Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, Part 1

Wilfred Sellars says that philosophy has been used for two different purposes in its history.  In his time and place, it was largely used for the analysis of what has already been given – for example, the dissection of language and experience.  However, philosophy has a more important job: synthesis.  Philosophy’s aim is to understand how things – from numbers and kings to duties and death – hang together.  What is characteristic of philosophy is not a special subject matter, but a knowing one’s way around with respect to all the special disciplines such as biology and chemistry.  It is the “eye on the whole” which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise.  The search for unity is not about unifying various fields such as aesthetics and ethics, but rather of two complete images of how humans view themselves: the manifest image (MI) and the scientific image (SI).

The Manifest Image

The MI was the first framework in which we built an idea of ourselves as rational beings, or as Sellars puts it, as man-in-the-world.  In an interesting quasi-historical paradox, he says that “man couldn’t be man until he encountered himself.” (SPR, 6)  Our image of ourselves as “man” is actually part of what makes us what we are.  If we had a very different image of ourselves, we would actually be different kinds of beings.

The MI has two sides. The first is the claim that conceptual thinking can only take place within an already existing framework of conceptual thinking, in terms of which concepts can be evaluated broadly speaking.  Because conceptual thought requires an already-existing framework of concepts, the jump from pre-conceptual patterns of behavior to conceptual patterns of thought was a holistic one, an irreducibly new kind of awareness.  It was a qualitative change.

It is not that the MI is a pre-scientific, uncritical view contrasted with a disciplined, critical or “scientific” conception.  This is what the second side of the MI is about: it continually refines itself via empirical and categorical methods.  Empirically, we observe the world and make inductive, statistical claims about what exists.  Of course this means that the MI is, in a sense, scientific, because statistical correlations and inductions are a part of the scientific method.  However, the MI excludes the kind of scientific reason “which involves the postulation of imperceptible entities, and principles pertaining to them, to explain the behavior of perceptible things.” (SPR, 7)  In other words, a chair is a chair because of the arrangement of the wood and plastic; it cannot simply be dissolved into imperceptible atoms.  Or, I behave as I do because of the thoughts I have and decisions I make, not because of the imperceptible arrangement of neurons in my brain.

The MI also refines itself in a categorical sense. One of the fundamental issues of any conceptual framework is the kinds of objects it deals with, and what sorts of relations can exist between these objects.  In other words, any conceptual framework comes with an ontology, which delineates the sorts of things that exist and the sorts of properties these things can have.

The basic object of the MI is the person. Long ago, all objects were persons – the wind intentionally blew the house down.  The categorical refinement of the MI has been about the depersonalization of objects.  This depersonalization was not an abandonment of superstition; when trees stopped being seen as persons, it was because the concept of “person” had changed, not the concept of “tree”.  This was not a change in belief, but a change in category.

The essential dualism in the MI is not between mind and body, but between two different ways in which the human is related to the world: actions born of character and actions born of reflection. “For in the full and non-metaphorical sense an action is the sort of thing that can be done deliberately.  We speak of actions as becoming habitual, and this is no accident.” (SPR, 11)  An expression of character is an action that is predictable based upon past evidence: “Thus, a person cannot, logically cannot, begin by acting ‘in character’, any more than he can begin by acting from habit.” (SPR, 12) To be in character is to be predictable, but the converse is not true – a burnt child behaves in a predictable way, but is not acting in character.  The point of this is that the category of person has been narrowed to mean a being capable of acting either from reflection or character; the wind can do neither, so it is no longer a person.

Intentional persons are the basic conceptual objects of the MI.  So how does an individual make sense of themselves and the world within a given framework?  In other words, how does the MI account for rational conceptualization?  First, the MI does not present conceptual thinking as a complex of non-conceptual things – it is concepts all the way down, not the mere firing of neurons. Second, whatever conceptual thought is made of, the process of thinking as it occurs must be inherently related to the intelligible structure of the world. The world is thought of as causing the parts of thought to occur in patterns which echo the patterns of events.  The wind moves the leaves, and this causes me to have an image of the wind moving the trees.

