I recently enjoyed an excellent online discussion between professional philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Kaufman. They were talking about the modern habit of reducing everything to a physical explanation, and the philosophical errors involved in doing this. It’s a potentially technical topic, but I want to see if I can convey a somewhat simplified (reduced – yes, I get the irony) sense of it, because to me the implications of this mistake are profound. Indeed, to draw a slightly long bow, I want to suggest that the error is in some important way contributing to what appears to be a sharp spike in anxiety disorders. That’s perhaps a stretch, but compared to John Marsden’s recent attempt to put the blame at the feet of anxious parents, it is at least reasonable.

 So, to the philosophical misstep. Here’s a metaphor I’ve used before that I think gets to the essence of the argument. Imagine I’m watching a favourite old tv show on my computer. A friend walks in and asks what I’m laughing about and I tell them Donna’s just been lured into a televised conversation with a guy in a chicken suit. It’s a funny moment and I’m amused. The friend looks confused. ‘But there’s no show there, not really. You’re actually just looking at the pixels of the computer screen, and their cleverly co-ordinated flashing is creating the illusion of a story.’

 This clearly makes my friend an idiot, albeit a technologically aware one. Their mistake is to do with this business of existence, or rather what we mean when we say something exists or is real. There can’t really be a television show on my screen, that has to just be an illusion, because really what’s going on is just this pixel business (and the vibrating of the speaker, for without the dialogue Sorkin’s masterwork would be decidedly ordinary). Actually the pixel thing is real, and so too is the show. There really is a show and this show is enabled by exactly the technology my friend has identified. And when I say they are both real, I mean it in an important sense. There exists a number of qualities that I am affected by, that I experience, that can only be explained in terms of the show: its characters and their circumstances and motivations. The experience I am having, my investment in and response to the genius fiction before me can not be explained, even in principle, by the physics of the computer, nor the  physics of my brain. To explain what I am experiencing, you have to speak of the human world being represented. There is information about the world, in other words, that is only accessible at the higher level of explanation, the level of motivation and perception. And to say ‘there isn’t really a story unfolding on your screen’ is simply to deny the reality of something that, well, exists.

 In technical terms, we say that these two realities require different ontologies to describe and explain them. The mistake is to use a physicalist ontology (a thing exists if it can be described in terms of its position in time and space) to describe a teleological phenomenon (the existence of narratives and intentions).

 Now, at this point you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Nobody ever walks into a room and speaks as my imaginary (yet conceptually real) friend does. What we do all the time however, or rather what modern philosophy and modern commentators do all the time, is play the ‘what’s really going on here’ card with a smug air that for many is compelling. And in doing so they privilege one kind of reality over another. Two fine examples are the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and here I am not suggesting the disciplines themselves are bogus, but rather that their more enthusiastic supporters fall for this error hard. I’ve sat through professional development courses where ‘brain experts’ with slide shows full of scans have used ‘the latest science’ to  explain to us what’s really going on for the teenagers we teach. Considered as one perspective in a multi-layered explanation of behaviour, there can be useful insight here. But when the viewpoint is implicitly privileged (you think they’re frustrated that the teacher hasn’t noticed they’re had their hand up for the last four minutes, but actually what’s happening is a misfiring of the fight or flight response… etc etc) we become weirdly uncritical. Take for instance the received wisdom that teens are just out of control because of the chaotic state of their rearranging brain. I’m happy to accept that their physical brains are in a remarkable state of flux, but it’s not the only thing that’s going on for them. Nor is this fact in itself deterministic. The great majority of students I’ve taught over the decades are calm, restrained, thoughtful and quite capable of exhibiting a finely tuned understanding of action and consequence. They put up with a schooling environment which is loud, repetitive, and frequently incoherent and do so with remarkable good grace. I have seen no evidence that they are any more prone to foolish and rash behaviour than my adult colleagues, (would that it were so) and yet the myth of the irrational teen is more firmly rooted than ever because we are so easily swayed by the ‘hard science’. We fall for the ‘of course, what’s really going on…’ line and are distracted, at least for the length of the dreary seminar, by the existence of the pixels. Yes, brain states enable experience and behaviour, but they do not define it. Not by a long shot. More importantly, the best way to assist teens to further develop the insight, restraint, generosity and kindness we hope to see blooming in them is to understand them not as biological machines but as independent, motivated souls, seeped in personal narratives. It’s at the level of their individual narratives that we properly understand them as people, and connect with them in a way that has lasting impact.

 The excesses of evolutionary psychology arguments are legendary, and perhaps no better exemplified than in the Sam Harris style writings on free will. An inordinate amount of excitement is generated by the observation that our brain states have physical antecedents and in this sense our behaviours are all explicable in physical terms, which in terms can be captured within an evolutionary narrative (it feels as if you are writing a story in order to express a creative urge, or tease out an idea that has been puzzling you, but actually you are subconsciously being drawn towards a public display of your intellectual capacity in order to make yourself more attractive to potential mates). This ‘what’s really going on’ business, when it comes to fundamentals like free will, does more than simply misdirect our energies. At its very worst, it strips us of our essential humanity, and denies that which is most precious. This is perhaps what George Bernard Shaw saw when he responded to his first encounters with evolutionary theory writing: 


There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration. 


