The fascinating brain of teen girls

I don’t really know much about the brain of teen girls. As a man, the female psyche must on some level remain for me, as it was for Freud, “a dark continent” (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). Freud was prescient enough to know that the mechanisms he studied were the objective mechanisms of identity formation — not the subjective experience itself (the dark continent). He was also progressive enough to warn his fellow analysts against “underestimating the influence of social customs” in discussions of gender and to emphasize that “the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations” (Essay on Femininity, 1933).

But enough about Freud. After all the psychology and philosophy and literature I’ve read, I think my daughter (I believe 14 at the time) most succinctly expressed, by accident one day, exactly what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We were wandering a city in Spain — Barcelona, Madrid, I forget which city — and were in a green space filled with monuments. I had momentarily lost her, and then I heard her voice near a monument and came back up to her.

“Hey there. What ya doing?” I asked her.

“Singing. And thinking about how weird I look.”

She tossed the line off casually, but I thought that that was it. The rich and contradictory inner life of the teenage girl in a nutshell.

Now I welcome feedback from those of you who actually were teenage girls (and from those of you who weren’t — unlike some of my younger liberal friends, I reject all restrictions on what you are allowed to say, think, or do, based on your demographic identity).

Fallacies of Science

To the scientists in my circle: I’m more with you than you think. I don’t doubt for a minute the value of science. I find it absurd, e.g., that some people think religious texts can compete with science as a source of information about how the physical world works. But I like to amuse myself by playing watchdog for my scientific friends.

Even in my watchdog role, I can raise no objections to the scientific method, or to the analytical power that science has to unpack the facts and processes of the physical world. But as self-appointed guardian at the gates, I propose the following fallacies often committed by the scientifically-minded – all, again, fallacies of application or of scope, not intended to impeach the core value of the scientific method but to snap at the heels of scientists — and even our most admirable scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking — when they make claims that go beyond the scope of their expertise.

The fallacy of metaphysical (external) scope

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this fine blog, science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and anything else is nonsense, thus implying that science is the one and only path to truth.

I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane may, and probably does, have an “object” called Wayne xxx. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc. A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne xxx but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction. But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons. It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

The fallacy of substantive (internal) scope

Let’s look more narrowly at the role science plays within the scope of the objective world it studies. It mines and generates much knowledge about the physical world, and for that we are grateful. But how much of its substantive area does it really grasp? Even at its present power, it only nibbles the tip of the iceberg. Take the human body. Medical science knows much more about the body’s processes than it knew 350 years ago, when the Age of Science really started coming on line. We look back at the 17th century as a kind of dark ages of leeches and blood-letters. Isn’t it obvious that science will expand its knowledge base just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, in the centuries to come? Won’t they look back at us with the same amusement, as a people nobly gathering knowledge but remarkably primitive in what we had gathered?

This telescopic view from the future should give us pause before we leap. Just a few decades ago, “science” was telling us that it could produce a baby formula more nutritious than mother’s milk. For every “well-tested” drug on the market, there’s a class action lawsuit addressing unintended consequences of that drug. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe that there is a vast (evolved) intelligence at work in the human body and in nature, and that science has only mapped a few percentage points of what is really going on in these systems. Don’t get me wrong – a few percentage points is better than no percentage points, and I’m all for science expanding its knowledge base. But when it comes to applying that knowledge, I take a humbler approach than some more eager proponents of science. The pro-implementation argument I most hear is that the things to be deployed have been tested exhaustively in study after study. Although this may be true, it is limited by context. If scientific understanding of its subject area (in this case the human body and the natural world) has leaped from 1% to 5% in the past few hundred years, it has still mapped just the tip of the iceberg, and still leaves enormous territory unexplored. So when you test exhaustively for results and side-effects, you are only really testing within the zone you understand. There are so many collateral aspects of human and natural ecological systems that are undiscovered that it is sheer arrogance to say that we’ve tested by 2015 standards and thus pronounce such-and-such safer and more effective than Mother Nature.

How does this translate to policy? If you have a serious illness, by all means draw upon that scientific knowledge base and try a scientific cure. If you have a less serious illness, you may be better off trusting to the body’s natural healing mechanisms, insofar science has only scratched the surface on how these mechanisms work, and tampering with biochemical processes may do more harm than good. I and everyone will have to judge this case by case, but by no means am I willing to conclude that science understands every aspect of how the body works and has therefore tested and measured every collateral effect for a particular drug or procedure.

