David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Is Social Science a Joke?

Richard Biernacki’s book, cursed with the unwieldy title Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables, is frequently incisive, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes frustrating. Biernacki vigorously attacks the use of quantitative methods in social science, particularly as applied to texts. He finds their usage to be slapdash, prejudiced, and dependent on lumping disparate phenomena under a single label, often in whatever way happens to serve the researcher’s pre-ordained goal.

I have to cheer when he cites Erving Goffman and Clifford Geertz as spiritual guardians:

“Whatever it is that generates sureness,” Goffman intimated darkly, “is precisely what will be employed by those who want to mislead us.” Goffman left it to us to discern how the riddle of cognitive framing applies to sociological practice and to one’s framing of one’s own results. Geertz expressed a similar kind of caution more cheerfully: “Keeping the reasoning wary, thus useful, thus true, is, as we say, the name of the game.” The only intellectual building material is self-vigilance, not the reified ingredients “theory” or “method.”

Damn straight.

Biernacki’s points are very well-taken, and his individual critiques are devastating. He has little trouble justifying his main charge:

If you reconstruct how sociologists mix quantitative and text-interpretive methods, combining what is intrinsically uncombinable, you discover leg-pulling of several kinds: from the quantitative perspective, massaging of the raw data to identify more clearly the meanings one “knows” are important or, again, standardized causal interpretations of unique semiotic processes; to zigzagging between quantitative and interpretive logic to generate whatever meanings the investigator supposes should be there.

Each study was narrated as a tale of discovery, yet each primary finding was guaranteed a priori.

Where I have a problem is his suggested retreat to a “humanist” mode of inquiry, which, while extremely attractive to people like myself, does not necessarily solve the underlying problem. I will explain this later.

The Indictment

Biernacki has a huge range of reading behind him and he quotes a number of people of whom I’m very fond: Robert Musil (who gets the last word in the book), Erving Goffman, Flaubert (Dictionary of Received Ideas), Michael Frede, Ronald Giere, Barrington Moore, William Empson, Jeanne Fahnestock, Wilfrid Sellars, Kenneth Burke, Samuel Beckett, Mary Douglas, Novalis, Cosma Shalizi, Eleanor Rosch, Valerio Valeri, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach. (Bibliography available online here.) Now that I’ve written it out, let me go further: that’s an amazing list.

I’m not particularly keen on most of his targets either, so we overlap sufficiently that I’m baffled at his elevation of Giorgio Agamben, whose attack on quantitative sampling is needlessly overwrought and jargony. Biernacki’s prose, unfortunately, tends toward the same. His thinking is in fact quite clear and rigorous, but the overlay of sociological jargon gets quite dense at times and needlessly prolongs things. (I’ll offer paraphrases of less transparent passages below.)

This applies to the general terms as well. Biernacki defines the social science term “coding” as such:

Coding, a word that may introduce an aura of scientism, is just the sorting of texts, or of subunits such as paragraphs, according to a classificatory framework.

What the social sciences deem “coding”–the application of a common typological label to variable individual cases–would better be simply called “labeling” or perhaps “classification.” I prefer “labeling” because it is the simplest and the most informal. As Biernacki demonstrates, the research being carried out is anything but formal, and so building a fence around a particular textual method is misleading. While it may make it easier to delegitimize that particular method, it also limits the scope of his critique. It also makes it seem as though this process is distinct from the labeling we do every day of objects and actions, when I think any difference is one of degree and not of kind.

To make the broadness of the critique clear, my article The Stupidity of Computers describes very similar methods, except applied to people and objects as well as texts. I used “ontology” instead of “classificatory framework” and “labeling” instead of “coding,” but they’re fundamentally analogous. Or as I put it:

Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.

The Stupidity of Computers

If anything, things seem worse in academic sociology, which is the field Biernacki treats. I am not familiar with the subfields Biernacki investigates and after his dip into those waters, I don’t have much desire to become familiar with them. Here is Biernacki’s brief:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

They would turn meaningful texts into unit facts for the sake of converting these units back into meanings. What are the epistemological functions of the curious process of decontextualizing for the sake of recontextualizing? Cumulating the coding outputs purchases generality only if we know the codes rest on justifiable equivalencies of meaning, which is to return us to the original verbal settings that may vary incommensurably.

Paraphrase: sociologists are engaging in circular reading of texts. The squeeze a corpus into their frameworks and then reapply the frameworks onto specific examples to produce pre-ordained results.

My thesis is that coding procedures in contemporary sociology, the beachhead for coding texts that is spreading into history and literature, follow the rites by which religious believers relabel portions of the universe in a sacred arena for deep play. As in fundamentalist religious regimes, rejecting the enchantment of coding “facts” is nothing less than blasphemy.

Paraphrase: precisely because of their lack of any more fundamental support, the frameworks are sufficiently shaky that they are protected by hierarchical social structures that emerge around vulnerable belief systems, shutting down critics and elevating allies/toadies/grad students. For less opaque examples, see the conservative movement’s classification of “liberal” bias, or much of the talk that constitutes privilege-checking. Both utilize postulated frameworks supported by mantric rhetoric and repetition to obscure the lack of conceptual support. (And yes, I know the former is far more harmful, but today’s Right doesn’t have a monopoly on all forms of stupidity, since a large number of people have not realized that this chart is a joke.)

The ultimate point of this book is to stand social “science” on its head as less rigorous than humanist approaches. The social “scientists” of culture, those claiming a kind of epistemological advantage via their coding apparatuses, are instead intuitive cultists without openly sharable procedure. Opposite much orthodoxy, humanist craft workers who footnote and who convey symptomatically the wondrous in their readings are truer to the ideals of so-called hard science conventionally understood. As I endeavor to show, the nonsystematizing humanists still appreciate the obstacles to induction, the gift of an acute trial, the insurance of shared documentation, and the transformative power of anomalies. My brief is not the cliché that humanist interpretation aims at insight different in kind. More subversively, I insist such interpretation better fulfills the consecrated standards to which social “scientists” ostensibly subscribe.

Paraphrase: the use of quantitative metrics in social science is usually decorative frosting utilized in order to make preconceived notions seem more objective. In actuality they’re rigged games. A thoughtful, passionate, genuinely humanist approach is more scientific than vacuous tables.

It is more transparent, therefore more faithful to inquiry, to assume radical difference in a population than to rush toward aggregating modern “facts” out of corpuses whose members are artificially assumed to have homologous structures.

He’s talking about texts here, but this would apply to any grouping of anything. How to put this into practice is a much thornier question.

The Evidence

Biernacki then presents three case studies of prominent papers in recent sociology. He has done the legwork of looking through the original sources to see how “objective” the classification process was. The results are disastrous. All three are not just littered with slanted interpretations, selective omissions, and poor fits, but outright errors and holes in logic. The demolition is extremely thorough, and the time required to do the research might have boosted Biernacki’s ire further. Here are representative examples from the three cases.

Bearman and Stovel, Becoming a Nazi: A Model for Narrative Networks (2000)

All the network data were extracted from a single Nazi story, but it was not an actual autobiography from Abel’s collection. Help from Peter Bearman together with detective hunting established that the researchers coded instead from “The Story of a Middle-Class Youth,” a condensation published in an appendix to Abel’s book in 1938. Although the intact story was at hand for Bearman and Stovel, and although they had secured English translations of complete stories from the Abel collection, they coded instead from an adaptation that indicated with ellipses where connecting segments had been deleted.

Bearman and Stovel adopt the same vocabulary to describe their own scientific outlook as they apply to a Nazi. They feature “abstraction” for converging on the essential: “Comparison within and across narratives necessitates abstraction . . . This is accomplished by grouping elements into equivalency classes” [83; see also 20]. When the researchers present the Nazi cognitive style, “abstraction” is again the key feature, but now using it to “order experience” is a character defect [85]. It is not we as network reductionists who have a rigid response in analyzing qualitatively incomparable situations, it is the Nazis with a “master identity” who do. [NB: They also complain about another researcher’s “abstraction”: “Real lives are lost in the process, and real process is lost in the movement away from narrative by this abstraction.”]

Wendy Griswold, The Fabrication of Meaning: Literary Interpretation in the Unites States, Great Britain, and the West Indies (1987)


This presentation, which appeared in 1987 in sociology’s most exacting journal, was greeted far and wide as offering confirmable and generalizable results. It remains probably the most broadly circulated classic whose findings rest on systematic coding of text contents.

Griswold combined the reviews from each of her three regions—the United States, Great Britain, and the West Indies—to see if she could explain why some of George Lamming’s novels resonated more powerfully than others in her sample of reviews of his six novels in all. She guessed that “ambiguity” would not only engross readers in disambiguating the novels, but doing so would stimulate appreciative reviews. This just-so account presumes we can know what ambiguity is according to its function rather than by its verbal expression in a review. How exactly does creative engagement by the critics appear when articulated on the page of a book review? What is ambiguity on site? The blurring of appealing scientific hypothesis-testing with exegesis of highly compacted reviews produced a baffling gap: Griswold did not offer an example from her evidence to concretize this entity called “ambiguity,” yet social scientists propagated news about the abstraction in every direction.

When I took reviews in hand, it astonished me to find that at the individual level ambiguity is “specifically mentioned” (to my mind) primarily when the reviewer expresses frustration and disappointment. This dislike of ambiguity more often pushed a review over to a mixed or negative appraisal of a novel, reverse from Griswold’s report of correlations at the aggregate level…. Consider how baffling it is to identify “ambiguity” and “positive appraisal” on the ground.

If a resonant review, like a seminal novel, is multidimensional, and if the reviewer therefore does not try to locate the book on a metric of approval, the overall categories “positive,” and “mixed/negative” are not there in the text ready for translation. The summary is only a fabrication of the social “scientist.”

More subtly, by introducing the binary of colonialism as present or absent, the ritual cordons off the reality that it was daunting for British critics to avoid incorporating the relations of a concept as permeating as colonialism. Griswold never illustrates what counts as mention of colonialism or of any other theme.

John Evans, Playing God?: Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate (2002)

To launch the sampling and coding ritual, we have to take up a schizophrenic consciousness between the quantitative-scientific and the humanistic-interpretive perspectives. We cannot acknowledge in one frame what we do in the other. Evans wrote that “the two foremost proponents of the form of argumentation in the bioethics profession as I have defined it,” Beauchamp and Childress, are not among authors charted as statistically influential. Indubitable knowledge from the humanist frame does not impinge on the “scientific” procedure for equating influence with citations.

Evans in the 2002 book Playing God produced importantly different diagrams out of the same data inputs as in the 1998 dissertation “Playing God.” How did this change transpire? For the 1992–1995 interval of debate, Evans raised the threshold for inclusion as an influential author in the cluster diagram from nine citations in the dissertation to ten in the book. This chart trimming changed the storyline significantly. For instance, the sociologist Troy Duster, whose work seems to run contrary to Evans’s thesis for the final period, 1992–1995, is among several other authors who dropped out of the diagram.

For a self-fulfilling prophecy Playing God filters out the epistles most pertinently aimed at the public. “If an item did not contain four or more citations, it was not included in the sample, because the primary technology of a citation study is measures of association between citations. I examined 765 randomly selected items from the universe. Of these, 345 fit the parameters for inclusion” [G 208].

