Rediscovering the Mind

Morowitz, Harold J. (1981). In The Mind's I. Toronto: Bantam Books.  Pp.34-42.

* also from Psychology Today, August 1980. 

Something peculiar has been going on in science for the past 100 years or so. Many researchers are unaware of it, and others won't admit it even to their own colleagues. But there is a strangeness in the air.

What has happened is that biologists, who once postulated a privileged role for the human mind in nature's hierarchy, have been moving relentlessly toward the hard-core materialism that characterized nineteenth-century physics. At the same time, physicists, faced with compelling experimental evidence, have been moving away from strictly mechanical models of the universe to a view that sees that mind as playing an integral role in all physical events. It is as if the two disciplines were on fast-moving trains, going in opposite directions and not noticing what is happening across the tracks.

This role reversal by biologists and physicists has left the contemporary psychologist in an ambivalent position. From the perspective biology, the psychologist studies phenomena that are far removed from the core of certainty, that is, the submicroscopic world of atoms and molecules. From the perspective of physics, the psychologist deals with "the mind," an undefined primitive that seems at once essential and impenetrable. Clearly, both views embody some measure of truth - and a resolution of the problem is essential to deepening and extending the foundations of behavioral science.

The study of life at all levels, from social to molecular behavior, has in modern times relied on reductionism as the chief explanatory concept. This approach to knowledge tries to comprehend one level of scientific phenomena in terms of concepts at a lower and presumably more fundamental level. In chemistry, large-scale reactions are accounted for by examining the behavior of molecules. Similarly, physiologists study the activity of living cells in terms of processes carried out by organelles and other subcellular entities. And in geology, the formations and properties of minerals are described using the features of the constituent crystals. The essence of these cases is seeking explanation in underlying structures and activities.

Reductionism at the psychological level is exemplified by the viewpoint in Carl Sagan's best-selling book The Dragons of Eden. He writes: "My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings - what we sometimes call 'mind' - are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology and nothing more." As a further demonstration of this trend of thought, we note that Sagan's glossary does not contain the words mind, consciousness, perception, awareness, or thought, but rather deals with entries such as synapse, lobotomy, proteins, and electrodes.

Such attempts to reduce human behavior to its biological basis have a long history, beginning with the early Darwinians and their contemporaries working in physiological psychology. Before the nineteenth century, the mind-body duality, which was central to Descartes' philosophy, had tended to place the human mind outside the domain of biology. Then the stress that the  human mind outside the domain of biology. Then the stress that the evolutionists placed on our "apeness" made us subject to biological study by methods appropriate to nonhuman primates and, by extension, to other animals. The Pavlovian school reinforced that theme, and it became a cornerstone of many behavioral theories. While no general agreement has emerged among psychologists as to how far reductionism should be carried, most will readily concede that our actions have hormonal, neurological, and physiological components. Although Sagan's premise lies within a general tradition in psychology, it is radical in aiming at complete explanation in terms of the underlying level. This goal I take to be the thrust of his phrase "and noting more."

At the time various schools of psychology were attempting to reduce their science to biology, other life scientists were also looking for more basic levels of explanation. Their outlook can be seen in the writings of a popular spokesman of molecular biology, Francis Crick. In his book, Of Molecules and Men, a contemporary attack on vitalism - the doctrine that biology needs to be explained in terms of life forces lying outside the domain of physics - Crick States: "The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry." He goes on to say that by physics and chemistry he refers to the atomic level, where our knowledge is secure. By use of the italicized all he expresses the position of radical reductionism that has been the dominant viewpoint among an entire generation of biochemists and molecular biologists.

*            *            *       

If we now combine psychological and biological reductionism and assume they overlap, we end up with a sequence of explanation going from mind to anatomy and physiology, to cell physiology, to molecular biology, to atomic physics. All this knowledge is assumed to rest on a firm bedrock of understanding the laws of quantum mechanics, the newest and most complete theory of atomic structures and processes. Within this context, psychology becomes a branch of physics, a result that may cause some unease among both groups of professionals.

this attempt to explain everything about human beings in terms of the first principles of physical science is not a new idea and had reached a definitive position in the views of the mid-nineteenth-century European physiologists. A representative of that school, Emil Du Bois-Reymond, set forth his extreme opinions in the introduction to an 1848 book on animal electricity. He wrote that "if our methods only were sufficient, an analytical mechanics [Newtonial physics] of general life processes would be possible and fundamentally would reach even to the problem of the freedom of the will."