On a tricky subject such as GMO foods, I am not as rabidly anti- as some of my hippie-ish brethren, but not as naively optimistic as some of my scientist friends. I like the idea of scientists building a knowledge base on this topic. But when it comes to implementation, I tend to keep one foot on the brakes, especially since radical changes can now be implemented globally and with much greater speed than in centuries past. I’m not at all convinced that science in its current state understands all the collateral processes of nature well enough to make the “exhaustively tested” claim. Or, to go back to our telescope of time, isn’t it possible that scientists 200 years from now will look back and shake their heads in amusement at our “exhaustively tested” claims?

And I haven’t even gotten to the corruptive influence of money and big corporations when it comes to what substantive areas of scientific inquiry will be funded and how results will be implemented. There may be something like a “fallacy of scientific purity” embedded here.

The fallacy of epistemological scope

Here, I use epistemology broadly as the quest for knowledge – almost, one could say, the quest for self-actualization that drives human reality, if not every aspect of reality. British Romantic poets will be my outside reference point here. The Romantics saw the development of self-knowledge, or self-actualization, in three stages. In Blake, these correspond to an Age of Innocence, Age of Experience, and an Age of Redeemed Imagination. In the Age of Innocence, we access knowledge through the fantastic mechanism of imagination, which keeps us in a state of wonder but leaves us naïve about the world and easily exploited. In the Age of Experience, we begin to access knowledge through reason and science, gaining factual knowledge that makes us less naïve and more worldly, but with that worldliness comes a cynicism, a sense of world-weariness, a sense of loss, of fallenness. Indeed, the Romantic world view at times seems to equate the world of Experience, the world of objective facts, with the world in its deadened aspect. The trick in Blake is to find the turn into a third stage, wherein the power of imagination re-engages at a mature level, re-animates the dry world of abstract facts, and saves us from the cynicism of Experience. In a word, we can put the scientific-type knowledge of Experience into perspective. We can still see its value but without being constrained by it in our quest for self-actualization. In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” this plays out as the innocence of “boyish days” (73), experience “‘mid the din / Of towns and cities” (25-26), and the “tranquil restoration” of the mature poet (30). In the third stage, the sensory raptures of youth and the worldly knowledge of experience have both lost their traction. Specifically, the poet has lost the pleasure of immediacy but has gained the power of inward reflection. The “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96) is reserved for the third stage, and indeed is specifically used as a counterpoint to the sensory appreciation and worldly knowledge of earlier phases.

These 3 stages can easily be projected beyond the individual onto the cultural or even the cosmic screen. Blake, with his Jungian vision of the archetypal sources of consciousness, readily applies it to the cosmic level. I’ll apply it to the level of cultural history by saying that the Age of Science fits the second stage very well. Science emerged as the dominant epistemology around the late 17th century, putting to bed some childish theories and introducing us to a more worldly-wise engagement with the physical world. Who knows when this Age of Science will end, but when it does, perhaps then we will enter the Age of Aquarius I’ve promoted only half tongue-in-cheek. And perhaps then we will look back at the Age of Science as Blake or Wordsworth look back at their middle stage – as an epistemological period that starts out liberating but eventually binds our imaginations, makes us a little cynical about the possibilities of self-actualization, chains us to what Plato calls “the prison-house” of materialism. So the fallacy of epistemological scope is the fallacy of myopically seeing only that force of knowledge that is present in the middle period, whereas true wisdom may be broader than that. It may be that the innocent child and the mature poet can grasp things about reality that are inaccessible to the purely scientific mind.

The watchdog sleeps

So those are my fallacy sketches for my scientific friends. Now pause and ponder.

rachael art - bad day

 And if in your pondering, you find yourself viewing me with the gaze of the character above (provided by the talented Rachael Gautier), remember: When my watchdog shift ends, I’m more on your side than you think. At least you can take comfort that in the next U.S. election I will be voting for the party that takes science seriously and not the party that seems perpetually at war with science. Meanwhile, I’m happy to revise, especially if a particular Ukrainian physicist I know will home-brew another batch of Russian Imperial Stout to facilitate the review process.