“In my research,” Evans wrote, “the question was which top-cited authors were most similar to each other based on the texts that cited them” [G 209]. Similar how? Decades ago the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman convincingly showed “similarity” lacks sense beyond particular and incommensurable practices of contrast and comparison. Whatever might we be talking about when we demonstrate what relative “influence” means by frequency citations and when we have no operative concept of influence outside this arbitrary measurement? As with ritual process, the models of citation counts merely bring to life a visual experience of a symbol’s use and substitute for the symbol’s conceptual definition.

Evans quotes Jonathan Glover as follows: “What he [Glover] envisions is a ‘genetic supermarket,’ which would meet ‘the individual specifications (within certain moral limits) of prospective parents’” [G 161]. Here again, findings appear to emerge by mischance. The words Evans attributed to Glover occur in a passage of Robert Nozick’s libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which Glover happened to quote before advancing toward a different position.

The kicker comes with a particularly noxious passage from Evans’ book, revealing the deep-seated self-justifying elitism at work in Evans’ a priori theorizing. Biernacki writes:

If my framing of Playing God as a ritual affirmation were plausible, we would predict that the policy recommendations with which the book concludes, while impracticably “utopian” [G 198], would impart an essential verity. That happens when Evans dismisses the need for real-world brakes on how elites would match particular means to an array of ends, once those ends were chosen by the public:

“If an ends commission decided that its ends to forward in genetic research were beneficence, nonmaleficence, and maintenance of the current specificity of genetic change as possible in the reproductive act, I have no doubt that bioethicists could determine which, if any, forms of HGE [human genetic engineering] advanced these ends. [G 203]”

As you might suspect given the abstractness of “ends in themselves,” it seems unlikely their implementation is a neutral technical job entrustable to specialist intellectuals. The experts in deciding how to pursue a mandated goal would, by concretizing it, subject it to reinterpretation. Would not the means that elites chose to institutionalize populist HGE policy have ramifying implications for practice, and thus values, in other spheres of life, short-circuiting public deliberation? Dealing with these practical issues in ritual is beside the point of affirming the transhistorical message that deliberation over ends should be protected from instrumental degradation.

The quote Biernacki cites here is incredibly damning, evoking images of a bioethical Comintern insisting that its ends are right and proper. Evans is the sort of powerless person you do not want in power.1

More generally, all three come off as tendentious, obfuscatory, and disingenuous, using numbers as a smokescreen for their unjustified suppositions. Biernacki is dead-on in stating that with more classical humanist criticism, you get to see upfront what sort of conceptual abstractions are taking place, subjective and case-based as they may be. Here, they hide behind the guise of objective abstractions plugged into a computational framework.  (Shades of Ann Coulter’s Lexis-Nexis searches.)

The Dangers

I don’t doubt that these three works are representative. And Biernacki’s most fascinating point is that this misuse of science plays directly into theories of cultural determinism that have become very common across the humanities and social sciences:

The same problem of mixing scientific controls with texts occurs in demonstrating the theory of cultural power. That proposed theory starts firmly within the interpretive perspective, because it makes categories of understanding the “variable” that interacts with the novel to produce an engrossing experience. As Kenneth Burke emphasized, in an ideology-saturated society, readers deal with a plethora of contradictory schemas from which they choose how to interpret a text. Alternatively, much important literature, such as Beckett’s plays in the 1950s, from inside its own lines blatantly models unprecedented schemas from which a reader may learn to decipher the work as a whole—“the absurd.” To probe the fabrication of meaning, the reading process might be analyzed more fruitfully as a rhetorical operation rather than as a social one. Kenneth Burke intimated that inquiry into the schemas for reading might include syllogistic progression (step-by-step appreciation of a kind of argument pressing forward via the narrative), qualitative progression (the appreciation of feelings post-hoc from narrative action), antecedent categorical forms (such as “the sonnet”), or technical schemas (such as chiasmus and reversal). In any event, by underspecifying the cultural workings of the literary experience, we arrive at “society” as the default explanation of differences in the received meanings of the novels. The more you attend to the critics’ professional know-how and to the generative schemas with which they read, the weaker the rationale for leaping to a generally shared “percipience” to explain coding outputs. Sociologists since the nineteenth century have invested so much energy in solidifying “society” as a “cause,” they can invoke it without asking whether more tangible but less spirit-like forces may be operating.

Paraphrase: by reducing texts to a handful of ostensibly constituent effects and declaring them to constitute the text, researchers rob the texts of any power they might really have, using them as interchangeable totems for empty confirmation of unsubstantiated theories of cultural domination. Everything feeds back into a giant phantom of “culture” (or “capitalism” or “modernity” or “secularism” or take-your-pick) that ensures the identical outcome. Hence Biernacki’s point:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

This is not only true, but even if they do not assert such, this is what’s going on anyway. There has to be some underlying theory conditioning the coding/labeling in the first place.

This complements Hans Blumenberg’s observations about the nature of generalized maladies. While Blumenberg emphasized the vagueness and generality of such overarching theories of discontent, Biernacki completes the thought by demonstrating that when the incorrigible theory is reapplied to specific cases, the specific cases become interchangeable.

In considering the prevalent openness to theories of ‘capitalism,’ one cannot fail to notice not only that there always seems to be a need for a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world but that there also seems to be a constant need on the part of the ‘bourgeois’ theorist to participate in the historical guilt of not having been one of the victims. Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success.

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Biernacki’s point is that these theories not only accept a wide variety of specific forms, but that they also homogenize these forms. Cultural theory commodifies its subject matter.

Yet at this point the particular issue of quantification has fallen by the wayside in favor of the problem of incorrigible theories. For quantification per se, Biernacki’s evidence is less than ideal, because all three case studies contain such elementary errors in reportage and logic that they would be poor even if the quantitative aspects of the papers were removed. That is, I have no doubt that were Griswold or Evans to write a qualitative assessment of the texts they treated, they would not produce very good work either.

Biernacki is right to say that the scientific frosting obscures the poor quality of their work and exacerbates reductionistic tendencies toward cultural determinism, but the question of “coding” gets into problems that come up even in the absence of quantitative metrics, because coding is labeling, and labeling is what we do all the time.

The Solutions?

Though Biernacki limits the scope of his critique to labeling applied to texts, the arguments go through for ontologies applied to any phenomena. I think Biernacki gets into a muddle in trying to specify texts as specifically exempt from classification, contrasting words like “novel” with words like “dog”:

The intensional definition of “dog” is historically closed, whereas newly discovered literary works and financial instruments stretch and revise the anterior category of “novel” or of “a hedge-fund practice.” A previously unconsidered novel that stretches the distinctions between biography and fiction, for example, can remake the denotation of the label “novel.”

Intensions are dangerous things, and I think you could find that even seemingly clear concepts like “dog” can prove slippery in themselves. You would find more agreement among people, certainly, but who’s to say it’s enough? Labels are inherently unstable things. I think the very point of Beirnacki’s book makes it impossible for him to draw such a clear-cut line. Biernacki sometimes seems to assume that a stable “code” label is being assigned to unstable and ambiguous “data,” but there’s no reason to suppose the label is in general that much more stable  than in the specific text.This is to enter philosophy of language issues that would derail this post entirely, so I will just leave matters at that unless someone wants to debate the point.

Consequently, the ultimate effect of Biernacki’s critique is to make the remaining space for quantitative science very small indeed. In this he is similar to Rudolf Carnap, whose requirements for science were so rigorous and unattainable that many philosophers of science (Popper among them) complained that he would put scientists out of a job. Certainly Griswold, Evans, and Bearman/Stovel come off much closer to Carnap’s idea of bad poetry (e.g., Heidegger) than science.

Contrariwise, I don’t see why the inclusion of quantitative measures in and of itself is a bad thing as long as the labeling is done in a sufficiently responsible way. Are interpretive reading and quantitative analysis “intrinsically uncombinable,” as Biernacki says? I admit that “sufficiently responsible” is a very high bar to clear. But while I agree that so-called “raw data,” is a misnomer, there is a difference between medium-rare and well-done.  I would like to see Biernacki apply his methods to far more intelligent usages of corpus linguistics, such as those performed by Martin Mueller, Eleanor Dickey, Ian Lancashire, or Brian Vickers. All work at a far lower lexical level than Biernacki’s subjects, and all are better scholars. (And none is a sociologist. Biernacki does take a few swipes at Franco Moretti for following Griswold’s bad tendencies, but mostly leaves literature alone.)

But I want to push in the opposite direction as well against Biernacki’s elevation of what he loosely terms humanist interpretation (much as I love it). It is interesting that Biernacki makes a claim of rigor for his humanistic methodology. This is very tricky. When I read Auerbach and Spitzer and Fahnestock, I certainly get the impression of intense intellectual rigor, but rigor applied both to the careful reading of texts and to the holistic grasp of the whole. That is, because of the great difficulties in labeling, rigor must be accomplished by having both

  1. a heuristic, intuitive feel for the whole of one’s field and beyond, stemming from vast reading and reflection, and
  2. a complementary sense of where one’s knowledge is incomplete, where variations might occur, and what should be left open and tentative.

The blunt use of statistics can cover up the need for either of these time-consuming and tenure-threatening processes. Punch a corpus into a computer and analyze it and your work “seems” complete without your brain needing to process all the ambiguities and elisions. Clearly that is unacceptable. But ruling out quantitative measures is not necessarily more rigorous. Biernacki thinks very highly of Weber, and I do as well, to a point. But Weber’s theory of secularization and disenchantment has ultimately been overadopted by less imaginative minds than his. I think and hope that Weber intended his theses to be provisional, to be reassessed and revised (just as scientific theories should be) with the passage of time and research, not mindlessly parroted by crypto-conservative postmodernists looking to smuggle religion back into intellectual discourse under the guise of “reenchantment.”

To put it another way: is the generalized, reductive application of Freud’s theories any better than the generalized, reductive application of the DSM-IV?

This is not a complaint against Weber as much as it is frustration with general intellectual incompetence. What I mean to stress here is that I’m not so sure that this intellectual incompetence is so different in kind from the sort of intellectual incompetence Biernacki exposes in his subjects. Both stem from sloppiness, laziness, and a sheer lack of creativity. So while Biernacki rightly praises Panofsky:

The historian Robert Marichal followed Panofsky’s thesis to explain why the style of breaks in Gothic letters on parchment appeared simultaneously with the same breaks in stone, intersecting ribs in Gothic vaults. Both shifts expressed an analysis of whole lines to cut them down and regroup them into clearer, hierarchically ordered parts of parts. Compare this depth of analysis to a quantitative argument about net trends in abstract codes. Such blurred social “science” is less stringent about the patterning required for confirmation and too indefinite to isolate productive anomalies. Again the humanist focus on precise designs draws it closer to the rigor of the “hard” sciences.

I still think he overstates his case somewhat, because the “codes” at work here are just as subject to dispute. They are, however, more explicit, and this is a good thing, as Biernacki says. The issue, however, is that such great humanist works as he identifies are by their very nature exceptions, works of prodigious and unique minds that cannot be replicated en masse. The weaker philological work of years past is, alas, very nearly as formulaic as some of the scholarship Biernacki condemns (though far less sloppy).