There is a certain hubris in the words of these early savants that was picked up by Thomas Huxley and his colleagues in their defense of Darwinism and, even today, echoes in the theories of modern reductionists who would move from the mind to the first principles of atomic physics. It is most clearly seen at present in the writings of the sociobiologists, whose arguments animate the contemporary intellectual scene. In any case, Du Bois-Reymond's views are consistent with the modern radical reductionists, except that quantum mechanics has now replaced Newtonian mechanics as the underlying discipline.

During the period in which psychologists and biologists were steadily moving toward reducing their disciplines to the physical sciences, they were largely unaware of perspectives emerging from physics that cast an entirely new light on their understanding. Toward the close of the last century, physics presented a very ordered picture of the world, in which events unfolded in characteristic, regular ways, following Newton's equations in mechanics and Maxwell's in electricity. These processes moved inexorably, independent of the scientist, who was simply a spectator. Many physicists considered their subject as essentially complete.

Starting with the introduction of the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein in 1905, this neat picture was unceremoniously upset. The new theory postulated that observers in different systems moving with respect to each other would perceive the world differently. The observer thus became involved in establishing physical reality. The Scientist was losing the spectator's role and becoming an active participant in the system under study.

With the development of quantum mechanics, the role of the observer became an even more central part of physical theory, an essential component in defining an event. The mind of the observer emerged as a necessary element in the structure of the theory. The implications of the developing paradigm greatly surprised early quantum physicists and led them to study epistemology and the philosophy of science. Never before in scientific history, to my knowledge, had all of the leading contributors produced books and papers expounding the philosophical and humanistic meaning of their results.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of the new physics, became deeply involved in the issues of philosophy and humanism. In Philosophical Problems of Quantum Physics, he wrote of physicists having to renounce thoughts of an objective time scale common to all observers, and of events in time and space that are independent of our ability to observe them. Heisenberg stressed that the laws of nature no longer dealt with elementary particles, but with our knowledge of these particles - that is, with the contents of our minds. Erwin Schrodinger, the man who formulated the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics, wrote an extraordinary little book in 1958 called Mind and Matter. In this series of essays, he moved from the results of the new physics to a rather mystical view of the universe that he identified with the "perennial philosophy" of Aldous Huxley. Schrodinger was the first of the quantum theoreticians to express sympathy with the Upanishads and Eastern philosophical thought. A growing body of literature now embodies this perspective, including two popular works, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav.

The problem faced by quantum theorists can best be seen in the famous paradox, "Who killed Schrodinger's cat?" In a hypothetical formulation, a kitten is put in a closed box with a jar of poison and a triphammer poised to smash the jar. The hammer is activated by a counter that records random events, such as radioactive decay. The experiment lasts just long enough for there to be a probability of one-half that the hammer will be released. Quantum mechanics represents the system mathematically by the sum of a live-cat and a dead-cat function, each with a probability of one-half. The question is whether the act of looking (the measurement) kills or saves the cat, since before the experimenter looks in the box both solutions are equally likely.

This lighthearted example reflects a deep conceptual difficulty. In more formal terms, a complex system can only be described by using a probability distribution that relates the possible outcomes of and experiment. In order to decide among the various alternatives, a measurement is required. This measurement is what constitutes and event, as distinguished from the probability, which is a mathematical abstraction. However, the only simple and consistent description physicists were able  to assign to a measurement involved an observer's becoming aware of the result. Thus the physical event and the content of the human mind were inseparable. This linkage forced many researchers to seriously consider consciousness as an integral part of the structure of physics. Such interpretations moved science toward the idealist as contrasted with the realist conception of philosophy.

The views of a large number of contemporary physical scientists are summed up in the essay "Remarks on the Mind-Body Question" written by Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. Wigner begins by pointing out that most physical scientists have returned to the recognition that thought - meaning the mind - is primary. He  goes on to state: "It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness." And he concludes by noting how remarkable it is that the scientific study of the world led to the content of consciousness as an ultimate reality.

A further development in yet another field of physics reinforces Wigner's viewpoint. The introduction of information theory and its application to thermodynamics has led to the conclusion that entropy, a basic concept of that science, is a measure of the observer's ignorance of the atomic details of the system. When we measure the pressure, volume, and temperature of an object, we have a residual lack of knowledge of the exact position and velocity of the component atoms and molecules. The numerical value of the amount of information we are missing is proportional to the entropy. In earlier thermodynamics, entropy had represented, in an engineering sense, the energy of the system unavailable to perform external work. In the modern view, the human mind enters once again, and entropy relates not just to the state of the system but to our knowledge of that state.

The founders of modern atomic theory did not start out to impose a "mentalist" picture on the world. Rather, they began with the opposite point of view and were forced to the present-day position in order to explain experimental results.

