The Limits of Science

Sunday, January 14, 2018
Glendale, California

The Limits of Science

Having survived a bacterial infection of the heart followed by open heart surgery to replace the aortic valve and repair an aneurism (in 2008), I appreciate, even need and admire the sciences.

They literally saved my life.

First performed in the 1960s, open heart surgery evolved using the scientific method. Many ill patients died while surgeons figured out—using science—proper methods and procedures. The antibiotics used to kill the bacteria infesting my physiology evolved using the same methodology, as did the narcotics used to dull the immense lower back pain resulting from bacteria invading the discs between my vertebrae.

And yet the  limits of science occurred to me even then. While the medical care was excellent, the social care fell far behind. Many physicians became involved, from infectious disease specialists to gastroenterologists. They lacked the time to communicate well with one another. As a result, and as but one example, I developed severe constipation because of the narcotics. An internist became angry with me for not taking them; I explained that the GI doc said I should stop.

I was in Huntington Hospital in Pasadena for 20 days.

The staff in the cardiac unit provided pamphlets warning me of the likelihood of a post-surgical depression. It sounded like I had a greater risk of the influenza. No one discussed the psychological impacts, the meaning, of such an encounter with death and disability—loss, fearfulness, sadness, and anger.

I blame no one.

Our global society has fallen into a regression to scientism, and a general “audit-culture” in which anything that cannot be weighed, measured, or quantified in some way lacks value. Ergo, the metrics of healing have become increasingly quantified; few pay attention to the qualities of living our lives.

Along these same lines, I write, in part, to express my excitement about contemporary German philosopher Markus Gabriel’s new book on philosophy of mind entitled, I Am Not a Brain.

Gabriel offers an excellent critique of the popular concept that empiricism will ultimately encompass all aspects of the human experience. Through his writing, I have discovered that I may well be an anti-naturalist.

Such a classification does not mean I deny the existence of the material world, a philosophy known as materialism. It only means I think our existence, particular our subjective lives, consist of much more.

Gabriel writes:

Antinaturalism does, therefore, not deny the obvious fact that there are necessary material conditions for the existence of many immaterial realities. The immaterial does not belong to another world. Rather, both the material and the immaterial can be parts of objects and processes such as Brexit, Mahler’s symphonies, or my wish to finish this sentence while I am writing it (p. 6). 

My life’s work as a depth psychotherapist exists mostly in the world of the immaterial—concerned as it is with such ephemeral elements of the human experience as the imagination, dreams, and fantasies. It is fairly unfriendly to being subject to the rigors of the natural sciences.

How do you subject a dream to scientific investigation?

Experts in the neurosciences may defer to neuronal activity, trying to isolate dreaming in the brain. Such reasoning exemplifies the concept of methodological reductionism.

In other words, you cannot reduce a dream to your brain activity.

Consider a simple example:

You dream you meet up with Scarlett Johansen on Madison Avenue, near Central Park, in New York city, and you tell her of your wish to explore Ethiopia with her.

OK, on one level, your brain is squirting out neurotransmitters, electrical impulses pass along neuronal pathways, and hormones effect these and other brain functions.

But where did the content come from?

How do you know that actress, that location, the meaning of a trip or vacation or the whereabouts of Ethiopia?

These are all cultural constructs, and dreaming requires knowledge of them. The enthusiasm about the brain sciences will likely benefit many of us, including improving brain surgery. But to reduce our mental life to the brain is… well… ridiculous.

Gabriel continues:

If we simply ignore this and pretend that naturalism in the form of futuristic science will solve all existential issues by showing that the mind is identical to the brain and that therefore nothing really immaterial exists, we will achieve the opposite of the process of enlightenment. For religion will simply retreat to the stance of irrational faith assigned to it by a misguided foundation of modernity. Modernity is ill-advised to define itself in terms of an all-encompassing science yet to come (p. 6). 

Again, science is wonderful, but limited.

Friedrich Nietzsche coined the term, perspectivism, to describe a process of understanding the world by viewing it from different angles or perspectives.

Brain sciences offer one perspective; cultural studies offers another; and depth psychotherapy offers yet another of the endless ways to study our human experience. Neither is better than the other. They just offer different angles on human experience.

Meanwhile, and armed with some of Gabriel’s ideas, perhaps you’ll be better equipped to detect the dangers of reductionism. He continues:

The major delusion is that scientific and technological process unaided by cultural, philosophical, ethical, religious and artistic reflection could by itself lead to an enhanced understanding of the human mind in light of which we could improve on our decision-making or courses of action (p. 21). 

It will not, and the sooner we face the humbling realization, the unbelievably complexity of what makes up us and the universe, the better.



Gabriel, M. (2017). I am not a brain. Trans. C. Turner. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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