NEUROEPISTEMOLOGY & NEUROPHENOMENOLOGY
We are reaching the point in the history of science where a discussion of methods that is not grounded upon both a neuroepistemology and a neurophenomenology will not be worth considering. Why? Because we now know enough about the relations between consciousness and the brain to know that the structure of consciousness is a functional reflection of the internal organization of the brain. Thus questions having to do with how we know, what we can know, what we cannot know, sex-related styles of knowing, the symbolic nature of knowing, how consciousness constructs its world of experience, etc., are really questions about how the brain is organized and develops, and what limiting factors are imposed upon knowing by the organization of the brain. Hence, neuroepistemology.
And, at the moment, the only way we have of ascertaining the structures of consciousness is via direct introspection, augmented at times by experimental research. And when we discover a structural aspect to consciousness (e.g., intentionality, range of feeling, the granular texture of sensation, the context relativity of color perception, etc.) by way of phenomenological reduction, the modern question is - - or should be -- what properties of the organization of the brain are producing this order in consciousness? Hence, neurophenomenology.
Neuroepistemology and neurophenomenology are two sides of the same coin (hereafter labelled NE/NP), and together they are inescapable in any complete account of scientific methods. We can say with reasonable certainty that if a theory of science or methodology conflicts with what we know from NE/NP, then it is very likely in error.
The human nervous system constrains us to knowing in a distinctly human way. Another way to say this is that we cannot know what our brains cannot model. And what our brains cannot model is most of what is. The Buddha said something like this, so there is nothing new in the idea. The Buddha said, "Within this fathom high body I will show you the arising and passing away of the universe." Or words to that effect. He also taught that even Buddhas are limited to the constraints of the human form during life -- the five sense doors and the one mind door, that sort of thing.
One of the more obvious constraints on human knowing is the inevitable intentionality of our experience. As I mentioned earlier in this tutorial, our experience of the world is always from a point of view. Our brain organizes its processes around some object of interest to itself -- some thing, feeling, thought, sensation, activity, etc. But the world itself is not intentional. It is all there all the time. The world has no center. It is everywhere all the time. We pick this over that and aim our faculties at this and exclude that. But in the real world this and that are both happening at the same time and are inextricably embedded in the universal sea of energy that is the world.
What this tells us is that our cognitive faculties are designed to be particular, focused, and local in our knowing. Traditional cosmologies almost always stick the human body at the center of the universe. The Navajo orient the human body correctly relative to the hogan (hut), the hogan relative to the four sacred directions and mountains, and the four sacred mountains relative to the rest of the Fifth World. Most human languages have terms for the cardinal directions. East, south, west and north only have meaning relative to human experience. The sun only "rises" from an earthbound human point of view.
The reason for this localized intentionality is that we are high density energy nexuses (click glossary for "nexus") which, by definition, are extremely coherent and localized. An amoeba is a high energy nexus, and a meteor is a high energy nexus. By "coherent" I mean that much of the vast complexity of the sea of energy in which we are embedded, and which is largely invisible to us, has been excluded to produce locality and continuity. In order for any high energy nexus to maintain that locality and continuity, it must "adapt." It must organize itself in such a way that it simultaneously (or at least alternately) retains its internal coherence, and changes that coherence to anticipate events external to itself. This is what Alfred North Whitehead (in Process and Reality ) was getting at when he spoke of rocks as being as much organisms as amoebas.
Knowing As "In-Forming"
So we have evolved as critters with big brains that are organs that specialize in knowing and experiencing (a very immediate kind of knowing) and regulating the internal and external activity of us critters relative to the world-as- known (we call this the cognized environment; see Day One session). Our natural inclination is to know anything from our own point of view. We know it relative to our standpoint as a critter facing the world, and we know it via the internal, "in-formed" models that we construct about it.
We can explore the object of our scrutiny and get more information about it -- literally, "in-form" ourselves about it, modify our models of it. We often do this by changing our standpoint relative to the object. We can get closer to it and perceive it in greater detail. We can move around it and touch it and taste it and extend our sensory "in-forming" -- build on additional associations to our model. We can bring technology to bear on it. We can magnify it and drill into it and take slices from it and compare what we find out about it with what we know about similar and dissimilar things.