As a prescription for better work, the humanist traditions provide little help in the mass production of research other than to set the bar so high for work that most people should immediately drop out of the field. (Not that this would be a bad thing, necessarily.) But it makes his prescriptions very difficult to imagine practically, unless academia is to return to being a elite, cordoned-off field as it was prior to the postwar higher education boom. (Though that may well happen.)

I am being speculative here, and none of this dampens the force of Biernacki’s critique. It just steers his critique more in the direction of “Don’t use numbers to cover up your incompetence” rather than “Don’t ever use quantitative measures on texts.”2

Science, ideally speaking, provides a workable means for adjudication of disputes, and even occasionally consensus, that is less dependent on the most powerful person around dictating what’s right. To a point, Biernacki employed science, in tandem with humanistic close reading, in his book to undermine the very bad “science” of the works he examined. That, I think, is the best model going forward that we have.


  1. Perhaps not so powerless. Only after writing this entry did I discover that John Evans was involved in a UCSD scandal to attempt to prevent Biernacki from investigating Evans’ work. In 2009, UCSD’s Social Sciences Dean Jeffrey Elman threatened to censure and dismiss Biernacki on the grounds that Biernacki’s research “may damage the reputation of a colleague and therefore may be considered harassment.” Full story here. IHE article here. It is appalling that Jeffrey Elman has retained his position as Dean after sending such a letter. Needless to say, my support for Biernacki’s pursuit of this research is total.
  2. The sociological establishment is having an easier time attacking the second thesis, however, judging by Andrew Perrin’s nasty review. Perrin adopts a ridiculous “They aren’t trying to be scientific” defense, which leaves you wondering what all those charts are doing in the papers, as well as wondering what the point of such sociology is. Perrin also didn’t disclose that he is friends with John Evans until pressed in the comments.

Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on Science and Life

I recently presented a brief and rough comparison of philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on the subject of science, its place in the world, and the social crises of modernity. Specifically, I drew a few lines between Husserl’s concept of the “life-world” in The Crisis of the European Sciences (1938, excerpts available at link) and Sellars’ idea of the “manifest image,” as described in Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962, complete text at link). Both tackle one of the central problems of the modern age: how to square scientific knowledge with the “unscientific” parts of the world, be they social, ethical, mental, or metaphysical.

While the post-war American Sellars and the intrawar German Husserl use vastly different vocabularies and start from vastly different perspectives, there are some notable points of agreement. Their hopes for a nonreductive unification of science and society hold great appeal. It is an abstracted and generalized picture of my personal experiences with truth and muddlement.

I only quote Sellars below, because I found I got whiplash from alternating between Sellars’ and Husserl’s equally tortuous but wholly opposing styles. To orient, some excerpts from Husserl’s Vienna lecture:

I, too, am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble and genuine sense, the original Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy – though of course it still needed considerable clarification through self-examination. It is its vocation, however, to serve as a guide to mature development.

The philosophy that at any particular time is historically actual is the more or less successful attempt to realize the guiding idea of the infinity, and thereby the totality, of truths. Practical ideals, viewed as external poles from the line of which one cannot stray during the whole of life without regret, without being untrue to oneself and thus unhappy, are in this view by no means yet clear and determined; they are anticipated in an equivocal generality. Determination comes only with concrete pursuit and with at least relatively successful action. Here the constant danger is that of falling into one-sidedness and premature satisfaction, which are punished in subsequent contradictions. Thence the contrast between the grand claims of philosophical systems, that are all the while incompatible with each other. Added to this are the necessity and yet the danger of specialization.

In this way, of course, one-sided rationality can become an evil. It can also be said that it belongs to the very essence of reason that philosophers can at first understand and accomplish their infinite task only on the basis of an absolutely necessary onesidedness. In itself there is no absurdity here, no error. Rather, as has been remarked, the direct and necessary path for reason allows it initially to grasp only one aspect of the task, at first without recognizing that a thorough knowledge of the entire infinite task, the totality of being, involves still other aspects. When inadequacy reveals itself in obscurities and contradiction, then this becomes a motive to engage in a universal reflection. Thus the philosopher must always have as his purpose to master the true and full sense of philosophy, the totality of its infinite horizons. No one line of knowledge, no individual truth must be absolutized. Only in such a supreme consciousness of self, which itself becomes a branch of the infinite task, can philosophy fulfill its function of putting itself, and therewith a genuine humanity, on the right track. To know that this is the case, however, also involves once more entering the field of knowledge proper to philosophy on the highest level of reflection upon itself. Only on the basis of this constant reflectiveness is a philosophy a universal knowledge.

The reason for the downfall of a rational culture does not lie in the essence of rationalism itself but only in its exteriorization, its absorption in ‘naturalism’ and ‘objectivism’.

Edmund Husserl, The Vienna Lecture (tr. David Carr)

Willem deVries’ essay on Sellars at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a superb overview of Sellars’ philosophy. Here are a few of his remarks on Sellars’ concepts of the manifest image and the scientific image:

The manifest image is neither frozen nor unchanging. It can be refined both empirically and categorically…Thus, the manifest image is neither unscientific nor anti-scientific. It is, however, methodologically more promiscuous and often less rigorous than institutionalized science. Traditional philosophy, philosophia perennis, endorses the manifest image as real and attempts to understand its structure.

One kind of categorial change, however, is excluded from the manifest image by stipulation: the addition to the framework of new concepts of basic objects by means of theoretical postulation. This is the move Sellars stipulates to be definitive of the scientific image. Science, by postulating new kinds of basic entities (e.g., subatomic particles, fields, collapsing packets of probability waves), slowly constructs a new framework on this basis that claims to be a complete description and explanation of the world and its processes. The scientific image grows out of and is methodologically posterior to the manifest image, which provides the initial framework in which science is nurtured, but Sellars claims that “the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image” (PSIM, in SPR: 20; in ISR: 388).

Is it possible to reconcile these two images?…The manifest image is, in his view, a phenomenal realm à la Kant, but science, at its Peircean ideal conclusion, reveals things as they are in themselves. However, despite what Sellars calls “the primacy of the scientific image”(PSIM, in SPR: 32, he ultimately argues for a “synoptic vision” in which the descriptive and explanatory resources of the scientific image are united with the “language of community and individual intentions,” which “provide[s] the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives” (PSIM, in SPR: 40).

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (in SEP)

And two further remarks (with which not all Sellarsians would agree) on Sellars’ conception of science in a normative social realm:

Science, for Sellars, does not aim to construct an adequate representation of the world given a fixed stock of basic concepts or terms; it aims to change our concepts and terms to enable us to anticipate, explain and plan ever better our interaction with reality. Science is the methodologically rigorous attempt to reform and extend the descriptive resources of language to better equip us in all those tasks that presuppose descriptive language. (148)

Science envisages abandoning the manifest image and its norm-laden objects, but it cannot in fact do so without undercutting itself. The manifest image is transcendentally ideal but empirically and practically real. The world in which we live and have our being is necessarily a world of sensible objects that we constantly evaluate with regard to their aiding or impeding our intentions. We are simply built that way. This manifest world is grounded in, but not identical to, the world science reveals to us. (161)

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (Acumen)

So thus, on the vision and immense challenges of a truly universal, non-parochial science carried out in a rational and tolerant society–the “infinite task.”

Edmund Husserl and Wilfrid Sellars

(All quotes below are from Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man unless otherwise stated.)

Marvin Farber led me through my first careful reading of the Critique of Pure Reason and introduced me to Husserl. His combination of utter respect for the structure of Husserl’s thought with the equally firm conviction that this structure could be given a naturalistic interpretation was undoubtedly a key influence on my own subsequent philosophical strategy.
WS, Autobiographical Reflections

One seems forced to choose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (What supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (Where does it begin?). Neither will do. For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.
WS, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind §38

Sellars and Husserl are both trying to provide a holistic structure for the mind’s universalizing scientific engagement with the world. The difference lies in their methods: where Husserl is transcendental-historical and phenomenological, Sellars is pragmatist and naturalistic. The Lifeworld and the Manifest Image share the same methodological primacy in determining how we look at the world. They are “given” or “pre-given”: we have come to them without being aware of the processes by which they arose—or if we ever were aware of them, we have forgotten them. But for Sellars, the idea of the “image” or model is crucial: the Manifest and Scientific Image both are inexact pictures of reality which undergo repeated refinement.

Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world…By calling them images I do not mean to deny to either or both of them the status of ‘reality’. I am, to use Husserl’s term, ‘bracketing’ them, transforming them from ways of experiencing the world into objects of philosophical reflection and evaluation…While the main outlines of what I shall call the manifest image took shape in the mists of pre-history, the scientific image, promissory notes apart, has taken shape before our very eyes.

The Manifest and Scientific Images both are idealized concepts established communally. Truth and falsity exist in each of them through communal norms of rationality and discourse. While images may be refined or discarded, normative standards of correctness nonetheless exist with regard to any image.

Pragmatism: The point I wish to make now is that since this image has a being which transcends the individual thinker, there is truth and error with respect to it, even though the image itself might have to be rejected, in the last analysis, as false.

From “I” to “We”: Yet the essentially social character of conceptual thinking comes clearly to mind when we recognize that there is no thinking apart from common standards of correctness and relevance, which relate what I do think to what anyone ought to think. The contrast between ‘I’ and ‘anyone’ is essential to rational thought.

Their own methodologies, however, are opposite. Husserl tends toward transcendental idealism; Sellars towards a nominalistic physicalism. For Husserl, the ego is transcendental; for Sellars, it is a theoretical construct that, in its “givenness,” we have come to take for granted. For Sellars, the “given” (in at least one of its forms) is that knowledge which we gain exclusively through pure, raw experience or being-in-the-world. Sellars is very clear: no such knowledge exists. Any such seeming knowledge is acquired against the holistic background of a theoretical structure, even if we are not conscious of that structure. Scientific investigation can reveal that structure. The Manifest Image cannot, because it is unable to get around its own theoretical presuppositions and reliance on subjectivity:

A Point of Difference: The manifest image must, therefore, be construed as containing a conception of itself as a group phenomenon, the group mediating between the individual and the intelligible order. But any attempt to explain this mediation within the framework of the manifest image was bound to fail, for the manifest image contains the resources for such an attempt only in the sense that it provides the foundation on which scientific theory can build an explanatory framework; and while conceptual structures of this framework are built on the manifest image, they are not definable within it. Thus, the Hegelian, like the Platonist of whom he is the heir, was limited to the attempt to understand the relation between intelligible order and individual minds in analogical terms.

I see this possibly as the fundamental difference between Husserl and Sellars: for Sellars, phenomenological investigation alone cannot get around the theoretical structure necessary for it. Any transcendental phenomenology remains a contingent construct. For Sellars, bracketing (the epocheshould include subjectivity and experience itself—they cannot explain themselves.

Nonetheless, for both of them, science is unique in its potential universality, the Manifest Image being too tied to cultural norms and historical caprice and false first principles to withstand substantive debate over its contents, unlike the “self-correcting enterprise” of science.