But the MI tradition quite rightly pointed out that having an image of the wind moving the trees is not the same thing as rationally explaining the movement of the leaves by the wind.  The world can impress on me an association between wind and moving leaves, but associating two thoughts or things together is not the same thing as the rational connections of conceptual thinking. But somehow the world is the cause of the individual’s image of the world, and for centuries from Plato on it was thought there was a direct causal influence on the mind.  Yet, the idea that the world directly generates thought in the individual is too simple:

 “And there is, as we know today, a sound score to the idea that while reality is the ’cause’ of the human conceptual thinking which represents it, this causal role cannot be equated with a conditioning of the individual by his environment in a way which could in principle occur without the mediation of the family and the community.  The Robinson Crusoe conception of the world as generating conceptual thinking directly in the individual is too simple a model. . . .  It was not until the time of Hegel that the essential role of the group as a mediating factor in this causation was recognized, and while it is easy for us to see that the immanence and transcendence of conceptual frameworks with respect to the individual thinker is a social phenomenon, and to find a recognition of this fact implicit in the very form of our image of man in the world, it was not until the nineteenth century that this feature of the MI was, however inadequately, taken into account.” (SPR, 16)

And a little further on:

 “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.” (SPR, 17)

A group exists in the relevant way when one thinks of themselves as “I” in contrast to “others.”  A group exists in the way that its members represent themselves to themselves and others.  “Conceptual thinking is not by accident that which is communicated to others, any more than the decision to move a chess piece is by accident that which finds an expression in a move on a board between two people.” (SPR, 17)

The MI contains a conception of self as a group phenomenon, with the group mediating between the individual and the intelligible order, but the MI cannot actually explain this mediation.  What the MI can do is provide a foundation for scientific theories, but these theories are not definable within it. The SI lets us begin to see man-in-the-world “as a matter of evolutionary development as a group phenomenon, a process which is illustrated at a simpler level by the evolutionary development which explains the correspondence between the dancing of a worker bee and the location, relative to the sun, of the flower from which he comes.”

The Scientific Image

Many philosophies take the MI as real, and subordinate theoretical science to the categories of the MI: so my experience of myself as thinking thoughts and making decisions wins out over neurology as an explanation of my behavior.  The difference is between a “conception which limits itself to what correlational techniques can tell us about perceptible and introspectable events and that which postulates imperceptible objects and events for the purpose of explaining correlations among perceptibles.” (SPR 19) An integration of the MI and SI cannot be done piece by piece.  It needs to be a stereoscopic vision.

Theories about imperceptibles are always built within the perceptible world, so in a methodological sense, the MI is actually prior to the SI.  However, this does not mean that the MI is prior in a substantive sense.  The SI’s theories about imperceptible objects are not logically dependent upon the perceptible world.  The SI purports to be a complete image – it claims to be the whole truth about what actually exists.  It is a rival image.  From the SI’s view, the MI is a pragmatic necessity, but it is not an adequate description of the world.  On the other hand, many philosophers would say the SI cannot replace the MI without rejecting its own foundation.

Perhaps there is no such thing as the SI, but there are as many images as there are sciences.  So a physicist sees man as a bundle of particles, forces and fields.  The biochemist sees man as a series of interactions between molecules.  In a methodological sense, each scientific theory is built on a different level and with different procedures within the perceptible world we all share. The SI is an integration of this manifold of images.  For example, to integrate the biochemical and physical, we need to know how the objects of biochemistry can be equated with complex patterns of the objects of physics.

But that is not to equate the two sciences – they have different different procedures and different instruments used to connect their objects to the intersubjectively accessible world.  One field uses microscopes, the other uses particle colliders.  So how can we equate biochemical compounds with subatomic particles?  There are two possible relations.  First, there is the strong claim that subatomic particles and biochemical compounds are only differentiated by their complexity.  Second, there is the more measured claim that biochemistry requires no variables which cannot be defined in terms of the variables of physics.  The same set of principles govern compounds and particles.   This is the only claim one is committed to when identifying the objects of biochemistry and physics.