The Scientistic Fallacy
We can isolate the object and observe it in the same conditions every time. But watch out. This is the beginnings of the scientistic fallacy. We can so isolate the thing from its natural context that we lose any sense of its adaptational nature. Emil Menzel tells the funny story about himself when he was a comparative psychologist. He worked with olive baboons and had come to conclude as a consequence of testing the critters that they were fairly stupid. Then business took him to Kenya one time and he decided to take the chance of watching his olive baboons in the field. And there he was, standing in the midst of a baboon troop and watching their complex and very intelligent adaptations and it suddenly hit him that his studies of the baboon were useless because the questions he was asking them to solve bore no relation to the reality they evolved to adapt to. So he came back and began to teach his fellow psychologists to balance their experimental work with naturalistic work. His teaching pretty much fell on deaf ears during the heyday of behaviorism. So thoroughly scientistic had experimental psychologists become that they had lost any sense of the questions they had started out exploring.
Scientism occurs when epistemological questions dominate and overwhelm ontological questions. There's lots of sociology and psychology that is scientistic. "Number- crunching" huge data bases with high power statistics to answer uninteresting questions is very common. What happens is that the natural curiosity of people is curtailed by the limitations of the methodology sanctioned by a discipline. If you can't count it and crunch it, it ain't worth knowing. This is part of what Thomas Kuhn meant by "paradigms."
The natural state of question that leads to science at its best languishes on the cross of formulaic, cookbook recipe methodology. Lost is the understanding that science is on about exploring and explaining experience. Experience, and not methodology, is the foundation of all science. If it has to do with the experienced world, then it is in the domain of science. And there is no experience whatsoever that is outside the purview of science.
It may seem like a paradox, but although there exists no experience outside the purview of science, science can NEVER produce a complete account of any experiential domain. The naive positivist view that science replaces all other ways of knowing fails to recognize the essentially transcendental (click glossary for "transcendental") nature of reality. There is always more to know and more standpoints to knowing than any scientific theory can take into account. Science is not devoid of culture. There is a culture of science just as there is a culture of any other human social institution on the planet.
Most human beings strive for meaning, not for truth, and scientists are human beings. This is not to say that one may not find truth -- occasionally profound truth -- expressed in systems of meaning. But even where there is truth to be found in meaning, people strive to make truth meaningful to themselves by interpreting truth in terms of their total cycle of meaning (click glossary for "cycle of meaning"). So, even where one encounters a profound understanding of consciousness, perhaps even experienced by our informants, that understanding tends to be integrated by the informant with all the rest of the informant's system of knowledge by way of his or her cultural symbols and associations. Science is no different in this respect. Science bends toward ethnocentrism just as do other systems of knowledge.
A Healthy Perspectivism vs. Relativism
This also applies to the native systems of knowledge that we study as ethnologists. The ethnologist should maintain a clear distinction between the critical value of the direct experiences described for us by our informants, and the relative cultural bias of our informants' interpretations. We must acknowledge and appreciate the profound importance of the direct experiences that may ground the native system of knowledge, but we are under no obligation to accept as true either the native's interpretation of the experience, or the native system of knowledge from which the interpretation is drawn.
In other words, the ethnologist should maintain a healthy perspectivism with respect to native systems of knowledge. It is perfectly possible for me to attain the experience of n/um (as described by Bushman informants without uncritically accepting the Bushman interpretation as explanations of the experience. Rather, I should strive to describe as completely as possible -- or alternatively assist the native to describe -- how that experience fits into their system of knowledge.
Perspectivism contrasts with the type of relativism that is currently rife in the wake of postmodernism. Much that goes under the guise of the "postmodern critique" seems to be no more than our old friend, cultural relativism, encumbered with a coating of political ideology. This relativism seems to say, "Knowledge is power and, anyhow, there is no such thing as truth, so it is better to empower the Other to speak for themselves and drop all this scientific pretention which is just so much power-grabbing on our part." On the contrary, perspectivism says, "The Other has every right to voice their point of view, and I will help them do it to the best of my ability, but I have every right to voice an alternative view, or to empirically demonstrate that the Other's view is empirically wrong or incomplete."
Adherence to relativism in its new guise, even with the best intentions in the world, can lead to serious errors of judgement. Let me give you the example of what I have come to call the "Faris error." In an otherwise brilliant piece of ethnography and historical reconstruction covering the Navajo Nightway ceremonial, James Faris argues (correctly) that the application of "foreign" western scientific theory to archaeological and other data on aboriginal history effectively places blinders and earplugs on scholars when it comes to registering anomalous data. He concludes (incorrectly) from all this that we should simply accept the "Other's" (i.e., Navajo's) account of their own history. He ends his heated discussion by raising the astonishing question, "Why, then, are not the knowledges of living authorities of local history, Nightway medicine men, accepted as truths as valid as the evidences of the material remains of the deceased as interpreted by foreign history" (p. 18)?