He certainly wasn’t saying evolutionary theory was incorrect, but rather warning of what happens if we see this as the ‘real explanation’ of life, rather than the  best explanation for a particular level of analysis. Yes, natural selection is real. Genes are real. Biological imperatives are real. But so too are beauty, honour and purpose. They are realities with their own ontologies, and their own demands and rewards.

 The flashing red light in all of this is the word ‘illusion’. Free will is just an illusion. Consciousness is an illusion. Moral truths are illusions.  There exists a kind of intellectual framework that, by privileging a very specific kind of scientific ontology, seeks to make us feel a little foolish when talking about things like love, hope and story. We are are the children, still clinging to our mythology, because cold hard reality is just too frightening to us. We lack the courage to stare into the abyss. This is nihilism, pure and simple, and it rests on an ontological error. Reduced explanations are not more real at all. If they were, then we’d be in significant trouble. For we can not draw upon biological explanations, resting as they do on the ontology of purpose – hearts don’t really pump blood, that’s just an illusion, really they’re just collections of atoms colliding, bonding and exchanging energy. And then an atomic explanation is not good, because atoms themselves are just constructed metaphors attempting to encapsulate our murky understanding of the quantum world, and maybe that just reduces to information, but then information itself is surely a metaphor… And, to get really picky, the whole argument rests on, well, the validity of arguments, which rest upon the rules of inference, which themselves are only valid within their own specific and irreducible ontology. 

 The point is that there always have been and always will be many different ways of knowing and each of these ontologies will have their own set of rules for deciphering and interacting with the world. To consistently privilege the materialist ontology when considering the non-material world (so, for example, the human world, defined as it is by intention and story, or the mathematical world, defined as it is by its axioms and rules of engagement) is to do something more than be misguided. It is to actively promote a world where there is room to be cynical about the things that are not only most real to humanity, but most precious. I speak here of our value systems, of Shaw’s honour, purpose and aspiration.

 And, to make good on my promise, I suspect that it is the sense of purposelessness, our lack of confidence in the promotion of  higher values, that encourages the inward focus on self, and the shallow virtues of status and recognition. I think it is the subsequent feeling of emptiness, the lack of connection with a community that extends beyond the mirror, the lack of opportunity to serve freely the needs of others, that allows anxiety to slowly creep into the modern psyche. I think the modern malaise has an awful lot to do with the narcissism that emerges when we are allowed to believe that shared values are illusions, and the self is the only reliable reference point. Because it is such an anaemic  world view, so inherently unsatisfying, that anxiety is the only rational response. There must be more to it than this, whispers the soul. I must be missing something. What am I missing? What am I missing? Cue more pointless purchases, more vain attempts to be noticed, to be measured as acceptable, more disappointment (inevitably) and so the anxiety rises. 

 And, as I contemplate the elected leaders of the old world order, the Donald Trump, Boris Johnson debacle, I think there’s an equally dangerous corollary in the public sphere. I think this is what nihilism looks like: politicians who are judged not by their substance, their honour, their purpose and their aspirations, but by their self regarding ability to draw attention. Toddlers in suit, endorsed by the people, ruling the world. Now that does make me a little bit anxious.


4 thoughts on “Anxiety

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    Thanks for a very judicious post. Let me go a bit in depth on one issue. “Yes, brain states enable experience and behaviour, but they do not define it. Not by a long shot.”

    A better way to put this is that they define it fully on one level of explanation- the brain state level, were we ever able to have a rich enough view of that to make it apparent how brain states constitute our experience. They certainly do that in principle, but for two reasons, making a big deal of that level is usually not helpful to any explanation of our behavior and experience. First, that we fundamentally lack the knowledge to really translate between the two, barely being able to recognize brain states at all in physical brain-scan sorts of ways. And second, because the usual high-level explanations of behavior, as actuated by motives, other people, events, and the general drama of life, as you point to, are far more efficient means of explanation- it is a better level to operate on.

    Yet occasionally, when things go really wrong, like, say, in schizophrenia, it might be better to go down to a neurological explanation of the problem than to flail around with high-level explanations, like the Freudians, the witchcraft-inclined, and others have been so tempted to do. Choosing the right ontology is an important task.

    “But so too are beauty, honour and purpose. ”
    Well, these are rather constructed, as the postmodernists et al. have hammered on. Social constructions / conventions, etc. are not “not real”, but they have a different reality- a much more fungible one- than do the more concrete underpinnings of the drama. Purpose is notoriously transferrable, and capable of being dedicated to the best and worst of aims. But yes, within the drama, purpose and honor are totally real, explanatory, and in the driver’s seat, and that is surely your point.