We are now in a position to integrate the perspectives of three large fields: psychology, biology, and physics. By combining the positions of Sagan, Crick, and Wigner as spokenmen for various outlooks, we get a picture of the whole that is quite unexpected.

First, the human mind, including consciousness and reflective thought, can be explained by activities of the central nervous system, which, in turn, can be reduced to the biological structure and function of that physiological system. Second, biological phenomena at all levels can be totally understood in terms of atomic physics, that is through the action and interaction of the component atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so forth. Third and last, atomic physics, which is now understood most fully by means of quantum mechanics, must be formulated with the mind as a primitive component of the system.

We have thus, in separate steps, gone around an epistemological circle - from the mind, back to the mind. The results of this chain of reasoning will probably lend more aid and comfort to Eastern mystics than to neurophysiologists and molecular biologists; nevertheless, the closed loop follows from a straightforward combination of the explanatory processes of recognized experts in the three separate sciences. Since individuals seldom work with more than one of these paradigms, the general problem has received little attention.

If we reject this epistemological circularity, we are left with two opposing camps: a physics with a claim to completeness because it describes all of nature, and a psychology that is all-embracing because it deals with the mind, our only source of knowledge of the world. Given the problems in both of these views, it is perhaps well to return to the circle and give it more sympathetic consideration. If it deprives us of firm absolutes, at least it encompasses the mind-body problem and provides a framework within which individual disciplines can communicate. The closing of the circle provides the best possible approach for psychological theorists.

*            *            *  

The strictly reductionist approach to human behavior so characteristic of sociobiology also runs into trouble on more narrowly biological grounds. For it includes an assumption of continuity in evolution from early mammals to man, which implies that the mind, or consciousness, was not a radical departure. Such an assumption is hardly justified when one considers the dramatic instances of discontinuity in evolution. The origin of the universe itself, the "big bang," is a cosmic example of a discontinuity. The beginning of life, while less cataclysmic, is certainly another example.

The encoding of information in genetic molecules introduced the possibility of profound disturbances in the laws that governed the universe. Before the coming of genetic life, for example, fluctuations in temperature or noise were averaged out, giving rise to precise laws of planetary evolution. Afterward, however, a single molecular event at the level of thermal noise could lead to macroscopic consequences. For if the event were a mutation in a self-replicating system, then the entire course of biological evolution could be altered. A single molecular event could kill a whale by inducing a cancer or destroy an ecosystem by generating a virulent virus that attacks a key species in that system. The origin of life does not abrogate the underlying laws of physics, but it adds a new feature: large-scale consequences of molecular events. This rule change makes evolutionary history indeterminate and so constitutes a clear-cut discontinuity.

A number of contemporary biologists and psychologists believe that the origin o reflective thought that occurred during primate evolution is also a discontinuity that has changed the rules. Again, the new situation does not abrogate the underlying biological laws, but it adds a feature that necessitates novel ways of thinking about the problem. The evolutionary biologist Lawrence B. Slobodkin has identified the new feature as an introspective self-image. This property, he asserts, alters the response to evolutionary problems and makes it impossible to assign major historical events to causes inherent in biological evolutionary laws. Slobodkin is claiming that the rules have changed, and man cannot be understood by laws applicable to other mammals whose brains have a very similar physiology.

This emergent feature of man has, in one form or another, been discussed by numerous anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists. It is part of the empirical data that cannot be shelved just to preserve reductionist purity. The discontinuity needs to be thoroughly studies and evaluated, but first it needs to be recognized. Primates are very different from other animals, and human beings are very different from other primates.

We now understand the troublesome features in a forceful commitment to uncritical reductionism as a solution to the problem of the mind. We have discussed the weaknesses of that position. In addition to being weak, it is a dangerous view, since the way we respond to our fellow human beings is dependent on the way we conceptualize them in our theoretical formulations. If we envision our fellows solely as animals or machines, we drain our interactions of humanistic richness. If we seek our behavioral norms in the study of animal societies, we ignore those uniquely human features that so enrich our lives. Radical reductionism offers very little in the area of moral imperatives. Further, it presents the wrong glossary of terms for a humanistic pursuit.

The scientific community has made notable progress in understanding the brain, and I share the enthusiasm for neurobiology that characterizes modern-day research. Nevertheless, we should be reluctant to let that Úlan generate statements that go beyond science and lock us into philosophical positions that impoverish our humanity by denying the most intriguing aspect of our species. To underrate the significance of the appearance and character of reflective thought is a high price to pay in order to honor the liberation of science from theology by our reductionist predecessors several generations back. The human psyche is part of the observed data of science. We can retain it and still be good empirical biologists and psychologists.