From Depth Psychology to the Akashic Record

It’s commonplace now to hear how modern physics increasingly dovetails with the ancient world view of the Eastern mystics. If this is true of our evolving conception of the objective universe and how it works, it is also true in the vast space of the subjective universe, the space of the psyche.

Before Freud, you had “faculty psychology,” which seemed well seated upon the Western classical world view – a symmetrical row of nice, neat boxes, each representing a “faculty” (appetite, emotion, desire, reason, etc.). Freud’s theories signaled a paradigm shift to “depth psychology,” with layers of unconscious drives and desires and memories folded beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our everyday behavior from invisible, forgotten spaces in the depths of the psyche.

“Depth psychology” is still the dominant paradigm for the psyche, and even Freud’s attackers draw upon Freud for their weapons, but his breakaway student, Jung, expanded the “depth” of depth psychology. Freud’s locus of interest is the individual psyche, and his case histories typically trace back antecedents of adult behaviors to the formative infantile development of the individual. Jung traces the roots of the psyche deeper still, to a place that transcends the individual altogether; hence we get the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious, a deep space of psychic phenomena shared by us all. You can think of it as our common grazing land, or if you prefer a high-tech metaphor, it’s the “cloud” wherein our fundamental data are stored and from which we all download to configure our own machinery. Either way it is here, in this transcendentally deep “subjective inner world,” that Jung finds “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.”

It’s a short stretch from Jung to the akashic record of the mystics. The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point. Through yoga, meditation, or other spiritual practices, you can almost picture your self-reflection carrying you down to the Freudian depth of childhood and then infancy, then breaking through to the Jungian depth of the collective unconscious, and finally arriving at the level we metaphorically call the akashic record. At this point, we’ve not only carried depth psychology to a point where Western psychology merges with Eastern mysticism, but we’ve inadvertently married the “objective” and “subjective” universes that provided the point of departure in the opening paragraph of this fine blog entry. Cosmic consciousness, as the very compound of the phrase suggests, simultaneously expresses ultimate reality in both its objective and subjective aspects. When you hit that ultimate depth, the inside becomes the outside, the innermost psyche finds itself expressed as the objective cosmos. So om mani padme hum, and I’ll see my physicist friends on the other side.

Kant’s supposed relativism

To my friend who argued that Kant denied that we have any direct knowledge of the objective world and is therefore a relativist, I’ll give my take on Kant, and maybe one of my professional philosopher friends (at least one of whom I know is listening) can add his or her two cents.

My friend’s premise that Kant denied us any direct knowledge of the objective world is true. The conclusion, that Kant is a relativist, might then seem a no-brainer, but a close look shows that this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

Kant is indeed famous for subjectifying everything at the end of an eighteenth century which sought, through empiricism, to objectify everything. What is the most basic thing about the world as we know it? Space and time. Kant meticulously argues that space and time are not “out there,” not things in the world but ways of organizing the world. They are the subjective categories through which we make sense of the otherwise inaccessible flux of reality. But crucial is the idea that they are subjective categories and not objective facts. And if space and time are subjective categories, then it follows that everything we know about the world is subjectively constructed. Or, in Kantian terms, the world we know is the phenomenal world. It turns out that our knowledge presupposes a noumenal world anterior to the phenomenal world, but we have no access to such a world – it exists for us merely as an abstract, logical prerequisite.

This radical subjectification of the human experience would seem to throw us into a dizzying relativism, but not so in Kant. Indeed, Kant tells us in his early notebooks (before the Big Three critiques – of pure reason, of practical reason, of judgment) that his whole goal is to find universals in a world that seems to have spun off into relativism. Kant’s epiphany came when he saw that if we were to have universals, we would have to locate them subjectively, not objectively. The objective world cannot give us universals because it is, insofar as we have access to it, always already shaped by subjective categories of understanding.

So how does Kant find a universal ground for ethics? I’m not sure because the Critique of Practical Reason is the one I’m least familiar with. But I can say how he does it in regard to aesthetics (the subject of the Critique of Judgment).