As for humans, there is no particular difficulty in combining the physiological and biochemical images of man.  One would need to show that neurophysiological systems are special cases of principles of complex biochemical systems.  The true difficulty comes in the attempt to fit psychology into the SI.  One example is behavioristic psychology.

Psychology is behavioristic if, while allowing itself the resources of the MI, only ever confirms psychological events with certain behaviors.  Even in the MI, behavior is the only intersubjective evidence of mental events.  Behaviorism does not preclude us from paying attention to what people say about themselves – taking autobiographical statements as evidence of what the person is thinking is not the same thing as agreeing with those statements.

Behaviorism is only concerned with outward behavior, but its task is to find correlations between its constructs (its ideas about the animal) which it defines in terms of publicly accessible features of the organism and its environment.  For example, behaviorism would look for a correlation between its idea of a tiger as a predator and its behavior and environment. Could a framework of correlations between these constructs give us a scientific understanding of human behavior?

Consider animals.    They are complex physiological / biochemical systems.  Does a science of animal behavior have to be formulated in neurophysiological or biochemical terms?  In one sense, no.  It involves knowledge of large scale variables and the environment such  as stimulus and response.  The discovery of behaviors must be distinguished from their explanations in terms of neurophysiology.  While physiological considerations “may suggest correlations to be tested, the correlations themselves must be establishable independently of physiological consideration, if, and this is a ‘definitional’ point, they are to belong to a distinguishable science of behavior.” (SPR 23)

For example, describing the earthworm in terms of its behavior is not the sum total of scientific knowledge about earthworms.  Earthworm behavioristics has a background knowledge of standard conditions; we know how earthworms usually live, and that knowledge is usually useful to explain and predict their behavior.  But this background knowledge belongs to ecology, biochemistry, parasitology and the like, [i]not[/i] behavioristics in any strict sense.

Most of the correlations behavioristics seeks to describe are “iffy”: If X happens, Y will occur.  In the case of human behavioristics, an example of a correlation between an idea and a publicly observable behavior is: If a human wants food, they will go to a restaurant.  In this case, the idea of “wanting” is a concept that psychology introduces.

It may or may not be helpful at a given stage of scientific development to say these iffy properties “are connected with states of a postulated system of entities operating according to certain postulated principles,” or in other words, it is clear that postulated imperceptible entities – which in the case of humans include “thoughts,” “desires” and “choices” are specific enough to enable the prediction of new correlations?  It does not seem to work for lower order organisms, but it is different for humans:

              “Any two behaviors involve very complex iffy facts about what the person would have said or done at each intervening moment if he had been asked certain questions; and it happens that our background knowledge makes reasonable the supposition that these ‘iffy’ facts obtain because an inner process is going on which is, in important respects, analogous to overt verbal behavior, and each stage of which would find a natural expression in overt speech.”

When it comes to humans, it is very helpful to say that there is a sequence of events inside a person which can help us see correlations between a person’s behavior and properties, including the “iffy” ones.  To return to the example, the inner process called “wanting food” helps us make sense of a person who walks to a restaurant.

It is not important whether we say that human behavioristics as such inner speech, or that these processes fall outside behavioristics.  Whether or not these postulated entities are part of human behavioristics, these entities must find their counterparts in the postulational image, like earthworm behavioristics does.

 “Thus, the scientific explanation of human behavior must take account of those cases where the correlations characteristic of the organism in ‘normal’ circumstances breaks down.”

“I shall, therefore, provisionally assume that although behavioristics and neurophysiology remain distinctive sciences, the correlational content of behavioristics points to a structure of postulated processes and principles which telescope together with those of neurophysiological theory, with all the consequences this entails.  On this assumption, if we trace out these great consequences, the scientific image of man turns out to be that of a complex physical system.”


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