Please do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that Faris is unjustified in attacking what he sees as the blinders imposed by admittedly faulty scholarship, or the failure of researchers to take ethnohistorical data into account. He is well within the scientific purview to point this out, for it is a common failing in science and every other system of knowledge. What is wrong with Faris' argument is simply this: He leaps from a discussion of the imperfections of overly theory-laden research to the logically unwarranted conclusion that acceptance of the "Other's" account of history is a better strategy for discovering the truth. In reaching this conclusion, undoubtedly motivated by the understandable desire to "empower the Other's voice," Faris distorts the nature and intent of much of native ethnohistory.
In the first place, Faris' argument distorts cross- culturally common cosmogonic notions of time. Ethnohistorical narratives are usually NOT intended as veridical records of historical events, but rather to add a temporal significance to the cosmological account of the world and the people's place in the world. And a cosmogonic sense of time is almost always cyclical, rather than lineal or historical in the Euroamerican sense. In the second place, cosmogonic worldviews are not intended as explanations of the range of empirical facts, such as the archaeological, serological, historical linguistic, and geological data that scientific accounts are required to explain. The intent of cosmologies is to produce meaning in experience -- the experience of annual, life, and astronomical cycles, of the relations of people to land and water, of the people living where they live, of the social order, etc.
Truth is simply what is. A true account is an account that approximates what is. And as any X-Files fan will tell you, "the truth is out there." But what they don't tell you on X-Files is that any account of the truth is "in here." What most people mean by truth is a quality in the dialogue between our limited process of knowing ("in here") and the transcendental "is-ness" of reality. Thus, in a culture in which a quest for the truth is paramount, you will find a system of knowing that is always in a state of dynamic interpenetration between reality and the organic "in-forming" of the brain. New understanding leads to a new point of view on the transcendental, and a new point of view produces new understanding.
This is why ideologies are always wrong. Ideologies are received "truth" (read interpretation). They are not open to the transcendental. People who embrace ideologies thereby render themselves stupid. And science is full of ideologies, just as any other cultural system may be. People who perpetually put a Marxist or a postmodernist or a Jungian spin on everything are no less ideologues than true believing Moonies or Scientologists. Ideologies stop question. True science vanishes in the wake of scientific ideologies. Ideological standpoints are another element in what Kuhn meant by "paradigms."
The Role of Theory
Theories in science should be treated like those flat stones you find on the path to the Japanese teahouse. Their value is as a momentary grounding for the next step. That's their proper function, as a place to comfortably plant your foot before moving on. Imagine someone who is so stupid or afraid or so full of themselves that they come to stand on one stone on the path and say "this is my stone!" Maybe they mistake the stone on the path for the teahouse. And maybe by hogging that stone they impede the progress of others to the teahouse. In any event they don't move on. They come to a standstill.
Over-identification with a theory is like coming to a standstill on the path to the teahouse -- on the path to truth. The proper role of a theory is in raising questions unanswered by the theory. This is not merely an attitude toward theory. Rather, the existence of theory, any theory, immediately produces anomalies. Anomalies are experiences unaccounted for by the theory. Functionalism immediately produces the spectre of the functionless cultural trait. Postmodern theories highlight anomalous evidence of cultural universals. And this has to be the case because reality is always transcendental relative to our limited powers to comprehend. Science -- and I mean REAL science -- is produced by the attention to anomalies. Plant your foot on the stone and then move on.
NE/NP is a useful perspective on science because it requires that we consistently acknowledge the partiality, incompleteness and dynamic quality of our quest for truth. We get away from the textbook fiction of science as a body of superior knowledge, and are better able to understand that what makes real science different is precisely the quality of openness of understanding that is characteristic of the pursuit of truth. We realize that it is the process of approximation of the truth that our strength lies. If a method aids the pursuit of truth, use it. If it hinders the pursuit of truth, drop it. Click here if you want to continue on to Day Five of the tutorial, which will go into the symbolic function of neuroepistemology in greater detail. But perhaps you have had enough for this session and with to return to the index where you can take note of where your reached and may wish to return to at a later time.