Can science address the personal? In studying the subjective objectively, have we reduced it beyond recognition? Two loosely related excerpts to ponder on this fine Saturday… one from philosophy, the other from biology.

John Polkinghorne in Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context (pp 58-9):

“What is an effective and particular investigative strategy for science, would become a metaphysical disaster if it were made into a rule for all. Yet, since the Enlightenment, that has been the attitude adopted by almost all Western thinkers. Searle says that ‘Since the seventeenth century, educated people in the West have come to accept an absolutely basic metaphysical presupposition: Reality is objective‘. This is fatal for a philosophy of mind because, as Searle goes on to note, ‘the ontology of the mental is essentially a first-person ontology’. Pain is always somebody’s pain. That is why it can never properly be encapsulated in objective talk about patterns of firing neurons. There is an inescapable personal privacy about the mental, hence all the puzzles about whether you mean by ‘blue’ what I mean by ‘blue’. We can, of course, pick the same one out of a set of coloured discs, but do we have the same perception of its appearance?

We have to acknowledge that we view reality from the particular perspective of our individual experience. Failure to do so would be to deny the basis of all actual knowledge. Consciousness is not the epiphenomenal garnishing of a fundamentally objective and material reality; it is the route of our access to all reality. Refusal to take it seriously subverts the whole metaphysical enterprise. Searle is right to say that ‘More than anything else, it is the neglect of consciousness that accounts for so much barrenness and sterility in psychology, the philosophy of mind, and cognitive science’.

The adequate recognition of irreducible subjectivity does not, however, dissolve the discussion into accounts of a myriad of private worlds. Nor are we condemned to solipsism. Not only are there the scientific agreements we are able to reach about the nature of the physical world, but there is a degree of mutually comprehensible insight into human experience that permits the existence of literature (with its explorations of a personal world in a way recognizable by a variety of readers) and the creativity of the arts (which invoke a shared encounter with the beautiful). Any theory of consciousness will have to take into account that our individual perceptions are capable of at least the partial degree of reconciliation that makes sense of our intuition that other minds exist and that we live in a common world.”

Michael Gazzaniga in Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (pp 244-5)”

“It seems that Tooby and Cosmides are right when they suggest that children should be immersed in an aesthetically pleasing environment. But children are not the only ones to benefit. Whether you are sitting in a mountain meadow or catching alpine glow along the Seine, looking at a Bonnard or your own latest handiwork, listening to Beethoven or Neil Young, watching Swan Lake or showing your kids how to tango, reading Dickens or telling your own tall tale, art can put a smile on your face. We may be smiling because our cocky brain is pleased with itself, because it is fluently processing a stimulus, but you don’t need to tell the artist that. The benefits to the individual and society from positive effect alone suggest that the world is a happier place if it is beautiful. I think the French figured this out a while back.

The creation of art is new to the world of animals. It is now being recognized that this uniquely human contribution is firmly based in our biology. We share some perceptual processing abilities with other animals, and therefore we may even share what we call aesthetic preferences. But something more is going on in the human brain – something that has allowed us to engage in pretense, as Alan Leslie suggests, some connectivity change that has allowed us to decouple the true from the imaginary and, as Tooby and Cosmides suggest, to use contingently true information. This unique ability has enables us to be very flexible and adaptable to different environments, to break out of the rigid behavioral patterns that other animals are subject to. Our imaginative ability allowed one of us thousands of years ago to look at a wall of an empty cave in France and decide to spruce it up with a little fresco, another to tell the story of the odyssey of Ulysses, another to look at a chunk of marble and see David trapped inside, and another to look at a strip of bay-front property and envision the Sydney Opera House. What caused this connectivity change is unknown. Was it due to a change in the prefrontal cortex as a result of some small genetic mutation, or was it a more gradual process? No one knows. Did the increasing lateralization of brain function that we will read about in chapter 8 contribute to it? Maybe.”