A true (valid) aesthetic judgment is (1) disinterested, (2) subjective, and (3) universal. Disinterested: “The satisfaction which we combine with the representation of the existence of the object is called ‘interest.’” I.e., if the satisfaction involves a vested interest in the existence of the object, it is an interested judgment. “You’re beautiful because our sex is great” is NOT a disinterested judgment: “A judgment about beauty in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste.” To be freed from such interest, a judgment must be subjective: “When the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not … depend on the existence of the thing … but … judge it by mere observation … We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation.” Only a subjective judgment is truly disinterested, and thus only a subjective judgment can be universal: “For the fact of which everyone is conscious, that the satisfaction is for him quite disinterested implies in his judgment a ground of satisfaction in all men.”

So to achieve an unbiased view, you must strip away all vested interest in the existence of objects at hand. Only then can your judgment be disinterested and therefore universally valid (and by definition, then, you are viewing it subjectively, as mere “representation” without regard to its objective existence).

I assume the analogy holds for ethics. An ethical judgment, to be valid, must be universal, and it can only be universal if disinterested, and only disinterested if subjective (stripped of all self-interest in the objective reality of the representation at hand).

What my friend who started this discussion wants, Kant would say, is not an objective ground of ethics per se; he wants a universal ground of ethics. And he would do best to find it subjectively, not objectively.

Nuggets from Freud and Jung

I chose these little quotes with no thought to the differences nor to the similarities of Freud and Jung. Just thought-provoking nuggets about how the unconscious fits into the big scheme of things from two sage wits who between them laid the foundations of depth psychology.

. . .

“I then made some short observations upon … the fact that everything conscious was subject to a process of wearing-away, while what was unconscious was relatively unchangeable; and I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antiques standing about in my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation.” (Freud, Case History of the Rat Man)

. . .

“Just as our free will clashes with necessity in the outside world, so also it finds its limits … in the subjective inner world … in the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” (Jung, Psyche and Symbol)

Subjectivity and the Limits of Science

A computer scientist friend recently told me that science studies the objective world and the objective world is the real world. Period. His abhorrence for religion did not carry over to art, pagan mythologies, and the works of imagination, which he found purely escapist but harmless enough, but did carry over to philosophers, as the latter breed seemed more forcefully to claim access to some truth outside the scope of the scientific method. I could bear with equanimity some of his slings and arrows, but I could not abide the assault on my brothers and sisters of the philosophical persuasion.

I submitted to my scientific friend that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world.  Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane University may have an “object” called Wayne Johnston. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc.  A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne Johnston but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction.  But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from his abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. When I look at the philosophical assessment of nature in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, or the elaborate expression of natural and human forces in the world of Greek mythology, or Blake’s visionary poetry, it’s not at all clear to me that these teach us less about reality than Darwin. I agree that they tell us less about the abstraction of reality called the objective world, but they tell us about the subjective abstraction of reality — love, friendship, betrayal, creativity, despair, all the flora and fauna of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. One could at least argue that this subjective line of vision on lived reality is closer to the heart of human experience than the objective line of vision.

But, you may argue, all this “subjective stuff” is really just the effect of objective stuff happening in the brain. We may be stuck with an irreducible chicken-and-egg problem here. Which is more real and which is the shadow cast? But let me try to work it out a bit.

Picture the first time you fell in love.

Now imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc.

Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain?

It seems like you as the scientist have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is just unproven, ungrounded nonsense unless and until we can locate the electrical arc that gives it a quantifiable, demonstrable value.

It seems like I have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is the only reality that truly matters and the electrical arc is insignificant.

How about this: the feeling of being in love is one kind of abstraction from reality (we’ll call it “subjective reality”) and the electrical arc is another kind of abstraction from the same reality (we’ll call it “objective reality”).

Now let’s define “objective reality” as “reality abstracted as information.” When we see red or green or blue, what has happened is electrons moving at certain wavelengths have been decoded as information that is usable to the brain. Same with every other sensation we receive from the objective world. Your pencil is 99% empty space with billions of little atoms flying around, but you see and touch the pencil — you see it as abstracted information you can use (and the fact that you can use it as a pencil is a tremendous tribute to the power of human imagination).

Maybe we could define subjective reality as “reality abstracted as feeling” but “feeling” doesn’t quite seem sufficient in this context.

But somehow I suspect that the feeling of “being in love” is not about getting information. Surely we can study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, and it can yield interesting information (such as the electrical arc) but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

That’s the best I can do for now.