First, the scientific method of physics has no way to proscribe any phenomenon, since nothing in physics is a priori or deductive. As soon as the limits of physics become as autocratic as Zhi Hui, they cease to become properly scientific. Exact physical science (EPS) is always and necessarily provisional. As I have discussed before in numerous posts (e.g. here1, here2, and here3), EPS exists on the horns of a dilemma––as does every vital form of human inquiry––between, let us say, empirical falsifiability and theoretic dominance, between basing its claims solely on the facts and basing its authority on accounting for all facts. The point is that Zhi Hui, and his physics, has no a priori means to know that Da Ming could not have seen what he says he saw. Da Ming's report must become a genuine and novel datum which physics must integrate or reject on its own empirical terms. The same frailty besets popular science articles about, for example, the "impossible physics" of Santa or the X-Men. They are only provisionally impossible, since, were Santa or the X-Men actually to achieve their magnalia rationes, physics would thereby have to be revised. And if EPS is not open to that perennially fundamental revisability, it is not EPS. So, if Da Ming did actually witness what he witnessed, and Zhi Hui's EPS cannot account for it, so much the worse for Zhi Hui's EPS. Insofar as Zhi Hui's EPS cannot integrate Da Ming's datum, EPS is not a complete explanation of known reality, which is where Xiao Xie comes in: because EPS has the hardest time accounting for the contents of subjective realities in the myriad loci of human subjectivity, the surest tactic is to delegitimize those contents altogether. I have discussed this topic most recently here1 and here2.

As for Xiao Xie's account of Da Ming's experience, I think it suffers from a similar but even more fatal flaw. Xiao Xie's basic claim is that, whatever Da Ming says he experienced, it wasn't outside of Da Ming's neuromuscular structure. It was, again, a "sleight of brain." This is the problem, however: if Da Ming's perception of the prestidigitating cloud (P:c) is nothing but a neuro-cognitive confabulation (C:n), then it stands to reason that all his perceptions are confabulations of the same nature. Otherwise, unless Xiao Xie had experienced and analyzed Da Ming's P:c on its own terms, for himself, he would have no reason to reduce P:c to C:n. Unless cognitive science decides to become a priori, like Zhi Hui's ESP, it has no a priori grounds on which to reduce P:c to C:n. Now, let's assume Xiao Xie had only a week earlier completed a series of rigorous experiments about confabulated experience (C:E). So, presumably, he knows whereof he speaks when he deflates Da Ming's P:c. But here is a further problem: because it is undeniable that Da Ming experienced something when he says he experience P:c, we have to ask what he actually experienced. And it seems that Xiao Xie's 'superior' explanation is merely that Da Ming experienced the experience of his brain confabulating the experience of a prestidigitating cloud, which I shall formalize as P:C:n::P:c. His memory of P:c is, therefore, nothing but his memory of P:C:n::P:c. This is an erudite reduction, but what has it actually gained us in explanatory terms? For now, instead of Da Ming's phenomenal dogmatism about P:c, we are left with Xiao Xie's phenomenal dogmatism about P:C:n::P:c. The problem is that, in either case, we are still left with an irreducibly phenomenal content of the story trying to be told. For, while Xiao Xie is effectively saying that Da Ming did not really experience P:c, he did really experience P:C:n::P:c. Thus, in the very act of attempting to reduce the silly phenomenological contents of Da Ming's account to the empirically rigorous, scientifically sober contents of a complex of neural activity in Da Ming's neurological system, Xiao Xie has only replaced the irreducibly phenomenal content of P:c with that of P:C:n::P:c. He has not, therefore, done away with the irreducibility of phenomenal experience as a 'scientific' illusion––he has merely located it. Instead of scolding Da Ming for claiming to see P:c, Xiao Xie commends an unspecified complex of Da Ming's neural tissue for perceiving P:C:n::P:c.

And then there is the ultimate question of what we should make of Xiao Xie's perceptions themselves. For if his own cognitive theories can so easily dispense with Da Ming's account, why don't they dispense with the contents of his own consciousness as well? Presumably, Xiao Xie would say that his deflation can be replicated in a laboratory. But so what? What if Da Ming's experience can only be replicated in a laboratory coextensive with the phenomelogical field in which he first experienced it? Its rarity would not make it any less true than Halley's comet, the emergence of a black hole, or the Big Bang itself. Indeed, the rarity of Da Ming's P:c would ipso facto make it the crucial datum for a higher law than Zhi Hui and Xiao Xie can account for in the their entire lives––but would not therefore make it a fiction. Hence, it may be the case that the authority of Zhi Hui's and Xiao Xie's science rests more on the contingency and provincialism of their field's experience than on reality itself, a reality which was disclosed to Da Ming like Newton's (apocryphal) apple, or Galileo's (apocryphal) weights off the Tower of Pisa, or St Augustine's (all too real) pear-theft epiphany. Therefore, by the end of the night, it is a very open question as to who was shooting more bullshit: Da Ming, Zhi Hui, or Xiao Xie.

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