Science as a Rival Image: Yet, when we turn our attention to ‘the’ scientific image which emerges from the several images proper to the several sciences, we note that although the image is methodologically dependent on the world of sophisticated common sense, and in this sense does not stand on its own feet, yet it purports to be a complete image, i.e. to define a framework which could be the whole truth about that which belongs to the image. Thus although methodologically a development within the manifest image, the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image. I say, ‘in principle’, because the scientific image is still in the process of coming into being.

Yet for both Sellars and Husserl, science has also fallen prey to a certain kind of “givenness,” though their attacks differ. Husserl critiques the sciences as having forgotten the historical circumstances in which they arose, having become “sedimentized” with naturalistic assumptions. Sellars, on the other hand, critiques the sciences’ foundationalism. That is, Sellars also accuses science of having established a false, ahistorical, positivist and empiricist ground on which they build a world image distinct from that of the Manifest Image or Husserl’s Lifeworld. For Sellars it is not so much that science’s foundation has become “sedimentized” as much as that the foundation never existed to begin with. History helps to expose the cracks in the foundation by exploring how it was that this foundation was established, but it is not the case that we have obscured a previous way of being, only that we are taking aspects of our current way of thinking for granted. We have misunderstood the nature of what science is. It does not and cannot provide a new foundation that wipes out the manifest image in one blow.

Holism : For each scientific theory is, from the standpoint of methodology, a structure which is built at a different ‘place’ and by different procedures within the intersubjectively accessible world of perceptible things. Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world.

While Sellars replace positivism with a broader, more holistic, pragmatic, and fallibilist methodology, he also attempts to expose the “givenness” of the Manifest Image. In the Manifest Image, people participate in discourse that establishes a linguistic idealism through the existence of shared concepts expressed through language. These concepts are internalized by us, often becoming second nature.

Our first-person thoughts are his prime example of an implicit theoretical construct.  Elsewhere, in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Sellars attempts to show that the very existence of “thoughts” depends on a rational discursive linguistic community, what Sellars terms the “space of reasons.” What we take to be “given” in our minds actually depends on a learned communal conceptual structure. And this anti-foundationalism attacks both the givenness of the Manifest Image itself and the positivistic empirical basis of science. In both cases, there is an implicit, complex, historically-established theoretical structure that undergirds even the simplest of thoughts and perceptions.

This attack does not invalidate the Manifest Image, as we still inhabit it and the concepts of personhood and the discursive community are essential to establishing the norms by which we live. But because the Manifest Image is incomplete and insufficient—our “given” ideas not able to form a coherent explanation of reality—the Scientific Image appears as a potentially more satisfactory picture of reality to understanding ourselves and the world—as long as we do not see it as wholly substitutive. We should not be looking to evolutionary psychology to explain the nature of morality.

My primary concern in this essay is with the question, ‘in what sense, and to what extent, does the manifest image of man-in-the-world survive the attempt to unite this image in one field of intellectual vision with man as conceived in terms of the postulated objects of scientific theory?’ The bite to this question lies, we have seen, in the fact that man is that being which conceives of itself in terms of the manifest image. To the extent that the manifest does not survive in the synoptic view, to that extent man himself would not survive.

As with Husserl, we will find ourselves in crisis if we take our contemporary Scientific Image to be real rather than an approximate image or model. The Scientific Image should ideally converge on the real in a way that the Manifest Image has failed to, but it does not and cannot stand independently of the Manifest Image in which we exist. Hence Sellars’ emphasis on the need for a Synoptic Image in which the discursive normativity of the Manifest Image and the fallibilist, revisionary Scientific Image allow us to achieve a satisfactory methodology of philosophical-scientific investigation.

The Merging of the Images: Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.

Appendix: Husserl’s Response

I am closer to Sellars’ stance than Husserl, lacking his transcendental sympathies. But Richard M. Bernstein gave an account of what he thought Husserl’s response to Sellars could be, which I excerpt here:

It is clear even from Husserl’s preliminary characterizations of the Lebenswelt, and what he takes to be its general structures, that he would criticize Sellars’ own account of the manifest image — especially in regard to what Sellars calls empirical and categorial refinement — as being infected by categories rooted in objective science. He would accuse Sellars of not being “philosophically radical” enough in bracketing the manifest image and providing an analysis of its structure.

But how are we to perform such an investigation? What is the ground for such a “new” science? Here we touch upon the most fundamental theme in Husserl, one which he took to be a radical turn — though he also claims it has been the telos of philosophical reflection itself: the transcendental epoché that makes possible a transcendental reduction. When we bracket the ontological claims of the Lebenswelt and perform the epoché, “we are not left with a meaningless, habitual abstention, rather, it is through this abstention that the gaze of the philosopher in truth first becomes fully free: above all, free of the strongest and most universal, and at the same time most hidden, internal bond, namely, of the pregivenness of the world” (p. 151 ). When we have freed ourselves by means of this transcendental epoché, is it possible to recognize the Lebenswelt and mankind itself as “a self-objectification of transcendental subjectivity.”

The transcendental epoché — the philosophical act of pure reflection -which involves a personal and intellectual transformation of the philosopher, is not to be understood as a “turning away” from “natural human life-interests.”

According to Sellars, once we clarify the differences and relationships between the types of scientific activity appropriate to the manifest image and to the scientific image proper, then we grasp the essential unity of science. This unity not only reconciles the two types of scientific endeavor appropriate to the two images, but also indicates the essential unity between the natural and the social sciences. Extrapolating what Sellars says about behavioristics, we can extend his principle to the distinctively social sciences such as economics, political science, and sociology, and claim that these disciplines also involve the techniques of correlational induction appropriate to the manifest image.

But it is precisely here that we find the deepest and the most consequential clash between Sellars and Husserl. Husserl too takes psychology itself as a “decisive field” (p. 203 ). And his judgment about the science of psychology — both behavioristic and nonbehavioristic — is that it has been a failure. And while Husserl also focuses on psychology, it is clear that he is pressing an indictment against all forms of naturalism and objectivism in the sciences of human life. In the attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences to an understanding of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity, these disciplines have not only failed, but distorted the phenomena studied. This failure is not one that can be overcome by more sophisticated development of the methods and techniques of the natural sciences. “It has already become clear to us that an ‘exact’ psychology, as an analogue to physics…is an absurdity. Accordingly, there can no longer be a descriptive psychology which is the analogue of a descriptive natural science. In no way, not even in the scheme of description vs. explanation, can a science of souls be modeled on natural science or seek methodical counsel from it. It can only model itself on its own subject matter, as soon as it has achieved clarity on this subject matter’s own essence” (p. 223). If it is objected that a “genuine” psychology is not a “science of souls,” but a science of observable behavior, this does not weaken Husserl’s charge, for psychology conceived in this manner will never be able to illuminate the structures of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

Richard M. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory

My gut reaction is that Sellars and Husserl are most at odds over the very distant “end of inquiry,” which is such a distant and hypothesized and never-to-be-reached point that arguments over it are not just irresolvable, but close to meaningless. I think that Sellars’ “synoptic view” could ultimately allow for scientific accounts of what Husserl wants (who’s to say it couldn’t?), while Husserl seems like he might be amenable to an expanded definition of naturalism and objectivism–his problem is with those terms in their current form. So I’m not sure the disagreement Bernstein lays out would necessarily amount to more than a terminological dispute however many thousands of years into the future it would take before science nearly gets reality right.

Husserl and Sellars’ prescriptions for science today, however, still seem rather close. Both admit the broad failings of scientific theory and method, and both want to use the fundamental methodological conceptions of science to reform it. They both ask us all to own up to the failures and idiocies and prejudices that mar scientific practice, and try not to be so arrogant and half-assed in the future.

Truth and Muddlement

The main reason why I pursued philosophy alongside literature was my increasing certainty that the closer I looked at words and sentences, the less idea I had of what they meant. The apparent correspondence between my thoughts, our language, and the world fell apart as I matured, in much the same way that Kafka described in Diogenes:


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Franz Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

Where A is thought and mind, B is language, and C is the world, including our physical selves. It would be so much simpler if there were only two pieces to the puzzle and we could measure one against the other, but since each is a medium onto the other two, stability seems absurdly out of reach.

Yet analytic philosophy was disappointing in that the grave problems of correspondence between language, mind, and reality had given way in the 80s and 90s to a neo-Aristotelian essentialism, which once again wished to see language as a transparent window onto the world. Its counterpart in poststructuralism was equally disappointing, positing that meaning was endlessly deferred or wholly constructed, something which was rather evidently not the case. The world has some pull on language, though that pull is slippery, non-atomic, and ever-shifting.

And at the center of it (or perhaps the bottom of it) lies that big notion of truth. There are so many hazy concept around today that I hesitate to single out any one as being overridingly problematic, but of all the concepts that people simultaneously trumpet and denigrate, while not even being aware of the contradiction, truth must rank damn close to the top.

People claiming to do away with truth produce more heat than light, frequently falling into absolutist claims that would embarrass the targets of their attacks. Meanwhile, attempts to account for truth in logic and positivism have yielded poor results: special cases in which a method for knowing truth is somewhat more available than usual.

Attacks on scientism are really just attacks on the claim of special access to truth that that has been made by every dominant methodology, from animism to shamanism to alchemy, since the beginning of time. If science today provides the clothes with which educated people dress up would-be truths, that says nothing more about the worth of science than it said about alchemy. Other considerations factor into those assessments. But truth requires some methodology in order for us to see it as truth, and so you get what Polanyi calls “dynamo-objective coupling”:

These supposedly scientific assertions are, of course, accepted only because they satisfy certain moral passions. We have here a self-confirmatory reverberation between the theory of bourgeois ideologies and the concealed motives which underlie it. This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question—and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. Any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objections to it are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

Polanyi was referring to Marxism but the sentiment applies just as easily to the rhetoric of countless other ideologies, Ayn Rand being one crude example. And “science” can just as easily be swapped out for the previous justificatory methodology of your choice. And that makes the problem that much worse since the methodology now remains under question itself.

Now, science works and alchemy (or augury, or poetry) does not. But when reduced to its seemingly essential components, science does not yield anything so lofty to be called truth, at least not in the sense of a human truth graspable by anyone meeting the basic criterion of being human. Robert Musil phrased the disappointment like this:

It is hard to say why engineers don’t quite live up to this Vision. Why, for instance, do they so often wear a watch chain slung on a steep, lopsided curve from the vest pocket to a button higher up, or across the stomach in one high and two low loops, as if it were a metrical foot in a poem? Why do they favor tiepins topped with stag’s teeth or tiny horseshoes? Why do they wear suits constructed like the early stages of the automobile? And why, finally, do they never speak of anything but their profession, or if they do speak of something else, why do they have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis? Of course this is not true of all of them, far from it, but it is true of many, and it was true of all those Ulrich met the first time he went to work in a factory office, and it was true of those he met the second time. They all turned out to be men firmly tied to their drawing boards, who loved their profession and were wonderfully efficient at it. But any suggestion that they might apply their daring ideas to themselves instead of to their machines would have taken them aback, much as if they had been asked to use a hammer for the unnatural purpose of killing a man.