    I guess the most trenchant issue along this line remains the question of religion.. do people who claim that god is “real” know what they are talking about, and do they address the correct ontology- one of psychology vs one of physics and history? As to whether these anxieties about meaning and proper levels of explanation and ontology have anything to do with our authoritarian crackup .. I am not so sure. I think long periods of prosperity and peace, followed by relentless inequality, may just breed a lack of social cohesion.

    • Thanks Burk

      If I understand them correctly, Kaufman and Pigliucci are saying that we can not, even in principle, reduce one level of explanation to another, because when we cross ontologies in this way, we are lured into a category error. Which strikes me as an interesting case, the full implications of which I have not yet entirely grasped.
      This isn’t the mysterian stance of ‘there’s more to consciousness than simply the physical action of the brain, so let’s go looking for the strange undetectable substance/force etc’, but rather a claim that elements of reality need to be encountered on their own terms, within ontologies consistent with the way we experience them.
      So, if we imagine a complete physical understanding of brain states, this understanding could never be applied to substitute for the sentence ‘the child is crying because their ice cream slipped off their cone.’ Any explanation of that event that does not reference the anticipation, joy and disappointment/despair of the bereft child, misses the crucial first person experience of losing one’s shit. There is no proper in sense in which we can say ‘what’s really going on is that within the brain…’ Only by jumping to a different ontology, that of hope, first person sensory experience and disappointment, a teleological explanation, can we see what’s ‘really’ going on.
      Pigliucci uses biology as his example, saying that there is no explanation at the level of physics that can describe fully a heart, because a proper description of the heart is necessarily teleonomic, referring not just to its bio-chemistry, but also to its function.
      Not sure what you think of this. My instinct is that there’s something important going on here, and it cuts both ways (teleonomic explanations can’t be used to make claims about the interactions of the physical world – pissing off a God does not cause a volcano to erupt) and that there is in here somewhere great potential for keeping things in their proper place and exploring what is required of any given ontology to get it off the ground. For example, what does it take to ground a concept like goodness? If we see it purely as a social construction, do we fail to describe an essential quality of our experience of it? I suspect the social construction argument does indeed walk into a category error in this way, but my understanding is very much at the exploratory stage on this.

      • Burk says:

        Hi, Benard-

        The sticking point seems to be … “So, if we imagine a complete physical understanding of brain states, this understanding could never be applied to substitute for the sentence ‘the child is crying because their ice cream slipped off their cone.’ There is no proper in sense in which we can say ‘what’s really going on is that within the brain…’”

        Let me try an analogy. One could say.. we sent people to the moon because we were in a competitive technical, military, and ideological race with the Russians. One could also go through a whole book of the history of the event, including rocket design, software codes, media stories, political analysis, personal biographies, etc.

        Each of these stories can lay claim to telling “what is really going on”. One is far more detailed than the other, but both are explanatory, and the high-level, glossed story is no more “what is really going on” than the detailed story, though it leaves out a great deal of detail, most of which is extraneous to what we as social actors would regard as the core motivations.

        So, brain states alone are only one part of the child’s story above, but if one adds brain states to the external events, physics of falling and melting, etc., etc., one can come up with a far more detailed version of the event which can indeed be applied as a substitute, though surely for our schematic and social mode of cognition, an unnecessarily detailed substitute.

        One can go beyond the high-detail / low-detail frame, and see perspective differences. Socially oriented people may be more interested in the social and psychological actuators of crying, while people of other temperaments and interests may be more focused on the physical and neurological mechanisms of crying. But even the latter, when they follow the trail of the neurons back far enough, will see the perceptual apparatus connecting to the two events and find them to be causally related.

        The bottom line is that we should welcome new perspectives on existing phenomena, but not try to displace the old with the new, or vice versa.

        I do not think that the levels are categorically different, or different in principle. Reductionism is operative here, which holds that mechanisms & motivations underlying some phenomenon X, and the phenomenon X, are not different, but relatable by their composition and re-integration (one can throw “emergence” in here as well). Any intellectual analysis relies on this ability to break things down, such as resolving a loud noise into an identifiable child, who is crying, with tears and sound. We certainly come up with whole new vocabularies and ontologies to deal with emergent levels of reality and explanation, but that does not insulate them from being reducible to other levels.

  2. Hi Burk

    I suspect I need to think about this one further. You’re exactly right that this is the key question. What do we mean when we say something is reducible? Is the child crying categorically different than the physics underpinning the action? Is it a category error to reduce one to the other? Pigliucci’s point, I think, is that the reduction misses crucial phenomenon, and this is the category error. So, there is in principal, no way of describing in the ontology of physics the disappointment the child feels. Hence the reduction is incomplete. And this has implications for the way we use terms like reality and existence.
    I tend to agree with him on this, insomuch as I can’t conceive of how we can capture the reality of disappointment without moving into the teleological ontology. And so if we are to reduce the explanation, we end up denying the phenomenon somehow. But perhaps I am missing something obvious here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: