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January 19, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

The failures of methodological reductionism in the sciences as worldview

A recent New Yorker article pointed out an interesting thematic character conflict which echos throughout the series, but most particularly in:

And so Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” despite the silly plots and the cardboard-seeming sets, persists in its many versions because it captures a deep and abiding divide. Mr. Spock speaks for the rational, analytic self who assumes that the mind is a mechanism and that everything it does is logical, Captain Kirk for the belief that what governs our life is not only irrational but inexplicable, and the better for being so. The division has had new energy in our time: we care most about a person who is like a thinking machine at a moment when we have begun to have machines that think. Captain Kirk, meanwhile, is not only a Romantic, like so many other heroes, but a Romantic on a starship in a vacuum in deep space. When your entire body is every day dissolved, reënergized, and sent down to a new planet, and you still believe in the ineffable human spirit, you have really earned the right to be a soul man.

Writers on the brain and the mind tend to divide into Spocks and Kirks, either embracing the idea that consciousness can be located in a web of brain tissue or debunking it. For the past decade, at least, the Spocks have been running the Enterprise: there are books on your brain and music, books on your brain and storytelling, books that tell you why your brain makes you want to join the Army, and books that explain why you wish that Bar Refaeli were in the barracks with you. The neurological turn has become what the “cultural” turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything. Thirty years ago, you could feel loftily significant by attaching the word “culture” to anything you wanted to inspect: we didn’t live in a violent country, we lived in a “culture of violence”; we didn’t have sharp political differences, we lived in a “culture of complaint”; and so on. In those days, Time, taking up the American pursuit of pleasure, praised Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism”; now Time has a cover story on happiness and asks whether we are “hardwired” to pursue it.

Myths depend on balance, on preserving their eternal twoness, and so we have on our hands a sudden and severe Kirkist backlash. A series of new books all present watch-and-ward arguments designed to show that brain science promises much and delivers little.


The critique from Star Trek is pretty profound. I noted some of the more salient criticisms of Spocks engagement with reality and the human experience.

1) lack of a sense of humor (doesn’t get jokes)
2) a kind of paralysis brought on by a rules based extremism
3) lack of pain and emotion (family, community, mentor)
4) lack of emotional self-reflection
5) lack of the experience or feeling of happiness
6) Lack of optimism, lack of comfort
7) lack of “bedside manor”

[for those who doubt this comparison you shouldn’t forget the same comparisons which derive from the Deep Space Nine series with the character Data]

But this problem extends beyond just brain science–it extends to the re-newed fervor behind a scientistic worldview (not scientific, but scientistic worldview). And the implications there may be even larger….

Scientific reductionism (or scientism’s isolated, myopic, and dare I say solipsitic approach) misses the failure of the idealized “blank slate,” the idealized objective position (for instance the veil of ignorance), and the rational actor model across multiple disciplines is tumbling down (lets not forget how the economy of 2008 suffered a blow due to the failure of too much faith in the rational actor model). There is such a think as too much rationality….there is such a thing as putting the hammer of science in places it doesn’t belong–or if it belongs it needs other tools to assist it. (link)

Sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and other disciplines suggest another way. Even eastern ways of thinking grounded in the science of neuroscience increasingly point to integration of rationality and emotion. The massive literature behind the successes of diversity, perspective, and self-reflection through roleplaying. A cold scientific approach neglects the subtracts the very human experience that is so necessary. It distills all the outliers (like Einstein, Steve Jobs, and the scores of Nobel prize winners) who some might say are the beating heart of progress, innovation, and societal advancement.

Not to mention the deterministic results which flow from the ideology of scientific reductionism. Science has the tendency to replicate the mechanistic and behaviorist view that we only respond to incentives. Never mind, the range of diversity in the human experience that this ignores and simply sweeps ever so deftly under the rug.

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