But one thing, on the other hand, could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. He was in love with science not so much on scientific as on human grounds. He saw that in all the problems that come within its orbit, science thinks differently from the laity. If we translate “scientific outlook” into “view of life,” “hypothesis” into “attempt,” and “truth” into “action,” then there would be no notable scientist or mathematician whose life’s work, in courage and revolutionary impact, did not far outmatch the greatest deeds in history. The man has not yet been born who could say to his followers: “You may steal, kill, fornicate–our teaching is so strong that it will transform the cesspool of your sins into clear, sparkling mountain streams.” But in science it happens every few years that something till then held to be in error suddenly revolutionizes the field, or that some dim and disdained idea becomes the ruler of a new realm of thought. Such events are not merely upheavals but lead us upward like a Jacob’s ladder. The life of science is as strong and carefree and glorious as a fairy tale.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

In its most distilled form, science (and especially mathematics) provides a certain temptation toward pristine and unvarnished truth that I have never experienced anywhere else–unfortunately, some have taken this to mean that science provides the complete vision of what truth can be and so we’d better get used to it. At least in its present form, science does not do that, because I have had enough glimpses of it through other methodologies to know that science, at least in its common naive sense, is not sufficient.

The better answer, at least from those who see what a mess science is and has always been, is that “science” is a broad enough methodology to encompass these other methodologies as well, if the criteria of science are restricted to what seem to be its core essentials: fallibilism, skepticism, and provisionality. (You could say humility and modesty, except that these traits are often applied without much of either.) More and more I see these traits in most of my favorite literary authors, and I also see their absence in a great many writers I disdain.

Here is a scientist speaking of how little we are privileged to know, something you would never guess at were you to find yourself reading Henry Miller, Max Stirner, or Christopher Hitchens:

We walk through the world as the spectator walks through a great factory: he does not see the details of machines and working operations, or the comprehensive connections between the different departments which determine the working processes on a large scale. We do not see the things, not even the concreta, as they are but in a distorted form; we see a substitute world–not the world as it is, objectively speaking.

Hans Reichenbach, Experience and Prediction

Reichenbach’s statement at the beginning is not just about science, but about our observation and study of anything. We are tearing our way through thick layers of the gauze of preconceived notions and biases instilled in us by seemingly every single damn thing in the universe. We won’t pass the final layer (probably not ever, though hope springs eternal I suppose), so the myriad disguised claims of truth that constantly shriek and harangue us would do better to come clean and be exposed for the false promises they are. Our tub is full of ghosts.

This is what I’ve learned in my years (today is my birthday). The more I’ve held to this sort of a systematic, coherent system of fallibilism in every aspect of my life, particularly with regard to myself and my beliefs, the better off I have been.

Godfrey Harold Hardy: A Mathematician’s Apology

G.H. Hardy is one of the very few mathematicians who’s been immortalized in song, by the Embarrassment no less:

Hardy’s little book, A Mathematician’s Apology (that’s apology in the sense of defense, not regret), written in 1940 near the end of his career, is an eloquent and concise statement of the mathematician’s, theoretician’s, and Platonist’s worldview. It is worth reading especially by anyone who is not a member of those clubs. It is the memoir of a person who has spent so much time discovering theorems of numbers, formulae, and equations that they have come to seem far more real than the discovery of a new species of plant or a new planet, which after all is just one more instance of a form that was already known.

I am not exaggerating on the Platonist front. Hardy states it plainly:

I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we describe grandiloquently as our ‘creations’, are simply our notes of our observations. This view has been held, in one form or another, by many philosophers of high reputation from Plato onwards, and I shall use the language which is natural to a man who holds it. A reader who does not the philosophy can alter the language: it will make very little difference to my conclusions.

This is the key point, never to be forgotten. This mathematical reality is more real to him than the world we appear to inhabit. Hardy witnessed connection to this reality in an even stronger form in his friend Ramanujan, the great mystic mathematician, who had sent him a sample his unpolished but noetically brilliant work. Two other mathematicians had dismissed Ramanujan’s work, but on seeing the unknown Ramanujan’s work, Hardy recognized him for what he was and brought him to Cambridge. I have no doubt that Ramanujan cemented Hardy’s Platonism: Hardy rated Ramanujan as the most talented mathematician he had ever known.

Correspondingly, the prose is a mixture of plainspoken simplicity and blatant elitism, cosmic humility and human arrogance, as though Moses had come down from the mountain without desiring to convince anyone that he was right…or not even being sure that he could. His very opening suggests he has only come down from the mountain because his powers have faded and failed him:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

Yet in the human world, mathematics seems a talent of marginal utility (at least to Hardy), and he defends his mortal life by saying only that he did mathematics because he was good at it.

Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

As W. J. Turner has said so truly, it is only the ‘highbrows’ (in the unpleasant sense) who do not admire the ‘real swells’.

But in terms of the greater pageant of time, the mathematician has the greatest chance at immortality. He doesn’t compare his field to the empirical sciences (though he looks down on applied mathematics), but I gather that he is more confident of mathematical achievements because their results cannot be overturned by things like as-yet-undiscovered evidence. As for language and literature, they are merely human creations and even more evanescent.

If intellectual curiosity, professional pride, and ambition are the dominant incentives to research, then assuredly no one has a fairer chance of satisfying them than a mathematician. His subject is the most curious of all—there is none in which truth plays such odd pranks. It has the most elaborate and the most fascinating technique, and gives unrivalled openings for the display of sheer professional skill. Finally, as history proves abundantly, mathematical achievement, whatever its intrinsic worth, is the most enduring of all. Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

Indeed, the entire world of the contingent, the observed, the evidentiary, seems instilled with a frailness that makes it ephemeral and far less meaningful. Any connection to the everyday nominal world is something that endangers the solid rock of eternal truths which Descartes described as the sole object of posthumous contemplation. (Our memories do not exist after death, for Descartes, so the only things our souls can contemplate are a priori truths: mathematical and logical ones.)

It is quite common, for example, for an astronomer or a physicist to claim that he has found a ‘mathematical proof’ that the physical universe must behave in a particular way. All such claim, if interpreted literally, are strictly nonsense. It cannot be possible to prove mathematically that there will be an eclipse to-morrow, because eclipses, and other physical phenomena, do not form part of the abstract world of mathematics.

We can describe, sometimes fairly accurately, sometimes very roughly, the relations which hold between some of its constituents, and compare them with the exact relations holding between constituents of some system of pure geometry. We may be able to trace a certain resemblance between the two sets of relations, and then the pure geometry will become interesting to physicists; it will give us, to that extent, a map which ‘fits the facts’ of the physical world. The geometer offers to the physicist a whole set of maps from which to choose. One map, perhaps, will fit the facts better than others, and then the geometry which provides that particular map will be the geometry most important for applied mathematics. I may add that even a pure mathematician may find his appreciation of this geometry quickened, since there is no mathematician so pure that he feels no interest at all in the physical world; but, in so far as he succumbs to this temptations, he will be abandoning his purely mathematical position.

And so applied mathematics is inferior to pure mathematics because it is hamstrung by contingent particulars. Airborne truth is brought down to earth by the accumulated weight of midges and gnats:

One rather curious conclusion emerges, that pure mathematics is one the whole distinctly more useful than applied. A pure mathematician seems to have the advantage on the practical as well as on the aesthetic side. For what is useful above all is technique, and mathematical technique is taught mainly through pure mathematics. I hope that I need not say that I am trying to decry mathematical physics, a splendid subject with tremendous problems where the finest imaginations have run riot.

But is not the position of an ordinary applied mathematician in some ways a little pathetic? If he wants to be useful, he must work in a humdrum way, and he cannot give full play to his fancy even when he wishes to rise to the heights. ‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one; and most of the finest products of an applied mathematician’s fancy must be rejected, as soon as they have been created, for the brutal but sufficient reason that they do not fit the facts.

“Fancy” and “facts” being somewhat self-effacing language, since by this point it is clear that for Hardy, fancy is more enduring than fact. And for anyone who works in these fields long enough, it is hard to imagine how a mathematician could not end up a Platonist after working so dutifully with non-material, abstract entities that constantly produce new, surprising, emergent properties.

This is not a new attitude; the Pythagorean cult is only one of the oldest known manifestations of this tendency. And it exists today in hardly a different form: the “quant” of finance describes being sucked into the world of mathematical reality in a similar though less eloquent way. And the insistence with which string theorists proclaim that their equations are so perfect that they simply must describe the ultimate truth of reality is more or less just a variation on Hardy’s ideas of theoretical elegance and beauty.

C.P. Snow knew Hardy and Hardy thanks Snow in the book, but the book belies Snow’s famous generalization about the two cultures of humanities and science. To hear Hardy tell it, the real divide is not between the humanities and the sciences but between the theoreticians and the engineers, idea and praxis, rationalists and empiricists, philosophers and storytellers, gnostics and skeptics.

It is more a continuum than it is a dichotomy, but each pole is a strong attractor and tends to draw in those who already lean toward it. As someone who by temperament or talents has always tended to fall closer to the engineer’s side, I always hope for the theorists to remember that suffering is as real as any theorem. Hardy refers to the anodyne of escape provided by theory, but not only can it also be a dereliction of human duty, but it is also ultimately an unreliable respite for mere particulars such as ourselves:

There is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, “one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.” It is a pity that it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.


Benny Shanon: The Antipodes of the Mind

Benny Shanon is an Israeli cognitive psychologist who has taken the psychoactive hallucinogen ayahuasca well over one hundred times. His book The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience is a scholarly attempt to describe its effects both through a survey of participants and through descriptions of his own extensive experiences.

The book is a mine of information about how the mind processes information, sense data, and concepts under abnormal conditions. Shanon does not disguise his enthusiasm for ayahuasca, but he attempts to maintain a disinterested and naturalistic stance. (Psychiatrist Charles Grob talks more about the specific neurological effects of DMT, ayahuasca’s active ingredient, in this interview.)

I have not taken ayahuasca. It does not sound terribly appealing. The one extensive description of an ayahuasca experience I’d previously read was by Kira Salak, who claimed that it cured her lifelong suicidal depression overnight. Her description of the experience, however, is enough to scare you off the stuff for life.

Shanon, however, comes off as a remarkably equanimous guy of good humor and patience, so his accounts do not dwell so much on the dark side of ayahuasca. (He attributes much of his poise to ayahuasca, but I suspect he was fairly upbeat and fearless going in.) We are 60 pages in before we come to this blithe passage:

Usually, the harshest symptoms of the Ayahuasca inebriation occur during the first 90 minutes following the onset of the effect. During this time, visions can be very strong and the entire experience may be tough and even frightening. Often the feeling is that the drinker has little or no control over what is happening. Thus, the initial phase of the inebriation is likely to present drinkers with moments of intense struggle. At times, the person who partakes of Ayahuasca feels he or she is losing his or her senses and even going mad. Quite commonly, people feel that they are about to die. Furthermore, it often seems that what is happening is irreversible and that one will never return to one’s normal self. With this, thoughts like ‘Why, for heaven’s sake, did I make the mistake of partaking of this drink?’ often cross drinkers’ minds. Naturally, all this is likely to generate great trepidation. With experience, however, the fear can be better managed and the Ayahuasca drinker learns to gain more control over the intoxication.

