Jonah Lehrer on Myopic Reductionism

I think Lehrer hits the nail on the head.

What’s disappointing here isn’t just that these early fMRI studies are overhyped or miss important facts. It’s that this mistake is all too familiar. Time and time again, an experimental gadget gets introduced — it doesn’t matter if it’s a supercollider or a gene chip or an fMRI machine — and we’re told it will allow us to glimpse the underlying logic of everything. But the tool always disappoints, doesn’t it? We soon realize that those pretty pictures are incomplete and that we can’t reduce our complex subject to a few colorful spots. So here’s a pitch: Scientists should learn to expect this cycle — to anticipate that the universe is always more networked and complicated than reductionist approaches can reveal.

What’s more, this mistake wouldn’t be made if scientists were familiar with a basic phenomenological principle: don’t confuse the model with the phenomenon, the reality with the description. Zen Buddhists and patient observers of experience have long since known that the richness of our experience with the world outstrips any possible description or conceptual grasp. 20th century mathematicians have even proved that formal systems will never capture all the truth available to humans; any possible conceptual system will be incomplete as a description of reality. We thus see the insights of introspective observation, phenomenological methodology, and incompleteness theorems merge into one fundamental idea: reductionism is limited. Acknowledgement of this fact should be humbling, especially for brain theorists.


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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