Fortunately, Shanon’s enviable nonchalance allowed him to continue chronicling ayahuasca’s effects despite the occasional remarks that ayahuasca frequently produces experiences I would consider horrifying and unbearable. Most of the visions he describes are generally rather benevolent, possibly because people who have repeatedly horrific ones stop drinking ayahuasca rather quickly. Grob, who also seems rather enthusiastic about ayahuasca’s possibilities, still remarks, “It can be an eternity in a Hell-realm.”

I will quote and comment on passages that struck me as particularly interesting philosophically. A good chunk of the experiences fall in line with what’s expected from corrupted sensory modalities: distorted vision, time-dilation, dream-like visions, etc. The exceptions, however, are fascinating, and Shanon’s dutiful chronicling makes the material worthwhile.

Shanon divides the material by subject matter and thematic analysis. I’ve sorted the excerpts into my own set of broad categories.

Confusion of the Sensuous and the Conceptual

Many of the hallucinations involve confusions of the (supposed) duality of concept and sense data, and make more intuitive sense if thought of as conceptual manipulation rather than raw internal experience, whatever that may be, as in these two examples:

In still another Daime session the madrinha stepped aside and a man passed a vessel of incense back and forth in front of her. The smoke lifted up and it became perfectly clear to me: It was an act of cleansing, of protecting the woman from potential dangers that may be inflicted by evil spirits. There were no visual hallucinations as such, yet, I would not say that the act was merely symbolic. What I experienced was literally this—seeing the casting of a shield against evil powers. It all seemed to have a very serious and sombre allure, and manifestly, it was all invested with magic. If I were to define what made it all so mysterious I would say that it was the fact that on the one hand everything pertained to another reality, while yet at the very same time it was all real. Again, no hallucination as such was experienced—technically what I was seeing was real, and none the less it was all utterly non-ordinary, and enchanted.

Another pattern of interpreting-as is one I shall characterize as seeing the particular as generic, or rather, seeing the generic in the particular. I have experi­ enced this on a number of occasions. The first, which for me was very striking, occurred during the daytime. It was in a village and I, intoxicated, was sitting on a small verandah overlooking the meadows. A farmer (a real one) was passing by, and I saw The Farmer, the universal prototype of all farmers. Again, as in the previous example, the standard perception and the non-ordinary one are related. After all, I saw The Farmer, not The Fisherman or The King. Yet, while normally I would have seen just a farmer, this time I saw The Farmer. While semantically linked, experientially these two perceptions are totally different. I have heard accounts of the very same phenomenon from my informants.

In both these cases, ordinary sense data is framed by conceptual interpretation that ordinarily kicks in only at a layer of remove from seemingly immanent experience, revealing that conceptual interpretation was there all along.

Similarly, invocation of Platonic forms occurs repeatedly:

The real figure (the trees) and the visualized one (the people) were related, but not by means of any overlapping of lines. In other words, the relationship was primarily semantic. Other instances of this kind I have experienced were seeing an (imaginary) jaguar resting on the branch of a (real) tree and an (imaginary) cow standing on a (real) truck.

Abstract entities may be seen as well. One informant told me he had a grand vision of perfect geometric bodies. Another reported a scene in which he spontan­eously came to the appreciation that the physical world is harmoniously governed by mathematical laws. Three informants reported grand visions in which the manifold of all forms was seen. Several informants, all with an academic education, explicitly commented that Ayahuasca brought them to the world of Platonic Ideas.

Finally, there are visions in which one feels one is encountering the Supreme Good. A major impression these visions had on me is the (Platonic) conclusion that ultimately, the ethical and the aesthetical as well as the true are the same. I have heard similar assessments made by many other people.

A better way to read these perceptions of universals is to interpret them as the conceptual being applied and/or interpreted at a different level than usual. Even in the perception of a particular instance of an abstract concept, we already have the abstract concept in mind. We just don’t believe ourselves to perceive it.

To put it another way: does Shanon have an experience of seeing The Farmer, or does he merely think that he has had an experience of seeing The Farmer? This is a nonsensical question: there is no difference between the two.

The meaninglessness of this question, I believe, points to the effect that ayahuasca is having on him. There is not some raw layer of true/veridical empirical perception that is then getting corrupted by a process of cognition. Classically Cartesian and empiricist accounts are misleading in this regard. The conceptual objects of perception (what I think of as Husserl’s noemata) are themselves corrupted.

Shanon pretty much agrees on this point:

Should we say that what is seen in Ayahuasca visions is to be divided into two: that which is ‘really’ seen, and that which is the product of interpretation? While there might be instances where interpretation may be relegated to a separate, secondary process, I am reluctant to regard this as the paradigmatic, general case. Because of my previous work in both psychology and semantics, I have difficulty accepting the two-stage analysis dividing perception and interpret­ation. My general theoretical stance in cognition is that there is no demarcation line between ‘raw’ perception, on the one hand, and semantic, meaningful interpret­ation, on the other hand. Following the philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the psychologist Gibson (1979), I believe that it is impossible to draw a clear-cut line dividing between naked, interpretation-free sensory inputs and interpretative processes that are subsequently applied to them so as to render these inputs into meaningful percepts. In the spirit of Heidegger (1962), I maintain that cognition is always ‘laden with meaning’. Applied to the example cited, this view implies that, from a cognitive-psychological point of view, if the figure seen was identified as being Jesus, then phenomenologically this is indeed who was seen.

Does this deflate the claims that Shanon is making of profound, sublime experience? As long as we maintain that any thought has some phenomenological content, it doesn’t have to. That said, prefacing every ayahuasca experience with “I thought [I saw Jesus, e.g.]” certainly makes things sound less impressive. If I were to take ayahuasca and have an experience in which I knew that 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5, I can’t say that would seem very remarkable in retrospect.

Likewise, Shanon repeatedly has experiences in which he does not hallucinate per se so much as undergo experience that is perceptually impossible by ordinary standards, dealing with the cross-wiring of the “sensuous” with the “conceptual.” A “thought” is not as distinct from a “sensing” as it normally seems. This is not to say that there are no distinctions–there seem to be multiple levels involved–but that concepts play some part at all levels.

Shanon invokes Heidegger, not without reason, as the experience is more or less a fundamental corruption of one’s normal being-in-the-world.

At times, the experience vacillates between one that is primarily visual and one in which the visual is, as ordinary reality, just one facet of one’s being-in-the-world. A scene may begin as one of the former kind, gain strength and reach the characteristics of the latter, and then it may perhaps dissipate and turn into an experience that is again primarily visual. What characterizes very powerful experiences of virtual reality is that they involve no progressive process of immersion.

Except, pace Heidegger, what is produced is not alienation but a sense of integration. I think that this is not because we are being brought down to the level of the world, which normally seems free of conceptual manipulation. It is more because the normally “objective” world is being brought up to our level.

Dubious Reactions and Causal Breakage

While the experiential nature of the content still stands, we nonetheless have good reason to question the exact constitution of the experiences. As an example, consider this grand vision Shanon gives:

I had the vision, recounted in Chs. 8 and 9, of an exhibition presenting what appeared to be an entire, unknown culture. I was thinking to myself: ‘If this is not real, if my mind is creating all this, then the human mind must be much more amazing, much more mysterious than standardly assumed by psychologists. Indeed, if my mind is creating all this,’ my thinking went on, ‘then cognitive psychologists just know nothing about the mind.’ Thus, to the suggestion that the effect of psychoactive substances is, as Merkur (1998) claims, just ‘intense fantasying’ I retort: Perhaps, indeed, this is all that is happening, but this should not be taken in a dismissive, half-derogatory fashion. It may very well be that it is the creative ability of the mind but, if so, the mind’s ability to create surpasses anything we cognitive scientists ever think of.

Here I think Shanon slips. It is the old Wittgenstein beetle in the box problem. The mind, while amazing, is also amazingly good at tricking itself. Shanon had some kind of vision, but he also was in a state in which he was clearly disposed to think of his vision experience as amazing. His brain was probably (we don’t know for sure) putting together all sorts of concepts and sense data in bizarre and creative ways, creating the “all this,” but we have no way of establishing how awesome that assemblage was beyond the descriptions he gives. Here is a representative excerpt:

On many occasions I saw corridors, one hall opening into another, marvellous wall-paintings, sculptures, and reliefs. Architectural details that espe­cially impressed me included sculpted marble colonnades in the form of white elephants, staircases adorned with golden lions, and finely carved gilded wooden ceilings. Several times, I saw most beautiful painted tiles. In the reports of my informants mosaics appear frequently; an example was described in Ch. 6 when serial images were discussed.

No doubt these are remarkable things to imagine, but we fall into a fallacy if we think that he “saw” these things in full detail to the extent we would have to imagine them in ordinary life to feel such an expanse of detail. More likely, the details were all that existed as isolated conceptual objects, and his brain drew a vivid but incomplete implication of an entire landscape of awesomeness, generating individual awesome details on demand, not all at once.

In order to have a reaction to an imagined stimulus X, what was required of that imagined stimulus X? I could have a vision in which I had just read a profound book containing the secrets of life and am left awestruck.  The book need not have existed as a conceptual entity in my mind beyond having loose book-like qualities. Since we already know that ayahuasca throws logic out the window, there is no need to think that there was some causal chain in which an actual, fully-fleshed-out conceptual object caused the reactions he was having, or that the reactions were rationally justified.

I am sure that in Shanon’s vision, many details were generated, far more than in the normal course of imagination, and that these details were experienced more vividly, but that there were still nowhere near enough details to qualify as a fleshed-out “world” by everyday standards.

Consider a more prosaic example. I have a decent auditory memory and can “replay” music that I know well in my head and “hear” with the right timbre, sound density, etc. On the other hand, I do not hear it in any sort of complete way (though I can “replay” it and pay attention to one instrument over another, for example), nor do I have any knowledge about the innards of the music. All I have is some pieces of the audio that are what were salient to me. They are fairly vivid, but they are drastically incomplete, and the same would apply to any vision or hallucination I might have. (My visual sense, however, is in fact much poorer and I have a much harder time summoning up vivid images; this seems to be the reverse of the norm.)

Ultimately, one’s reactions in ayahuasca cannot be trusted any more than they can be externally verified through verbal (or other) reports. One case of such verification is described in the Idealistic Holism section below, but obviously, verification is the exception, not the rule, at least until we invent brain-reading machines that depict what we’re thinking…which, given the overlapping of the conceptual and the sensuous, is seemingly impossible.

When Shanon says:

The philosopher of language Austin (1962) claimed that we do not just say things with words— rather we do things with them (saying being one of these things). My work on ordinary consciousness has led me to posit that with the silent mentations in our minds (i.e. thought sequences) we do not entertain thoughts but rather do things and act in the theatre of our minds (see Shanon, 1998*). I have further argued that what consciousness affords is a kind of virtual reality whereby human beings can act even when actual action in the external world is not possible. My claim has been made on the basis of ordinary consciousness. In the case of nonordinary consciousness the case is even more extreme. I would like to propose that with Ayahuasca the human propensity of world creation is increased manifoldly.

I think he is right to a point, but the other side of the coin is that the criteria for world creation may be drastically lowered. As Wittgenstein repeatedly stressed, we have no way of knowing. By invoking the “theatre of our minds,” Shanon has fallen back into a false specator-spectacle dualism, assuming that what he is experiencing has some kind of existence outside of the experience itself. Ironically, it’s quite similar to the cognition/perception dualism he’s trying to break down.

Specific Neurological Manipulations

Notably, the manipulations involved seem to map onto forms of cognition that are associated with isolated aspects of cognition. For example, face-related experiences seem to relate rather clearly to the neurological disorder prosopagnosia, which is the failure to be able to remember and recognize people’s faces. (It affects Oliver Sacks, Hubert Dreyfus, and, either aptly or ironically, Chuck Close.)

The first small detail I would like to mention is disembodied eyes. These are eyes seen floating in the visual space without there being either a face or a body of which they are part. The eyes may be those of human beings, of felines, or without any particular identity. Often, a great multitude of such eyes is seen. These are reported very commonly. Notably, they are also encountered in the most spectacu­ lar vision reported in the Bible—the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with the Divine (see, in particular, Ezekiel 1: 18; for a discussion of the motif of disembodied eyes in the context of pre-Columbian Mexican culture, the reader is referred to Ott, 1986). Also commonly reported are detached faces, that is, faces without bodies; bodies without faces are also reported.

If, as prosopagnosia suggests, facial perception is handled by a specific mechanism in the brain (the fusiform gyrus, also possibly associated with synaesthesia), then the commonality of face-related hallucinations would suggest that ayahuasca is hitting that part quite reliably.

Another mechanism Shanon identifies as being crucially affected is iconic (“flash”) memory:

A specific manifestation of the salience of the medium as it pertains to the temporal dimension is the increase in the time span of iconic memory, which consists of the retaining in memory of information in a quasi-perceptual manner, as if a copy of the external perceptual stimulus is maintained. Normally, the span of iconic memory is very brief—it is estimated to be between 350 and 500 milliseconds (see Coltheart, 1983; Baddeley, 1990). With Ayahuasca, the time-span of iconic memory is sign­ificantly lengthened. One closes one’s eyes and an image of what one has just actually seen is retained. The time of retention is much longer than normal. A related phenomenon is that of afterimages (see Ch. 17). These, too, are very pronounced when, during the inebriation, one closes one’s eyes. Both phenomena result in a lengthening of the time that perceptual stimuli (or their derivatives, such as afterimages) are amenable to mental inspection. As a consequence, the scope of the mental transformations that these stimuli can generate is increased.

This indeed seems to fit with the nature of the mental chaos that ayahuasca generates.


Since we have eliminated the “rawness” of perception, it follows that we would see metaphors impact the most basic level of perception, and that indeed is what happens. One example of this outside of ayahuasca is synaesthesia, which clearly involves some layer of semantic data.

In a discussion of Thomas Hardy’s synaesthesia four years ago, a synaesthete described an experience of “the concept Wednesday with the experience blue…it’s like my color-seeing bits are being activated but not quite seeing.” Ayahuasca experiences suggest the extension (or derailing) of this kind of process on many levels:

In Shanon (1992) and (1993a) I argue against this common view and suggest that for a metaphor to obtain it is not at all necessary that the semantic features or distinctions encountered in the metaphorical expression be given and fully defined prior to the articulation of that expression. Furthermore, on the basis of both empirical data and conceptual analysis, I claim that rather than being secondary, metaphorical processing is primary and non-derivative. This claim is supported by considerations of speed of processing in normal adults, ontogenetic patterns (it appears that metaphors are very common in the speech of young children), and the so-called primary (sic) processes encountered in dreams (these, note, are highly metaphorical; see Freud, 1900/1953). As I see it, the very essence of metaphoricity is the creation of new features. In other words, when producing or receiving a metaphor, cognitive agents draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things. In this process, features are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made and new semantic features are generated. It is precisely this that makes metaphor cognitively so important—it is one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition.

The foregoing observations highlight the intrinsic affinity between synaesthesia and metaphoricity. As indicated above, in cognitive-psychological discourse, the latter is generally linked primarily with language, whereas the former is regarded as sensory. I propose, rather, that they are to be regarded as the two manifestations of what is essentially the same basic cognitive phenomenon, namely, functioning in a mode that does not differentiate between domains that, from the perspective of normal mature adult cognition, are totally distinct. In metaphor these domains are semantic fields, while in synaesthesia they are sensory modalities, but otherwise these two cognitive phenomena are the same. Together, both may be regarded as manifestations of an enhanced degree of latitude with respect to priorly given, standardly established distinctions; this effect may be referred to as ‘nonfixedness’.

This perhaps is the most important point of Shanon’s book, underscoring the integration of the conceptual and the sensuous while emphasizing the collective nature of those metaphors. What Shanon has in mind here does bear some resemblance to Hans Blumenberg‘s idea of absolute metaphors. To underscore this, Shanon invokes one of Blumenberg’s core metaphors–hell, one of society’s core metaphors–light.

Significantly, language reflects (sic) the special status of light. It is no accident that in English—as in many other languages—words such as those ending the previous paragraph but one are derived from the term ‘light’ (cf. ‘enlightened’, ‘illumination’). In Hebrew, a language not at all related to English, the noun V is light, the noun ora is one of the terms for joy, the adjective mu’ar is illuminated, na’or is enlightened, me’or panim denotes happy welcomingness, and so on and so forth.

Since metaphors are shared and most are collectively generated (some may be native, I believe), it does render the social a core aspect of neuropsychology. I heartily endorse Shanon’s statement to this effect, drawing from Vygotsky:

Against dominant views in contem­porary cognitive science, my own is that the basic capability of the human cognitive system is not to process information but rather, to be and act in the world. Even our most private, most subjective experiences attest to this fundamental state of affairs (see Shanon, 1998*). This being the case, the internal and the external are inter­twined and there cannot be a sharp divide between the two. Specifically, the mental is embodied in the corporeal and individual cognition is embedded in the matrix of social interrelationships. As the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky and his disciples argued, mind is in society (see Vygotsky, 1978). Hence, in a very fundamental fashion, even the most individualistic psychologist cannot ignore the societal.

I don’t have much to add here. This seems to be an obvious point but I don’t feel it’s one often considered in lay presentations (or even technical presentations) in cognitive science and psychology. (It seems that Francisco Varela‘s “embodied mind” approach is one well-known, recent move in this direction.) There is a very long tradition here, probably best exemplified by Merleau-Ponty. But I think Shanon’s specific focus on metaphoricity is accurate and merits application in even the most quotidian studies of “being-in-the-world.” This would then constitute a rejection of Heidegger’s ontological approach, which makes these structures of “being-in-the-world” more fundamental than socially-conditioned metaphors.

There remains the issue of shared content across cultures. I don’t think Shanon provides a huge amount of evidence here to suggest too many universal concepts and metaphors genuinely innate to the mind. Light could well be one of them, but when it comes to snakes and cats, both extremely common in ayahuasca visions, I’m more wary. Snakes I think can be explained fairly easily: snakes are a very simple shape (that is, a line), and so if you’re going to see an animal (which may indeed be something more innate to the mind), a snake is a likely one, just like clouds are likely to look like marshmallows. Cats are trickier, but I’m not quite ready to assign them some innate presence in the brain just yet.

Idealistic Holism

In some ways it makes sense that the breakdown of our reality-processing software would result in a general feeling of holism:

Overall, Ayahuasca induces a comprehensive metaphysical view of things. I would characterize it as idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones. By this view, reality is conceived as constituted by one, non-material substance which is identified as Cosmic Consciousness, the Godhead, the ground of all Being, or the Fountain of Life. Coupled with this is the assessment that all things are interconnected and that in their totality they constitute one harmonious whole. This, in turn, entails an experienced realization that there is sense and reason to all things and that reality is invested with deep, heretofore unappreciated, meaningfulness. By and large, it seems that the metaphysical perspective induced by Ayahuasca is most similar to views entertained in classical Hindu philosophy (see, for instance, Phillips, 1995) 2 as well as by Plato, Plotinus, and Hegel. Remarkably, this view is essentially the same as that characterized by Huxley as the ‘perennial philosophy’ (Huxley, 1944; see also James, 1882); similar observations were also made in the context of LSD (see Grof, 1972, 1998).

Shanon doesn’t make any metaphysical claims for this experience, though he implies them rather strongly.

Thus, many informants have reported to me that the brew made them appreciate that ‘everything is interconnected’, ‘all is one’, ‘every­thing is spirit’, and ‘all is consciousness’. Other recurring expressions are ‘this world is an illusion’, ‘everything has meaning’, ‘the different levels and aspects of reality exhibit the same essential structure’, and ‘I and the world are united’.

It is difficult to know how to interpret these reports. Semantically, these are not impressive statements, but they reflect what must be a very powerful inner experience.

My question is: what other sort of conceptual experience would one expect to have in such a state other than holistic monism? I do not mean this rhetorically, but I want to ask if there may be a causal implication here in which ayahuasca does only part of the work and traditional cognitive functions do the rest.

To explain: What’s happening in such ayahuasca moments is a shutdown of traditional constraints (or categories) the brain imposes on our experience, accompanied by what is presumably cognitive attempts to produce something resembling coherent experience out of what remains. Broadly speaking, I would expect this to produce a sense of non-differentiation and lack of identity. The specifics of the experience may or may not be baked into the brain. At this point third-person accounts seem less helpful than they did with reports of more sensuous experiences.

Accompanied by such experiences is the collapse of time itself, which seems (a) phenomenologically remarkable, but (b) actually not too unlikely, given the other corruptions that are going on.

In front of me I saw the space of all possibilities, that is, all states of affairs that can possibly happen. They were lying in front of me there like objects in physical space. Choosing, I realized, is tantamount to the taking of a particular path in this space. It does not, however, consist in the generation of intrinsically new states of affairs. All possibilities are already there, I saw, but one has the option of choosing different paths amongst them, just as when travelling through a terrain in real space. Further, while travelling in the space of possibil­ities takes time, the possibilities themselves are there, given in an ever-present atemporal space. Thus, I concluded, there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. With this, for the first time I felt I understood the Jewish sages in the Mishna—’Everything is laid out in advance yet freedom of choice is given.’

Shanon reflects on the afterthoughts many drinkers have:

Ayahuasca causes many drinkers to reflect upon conscious­ness and its nature. This is true also of individuals without any prior intellectual interest in this topic. Moreover, in general, the specific ideas that different drinkers entertain with regard to consciousness fall into one consistent picture. As indicated earlier, consciousness is conceived of as the basic constituent of reality and the ground of all Being. Many further say they experience, and consequently conceive of, consciousness as a supra-human and non-individuated phenomenon of which human consciousness is a derivative. Obviously, that different people have and share these ideas proves nothing. Yet, perhaps this has some bearing on the topic being entertained? In other words, perhaps the similarity of these insights does indicate something with regard to the nature of consciousness? I leave this as an open question.

I think that, indeed, there is a shared set of concepts and experiential data that is cross-cultural, but that it falls under the broadly naturalistic rubric of “being human.” The supra-human, non-individuated state is one that could well naturally emerge from the brain when its moorings are loosened, just like in dreaming or schizophrenia. (Louis Sass describes somewhat analogous experiences in The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Again, this isn’t to deflate Shanon’s claim, as consciousness is one damn weird creature, and the fact that our normal state of mind allows us to process reality in a more functional way does not mean that our normal state of mind is somehow more essentially reflective of the nature of consciousness.

Given these changes to the nature of experience, one would expect ayahuasca to generate certain questions about consciousness and experience with some uniformity. There is much room for cultural variation, but I think it’s unavoidable that there are certain basic conceptual areas of human experience that really are universal. (Maybe it’s time to revise Kant’s Categories once more.)

Things get trickier but also a bit more verifiable when Shanon describes experiences that overlap with reality that seem to extend consciousness extra-locally outside of his body:

The non-individuation of consciousness may also be manifested in the blurring of the distinction between the individual and his or her fellow human beings. As a consequence, one may feel that one’s identity is defined not individually but rather in group terms. Thus, strong identification with the other persons who participate in the Ayahuasca session is common. One clear manifestation of this is the communal singing in the rituals of the Santo Daime Church. Many times I have observed how sessions begin—the leading persons start to sing and the others in the hall readily join in, as if tied to them by hidden strings. Furthermore, the singing may be extremely co-ordinated, both with respect to tempo and rhythm and as far as immediate adjustments in tune are concerned. On such occasions, the group becomes a kind of a single organism that acts in a precise and highly concentrated fashion. Once I gave a cassette recording I had made of such singing for inspection to a musical laboratory equipped with high-tech measurement instruments. The experts were astonished at the perfect degree of synchrony between the people singing. In a direct, non-technical manner I have felt this many times as well. As recounted earlier, once I also had a vision that made the notion of group-consciousness even more apparent to me. In the vision I found myself in the midst of an ant colony. I felt the relationship between each ant, as a biological organism, and the colony as a whole. Consciousness was the property of the latter, not the former.

The cassette recording is the key piece of evidence here. The explanation, I gather, is a sub-conscious (a term I mean in a general, generic sense, not a specific one) ability of the body to process and act without the general level of conscious awareness that one lends to such activities, an abandonment of “thought” for “instinct,” but an “instinct” laden with much more cognition than is generally thought possible. (Perhaps this is akin to blindsight, in which there is clear conceptual processing going on despite a seeming lack of cognitive awareness.)

This sort of coordination is possible in everyday life between people as well, though it is often not noticed. One example would be the conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are able to coordinate activities such as typing and driving, clearly without time for conscious reflection, despite each side of the body being controlled by an absolutely discrete brain. It’s not ESP, but it’s still rather remarkable. Presumably there are plenty of other studies of such sub-aware coordination going on.

Thus it is a question of terminology whether one then says that consciousness extends outside of the brain, or that human unconscious behavior is far more sophisticated and capable of coordination with others than we usually think. Shanon’s interpetation seems to go toward the former, as he ultimately denies the existence of the unconscious in any sense. Instead, he thinks of consciousness as having multiple states:

It could be suggested that human beings have the ability to operate, and exist, in two different states. Metaphorically, these may be conceived in terms of the shifting of gears. The first state is the ordinary one, and it is fully grounded in time. The other, non-ordinary state consists in the freeing of the mind from the ordinary temporal constraints. That such freeing is possible is a major feat of the human psyche. The study of the dynamics of the shift between the two states is, I think, a cognitive-psychological topic of utmost significance. A theoretical frame­work that accounts for it will encompass both ordinary consciousness and nonordinary consciousness and view them as specific cases obtained by means of variations in a common, general structure. Thus, the enterprise in question is, in essence, the development of what may be regarded as a general theory of con­sciousness.

Shanon seems to identify temporality as the distinguishing criterion between regular and non-regular consciousness. I’m not sure why this should necessarily be, or why there would only be two states as opposed to many, or a continuum. Most of us have experienced “bullet time,” the slowing down of perceived time when in some sort of crisis situation (I’ve experienced it in auto accident close-calls), and that seems to fall somewhere in between the two poles. But he’s the one who has taken ayahuasca a hundred times, so if his personal experience strongly suggests that there are just two modes, that’s a point to consider.

Spiritual Experience

People hypothesize some sort of “God module” in the brain that produces mystical experiences. This seems plausible to a point, but isolating a native spiritual aspect to the ayahuasca proceedings is very difficult. These experiences are obviously heavily culturally conditioned and conditioned by empirical experience, both culturally-dependent and universal. Regardless, the spiritual/mystical aspect of ayahuasca is obviously very strong.

As for the general euphoria, well-being, and sense of peace, it seems to be in some ways a coping mechanism. The spiritual side of the experience may indeed constitute a cognitive aspect of this coping mechanism:

I learn to use dissociation as an advantage[,] as a way of escaping from the horror. I am not the person got at; rather I am the disembodied face-presence calmly peering in and watching this other and unimportant me. I watch my other self, safely now. But then this second me, this objective and detached observer, succumbs too, and I have to dissociate into a third and then a fourth as the relation between my-selves breaks, creating an almost infinite series of fluttering mirrors of watching selves and feeling others.

But at this level of complexity and abstraction, comfort is far from the only thing produced. I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts about these aspects of the visions, as they seem the hardest to pin down and describe. I quote these two experiences of Shanon’s more for their vivid portrayals rather than for any philosophical insight I was able to derive from them.

First, a vision that is perhaps an allegory of ayahuasca itself:

I found myself engulfed in infinite blue. [Later I referred to it as ‘the blue place’.] There were beings there. I did not see them but I had communication with them. They offered to reveal the mysteries of the universe to me. There was no question about it, they were benevolent and their offer was genuine and sincere. However, there was a condition involved with it—a payment on my part was to be made. I had to relinquish any further contact with this world. In other words, I would never return. I opened my eyes and I looked around. I saw my living room, my piano, my friend who was supposed to watch over me but who was tucked up in the large armchair sound asleep. I thought of my family and friends, my teaching and writing. I looked through the large window and saw the trees outside. I thought of my sanity. No, I did not want to lose all these! Nor, I reflected, did I wish to lose my regular self, the way I am, the way I think and feel. I sat up straight and spontaneously got my hands moving and energetically slapped my lap. Again and again I slapped so as to break myself free from the spell. Thus, I had forsaken the opportunity to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Afterwards I regretted my decision. Later, I reflected a lot on this episode and have drawn many lessons from it. I shall not dwell further on them here.

Second, a vision about the last king of Judaea, Zedekiah, which Shanon cites as being one of the most significant he ever had:

King Zedekiah was chained and unable to move. He was positioned in front of a large furnace. The fire was ablaze and one by one his sons were consigned to the flames. Then his eyes were plucked out. I was standing on the side, witnessing the scene. What could poor Zedekiah do? He could not help his children and could do nothing to change their awful lot. He could neither resist nor fight. He could, of course, curse and blaspheme but that would have done him no good. The only thing that he could do, really, was praise the Lord. This, I saw, is what he did. The blind man who had just lost both his kingdom and his sons was singing a great Hallelujah. With this, he was both gaining strength to go on living and maintaining his dignity. And as he was singing he also understood. Powerful as the Babylonian tyrant was, he was just a player in a play that was of a still much larger scope. For Nebuchadnezzar was not at the top of the pyramid—still above was the creator of the universe and the ruler of the world. Nebuchadnezzar was playing a role allotted to him and one day his fate too was sure to come.

There is one other, more abstract spiritual experience that Shanon describes many people as having had under ayahuasca, involving visual webs:

Many times, invariably towards the end of sessions and when I was stepping outside into the natural surroundings, there were lines and webs of light that interlaced everything. In time I came to learn that this experience is very common. Indeed, of the many people I have interviewed, only very few have not seen these patterns.

Even more common are visions that reveal what is felt to be the anima mundi—the cosmic energy that permeates all Existence and sustains everything that is. As noted in earlier chapters, this is often associated with the seeing of webs of translucent fibres that embrace the whole of Existence.

Personally, I have come to ideas of the kind just noted in conjunction with seeing the ‘web’ I described in Chs. 5 and 8, that is, a matrix of translucent strings that seem to tie everything together. I have experienced this many times and have heard of the same experience from many of my informants. The description of the visual effect was invariably the same and many persons used the identical phrase—’a web’—to describe it. For instance, one of the independent drinkers told me that the most important teaching she has received from Ayahuasca was the appreciation that the Divine does indeed exist. Asking her how she had arrived at this conclusion she answered by presenting a description of the tran­slucent web that interlinks everything and sustains all existence.

These three passages were striking to me because I’ve had something like this experience twice, years apart, both times fully sober. I was asleep on both occasions, but the force of the experience woke me up. I immediately associated the webs with the Heraclitan logos, but obviously that’s pretty close to the other descriptions Shanon gives.

Upon waking, the “vision” was nothing more than a very strong visual conception of webs in my head; there was no hallucination. But it was also accompanied by an ongoing, immense, unique feeling of ebullience and well-being that I have only experienced on those occasions. I was possessed by the overwhelming, reassuring, and no doubt irrational conviction that the universe as a whole made sense. It was a very visceral experience, unlike any other dream I have ever had or any other state I have ever been in, and bereft of concrete content.

I think of these experiences as having invoked a particular piece of neurological machinery different from those in normal use. I wouldn’t mind invoking it again, but I’m not about to drink ayahuasca to get there.


Shanon’s ultimate methodological conclusion in The Antipodes of the Mind seems to be a plea for a psychological functionalism:

But then, if explanation in psychology consists not in the modelling of mind by means of underlying computational operations, what else can it be? The answer I have come up with is that what is left for the psychologist to do is the systematic study of the surface, so to speak, and the establishment of lawful regularities in it. This is tantamount to saying that for me, the domain of the psychological coincides with that of conscious experience. In this domain, the unconscious does not exist. Like William James (1890/1950), I maintain that mental activities and processes are conscious, and they cannot be achieved outside of consciousness. It is in the light of this fundamental theoretical conclusion that I try to understand the Ayahuasca experience.

I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, yet it may come as a bit of a disappointment after his explorations of the inner. Alas, reality can be disappointing. Since whatever internal percepts we have must always be translated into the public language and tested against the collective rationality which we share, we are indeed stuck with the world as most of us perceive it. Any possible uplift will have to be collective. At that point, it won’t even seem that special since by definition it will have become ordinary.

Shanon postulates that the states ayahuasca creates are related to fundamental aspects of consciousness not normally in use:

Thus, significantly, the new types of consciousness discovered with Ayahuasca are not just two new types. Rather, they integrate coherently into the system of consciousness that I have constructed independently on the basis of the phenom­enological inspection of ordinary consciousness. The Ayahuasca experience also introduces one new distinction into the system, namely, mental contents of which the cognitive agent is directly aware but which are experienced as being independ­ent of his or her own mental processes. However, the extension pertaining to nonordinary consciousness does not alter the system of consciousness as such.

Any such construction seems highly speculative to me and requires actual neurological explanation in order to see if the model is tenable. What is notable is the ability to bring on an “egoless” or “agentless” state, one in which the division between self and world is greatly corrupted. Evolutionarily speaking, this function seems maladaptive  on the surface.

Yet I could also believe that conviction of purposefulness, at-home-ness, universal empathy, and integration with the world could be a great booster to a sentient organism. If so, it’s rather ironic that such a condition requires entering a mental and physical state in which one is rendered nearly nonfunctional and completely vulnerable. But in that it’s not so different from many of the best moments in life.

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